Oh boy! Did I hate American history! I loved the Renaissance, Greek mythology, Egyptology and even World War II, but not American history. Words like "New Deal," "Great Society," and "Civil War" reeked of gray boredom. The very word "civil" brought back memories of an old woman saying, "Gregory, please be civil to your Aunt Matilda!"I remember going upstairs in the morning to the Old Las Vegas High School to first-period American history. The building itself was part of history. It was a large, stately sandstone building heading for its 75th birthday. The classrooms were large with one wall filled with drafty wonderful windows. Each wood desk was carved with fascinating messages from our predecessors. At the front of the class was stately old Mr. Butters, who was definitely an American relic. It was uncanny, the minute his mouth opened, my eyes would shut. My dreams would be mixed with scenes from American history. Often, I would leave the class with a big red mark on my forehead where it had lain on the desk for an entire period.
As I matured, I developed a sense of pride in my country, but I wasn't a sloppy sentimentalist or anything. I did want to take my family to Washington, D.C., if it were possible, but I didn't think it was.
Not long ago, my parents decided to take a cross-country tour in their motor home. They figured they would be in Washington by mid-May. The idea slowly came to me that there might be a way to meet them there. After various arrangements, the plan was set.
I took a job as a substitute teacher to earn our airfare. (no one told me about substituting, but that's another story.) By the time I finished two months of it every day, I knew this trip had to be special to sacrifice my sanity for it. Nevertheless, my family and I were ready to visit the nation's capital.
When we met my parents at Dulles International Airport, we had to wait several hours for our rental car. We were beginning to feel tired and hungry. My parents had been in the area for several weeks so Dad knew the area well and said, "Follow me, I know a park we can have a picnic at." The folks had fixed up a big box of great looking luncheon materials. So off we rode onto the Eastern freeways. Dad got us lost twice. He must have been anxious for us to get into the heart of all the scenery. We never did find the park, but Dad, being a former fireman, found us a lovely patch of weeds next to a fire station. My mom just kept saying, "You're losing it, Don, you're losing it.'
By this time, I was anxious to get to their motor home and lie down. I had been up since 2 a.m., and the muggy climate was wearing me out. But Dad, ever the tourist, wanted us to see a Civil War battlefield called Manassas. A Civil War battlefield! Oh yes! That's all I needed at this point. Maybe Mom was right about "losing it." But one does not yell or get hysterical with her parents when she is grown. So off we went looking for a battlefield. We only got lost for 15 minutes this time.
We pulled into the visitors center with only 20 minutes to closing. If we could have gotten lost one more time, we would have been on our way to the motor home. At least the visitors center was air-conditioned. I decided that I would stay in there until closing time to be comfortable.
We began to wander around looking at the artifacts and listening to a slide presentation that said the battle there had been so fierce the field was covered with blood. I looked at a picture on the wall of a young man. He had a slender, boyish face that was barely able to support his man-size nose. He wore a large, ankle-length coat over a roomy Union uniform. His bony hands held a deadly gun and he grinned a large silly grin. He looked a lot like my 16-year-old. He was going out to kill or be killed. With that realization, I was riveted to my spot looking into his face. "Did he contribute in some way to cover that field with blood?" I asked myself.
I finally went outside and stood at the top of a gently rolling hill. To the right was a forest, in front of me were cannons and at the bottom was the old home that served as an inadequate hospital for that battle. Scattered all about the area was my family with my father looking at a statue. A strange feeling came over me that I had never felt before. I could feel the reality of that battle. It wasn't a feeling of violence or hate, just understanding that it had occurred and the powerful feelings that still existed there. I was overcome with that realization and could hardly move or breathe. I wondered if sometimes the past does co-exist with the present.
When I finally did move, I walked over to where my father was standing. "Dad, I've had the strangest feeling out here, it's hard to describe."
"I know, he said, that's why I was so anxious for you to come here. It affects me every time I come."
On the way to the motor home, I forgot about my weariness and could not stop thinking about a war that had always been so boring to me.
The next day we went to Gettysburg, where we began our tour at the map room in the visitors center. It was a fascinating description of the three-day battle. There were regiments and battalions of men. The numbers were huge: 95,000 Union soldiers and 75,000 Confederate soldiers were there. One-third were killed in that battle. The number killed would approximate 40,000; that is about two-thirds the number who sit in BYU's stadium to watch a football game. In three days, two-thirds of the people in that stadium would be dead. In this war more young men - the hope of America's future - were killed than in any war since. Americans were killing Americans in the hope of saving America.
We walked into the cemetery where the unknown soldiers are buried and were silenced by the vast number of grave markers. The area was beautiful with tall trees guarding a lost treasure.
We drove around the five-mile battlefield. Each state had set up and dedicated monuments to the battalions sent from their borders. Some of the monuments had beautiful statues representing their soldiers. I looked upon the faces of these stone replicas and saw real men, real sons like my sons.
The next day, we toured Washington, D.C., and visited the Lincoln Memorial. On one wall of that vast monument is a copy of the Gettysburg Address. So many times have I heard and repeated that address and never understood these words:
". . . we cannot dedicate - we cannot consecrate - we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract."
They dedicated it with their blood; the rest of the nation with their tears. On the other wall is Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. These words stood out foremost:
"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mightly scourge of war may speedily pass away; yet if it be God's will that it continue until the wealth piled by bondsmen by 250 years' unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous together."
For condoning this sin of slavery, this nation made vast payments in blood. The South gave back the wealth obtained through slavery.
As I stood looking at Lincoln and contemplating these words, I forgot about where I was and all the people standing around me. When I did become aware of my surroundings, I was embarrassed to find that tears were streaming down my face onto my clothes and I had no tissue. I couldn't seem to stop them.
Later that summer, long after the trip was over, I was watching a parade. Some men in uniform came marching down the street carrying the flag. A band was playing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Once again as I listened, the tears came. I knew I would never be an indifferent patriot again. I have become a sloppy sentimentalist and always get choked up when I pledge allegiance to the flag or sing "Oh Say Can You See?" It doesn't even matter if I'm substituting a bunch of seventh-graders, I still cry and tell them how proud I am of them because they are such fine Americans.
I wish I could tell old Mr. Butters how much I love American history now.
Vickie Erickson is a free-lance writer living in Salt Lake City.