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Tales from the Heart of America
There is a profound sense of sadness and resignation across our country over the growing divisions between us. Yet, Americans are not by nature a sad or resigned people. To be American is to hope; it’s in our history and our DNA! So, rather than despair, we ride out to discover diverse Americans renewing their love in - and love with - America. Tales from the Heart of America gives voice to those encounters, the personal narratives of our journeys, and the rekindling of American’s faith in one another. These are the stories that lift our gaze on the road, bridging the gaps between people and cultures across the US by revealing a simple, universal truth: we all love.
He lay bleeding on the earth
smelling the leaves and mosses,
musty and damp and cool
after the blaze of open afternoon.
How good the earth smelled,
as it had when he was a boy
hiding from his father,
who was intent on strapping him
for doing his chores
late one time too many.
A cowbird razzed from a rail fence.
It isn't mockery, he thought,
no malice in it. . . just a noise.
Stray bullets nicked the oaks
overhead. Leaves and splinters fell.
Jane Kenyon’s poem, Gettysburg, echoed over the marble monuments and cannon as we rode to the battlefield from the nearby town of Chambersburg. There is a humanity, an intimacy to her verses that captures the tragedy that was a single life lost on these fields; 1/50,000 of the sadness spread over the hills of Pennsylvania from July 1-3, 1863. Recalling the history and battle maps that so fascinated me in school, we rumbled our Harley’s past Seminary Ridge, passing by the stone where the first shot was fired. Nearing Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top, we rested the bikes under sprawling oaks beside the battlefield museum, looking forward to its trove of period firearms, uniforms, memorabilia, and such. Before its doors, we passed a school group, several adolescent volunteers innocently playing the roles of a six-man artillery team, directed by a guide and learning to fire a cannon. I couldn't help reflecting, as several of the teens snickered and rolled their eyes - taking the exercise as seriously as middle schoolers will - how fortunate they were that they would never face performing that activity in earnest. After all, the boys they mimicked were about the same age when they learned to train those guns on peers wearing opposing blue or gray.
Sobered by the thought, we entered, touring and photographing the exhibits in the museum. Running my hand over the bore of a cannon in the center of one room, I was passed by a group of Chinese tourists, who paused at illuminated maps of the Confederacy and the Union, pointing and correcting one another over geography and pronunciation. An eastern Indian couple and their children leaned on one case, leaving tiny fingerprints on the glass covering a Confederate battle flag, while other visitors bantered between the displays in various languages. I wondered how many of them were trying to make sense of this struggle without the context we have as Americans. But also, how many of them knew or had lived their own stories of internecine war? Did any of those tongues have the words to find meaning in such a thing? A sense of the terrible futility of it all crept in.
After the military artifacts, flags, guns, and equipment, we entered two rooms arranged to show the interior and actual furniture of a nearby family farmhouse - the belongings of townspeople caught up in the battle’s fury. Kitchen tables turned surgical and amputation gurneys, shattered bedposts and headboards where peace once slept, a dresser with bullet holes staring blindly from it like the empty sockets of an oaken skull. Most striking to me, though, was a single face peering from a wall filled with photos of soldiers, slaves, politicians, and townsfolk. Tille Pierce looked achingly like a former student of mine, like anyone you might meet shopping, walking a park, or visiting a museum. She was fifteen when the Battle of Gettysburg engulfed her home, its tides forcing her from house to church to field, and finally to Jacob Weikert's farmhouse at the base of Little Round Top. During the battle, Tillie Pierce gave water and food to the soldiers and helped the surgeons and nurses caring for the wounded, enduring every horror and inhumanity the war could bring. Twenty-five years later, she wrote a book about her experiences, saying, “That evening, Beckie Weikert and I went out to the barn to see what was transpiring there. Nothing before in my experience had ever paralleled the sight we then and there beheld. Amputating benches had been placed about. I must have become inured to seeing the terrors of battle, else I could hardly have gazed upon the scenes now presented. I was looking out one of the windows facing the front yard. Near the basement door, and directly underneath the window I was at, stood one of these benches. I saw them lifting the poor men upon it, then the surgeons sawing and cutting off arms and legs, then again probing and picking bullets from the flesh. Some of the soldiers fairly begged to be taken next, so great was their suffering, and so anxious were they to obtain relief.” And yet, she and the Weikert family worked tirelessly to aid, to serve, and to comfort amid the horror. So much courage against a leviathan of hate and carnage. And yet, just a farm girl, a person like any you might meet, and as her story unfolded further, armed with the only weapon she could carry. Hope.
Leaving the museum, we walked at sunset among a silent forest of headstones in the national cemetery. Shadows lengthened from the feet of countless monuments - some small granite blocks, others towering marble columns and obelisks, gothic in their scale and structure, tributes from the Union to their fallen sons. Among all this grief cast in stone, that sense of futility returned with a whispering dread that still hangs over the fields, becoming nearly overwhelming. Yet, it slowly tempered with reverence for the duty and sacrifice laid out in this place and faith that there must have been more Tillie’s. There must still be. Struggling to put this torrent of feelings into context, we walked gradually to the hill known as Little Round Top, overlooking where Pickett’s charge, 12,000 Confederate soldiers and cavalry, met their bloody end just over a stone wall thirty feet before us. Nearly overrun at the crest of the hill at a place that became known as the High Water Mark, Union forces drove back the charge, the face of the Civil War turned, and the fate of the Confederacy was sealed - though the war would continue two more brutal years.
As we withdrew from the battlefield for the ride back to our room in Chambersburg, and then on into West Virginia the next day, one last towering obelisk captured our attention: a soaring statuary column simply called A Soldier’s Monument at Gettysburg. At its massive foot, a group of twenty or so black college-aged students gathered, ROTC candidates, I thought. As we neared and their voices became clear, their leader raised a handheld video camera, and each member took a turn reciting a line from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.
“...dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
And that hollow spirit that had weighed my heart as I despaired began to lift.
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
So that you and I, though we may not speak today or ever hear one another’s voices, can be united by these words. Through the sacrifices made here, we are offered a chance for brotherhood, an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past. To be American. Together.
“...a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
And in a time when our nation seems so desperately divided once again, there remains hope, possibility, and love for one another. Toni and I know because we see it along the many miles we ride, and in the lives of Americans we meet of every stripe and hue. From Atlantic and Pacific shores to the Gulf and the Great Lakes, America is still the last, best hope for humanity - a place where all people might be free and equal - so long as we remember, together, why that is a thing worth fighting for.
But more importantly, why it is a thing worth living for.
“On the very spot where in their blindness they shed the blood of fratricide, I have seen the Blue and the Gray clasp hands, and in the presence of their fellow countrymen and before High Heaven, pledge their devotion to each other.” - Tillie Pierce, 1889.