Editor’s note: It’s Tuesday, just past midnight. We’re dug into our palatial quarters at the Johns Pass Beach Motel in Treasure Island. I’m struggling to get a handle on things. Becky and Max spent the day frolicking on the beach while I transcribed interview tape and wrestled with the Bunyanesque bluesman known as Bullfrog Willard McGhee. I did get in a beach walk this morning.
I can see why people get going in the morning. I stood dumbly in my tracks as wave after wave of hungry pelicans squared up to the water and plunged beak-first into the gulf. It’s an impressive sight, a half-dozen pelicans closing ranks and diving at once into a little fishing hole just a couple feet deep. The closer they get to shore, the more massive they appear. They are big birds. They careened into the turquoise water like a fleet of avian stukas. Occasionally a single tern flew right in the middle and mixed it up with the big birds. Reminds me of the way the crows would dive-bomb bald eagles near our old home in Bremerton.
Further down the beach, I saw a gull, I think it was a black-headed gull, perch on the head of a pelican head, then drop down to its back. It looked like fun. About two miles south, I walked by a lone great blue heron. Here’s a bird I know. I saw a lot of them along Puget Sound, but never as close as this one. I stood a few feet from the dinosaur-like creature, close enough to notice the band on its right ankle. I think it was wary. It lifted one foot and slowly dragged it across the top of the water before dipping it in with great care.
I guess this is further evidence I’ve reached old age. I see the ineffable beauty in the morning. It’s hard to miss.
The post below goes back to March 19, the day we drove out of Pennsylvania. We made an unplanned stop at Antietam, where we relived a bit of America’s bloodiest day and helped Max secure yet another junior ranger badge.
March 19 – We pulled out of the driveway at the Brewhouse Mountain Eco-Inn sometime after 1 p.m. and began on our desultory march south. With any luck, we’d be out of Pennsylvania by nightfall.
We were in no hurry. Before long we stopped at Sheetz for hoagies. Much as we hate to cheat on Wawa, our hometown purveyor of mass-produced made-to-order sandwiches, the $4 footlong was too tempting to resist.
We moved south through melting snow and hopeful sunshine. We were easing into travel mode. We took the path more-traveled, rolling down Interstate 81 through Carlisle, Shippensburg and Chambersburg on our inexorable drive to the Maryland border.
Near the state line is a hamlet called Shady Grove. It would be just another Pennsylvania town I’d never heard of, save for one thing: I did a 10-week internship there at Grove Manufacturing back in 1985.
I was 22, and I had lost interest in graduating on time. I didn’t break this news to my parents. When they found out, they weren’t exactly proud. I’m sorry, mom.
I was limping home to my B.S. in Accounting from dear old Penn State. I had lost interest in accounting. I had lost interest in everything but having a good time.
While in Shady Grove, I lived 45 minutes away in Gettysburg with an old high school friend. He was in the spring of his senior year, as I should’ve been. As you might suspect, a bit of partying was going on in and around the old Phi Gamma Delta house. Most days I showed up for word bedraggled and disinterested. What a figure I must’ve cut.
I think it’s safe to say none of my colleagues in the cost accounting department at Grove were impressed by my performance. I don’t think I struck anyone as an intrepid go-getter.
That was the past. In the present, we crossed over into Maryland, bypassed Hagerstown and eventually came across a sign for Antietam. We had no plans to visit the battlefield.
It was getting late, but there still was time to get Max another junior ranger badge.
We arrived late in the afternoon, just like A.P. Hill. The Confederate general known as “Little Powell” received an emergency summons and drove his division on a brutal march from Harper’s Ferry, 18 miles away. They arrived just in time to repulse Ambrose Burnside’s attack on Robert E. Lee’s right flank and save the day for the forces of slavery and state’s rights. Hopefully we’ll just arrive in time to save our son’s disposition.
Since time was short, I figured it’d make sense to revisit Hill’s portion of the battle. It might give our hit-and-run tour a little symmetry. But first we attended to the junior ranger business. Max satisfied the requirements in short order, then chatted with head ranger Mannie Gentile. We told Mannie about our recent visit to Gettysburg, where Max walked away with a 150th anniversary patch, but no badge.
“As we like to say, ‘Do they still have a park there?'” Mannie says with a wry grin.
I get his point and smile knowingly. Gettysburg is a three-ring circus of a national park. There’s something off-putting about the slick visitors center experience awash in glossy production values. Of course, it was pouring when we got to Gettysburg on Saturday. We didn’t have the option of making the long, bloodless march from Seminary Ridge to Cemetery Ridge. There was no time to play Pickett. We were forced to stay indoors.
Antietam is much more manageable, no less significant, and somehow more poetic.
We pinned the Antietam badge on Max, Ranger Gentile requested his help in lowering the flag. Close of day. We got in just under the wire.
I’m happy to report that Max and Becky assisted Ranger Gentile and brought Old Glory down safely.
We climbed into the behemoth and set out on a quick driving tour of the battlefield’s most sanguinary spots. We stopped at the Cornfield, where Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood lost 1,000 men in a half hour. Union Gen. Joseph Hooker had nightmarish reflections, too.
“Every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could’ve been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows as precisely as they stood in their ranks a few moments before,” Hooker wrote. “It was never my fortune to visit a more bloody, dismal battlefield.”
And they managed all this before 9:30 in the morning. I might have to rethink my rumination on the virtues of the morning person.
We made it around the battlefield and parked near the trailhead for a short hike describing the late-afternoon portion of the battle. No one got hurt, though we did manage to get lost. The wind blew across the open field with a purpose, and I wondered if that purpose included driving us down the hill and into the chilly water of Antietam Creek.
We closed our stroll at Burnside’s Bridge, which anchors the southern portion of the battlefield. The terrible events at the bridge played a decisive role in the day’s outcome. A small contingent of Confederates perched high on the opposite bluff stubbornly held off Burnside’s assault until early afternoon, giving A.P. Hill a chance to get to Sharpsburg in time to repel the Union advance.
All in all, it was damn bloody.
Private George Lewis Bronson, a physician from New England serving with the 11th Connecticut, saw enough bloodshed that morning to last him a lifetime.
“I know not the name of the creek, but I have named it the Creek of Death,” he wrote in a letter to his wife. “Such a slaughter I hope never to witness again.”
Death as it often did during the Civil War, brought some odd twists of fate to Burnside’s Bridge. Union Col. Henry W. Kingsbury was killed in an early attempt to secure the bridge. On the far bank stood Confederate Gen. David Jones, his brother-in-law. Jones, who earned the nickname”Neighbor” for his outgoing personality, survived the day but died four months later of a heart condition.
Of all the belligerents who left their mark at Burnside’s Bridge, Georgia Col. Henry L. Benning troubled me most. His Georgia brigade was largely responsible for thwarting the early attacks on the bridge. Their efforts won Benning the sobriquet “Old Rock.”
And how old was the Old Rock? Hank Benning was 48 years old when the sun rose over Sharpsburg, Md., on Sept. 17, 1862. A successful attorney, Benning won an election to the Georgia Supreme Court in 1853 at age 39.
I know I should resist the temptation, but I’m too weak. I couldn’t help but measure my lack of distinction with Benning’s Who’s-Who-Under-50 aplomb.
Hell, they even named a fort after the slaveholding SOB.
The fact he was an ardent secessionist and dabbled in the ownership of actual human beings should temper my envy, but I’m afraid it doesn’t.
Then again, had my father had been named Pleasant Moon Wallingford, things might’ve turned out differently. It must be an auspicious sign to be sired under a Pleasant Moon.
It’s hard to tell about these things.
The sun was sinking fast, and the water flowing beneath Burnside’s stone arches was black and ominous. It was time to rejoin our personal battle and move south so we might be in position to arrive in Durham, N.C., on Thursday.