Every year we take a vacation, my best friend and I and our collective four kids. In more than a decade of annual road trips we have always preferred museums and meaningful historical sites to amusement parks.
Dragging the children through Thomas Edison’s birthplace, the faded ruins of Midwestern castles, or Henry Ford’s collective of American History, we laugh and eat and come home loaded with memories of another great trip.
I do suspect my children will grow up to note that other kids got to vacation at Disneyland, while they got to tour a coal mine.
It is a testament to my rampant stupidity that I did not anticipate that a trip to historic Gettysburg, Pa., would be less than cheery travel choice. What I know about the Civil War, you could stuff in a walnut, having been gleaned almost entirely from television mini-series and a childhood viewing of Gone With the Wind.
Rolling down the highway on our way to Gettysburg, we happened to pass the sign for the Flight 93 Memorial. Anyone cognizant of Sept. 11, 2001, knows that Flight 93 went down in a farm field in Pennsylvania as passengers and crew struggled to overcome the terrorist hijackers of that tragic day.
It was both an honor and privilege to stop and read those names carved into the memorial. Sad and starkly beautiful against the rolling green farmland. The gathered throng was eerily silent, full of respect.
We left with heavy hearts and gratitude for the sacrifice of those lost.
A few hours later we arrived in Gettysburg amid a flutter of T-shirt sales and gift shops.
Within a few miles we were in the thick of it. General Pickett’s Buffet, Gettysburg Fries, and a plethora of gift shops all hawk Gettysburg Goods.
I applaud the ability to make a living, but it is difficult not to contrast the festive — almost carnival — atmosphere of Gettysburg with the sober respect of the Flight 93 Memorial.
We couldn’t help but note how unthinkable the same tourism would be if applied to the more recent tragedy. Would anyone dare hawk supernatural tours claiming to converse with the spirits of the victims, or enjoy a meal at the “Crash Landing Cafe?”
It is unfathomable to imagine such things on the somber ground of the Flight 93 Memorial, meanwhile brightly colored T-shirts commemorating war flap in the breeze of Gettysburg and midnight tours offer a potential glimpse into Gettysburg’s ghosts.
Perhaps age and time makes us appreciate history in a way we never did when learning it in school? Is it hearing the rich history of battle brought to life by a well-trained National Park Service guide that brings it into sharp focus? Or is the cause, perhaps, walking the battlefields of that beautiful rolling farmland so close to home and so much like our own what drove the point home?
All I know is that I have never felt so truly and utterly haunted as on the open fields of Gettysburg. Stand in the wheat field just once, and I dare you to NOT feel the whisper of history. Is it haunted? Certainly.
It must be haunted by the fear and agony and emotion of loss that ripples across generations. I pulled my own son close all weekend and wondered how all those mothers whose sons charged across that farmland turned battlefield and who waited, too often in vain, for word or return survived it.
Although I decry the “tacky” side of tourism, I do admit to dressing the children in antique garb for one “old-fashioned portrait.”
Although meant as a souvenir, the photos, posed in the style of the time with the eyes staring out in the distance and the boys in Union garb, the girls in hoop skirts, looking stoic — struck home.
Our own children transformed into those flat, frozen in time, images we know as “old fashioned” became a reminder that the authentic old photos represent real people justlike our own laughing, full of hopes and dreams, flesh and blood kids.
Those frozen poses from generations ago represent people like us who wanted to love and be love. Who wanted to live. Who wanted to go home — and too often — from Gettysburg, did not.
I want my son, sometimes too enamored of modern war games, to understand what happened here.
History, and our own arrogance, paint those who came before us as quaint. If we are not careful, they become sepia-toned caricatures of real people.
Their tragedies a footnote
Their agony forgotten. This, I think, is what makes it all too easy to sell T-shirts and french fries at their graves.
At Gettysburg I did not buy a T-shirt, but I can honestly say that this is the first vacation I’ve ever been on where returned to our motel room and cried.