Drive-Thru Empire: Part 2

We took our time on the walk back to the Capitol in the brilliant light of the sunset. The clouds above us were ragged scraps of crimson and scarlet from one horizon to the other, and the Mall was nearly vacant by the time we got back to the car. My son decided on sushi for dinner, a treat we’d promised ourselves earlier in the day when we’d skipped lunch. We were both famished and looking forward to sitting down somewhere warm and dry. He’d found a restaurant only a few blocks from The White House that had decent reviews and we found it easily and parked underground in a lot that offered reduced rates after 5pm.

It was, like so many others, completely automated with computer voices, electronic tickets and payment kiosk that allowed the owner to do away with human labor. Once we parked and took the elevator up to the main floor we encountered a small lobby to the street that featured a common sight in the city, a very large Black woman in a quasi-police type uniform staring into a hand held gadget and ignoring us completely. I’d noticed that virtually every building had some kind of rent-a-cop type manning a small podium, always distracted, overweight, bored and oblivious to their surroundings.

It seemed like a conundrum, having to police every building at ground level for whatever might pose a threat, but employing people who looked like they neither cared, nor could deal with that threat should it arise. The restaurant was only a year old according to the sign out front but already it was looking a bit threadbare. The small indoor/outdoor carpet just inside the doorway was filthy with scraps of paper, sand and debris and the hostess who stood behind the counter smiled politely but seemed oblivious to the condition of her work station.  As early in the evening as it was I would have expected it to be spotless.

We were seated in the main room, I took the seat facing the bar with it’s three gigantic flat screens, each one tuned to a news network- NBC, CNBC and CNN. There were very few diners in the restaurant and the service was both prompt and very friendly. The waitress took our order- sushi and sashimi samplers, miso soup and seaweed salad. My 11 year old knows his way around sushi and chopsticks and surprised the waitress when she came to see how everything was. We ordered an additional spicy roll and by the time the first returns were beginning to come up on the screen we were done and ready to get back on the road and leave D.C. behind us.

The roads were fairly well jammed around The White House and at one intersection there was a fairly bad wreck between- I kid you not- a Maserati and a Tesla. Somewhere out there the bottom line of an insurance company inched left. The 395 headed south to Crystal City and Arlington was bumper to bumper for a good twenty miles until we passed Quantico. We’d decided to get down to Fredricksburg, our third scheduled stop on the trip, and find a hotel for the night. My son acting as co-pilot searched out a hotel and we called to make a reservation at a Residence Inn right off Route 3 where we checked in and quickly went to sleep before the first Mid-Term Election returns had come in.

The following morning was both clear and warm and after a breakfast provided by the hotel, we made our way to the National Military Park above the Rappahanock River. The story I had heard for most of my life was that one of my uncles on my father’s side had enlisted in the 21st New Jersey Volunteer Infantry in the early days of the War Between the States. He’d been mustered in somewhere along the path we’d just driven, right outside of Princeton, and that before his enlistment he had made his living as a blacksmith in a long gone village called Jugtown, right on the spot where my own father worked today.

In fact during an expansion of their business back in the early 1990’s workers had uncovered the site of a blacksmith’s shop- whether it was where he had plied his trade or not would never be known, but it gave my father a sense of connection to this long lost relative, at least as far as the family story went. He was 26 at the time of his death and we had always heard it was at the initial battle of Fredricksburg, but that wasn’t the case. He was reported missing in action on the 3rd of May along with his battalion commander and so it was far more likely that he was killed in the second engagement on that same stretch of Virginia land known as Chancellorsville.

It represented the last major victory of the Confederacy but it was the also the battle where one of it’s most brilliant generals, Stonewall Jackson, met his fate at the hands of his own soldiers, accidentally shot by a company of North Carolina infantry during the roll up of the Union flank. The after action reports mistakenly identified “Mayre’s Heights” as the scene of his death, but according to the battle report no Union forces had ever made it that far before the end of the engagement. It was more than likely that another piece of high ground had been confused for the site of the previous bloody losses in December where as many as ten thousand men were killed in a single engagement.

So we knew what we knew, but most of it was conjecture based on three different official documents, none of which were definitive. And so we went just to get a feel for that place, knowing that an entire family line had ended one Spring day a century and half before. The National Battlefield is fairly preserved, but little of the original sweep of that battlefield is visible beyond the distant church steeples that remain where they stood in 1863. Neighborhoods have grown up on the vast plain between the river and the object of the Union assaults, Mayre’s Heights and The Sunken Road.

The Confederate forces held both the high ground at the top of the heights where their batteries poured withering fire on no less than fifteen regimental assaults and infantry were able to move under the cover of a rock wall, since rebuilt by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930’s, that ran the entire length of the front. To stand there in the morning light, the air clear and cold and without another soul around but my son by my side was a haunting experience- the thousands of gravestones at the top of the hill, most of them unmarked and filled with the remains of three or four of the fallen, and the clear advantage presented by the defenders against a half mile of open ground and the lone Ennis House, it’s walls pockmarked with bullet holes still gave off a feeling of such great loss and sadness I can hardly explain it to myself.

To know that one of my own people had been among those to fall out there, and to lay dying so far from home, alone, and then to be interred without mention, the last of his family line buried with his mortal remains brought up a surge of emotions I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. Part of it was my negligence in having never taken the time to visit before despite having been in that town and having passed through so many times. The other was simply the overwhelming losses that fell in these three engagements, in such a short span of ground along this flat river bottom and the slight rise of ground that spread out above it- Fredricksburg, Chancellorsville and The Wilderness- one after another, armies of young men tearing at each other, murdering their kindred in numbers we can scarcely imagine for reasons that almost no one today understands.

We walked together, reading the bronze panels along the way, stopping to look out at the memorial to Richard Rowland Kirkland, the 19 year-old South Carolinian rifleman who at great risk to himself stepped over the stone wall to bring water to the dying enemy that lay in the field before his unit, returning again and again throughout the night in his singular act of mercy, earning him the nickname “The Angel of Mayre’s Heights”. I asked my son to repeat his name to himself so that he would remember it, to keep that one story alive inside as a kind of memorial to Uncle Sid who lay somewhere on these grounds, his final resting place.

We spent a good hour or more by ourselves and then we left in silence and drove out of town, back onto the highway headed south to the place where our relatives lived, only a few miles from Appomattox where the bloody conflict came to an inevitable end just two years later. I think I understood better in that moment what had really taken place so long ago. How the Federal forces one not only because they possessed the technological advantage over their Southern brethren, but because they could feed a steady stream of newly arrived immigrants into the fight, men without a connection to the people and the traditions of the Nation they fought for, men who simply sought a better life for their families and were willing to kill off the ones who stood in their way regardless of how long they had inhabited the land they fought over. It has always been this way, these waves of people that arrive and displace those who lived there before, as our Dutch and Swedish ancestors had pushed out the Lenape and Delaware and how they had then been bred out by the English who were then overwhelmed by the Irish, then Italians and the waves of Eastern Europeans, and so on and so on.

Governments simply accelerate the processes, and seize whatever advantage they can by riding the waves of human bodies that occupy and then are defeated by whichever population comes after, and endless cycle of victory and defeat. The underlying principles and motives are the stuff for historians and academics, but for the people who live their lives closer to the ground it is a cosmic cycle of seasons and waves, the endless fabric of comings and goings that unwind over spans of time we can hardly sense.

The further south we traveled the more alien the land seemed to us, the flat expanses of sand hills and endless tracts of pine forest. We past numerous large hog operations, places that turned our more pigs in a single day than we’d raised in ten years. Along the way out of Richmond, a singularly unremarkable city that sits between the past and a future that may never manifest itself, brick cloisters and glass high rises cobbled together like an urban Frankenstein along the edge of an ancient river, we became aware of a change in the landscape. Where there had been a wide buffer of rural land when last I drove out this way were now replaced by the self-same strip malls and housing developments I saw in New Jersey.

There were still occasional shotgun shacks and remnants of ante-bellum architecture dwarfed by enormous pin oaks that surrounded them, southern air conditioning as my aunt calls it, but more often than not they were abandoned or in the process of being replaced with something new, something modern and up to date with little or no purpose beyond the commercial. They were attached to the landscape by foundations, but they were not a part of it, alien and out of place.

We arrived at my uncle’s farm just after lunch and the grounds were almost as I remembered them although he had installed a beautiful four rail fence all along the road frontage, easily a half mile of black painted boards that were as sharp and straight as every other fence he’d installed. There were signs of clear cutting on the drive up to his place, but the forest stood undisturbed on his property but for the fields of switch grass and harvested corn. There’d been two major hurricanes that had come through but his trees and more importantly the dam in front of his home had withstood them both and as we drove over it we could see fish touching the surface of the big stock pond, rings and ripples expanding across the surface of the water one after another.

In the past when we arrived they had always been outside to meet us but today my uncle was off in the field with his dogs and my aunt was in the kitchen fixing a meal for us and so we came to the front door and rang the bell, formally, like guests. My aunt rushed to the door and opened it wide and we said our hellos and hugged each other and as I walked into their home where I’d been before I noticed something I’d never really taken in before, or failed t notice it’s significance. On virtually every wall and on each mantle or table were photographs of family, both our side of the family and my aunt’s as well- baby pictures and snapshots from when my uncle was in Viet Nam.

Wedding photos and group shots from Christmases and picnics long ago, filled with babies and grandparents, generations of our people who were now gone thirty or forty years and ones of our children and their cousins. My aunt and uncle never had children of their own and as I have written earlier it was our intention to bring up the possibility of their coming north to live with us. My aunt’s mother had been gone five years now, and she had no other relatives left in Virginia, and all of my uncle’s family was either still in New Jersey or had moved north to New Hampshire where we lived. I had always seen them as irreplaceable, eternal types, part of the core of our family; dynamic, full of vitality, self-reliant and competent.

They’d carved out their own lives for themselves, never asked for any kind of help and were always willing to extend a hand or offer a place of respite throughout my lifetime whenever I passed through. My uncle and I favor one another physically, and the older we get the more alike we have come to look. We have the same blue eyes and large noses, we are the same height and weight, and where his hair was once bright red and mine black, we have both gone completely gray now, though our hairlines are still intact. He came in from the field through the back door with the dogs and we exchanged handshakes,bottles of syrup, and gifts from my father we’d brought along. We sat down to a satisfying homemade lunch- our first in days- and caught up on what we’d been doing since the last time we spoke.

The next few days were perfect. My son caught fish for our supper, we walked the fields, and looked at some trees that had come down in the past few storms that needed to be limbed and blocked. My uncle showed me the roads he’d cut through the forest and the bridges he’d built over his streams, two of which had been pushed out of place by the last hurricane and needed to be put back in place. We set up some targets and taught my son how to shoot a couple of rifles he’d never used before and my uncle and I both fired our handguns at old milk jugs just to make sure we were still in practice.

The weather was gray and overcast, but it was much warmer than it was back home so we walked with the dogs every morning, and every afternoon and in between sat in the kitchen drinking coffee, and talking about the elections. My aunt is a superb cook and baker and there was never a moment when she wasn’t in the process of either preparing or offering something she’d made from scratch; oatmeal raisin cookies that were chewy and sweet, fried bass from the pond with pickled beets. We had a leisurely dinner the first night with a nice bottle of wine and then we gathered in the den to watch a show about men who buy antiques from old people all around the country who have stories to tell, to resell to rich people without any connection to their past. I thought it was a fitting close to the evening.

On our final night they decided to take us out to dinner in Blackstone, a small town that was in the process of coming back to life thanks to a government agency moving in to the area. The restaurant they chose was one they visited weekly with another couple, and they were obviously well respected by the owners who came to the table to greet us by name. The meal was delicious- I had shrimp and grits and a peanut squash soup that was as good as anything I had ever eaten before. My son told us about his perception of the D.C. trip, and true to his nature focused on the wonderful parts like the sushi and the way the sun lit up the Washington Monument after the storm passed.

Before we ordered coffee I decided to finally bring up the subject of moving to New Hampshire and although I was uncharacteristically tongue-tied, I was able to make the pitch. The difficult part, I’d thought, was for them to walk away from what they’d built- the house and the land, the fields and the fences, the outbuildings and the time they’d put in over the years improving the property to the near park-like condition it conveyed today. I thought about my own farm and the the weight of all the work and losses, the sacrifices and the dreams that go into taking on something of that size and commitment, and it felt almost cruel to even suggest such a thought.

Inside there were the conflicting impulses to have our family near us, for the benefit of our children and for myself as well, but also to be able to look after them, not as they were today, but at some point in the not too distant future when they would need our help and not have us over 700 miles away if that time came. I was both selfless and selfish and I recognized that myself but I didn’t know how to communicate it to them so I just laid into it as if I were cutting down one of the trees we’d looked at earlier, to simply do what had to be done. As the words came out the smiles on their faces spread and before I’d had the time to complete the thought they stepped in to ease my mind, and said that it was something they’d been thinking about as well, and that it was something they’d come to look forward to.

The conversation after that was upbeat and full of ideas and suggestions and we fell back into the comfort of our normal exchanges and I realized that all of the apprehension I’d had over the past couple of years in even discussing the matter had been resolved by them in their own time. I didn’t need to sell the idea because they were already on board, and it was the kind thing that seemed to be as natural as everything else in our lives. On the way back to their farm in the dark we glimpsed a black bear ran across the road and disappeared into the woods on the other side, and we talked about other things and other people, small talk really, and that drive unwound the stress of our entire trip so far.

All of the concerns I’d had about the things we’d seen, the slow decay and rot of the world we’d inherited, seemed so very far away and pointless because we had each other, we had our past and our futures to look forward to and we could do it together. I couldn’t wait to share the news with my wife and even though I wanted to call her that night, I decided to wait until I had the privacy of the drive back home and a a good night’s sleep to process it all.

The next morning after our breakfast we loaded our things and said our goodbyes and stood together in the gentle rain looking out at their land and I told them both just how proud I was of everything they’d done and how happy I was that we were family. They hugged my son and shook my hand, our family is reserved in their physicality, but a handshake from them is as good as a standing ovation from a room full of strangers, and we drove back up the lane while they stood out in front with the dogs waving us good-bye.

In a movie this would be the part where the titles rolled, but we still had another two days to go and we wanted to make another stop along the way. We chose to drive up the Shenandoah Valley on the return trip and stop in Gettysburg for a visit and as we made our way through all the old hamlets and towns along the way I couldn’t help but notice a pervasive sameness to every one. Same fast food joints, same tract housing, same Wal Marts and Targets, same gas stations and nail salons, same everything.

Only the trees and the shape of the land changed while everything else seemed to assume a blandness and lack of personality. The demographics of the south are far different than back in New England and everywhere we looked into faces that were foreign and alien to our own an undecipherable glare stared back at us. I felt like we traveling through an occupied territory unlike the ones I’d driven for over ten years as a stand-up comic. I’d played every comedy club in the region, every spaghetti house with a microphone and a bar stool, but that America was as dead and buried as the men on the heights above the Rappahannock. America had transformed itself while I was getting old and raising my family.

All of the memories I’d had of the unique little corners of the different regions had run together into a giant slurry where if you didn’t know where you were you’d never be able to even guess. The cars were all the same, and the looks on the faces of the people in them seemed equally alike as they passed by on their way to wherever people go these days. I wondered if ours was an unusual set of circumstances, the way a Nation just willed itself out of the picture by denying it’s own existence leaving a void that others rushed in to fill or if it has always been this way, the seething and surging tides of human movement to and fro across seas and landmasses for as long as here have been men on this Earth.

As we drove the talk turned to my years on the road and my son had me tell him all the secrets of telling jokes and winning over an audience and I gave up everything I could remember. He’d done his first performance this past year as the King in the local school’s version of Once Upon A Mattress and he’d caught the rush of people who’d laugh at his antics, and the fact was that he had a very good sense of humor, so I encouraged him to repeat his observations and tweak the words until he’d developed a bit and it was something we shared for hours that day, laughing and enjoying each other’s company the way only a father and son can.

We got a hotel in Gettysburg and went to sleep almost immediately. The following morning it was drizzling again and we decided to head back home, exhausted and missing everyone too much to keep up the tour as planned, but I asked him if he’d take one last walk with me while we were here and he agreed. I’d done this one before, with my own father a very long time ago and it had an impression on me that has never left.

The day we’d done it was in July, almost to the day like the one when the original battle took place, but today it was mid-November, the park almost barren, the trees bare and skeletal and the mist of the falling rain enough to obscure all but the most prominent features of the terrain. We began at the midpoint of Pickett’s position at the west side of the Emmitsburg Road towards what would have been the center of Gates and Harrow’s positions, flanked to the left by the men of Vermont under Stannard, and we walked forward across that broad expanse of field. I started to tell hi about what faced these men after nearly three days of combat but then I trailed off and just let the distance speak for itself.

They say that the place is haunted and if it is not then there are no such thing as ghosts or spirits. Lincoln called it ‘hallowed ground’ but it was just another slaughterhouse for men, our societal impulse to wreck what we have in the name of things that aren’t even real- ideas that become manifestly powerful to such a degree that men leave their hearth and home, their families and their loved ones to kill one another in some far off field on the orders of men in far off places that risk nothing but their reputations, wagering on the flesh and blood of others. By the time we’d made it across that distance we were soaked to the skin and we stood there for a moment and then turned back and made our way to the place we’d started. And from there we drove home.

The rest of our journey was under a sky that broke through to blue, the air dry and breezy. As we made our way through New York State, and up into Vermont and finally on that last leg back across the river into New Hampshire where the sign read Bienvenue! our hearts beat faster, and we were almost giddy with excitement. Not only to get out and stretch our legs but to hold onto one another when we saw the rest of the family, and to pet the dogs and visit with the cattle, and the turkeys, and to gaze out at the land where we would live for as long as we had left. And not too long from now if everything went well, with our aunt and uncle living nearby.

It has taken me a few days to process our trip down south and back. The scale of that kind of adventure for someone who once traveled constantly for more than a decade and then rooted himself in one place for just as long isn’t something you get a chance to think about and sum up just like that, but I thought I should, if for no one but myself. Our family traces it’s line back to the first two brothers who came here in 1621 on a leaky wooden boat called the Hopewell, and the first female child born in New Netherland in 1625.

Our people have populated and colonized the eastern seaboard of North America for close to four hundred years and we have also fed the armies of the Nation we live in today for as long as it has been in existence; sons and husbands, brothers and fathers. That, however, does not buy any guarantees for the future. The larger patterns of human collectives and their occupations, the way they do their bloody business doesn’t take into account the minute sacrifices of individual families, never mind each man and woman, but this much I know to be true.

It is the singular accomplishments and oblations that make life worth living at all, not the temples and tabernacles of arrogance that are built to impress the citizens of any particular time and place, erected on foundations of hubris and suffering. The true value of life is found in the love between one another from one generation to the next, not in the material accumulations of populations nor in the empty oratory of tyrants and megalomaniacs that build monuments to themselves.

I will never forget the trip that my son and I took this past month for more reasons than I could not articulate in a thousand essays and though I don’t know what’s in his mind, I think it will have a profound effect on him as well, long after I am gone. I mourn for the loss of a Nation that I once loved very much, for all of the blood and treasure that has been squandered over the centuries in the name of crass commercialism and political gain, but I also understand that this is the cycle of time and the pattern of the world.

We come and then we go, and if we are very lucky we make the very best of the time that we have, in the time in which we are destined to live, to make things just a little better, to love those who brought us into the world and helped us along the way and who we have raised and cared for who will be left behind when we depart. I also understand that where there is joy there is also sorrow but that we have been allowed to be here at all is a gift for which we owe a thanks that we can never fully express. I miss the world that changed but I look forward to what comes next, not only for myself and my family, but for everyone who shares the same passion for those things in life which give it value; family, traditions, hard work and the times we share together, loving and caring for each other.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.

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