Monday, October 13, 2008

Funny thing happend the other day in class.

I was startin' my afternoon class, middle of last week, and decided to take a break from talkin' and show a video. We have computers and "smart boards" in each room of the building we teach in, so we can just bring up videos from the net and show them to the students if we want. It's a huge pleasure havin' this kind of technology at my fingertips in class. I'll miss it when I start teachin' in San Saba in a few weeks.

In this particular class we were talkin' about the Civil War. By then we'd gotten to the battle of Gettysburg, early July of 1863. So I went in to YouTube and showed them about an hour of the Civil War series by Ken Burns. It's all broken up into little pieces there, so it took me a minute to find the right stuff to show. Once I did though, it went pretty smoothly.

I was gonna post the last bit of it here, to show you a bit of what they saw, but some prick has blocked those videos from being posted. So click on this, and then this, and you'll see a little of what they saw. I'm sure you've all seen it before. It's very moving stuff.

I was watching this video and simultaneously looking out on my students. They're a smattering of civilians, the wives and kids of soldiers in civilian clothes, and a mix of soldiers in ether civilian clothes or BDUs.

As the film goes on, showing the horrendous carnage of the battle, with descriptions of the action read from the diaries of the participants, I find myself looking out on those soldiers and thinking about how many of them have been to Iraq, how many times they've been there, and how much these voices and images from the past must have been resonating with some of them.

I think I could see it on some of their faces. There's a universal recognition, I have to assume, never having been there myself, in the experiences of all soldiers in war. It must allow them to feel the pain of a comrade who may have fought a hundred or a thousand years ago. The emotions are the same. Mother, home, family, rushing through your mind as you see your brothers or your comrades die around you, or as your own life's blood pools around you as you slowly lose consciousness.

As I thought of that, and as I saw the Confederates lining up for Pickets Charge, I found myself thinking of the horrible tragedy and futility of it all, and yet the incredible courage of those men. I found myself tearing up. I didn't want the students to see how much this stuff moved me, so I held it together, but it was hard to do.

Watching the video, you see one Union officer, General Winfield Scott Hancock. When his men were in dire straits from the initial Confederate bombardment on the third day he mounted his horse and rode out in the path of those cannon balls, to give his men courage. When asked by another general to take cover he refused, saying that "There are times when a corps commander's life doesn't count". He ended up taking a rifle ball in the gut that day, sitting atop his horse, but he had guts enough to spare apparently, and survived the wound.

I thought of those Virginians, marching across an open field a mile long, climbing over the fence at the sunken road and reforming their lines under withering fire. Pressing their hats tightly on their heads, down over their eyes so they couldn't see what was coming, they leaned in to the oncoming rifle and canister fire as if they were walking into a hail storm. It tears my heart out to think of the courage of those men, and the tragedy of it all. The tragedy of any loss, with honest people driven to such lengths by the guide of their own moral compass.

I can only imagine what must have been going through the minds of some of my students. The visual display of more recent horrific memories, the equivalents of those expressed in the Civil War diaries, played out in seconds on the back of their mind, always at the edge of their consciousness, ready to wash over them at the sound of a loud noise or unexpected jolt. God bless all of them, then and now.

The next day in class we ended the Civil War and I found myself laying out the events leading to President Lincoln's assassination. As I laid it all out I could see the students leaning in, fascinated by the details. I mean, I'm pretty good at tellin' these stories. Been doin' it for a while and can spin a good yarn. Thing is, it happened again. I must be gettin' old and sentimental.

As I lectured, as Booth walked up the stairs to the presidential box in Ford's Theater, looking through the hole in the door, seeking out his victim, I felt myself starting to tear up again. When he opened the door and stepped forward to fire that tragic shot I though I was gonna lose it. I guess, the more you know about these things, the more you see the implications, the more you can find yourself feeling the emotion of the moment. I can really get myself goin', to the point of thinking how sweet it would've been to meet Booth in that dark corridor in front of the door to Lincoln's box.

Imagine me (I'm told I fill a doorway), a dark shadow at the other end of the corridor, and the look on his face as he sees me there, where he wasn't expecting anyone to be. We step together in the shadows and I drive a shiv through his ribs, once and then again. I whisper somethin' in his ear, like "Where the hell do you think you're goin', mother fucker?" Take his pistol and butcher knife as souvenirs and while he still gasped for breath from his punctured lungs I'd take his scalp too.

After that I'd walk back down those stairs, The audience ignoring me, watching the play, enjoying the very moment of uproarious laughter that Booth used to mask his attack on Lincoln. I'd walk out and over to the pub where he'd just been drinking, waiting for his moment. I'd ask for a whiskey, toss his scalp on the bar and propose a loud toast to the president. Maybe history would've been different after that. Who knows?

Anyway, I guess I'm a sentimental fool, but I'm gonna really miss teaching these soldiers every day. I'll still have them in class two nights a week, but the friggin' jail birds in San Saba every day will probably inspire completely different feelings. I don't think I'll bring up shivs and stuff at all. Eh, I'll get used to it.


HollyB said...

Fantastic post, FHB. you must be a great teacher because you DO get emotional about your subject.

Whenever I see some old WWII movies and some of the VN movies, I tear up, too.

BRUNO said...

Don't know if I could handle the jail-house routine, with an "open" enough mind, or not?

(Just don't drop any pencils...!)

Jerry said...

Just curious. Have you ever been to Ford's Theater? It was always one of my favorite stops when touring D.C. Right next to the Hard Rock Cafe.

Mushy said...

I hope everyone reading this realizes how far you've come as a blogger...from fat, naked, girls to plucking heart strings with words from and about history.

You should let them see your passion once in a while - let'em know there are those of us at home that care enough too! And yes, what I would do to some of those nuts throughout history if I could only go back to that moment and place just before, for just long enough.

pat houseworth said...

As a Civil War buff, you know I love this one.....

~Fathairybastard~ said...

Holly - Thanks. I think I'm just gettin' old and blubbery, but this stuff does mean a lot to me.

Bruno - Yea, it's gonna be different. I've done it before. It's weird, but not too weird. We'll see how it goes.

Jerry - Never been there, but would love to see it. Only been to DC once as an adult, and only had time to do the museums on the mall.

Mushy - Thanks brutha. It means a lot. I guess I've grown up a bit.

Pat - Thanks brutha. Glad you liked it.

Christina LMT said...

Excellent, moving post, FHB.

I've often wished for a time machine, because I want to see and feel for myself how a certain time period was, not just read about it in a book. I don't think I'd pick a battlefield to see. Just call me chicken.

There's no shame in getting emotional, btw. It shows just what a fantastic human being you are.