Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Ghosts of Gettysburg

The cars start showing up at camp site 254 around noon. Trucks and vans packed to overflowing with gear: tents, cots, sleeping bags, grills, tables, propane bottles, sacks of food, and various implements designed for making an October weekend outdoors tolerable to American kids (and adults) spoiled by decades of central heating and Big Screen television.

There is room for about half a dozen cars to unload at a time, and then they need to be moved to "official" parking areas. Our hero arrives and finds out where his family's tent will go, then presses his four children into toting things from the van. His oldest is a Girl Scout, and she's probably got more camping experience than he does, so he lets her help as much as she is willing. They get the tent up, and toss in all the sleeping gear, then he drives up the hill and parks.

On the way back to site 254, he crosses a field where the monthly battlefield re-enactments of the famous Battle take place. It's about 3/4 acre of well-kept grass bordered on two sides by deceptively makeshift pole fences and strategically place piles of boulders. In the summer of 1863, he supposes, it wasn't likely this tidy. In the summer of 1863, there would have been Union (or Confederate) troops hiding out of sight in those boulders, waiting for a Confederate (or Union) unit to walk into their line of fire so they could blast them into oblivion. In autumn of 2008, there are children clambering noisily from boulder to boulder, waving stick-rifles (and a few log-bazookas) and making Star Wars sound effects as they blast their playmates into imaginary oblivion.

Cars continue to arrive, tents are erected, fires are started, food is prepared. Temperatures drop and people - some old friends, some strangers - begin huddling around, sharing their resources and stories. After two days, everyone will be equally covered in camp smoke and dirt, and the mood will begin to wane from warm eagerness into tired coldness, but this first night is marked by laughter and stories.

Several of the dads are well-read on the American Civil War, and try to impress the children with tales of the Battle, and what it meant. But to the children they aren't adventure stories as much as they are lists of odd names and ancient dates. They listen while they eat, but it is obvious they want to edge away, until someone mentions ghosts.

"You know, there's a story you don't often hear about the glowing Ghost of Nectar," he says. "Before the big Battle, this area was kind of 'up for grabs', and there was a small Union unit camping right in this area where we are now in October 1862. They claimed they were sitting around, hungry and out of water, and were thinking about going down to one of the farms to beg or steal something, when there was a blast of light in the clearing, and a strange figure appeared to them.

"I read this in a book written by the minister they told the story to, and the minister said they described a kind of angel; he had a dark halo, and a scruffy beard, he wore light colored robes with a hood, and had the Greek word for 'Love' on his chest. The minister guessed at the word, because the boys were illiterate, but they saw three of the letters, and he figured it out from there.

"They told the minister they cried out and all but one of them threw their guns down and fell on the ground. The last boy panicked and took a shot. The angel said to them, 'Hark, do not shoot the messenger of the Lord, for behold, I bear sustenance.' Then he dropped a box that contained pouches of heavenly nectar, which the soldiers shared amongst themselves."

It was an odd little tale, but it sparked a fever of ghost-hunting in the Cub Scouts. They began sharing stupid old campfire stories ("The Ruby Red Lips" and variations of "The Dark, Dark House") or running out to the edge of the campfire light and then running, screaming, back to report strange glowing orbs or fanged creatures grunting in the dark. The littlest ones simply sidled up to a warm, reassuring adult and sat wide-eyed and quiet in the safety of the firelight.

The Little Girl asks our hero for some juice just then. He turns to their tent, and digs around for a minute before realizing that not everything made it out of the car. Which is parked several hundred yards away, up the hill, across the Battlefield. In the dark. The Little Girl informs him, too, that she can't find her baseball. He sighs. "I told you not to bring your baseball," he tells her, then he makes sure that all of the children are accounted for and being watched by someone responsible before heading out into the night.

It is colder this weekend than it has been throughout the warm September, but he is comfortable in his "camping costume". He's got his light tan Gap hoodie and his khaki cargo pants. He's got warm socks and his camo boonie cap. He wanders up the unlit roads between campsites bearing his lantern; fresh batteries and a compact fluorescent bulb mean a reassuringly bright light.

He makes the van and retrieves the case of foil juice bags without incident. The case is four boxes wrapped in plastic; the plastic is torn, because one of the children was thirsty on their drive from Baltimore, and he had to pull out a juice for everyone. He tucks the unruly box in his left arm, clutches the lantern in his right, and heads back.

He gets lost.

Not a big deal, of course, in our day and age. The paths are clear, and they all loop back in on each other, so he's in no danger. He has his light, but no map, and wanders around looking for the way back to site 254. Then, he recognizes the bath house, and the reenactment field, and spots the fires and lights of the Cub Scouts directly across it. He is starting to get cold, and the box of juice is getting heavy, so he decides to cut straight across the field.

He is not watching his step; he is looking up at the stars, and thinking about soldiers in the woods without all of his modern conveniences. The grass is wet. When he slips, his light drops, and there is a flash. He is dazed, and when he looks around, the world is slightly brighter; the moon is more full, and a little behind him. There are about a dozen young, dirty men in period costume in front of him, gaping.

There is a long moment of gaping before anyone does anything. All but one of the boys throw down their weapons, and flop down, covering their heads with their hands. The one boy whips up his rifle, and takes a shot at our hero's head, but his body is more interested in joining his comrades on the ground than in taking aim, and he drops to his knees before the report even stops echoing in the night.

Our hero shouts out a rude word - it might sound a bit like "Hark" - and yells, "Don't shoot! For the love of God!" He bends to snatch up his lantern, which has dimmed, but not gone out. He punches the on/off button: once, to turn it off, then again, and it flares to life. He holds it up and away from his head, thinking that if anyone else wants to send a round his way, they might aim for the light instead of him. Then something clicks, and he puts all of the details together.

He looks down at his sweater, with its great, dark "G", "A", and "P" standing out against the pale tan of the material, and remembers that one Greek word for love was "agape". He realizes that holding the lantern up, and behind his head, creates a halo on the rim of his round, floppy hat. He realizes that his baggy cargo pants probably look like flowing robes thanks to the shadows and unnatural light.

He also realizes that he has dropped one of the boxes full of juice pouches out of his case in the confusion.

But before he can say or do anything else, his light goes out again. When his eyes adjust, he realizes that he's no longer in a dark wood with twelve armed, frightened young men; he can make out the lines of the bath house roof, and hear the laughter from his camp. So, he takes the boxes of juice and his broken lantern, and goes back to his kids.

When he crawls into his sleeping bag that night, he struggles to find comfort in his plush micro-fiber atop his over-filled air mattress. Something is bothering him; something hard, cold, and uncomfortable in the back of his mind. Or in his back. He is so cold, tired, and half-asleep, he can't tell whether it's a physical discomfort or just the thought of those boys in their soldier costumes, cold and terrified and hungry as they tried to survive an October night more than a century and a half before.

He dreams about their fears, and about them fumbling with juice bags - are they any better at jamming that little straw through the hole than his kids are, or do they just lop the tops off the bags with their knives and pour them into their mugs? What do 19th century taste buds think of "Very Berry Splash" or "Pacific Cooler"?

Somewhere in the middle of the dreams, and the tossing and turning, he decides not to tell anyone what happened. He decides just to be glad that he could help - however accidentally - and to be grateful that boys in soldier costumes do their best to do what they think is right, regardless of the doubt and discomfort involved.

And in the morning, when he awakes on his depleted air mattress and discovers the baseball under his left kidney, he laughs, and is grateful that the greatest of his problems is only a self-imposed kind of discomfort.

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