Sunday, March 20, 2011

Coming Home to Gettysburg

When I was a senior in high school in a one-stoplight (at that time) town just north of Gettysburg, I could not wait to get out of here and “see the world”.  The “world”, as it turns out, was a small city in northwestern PA, which, aside from its bus system (Gettysburg didn’t have the Freedom Transit system yet) was not very different from Gettysburg.

However, as the Bard says, absence makes the heart grow fonder. By the time several years had passed at school, I began to realize how well-connected, how recognizable, how beloved Gettysburg is.  It’s nice to have a hometown that acts as an instant conversation-starter.

I’m not widely traveled, but wherever I go, when I tell people I’m from Gettysburg, the reaction is always the same:  “Gettysburg!  I went there in ___th grade!  I love it there.”  (The grade is usually the only differing part.) 

It still amazes me that I can use such a small town as a point of reference and have it be recognized every time.  People who don’t know exactly where Gettysburg is, geographically, are always subjected to my “hand map” of PA.

This is Pennsylvania (just go with it, ok?):

And this is where I live:

(If you think that’s great, I also have a hand map for Michigan, and one for Alaska, no kidding.)

As far as Gettysburg’s being well-connected, I’ve never seen a town so capable of being a “home base” for travelers.  We are within four hours of New York City and Pittsburgh, within 2-1/2 hours of Philadelphia, Washington, DC and Baltimore, within 1-1/2 hours of Lancaster (Amish country), and 45 minutes of Hershey, Harrisburg and Frederick, MD.  We are situated close to every major highway a person could want in the East, and have some of the most gorgeous scenery lining those roads.

Once I came home from college, I started looking at the battlefields through new eyes.  I stopped looking at Devil’s Den as just a great place to climb rocks.  I stopped thinking about the battlefield roads as just shortcuts to bypass town.  I stopped making snide remarks about the recent movement to restore the battlefield to the way it looked in 1863 – “Why don’t they just put dirt on the roads through town and have done with it?!” 

I stopped doing all of those things and started really looking at the ground that had swallowed the blood of those who gave their “last full measure of devotion” for a fledgling country that turned 87 years old the very day after the battle.  I began to sense the fear, the exhaustion, the anxiety that filled those days, and it began to make me think about what our world would be like today if these events had not taken place during a sweltering clump of days in July, in a tiny town just south of my home.

Gettysburg is situated only 9 miles from the Maryland border, the Mason-Dixon Line.  Gettysburg is just a stone’s throw from Dixieland.  If the tables had not turned during those three fateful days in July, if so many things had not gone inexplicably awry for General Lee, if the Union had not won at Gettysburg, I might live in a border town, requiring a passport to move freely from my homeland, the United States of America, to my southern neighbor, the Confederate States of America. 

It’s nearly laughable to think of such a thing.  I remember Reese Witherspoon quipping in Sweet Home Alabama that people should need a passport to visit the south.  But what if?  It’s an interesting notion, and one that heightens the anxiety I feel in my chest when I look at the battlefield and allow my mind to expand.

I hope that if you have never visited Gettysburg, or even if you have, that you will grace us with your visit.  Come out and rediscover America.  Rediscover our past and be inspired.

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