Back in the 7th grade, I wrote a 12-page report on the Battle of Gettysburg. I suspect and fear that my father's proudest memory of me was the "A" I received for that paper, the entire contents of which I plagiarized from the history books lining his bookshelf.
He was deeply devoted to Civil War history, and we regularly took trips to old battlefields and re-enactments throughout the mid-Atlantic. He would carefully explain how Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia pushed north into Pennsylvania and came within a day or two of capturing Washington and ending the war and the Union. Gettysburg was the battle that crushed those Confederate dreams, a charnel nightmare that left 50,000 dead in three days.
My dad took us to the battlefield as kids, and would explain all the moving parts of the machine of war, units of two armies clashing in an overlapping series of skirmishes and battles around the sleepy farm town. He would tell the story and I would forget it as soon as the words left his mouth. I just wanted a hot dog and to get back to throwing rocks at my little brother.
On a sunny and nearly perfect spring afternoon, I drove my mom the 45 minutes down to Gettysburg for a return visit. Recent rains have left the rolling farmland lush and green, and we walk past Boy Scout Troop 241 in uniform at the end of their day, sunburned and exhausted and scarfing down gift shop candy.
The battlefield was utterly peaceful, not much different from a serene July morning almost 150 years ago before the two armies collided. The silence now is broken not by firing cannons and musket shots, but the roar of fat men on motorcycles and the honking of ill-tempered Garden State motorists.
I try to imagine the noise and blood, the gut-sinking fear of watching waves of men sweep over the landscape toward your position, fighting in close quarters, swinging muskets like a club before a bayonet slides home.
But not too much.
I drive with my mom around the park, looking for the places where we picnicked as a family four decades back, and let the ghosts of battle sleep.