Monday, October 18, 2004

Dedicated to the Proposition

Sunday, I traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to attend the inauguration at Gettysburg College of a new president, the first woman to hold that office in the 172 year history of the school. I was there for the sake of courtesy, more particularly to stand in the stead of the president of my alma mater. The ceremony took place on the front steps of Pennsylvania Hall, a building that had served as a hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg.

The scene was quintessentially American. The liberal arts college is a uniquely American institution of higher learning, and the Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War, indeed a pivot point of American history. The day will look stunning in pictures: leaves just beginning to turn orange, and set against azure autumn skies. Yet, the photographs will not show the gusty, bone-chilling wind that we endured, as we sat outside for nearly two hours. The speeches were appropriately upbeat, though too numerous, and my mind began to wander. I thought of the building behind the speakers, and imagined the scores of dead Union soldiers being carried out on stretchers and down the steep steps to be buried at nearby Cemetery Hill. There was not the faintest suggestion by any of the speakers that the nation was again in the midst of war. War was in the air, yet no one dared to talk about it. It made me think of the wind, its proximate effects caused by distant events, as an inaugural auguring of the distant war, whose immediate consequences we could still just pretend to ignore.

After the ceremony, I decided to make an American hajj to the battlefield. I stood at "The Angle" and "The Copse of Trees," that mark the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, a place where more than 5,000 soldiers became casualties in one hour. Then I strode up Cemetery Hill and stood where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. Strangely, Lincoln and the soldiers seemed both there and not there. Yet, Lincoln's hope, even in the midst of the great civil war, in a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," a hope that it should "not perish from the earth," seemed more real than ever.

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|| headland, 12:09 AM

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