Sunday, December 25, 2005

Short Story: Home Sweet Home

At years end in December of 1862, his grand visions of glorious war had long since withered away, supplanted by the now too familiar scenes of mangled friends and foe lying upon recently contested ground. Passing over the grim visage of a newly christened battlefield, he found that in death, the differences between the casualties of either side somehow seemed less obvious and disturbingly less relevant.

A few short days ago, blue and gray clad soldiers marched away from Perryville Kentucky where in October, the merciless dark angel claimed more than 1,300 men. In happier times, these dead would have embraced each other as countrymen, but instead lost their lives for causes that seemed to him a little more distant than when the passions of war first sparked the now unremitting flames. Of those that survived, more than 5,000 emerged from the battle no longer whole, leaving behind arms, legs, and the deadened portions of their once innocent naive souls. He sometimes judged those at eternal rest as the more fortunate, except for their cold and lonely graves, shallow and quickly dug if they had a grave at all.

At days end as the men of both armies settled in for an uneasy night, the cold winter air lent each man a biting chill matching the lingering trepidation ever-present within. Fellow pickets on either side of him leaned against rocks or trees, tightly wrapped in whatever they had not foolishly discarded during the hot summer marches. The bolder or more desperate among them pulled closer the coats and blankets recently "acquired" from those no longer in need, vainly attempting to elude the cold, heavy rains and clinging mud which sought to leech the warmth from their tired, haggard bodies.

With his adversaries only some 700 yards distant, tonight, he would likely not find the peace of the forbidden yet cherished few moments of much needed sleep. Having learned some time ago the skill of dozing lightly while standing upright at his post, sleep would have offered a welcome respite from the cold misery of the last few weeks. While peering into the endless, surrounding darkness, he wondered what the night would yet hold for him.

As if to sooth the persistent anguish threatening to consume him, an army band mercifully broke the silence. When the initial welcome strains ended, adversaries from across the darkening divide responded in kind with a song of their own.

With each side now taking turn in this instrumental volley, music familiar to both armies danced among the trees stirring the chill winter air. These songs, he mused, once held dear by all, now either inspired thoughts of patriotism or treason depending upon your present chosen or dictated loyalties. Shifting his weight against the tree which held him upright, he wondered if in a strange twist, God had given the fleeting warmth that each note offered as a gift to the men who had in His name shattered so many of those created in His image.

The lyrics as familiar as the faces of his family, he watched his vaporous breath swirl in the frigid air as he joined in the diversion of song. His hoarse voice added to the orchestral tonic caressing the ground so contentiously held by the members of this growing unified chorus. For a moment, some of the pain, if not forgotten, diminished in severity with fraternal memories providing a bittersweet solace.

After several near joyous tunes, the continuing musical challenge abruptly changed tone as one side, he could no longer distinguish which, began the first few strains of Home Sweet Home. Other mournful voices now joined his in the welcome yet sad refrain.
    I gaze on the moon, as I tread the drear wild
    And feel that my mother, Now thinks of her child;
    As she looks on that moon, From our own cottage door,
    Thro' the woodbine whose fragrance, Shall cheer me no more.
While the chorus rose, warm tears glistened down the raw sides of this grizzled soldier’s face. With voice trembling, he fought to sing the final torturous words.
    An exile from home, splendour dazzles in vain
    Oh! give me my lowly thatch’d cottage again;
    The birds singing gaily, that came at my call;
    Give me them, with the peace of mind, dearer than all.

    Home, home, sweet sweet home,
    There's no place like home,
    There's no place like home.
Proving the final melody of the evening, its words drifted mournfully past the longing ears of many similarly heartsick soldiers, flittering off through the bare creaking tree limbs into the cold, indifferent darkness of night. But, for this one fading moment, all around shared the bonds of brotherhood so common before this tragic war. Each beat with one single heart aching simply for the welcome faces and sights of their distant homes.

Hours later, when the sun next rose, savage battle began anew, with this soldier and thousands more fated to never again see home except in the dimming light of their dying minds eye.

Very Respectfully,


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Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas

Stained Glass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Wyandotte Michigan

I wish you a very Merry, Joyous, and Peaceful Christmas.

May God grant us the wisdom to
pursue and protect a permanent peace for all,
in part by taking lesson from our shared past.



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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Yesterday's Children

The cold, bitter wind cut between the branches of bare trees and the stones scattered among them over the roughly mowed, undulating ground. Darkening oak and maple leaves long since fallen from their commanding heights now sheltered against the base of many a marble marker, seeking haven from the blowing frigid air. Pulling down my hat, I clutched the over-copied plot map that had led me to the general’s headstone. Having taken the photographs I wanted, I strode quickly back down the path to the anticipated comfort of my car. Scanning the fields surrounding me and then glancing down at the paper, I noted with a touch of sadness the disparity between the number buried here and the few deemed relevant enough for mention on the map. The important ones would receive the occasional appreciative visitor with only an intermittent indifferent glance going to the more numerous forgotten dead.

Gravesite of General George Gordon MeadeThe old Laurel Hill Cemetery along Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River serves as an eternal home to revolutionaries, political leaders, soldiers, professionals, laborers, and past citizens from the then young United States. Time had yet spared many of the 19th century gravestones which fared better than their older comrades with progressively illegible epitaphs. Thankfully, the markers on the Meade family plot remained clear. Union Major General George Gordon Meade’s simple stone stated for all who cared to visit, "He did his work bravely and is at rest". My camera would now hold this image safe from the wearing effects of the ages.

Hurriedly folding the map, I glanced down while stuffing the paper in my pocket. The cold air, the crude map, and all else faded from attention as I noted a small ground-level marker along the edge of the macadam path leading back to the cemetery entrance. The simple text read only:

Sarah Ann Hobson
1845 – 1850

Reuben W. Hobson
1850 – 1850

The meaning hit hard. In this one year, grieving parents lost their five year old daughter and infant son. Scanning the cold ground, I found the parents’ stone close by, plain in appearance like their children’s. The tragedy grew as their words added an impact all their own.

Thomas Hobson, MD
Jan. 8, 1814
Nov. 12, 1853

The father who lost two children so quickly died 3 years later at age 39. His wife Elizabeth, also noted on the stone, would carry on with their one remaining child, Jane, born in 1851.

Pausing to consider their loss, recent conversations crept into consciousness. "Life is so stressful today" I hear frequently as someone inevitably claims that what they now endure surpasses all experienced by those from any other era in human history. Parents rightfully work to protect their children from a "modern" society overrun with violence and death, fearing that exposure to tragedy may irreparably traumatize their children and damage their future. Yet somehow, the family resting at my feet suffered severe tragedy and then moved on, with Elizabeth living about 40 years after the deaths of her children and husband. According to her own stone, their daughter Jane would outlive her mother by another 30 years.

Gravesite of the Hobson ChildrenThe children of the 19th century had their own "stressors" with which to cope. Up to 25% of all children would die before their first birthday with the rate falling to a still tragic 1 in 10 for those who received the best care. In some regions of the young country, up to the same percentage of mothers would die during or due to complications from birth. Nineteenth century medicine would not uncover the role microbes play in disease until the 1870s with antiseptic practices only then becoming mainstream. Penicillin would first become available another 70 some years later. As a whole, life expectancy mid-19th century hovered around 43 years. The children of that day would then face the potential death of a parent or sibling throughout all of their young lives while continuously attempting to elude the specter of life stealing infectious disease.

During the Civil War years, children would lose 185,000 fathers, brothers, uncles, relatives and friends as that number would die in battle or because of wounds sustained. An additional 400,000 would perish from the infectious diseases which sliced through armies both North and South. Another 412,000 would suffer wounds but survive the war albeit no longer whole. Combined, casualties would surpass 3% of the United States' population leaving an even greater number of children to cope with the losses and scars of war. Countless untold others would struggle with deprivation and hunger with the freed slaves and those remaining in the devastated, smoldering South experiencing the greatest hardship.

Yet the young of that age endured and grew into adulthood, most having children of their own. The country would not only survive but thrive as it continued to grow both geographically, economically, and technologically. As time passed, the country’s young would endure the impact of two world wars, the Korean War, Vietnam, decades of racial tension, deadly outbreaks of disease, natural disasters, and a host of other more personal tragedies and catastrophes. And still, they endured.

After a respectful pause, I nodded to the stones in front of me and slowly stepped backwards, thankful for the greater confidence I felt concerning our children’s ability to cope. Turning, I quickened my step and strode towards the predictable warmth of my car.



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All original material Copyright © 2005. All Rights Reserved

References for this article:
  1. Louisiana State University: Statistical Summary America’s Major Wars
  2. Wikipedia
  3. Public Health and Technology during the 19th Century
  4. Semmelweis: A Lesson in Epidemiology
  5. Anthrax Used by Koch and Pasteur to Prove Germ Theory of Disease in 19th C.