Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Old Glory

I was in Cambridge with Rita yesterday and after the Harvard Natural History Museum we went through the Memorial Church on the Harvard campus. The main hall of the church is lined with plaques honoring the Harvard men who fell in the Civil War. Each plaque has the young man's name, his dates of birth and death and where he died. Gettysburg, Antietam, Chickamauga, Fredericksburg, Cold Harbor, Bull Run, Petersburg. And others.

The plaques made them suddenly real. In their mid- to late-twenties, they had been young officers., lieutenants and captains. They died in the prime of their lives.

The name of one of them, Benjamin Franklin Pierce, had been appropriated by a television program as the name of the character 'Hawkeye' on the television program ' MASH'.

Once on a bicycle trip up the Potomac I had shied away from a short side trip that would have taken me to the Antietam National Battlefield. I was afraid of hearing the voices, the screams of the wounded and dying, attenuated by a century and a half, but not silenced. Here in Harvard Yard I had stumbled among them.

I got a lump in my throat and started crying. I had to get out of there before I made any more of a fool of myself. Rita was kind and understanding and left with me. I had been sneering at Harvard men and women as snobbish, self-satisfied, elitists, who made lots of money but were second rate at the research that had won Berkeley so many Nobel Prizes and Harvard so few.

Suddenly that seemed shallow. Harvard men had been dying in arms to save the Republic and to free the slaves before before there was a Berkeley. Certainly none of the privileged young people walking about in Harvard Yard were likely to die in arms for a cause they believed in. Those times are gone. But they are heirs of those who did.  For the first time I understood the meaning of a tradition.  The dead honor the living in a way that is hard for the rest of us to comprehend.

Here at Cape Elizabeth in Maine, a few hours drive north of Boston, Rita and I drove up to the hotel. In front of it there was a flagpole with an American flag flying. Over the years I had come to think of that flag as the emblem of the dominant world power, the American imperial republic. It had a stale look to it.

After the plaques in Harvard's Memorial Church, the flag was fresher, the colors brighter. It was the flag of the Union, the last best hope of mankind.


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