Posts : 181
Join date : 2013-08-25
Age : 63
|Subject: Last Full Measure (formerly posted under Speeches) Wed Sep 09, 2015 7:22 pm|| |
Last Full Measure
It was hard stayin’ awake on the train. The swayin’ of the car, the regular tick of the tracks, all worked to put a boy of ten to sleep. But I wanted to stay awake. I was tryin’ real hard to fix every part a this trip in my head. So as not to forget.
We—Pa and me—left Philadelphia real early that Thursday mornin’. The sun wasn’t up, and the folks at the station were tired and grumpy. No polite talkin’ among the passengers.
I wasn’t sorry to leave Philadelphia. I hated the dust. All those people crammed into a maze of streets, and some a those streets didn’t smell so good. The noise never stopped. Guess the worst part was the lack a space and the lack a freedom. Han and me—that’s what we called Heyes when we were boys—were used to spendin’ our time outside fishin’ and trappin’ and pretty much doin’ as we pleased once the chores were done. I missed Han too.
Ma still had family in Philadelphia. It was real interestin’ meetin’ Ma’s folks. The Murphys were farmers from County Wicklow. I didn’t understand everythin’ I heard, but the gist of the story is that Ma’s folks lost their land in some kinda tithe war. They ended dirt poor in Dublin with too many mouths and too little food. Pa used to tease Ma ‘bout bein’ a thief. I learned in Philly that she really was one.
Ma could never watch folks suffer. When she saw injustice or folks causin’ hardship for others, she had to do somethin’. Things didn’t always work out the way she planned, but she couldn’t sit still and watch. She was a doer, my Ma. That’s how she found herself stealin’.
She was the oldest and couldn’t watch her brothers and sisters starve. It started with food. By the time she was fifteen she was a pick pocket and the authorities were on to her. Pa said that Grampa Murphy was helped by somethin’ called The Catholic Association, run by a man named O’Connell. They stepped up and helped Ma leave Ireland for the United States. The family followed later, but Ma spent a whole year livin’ with Pa’s older sister. That’s how they got to courtin’.
Sorry. I got off track. This story’s supposed to be about the trip home from Philadelphia. There I was tryin’ to keep my eyes propped open as Pennsylvania slipped by. I was treasurin’ every moment, because I didn’t suppose that I’d get the chance to go off with Pa like this again. Ma had insisted I go, mostly because she was so dang mad at me. Han and I had been gettin’ on her nerves for months.
Her uncle had come for a long visit. He was full a high spirits (of more than one kind) and told us stories about the Fenian Brotherhood and Irish rebellions. Our heads filled up with visions of glory and excitement. We were singin’ the rebel songs he taught us and marchin’ all over. We got to believin’ that those rebellions were some kinda festival. A great game.
Ma had seen the troubles in Ireland first hand. She tried to tell us that it was not about glory or honor. And it was definitely not fun. It was hatred and bloodshed and neighbor against neighbor. And with each bloody act the stakes got higher as the people were trained up to seek vengeance. Between her past and the war goin’ on around us, Ma had no patience with our shenanigans.
Then we got word that my brother Nate had died in battle.
He died in July, but we didn’t get word ‘til September. He was buried somewhere on a battlefield. When we heard that there was gonna be a big dedication, Pa wanted to go. Then Ma decided that I needed to go with him. The trip was in November, so the farm could spare us both.
Since we were goin’ all the way to Pennsylvania, we decided to visit kin before the ceremony. So there we were on an early mornin’ train headed to Gettysburg.
After arrivin’ the first thing we did was find my brother’s grave. Wasn’t easy. All the markers looked just the same. That bothered me when I was ten, but later I learned that most a the Confederate soldiers were still in unmarked graves with lots a bodies buried together. At least Nate’s grave was marked.
Pa cried on that plot a grass. I had only ever seen him cry one time before. That was when Emily Ann was born. He didn’t even cry when word came a Nate’s death. At least not where I could see.
The first speaker was a man named Everett. He came from someplace up near Boston. I tried to listen to him. I really did. Ma sent me to learn, but that man just talked. And talked. And talked. And I thought that Han could go on a long time. Pa finally got tired of it too, so we walked around some until he finished.
Even at ten, I was impressed by the next fella speakin’. Pa told me that it was President Lincoln. That man grabbed your attention. He walked with dignity, but humble. Kinda reminded me of a preacher. You know, the good kind that make ya want to listen to ‘em. I couldn’t help but take notice.
He spoke for hardly any time at all, but what he said stayed with me. He said that the men who died made that battlefield holy. That they gave everythin’. Called it “the last full measure of devotion.” That included my brother. Then he said that those still livin’ needed to take action, so that “these dead shall not have died in vain.” Those words stuck with me too. I finally understood what Ma had been tryin’ to teach me.
This was serious business. Not entertainment. Killin’ shouldn’t be fun, and war’s no game. My brother would never get on a train and come home.
The politicians, and the scholars, and the preachers, and those folks who like to spend their time discussin’ such things (includin’ Han and his Pa) could argue about whether what Nate did was right, or necessary, or good for the country. But for us, his family, it was just a matter of goin’ on without him.
Anyway, that’s the speech I remember.
When you put your hand in a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first of what is still to come.
- Leonardo DaVinci