Monday, August 22, 2005

 

A Eulogy for Lincoln (Part One)

I finished Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln this weekend. I had been reluctant to do so, from the moment I could discern in the flow of pages that I had come upon the eve of his death by assassination. It was – it is – a powerful testament to a giant figure in the history of our Nation, of the world itself.

Carl Sandburg may have been a fine historian, but he was first and foremost a poet from the Midwest. There was no finer craftsman of prose to so properly render tribute to this American.

I think about Lincoln and his words a lot here in Iraq. I started my journey to Iraq with, among other works, and after my Bible of course, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson, The Case for Democracy by Natan Sharansky. Mrs. Dadmanly soon sent me Os Guinness’ The Great Experiment: Faith and Freedom in America. I was delighted when she also passed along a request for Sandberg’s Abraham Lincoln, which one of our church friends sent me shortly thereafter.

I used to read great quantities of books growing up, somewhat reclusive, shy and lonely for a variety of reasons, and books were the great escape. My parents owned thousands of books – no doubt thousands more now – and my Great Grandfather collected important works, sets, and great literature, much of which we were fortunate to receive. I must have read all the standard classics by the time I hit High School.

At some point, I came out of my shell (some would say I exploded out of it and never looked back), and in the course of starting adult life, time in the Army, family life, raising children, I got out of the habit of reading for its own sake.

So thinking about reading books in Iraq was as much a hope, or as if a promise made to an old friend. Now that I am 8 months in, I confess I’ve read some (more while traveling to and from Leave than before or since), but not as much as I had hoped. I’ve written; I spend my time writing or thinking about writing, and the words pour forth, I’m never at a lack for them. (LT, stop laughing. Really, it wasn’t that funny.)

So I suppose it is best that I read what seemed best. Franklin is next and I hope that his adventurous life in the emergence of Democracy will bring forth some new perspective on our efforts here. God knows, Lincoln spoke to my soul.

I love to wander in the long abandoned byways of the Erie Canal near where I live. We are fortunate to have preserved a stretch of the Erie, coincident with and often overlapping the Mohawk River, in a very old community known as Vischers Ferry. We have many other remnants of the multiple iterations of the Erie nearby (four major series of construction), old locks long abandoned, many isolated strands of canal and towpath, and the train tracks, when they were put in, often running along or on top of the towpaths of the earlier vestiges of the canals.

Lincoln’s funeral procession traveled along the very train tracks Mrs. Dadmanly, Little Manly and I love so dearly.

I can’t explain how we came upon this love, or how it gained our affection so completely, but it did. We would ride our bikes (quite some ways, to think on it) down to an old abandoned auto bridge over the railroad that runs East-West between Albany and Schenectady and beyond towards Buffalo. This same path that earlier ran the Erie Canal. We would wait, usually not long, until one of the many freight trains, often over a hundred cars, would rumble under us. Engineers giving us a friendly toot when we waved. Many times getting there just in time to have trains going in both directions under us. We loved our trains, we loved our bridge, we loved sharing a love in common. We know the lure of the rails.

It saddens me to think on it now, but our “Old Bridge” as well call it was sealed off a couple of years ago, finally putting big “No Trespassing” signs, warnings of how unsafe and unstable the bridge was. (We know something about Bridges and Bridge safety too, as a family member works in the section of Department of Transportation (DOT) that checks on bridges.) Which still seems unfair, as this “unsafe” bridge still dangles over a very active set of railroad tracks, and no one seems in a hurry to knock it down.

So we no longer take our idyllic retreat to the Old Bridge, and I guess that’s in the way of things.

But I read that in 1865, Lincoln in repose traveled back home along that route, stopped for a viewing in Albany, rode slowly up the route of the old Erie Canal, the Canal still in business in those days, too, but under competition from the train Lincoln rode. At every town and whistle stop, black bunting and sashes, flags and hushed mourners lined the route. Sandberg describes that, “The endless multitudinous effect became colossal.” Young women in white gowns and black shoulder scarves and U.S. Flags, in town after town, “they took on a ritualist solemnity smoldering and portentous.”

I imagine standing beside the tracks, within a small settlement now completely disappeared from history, save for a few foundations, an open cistern, and a weedy dry dock. A simple but industrious people, no doubt bereft and grieving not just this President who was one of them, but in all likelihood family or friends or neighbors who would never be coming home, unless likewise by train in a wooden coffin.

What would it have been like to have a struggle so long and bloody, so drawn out and costly, and have that struggle at its end, only to have the one man as responsible as anyone alive for right, in the end victorious, now struck down and taken, never to be heard except in the many tributes and remembrances of, who once was a Great Man.

A Eulogy for Lincoln (Part Two)

Links: Basil's Blog, Mudville Gazette, Outside the Beltway



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