It’s interesting when a piece of history or something you learned about second-hand becomes a part of your life experience. I guess this is why the tourist industry exists! (Duh!) To make a profoundly obvious observation… a postcard picture of the Grand Canyon doesn’t quite measure up to the grandeur of the real thing! (Double-Duh!)
But I vividly remember the day my “Civil-War Book-Hero,” Joshua L. Chamberlain (of Little Round Top and Confederate Surrender fame) came to life for me. Chamberlain was a civilian academic who volunteered for service and rose to prominence through his dedicated service. Then he returned to civilian service in his community and state. It’s got “National Guard/Citizen-Soldier” written all over it!
Just back from my own deployment, Susan and I traveled to the northeast in general and Maine in particular. A very different world for this Midwesterner, filled with ships and lighthouses and seafood. But we stopped by Bowdoin College in Brunswick and, across the street from campus, toured Chamberlain’s house.
And while it is filled with Civil-War treasures like his battle-flag and the boots repaired from a wound in the foot, it was a little nook between the back sitting-room and kitchen that captured my attention. Where most people just walked through here on their way somewhere else, a desk and chair just fit into this little nook. The guide noted that this is where the retired General and Governor wrote his memoirs of the war and his life in the flowery language of a good Victorian-era scholar. I lagged behind the group to dwell in that space a couple extra minutes. To breathe that air. To imagine him sitting there.
I have those books on my shelves. This was the place-- the very place-- where the phrases and sentences were drawn from the heart of a man who risked life and family for the Nation in a traumatic chapter of our history. He healed himself with pen and paper. Right here. In this alcove at the back of the house. At this roll-top desk. Remembering and writing. Sorting out the memories to create the meaning and assess his own place in the story. Years of activity captured through hours of processing and scrawling that ended up on my bookshelf 150 years later.
Reading his story became part of my story. History. Our story.