Monday, August 24, 2009

Ninety-Four, Part Eighteen: Wherein I Learn A Lesson At Gettysburg (But That Lesson Remains Unspoken.)

Everyone has one year in their life that has a greater impact on them than any other year. Mine was 1994. Once a week, I'll recap that year. This is part 18; click here for a table of contents.

If there are some things that don't stand out in my memories of Washington D.C., and some things that no longer seem as significant as they once seemed, there are other things that I remember to this day, like seeing Gettysburg.

We went to see Gettysburg on a day trip with Frank and his son Dave, and possibly Frank's wife, who I think I met but who I can't picture at all. Frank thought it would be fun to take us to Gettysburg for the day, possibly because I was reading the book The Killer Angels. Although looking back now, I can't recall, either, if I read The Killer Angels and then we went to Gettysburg, or if the prospect of going to Gettysburg was mentioned and then I read The Killer Angels. It seems more likely to me that I was already reading the book and then Frank mentioned going to Gettysburg, and it seems likely to me that he mentioned touring a civil war battlefield because I was reading a book about that battlefield. More likely than the idea that Frank happened to coincidentally come up with the idea of going to Gettysburg, anyway. Left alone, Frank's ideas of things to do were more likely to be trips to the strip club (for sandwiches) and meetings with the son of the Shah of Iran.

To be fair, too, Frank didn't always just take us on strip-club-and-dictator field trips. He also took us on a trip to see what I believe was (is?) called the "Defense Intelligence Agency."

In many respects, all of them surprises, Washington D.C. was quite a learning experience. I didn't learn what I thought I would learn when I first hopped the train to D.C. I didn't learn much about the process of governing, at least not the way I thought I would. I didn't become a senator or anything. I didn't walk down the street, bump into the Vice President, get invited into a cabinet meeting and get featured on CNN as the youngest advisor to the President, selected for his brilliant analysis of something-or-other. I didn't learn any of that.

But I did learn some surprising things, things like there are more intelligence agencies than the CIA and FBI and NSA. There are intelligence agencies all over Washington, all over the government, seemingly -- investigative and spying services for the military overall and each branch of the military, it seemed, each of them gathering intelligence and... holding it. I don't know what they did with it. There is nothing so secretive as an intelligence agency.

That's what I learned when we did tour the Defense Intelligence Agency (if that's what it was called.) I had already toured the Pentagon, going there on my own, probably on a workday, probably under the ruse that I had some sort of classwork to do, although I probably needn't have worried about that, either: Frank was always willing to give me time off to do things like that, just as he was willing to give me time off to see Supreme Court Justices and also time off, one day, to go watch a couple of speeches at a fundraiser held by "AIPAC," a group that I had never heard of and only went to for two reasons:

First, Newt Gingrich was speaking, and he was famous and Republican. At that time, I was not famous, but I was Republican, having become Republican shortly after I had stopped being a Democrat back in 1992, having become a Democrat solely out of peer pressure from the guys at the registration office. Now, in 1994, I was a Republican and endeavored to be cool and oppositional at the same time, and also conservative, and that meant that I wanted to go see Newt Gingrich talk to what turned out to be a group of people involved in American-Israeli relations. The "A" in "AIPAC" stood for some version of "American" and the "I" for some version of "Israel," although I didn't know that until I arrived there. The "PAC" stood for "political action committee," and I'm pretty sure I knew that going in, although I didn't know much else.

The second reason I went was because they were giving away free stuff. I got some AIPAC "goodies," things that would only seem like goodies or giveaways to the nerdiest of political dorks, such as I was then -- such as all interns were. Only complete social misfits could enjoy politics to the degree that we enjoyed politics at that time, could enjoy politics to the degree that would let us take an "AIPAC" button and put it on our shirt and sit and listen, voluntarily, to Newt Gingrich speak.

I go back and forth all the time on political speeches. On the one hand, I miss the days of great political speeches, like Lincoln's Gettysburg address. So short, but so eloquent, and so memorable that it instantly leaps to mind when one thinks of great speeches: Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers... did a bunch of things, things that were either memorialized or put to shame by what happened at Gettysburg. I can't recall the rest of it, but I have read it and it's great, and I like to think of Lincoln saying it, to a small group of people sweltering in the heat of Pennsylvania after that battle, a couple or reporters in those absurdly hot, absurdly thick suits they wore, seemingly everywhere. Did they never think of wearing shorts? I sometimes wonder when I see pictures of that era. Or was it modesty, social custom? I know women couldn't show skin, back then, almost anywhere, but what about the men? Men working on the farm never thought "If I cut these pants off at the knee, I might not die of dehydration before noon...?

Those old-fashioned speeches, in full political regalia, were something to behold. Modern political speeches lack that grandiloquence and fall flat, too often. From four score and seven years ago to Bush's Bring It On, we've dropped way way down the rhetorical scale and at times, I miss that.

Then again, when I hear some speeches full of hot air and blather, I scoff, too, and say what about the details? Where are the facts? So politicians can't win with me, because if they get too grand, too eloquent, to Obama-esque, too "Thousand Points Of Light" I might stop listening, but if they don't reach for those heights, I mentally reduce their importance.

Mostly, I don't listen to political speeches. I don't listen to, or read about, the State of the Union speech or addresses to Congress or Health Care rallies or that, because mostly, political speeches are not only terrible, but bunk also, and many of them are delivered to empty rooms (when you see Senators and Congresspeople speaking, they're usually talking to an empty, or near-empty, chamber) or to people forced to sit there, autoworkers pulled off the line and into the lunchroom to hear from the president in a hard hat.

The Newt Gingrich speech at AIPAC was no different than that. From my high, dorky hopes at attending (and getting free stuff!) the reality fell fast and steep to boredom within minutes. Seconds, even, as he droned on or other people droned on, leaving me to fidget with the little blue pouch with white lettering I'd been given to hold the free stuff, leaving me to fret and wish I could sneak out and go walk around Washington, go to the National Zoo and see those pandas, or the National Aquarium where the National Fish swam.

I still have that pouch, and I still have my memories of sitting in a wide, airy, room, watching people get up and speak about things I didn't bother listening to or caring about while wishing I was somewhere else not listening to people talk about things I didn't care about and that wouldn't matter in the long run, anyway.

The things that do seem to matter are harder to get into and more interesting, and people talk a lot less at them. Those things are things like the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Gettysburg.

When I toured the Pentagon, I'd been told to watch the tour guides. They walk backwards, all the time, I was told. They never turn around, never look, never break eye contact with the group they're leading. I was told that these tour guides at the Pentagon memorize their routes and know how many steps it takes to get where they need to go and that they just recite the tour from memory.

So I watched, when I went there, and the nice lady who guided us around did, in fact, never to appear to look away from us, to never look over her shoulder, to walk the entire route backwards, tip-clacking in her heels backwards around the wide tile corridors that probably run in a pentagon shape themselves (but you can't really tell when you're inside, unlike the Octagon House we saw in grade school, where from outside and the inside, it appeared to be an actual octagon and felt like an octagon). But then again, what do I know? I looked away from her sometimes, so maybe she looked away while I was looking away?

Since then, since I took that tour, I've told other people who are going to Washington to take the Pentagon tour (even though the tour itself is kind of boring) and to watch the tour guides and see them walk backwards the whole time. I've told other people who weren't going to Washington about the tour guides, too, slipping them into conversation whenever I can, whenever the subject of tours or guides or pentagons comes up. I managed to mention it when we toured Hoover Dam, with the kids, on vacation a few years back, pointing out that the tour guides at Hoover Dam take their eyes off of the crowd, unlike Pentagon tour guides.

From the perspective of distance and time, I no longer know what to make of the Tour Guide Backwards anecdote, because each time I tell it, it seems less believable. As I've been thinking about it now, I just thought: Why would they do that? Why would they train them to walk backwards? Wouldn't it be easier, and cheaper, to just have two tour guides accompany every group, one staying behind all the others and watching the crowd, too?

So I did what I hate to do, and I checked it out. There are things I'd rather believe than know, and I didn't really want to know whether it was true, actually true, that Pentagon tour guides walk backwards the whole time. But I decided to learn about it, and so I googled "Do Pentagon Tour Guides Walk Backwards All The Time?"

... which would make a neat title for a book, wouldn't it?...

And the answer is: maybe. This article says they walk backwards, and sometimes bump into people, but it doesn't say they never turn around.

I'm not going to research it any further, because I don't want my memory to be undone. Now I believe and (kind of) know that fact, so I get to keep my anecdote.

The (maybe) fact that they do walk backwards simply raises that question again: why? Why do that? Who in the military, which is supposed to be a paragon of efficiency, decided that it was most efficient to get people to do something completely unnatural. The guides walk backwards, I was told, because they can't take their eyes off a tour group lest someone in the tour group slip away and commit some spying, which just points out how ridiculous our defenses against spying are and how ridiculous, in general, precautions we take are.

Think about it: we don't want people spying in the Pentagon. The easiest answer to that is don't let people tour the Pentagon. But, military and government officials think it's important for the public to see the Pentagon (even though they don't think it's important for people to see, say, the inside of NORAD, or the inside of Air Force One, or the Oval Office, all places that can't be toured). So they let the public into the Pentagon, or at least those portions of the Pentagon that are open to the public, a sort of public version of the Pentagon, like "Walt Disney Presents Pentagon World."

Even then, they worry that some wily spy, posing as a tourist, will slip away and get some inside information. So instead of locking doors and posting guards and requiring ID checks and checking rooms, they... have tour guides walk backwards. Instead of having two tour guides, or a soldier, escort every group, they... have people walk backwards. Our national security, the infrastructure that is in place to prevent a latex-masked Tom Cruise from sneaking inside to find out the truth about Chimera, depends on the ability of a 26-year-old secretary to walk backwards while concentrating.

That's the kind of dumb thinking that leads to people taking their shoes off in airports and not being allowed to carry a tube of toothpaste onto an airplane, and that's the kind of dumb thinking that imposes those rules and then doesn't even enforce them. Why ban liquids on planes if people can, as I did just last year, carry a six-pack of baby formula liquid in cans onto an airplane, putting them on the bottom of the carry-on backpack, in their closed metal cans full of liquid, and then telling the security guard "I have six cans of baby formula. Did you want to see them?" and having him shrug, shake his head, and wave you on through? Perhaps they had someone walking backwards through the entire flight, keeping an eye on me.

I saw more of what I thought was dumb thinking when we toured the Defense Intelligence Agency, as arranged by Frank using the contacts he had from the time he spent as a spy in the Air Force, helping (I'm pretty sure) depose the old Iranian order and impose the Shah of Iran. I'm not even making that up. Frank never mentioned it much but he dropped hints and the timing seemed about right and so I've always kind of assumed that Frank was part of the secret operation that had put the Shah in power back in the 1950s. He'd spent a lot of time there. His son Dave had grown up, a little, in Iran, something that made, and makes, me jealous. I wanted to grow up someplace exotic. While I was whiling away my time tubing down the Bark River and playing t-ball, Dave was... seeing mosques or something, and I wished, when I heard that, that I had had an interesting childhood like that. It would be something, something to tell in addition to the backwards-walking tour guides.

"Oh, yeah," I'd say. "I grew up in Iran." And people would crowd around and want to hear stories about what it was like.

Dave didn't seem to care much that he'd grown up in Iran. At least, he never mentioned it much. He was more interested in computers, and one of the women who worked at Pinkerton Risk Assessment Services, than he was in talking about growing up in Iran. Computers, still kind of new to offices then, were Dave's thing, and he worked on them at the office and built them and liked them. I didn't understand that, anymore than I understood backward walking tour guides. Computers, to me, were just faster typewriters. They couldn't do anything, really; they could type stuff, and print stuff, but there wasn't an "Internet" in 1994 and computer games were hardly any more advanced than Atari 2600 games, and while there were no doubt spreadsheet programs and the like, I didn't care about those, at all, either.

I didn't understand Dave's interest in computers, and I didn't understand Dave's interest in the woman who worked at the office, whose name I forget. She wasn't all that pretty and looked kind of Russian and didn't seem very interesting, especially compared to things like growing up in Iran, but I could never get Dave to talk much about his Iranian upbringing. Dave didn't seem to care much for any of that stuff, or the business, other than to hang out with us when we toured the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Frank took Eden (the other intern), me, and Dave, and we met with some of his colleagues/buddies at a base not far from Washington D.C. Or maybe it was a government location, an office or something. It was some kind of installation or office or park or such, and I recall that there were really no windows anywhere. That didn't strike me right away; it wasn't the kind of thing you notice, that there are no windows. But there weren't, and I remember that. I know, now, why that is (you can see, and spy, through windows) but back then I didn't make anything of it other than that the place must be kind of gloomy to work in.

We were introduced to the DIA guy, who asked a few questions about us and then led us through a couple of rooms on a brief but still interesting tour, explaining how they worked and what they did (they gathered intelligence, which is a more-interesting, more-important-sounding way of saying they gathered facts. That's what spies do, after all: they gather up facts and then analyze them. But it sounds better to say I gather intelligence, even though not all the facts they gather are intelligent.)

The two things I remember most of all about the tour are these:

Very few people paid any attention to us as we walked through, which was remarkable itself. Imagine if some strangers came through your office on a tour. Wouldn't you want to take a break, watch them, introduce yourself, maybe say Hey, what're you doing touring my office? You're not supposed to be here. That's what I'd say, because nobody ever tours my office. At the Defense Intelligence Agency, which was not, to my knowledge, open to the public (our tour guide didn't walk backwards) nobody seemed to think it was unusual that we were walking through there. Some of the workers -- almost all of them young men, in their twenties -- looked up briefly and then went back to work, after they did the second thing that I remember most, which was this:

They turned over everything on their desks as we approached.

I still remember that, clearly. Everywhere we walked, we were greeted by a slight rustling and thumping as people took what they were working on and turned it over. Papers, folders, briefs, whatever: all turned upside down. Books and binders and things on shelves were turned binding-down so that we couldn't see the titles or the labels. It happened automatically, without any notice. We'd turn a corner near some cubicles and the people in the cubicles, who almost never looked up, began flipping papers and turning books down and covering up computer screens. They'd sit quietly while we walked by and then behind us they'd begin turning things over again, going back to work, all without any sort of prompting or provocation.

When I asked later why they did that, I was amazed at how obvious the answer was and amazed that I didn't realize it earlier. Frank answered me "It's so that you can't see what they're working on." They were taking precautions against us being a plant and seeing something they were working on in passing and then giving that to our Soviet overlords and having the Kremlin work out, from my glimpse of a binder that talked about weather patterns, that the US was this close to weather controlling satellites.

I was not so much impressed that they did that; I understood taking some precautions, covering up the brief on how the CIA had faked the moon landing when the interns walked through, but turning down books and things? Did it matter if someone, somewhere, learned that the US intelligence community had "US News & World Report's Top 100 Colleges, 1992" on the shelf?

(Note: They didn't have that book; I just picked it out as the kind of obscure reference book that might be in a spy's office, used to pass information through an elaborate code in which US News & World Report's ranking of colleges also has our nuclear codes, such that 1 Harvard 2 Yale 3 University of Alabama starts a global thermonuclear war.)

No, I thought, it didn't matter, but that didn't impress me so much as the automatic way that the men did it, the way they just instinctively seemed to know when we were nearing and turned over their papers only at that moment, working right up until the moment that the presence of a couple of college students interrupted them, then going right back to working again. It seemed to me a sort of conditioning of the kind I couldn't imagine, that dedication to what one was doing, never looking up from one's work, even when there's an unusual interruption in the office and continuing to work in the face of that interruption, taking only the briefest of hiatuses from it. I still can't imagine that kind of reaction, or devotion. Can you? As you sit at your desk today, imagine never stopping working for even a second, or, if you do, you only stop working for just long enough to accommodate someone walking by and then go straight back to it.

Where did they get that dedication, that automatic response, that devotion? I wondered, and still wonder. I wonder, too: did they have that dedication? Were they at their desks in that somewhat-dark, windowless area all day, reading US News & World Report's College Rankings and decoding it, focusing the entire time? Or were they sitting at their desks and staring blankly at the paper, thinking about that girl they saw at the health club, or how they wished they could be going to the National Zoo and seeing the pandas?

If it's easier to tell these days when workers are distracted, because you can hear Youtube playing Laughing Baby in their office, it's harder to tell how truly devoted to their work, their cause, they are. We can at best imagine that devotion, as I had to imagine it when we went to Gettysburg.

Frank's suggestion of going to Gettysburg was every bit as interesting to me as his other suggestions, not least because I was reading The Killer Angels but also because I thought it would be an impractical trip.

"How will we get there?" I asked.

"We'll drive," Frank said. That put me in a bind and I didn't know what to say, because I couldn't afford a hotel room or anything, and I didn't want to appear to be imposing on him. I couldn't think how to say "I can't take a vacation you know," without appearing needy or stupid, so instead, thinking quickly, I said "How long of a drive is it?"

"Not long," Frank assured me. "Less than two hours."

That startled me. I didn't say anything, but that night, I went and found a map and looked to see how close Pennsylvania was to Washington, and was amazed to see that it was so close; driving to Gettysburg would be no more difficult than driving to Madison from Milwaukee, it seemed, even though it seemed to me like it should be farther, like driving to Pennsylvania should be harder, and driving from Washington to Gettysburg should take longer.

On the day in question, Frank picked Eden and me up at the dorms and we set off, a cloudy gray morning driving through the boring countryside of Maryland and then Pennsylvania. I watched the ride, eagerly, recallling what I'd read of the civil war in the book and what I'd learned about it class. I'd never been to a real battlefield before, and had no idea what to expect. Monuments, I supposed: graves and markers and posts and statues.

That wasn't what was at Gettysburg, really. The town itself was about as I'd pictured it: a small town with a kind-of-run-down feel. Not "run down" like "Appalachian mining town after the mine closed" but "run down" like old, and not paid much attention to anymore. The Battle of Gettysburg was only about 130 years old at the time I went there, but it was already fading from the national consciousness, replaced by the modern era and bigger battles, more immediate images. World War II, with D-Day and Pearl Harbor and the Blitzkrieg, was larger than the Civil War, and Vietnam provided images more indelible than the words-on-paper that have described the Civil War to us, and it was easy to see, as we drove in, that the world was forgetting about Gettysburg.

Lincoln had said, in his address, that "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."

That is only partially true. The world can, and is, forgetting, what was done at Gettysburg, forgetting it as easily as I forget Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, remembering only bits and pieces of it, just as the world remembers only bits and pieces of Gettysburg and its battle, too, now.

I know what Lincoln meant, why he was saying that, though, because I've stood where he stood and knew what he knew. When we arrived at Gettysburg, the battle field itself, the sight was in one sense, unremarkable. It's a field. It's a field with some hills around it, and, on that particular day, a field with some hills around it and everything gray and wet and cold. It wasn't raining, not quite, but it wasn't dry, not quite, either. The air seemed wet and heavy and freezing, the water seeping into clothes and skin and hair and chilling me, little by little, as we walked around and looked at the cannons and the soldier statues that dotted the hillside and the field here and there.

Unremarkable, and cold. It was the cold that I remember, most, as a physical feeling. I remember getting colder and colder until I felt like I might never warm up again, my feet icy cold and getting numbed, my teeth actually chattering a little bit. Even later on, at Frank's house for dinner with him and his wife and Dave, in the yellow glow of their lights and the home-cooked meal, I still felt cold, and I can still feel it to this day, the way I felt that day. When I get cold, these days, I think back to that day and the ride from Gettysburg, sitting in the back of Frank's car with my wet shoes and wet socks and wet head and chill, watching the Pennsylvania countryside roll by.

But that's not what Lincoln was talking about, and that's not what's understood by standing at Gettysburg.

At Gettysburg, over three days, Union soldiers, outnumbered, lines the hills and tried to keep Confederate troops from advancing. At Gettysburg, over three days, Union soldiers took to the hills that surround the battlefield and shot at Confederate soldiers, who shot back. At Gettysburg, on the third day of the battle, the Union soldiers in a line on Cemetary Hill were attacked by 12,500 Confederate soldiers who lined up and marched forward, trying to break the Union lines, who held fast in the face of a vast and disciplined attack force, an attack force that fought with honor for a dishonorable cause.

At Gettysburg, 46,000 Americans died, in 3 days. That is 10 men every minute of every day for three days, or an American dying every 6 seconds. For three days.

At Gettysburg, many of them died as they sat on the hills where I walked, as they walked across the field where I walked. They sat on the hills and marched across those fields while bullets and cannonballs filled the air with what Kurt Vonnegut called "the incredible artificial weather that Earthlings sometimes create for other Earthlings when they don't want those other Earthlings to inhabit Earth any more."

Those soldiers were dedicated to their jobs. It's hard to imagine them surfing the Internet, or thinking about groceries they have to get on the way home, or just staring off into space and wondering how much longer the day is going on. Their mind probably drifted, I think, sometimes, when they weren't shooting or getting shot at, but it would have drifted to important things: to wives and children and mothers and fathers that were waiting for them, who would want them to shoot straight, and duck, and live. And their minds were likely called back, immediately to the moment they were in, to the moment that would extend, forever and ever for as long as the earth was still there.

It is impossible to walk around Gettysburg and not feel them there. It is impossible to walk around Gettysburg and not imagine those soldiers, sitting and marching and shooting and getting shot and dying. It is impossible not to feel the weight of them as you walk, and that is how I know what Lincoln meant when he said the world can never forget what was done at Gettysburg. People may not remember Gettysburg when they learn about it in school, but if they go there in person, they will never forget it. It sinks into the spirit the way the cold sunk into my skin, and it stays there forever after.

That's what I remember about Gettysburg, and it made as much of an impact on me as anything else I did that spring of 1994. More of an impact than almost everything else, because while I have difficulty remembering names and faces and the order of events, I have no difficulty, even now, remembering the goosebumps I got as I stared across that battlefield and tried to imagine how it looked as a man died every 6 seconds. History will not forget, and I can't.

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