Standing at the road side in the hot July sun in Gettysburg, it gives me a certain guilty pleasure to think about Greenberry Callahan, Robin’s Confederate great-great-great grandfather, at the bottom of that hill, and John Learey, my immigrant American great-great-great grandfather, trying to shoot him again and again from the top of it.
In front of us are a large group of sixteen motorcyclists, their big beards and big hair moving gently in the oscillating breeze ruffling down from between the two adjacent hills, Little Round Top and Big Round Top. One of them holds an oversized Dixie battle flag as his wife steps off their motorcycle, which lurches down and rebounds from her absence. The back of his sleeveless black shirt declares in white gothic letters that “If you can read this, the bitch fell off.”
She lights up a cigarette, looks out over the field.
We’re on a road trip across America, into the heart of it. Mountains and plains and lakes and deserts and roadside sandwiches and fresh hot coffee. It feels more Kerouac than Whitman, but then again, so do I. Yesterday, on assignment we photographed a wonderful poet who is deaf and we put on quite the stage play while I, who also am hard of hearing thanks to the Army, try foolishly to speak slowly and use pidgin sign language to inform her that yes, I’d like to blast you in the face with a leaf blower and yes, I mean it and, a few minutes later, thank you for doing that. She understands me fine without the theatrics. Afterwords, we want nothing more than to stay, drink tea, and know we can and should but leave anyway. We eat at a seven dollar steak buffet, sleep in the back of the car in a Walmart parking lot, and wake up early the next morning for a big diner breakfast of the only thing I liked about boot camp, a dish called Shit on a Shingle that tastes as good as I think it sounds.
We’re the first people in the battlefield visitor center when it opens at 0800; we’ve been driving around for an hour and a half, soaking in the cool early summer morning air that’s still got the genetic memory of spring dew in it. I ask a park ranger, a peppery young woman with her Smokey the Bear hat lying on the counter, if she can help me find the monument to the regiment of Robin’s people, and of mine, and after checking an index book she pulls out a big map and traces her finger across it once, and then again, and tells me that the two men were on opposite sides of a thing called Pickett’s Charge. It is the most important moment in the history of war on the American continent, but most people have never heard of it. It goes like this, stripped down to its skin: the Confederates, fighting for slavery, were winning the war, and a bunch of their guys were in a field at the bottom of a hill. They ran across it, giving their earnest all to kill all the guys at the top of the hill. The guys at the top of the hill killed them first. The Confederacy was forever lost, and the world was forever changed.
The two of them were not different. Both had hard lives, small children, wives far away that they surely longed to touch. One presumes they did their very best trying to kill one another.
I think about gray-clad Greenberry. I think about him in the campsites, buttoned up into a tender coil with four other fellows under a canvas tarp saddled between gaunt, unfamiliar trees. Poor, unpoliticked and slaveless, they are waiting to die for a cause whose feelings on them are, at best, indifferent. The old south will not scratch at their absence, once they’re amputated.
In the smallest hours, he rubs his valleyed face, he drinks black chicory water in the pitch darkness, he yearns for pecan pie, he dreams of one-day mornings of flapjacks with fresh butter and felling trees and making love. He tries, and fails, to picture his mother.
Companies of gaelic immigrants with rifles and cannons, who miss their wives and girlfriends and boyfriends and mothers, stand at the top of the hill as he runs up at it; shot cracks and shells boom around him. A horse falls on him, another man digs him out and falls on him, too. That night, he sleeps alone.
My ancestor in blue at the top of the hill is retired that night to a Union hospital- he has been gut-shot, but, like Greenberry, will live long enough to die young —though as far as the universe is concerned, we all do.
When Greenberry does die, a thousand miles away from the room he was born in, they dig a hole in the cold soil wide enough for one but deep enough for four, as six men lower him down into the land he loved unrequitedly. A small nylon flag is today pinched into the loam he’s become.
The motorcycles rev up, put-put-put-stutter, and the ‘bitch’ unfalls onto it, looks at us, lets out a big grinny smile, takes her husband’s giant rebel flag in her hand. In America, we are all forced to continue living the lives of men we never knew.
That night, when I become just too tired to go on, I pull off the road in the rain, park it inside a group of gaunt, unfamiliar trees, put a mattress pad in the back of the car. Getting ready to sleep, we argue about the radio: she is sick of my damn stump-jumping redneck-ass country music, I am tired of her sappy, insipid show tunes, and we are stuck in a car together for the next four weeks. We compromise on jazz. We tune to Louie Armstrong, of Louisiana and Queens, before turning that off, too, and curling into each other. We nod off with the windows open, sleeping to the deep, sad lowing of wet cows.
When we wake the next morning, it is the fourth of July.
BIO: B.A. Van Sise is an internationally-known photographer and the author of the visual poetry anthology “Children of Grass.” He spends roughly 40 weeks of the year on the road in a small hatchback car, shooting assignments and long term projects with his wife Robin, usually sleeping under the stars. His visual and written work has previously appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Washington Post and Buzzfeed, as well as major museum exhibitions throughout the United States. www.bavansise.com