I Had A Dream I Stood Beneath An Orange Sky

(Last year’s Memorial Day piece. This year’s, too.

(for and from ala)

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Please do not forget anything that you take with you.

                                                              —automated announcement, Beijing taxicab

One of the key indicators that I do indeed too often dwell in what William Burroughs identified as “an annex of Hell” is the local radio newsperson. He labors out here in the sticks, in the near-invisible bush leagues, but he is in his heart a Fox person—his station a Fox affiliate. I suppose his way of feeling as One with those far-off Fox mandarins who don’t even know he is alive is to endeavor ebulliently al-ways to out-Fox Fox. Thus, there is nothing too mental to come out of this man’s mouth. Nothing.

This man was on the air the morning that President Obama convened his extraordinary and unprecedented press conference to Stop The Madness. Obama deploying his long-form birth certificate as a sort of seawall, to break the tsunami of maniacal jabberers roiling with Knowledge that Obama is a nefarious foreign-born Manchurian Muslim out to outrage all that is America.

This man’s radio station aired Obama’s “Yes, I Am Not A Not-Person” statement, in its entirety, live. The man himself then returned to the microphone to declaim that Obama had just said things that he had not, in fact, said. Words were put into Obama’s mouth; words were taken out of his mouth. And the sense of all these omissions and commissions was that Questions Still Remained as to whether Obama might not truly be a nefarious foreign-born Manchurian Muslim out to outrage all that is America.

It was a jaw-dropping performance. I mean, mere moments had passed since we’d heard the words from the president himself. All had been recorded; the thing itself was even then available for playback to anyone with access to an intertube. Other tubes already bore transcripts of Obama’s words. Yet this “news”man was boldly, methodically laying a track along which chugged an alternative reality.

It’s not like it was November 19, 1863, and this man was one of the newshounds burdened with receiving those remarks of Abraham Lincoln that would sometime thereafter become known as “The Gettysburg Address.” Those people had no tape recorders, no video machines. They had but pad and paper; fingers, ears, and brains. With the latter trio not working at all well.

Sobriety has never really been a virtue prized among American newspeople. But on this day drink had cast down reporters into nearly Job-like suffering. Because the night before they had consumed truly massive quantities of whiskey, enough to today fell even a human ox like Keith Richards. Too, they had compounded their enervation by goatishly disporting in various and sundry other ways.

The dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg would for these men, then, be a balloon-headed, sweat-pouring, limb-palsied, throat-clenching, world-spinning ordeal. All of their powers would be required simply to live. Before Lincoln took the stage, these wraiths already had been subjected to shriekingly loud horn-band music, the somnambulent drone of prayers, and a two-hour-plus oration from Edward Everett that is now regarded as one of the most thuddingly dull assemblages of verbiage ever inflicted upon a living audience.

And Everett was not the featured speaker. Lincoln was. So, it was expected that the president would pour forth even more words than had Everett. Having barely survived the blatting din of the horns, the rousing god-flogging, and Everett’s boundless oratorical crematorium, these men, watching Lincoln stride to center stage, dejectedly concluded that yes, truly, they might slide into unconsciousness, before ever they could even awake.

Little wonder then that some among them misapprehended the first words out of Lincoln’s mouth as something along the lines of “Four sores, and seven beers ago . . . .”

In anticipation of the cemetery dedication, Gettysburg had bloated with visitors that expanded the population to four times its accustomed size. On the morning of November 19, a procession of these people trudged towards the cemetery, raggedly forming on Baltimore Street, then moving towards Emmitsburg Road, lined with white pine coffins, piled high, awaiting internment. The air heavy with the smell of rotting horses, who lay still where they had fallen, more than four months before.

The reporters had badgered Lincoln’s people for a preview copy of his speech, but these factotums had declined to provide one. When the suffering newsmen saw Lincoln withdraw from his pocket but a single sheet of paper, they despaired. This meant he would speak extemporaneously. And the reporters would be forced to take down every word. Truly, they were in Hell.

They tried to do their best, but they could not. The booze-reduced Philadelphia Inquirer scribe, for instance, seemed to project his own condition into the president’s mouth: “We owe this suffering to our dead. We imbibe increased devotion to that cause.”

Charles Hale of the Boston Advertiser reported that Lincoln had vowed “the world will never forbid what they did here.” The Philadelphia Press decided that Lincoln had noted “we are met on a general battlefield.” The Associated Press presented a Lincoln who referenced “the refinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried on,” and concluded he hadn’t really said “poor” in “our poor power to add or detract.” And so on.

There is in truth no way of knowing for certain precisely what words Lincoln spoke that November afternoon, that are today known as “The Gettysburg Address.”

In Bohemian Brigade, Louis M. Starr’s ceaselessly entertaining account of the lives and libations of Civil War correspondents, the author, working from contemporary accounts, pieces together what he believes to be the closest possible approximation of the actual address.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We are met to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place of those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense we cannot dedidcate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Whatever Lincoln might have precisely said that day, of one thing we can be certain: it was a lie.

In 1962, World War II South Pacific combat veteran James Jones had recently completed The Thin Red Line. While struggling with this novel, based on his experiences on Guadalcanal—a struggle that involved upending more bottles than had occupied the newsmen at Gettysburg, in pursuit of memories and emotions soul-searing to revisit—Jones had come to an inner understanding that:

[T]he dead, frozen like flies in plastic, realized—at the moment of death, when of course they stopped—that humanity must grow to feeling, to empathy, or become extinct.

But the dead cannot speak.

And so, Jones determined to speak for them.

In 1962, visiting America from his home in France, Jones was invited by his friend William Styron to accompany him on a private tour of the White House, conducted by a high panjandrum in the Kennedy Administration. Jones might also visit the DC-area battlefield memorials erected to commemorate the Civil War, a conflict Jones had brooded on all his life.

And thus it was that Jones went out to Antietam, where he walked the grounds of “Bloody Lane.”

The experience rocked him. As Styron relates:

A rather innocuous-looking place now, he said, a mere declivity in the landscape, sheltered by a few trees. But there, almost exactly a century before, some of the most horrible carnage in the history of warfare had taken place, thousands of men on both sides dead within a few hours. The awful shambles was serene now, but the ghosts were still there, swarming.

Styron next moved the subdued Jones to the Lincoln Memorial, that titanic faux temple of Zeus. Styron again:

Jim’s face was set like a slab, his expression murky and aggrieved, as we stood on the marble reading the Gettysburg Address engraved against one lofty wall, slowly scanning those words of supreme magnanimity and conciliation and brotherhood dreamed by the fellow Illinoisian whom Jim had venerated, as almost everyone does, for transcendental reasons that needed not to be analyzed or explained in such a sacred hall. I suppose I was expecting the conventional response from Jim, the pious hum. But his reaction, soft-spoken, was loaded with savage bitterness, and for an instant it was hard to absorb. “It’s just beautiful bullshit,” he blurted. “They all died in vain. They all died in vain. And they always will!”

Styron and Jones completed their journey, with the people in the Kennedy White House. The significance of the juxtaposition of the visits to Antietam, the Lincoln Memorial, and the White House, did not strike Styron until some years later. By which time Jones was dead.

Many years went by before I happened to reflect on that day, and to consider this: that in the secret cellars of the White House, in whose corridors we were soon being shepherded around pleasantly, the ancient mischief was newly germinating. There were doubtless all sorts of precursory activities taking place which someday would confirm Jim’s fierce prophecy: heavy cable traffic to Saigon, directives beefing up advisory and support groups, ominous memos on Diem and the Nhus, orders to units of the Green Berets. The shadow of Antietam, and of all those other blind upheavals, was falling on our own times.

In the way of time, Styron had already provided, in 1952, a coda to Jones’ 1962 Cassandra call at the Lincoln Memorial. In his novella The Long March. A work autobiographical, drawn from Styron’s experiences when called up as a reserve for the “police action” in Korea. During maneuvers in the Carolinas, artillery rounds that had been allowed to rust in the rain since the cessation of WWII “fall short” onto a group of soldiers gathered in line for chow. Three officers arrive to assess the damage.

One boy’s eyes lay gently closed, and his long dark lashes were washed in tears, as though he had cried himself to sleep. As they bent over him they saw that he was very young, and a breeze came up from the edges of the swamp, bearing with it a scorched odor of smoke and powder, and touched the edges of his hair. A lock fell across his brow with a sort of gawky, tousled grace, as if preserving even in that blank and mindless repose some gesture proper to his years, a callow charm. Around his curly head grasshoppers darted among the weeds. Below, beneath the slumbering eyes, his face had been blasted out of sight. Culver looked up and met Mannix’s gaze. The Captain was sobbing helplessly. He cast an agonized look toward the Colonel, standing across the field, then down again at the boy, then at Culver. “Won’t they ever let us alone, the sons of bitches,” he murmured, weeping. “Won’t they ever let us alone?”

While marooned on this crazy stone, Kenneth Patchen saw this:

It’s simple. There’s nothing at all complicated about it.

War—There won’t be war when you decide you won’t murder other human beings.

You cannot hate without hating all; and you cannot kill some without killing all—because the welfare of any man is the welfare of all men. Through violence men are made to enslave and murder one another; through violence the world has been turned into this unimaginable hell; through violence the rulers of this hell are enabled to maintain their positions.

Have you ever looked at a man?

There is something helpless and majestic about a man.

If you believed in anything, you could not kill a man.

A man has two legs. He’ll build a house—from cellar to rooftop, with his own hands. He’ll put seeds in the ground. He’ll watch the sun and the rain at work. He’ll take a woman to bed. He’ll find enough tenderness and love to get him through the day. You’d think that man deserved a little something. You’d think that man was worthy of a jot or two of sympathy and consideration. You’d think that maybe someone would say, Let’s just let him alone for a while, and see what he can do.

They try to fix it so nobody’ll care what happens to a man anymore.
I don’t mean millions—I mean any one man anywhere.
If anything is worth anything it’s because one man is worth something.
If any one man isn’t worth something, then nothing whatever is worth anything.
It’s all got to come back to any one man anywhere or it isn’t going anywhere.
Don’t tell me how interested in Confucius or Jesus Christ you are.
Tell me how interested in any one man anywhere you are.
You don’t get it.
You’d cry.
You’d cry if you could feel that.
It’s all got to come back to one man or it isn’t going anywhere at all.

This house. Do you see this house?
It is a house where human beings live.
There is a strange dignity about them.
They are looking at you as I talk.
I want you to leave them alone.

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