from Gettysburg to Iceland, D.C.


Posted on November 16, 2010 by Blake Leath

This past Tuesday, November 9th, was a most contradictory day.

Ask me what I think of it, and I'm not quite sure...yet.  As they say, "Ask a writer what he thinks and he will reply, 'I won't know until I've written about it.'"

The day was an array of emotions, from grave to uplifting and tragic to beautiful.  In short, twelve brief hours were spent on a Staff Ride with U.S. Army War College professors touring Gettysburg--and I concluded my day at 10:30pm packed like a sardine among Georgetown students at a Jonsi (of Sigur Ros) post-rock concert.

Of course, any attempt on my behalf to more adequately summarize Gettysburg would be adolescent, so I will simply say:

1. 11-09-10 will go down in history as one of my most significant learning experiences.

2. The courage, commitment and collaboration of the tens of thousands who fought and died on that hallowed ground are...and I'm sorry for repeating myself, both sobering and awe-inspiring.

3. I had no idea (until I walked so far that my back, knees, ankles and feet ached and throbbed) how large...massive...sprawling the campaign grounds were.

4. To hear stories of soliders who walked 30+ miles in the day prior only to engage in a deafening 3-day series of battles in which they would lose cousins, brothers, fathers, sons and friends-in-arms in some of the most brutal and horrific fighting of the to learn of things which defy description and complete understanding.

I simply cannot articulate it satisfactorily: the sturm und drang, the blood, the waste, the noise, the smoke, the adrenaline, the fear, the bravery, the foreboding silence that accompanied Lee's men in their last approach.  Our group walked that final mile in real-time, approximately twenty minutes.  Five minutes into it, the end becomes clear--one is in a topographic bowl and there is no turning back and no getting out--alive.  Approximately 10,500 Confederate soldiers were reduced to hundreds in a matter of yards.

The ground ran red, and many more battles were to come for those few who inexplicably escaped.

On the long, reverent, eerily quiet bus ride back to D.C., we were each possessed by introspection, fatigue and emotions.  A sense of hollowness, thinness and history, an appreciation of things worth fighting and dying for--and of battles that ended in fields 145 years ago yet which continue to this day across the social tapestry of our country and the world at large.



Two hours and one long, additional, personal cab ride later, I find myself in the 9:30 Club in D.C. at the food counter visiting with three twenty-somethings about my order.  In a matter of minutes, a small crowd of 80 becomes standing-room-only for 600, all of whom--like me--are transported once again.

Since the first time I heard Sigur Ros on the Sundance Channel, their music has haunted me.  It is melodious and ethereal, quiet and powerful.

Jonsi, the inscrutable and eccentric lead singer, is only 2 nights away from returning to Europe.  He plays here tonight and I know that he departs for NYC tomorrow, the 10th, and then returns to launch his final leg in Belgium on November 21st.  The entire crowd knows this too, of course, and co-creates what must be one of the sweetest send-offs.  I was, in fact, absolutely blown away by the serenity of the crowd--and the utter absence of smoke that might otherwise explain it.



For ninety timeless minutes, undergraduate and graduate students, vegans, young urban hipsters, white collar professionals, several dozen older couples and a mosaic that represents the U.S. in the heart of D.C. stands enraptured at the sublime nature of it all.  The set is, by turns, so quiet one can barely hear it and then so loud my sternum reverberates for one hour after returning to my hotel room.

When it is all said and done, we pour from that collegial tin can and fan out across D.C. like old friends, many of us catching rides or cabs to nowhere.

By midnight I find myself practically alone, enveloped in the silence of the night and accompanied only by the memories of gunshot and powder, life and death and the thump-thump-thumping of massive overhead speakers carrying Hopelandic and Icelandic lyrics through strobing lights and across fog-machine puffs.

Even now, nearly a week later, I'm not quite sure how to further process or internalize to reconcile its disparateness or incorporate it into my being.  Sure, one could argue it was "just a walk and a concert," but I know better. 

Maybe it comes down to this, or something like it: I am amazed at what human beings are capable of, both in their beliefs and in their creations.  The breadth of human accomplishment is astounding and humbling and the diversity of our beliefs and creations often defies description.

A day bookended there by the gravity of war, heroism and loss...and here by peace, cordiality and hope among strangers.

I'd say, "only in America," but I've lived too long and done too much to believe, naively, that such experiences are anything but universal.

Unique, perhaps, but nonetheless representative of any great experience that transcends nationality and reminds us what it is to be alive, for however long, and to cherish the brevity and meaning of it all.