The other day, my partner asked me where I wanted to go for vacation this summer. I just smiled at her. She knew my answer…it has been the same answer I have given to that question since I was ten years old.
You see, back when I was that young, I visited the retired editor of our small town’s newspaper. Perk Steffen, in addition to his newspaper career, was also the oldest living bailiff in Minnesota. But neither of those reasons drew me to his house every Saturday afternoon. Rather, Perk was a sort of self-made historian. He and I would sit and talk about the Civil War.
Our visits usually started with some music. Perk—a World War I veteran—liked to play old 78s on his stereo. He was recording them all to cassette tape. He would smoke his pipe while we listened. When the songs were done, he would turn to me and ask, “Did you read last week’s book?”
Each Saturday, Perk would pull a volume from his library and send it home with me. Each book covered some facet, regiment or battle of the Civil War. When I returned the following Saturday, it would be a topic of our talks. But these weren’t dreary history lessons…Perk had lived a lot of history and boy, did he have stories.
When Perk was a young boy, he used to pester “Captain Harris” the same way I pestered Perk. Captain Harris had been in Co. B, 2nd Wisconsin Infantry (of the famous Iron Brigade). Young Perk would the Captain to tell stories about the First Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.
When Perk grew up, he joined the Minnesota National Guard. When the State sent troops to Texas and hence, into Mexico for the “Punitive Expedition”, Perk was in the ranks. And when those State troops were sent to France to fight the Kaiser, he sailed across as well. So Perk had stories…not just second-hand stories from an old Iron Brigade soldier, but stories of his own. As a ten-year-old, I sat enthralled as he talked. I studied his white bushy eyebrows, breathed in the smoke from his pipe and just let my eyes wander over the floor-to-ceiling book shelves.
More than any single topic, we discussed the Battle of Gettysburg. Being a Minnesota, I came to believe that a handful of my State’s soldiers saved the Union line –and therefore, the nation–on July 2, 1863 (I still believe that, by the way!). We talked about General Reynolds falling on the first day of the battle. We talked about the Iron Brigade charging into the Railroad gap and studied maps of where Lee squandered the strength of the Army of Northern Virginia in Pickett’s ill-conceived attack over open land.
By the end of each visit, my head was swimming with images of the Civil War and, in particular, Gettysburg. Perk had been there in the 1930s and told me of the monuments and the vastness of land dedicated to those who fought. He told me about Jenny Wade’s house, Meade’s headquarters, Cemetery Ridge, the Seminary and the Round Tops. I wanted nothing more, than to go to Gettysburg.
And Perk wanted me to go.
One day, I noticed that Perk stopped at our store and was talking to my Dad. That was unusual. Perk’s wife, Helen, did the shopping. He never came to the store. But, I knew enough to know that I had to mind my own business. If Dad or Perk wanted me to know what was discussed, they would tell me.
A couple of weeks later during one of our talks, I mentioned to Perk, “I sure wish I will go to Gettysburg some day.” He paused, pulled out his pipe and he said, “I might be wrong, but I think you will.” I put two and two together and decided he and my Dad had conspired to send me to Gettysburg.
Looking back, I can see I was a bit optimistic…I was only 10 years old! My folks were not going to put me on a bus with a note pinned to my coat that said, “Take this boy to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.” But, I was a kid, and as kids go, I was probably a whole lot more self-centered than most. I truly did think the world revolved around me. It was totally plausible to me that my folks would be saving money and ignoring the needs of their other four children just so I could attain my lifelong- (albeit only 10 years of life) dream of going to Gettysburg.
When the school year was drawing to a finish, the question came up at our supper table during desert one evening: “Where would you kids like to go for vacation?” Well, I was the youngest of five and my turn to answer was last. Tom was getting ready for college. He didn’t want to go anywhere. Celine had her pets to tend, and she liked working at the store. She was happy to stay home. Joe was our family jock—he was already deep into high school baseball and the American Legion team would be starting at the end of classes. Obviously, he didn’t want to go anywhere. Jim, well Jim had his own world. A genius of sorts, he was into spelunking—dropping down into caves and exploring. He just wanted to go to some caves around our home (there are plenty in the bluffs of Southeast Minnesota to keep a spelunker busy all summer). Finally, it was my turn to answer. “I WANT TO GO TO GETTYSBURG!”
The whole family just stopped eating their chocolate pudding and stared at me. Their thoughts probably ranged from, “What the hell is wrong with this kid” to “Clearly the boy is obsessed”.
I believed it was possible. After all, I had seen Perk talking to Dad. They had to be talking about me and my desire—nay, my need—to go to Gettysburg. This family meeting was the golden opportunity to close the deal.
The folks stared at me, then at each other. My brother Jim tried to take my pudding. Celine started clearing the table. What was happening? Why did no one respond? “I WANT TO GO TO GETTYSBURG!” I repeated, sensing tears beginning to well up. “Maybe someday,” my Mom attempted to consoled me. “I WANT TO GO TO GETTYSBURG”, I bellowed for a third time, this time the tears actually cresting their natural barriers and streaming down my cheeks. But it didn’t matter. Just like General Lee’s grim realization on July 3, 1863, as he watched General Pickett’s troops faltering under withering fire before even reaching the half-way point in their attack against the entrenched Union soldiers, I knew the battle was lost. There was to be no trip to Gettysburg.
I felt betrayed. Betrayed by my belief that everything went my way. Betrayed by the notion that everyone was focusing on my interests. Betrayed by the self-awareness that I was NOT the center of everything.
To this day, I don’t know what Perk and Dad discussed. Perk has been gone many years, though I visit his grave and talk with him still. He just doesn’t have any more stories to share.
Dad hints that discussion revolved on “what was best for John”. Maybe Perk recognized that I was becoming a little too obsessed with the Civil War. Perhaps, he felt I needed to expand my interests. I know that was a topic that had upset my Dad for some time. He was always badgering me to read something “other than Civil War books”. I dunno. Maybe they were just talking about the weather.
That summer, we did take a family trip. The older kids were too involved in their lives to go, but Mom, Dad, Jim and I drove from Caledonia, Minnesota to Terre Haute, Indiana. Along the way, we stopped at General Grant’s home in Galena, Illinois, President Lincoln’s home and tomb in Springfield, Illinois, and Lincoln’s town of his teenage years, New Salem, Illinois. I saw plenty of Civil War items in museums, monuments and cannons in parks to satiate my Civil War appetite. I even bought my first of many felt kepis (which I wore everyday for the entire summer). It was my very first “Civil War vacation”.
So when Diane asked me where I wanted to go this summer, you know my answer—“GETTYSBURG!”
She didn’t reply.
I think we are going to Maine.
Recognize your passion and follow them (or her),
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine