Wednesday, March 4, 2015


For twenty years I lived where past and present visibly intersected.  You might legitimately protest that we all do; that natural and man-made artifacts from prior times always surround us, if we are alive to their presence.  But I stress the modifier visibly.  I could literally see the past, and feel it too. My home was in Arlington, Virginia, a busy suburb of the nation's capital, crisscrossed by highways and Metro lines, occluded with residential developments, buttressed by the glittering high-rises of Crystal City.  But only a few steps from my front yard was a system of old earthworks, since overgrown with forest, which had been dug by Confederate troops during the Civil War to defend Northern Virginia from the then-enemy city of Washington, D.C., just across the Potomac River. Often I strolled among the old ivy-choked fortifications, imagining the trenches filled with soldiers in gray and butternut anxiously gazing across the broad river for signs of troop movements amid the docks of Georgetown.

The office where I worked was located on the other side of the Potomac in an old Washington neighborhood near the Capitol that has come to be known as Chinatown.  There I often lunched in an Asian restaurant that had once been the home of Mrs. Mary Surratt and her boarder John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.  Within a few blocks stood Ford's Theater, where Booth shot Lincoln.  Also close by was the Old Patent Building whose top-floor gallery had once served as a hospital for Union wounded; it had also hosted Lincoln's second inaugural ball.  Although my work as a lobbyist engaged me in the comparatively trivial, certainly perishable and unhistoric business of securing federal funding for various clients and projects, I was also, in the privacy of my home, a writer and historian, and I found the proximity of these landmarks fascinating and stimulating.  I spent many a lunch hour exploring them and, given my bent, was profoundly aware of, and even ashamed of, the contrast between my inconsiderable daily strivings amid surroundings where such momentous and tragic events had once occurred.

Furthermore, Lyon Village, the residential neighborhood where I lived, was in easy driving distance of Northern Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and battlefields like New Market, Cedar Creek, Port Republic and Winchester.  Not far away lay the sites of First and Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg and others.  At convenient distances in different directions lay the preserved battlefields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Seven Days, Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor; and westward was Appomattox, where Lee surrendered to Grant.  I often visited these places too.  They brought me nearer to the experience of the past, though that closeness was always darkened by an awareness of the immeasurable tragedy they had seen.  And I felt sure that some essence of those events still lingered, like a very faint reverberation, even as I walked on the same ground.

In intimate contact with this deep, deep, still-living history, I sensed my own, if transient and unimportant, position in the long flow of time.  I also felt the fixity of physical place in time; time had flown but the ground remained.  The very earth I trod, men long dead had also trod; I lived where they had dwelled, where some of them had died.  They and I were in intimate communication across the gulf of time.

More recently I sensed the immediacy and danger of the past on a visit to the old silver-mining boom town of Leadville in my wife Ruth's native Colorado.  We were touring the home of some mining magnate of the 1870's whose name I no longer recall.  In a dim hallway hung photographic portraits of the former residents, a bearded gentleman and his wife.  As I studied their pictures I received a sudden, disorienting, near-nauseating shock--an impression so powerful that I knew it to be true--of some appalling unhappiness that had afflicted them.  The sensation was so overwhelming and so disturbing that I feared I might faint; I had to leave the mansion and sit on the porch so the impression of their pain would dissipate.

I never learned whether in fact the couple had experienced such distraction and sorrow.  I didn't need to confirm it; I had felt it.  Later that night I experienced something else--a waking dream, a nightmare, a vision, I know not what, I know only that it was as palpable and as frightening as actuality--of being in a smoky, dimly-lamplit nineteenth-century saloon.  A hulking man in a bowler hat and heavy clothing approached me and I saw in his face an implacable, irresistible hatred and sensed that he was intent on doing hurt to me--possibly lethal hurt--and I could not under any circumstances turn aside this inexplicable wrath; it was a glimpse of pure, reasonless, merciless hostility.  And it came to me that this was the face of irresistible danger of a kind natural to the frontier where one could rarely rely on law or decency--it was the causeless violence I often wrote about but had never confronted for myself.  What made the experience even stranger was that, even as I had this vision, through an open window in the house next door I heard a man's voice roaring with rage and, stranger still, his voice was accompanied by a high-pitched keening sound, a kind of hieratic, dirge-like chanting that told me the past was beyond any reasoning or safety, was in fact unapproachable and past any understanding.  The impression soon passed, but I knew that I had received two glimpses that day into a past that I understood I would never have survived, had I lived then.  The past then became for me a place to be respected and perhaps feared and that I would probably never completely understand no matter how long I tried, in my writing, to imagine its reality.