Embracing (sort of) the legend of my travel jinx

I started my last blog post saying that I believe in facts, not jinxes. That bears repeating after this tweet from my traveling companion:

Here are the facts:

  • I tweet a lot.
  • I travel a lot.
  • Travel often sucks, but not always.
  • One tweet is sufficient to say that you arrived on time.
  • A travel delay prompts more tweets.

When flights or trains arrive on time with no problems, one tweet suffices:

My tweeps yawn, if they notice at all. But a delay needs a little explanation and, well, I have time to explain. If the delay lasts hours because of a fatality on the tracks, I livetweet the whole thing. People retweet and spread the word and a Twitter mini-legend is born. Continue reading

My companion brings a dark cloud to Yankee games

Yankee Stadium rainbow

A rainbow is a traditional symbol of promise, unless it means my companion is taking her seat at Yankee Stadium.

I don’t believe in jinxes. But I do believe in facts, and a long-established fact in our family has been that the Yankees never win when my traveling companion is in the ballpark. Ever.

So I was a little concerned about taking her with me to new Yankee Stadium this week to watch the Yankees and Rays play. But I had never been in the ballpark (I know it’s a few years old now, but it’ll always be new Yankee Stadium, won’t it?) and hadn’t seen the Yankees play live for a few years. So we got Yankees tickets because, all kidding aside, I really don’t believe in jinxes. Besides, if you believed the weather forecast, we might not see a game at all.

We have a bit of a dispute about how many times she has seen the Yankees play. When we lived in Kansas City, I had part of a season-ticket package for the Royals, and traded tickets with others to see as many Yankee games as possible when they visited. Our three sons accompanied me to some of those games, but their Mom also claimed her share of the tickets. I figure she attended a game a year, which would be seven games in all. She claims it was one or two. Whatever it was, she never saw the Yankees win. Continue reading

New York, New York

For this trip, my companion and I decided to take the Amtrak’s Acela from Washington, D.C. up to New York City. True, we do live only minutes away from the giant Dulles airport, and it’s also true that the air shuttle isn’t terribly more expensive than train tickets. And fighting weekday traffic into the city’s Union Station was a hassle. But once on board, it seemed like a pure pleasure compared to the hurly-burly of airport screening. No stripping down for the metal detectors, no loading/unloading all our electronic devices. On top of that, the seats are roomier and there’s no limit to what you can carry on.

So the trip up was great. The trip back … well, I’ll get to that later. Continue reading

Antietam: Monuments should depict the killing fields

The Dunker Church at Antietam National Battlefield

Dan Buttry

Our visits to historic sites this week made me think of family. At the Eisenhower farm, I thought of Dad, like Ike a military man and a painter. At the Gettysburg battlefield, I recalled an earlier visit with Mom. At the Antietam battlefield, I thought of my pacifist brother, Dan.

In my last post, I recounted the mixed feelings I felt in Gettysburg, recoiling at the madness of war while admiring the valor of those who fought. But somewhere in a weekend of several hundred monuments at our nation’s two bloodiest battlefields, the madness won out over the valor.

I think it was at the Dunker Church. A pacifist Baptist Church in the middle of a battlefield made me think of my pacifist Baptist brother.

I come from a family of ministers. Dad was an Air Force chaplain, then an American Baptist pastor. After Dad died in 1978, Mom went to seminary and became an American Baptist minister herself. My younger brother, Don, is a lay minister. He didn’t attend seminary but was ordained by his Southern Baptist congregation after several years as a youth leader. It was my older brother, Dan, whom I thought of as we walked around the Dunker Church, reading the casualty toll on the various unit monuments.

We grew up living on and around Air Force bases. Though Dad was peaceful, we grew up with a strong military orientation. For a stretch in the 1960s, Dan’s favorite record was Barry Sadler‘s “Ballads of the Green Berets.” But as Dan grew up and prayed and studied Scripture, he felt called to be a peacemaker. He felt war and violence were immoral. Dan told our father, who had served a career in the military, that he couldn’t join the military, even in a non-violent role such as a chaplain or medic.

Dad told Dan that he needed to follow the call of his conscience, even if he heard a different call than Dad did. So the son of an Air Force lieutenant colonel became a peace missionary. He graduated from seminary in time to make it to Dad’s death bed in 1978.

Bloody Lane.

Dan has followed the call of his conscience around the world, teaching conflict resolution and peacemaking in Burma, Nagaland, Georgia and more countries than I can count. He’s written books about peacemaking and peacemakers.

I thought of Dan again and again as we drove and walked the fields and woods of the bloodiest day in American history (yes, more died at Antietam than on 9/11; Gettysburg was deadlier than Antietam, but its carnage stretched over three days). I wished our nation had more peacemakers and fewer people eager to rush into wars, both in our lifetimes and back when our nation fought this deadly war.

I thought of Dan as my companion and I walked past monument after monument — statues and plaques memorializing the brave men who fell in the cornfield and the sunken road known ever since as Bloody Lane. I wondered if there’s a way to honor the courage of the troops who fight wars without glorifying war itself, as the statues and battle scenes on some monuments do. Do we similarly honor the courage of peacemakers?

The photos of bodies at Antietam are a stark contrast to the erect soldiers on the Antietam monuments. I think war memorials should honor the dead by reminding the living how war turns peaceful fields like those surrounding Antietam Creek into killing grounds too horrific to imagine.

I’d like to see a memorial with bodies stacked in a ditch, like the Matthew Brady photographs from Antietam:

Dan Buttry’s books about peacekeepers and peacemaking:

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Christian Peacemaking: From Heritage to Hope

Peace Ministry: A Handbook for Local Churches

Coming soon: Peace Warrior: A Memoir from the Front

6/3/12 The Haunting Fields Antietam

My grandmother told me once that when she learned about the Civil War in school, the teacher told her that the blood and the horror suffered was God’s punishment because the Founding Fathers allowed slavery to continue when the United States was formed. But I don’t think we can pin the wickedness of slavery and its horrific end on God. The blame rests squarely on humanity, and our infinite ability to be inhuman.

I’d been to Antietam once before. When we arrived at the visitors center, I was aware of a vague, uneasy feeling when we paid our admission and rented a tour CD to play in the car as we drove around to each battle stop. Going down the road, the feeling blossomed to a near panic with ringing ears and sweaty palms. By the time we reached Bloody Lane, I couldn’t get out of the car. Babbling, I tried to explain to my companion what was going on, repeatedly asking, “Don’t you feel that? Don’t you feel some kind of weird vibration?”

No, he didn’t feel it. He was concerned. He was sympathetic. He obviously thought I was crazy.

I’ve wondered ever since if my reaction (or over-reaction, if you prefer) was merely the power of suggestion. I knew Antietam was the single most bloody day of the Civil War. I’d seen the pictures of men’s bodies, piled up like cords of wood. And I knew the claims that ghosts walk there by night. So, when we ended up touring at Gettysburg this weekend, it was my idea that we return to Antietam. I was curious to see if it would happen again.

Gettysburg and Antietam are very different. The battlefields around Gettysburg are not far from the town. The nearby highways are busy. There are more people, more noise. There was only one, brief moment when I could feel a vague rumble of vibration reaching out from the past. (See my post on Gettysburg.)

By contrast, Antietam is quiet – so very quiet. At several of the stops, my companion and I were quite alone. Just me and him, and yes, that strange, deep vibration that raised the hair on the back of my neck and he still couldn’t feel.

There was no panic this time. I expected that I would feel odd while we were there, and this time I was able to get out of the car, read the signs at every stop, and try to understand what happened over those broad, rolling acres. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm, with a strong breeze and bright blue sky. But I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t uncomfortable.

I’m not claiming that I saw any ghosts. All I saw was beautiful countryside. But I do wonder if the energy of that hideous struggle, if the thick aura of violence, still hasn’t quite dissipated after all these years. The valor, the waste, the dauntless courage and the craven depravity – surely they must have left their mark. When I stood down in Bloody Lane, looking up the ravine, knowing the Union soldiers assaulted it over and over, and how desperately the Confederate soldiers held their ground, the vibration seemed nearly to hum with the lingering power of the fight. My ears strained, I was so certain I could catch the sound of it. But no, it was perfectly quiet. There wasn’t even any sound from the birds.

Lee’s army finally withdrew from Antietam Creek, a technical victory for the North, although they actually fought to a draw that day. I tend to think those mighty generals knew that death was the only winner on those bloody fields. It rained down on them, indiscriminate of the colors of their faces or their uniforms. Each one of those men had a life. They had babies to make, or families to raise, parents to see to, or grandchildren to hold. Instead they fell down and died, painfully and horribly and by the thousands. Thousands. The word seemed to echo up the lane.

I found myself thinking of a popular song by Kevin Costner and Modern West called The Angels Came Down. In it, when Costner sings that the angels carry the soldiers’ souls away, one line is: “They left no one and they placed no blame.”

The souls of the men who died there are mercifully gone. God made those rolling hills. It was the hatefulness of man that profaned them. That’s the tragedy that throbs through that beautiful countryside. And that’s what haunts me.


Livetweeting a journalists’ tour of the Gettysburg battlefield

Marc Charisse, Civil War buff and editor of The Evening Sun in Hanover, Pa., and I livetweeted a Gettysburg battlefield tour on June 2.

I blogged my reflections on the battlefield visit (and earlier tours I’ve taken). My companion also blogged about our day in Gettysburg. I also blogged a text of my keynote speech to the journalists that evening. Here are Marc’s and my observations as we toured the battlefield:


Saturday, 6/2/12 in Gettysburg

My companion was in involved with the Pennsylvania Press Conference until mid-afternoon. But after a rainy night, the morning was crisp, clear and too perfect to sit around the hotel waiting for him to join me.

I got to the downtown square with plenty of time to explore the Farmer’s Market after a nice breakfast a the Ragged Edge Coffee shop. It’s always fun to check out the booths, but since we were traveling I didn’t pick up any of the luscious-looking strawberries or crisp, bright greens, tempting though they were. I also enjoyed walking around the downtown streets.

There is something of a tourist-trap element in Gettysburg. There are lots of t-shirt shops and it’s true that you could eat your weight in ice cream and fudge. But the history is still there. Pick any random street and walk down it. You’ll find plaques in front of the buildings that stood at the time of the battle, and sometimes a story to go along with it. I stopped in at the a shop called the Union Drummer Boy, where you can buy any number of Civil War artifacts, from mini balls to muskets, something that seems to me both a little sad, and a little ghoulish. It gave me pause, looking at tree trunks embedded with cannon balls, and chunks of wood peppered with lead shot, at the courage or foolishness of the men who rushed head-long into them.

Before I left downtown, I toured the David Wills House, where President Lincoln spent the night before, and put the final touches to, his Gettysburg address. As a writer, I was amused by one of the videos, which told that Lincoln’s words received mixed reviews. One newspaper declared it, “vulgar jargon,” another twisted Lincoln words, saying we did not need a “new birth of freedom, but a new president.” But one scribe got it right, declaring it a “brief but immortal speech.” (The video didn’t credit which newspapers gave those opinions.) As a kid, I memorized the Gettysburg Address, and the words came back to me as they were recited on the video. It is a masterful piece of writing, and it never fails to move me.

That afternoon I joined my companion along with a group from the conference for a tour of the battlefield. Our guide, Richard Goedkoop, was friendly and superbly knowledgable, and he wove in newspaper accounts of the fight as we made our way from site to site.

Military stragedy is lost on me. I don’t even play chess well, let alone grasp the fine points topography advantage and artillery power. But even I could see the strategic advantage of Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top. When we reached the end of the tour, and story of the Pickett’s Charge, we looked across the open field from the Union side, toward the Viriginia Monument. That’s where the Confederate troops massed, where they launched their last attempt to break the Union forces. Richard read newspaper war correspondents’ accounts of that third day of battle.

Gettysburg is a busy place. There are lots of tourists. We heard some laughter, people calling to each other, yelling kids, a barking dog or two, and even a repeating honking horn from someone’s mistaken thumb on the panic button of a car remote. But when Richard stopped reading, it suddenly became very quiet. Looking across that open, sunny field, it seem to me a faint vibration rose, a lingering energy of violence and horror. So many men died there. It was the battle that broke the back of the Confederacy.

What drives soldiers in moments like that to pick up their weapons and rush head-long into the cannon’s mouth? Patriotisim to their country? Loyalty to their commrades? Did any of them wonder how they got there? Were any of them apalled at the volume of death and destruction? Did they know, as they fought so ruthlessly, that the tragedy they were creating would hang like wisps in the air to this very day?

It’s a train of thought that haunted me into the next day, when my companion and I decided to visit Antitam as well.


With the battlefield behind him, guide Richard Goedkoop reads press accounts of Pickett's Charge.

Gettysburg: We can’t forget what they did here

Gettysburg Battlefield: Little Round Top

This is why Little Round Top was important: You can see the whole Gettysburg battlefield from there.

I wonder how many different tours of the Gettysburg National Battlefield you can take before it starts getting old.

I took a bus tour with the Pennsylvania Press Conference Saturday, my fifth tour, and heard a perspective I hadn’t heard before. Richard Goedkoop, our guide, covered lots of battlefield history I had heard before. But he provided a different twist, tailored to the group of journalists he was leading.

More on Goedkoop’s tour shortly. But first, I’ll review the other ways I’ve toured the battlefield.

First, about a decade ago, I met my oldest son, Mike, at the historic battlefield. I had an extra day on a business trip to Philadelphia, and Mike was living in Washington. Like the Union and Confederate armies (only moving much faster), we converged on Gettysburg. We paid for a bus tour, led by one of the many licensed battlefield guides (whose name I’ve long forgotten). Continue reading

Dad and Ike: military men who enjoyed painting

My father, Chaplain Lucas W. Buttry, served a career as an Air Force chaplain, his largest stretch with President Eisenhower as commander-in-chief.

I couldn’t help but think of Dad again and again as we wandered the grounds and home of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farm Friday in Gettysburg, Pa.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Both grew up in small Midwestern towns, then saw the world serving in the U.S. military. Both liked TV Westerns. Both avoided political partisanship (well, until Ike joined the Republicans and ran for president). Both enjoyed painting.

Luke Buttry served in the Army Air Corps under Ike’s command in England during World War II. After going to college on the GI Bill and then graduating seminary, Dad served as an Air Force chaplain when Ike was commander-in-chief.

As a chaplain and later as a civilian minister, Dad was careful not to express political opinions or affiliations. He believed that ministers should preach the Gospel and minister to the needs of their people. Political affiliation would alienate people of whichever party he didn’t support, so Dad avoided taking sides. He was adept at making his sermons timely by addressing current issues without showing a consistent bias.

Ike was a political independent as a general, wooed by both parties as a presidential candidate following World War II. Even when he became a Republican to run for president, he was easily the least partisan president of my lifetime.

Continue reading

The Eisenhower farm: a window to Ike’s and Mamie’s personalities

This weekend brings us to Gettysburg, PA. My companion is speaking to the Pennsylvania Press Conference tomorrow.

We got an early start, dropping Duffy de Dog at his dog resort in the morning so we could make it to Gettysburg in time for a tour of the Eisenhower Farm with the group in the afternoon.

The day was muggy and overcast, a good indicator of the storms that are rolling through a huge swath of the East tonight. But riding down the road next to my companion is one of my very favorite things to do, even if the beautiful green, rolling hills were not set off at their best. We had no trouble filling the time. We talked about our kids, the newspaper industry, my writing, the newspaper industry, the twist and turns of my companion’s career and, oh yeah, the newspaper industry. It was just starting to sprinkle when we arrived. Continue reading