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 Posted: Sat Sep 20th, 2008 04:48 pm
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Wrap10
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I thought I’d pass along a story that basically involves telling on myself, from when I was quite a bit younger, much better looking, and even still had most of my hair. Sigh. Anyway, it’s from a visit I made to Shiloh when I was about 21 years old.

On this particular visit, I happened to be out by Duncan Field about the time a ranger was going to give a firing demonstration using a rile. Since I was there anyway, I thought I’d stick around and watch. There were probably about a dozen other folks there as well. Before he gave the demonstration though, the ranger told us he was going to give a short description of what it was like to experience the battle of Shiloh.

By this point in my life I’d been reading about the war since I was around 10, and felt like I had a pretty good handle on everything. In fact, standing there as the ranger was about to start his talk, I was thinking to myself that I could probably give the firing demonstration myself - never mind that I’d never fired any kind of Civil War weapon in my life - and I could most assuredly give a talk describing the battle of Shiloh. For that matter, I figured I could probably switch places with the ranger and do a better job of describing the battle than he could. After all, I’d been reading about this stuff for more than ten years. I knew it cold.

Then the ranger started to talk about the battle. From start to finish, I’d say his talk lasted no more than about ten minutes. When he began, I was an expert on both the battle and the war. If you didn’t believe it, all you had to do was ask me. Ten minutes later, as I stood there watching this ranger finish up by firing his rifle, my Civil War world had been turned upside down. In that short span of time, I came to understand that what I knew about Shiloh, or the war, or war itself, didn’t amount to spit. The expert standing in that field wasn’t me. It was the man holding that rifle.

In essence, what he did was paint a word picture of the battle that essentially put you there, in the middle of it. It was a verbal walk-through more so than a talk. A time machine through which, for ten fearful minutes, the romantic veil fell away and the true face of the battle, and of the war, stood revealed. I can still see him in my mind, standing there telling us what that battle was like, and sounding as if he was describing a personal experience. It wasn’t just the knowledge he clearly possessed that struck me. It was the understanding he possessed.

There have been a number of times in my life when I experienced something that left me feeling pretty humbled. That was one of them. I felt like I knew the war because I could recite names and dates, and describe, or so I thought, some of the battles pretty well. But this guy could do more than just tell you about the facts and figures. He could show you the faces that went with them. He could show you what the war was like for the people who went through it. He made the battle, and the war, more personal. More tragic. More real. I walked away from Duncan Field that day feeling a bit foolish. And that turned out to be a good thing.

Unfortunately I don’t remember the ranger’s name, but I’ve never forgotten that talk he gave. It totally changed my view of the war. Or rather, it changed the way I thought about the war, and how I approached learning about it. And what I thought I knew about it. From that day to this, I’ve always tried to remember that there are indeed faces behind all those facts and figures. That the people who went through it all were as real as you or me. And I’ve never again thought of myself as an “expert” on any aspect of the war. I like to think of myself as a “student,” which is what I think we all are. But I’m no expert.

Since that day, I’ve come to realize than however much I learn or think I know, there is far more about it all than I will ever know, or be able to fully grasp. It’s a learning experience that never truly ends.

Not bad for a ten minute talk.

Perry

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