Next week Americans will be remembering the 150th anniversary of a defining moment in our country’s history, the Civil War battle at Gettysburg. The horrible losses there made the battlefield like a holy temple, a destination point for pilgrims.
Fifty years ago, when Southerners marked the 100th anniversary of that great battle, we lived in a time much different from today. We were much closer to the Civil War. In 1963, many people still remembered the great battle’s 50th anniversary in 1913, when survivors from both sides gathered for a poignant reunion. We were surrounded by people who had known and had talked to real Civil War veterans and could tell us stories they had heard from those soldiers, from widows and children, and even former slaves. We could talk to people who had known grandfathers or uncles who had lost an arm or leg and who had carried their badges of emptiness proudly as markers of their participation and courage.
In 1963, here in the South, the still close personal connections to the Civil War and a collective regional pride in our otherness made that 100th anniversary something more than the marking of an important historical event.
Next week people of my generation will still mark the occasion. Some of my friends, led by Civil War historian Fred Kiger, will be on the Gettysburg battlefield walking the hallowed grounds, following the path of North Carolina troops into the Union lines where they reached the “high-water mark” of the Confederacy before being beaten back in a bloody retreat.
But it will not be the same as it was in 1963.
Our region has changed too much. The civil rights revolution, economic success, urbanization, in-migration from other places, and the passage of time have made our region a much different place, whose peoples are no longer so conscious of their otherness.
Ironically, the “high-water mark” of those changes came in 1963, the year it became clear that the segregated and discriminatory social system that defined our region was going to collapse.
This August, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech will, more than Gettysburg, bring the memories of today’s southerners together this year.
For me, 1963 was also a year of personal transformation.
A fellow brand new Army lieutenant and Davidson classmate, Tom Brown, persuaded me to join him in applying to Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga. It was a long shot. Both of us had been given counter intelligence assignments, which had no need for people who jumped out of airplanes.
But we got in, passed the training, made our five jumps, and earned our airborne wings.
At counter intelligence school we found out that there was a downside to our airborne qualification. Instead of the exciting, plush, and safe assignments in Washington and foreign capitals that some of our classmates were securing, we were to be sent to airborne combat units at Fort Bragg or Fort Campbell, KY.
Something else happened in 1963 that made all the difference for Tom and me. President John Kennedy decided to beef up the Special Forces, including giving them enhanced intelligence capability. They needed airborne-qualified, experienced intelligence officers. Luckily for Tom and me, very few intelligence officers were airborne qualified. So although we did not have much experience, the jump wings got us into that elite group.
The rounds of training we got on maneuvers and mock battle situations in the Eskimo villages of Alaska, the swamps of Florida, and the Sandhills and peach orchards of North Carolina transformed me.
Tom Brown died last week, just 50 years after he helped turn my life around.
As we mark the anniversaries of the decisive events of 1863 and 1963, I remember how much I owe my friend Tom Brown and how much I will miss him.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.
This week’s (June 30 and July 4) guest is Charlene Regester author of “African American Actresses.”
The program will also air at Wednesday July 3 at 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. on UNC-MX, a digital cable system channel (Time Warner #172 or #4.4). In addition, airing at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday on UNC-MX will be a classic Bookwatch program featuring Sharyn McCrumb author of “Ghost Riders,” which follows the Civil War in the Southern mountains and its carryover to contemporary times.
A grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council provides crucial support for North Carolina Bookwatch.