I was halfway up the stairs of the observation tower at Gettysburg last Saturday when I remembered something from the last time I had been there, nearly 30 years ago:
My father, huffing it up those same steel steps, breathing a bit heavy.
It was a broiling summer afternoon, a few days shy of my dad’s 50th. He was fine, I know now. I was just running us ragged across every step of the Civil War battlefield, and he was a middle-aged father of six. In my 10-year-old head, the image of Dad struggling up those steps on a hot day was the first sign that Frank Newall was mortal. It stayed with me.
I hope I asked if he was all right. I don’t think I held his hand. There has always been a certain space between me and my dad.
He is a terrific father. I’ve never wanted for anything. He instilled in me, I like to think, notions of faith and fairness, of hard work and determination, kindness. But I was born late. Irish family planning, I like to tell myself: Have five kids in six years, wait seven, then have the sixth. When I entered the picture, my dad was 40; a back injury had forced him into early retirement from his job as a fireman.
By the time we went to the battlefield, he was working the second shift of his life — building a real estate appraisal company that he started in our basement. He was busy, but he did everything he could. He took me to ballgames, and came to every last one of mine, but it was my brothers who coached my teams.
The battlefields were our thing.
My parents’ marriage was rocky back then. There was screaming in our house, and when it stopped, there was silence. My dad and I struggled to fill those silences. But the silence of the battlefields was different. That’s where my dad and I could speak our own language.
He was a child of World War II and a history buff, and he realized that for me, “buff” was putting it kindly. In between all the craziness of our house, the bills and the jobs, he paused long enough to see that by first grade, I was lugging around thick biographies of the presidents. He took the time to indulge me.
Dad bought me a desk, which he wedged between the swinging doors of the dining room because there was nowhere else to put it in our Brooklyn house. He bought me a Time-Life series on the Civil War. Even now, I remember when those books arrived in their brown cardboard boxes and the sound they made when you first cracked their spines.
And every spring and summer, we climbed into his Honda Civic and drove to every possible patch of ground where a Union soldier fought a Confederate, from here to Appomattox:
Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Courthouse, the Wilderness. Gettysburg, twice.
On the morning we were taking my deeply hungover brother to look at a college in Washington, my father leaned over the backseat and said conspiratorially: “Wanna go to Bull Run, Mike?” And we did, dragging poor Pete along with us, Pete who still couldn’t tell you what side Stonewall Jackson fought for.
Frank Newall is a stern guy, but you can’t say he doesn’t have a sense of humor.
The words in the Time-Life books formed the language we spoke on the way to the battlefields. He quizzed me over and over. I don’t know if he knew the answers himself, but I rattled off everything I could to impress him.
From each battlefield my father would pluck a pebble found in some famous brook or meadow, and each time, deploy the same punch line. “Ulysses Grant’s horse may have p—-d on this rock,” he would say, solemnly, until we burst into laughter.
I don’t have kids yet. But last Saturday, in Gettysburg for a conference, I ran my wife and dog ragged across every step of the battlefield: Devil’s Den. The Slaughter Pen. Seminary Ridge. The observation tower.
On Little Round Top, I pocketed a pebble.
Home from the battlefield, I drove to see my father. He turns 80 soon. As we took his afternoon walk, I gripped his thinning arm to steady him — in these ways, time is shrinking the space between us. Halfway down the block, we had to turn back.
We didn’t talk about that. We talked about the battlefields.
Some details are lost now to my father. We didn’t talk about that either. Because he remembered enough — torturing my poor brother at Bull Run, and Gettysburg, and the rocks and his old joke.
I gripped the pebble in my pocket. I had thought of giving it to him for a laugh, a sort of early Father’s Day gift. But I realized I didn’t need to. I couldn’t give him a better gift than the one that we’ve given each other: a way to fill the spaces, even now.