the Antietam

The Antietam flows peacefully to its rendezvous with the Potomac River past the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. It is not a stagnant, standing body of water; the Antietam carries with it, at all times, the memories of joys and fears, of tears and blood, of hopes and futility.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.

Psalm 137

Native Americans hunted and cultivated here. Since the establishment of Maryland, generations of men, women, and children have farmed the lands watered by Antietam Creek. Merchants established themselves in the towns and drovers pushed wagons over roads sculpted from rock and clay into western Virginia and Pennsylvania. Marriages, births, and deaths are recorded in the churches that serve local congregants.

And, over 20,000 men were shot down here in the bloodiest single day of combat in US history.

This is not a tale of anyone who has lived or who lives there. It’s about others—two others. And, although one of these was quite definitely a Yankee and the other most assuredly a Southerner, it isn’t about that tragic day in 1862 when, according to one who was there, the very “landscape turned red.”

In early November of 1973, two sailors—one male, the other not—came to the Antietam National Battlefield Park on a Saturday. They had literally run into each other some three weeks prior, colliding at the junction of two corridors in a 40-year old “temporary” building dating from the Second World War. Both sailors were enrolled in the East Coast branch of the Defense Language Institute and, while both were studying the same foreign language, the guy would graduate and leave before the girl because his class had begun five months before she arrived from Recruit Training.

Some couples begin their relationship by detesting each other and go from there. Others feel as though a bolt of lightning struck them when they first saw each other. Not these two—they turned the corner from opposing directions and almost knocked each other to the deck.

You might think that the male, standing 6'3" tall and weighing around 250lbs, might have had the better of the confrontation. After all, the diminutive female, who hailed from Ohio, was only 5'12" short and weighed much less than 250lbs. When he looked up in surprise (okay, he hadn’t been looking ahead), he saw The Face. No, he did not know right then that she was The One, but he was struck—a second time—by her face.

They accused each other of running into each other, helped each other pick up the books and papers each had been carrying and, while doing that, began The Conversation. Afterwards, they looked for each other and for ways and times they could meet. She told jokes and he laughed. He laughed, because her jokes were funny and because they were her jokes.

She laughed at him, too. Well, others laughed at him, too, but her laughter was different.

They started dating. That Saturday in the Fall of 1973, they went to Antietam. They walked past the Dunker church and looked over the still-cultivated Corn Field, shorn of its stalks. They came into the West Wood, where they laughed and spontaneously wrestled each other and tried to stuff then-dull leaves down each other’s…jackets.

If you’re thinking ahead of the story, you’re right: they married about three months later, just two days before her 20th birthday.

Providence and Fortune gave them eight years together, save for those months when he was sent away on one ship after another for one mission after another.

They laughed and shared joys and troubles (and, there were troubles, of course) during their time together. Spain was the first foreign country in which either had lived, and they really lived their time there. They were often found in nearby towns, such as Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa Maria. (A favorite restaurant was Rullos, in a field outside of Puerto.)

They often drove the 90 kilometers to Seville to spend time wandering the streets, parks, restaurants, and cultural centers. Spain was moving toward the parliamentary democracy its people enjoy today, but the politics were more unsettled then. Once, she stepped into a street to snap a picture of students marching in a demonstration; without regard for the fact that she was between the marchers and the police. He lunged out and pulled her back and away, but not before she got her picture! Later, they laughed together over that.

They drank Coca-Cola with lemon and no ice and enjoyed it. They learned there are different ways to prepare calamari, and they liked each of them. They learned, with some trial and a few errors, how to ask, in Spanish, for iced tea. They were surprised, but not shocked, to find that the Burger King in Madrid offered tinto and other alcohol along with soft drinks. They toured Arcos de la Frontera, Toledo, Cordoba, Madrid, El Escorial, La Valle de los Caidos, Carmona, Granada, and Ronda, amongst others. He remembers her eagerness to visit any archaeological site, and how she was most enthralled in Medina Azahara and the Cueva de la Pileta.

He remembers all of these, for all are memories. Remember, they had but eight years together, and she has been dead for twenty years. There’s more to the story, but this is all he wants to remember, tonight. You see, tonight he watched a film, Before Sunrise, and, although the plot and the locale in the film are decidedly different, the film evoked and rekindled these snapshots. Snapshots of a love that has not, and never will, die.

It seems as if it’s just now and he’s looking into her eyes as she questions his and they, leaves clinging to them, touch each other’s hand while lying on the ground above the Antietam Creek.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.

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