It was a beautiful spring day in New England.
It was perfect weather for an outdoor ceremony.
Most boys would be excited about going fishing, running through the woods, playing ball or just goofing off.
Not me. Not today.
I was on a mission – a serious mission. And I dare not fail.
It all started a few weeks before when I was cast for the part in a school presentation. I was one of the tallest, skinniest, most serious – and shyest – kids in the class. So of course when the roles for this patriotic ensemble were assigned, I was given Abraham Lincoln. My job was to recite -from memory – the Gettysburg address.
My mom – with a pride only mothers possess – helped me locate a black top hat and matching long-tailed coat.
And then she rigged up a brown paper beard.
I got through the school recitation without skipping a beat – though one side of the beard began to sag a bit by the time I got to “we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground”.
The oration was met with robust applause by teachers and students.
Some of the kids started calling me Abe. I rather liked it but remained in my shell.
And then Mrs. Tobiasson, an older lady who took a liking to me in her English class, asked me if I’d like to reprise my role as the Great Emancipator – at the upcoming community Memorial Day ceremony.
I was scared but said yes.
Mom was now an expert make-up artist and made sure my paper beard was securely attached (we decided against glue).
Then she captured the moment for my descendants by taking my picture. I stood up straight, put one hand inside my coat and stared into the camera with the same serene confidence that Abe had for Alexander Gardner at his D.C. studio on Sunday, November 9, 1863 – 11 days before his speech – and a little over a century before my portrait.
Tolland, Connecticut was a small but proud picturesque town with well-kept shingled homes, stately public buildings and a town green. The Memorial Day ceremony was held on the steps of the new brick library.
It was a large crowd. All the local luminaries were there. So was the school band.
The cloudless sky was a vibrant blue.
When my turn came, I stood and calmly and clearly spoke the words I now knew well.
It was my first public oration. I was 12.
The speech is short – especially when compared to the two hour eloquent pontification delivered by the noted Edward Everett just before the President spoke. Fortunately for me, that’s not the speech we remember and school children recite. It passed immediately into deserved anonymity.
“…our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation …”
Lincoln began his “few appropriate remarks” by placing the Civil War in a historical context – not the Constitution but the earlier Declaration of Independence, which he revered and based his principles on.
The stakes were high.
“…whether that nation … can long endure …”
The war was a test he said – we’ve had many since – of the strength and resilience of the American experiment in self-government. Would we – could we – survive?
“… those who here gave their lives that that nation might live …”
Freedom is never free. Every soldier’s gravesite is an eternal testament to the high cost of our liberty. Those graves were there on that raw November Thursday. Today they surround the globe. Lincoln honored their sacrifice -and explained it – by recognizing it as freedom’s price and well worth paying.
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
Lincoln was wrong about his two-minute speech but right about Everett’s long oration. He was also surely right that deeds matter more than words and no deed mattered more than to lay down one’s life for one’s country and for the noble cause of freedom.
That sacrifice must never be forgotten.
“It is for us the living …”
The dead can do no more. They’ve given their “last full measure of devotion”. Those of us who remain and follow must honor the dead by bravely pursuing the “unfinished work” and “the great task remaining before us.”
Being an American isn’t just a lucky break – it’s an unresolved responsibility.
In a free republic there must be no place for cynicism or apathy. Only when we determine to do our duty as a united and free people can we insure “that these dead shall not have died in vain”.
After Joshua had commanded one man from each of the twelve tribes of Israel to take a stone from the Jordan River and build a memorial, he told them to “let this sign be among you, so that when your children ask later saying ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ you can tell them, ‘they remind us’ …” (Joshua 4:6-7).
As I removed my paper beard that afternoon, I knew I’d fallen in love with Lincoln, with his speech and what it meant, and with my country.
I knew I’d never forget.