Dane A. Wisher | Longreads | April 2017 | 36 minutes (10,142 words)
* * *
“What kind of commie bullshit is that?”
“I’m telling you, listen to the album again.” I jam my finger into the bar top for emphasis.
“I don’t need to. It’s called Born in the USA. It’s about good, honest American people. You’re defiling a New Jersey hero.”
“It is about America. But the flag and blue jeans on the cover, the upbeat sound on the title track—it’s all ironic.”
“Here we go. It’s ironic.”
“It’s the definition of irony. Apparent surface meaning conveying the opposite of the actual underlying intent of the message. The album is about how people can’t catch a break, how hollow all the patriotic fanfare is.” My speech sounds less pompous in my head.
“This is just like your thing with Forrest Gump.”
I roll my eyes. Forrest Gump has become his latest culture war litmus test. Still, it’s good to see my brother. I’ve been teaching in Qatar for two years and he works odd hours as a cop at the Monmouth County Prison and so the nights when we can shoot the shit are rare. When we do, we eat a lot and drink a lot and tell a lot of stupid jokes and get a sick enjoyment out of fighting with each other.
“Sometimes I think dad was right about your college professors corrupting your head,” he says. “You went there and you were never the same. You used to like Forrest Gump, if you recall.”
“When I was 12.”
“So I’d hate to be 12 forever.”
“So it’s better to think whatever your professors tell you to think?”
“It’s just easier for you to believe I’m brainwashed than it is to think about why you’re wrong.”
“If you’re always changing——”
“If you’re always changing, then what are you?”
I shrug and the rain finally lets up. I can tell he’s thinking about our dad.
“I’m putting a dip in,” he says.
We get up from our barstools and step outside. It’s late Monday night in Asbury Park, New Jersey. We can hear the staff inside, running inventory and restocking. We can see the flatscreens showing the Mets go through the motions of trying to win a game. The rain clouds are gone, but we’ve still got another thing hanging over us.
“Next time I’m home,” I say, “we should do something about dad’s ashes.” I’m leaving for Doha in a few days and this is the same thing I said last summer right before I went back.
The ashes have been at Tate’s place for two years. Our dad’s death was sudden. He was on the run from both his creditors and the fallout from his divorce proceedings. He’d stopped paying his life insurance after leaving New Jersey, so there was no money set aside for a funeral. Neither my brother nor I had much cash. I was in my last year of grad school and Tate was an EMT after spending five years receiving shit US Army pay. We had more bills than income. Our mother was now in a happy relationship for a change and this, combined with the fact that my dad had saddled her with the burden of the mortgage he’d let go into default, meant that she’d checked out of all fiscal responsibility in the matter of the remains. Our sister had been pretending our dad had been dead for years before he obliged her that reality, so she wasn’t going to step in either.
I’m not sentimental about funerals. A cold body is no more the person you loved than a jar of peanut butter is, and so to me the funeral industry seems a spectacular con, much like weddings and master’s degrees. Still, I appreciate symbolism and, since our dad’s death, Tate and I talked occasionally about driving out to Gettysburg National Park and spreading his ashes on the battlefield. Our dad was a history buff and though he never lived in the South, he was a Confederate sympathizer from the safe distance of history.
Mostly, though, it’s a fitting place because my father believed himself, like Longstreet, to be misunderstood in his time.
We had a spot picked for the ashes. There’s a monument to Lieutenant General James Longstreet, the North Carolinian whose brusque manner and forward-thinking, defensive-minded tactics—as well as his post-war switch to the Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln—made him an easy post hoc scapegoat for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. Misunderstood in his time, Longstreet is now remembered for being the sensible one in warning General Robert E. Lee against Pickett’s Charge, the disastrous Confederate assault on the third and final day of the battle. The monument shows Longstreet on his horse, surveying the carnage from his position on Seminary Ridge, the wooded rise in the land from which the Confederates marched toward defeat across a mile of open field as cannons and rifles lit into them the entire way.
The statue is set back in the woods. You wouldn’t know it was there were it not for the signs on the side of the road. Tate and I could scatter the ashes discreetly there, stealth being a concern when breaking National Park Service rules. Mostly, though, it’s a fitting place because my father believed himself, like Longstreet, to be misunderstood in his time.
But as a writer, I’ve honed my deftness with procrastination as much as with my prose. I live most of the year in Doha and I tend, when traveling, not to make it back to the States, and when I do, I stingily portion out my New Jersey time, preferring instead to stay up in New York, where life makes more sense to me.
Tate spits into a bush on the sidewalk and readjusts his dip. “Let’s go tomorrow,” he says.
Battlefield trips were one of those things my dad and I did when I was a kid. The last time we went to Gettysburg, we attended a conference for people who’d donated to fund the building of the Longstreet memorial. We met a lot of other like-minded obsessives, the kinds of people who found it necessary to donate money to get a monument built for a dead general. We met historians and people claiming direct lineage to Longstreet himself. There were esoteric talks and hikes through the off-limits areas of the battlefield. It took place over the course of three hot July days, not unlike those during the actual battle—but without the inconvenience of having other people trying to kill you. These trips were something my dad did with me—not with my brother or my sister.
“So?” Tate says.
“Fuck it.” I nod and that makes it official. We step back inside the bar to close our tab and I shake my head. It’s the sort of impulsive quest for closure that happens when two brothers with father issues drink too much while watching the Mets blow another one.
* * *
My brother and I were born under the specter of Reagan. We grew up into adults in the blasted cultural landscape of raw deals and hollow American dreams at the turn of the century.
Charles Wisher, on the other hand, was merely born again under Reagan. He was physically born at the beginning of the Cold War, in 1950. He grew up in urban North Jersey, in Paterson, which never sounded like a William Carlos Williams poem when my dad described it.
My paternal grandparents did my dad no favors in terms of proud genetic inheritance. His mother Jacoba was a taciturn and devout member of the Dutch Reformed Church and used the word “coloreds” until the day she died. She was the sort of woman the in-laws never mention fondly. She got off to a bad start with them when she skipped my parents’ wedding because she was upset my dad was marrying an Italian papist. Jacoba was an old-school kind of unpleasant that came from the long, Calvinist tradition of self-enforced joylessness. My grandfather, whom I never met, was also named Charles; he was an alcoholic who walked out on the family when my dad was only a few years old. My dad claims he saw him once more on the man’s deathbed and that they had a frosty reunion of sorts, but I’m not sure that ever really happened. Like a lot of my father’s past, it’s unclear, with details reoriented or invented to fit the narrative he revised for himself in the late ’70s, when he quit his job teaching history at a prep school in Lake Placid to work in commercial real estate.
In my dad’s authorized version of events, he was a skilled basketball player and hurdler in high school and got out of his poor neighborhood by getting a track-and-field scholarship to a small college in Iowa, the name of which changed, depending on when he talked about it. He dropped out after two years and hitchhiked across America, doing odd jobs. Later in life, he would sing along to the radio when “Take It Easy” by the Eagles came on because he said he’d actually been on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, but that it was not such a fine sight to see. He avoided the Vietnam War by drawing a low draft number, supposedly, and saw this cosmic act of serendipity as a sign he should go to Europe for a while. He flew to Paris and quickly developed a lifelong hatred of all things Gallic. From there he set out backpacking, donating his blood for extra cash and haggling with hotel clerks who tried to gouge Americans. He overstayed his day-pass in East Berlin and narrowly avoided detainment by the police when they stopped him several days later as he wandered around the city, half-starving because the only thing the shops had left to eat was head cheese and that when given a choice between death and head cheese, one inevitably chooses death. I suspect he actually dodged the draft, though I can’t really fault him for that. His lack of service was a real point of shame for him later on, though, when he became a Republican who thought we should bomb everyone. I also have long assumed that the head cheese story was mostly an exaggeration meant to instill gratitude for the bounty afforded us by American capitalism. When I was little, he liked to point at the loaves of sliced bread at the grocery store and say, “You can’t get that in Russia.”
After getting sick of hitchhiking and Europe, he came back to the States, enrolled at William Paterson, and majored in history. Afterward, he moved to Upstate New York, taught high school, listened to a lot of folk music and bluegrass, smoked some pot, drank some beers, probably dropped some acid and snorted some coke, skied when he had the chance, and at some point learned to play the flute because of a strange love of Jethro Tull. He voted for George McGovern and Jimmy Carter (the first time around).
But a teaching assignment on the Great Depression changed the whole path of his life.
Or maybe it got him back on the path he thought he was supposed to be on.
* * *
Tate and I don’t hit the road until almost 11.
I woke up cursing a few hours earlier when my mom’s two boxers jumped on me in the guest room.
My mother’s home is now in Asbury Park. She lives with her boyfriend on the top floor of a building that not too long ago was an empty department store. Now it houses restaurants and shops and bars on the street level and above has spacious, overpriced apartments. She has a terrace overlooking the town to the north and the ocean several blocks to the east. My brother lives across the street above even more restaurants and shops and bars in a building that has been similarly renovated in the rapid gentrification of a town that a decade ago was synonymous in the area with poverty and blight. Now it is the diminutive Brooklyn of the Jersey Shore—and like Williamsburg, is already overrun by the sorts of white people the gentrifiers tried to avoid by moving there in the first place.
People used to call Asbury Park Beirut by the Beach, which is fitting only insofar as it betrays local cultural ineptitude, that the only thing people knew about the Lebanese city was what they saw on television and in the papers when the US shelled it in 1983. On one level, the moniker is unintentionally funny, as it ignores the fact that Beirut is already on the water. On another troubling level, the name is dually a dig at what was once a predominantly poor, black American town and, on the other, a summoning of pride at America’s demonstrated ability to reduce a city to rubble because a couple people there fucked with us. It is now where Jersey Shore residents move when they get sick of lawns and Little League but don’t want the hassle of New York City or North Jersey.
Our family, when it was whole, lived in a quiet town near Asbury Park called Wall Township, a place that had once been a small farming community before freeway access turned it into a haven of middle-class developments and strip malls.
When people talk about the ’80s and the growth of a corporate culture we’ve only recently started to distrust in earnest, they talk about parties where people burn hundos and douse hookers in champagne while vodka flows from the glans of ice sculpture nudes and the sound of people snorting lines is drowned out by loud talk of exchange rates and Susan in Accounting’s new implants. When people talk about the ’80s, they talk about men dressed in paisley ties and suspenders, men leaving their offices in limousines and talking on comically large car phones, men engaged in speculation about the fearsome rise of the yen. People talk about a story that takes place in Manhattan and Chicago and the big cities where these same men stare out past their faint reflections in the windows of skyscrapers overlooking the American Empire. They talk about the story in this way because that’s what’s sexy; that’s what’s in Wall Street and American Psycho; it’s easy to look at those Wolfean Masters of the Universe and think of our national economic injustices as a product of psychopathic party boys.
What’s less exciting is how that reckless white collar story plays out in the rest of America, in the suburbs and small towns where people cloister themselves in their backyards and are far too proud to have scrambled for their meager share of the dull Dream. There isn’t witty banter in the Cipriani dining room but rather the disquiet and paranoia of little domestic enclaves walled off by hedges and fences and the self-assured superiority of people who’ve essentialized the capitalist ethos as natural, as American as Jesus descending from heaven with a Miller Lite in one hand and a bowl of ranch dressing in the other. This ethos is a gospel of economic morality proselytized and echoed by the residents like those in Wall, the sorts of people who’d name a residential street on an inland pond in New Jersey Rue de la Port and find nothing about it remotely pretentious or comical.
People here don’t burn out bright as a private jet on fire; they sink into the mulch piles and rot.
* * *
We’re on 195, heading toward Pennsylvania. Tate sticks to the speed limit. It’s one of the arbitrary rules he adamantly follows.
“So. Gettysburg. Is there stuff there or is it just a field?” he asks.
“There’s stuff. Monuments all over the place. Practically every unit that fought has a marker someplace. The battlefield is so clogged with them that they had to put a moratorium on new ones, or at least that’s what they told us when they wanted money for the Longstreet memorial.”
Gettysburg strikes a balance between untouched and overdeveloped. By contrast, Sharpsburg, Maryland, where what the North called the Battle of Antietam took place, was serene and quiet when I was there last. The town wasn’t particularly built up, at least compared to a place like Gettysburg. I suspect it’s because Sharpsburg isn’t as prominent a pilgrimage location. Antietam was the bloodiest single day of fighting in the war but it ended indecisively. The engagement wasn’t so much a moment of national victory or defeat as it still is a plain reminder of the blood in which our young American history is overly steeped. In Sharpsburg, the trees still sulk and the grass still sighs and Antietam Creek still sobs without fanfare.
On the other hand, you have a place like Fredericksburg, Virginia, where almost nothing remains of the field where Confederate Irishmen shot down their fellow expatriates fighting for the Union. There is only a patch of grass and a short stretch of the sunken road where the Confederate line dug in. Houses and highways and drive-throughs and motels cover the rest of the battlefield. The students at Mary Washington play ultimate frisbee and canoodle on ground once fertilized by human carrion. If the Civil War heralded the beginning of the end of the old, Napoleonic way of fighting—overwhelming mass assaults of men and cannon on an enemy’s weak point, a tactic that modernity and rifling, carbines, artillery, Gatling guns, and defensive entrenchments were already rendering obsolete—then today’s Fredericksburg is an ugly monument to the triumph of that modernity, of industry and trade and logistics, of combustion engines and smartphones and Arby’s Horsey Sauce.
Gettysburg is something in between those two extremes. It is a place firmly invested, culturally and economically, in its past, and while it hasn’t disregarded that past the way Fredericksburg has, it also doesn’t remember the dead with the solemnity of Sharpsburg either. While much of the battlefield is still undeveloped, many parts have been paved and built over with scores of budget hotels and gas stations and kitschy restaurants like General Pickett’s Buffet, where you can masticate the sort of rich, fatty food that would have killed an emaciated Confederate soldier in 1863.
There is a crassness to the built-up parts of the town. There are cheap blue or grey kepis and wooden toy rifles and plastic swords for children. Waitstaff wear period garb. Store signage depicts Union and Confederate flags crossing in an almost loving embrace that encapsulates the romanticism with which people view the war: as an inevitable and biblical struggle akin to Cain and Abel, as an ode to the dark beauty of the clash of brothers.
But there is a less-overblown seriousness to it as well. It is a place of research and scholarship. Even casual tourist shops sell dry history books that cover social consequences and troop movements, and the local Gettysburg College has an entire major devoted to Civil War Era Studies. For Civil War buffs, the small town of Gettysburg is its cultural hub, as central as Hollywood is to cineastes and Rome is to Catholics.
* * *
In 1978, Charles Wisher’s American history class was having trouble understanding the Crash of 1929. They couldn’t figure out how money could one day be worth one amount and then suddenly be worth something else on another.
He had an idea. Each student brought in $5 dollars, which my dad collected and used to buy several shares in a company the class chose by voting on the sorts of products they used. Over the course of the year, they checked in weekly on the stock price, which by some vicissitude of fate steadily climbed. As it did, he explained securities and commodities and IPOs and supply-and-demand and the basic math of how stock price times shares equals worth, though the students still seemed, as most people are, confused by the notion that it’s mostly a perception game.
Still, as the stock grew, the kids talked about investing their own money someday and maybe going into finance. What had begun as a lesson on the unreliability of the market, a lesson many knew only too well in the late ’70s, had turned into an inadvertent recruiting session on free-market capitalism, a force the kids had previously only heard about as a mystic and reassuring force not unlike The Holy Trinity. Now they seemed actually interested in something and so my hippie father viewed it as a victory for pedagogy.
Not long before the school year ended, he sold the shares and distributed the principal-plus-earnings to each of the students. Not long after, he got a call. One of his students’ fathers was impressed that a bearded teacher in the Adirondacks had managed to turn a profit and get his son interested in, well, anything.
The man had one question: “How would you like to make some real money?”
A month later my father moved back to North Jersey to commute into Manhattan for his new job, selling commercial real estate for Coldwell Banker.
* * *
I found out my father died on an early April morning in 2011. My phone rang as I was pulling onto I-45 to drive to the University of Houston campus where I was in the last semester of my creative writing program and teaching an intro to lit course to a chronically indifferent group of statistically likely dropouts. My mother’s voice was halting and tentative.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I have bad news,” she said.
“Who died?” I immediately thought of my grandmother or one of my uncles.
“I’m really sorry. It’s dad. They found him in his apartment in Milwaukee.”
“Milwaukee?” This was the most immediate and shocking piece of information.
“Apparently, yes. He died in his sleep. Tate got the call from one of dad’s colleagues or friends out there.”
“He told me he was in Chicago.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I have to go teach. I’ll call you and Tate later.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I think so. I don’t know. I guess. Yeah, I think.”
You think you have more time to fix things. You don’t.
* * *
I intended to give my scheduled lecture on The Great Gatsby. I didn’t think canceling things would help. It just meant I’d play out painful scenes in my head. Like the talk I’d had a week earlier. I’d picked up the phone while grading some papers one evening at a coffee shop. He sounded wrong, croaking words into the receiver.
Lately, we walked on eggshells because arguments could flare up quickly over our widely divergent interpretations of the past, but that night it wasn’t awkwardness; it was resignation. He asked me how my relationship was going. I said it was fine. In truth, she was slowly divesting herself and I just couldn’t muster enough energy to give much of a shit. That wasn’t something I was going to explain to my dad. I did say the relationship would probably end as soon as I left Houston, which was going to happen sooner or later. I sometimes talked about staying in town and seeing where things went, but I only said that because it didn’t mean anything.
“You shouldn’t just give up on it so quickly,” he said. “You may find you want to settle down soon.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think I’m really cut out for kids, a family, all that.”
“Oh, I don’t think so. I think you are. Just don’t not have one because of me. You could do it differently. Having a family was still the best thing I ever did.”
He always said that and I never believed him. When we ran out of things to talk about, he said he loved me and I told him the same. I suspected he didn’t believe me. That’s all I thought about as the morning sun glinted off the downtown skyscrapers crawling past my window on the way to campus.
* * *
Over the following week, I made arrangements with the hospital and I called the coroner’s office several times before they finally got back to me with anything helpful. The coroner said he—his body—showed signs of pneumonia, clogged arteries, and hypertension. She said it was possible he had diabetes. I said that was probably true. He was hypoglycemic and the drinking wasn’t going to make it any better. That made sense, she said. His alcohol habit was obvious. They’d found empty vodka bottles lined up in the kitchen. The apartment was grimy but neat, she added for my benefit. The drinking and unhealthy diet—he wasn’t doing any home cooking—probably helped push his hypoglycemia to the full-on type 2. In the end, it was probably a combination of things.
All anyone knew for sure is he’d gone to the real estate office where he was employed by a guy he used to work for in Jersey. He left the office early because he wasn’t feeling well. According to his roommate, he was asleep on the couch when the guy left for the night; when the roommate got back in the morning, my father was curiously still. I asked the coroner if it could’ve been a heart attack. She said they’d checked for that. It wasn’t. Something about there not being certain proteins in the blood. For whatever reason, she said, his body just gave up. He just died. He’d had enough. She could write pneumonia or any number of things on the death certificate, but in the end it was a bit of everything—things, she added, that we probably will never quite know exactly.
The Why is a complicated thing. I’ll wrestle with it until I die.
* * *
My brother and I drive around Gettysburg, through the Peach Orchard and the Bloody Wheatfield, over Plum Run and around Devil’s Den. I’m trying to give him an idea of the scope of the battlefield as we drive toward Little Round Top, where the fighting on the second day reached its climax. I’m self-conscious about my lecturing. For me this place is about the history, the narrative. It has wholly different associations for him and I’m not unaware of the inherent stupidity of a writing teacher telling a vet how shit went down in battle.
We follow the road into the woods and head up the back of Little Round Top. Light rain taps at the windshield and I’m reluctant to get out of the car once we reach the top, though I do, if only to stretch and take in the view. The battlefield isn’t nearly so large as I remember. From the bald side of the hill, you can see everything south of the small downtown. Stone memorials dot the expanse; it looks like a well-spaced graveyard.
I explain to Tate that behind us, on the wooded side of the hill, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his Mainers defended the end of the Union line from a Confederate flanking attack. After repeatedly repulsing the Alabamians charging up through the foliage, the Mainers found themselves almost out of ammunition. So, Chamberlain had the wild idea to fix bayonets and charge down the hill. And it worked. The rebels retreated and the ballsy move earned Chamberlain an eternal place in American history and a fictionalization in the novel The Killer Angels, later adapted as the 1993 film Gettysburg, in which Chamberlain earned the greatest honor of all: being played by Jeff Daniels, who a year later would go on to star in Dumb and Dumber.
People credit Chamberlain with saving the battle and thus the war and thus the country. This is and isn’t true. Had the Southern flanking succeeded, it’s true the Northern line likely would have collapsed and, had they lost the battle, the Army of the Potomac could have been cut off from Washington, DC. But even had that happened, it’s doubtful the Army of Northern Virginia, the South’s main fighting force in the Eastern Theater, had the resources and manpower to conduct a successful, protracted siege of the capital. The best the Confederates could have hoped for was a political victory—specifically, Lincoln losing the 1864 election. A crushing defeat on Northern territory could have helped sway a war-weary public.
Even so, what the Chamberlain-as-savior narrative ignores is that on the same day that the Union won Gettysburg, out in the Western Theater, the northern Army of the Tennessee took Vicksburg, a port city on the Mississippi River, effectively blocking supplies from going inland. Had the South won Gettysburg, the realities of economics and goods would have doomed the agrarian Southern states anyway. You can’t keep winning battles without food, guns, and clothes, and even before Vicksburg, the South was short on all of them. If you can point to a single battle turning the war, Vicksburg is probably it.
But we’re still not whole, if we ever were.
But if long, drawn-out sieges of port towns aren’t as sexy as last-ditch banzai charges for freedom, economics really aren’t as sexy. The accounting of lead and cotton and flour and human capital (not to mention the realities of disease—namely dysentery, which was deadlier than guns) don’t paint nearly as compelling a picture as the droopy-mustached Chamberlain, sword out and the fate of America at stake, leading his desperate troops down the hill to meet either glory or death. This narrative is elegant. It plays into a human propensity for hero-worship, our species’ tendency to view history as the Great Deeds of Great Men. It is a fallacy of which we’re particularly guilty in America, where we like to believe greatness is necessarily built on the singular force of individual will. Admittedly, this makes for great stories. The vast, material complexities of a random world, on the other hand, do not. Saving Private Ryan is, after all, more accessible and immediately gratifying than slogging through The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
Still, standing next to my brother on Little Round Top, I can’t help but be taken a bit with the grandeur of what the landscape represents: the history, the dead, the idea that there was a moment in time when nothing short of the American Experiment was saved from destruction right here.
* * *
I was 3 when we left North Jersey for our home on the Shore. Our new neighborhood was built over a farm. Located a half-mile from the Garden State Parkway, the land was too valuable to developers and the landowner gave in to the pressures of real estate money.
The house was an admirable four-bedroom with vinyl siding, a backyard, and a pool, all of it a minor variation on the rest of the neighborhood. The first time I saw it a few months before we actually moved in, the sod hadn’t been laid yet and the newly planted trees shivered in the winter wind. It wasn’t a particularly inspiring setting, though I was excited all the same, even if I was confused by the name of the street: Waterview Way. There was no view of water. There was a reservoir across the street, but a dense line of pine trees at the edge of the neighbor’s property hid the promised vista. Still, the unfinished house with its tarp shawl covering its gaunt timber frame represented for my father how far he’d come from his poor, cramped childhood in North Jersey.
When he met my mother, she was a Ph.D. student in art history at Rutgers and he was still fairly new at his job at Coldwell Banker. He didn’t make that much money because he worked mostly on commission and hadn’t yet made a Big Sale. She didn’t know much about his past in the Adirondacks, only that he’d been a teacher and was now in real estate. She found him charming and funny, and though money was tight, he had a lot of upside to go along with the laughs.
After several months of dating, they got engaged and, in 1981, they got married. Right before the wedding, he made his first really substantial commission. They upgraded to a honeymoon in the Bahamas and later bought their first place in Hawthorne, a small New Jersey town 20 miles west of Manhattan.
Barely into 1983, my mom got pregnant. She will claim, till the day she dies, that I was planned and that her decision to take an eventually permanent leave of absence from her doctoral program was what she really wanted. I still don’t believe her, but that may be because the idea of giving up your dreams to go have a child sounds nuts to me.
Nonetheless, grateful as I am to have been brought into the world, cordially invited or not, I figured out by middle school that I didn’t like small-town life. As a kid, I was perpetually confused as to why we lived in a dull place like Wall when we could live closer to the city. Eventually, I accepted that dullness was the point. Wall, like most suburbs or outlying small towns, offers none of the culture or fun of the city and none of the beauty and solitude of the country, and this is exactly what people want: safety, the respectability of property, a space of one’s own, but without actually being unmoored from other people. This is the life my parents bought into. It’s a life I still find confounding at around the same age my father was when I was a zygote.
Of course, I’m not sure my father ever saw himself in a place like Wall either, not when he was smoking joints and listening to Jethro Tull records in Lake Placid.
* * *
Tate and I get back in the car and retrace the path to Devil’s Den, a place where boulders seemingly dropped from the sky in a single cluster within shooting distance of Little Round Top. The rocks were the scene of arguably the most famous picture to come out of the Civil War: supposedly that of a dead sharpshooter lying behind stones piled up for protection in a thin space between two of the boulders. The only problem is that the picture, like a lot of photos to come out of the war, was staged. The photographer, Alexander Gardner, supposedly dragged the body of an infantryman to the spot by the wall and propped up the rifle. No one really noticed or cared much that the pose was too perfect or that the rifle was the wrong kind for a sharpshooter. Because even if the photograph isn’t strictly speaking accurate, it is a story, well told, about death and resignation. The dead man’s face isn’t peaceful or twisted in horror; it is expressionless, void of joy or hope or agony—just empty. I suppose that’s the genius of it: its universal finality rooted in the specificity of a time and a place.
* * *
The house on Waterview Way is empty now. My father abandoned the property after realizing he was never going to keep up with the payments. He’d been out of a steady job for close to two years and had refinanced the house twice. In addition to the mortgages, he owed money to several divorce lawyers who each in turn quit after he didn’t pay them. So he drove west, leaving behind no way to know where he was for sure. I haven’t been back to the house, except once out of morbid curiosity. I couldn’t get in, but through a window on the side I could see someone had. Through the dusty, smudged glass, I could see some mats and beer cans and cigarette cartons and blankets that never belonged to us. It looked like neighborhood kids figured out the place was empty and pried their way in and used the house to do things I’d rather not think about, not where I used to lie on the carpet and eat cereal and watch cartoons with my brother while my sister complained about never getting to watch the shows she wanted.
The house was sold and whatever was ours has been cleared out and trashed, if no one’s pilfered it.
* * *
On battlefield maps, the neat lines of the Confederate regiments to the west of the Union defensive positions on the higher ground owe less to tactical strategy than they do to chance and bad decisions. Despite its staunch resistance at the outset of the battle, the Union was beaten back by the late afternoon of the first day and its troops retreated through the streets of the downtown where people now eat overpriced pickled corn and take ghost tours at night. Much of the Northern army had not yet arrived and, had the Southern army pursued its offensive, it would have, if not won the battle outright, at least have gained a highly advantageous position on Cemetery Hill southeast of town.
Thankfully for American history, they called it a day. This allowed the North to dig in from Cemetery Hill all the way down to the aforementioned Little Round Top, which led to the costly Southern defeats on the second day as they tried to take both. Those losses set up Pickett’s Charge on the third morning.
Pickett’s Charge is generally considered the High-Water Mark of the Confederacy. The High-Water Mark is both an idea and a physical point in space. A ledger-shaped monument marks the spot where Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead was shot. In the Romanticized Version of Confederate History, the Dream of the South died right there with him. Up until July 3, 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia had grown accustomed to victory. If the outcomes of battles were any indication, they were winning. But this point was as far as Armistead, the Army of Northern Virginia, and the South would go before the tides shifted.
* * *
My dad and I used to play a lot of basketball. Despite the fact that by high school I’d long since stopped losing to him, we still shot around at the gym together. Sometimes he’d even join a three-on-three game. One afternoon we got roped into one with some guys his age. The middle-aged men fouled a lot and cursed out loud when they missed shots, as older guys on the court tend to do, as if you’d just happened to catch them on an off day.
We were a basket away from winning when our third guy passed me the ball at the top of the key. I drove to the lane and the other team all collapsed into the paint on me. I passed out to my dad on the wing. He caught the ball and drove to the hoop. As the other defender stepped out to block his path, my dad spun around him and went up for a layup off the glass. The shot went in, but as he came down, there was an audible pop and he went down to the floor. He couldn’t stand back up without help. I knew immediately he’d torn his Achilles tendon. As I helped him off the court, he looked at me and, knowing his playing days were over, said, “Not a bad way to go out.”
At the time, the comment seemed like a way to downplay the situation. Only later, after surgery and a month of crutches and questions from my mother about just what he was thinking by playing at his age, only then did I realize the comment wasn’t that lighthearted. For him, it was the end of something.
He was officially old and, I’ve since realized, deeply unhappy. His career was on the downswing, his marriage was a mess (though maybe still salvageable), his affair with the neighbor was over (and unsalvageable), and now he couldn’t even shoot hoops.
What he didn’t account for in his worship of the American Dream—few do—is that not everyone makes it big.
He wasn’t anywhere he thought he’d be. He was on his fourth job since leaving Coldwell Banker. For reasons I’ll never really know, he’d topped out there. He was clever and driven enough to become Vice President and Regional Manager of Something or the Other, but he couldn’t accept the idea that that was it. He probably could have stayed on and made a decent salary and eventually paid off the house and put away some savings for retirement. He could have bought an RV and toured the country like he wanted (much to the horror of my mother).
But in his own mind, he was great at what he did, which at that point was real estate development. This led him to make reckless career decisions, taking pay cuts to work at smaller companies with smaller salaries and chances of larger commissions and deal stakes and managerial upside. “I can’t stand the idea of just working for a salary,” he once said, “that a set number is as good as you can do. A salary is a ceiling.” It’s un-American, he might as well have said.
While my father claimed to love God, he really put his faith in a vague idea of American capitalism. After all, it wasn’t Jesus who’d defeated Communism. It was the guy who fired the air traffic controllers and still got an airport named after him. On the bookshelf my dad prominently placed Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. In the bathroom, Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche and The Art of the Deal sat atop old Town & Country issues. He believed CEOs were worth every goddamn cent they earned and that unions were strangling the country. And whatever lip service was paid to Family Values, The Job always came first. (The Job was also, it turned out, a convenient cover for fucking around.)
What he didn’t account for in his worship of the American Dream—few do—is that not everyone makes it big. Most people aren’t a success story. But since mediocrity is a silent kind of desperation, you rarely hear about it. The narrative suppository you absorb on the regular from TV and movies from the time you’re a kid is that you grind it out, believe in yourself, get the money, and get the girl. The downside to the capitalist wager is always someone else’s reality.
For my father, the big commission checks never came. There was always a snag that was supposedly out of his control. A land deal went south or some investor lost heart or a colleague ran his mouth in a meeting.
Behind all the fantasies about striking it rich, about the Glengarry leads waiting to be handed over, there is a simple emptiness to the way a person feels as they’re running out of options, when they reach the point in life when things are supposed to get easier but instead have only become harder and more desperate. My father was no exception. During a dry stretch, he’d hole up in the office he’d made out of the family room and sit at the computer. Sometimes, when he was gone, if someone was using the other computer in the living room, I’d sneak in to use his PC and I’d see the half-drunk bottle of vodka behind the waste bin and the near-empty pack of Marlboro Lights in the keyboard drawer.
He wasn’t the only one wallowing in capitalist despair. I remember seeing his buddies around the house every so often—his old business associates and friends who’d similarly crapped out at New York and North Jersey real estate firms and spent large chunks of their days complaining about Democrats stifling business and affirmative action killing America. They worked on the Shore in small offices off main streets or in obscure office parks in towns you’d never have heard of if you weren’t from Jersey. Sometimes they talked about getting together to pool investors for a multi-million-dollar trucking depot down in South Jersey or a mixed-use building going up outside Philly. Nothing ever came of these talks and soon even his old buddies stopped coming around. They had their own lives to ruin.
But he also stopped socializing, I believe, because he was ashamed and sad and there were things he couldn’t share with anyone. My father was cagey about facts, despite liking to talk. He thought he could change reality if he could tell a believable story. Like most liars, though, he underestimated the intelligence of other people, because liars are mostly out to convince themselves: first, that the world buys their story, and then, after they’re satisfied this is true, that the story is real. Lying to oneself is the most important part of the battle.
Still, within the family and its extended circle, there are theories. People remember things. It forms an impression in my mind.
Maybe you pay for the car and the pool and the trumpet lessons and the rink time and your wife dumps some money in the basket every Sunday so that an old virgin can buy nice wine for the church dinners in the hopes God will pity you and still it’s all fucking boring and unfulfilling, even during the good years, if you’re honest with yourself. The shame and boredom are unrelenting, especially now that things aren’t so hot back home. You and boredom start hanging out on the couch together, watching the History Channel. And eventually the boredom flicks you in the balls and you finally get agitated enough to do something like fall for the neighbor across the street and you go and get her pregnant. You watch from across two lawns as another man raises your daughter. One time you run over there a little too fast when you hear she got hurt, as kids tend to do.
The only thing that is certain is the sadness and the shame, the disbelief that this is the arc of the story.
But maybe you don’t have as much money as your neighbor thinks you do, not as much as her husband does. Even if he’s in his 70s, he’s a founding partner at a successful local firm. You, on the other hand, have got big plans and three kids but you haven’t pulled a decent commission in a while. This goes on for years. Until one day she’s gone. She misses home and moves back to Florida with the daughter you can’t tell anyone else is yours, though if people looked at her, really looked at her, they might start to see a resemblance, but that’s not something anyone would want to know, if it’s true. You think you should probably leave your family and tell the neighbor you can somehow make it work. Maybe you do tell her and she laughs at you or, worse, says I love you but it’s over. I’ve got kids to think about. You can’t support them. You can’t even support your own anymore. Or maybe it’s all much simpler: she was bored. Either way it ends the same. She’s gone and leaves the husband in Jersey, where he gets cancer and dies and she takes up with a new guy.
And then you pop your Achilles. Maybe the story is like that. Or maybe there’s more to it. Or maybe less. You hint at things to your son when you’re drunk and talking on the back porch, as you do. The only thing that is certain is the sadness and the shame, the disbelief that this is the arc of the story.
* * *
Small-town suburbia makes personal disappointment worse. Housing developments are places primed for shame. There’s a pervasive sense of not meeting a moral obligation when you get too drunk at a barbecue, when your mortgage is delinquent, when the rosebushes don’t grow in right. In a place designed to look like people have their shit together, it’s almost impossible not to feel like an abject failure. This is America, the country for which your forebears fought, killed, and died—the country that tore itself apart in the 1860s, fought the Nazis, went to the moon, and wiped out a continent of people so it could fill the space with tract housing and hypermarkets. So open the pool by Memorial Day, for fuck’s sake.
* * *
We wait in my brother’s Jeep for close to an hour. I have the ashes on my lap and I keep thinking people are eyeing us suspiciously, wondering why we’re just hanging around off in the woods.
“Are they staring at us?” Tate asks.
“Yeah. They probably think we’re having a rendezvous,” I say.
He rolls his eyes.
“They’re gone,” he says. “Go and check if any other cars are pulling in.”
I hand him the ashes and get out.
Walking toward the Longstreet monument, I see a family lingering around the bend. The mother smiles as the father struggles to free a stuck zipper on his son’s rain jacket. The older son, maybe 14, gouges some packed dirt with his worn sneakers. I admire the monument while I wait. It is the same as I remember it: remarkable in its modesty. There is no pedestal visible; it’s buried in the ground to stabilize what is meant to look simply like a horse in stride, atop which sits a man who strains to see through the smoke, to confirm what he already knows to be true, that whatever he sent out there isn’t coming back whole, that this is all the end of something. The eyes are blank, though in that blankness I imagine is the knowledge that it’s better this way.
The mother claps when the father finally resolves the issue of the zipper. They all laugh and head up the dirt path to the main road along Seminary Ridge. I wait until they disappear around the corner and I give Tate the thumbs-up. He nods and gets out of the car with the ashes. I keep watch, though at this point there is nothing either of us can do if a park ranger comes by. We’re committed now.
Using his jacket to shield the urn, he sprinkles the ashes as he walks along the line of foliage. The ashes settle in a loose line along the ferns at the base of the trees. After doing this for 20 or so yards, Tate tucks the empty urn under his jacket. The woods are silent.
We look at our father’s ashes, grey-brown on the leaves of the ferns. The humidity and the light drizzle prevent them from dissipating properly, though there is nothing we can do at this point.
“We hope this is what you’d kind of want,” Tate says. We laugh.
We think dad would approve, though I imagine he would’ve wanted the whole family here. His two sons are the best he’s going to get today.
* * *
Gettysburg may be a popular tourist destination, but a hopping bar scene it is not. It’s apparent from the daytime that its tourist base comprises a lot of parents and the soon-to-be-eulogized. Back at the hotel, I look up bars on Yelp and the pickings are anorexic. We go with the closest one: the Garryowen. The name jumps out at me; it’s the name of a cheerful Irish tune that was used as marching music, a kind of fight song for back when fight songs bolstered men for actual fighting, not the pretend kind that happens with helmets and pads on weekends.
Tate and I walk down the slick street, the day’s precipitation still evaporating in the dusk heat as the last of the shops lock up and the visitors hurry home to read pamphlets and prepare for tomorrow’s itinerary.
The bar is about what you’d expect an American Irish pub to be. A respectable amount of taps. A modest choice of whiskies. The not-unwelcoming smell of stale fry grease. The place is empty and quiet, save for a drunk townie woman’s shrill laughter accompanying a story told in the slurred baritone of an equally drunk townie man.
“One vodka, one Jameson, and two Bud bottles, please,” I say to the bartender.
Tate and I aren’t saying much to each other. We don’t really know what to say. We just check our phones until the drinks arrive and I hand over $20, expecting change.
“To dad,” I say, raising my glass of Irish whiskey. We only have a meager mutt’s share of Irish blood, but when in Rome—or the Garryowen.
“To dad,” Tate says.
Drink. Wince. Gag. Hold back vomit.
“He would’ve approved,” I say, referring to the day’s events.
“Yeah. It was the kind of thing he’d do. Sort of illegal. Sort of stupid.”
We both smirk, thinking of how Charles Wisher would cut lines and sneak into places, thinking society’s minor rules didn’t apply to him.
For an hour or so we reminisce and we drink, planted firmly in our barstools. It is the first time in a long time I’ve had a happy talk about my father. We chuckle about how spittle would accumulate at the corners of his mouth when he was coaching basketball and about the way he pronounced “Warshington,” or how, like an absolute cheeseball, he greeted a girlfriend I brought home for Thanksgiving one year by kissing the top of her hand as if he were a Victorian lord. We laughed about his toupee and how it’d pop off his head when he napped on the couch and everyone would pretend not to notice.
At some point the whiskey and beer start lapping at my brain. I notice the bar’s filled up a bit, mainly with local 20-somethings in jeans and t-shirts, trying, it seems, to beat the pervasive boredom of nighttime Gettysburg. It’s clear this is a regulars spot and Tate and I are decidedly irregular.
I suggest we step outside for a smoke. I’d been saving the pack for the occasion and he is drunk enough to accept a cigarette. We put cocktail napkins over the beer bottles and step outside into the now-cool air.
“I’m glad I answered the phone when I did,” I say.
“What do you mean?”
“The last time he and I talked. I was on the home stretch of my master’s thesis. It was late and he called. It was the first time we didn’t fight in I-don’t-know-how-long.”
“Yeah, he said that. He said all you guys did when he called was fight. Seems stupid to me. To push away your own dad over stupid politics.”
“Only his were stupid. And anyhow it was a lot more than politics. Politics was just what we fought about when we didn’t want to fight about what we really wanted to fight about. Like how he cheated on mom all the time. Or was drunk or high on pills or both half the time or how I’m picking him up off the bathroom floor.”
“He wasn’t perfect. You don’t have to tell me. I told you how I had to knock his ass out during that hockey tournament. I got over it. Why can’t you?”
“It’s your ego. It’s as bad as his. You both think you’re special. You’re running around the world trying to prove you’re a writer or a scholar or a gentleman or whatever. Same shit. You think you’re special. What’d he ever really do to you? He ever hit you?”
“He ever touch you, you know, sexually?”
“You had a roof over your head. We both know you had enough to eat.” He looks at my belly. “The shit you failed at’s on you. Why couldn’t you just let the man have his dumb fucking fantasies?”
“What about the neighbor’s kid? His kid.”
“Yeah, well, that’s not got much to do with us now. So what? She’s the one who doesn’t know who her real dad is. He was full of shit but he loved us.”
“I’d want him to know I loved him still,” I find myself saying in a haze of whiskey fumes.
“Well, he didn’t know that at the end. He was pretty certain you didn’t. Used to say you and Cami had abandoned him. He expected it from her. Not from you, though. That’s why he couldn’t trust telling you he was in Milwaukee. I knew, but he thought you’d turn and tell mom and the lawyers would be all over him.”
I nod and pull out another cigarette. I hand him one too.
“I’m not trying to make you feel bad,” he says. “But he and I met up whenever he was back in town for business. He wasn’t good. Full-on alcoholic by that point. But he’d get it together enough to catch a movie and maybe we’d grab a burger and a beer after. The last time he was in town, we were supposed to meet up on a Saturday afternoon. He never showed. I called a bunch of times and nothing. By the time I heard back from him it was Sunday. He had some excuse about something, but I knew he was too hungover to show. Probably slept through the day. He wanted to meet up, but I was already out with Paul and Bruce and them. We said we’d meet up next time. And then I get a call from one of his friends out there. And that was it. And I’ve got to live remembering that I didn’t see him one last time.”
I have things to say to all this, but I don’t. We toss our cigarettes and head inside, leaving the discussion to dissipate in the wind like we’d hoped the ashes would.
* * *
The Army of Northern Virginia went unpursued as it retreated. Union troops taunted them. Some Southerners has essentially said “fuck this” and played dead during the charge. They now surreptitiously rejoined the group.
The war lasted for almost two more years before Lee finally surrendered at Appomattox Court House. Rather than carry on a guerrilla war and subject the South to more death and deeper economic deprivation, Lee realized that the only way forward for the Confederate states was surrender and, hopefully, generous terms and reconciliation in a whole America.
But we’re still not whole, if we ever were. Even after Gettysburg, a battle that resulted in over 46,000 casualties in three days, and a war that ended in more than 625,000 dead troops, we still don’t know who the fuck we’re supposed to be and what this place is supposed to mean, who or what America is ultimately for beneath the flag-waving bluster and people’s increasingly feeble purchasing power—if in fact this place stands for anything at all.
* * *
The next day, Tate and I both feel like we’ve been trampled by an entire cleated spring training roster. We clean up the empty chip bags and plastic sandwich wrappers and soda bottles from our post-bar trip to the 7-Eleven. Wincing, I check out at the front desk and Tate pulls the car around the front.
I ease into the passenger seat, hunched over my to-go coffee cup as if it were a fading ember I’d need to survive the deep cold of an arctic night.
“Want to see the High-Water Mark before we head back?” I croak out. I figure he should see Cemetery Ridge, the Union side of Pickett’s Charge, before we go. It’s pretty much the only part of the battlefield we haven’t covered.
“Sure,” he says.
I explain Pickett’s Charge to him from the Union side, about Armistead and the flanking maneuver of the Union troops.
“The whole thing sounds like a stupid move,” he says, referring to Lee’s plan of attack.
“Yeah,” I say. “Dying senselessly isn’t a good look. Pull over there.”
I point to a copse of trees. It stands out all the way to the Confederate side. For this reason the copse was the focal point toward which the Confederate army was supposed to attack. I think how green and remote, yet almost within grasp, it must have seemed to Lee. I think of him almost like Gatsby, staring across at the unattainable embodiment of a sick and doomed American dream.
Tate pulls the car to the side of the road, near the reconstructed stone breastworks. We stand behind them while a tour guide lectures to a group of people nearby. From here we can see across to Seminary Ridge and the Virginia Monument, atop which Lee sits on his horse. Unlike the Longstreet memorial, it is grandiose and vulgar, much like the South’s cultish devotion to the man. I can see people milling about and taking pictures. I think of them staring across the mile or so of open field, straining their eyes to make out our figures, Tate and me, standing now on the stones and taking in the morning breeze as the sunlight eases down to rest on the tall grass.
That distance to the other side is just an abstraction, though. The number is meaningless. Those people, Seminary Ridge, the Longstreet memorial hidden in those woods—it’s all indefinitely out of reach. But I do know the distance is far—as far as the distance between the living and the dead, as far as the distance between fathers and sons.
* * *
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Fact checker: Matt Hudson Giles
from Longreads https://longreads.com/2017/04/04/the-high-water-mark/