Tuesday, December 13, 2011

He's Always the Answer

No, I'm not speaking of God today.  Though God may be the answer for some people in every situation, my story isn't about God.  It's about a man named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.  In many ways, he's been the answer in my life.

The story begins in high school.  Tenth grade to be exact.  I managed to get into Advanced American History or Advanced U.S. History or whatever you want to call it.  It was not an AP course, not in tenth grade, but it was more challenging than the regular tenth grade history.  However similar or dissimilar they may have been I don't know.  It's not like history changes much.  Anyway, my teacher, Mr. S, taught what he believed to be the most important part of our country's history, the Civil War.  We spent seven months learning the Civil War, one month about WWII, and one month on the rest of our country's history.  Please don't ask me to tell you what the Dust Bowl was or where Fort William Henry was or the route of Lewis and Clark, as I never really got into those points.  They failed to be as important to my teacher as the great Civil War.

Though I may be lacking all common knowledge of our history, when it comes to the Civil War, I dance circles around most college professors.  Who was George Meade you ask?  Allow me to write a dissertation.  What happened at Antietam?  I shall give you volumes.  Mr. S made us draw battle maps from memory, had us able to recognize dozens of officers, both Union and Confederate, by picture or by name.  We learned about war technology (from Gatling guns to advances in battlefield medicine).  We sat, absolutely riveted, through movies and slides about the war.  And he tested us regularly.  Every test had only one requirement: if you didn't know the answer to a question, write "Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain."  He would give partial credit for that answer even if it was totally wrong.

You see, Mr. S was a bit obsessed with Chamberlain.  He made that known from the start.  He thought JLC was a hero, someone that should be admired unconditionally, and he helped us to learn why.  At the very end of our Civil War studies, he made us watch Gettysburg, a monstrosity of a film, with Jeff Daniels playing the role of Chamberlain.  Even as a sixteen-year-old girl, Chamberlain's monologue as he rallies his troops before battle made me want to defend the line.  I now own that movie.  I love that scene.  And Chamberlain is a hero.

Several times since high school, I've encountered trivia questions or little moments where I need to whip out my Civil War knowledge.  "Who defended Little Round Top?" or "What unit..." Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, 20th Maine, is the answer.  "Which school teacher led..." and "Which Civil War officer went on to become a professor at..."  Pick me, pick me, I've got this one.

And today, as I watched the eleventh episode of one of my new favorite TV shows (Showtime's Homeland), the main character (played by the very yummy Damian Lewis) took his family to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  He was teaching his children what had happened there, and he pointed out almost nothing but the story of JLC and his defense of Little Round Top, his troops and their courageous bayonet charge down the hill.  The way Lewis's voice told the story took me back over ten years to those moments in Mr. S's classroom.  It was stunning to have all of the pictures and battle maps flood my mind.

For the record, I've never really needed to know where Fort William Henry is.  It doesn't come up in conversation much.  The Dust Bowl also doesn't get much air time anymore.  But Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain?  He was the answer again today.  And I'm really, really glad I knew that.

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