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The Walkin' Talkin' Wheatfield Cicada Blues
Last Friday evening on the streets of Gettysburg: the people came with their pockets full of money and the will to throw it around. Such is American summer in the place. Turning the Honda off the Baltimore Pike just past the Jennie Wade House and Museum- where a teenage girl baking bread for Union soldiers once took a stray bullet to the lower back/ the only certified civilian death across three days of hard fighting here- I cruise the minivan down Steinwher Avenue trying to maintain looking at the road but that is a battle in and of itself, you know.
I mean, it isn’t easy. There is real time post-pandemic rip-off-the-mask and hurl yourself into the fray again USA hot-ass life unfolding right here/ right there/ right there beside this town road that I am cruising me and Arle down.
Outside a ghost tour shop I spy a big dad in Realtree Crocs tenderly working the sides of a drippy ice cream cone as his flip-flop kids scatter around him on the sidewalk/ Under Armour this and that/ ice creams of their own running down their sweaty arms. The mom is drinking from a cup a few paces behind everyone else. There are confederate flag t-shirts dangling in the dead air off of gift shop porches.
I watch the dad lose the ice cream. One tongue press too much and it’s gone. Slapped down onto the exact few inches of sidewalk where maybe/ just maybe a real Civil War soldier once ran. Maybe running from the enemy. Maybe running to try and hide under a wood shed or a pig sty. Maybe running towards the Rebs/ who knows. A lot of soldiers died here. I have to figure at least one of them was done with war, done with all the endless marching and the lack of humanity and the missing home and the dark hole in his tired soul.
I have to figure (based on absolutely no historical sources whatsoever, mind you) that at least one fella stopped in mid-retreat/ closed his eyes/ heart slamming against his ribs/ felt a silence and something like peace come over him/ and simply said fuck it.
Turned around, this lad from New Jersey or Pennsylvania or New York, I don’t know where the hell he came from, he probably raised his unloaded musket at an approaching blur of butternut moving out of some smoke drift like wild turkeys at the edge of some woods at dawn.
Aimed his gun all half-assed at the coming line.
Sad. Tired. Empty. Been shitting his own pants for weeks with runs that listen to no prayers/ answer to no gods. No letters from home. Weary of tomorrows and broken by yesterdays, even a young man in the prime of his life might see things differently than you think he ought to have seen them all these years later.
Standing there now: $4 ice cream cone melting down onto your patriotic wrist: you want the courage, dog. You want the honor and the duty and the discipline and the freedom and the liberty and the cross and the hero: wrapped in the flag: standing there years later: staring into the lens of some city slicker photographer with the ancient face of a real American fighter. Someone you can stare at on Facebook many moons after he has gone to dust and feel good about.
You can bust open a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and crack a Monster Energy drink and you can stare at the old soldier’s faces and feel good about yourself in very twisted ways. Shove that loose cannon patriotic shit into your mouth same as you would jam a pinky nail’s worth of horse into your veiny arm if you were made of something different; not better or worse; just different. Some patriots worship a flag, some worship a feeling. I don’t know that one is better or worse than the other one. I kind of doubt they’re much different at all, to be honest.
But I’m not buying it. At least not all the time.
And not here, not today, as me and Arle slow roll down the street in a Honda Odyssey that is slightly overheating, wisps of sweet, terrible antifreeze coming through the heat vents. This dad-dude and his family from Connecticut or Georgia or wherever/ who knows/ who cares/ his family just stands there as his throat is blown wide open and two of his cone fingers get blown off right there in the middle of the goddamn street.
His liver sliced in half and hot piss exploding out of his carved-open side all over his oldest son’s face. Hot Mountain Dew piss in the kid’s Nintendo eye. No one is saying anything. The dad staggers a little as he evacuates his bowels now all over the ice cream he dropped a second ago, in the old times, when things were a bit fucking clearer, if you know what I mean.
Poor bastard. Debit card loaded up with money he hasn’t even spent yet and now this bullshit. He hits the deck hard/ his head slamming the concrete outside a french fry joint as a bunch of other people with cold drinks and plastic bags full of souvenir ball caps and fridge magnets and tiny cannons made in China by living breathing people trying to survive/ trying to get laid/ trying to eat their dinner in peace/ trying to read a little in the evening even though their eyes keep getting heavy heavy heavy…
People who will never ever set foot in Gettysburg. Or Antietam. Or Appomattox.
Down he goes/ thirty mini-balls tearing through his torso and his face and his knees, old Dad. And it’s Father’s Day weekend too.
America, am I right?
Or maybe I have blurred the lines here a little. I can’t even tell anymore. Gettysburg is that kind of place. It’s weird as fuck.
I can’t kill this dad. I gotta go back. Kill the soldier. Well… I mean… he kills himself, but you get what I’m saying.
Same stretch of sidewalk? I have no idea.
But it could be.
And how you define what happened here once upon a time or what happened here an hour ago, let me tell you, it’s probably wrong. Sprayed down by the garden hoses of time passed and money-making ingenuity/ polished with the filthy rags of Lost Cause interpretation/ laid bare across a peaceful landscape: the white-washed bones of the blacksmiths and farm kids and teachers and cheaters and card sharks and murderers who fought here, who tried like hell to survive here and probably did but also maybe did not.
The lingering low hum of the freshly de-limbed echoing across this ground like the cicadas out there buzzing upon it right now.
I’m not talking about honor either, dude. I’m not talking about things that are big and neon and out of our hands, frankly, when we stand there in our cargo shorts and sneakers and try to paint ourselves as standing on the absolute right side of someone else’s long ago mindset. Their fears. Their desires. Their hatred and their love.
What I am talking about is much simpler than that. Much clearer. Because what I’m talking about is death. Mysterious, dark-ass death.
Gettysburg is deathy.
And I wonder what that was like. To die in a hail of lead. Or with a knife in your back. Or under a tree limb that tumbled down onto your skull and smashed it. My guess? You regretted everything. All of it. Flags. Armies. States. Governments. My guess is that you died wishing you could live on and that you would trade anything for that chance.
But then the gravediggers appeared at dawn and put you in the summer dirt. It was cool in the morning, rainy.
They put your body in the shallow ground and they heaped your tired memory up onto a mule wagon on a heap of memories. Drove that part of you back into town, unloaded you on the streets right there by where the ice cream place is now. And sold your ass, day after day, year after year, anniversary after anniversary, however they damn well pleased.
You fought for this. You fought for that. You bit your lip and were oh so brave, boy.
Flaggy flag flag.
Now pass me a Red Bull.
On a fat old rock on the edge of The Wheatfield, I am trying to read three books at once as the mosquitos eat my neck. Motherfuckers. I guess it’s what I deserve though/ I mean, c’mon… It’s muggy June. The bugs are life. They own this land more than I do. They were born here. They will die here. Inside of their tiny bug veins or whatever, there is the possibility that somehow there is soldier DNA there.
I know that sounds whack but think about it. Born on a Wheatfield leaf or in a Wheatfield patch of weeds, raised on Wheatfield nourishment. Whatever bugs eat they eat it where they stand. So these bugs, these Wheatfield bugs, they eat Wheatfield stuff. In a way, they simply eat The Wheatfield.
And maybe there is still soldier out there in it. In the Wheatfield: on this patch of land that once, on a single sweltering late afternoon in July of 1863, wrapped her gentle arms around the bodies of many wounded and dead. Some were buried here, at least for a while. Others, they bled profusely from hopeless holes in their guts or gashes in their ribs, their blood slipping down into the dirt/ down into the levels of Earth/ seeping/ soaking/ hard, sad bleeding out all over the wheat and the dirt and the rocks and the shadows of the birds that flew over later, after the action was done and the place had gone quiet but for the screams of the scared and wounded.
That could be inside of a bug, it occurs to me down there on that rock this past Friday. Soldiers and bugs could have synthesized in a way. I don’t mean that in some sort of disrespectful way either.
It dawns on me and I immediately think of it as beautiful. A notion of nature taking over, seeing you through. Many would like to think the dead soldiers are curled up in the arms of angels, constantly looking down on the place where they died with brave reverent eyes in death.
Whatever. I don’t. I like to think of them as part of a ladybug. Or part of a moth. Flitting across the field, being chased by birds. Being eaten by birds. Becoming a part of the bird. Oh boy. Here we go. Soldiers in birds. Perhaps that upsets you?
I don’t care.
I like it better than a lot of the other interpretations.
Anyway, I’m on this rock on Ayres Avenue trying to study a couple books I brought with me. I’m really hungry to understand one particular thing here but I know deep down that I can never really know. I want to find out where a certain soldier died here. A soldier from the town where I live now. This is what has brought me here.
I’ve been digging for a while trying to figure stuff out. But to be honest: I’m not even sure what. What do I care about this guy for? Why do I stalk him from behind the shady hedges of a century and a half?
Here’s what I know. I review it in my head as Arle speaks for the first time in a while. She’s been chilling on this rock with me, just taking in the place, swatting bugs (soldiers?), letting me do my thing because she is that person. Her love for me is more than I can fathom. So my geeking out to the point of sitting on rocks in Gettysburg fields and looking at books and talking to myself/ and sometimes blurting newly formed narratives or freshly discovered facts to her/ it is something she sees worth in. She is interested in all of this a lot, but not like me. I know this. I understand. And yet, she lets it happen; never sighing passive-aggressively; never coaxing me to wrap things up or any shit like that.
“Look at that ant,” she says at one point when I have my entire bugbit face shoved deep inside of the pages of a book called Storming the Wheatfield: John Caldwell’s Union Division in the Gettysburg Campaign. Nerdy, right? But still: I need this. I dive down in there alone/ but I know she is waiting for me up on the rock. That is huge. A lot of nerds die lonely/ they drown down in these underwater caves where we end up. It helps to have a human waiting for you to surface again. I really fucking helps, man.
“Look at it!,” Arle exclaims. “It’s eating a cicada fifty times its size!”
I turn to watch and she’s right. The cicada has spent itself and is dying. The ant has chosen wisely. There is no resistance. Here in this place of absolute peace forever chained to unthinkable violence, a robust ant and a fading cicada do the dance.
I smile. The ant is a badass. Of course Arle spotted him.
I glance at the field as a family moves slowly past us on rented bikes. Young kids. Mom. Dad. I smile. I picture a cannon ball crashing down out of the trees right into the middle of them. Ugh. I’m terrible.
Corporal Jacob Lanich was 27 when he died. He was from the small rural Central Pennsylvania town of Millheim, the same town where I live today. He enlisted in Company A of the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteers in August of 1862. He was married at the time, father to a one-and-a-half year old daughter named Hattie when he went to war. He and his wife Sarah, had lost another infant daughter named Alice the year before Hattie was born.
Such a ride he and his wife had been on. The unspeakable pain of losing a child followed by the arrival and yet another. True, those days were different than these ones we know now, but the death of a child can’t have changed much, you know? It still must be beyond the realm of description. Many soldiers probably carried it with them across dusty days of uncertainty and anger and dread.
I look hard for the out and out patriotism in these stories but I never find it. There was more than meets the eye beyond every soldier’s morning glare, I suspect. How many were die-hard believers in this, that, or the other thing? Many, of course. But how many were simply confused? Anxious? Wistful or resentful?
How many wished they could just wake up tomorrow and simply rally around a cause already?
A lot, I suspect. Again: I base my ramblings on nothing much at all. I’m no historian. I dig deep only when it scratches a very deep itch in me, but rare is the time when that connects me to a more focused understanding of why people thought what they thought and did what they did during the Civil War. Or anytime for that matter.
Human history is names and facts. But think about this: what kind of portrait could someone create of you today, this afternoon even, out of just names and so-called facts, if you will? Yes, they can start to tell the tale, but you are so much more than that. You and me both. I encounter a thousand different me’s a day. I’m coming and going. I’m grappling with realities and changing my ways. I’m talking quietly to Arle in the air-conditioner’s humming/ 10pm/ laying my bones out all over the bed so she can take a good hard look at them. Because I trust her.
So yeah. So much more to this being alive and being human and being a dad or a mom or a son or a daughter than we can sometimes fathom through the historical filter. And yet, it’s often all we have. The facts. And not many of them at that.
I go with what I know.
By the time Lanich and the 148th hard marched their way to Gettysburg on the early morning of July 2, 1863, his wife, Sara was very pregnant back at home.
I sip my coffee on this rock and I look at a map in one book and read a little about where the 148th entered the field in another and I piece together, carefully, like broken glass, a version of events. Corporal Lanich, it seems, was with his company well out in the middle of this open space when they approached a stone wall that- try as I might, I cannot pinpoint. It was there and it may still be there to some degree, but I couldn’t find it this week with all the tall grass growing.
At that wall, at some point during a very hard fight, Lanich is killed by a bullet that, by all accounts, went in one side of his head and came clean out the other. He dies instantly in the early evening of July 2, 1863 unbeknownst to anyone who loves him or cares about him.
Do you think he wanted to die or was okay with dying? Or was he maybe wishing he could run? Or maybe even thinking about running. What if he had run? Would the Civil War had ended differently?
At the exact moment of his death, my great-great-great-grandfather, Private Frederick Marker, 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers, was crouching down (I imagine) a few hundred yards away from the wall where Lanich’s lifeless body lay out there in the chaos and the smoke.
How can that even be real? How can my own blood ancestor have been right there, maybe even within eye sight, of this soldier who hailed from where I call home? To me, it seems beyond the ability of truth or coincidence or storytelling.
Did Marker see Lanich running towards that old stone wall?
Probably not. But I can never say for sure. Maybe the smoke had cleared for a second. Maybe one locked eyes on the other. Maybe my grandfather heard the exact shot echoing up the road right as it tore through Lanich.
Or maybe not.
I drift from the rock and float out above myself, above this high grass where wheat once grew. I hover above the battlefield itself and I am like a drone or a vulture or a star unseen in this sunny afternoon sky. Down on the Stony Hill I can see the 118th’s monument just barely through the thick canopy of trees. Over by the 148th’s monument, I see the rock, and upon it, Arle. She is watching the cicada succumb to its fate. She is calm, a silent witness.
She has no idea of the cicada’s fear. Or if it simply resolved itself to die. It is hard imagine, impossible to know. All she knows is that we will head to Sheetz for some coffee and some sandwiches before long, but it doesn’t have to be yet. She gets it, my need to be here. Maybe more that I even get it myself.
I am a cloud now, a kite on a string pulled along by the ghostlike thermals that only the birds understand.
I feel no particular patriotic anything up here, but I do feel some kind of unspoken pride. I’m proud that this place is till here, proud that people- who so often fuck everything up- managed to preserve it so that people like me can sit upon a rock and try to chase men back through time. Even if they do just end up vanishing in the distant ether time and time again.
Lanich’s body must have been discovered, but there is no record of where it ever ended up. For a long time, there existed a storage room in a basement in Gettysburg where individual envelopes contained the last known contents from unidentified soldier’s bodies. Men killed in the battle, left out on the field. They were kept so that loved ones might be able to come there and find their soldier’s things someday. Shuffling through the boxes, the hope was that they would come across an envelope with something they recognized or remembered. Then they could link that soldier’s things with the unidentified man in a certain unknown’s grave. But few people came, they say. And sometime during World War II, when the government needed all available space for manufacturing much-needed supplies, legend has it that all of the envelopes from the unknown Gettysburg dead were taken out on a boat off of Baltimore and dumped unceremoniously into the Atlantic Ocean.
Envelopes with Bibles and combs, letters and photos. Sprigs of children’s hair? Coins. I don’t know what was in there. No one does now.
One war robbing another one.
On July 28th, 26 days after Corporal Jacob Lanich had been killed in the Wheatfield, his widow Sarah gave birth to a daughter. Sarah Jane Lanich was her name. It is possible that no account of her father’s death had reached her mother by that time, as word traveled slower back in those days. But it is also possible that it had.
And that Sarah Lanich gave birth to her daughter on a hot midsummer’s day when her own heart was both heavy and light. When the darkest hour that she had most feared had to be pushed aside like only a mother could do.
A child arriving in the midst of long war. A father gone forever. A mother brokenhearted and yet determined to live on.
I’m spitballing, of course, but it’s the history I write for myself.
Sarah Lanich remarried and lived a long life. Her and Jacob’s daughter Hattie lived into her 90’s and was a loved and respected school teacher in the very valley where her family was from.
Sarah Jane died in February of 1867 a few months shy of her 4th birthday.
Corporal Jacob Lanich’s widow and children are all buried in the small cemetery across from the mini-market on the outskirts of Millheim. I see their graves from the Penns Valley Road every morning on my way to work and I try and say hey to them the best I can. A slight smile as I swish by in snowflakes. A swift nod as I slam by in a burst of summer sun. I hope they had good lives, but I’m sure they had their troubles. Who the hell doesn’t?
I know they must have missed their man. Left as a soldier and never came home.
Far and deep as I’ve dug: his body/ his remains have always gone unidentified as far as I can tell. And that’s the way this will most likely play out for eternity. His bones are maybe in the National Soldiers Cemetery in Gettysburg. Or maybe not. Maybe they are buried/undiscovered not far from the rock where me and Arle sat the other day.
Whatever the case, they are fading to dust as you and I gather here and it’s strange, I think. I wish I could make sense of what that means, why I wish I knew where he was. Why the hell should I give a rat’s ass? I didn’t know the fella; not related to him; don’t glorify him in my head or exploit him in my daily life.
Yet there you go. I admit what no even cares if I admit. I wonder about him. Probably more than any other person alive on this Earth.
Is that stupid or weird?
And why do I feel sort of sea sick thinking about the whole damn thing?
I’ve got bigger fish to fry and I know it.
Saturday morning, coffee’d up, Arle and I are scarfing down breakfast sandwiches in the parking lot of the Sheetz a few miles from The Wheatfield and Little Round Top and Pickett’s Charge and all of it. It’s going to be a hot one today and the parking lot is loaded already with Harley riders and tourists and farmer’s market cinnamon bun food trucks and dads in Realtree Crocs sliding their way across the baking concrete towards the blast of cool they know is waiting for them if they can just slide these last few steps toward relief.
We are out and about early this morning, getting on a bus that will take us to a group walking tour of East Cavalry Field, a few miles from the rest of the battlefield, where Custer once fought the Rebs. It’s all sponsored by a podcast I really dig called Addressing Gettysburg. Which is why, not long from now, when the rear of the bus we are all riding on catches on fire as we are motoring down the highway and people are hollering “Fire!” and that “There is gasoline!,” it’s leaking from the back “We need to pull over immediately!”. We do and me and Arle have to file off the bus with everyone else and it’s pretty scary, I suddenly realize that being afraid is a good taste in your mouth when you come here. When you go galavanting around Civil War places trying to imagine what it was like for people who were alive then… and why.
Another bus will come and get us. Everyone will be okay. The tour will be so good, led by a licensed battlefield guide, we will wander in and out of Custer of course, but also in and out of David Gregg, a cavalry big shot from Huntington County, Pennsylvania, where many of Arle’s people hail from.
But that is all to come, you see.
For now, in this parking lot, I smell the antifreeze smell rising up out of Arle’s minivan heat vents and I smile at the random absurdity of it all. Energy drinks. Turkey sausage. 24 ounces of coffee at a clip. You could buy almost anything you might need to make it through the inside this store right now. And if you needed weapons or crystal meth or antique furniture or tickets to see Kenny Chesney or whoever-the-fuck up in Hershey later this year, you could probably arrange via Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace to pick those up right here in this bustling lot if you were so inclined.
For a sec, I wonder about what Custer might have gotten if he wandered up to this scene on his horse. I wonder if he would have been freaked out by the hard hitting AC, by the pissers that flush themselves according to your shadow moving out.
History is such a valuable part of being alive because it reminds us of our biggest fear. That we are on the clock and that the clock will run out of time before too, too long, no matter how we slice it. Sitting here with Arle this morning, I watch a blonde lady head towards the brisk indoors of yet another Sheetz and I imagine she is Custer.
Hair flowing in the breeze, a steady deliberate walker headed firmly towards supplies.
She disappears into the darkness of the place without looking back. Custer would have looked back, I think. He might not have looked back upon so many things in his world. Upon bodies strewn behind him. Upon women and children begging for mercy. Upon his own family as he rode off into the sunset of his final departure. But something tells me he would have taken pause before he walked into this Sheetz. He would have stood there looking like a re-enactor, a piece of long grass dangling from his tightly pursed lips, a dad in Crocs holding the door for this moron who is just standing there/ feeling the tomb-ish blasts of cold wash over his body suddenly, a man, for once, afraid to take even one more step.
And who could blame him?
This is Gettysburg after all.
No one is safe here. No one is safe from the unreconstructed melting ice cream of others. No one is safe from the hard nauseating questions rising up from deep down within themselves.
No one is safe from coming to terms with that one true voice that whispers in your little American ear at night.
You don’t know jack shit about the American Civil War, hoss.
And you probably never will.
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Carefully edited by Arle Bielanko
Photos: 1,3, 5 by Arle Bielanko. Photos: 2, 4, 6 by Serge Bielanko.
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