Note: As the publication of my new book, Clay Soldiers: One Marine’s Story of War, Art, & Atomic Energy draws closer, I thought that I would give you a preview of the book by publishing the first chapter over the next few weeks. The story is a biography of Chuck Caldwell, a WWII Marine who fought at Tarawa and Guadalcanal. He also worked in Nevada with the above-ground atomic bomb tests, attended the 75th, 100th, 125th and 150th anniversaries of the Battle of Gettysburg, and is a sculptor of miniature figures that are highly sought after. If you are interested in pre-ordering a copy of the book at a 25% discount off the cover price and free shipping in the U.S., contact me at email@example.com. As always, let me know what you think.
One of the more than four dozen Civil War veterans whom Chuck Caldwell met at the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. He had each one sign his autograph book and have his picture taken with Chuck.
Chuck Caldwell woke in the morning and wondered if he should cluck. The fourteen-year old boy had spent the night sleeping in a chicken coop with his father.[i] Not that the chickens were sharing the drafty wooden building with them. The roosts and nest boxes were empty, but the smell of feathers and feces hung in the air to remind him that clucking hens had once called the building home.
The chickens could have it back as far as Chuck was concerned. The low, wooden building with rows of wooden boxes mounted on three walls might be a fine home for chickens, but it hadn’t been the most-comfortable place for Chuck to sleep. Throwing a mattress into a chick coop hadn’t turned it into a bedroom, either. Whenever Chuck had shifted on the thin mattress, he could feel the wire-mesh that served as a floor sink under him.[ii] If he looked over the edge of the mattress, he could stare through the mesh to the hard-packed earth two feet below him. He actually hadn’t minded the open floor too much. It had provided ventilation to keep it from getting too hot in the small building during the warm July night. The gentle draft from below also kept the smell from becoming overwhelming. However, it had also allowed mosquitoes and other flying insects into the coop to disturb their sleep.
Chuck’s mother and older sister would be glad that they hadn’t come along on this trip. He didn’t think that they all could have fit into the cramped eight-foot-by-eight-foot building, and Chuck couldn’t imagine them sleeping here. When Barbara heard about this, his sister would probably start calling him some stupid name like “Chuck the Chicken” or “Cluck Cluck Chuck.” The taunts would be worth it, though. He and his father were here. He was in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where the tide of the Civil War had shifted.
The last day of June 1938, Chuck and his father had driven from their home in Orrville, Ohio, east along the Lincoln Highway.[iii] It was the first paved highway in the country and ran from New York to California.[iv] It made for a smooth ride in their Essex sedan, but it didn’t make the 315-mile trip any shorter. They had traveled over the Appalachian Mountains, through small towns with interesting names like Freedom, Turtle Creek, and Ligonier, and the big city of Pittsburgh, which was 150 times larger than Orrville.
The drive had taken most of the day. They had stopped for food and gas along the way, but the breaks were as short as Chuck could make them. He urged his father on, and they arrived in Gettysburg late in the evening, although it was still light out. When the sedan parked along Chambersburg Street, both Chuck and his father were anxious to get out of the car. George Caldwell had needed to stretch his cramped body, but Chuck had wanted out because they were in Gettysburg. The Gettysburg.
It was a legendary, almost mythical, place to the young teenager. Gettysburg was a town that was forever stuck in its past because of its connection with the pivotal battle of the Civil War. It had been a town of around 2,000 residents in 1863 when 150,000 troops fought on the fields around the town and in the streets of Gettysburg.[v] Chuck knew the names of the generals and officers who had fought there as well as he knew the names of his favorite baseball players. Lee. Meade. Chamberlain and so many others. Some were considered heroes, others villains, but they were all legends in Chuck’s mind.
Seventy-five years after the famous battle, the population was around 5,800 and that’s only if you counted permanent residents. In the summers, the population was at least double that as tourists visited the battlefield driving across the field where armies had once fought and thousands of soldiers died. Now hundreds of monuments had sprung up across the land like lonely sentinels to remind those visitors that they were on hallowed ground.
It wasn’t the Caldwells first visit to Gettysburg. That had been two years earlier in 1936 when Chuck had been twelve years old.[vi] That summer, the entire Caldwell Family, including Chuck’s mother, Ellen, and sister, Barbara, had arrived in Gettysburg for a family vacation. For Chuck, it had been a dream come true. There’d been no chicken coops for a bedroom then. The family had stayed at a tourist court in town and had hired a guide to lead them on a tour of the Gettysburg battlefield.
During the driving tour of the battlefield, Chuck marveled at the open, green fields interrupted occasionally with large stone monuments. The largest of them was the 110-foot-tall Pennsylvania State Memorial. It commemorated the 34,530 Pennsylvania soldiers who fought at Gettysburg, and it had been dedicated just in time for the last great reunion at Gettysburg in 1913. The 100-foot-square pedestal made from North Carolina granite had four corner towers connected by arches that support a dome and observation deck. The deck could be reached by a spiral staircase in the tower. Besides the panels with soldiers’ names, the walls also hold bas-relief sculptures. The memorial contained more than 1,400 tons of broken stone, more than 1,250 tons of granite, 740 tons of sand, more than 360 tons of cement, 50 tons of steel bars and 22 tons of marble.[vii]
Chuck had climbed one of the staircases in the towers to reach the deck. From the top of the monument, he had a commanding 360-degree view of the battlefield. He could see miles in any direction. He imagined soldiers dressed in blue or gray on foot and on horseback charging and firing rifles at each other. He looked at the tree lines, searching for cannons. He would have stopped at every gray stone monument if he had been able to in order to read what had been inscribed in stone.
For most of the tour, the guide sat in the front of the old Essex describing how the three-day battle in 1863 had progressed.
“As we would drive by the Peach Orchard, he’d tell us about it and then say, ‘And the fighting was mighty, mighty severe.’ Then we’d drive by the Wheatfield and he would tell us about what happened there and then say, ‘And the fighting was mighty, mighty severe,” Chuck recalled.[viii]
By the time the Caldwells reached their third or fourth stop on the tour where “the fighting was mighty, mighty severe”, Chuck and his sister were hiding their faces behind their hands, giggling and trying not to laugh out loud from the backseat of the car.[ix]
The cover of Clay Soldiers, which will be available this spring.
Here are the links to the other parts of “The Last Reunion”:
[i] Author interview with Chuck Caldwell. Because of the number of interviews conducted with Chuck Caldwell between 2015 and 2016, they will be referred to as if they were a single interview.
[ii] Author interview with Chuck Caldwell.
[iii] Author interview with Chuck Caldwell.
[iv] Nebraska Tourism Commission, “History,” LincolnHighwayNebraskaByway.com (http://lincolnhighwaynebraskabyway.com/history) accessed August 26, 2015.
[v] Civil War Trust, “Ten Facts About Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863,” http://www.civilwar.org (http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/gettysburg/assets/ten-facts-about/ten-facts-about-gettysburg.html) accessed August 26, 2015.
[vi] Author interview with Chuck Caldwell.
[vii] Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Report of the Pennsylvania Commission (Harrisburg, PA: William Stanley Ray, State Printer, 1913) p. 24.
[viii] Author interview with Chuck Caldwell.
[ix] Author interview with Chuck Caldwell.
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