My friend Paul Meuse passed away last month, but not before he had one more tour of the Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg. It was his passion, and he followed his passion with courage!
It had already been quite a trip! Paul and I had flown across country from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. on our way to tour Civil War battlefields. Paul is a Civil War expert and he had done this trip many times, but not recently. His Parkinson’s was getting pretty bad, and he wanted to make one more journey to view the battlefields and re-live the history that was made there.
It was not an easy trip for Paul. The Parkinson’s was causing a fair amount of uncontrolled movement, and Paul was no longer steady on his feet. He now travelled with a cane, which he called that “Stupid Cane,” and he had to take a series of medicines every four hours to keep the involuntary movement to a minimum. Walking distances was a problem, and we used wheelchairs to get through the airports.
But Paul perked up once we hit the battlefields at Gettysburg, and he related the history of each area as though reading from a textbook. I was a student travelling with the professor, and I enjoyed the lessons.
We followed the three-day battles in sequence, and Paul pointed out where each division of Union and Confederate troops was positioned, told me who commanded each brigade, and pointed out the strategy each side used in positioning and moving artillery and troops. The scenes developed for me as he related what happened and when.
When we reached the third (and last) day of fighting, he got visually agitated; this was the climax of the battle, and as it turned out, the crux of the war. We drove through the battlefields and he had me pause next to the monuments of his favorite brigades. I could tell we were nearing the pinnacle. We rounded a corner and he pointed out that we could now see Little Round Top, the mid-sized hill where so much of the action took place, and where the battle was decided. We drove up the hill, paused near the top, and got out. He used his arms to show me where the Union and Confederate troops were positioned, and he explained the importance of taking the hill to eliminate the deadly cannon fire that was being rained down on the Confederate troops. He paused and I thought he was finished, so I headed to the car. He wasn’t with me, so I turned back to see what had happened to him. He was walking up the hill. I chased him down and asked where he was going.
“I didn’t come all the way here to not go to the top of Little Round Top,” was his answer.
So Paul used his stupid cane, his one good knee, and a whole lot of determination to walk the path to the top of Little Round Top. I followed.
Once he reached the peak a new look came over Paul’s face. It was a mix of pain, exhaustion, and joy. This was his nirvana; this was the ground he knew so well. He showed me where the troops from Texas had charged up the hill, and where they were met by round-after-round of deadly rifle fire by the northern troops. He pointed out where bodies had been found the next day, in piles, lying where they were shot. He pointed out where the Northern Iron Brigade defending the hill had run out of ammunition and been ordered to fix bayonets and charge down the hill, into the waves of approaching Confederate troops.
He made it come alive.
It was a while before Paul could bring himself to leave. When he did, I looked at his face. He had a look that told me he was satisfied. He had come to the spot that meant so much to the U.S., and to him. He had one more look at it, and that was what he needed.
We will all face our end sometime; some sooner than others. Paul is facing his now. I hope when my turn comes I can follow his example – do what you love, do it with passion, and do it with courage.