It seems like a long time ago.
And it was. Two armies clashed in southern Pennsylvania’s hills and fields 150 years ago, four decades before the Wright brothers launched themselves into history from a North Carolina sand dune.
Our country, whose future hung in the balance, wasn’t even 100 yet. Gold fever had seized California only 14 years before. The West had yet to be won.
But we’re not as far removed from Gettysburg and the Civil War as we might think.
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Bill Gettig’s proof.
Gettig, 87, resides today in Millheim and State College. His great-grandfather, Samuel Gettig, a teacher from Madisonburg, fought at Gettysburg with the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
The Civil War veteran lived to be 93, long enough to tell stories to a young boy and pass along a Confederate bank note he took off a rebel soldier.
So Bill Gettig, who lives in a latte and laptop world, knew someone who crossed the smoke-shrouded Wheatfield under a hail of minie balls.
Suddenly, a war depicted in sketches and murky tintype photographs doesn’t feel quite so distant. Since I spoke with Gettig, that makes me just one person separated from someone who was there.
The gulf narrows.
That happened to Jeff Wert, a local Civil War historian and author, while growing up in Brush Valley.
One of his teachers, also from the area, remembered listening as a child to elderly Civil War veterans reminisce about their service. Wert became interested in the war, and then went on to be a teacher and storyteller himself.
We’re in an accelerated age, driven by sprinting technology, and it’s warping our perspective on time. Check out a movie from the early 1990s — when people quaintly used pay phones, texts came on paper and twitter was just a funny word — and it all appears from another era, not just 20 years ago.
A century and a half, to our contemporary brains, might as well be a geological age.
But as Bill Gettig and Wert remind us, the span can be deceiving. When Gettig served on the USS Pennsylvania battleship during World War II, Pickett’s Charge was as old as the Great Depression is now.
And there are still lots of people around who were alive during the Depression, who in their youth could have met a Civil War veteran or widow at the end of his or her life.
One person could be the bridge across 150 years.
Civil War re-enactors talk about keeping history alive. But within all of us, history lives in the transmission of stories from one person to another.
When I interviewed a 105-year-old woman last year, she remembered adults reading the news about the Titanic sinking, and then discussing the tragedy among themselves.
I still can’t believe I was sitting across from someone old enough in 1912 to form a lasting memory. She has passed away, but her story, a little bit of a legendary disaster, stays with me.
The moral of this story is: If you know an eyewitness to history — a neighbor, a friend, an acquaintance — don’t hesitate. Talk to one of the vanishing World War II or Korean War veterans. Talk to a Vietnam War veteran. Listen to their recollections and descriptions and tuck them away for safekeeping.
For that matter, find about the Depression from someone who survived those hard times. Decades will melt away.
And some day, if you’re lucky, you’ll share the gift and shrink history for a younger generation.