It had been one of the most interesting and poignant days we'd ever spent together as we sat down at our table near a warm, cozy fire in a restaurant that resembled a Civil War-era inn. Appropriately, it was located hard by the historic Gettysburg battlefield in southern Pennsylvania.
It was rather late, but we hardly noticed as we relived each emotional moment spent touring every inch of Gettysburg and recounting the things that had left lasting impressions on our minds and souls. I'd easily rate that day as one of the greatest in my life, and have often said if I were dying, I'd like to spend my final moments standing on little Round Top where the 20th Maine had held firm and saved the Union.
It was almost 10 p.m. when we finally emerged from that quaint old structure, and headed to our vehicle. And then an idea struck me full force. An entrance to the battlefield was located just across the road from the restaurant, and I thought it would be a forever experience to take a late-night walk among the ghosts who dwelled on that hallowed ground.
When we got to the gate, it was locked, but only a single chain stretching across the narrow path kept us from entering the most famous and revered battleground in American history. The choice was an easy one. Looking around to make sure no one was watching, we ducked under the barrier and quickly scurried for the security of darkness.
Yes, we broke the law, but it was done with the finest of intentions and in total respect of those who gave their lives to preserve our country. I can confess to my criminal ways now, some 20 years later, because the statute of limitations on such matters has long since expired. Not only that, it was cool.
It was a perfect summer night and a bright, full moon showed us the way. The countless stone memorials that dot the Gettysburg landscape formed beautiful, never-to-be-forgotten silhouettes as we moved quietly amongst the long shadows they cast in the moonlight.
Before long, we found ourselves at the base of the powerful statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee sitting astride his trustworthy mount, Traveller. Before us stretched an open field and a chill went through us as we realized we were looking at the site of "Pickett's Charge" and one of the most important pieces of land in the United States.
Across the expanse, about a mile in the distance, we could make out a similar statue of Union General George Meade aboard Old Baldy. That singular moment will remain with me until I breathe my last, and there was no question what we had to do. Climbing over a barbwire fence, we set off toward the famous "Copse of Trees" that marked the middle of the Union forces.
With every step we took, I tried to envision - relive if you will - that day in July some 150 years ago. With every step we took, we knew our shoes were probably touching a place where a young soldier had fallen ... where a lead ball had ended his life before it had even started. It was so powerful, so touching I was overcome ... nearly paralyzed ... by the significance of where we stood. But we pressed on, just as Pickett's men had done in spite of what was waiting for them just a few yards away. How afraid they must have been ... but how brave. My God, how brave.
We took our time, trying our utmost to absorb it all, but eventually arrived at the "Bloody Angle," a low rock wall where the North turned back the South. It also marked the location of the Confederate Army's farthest advancement into the North.
The Bloody Angle, the Lee and Meade statues and the countless memorials spread throughout Gettysburg represented symbols of what had taken place there. When we stared at the bloody angle, mesmerized, we didn't see rocks or a symbol of idolatry, we saw the faces of thousands of soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for this great country.
When we went to Washington, D.C. and stood before the magnificent monument of Abraham Lincoln, we didn't focus on the sculpture itself but rather what it stood for. It remains a symbol of the abolition of slavery, and the assertion that all men (and women) are created equal.
When we stood atop the U.S.S. Arizona memorial in Hawaii, we didn't obsess on what a remarkable structure it was, we thought about the thousands of men still entombed inside the ship as it rests at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. It was a symbol that helped us remember and revere all of the men and women of World War II who fought to keep America free.
When we gazed out across the rocks and buttes of South Dakota at the incredible, mountain-sized carving of Crazy Horse atop his spirited steed, we didn't just see a monolithic figure of a Sioux warrior, we saw a symbol of Native Americans and what they had to endure when we took away their land, their lifestyle and their lives.
When we stared at Mt. Rushmore, we didn't focus on the faces of the four presidents immortalized there, but instead focused on a world-renowned symbol of the power, strength and commitment of America and its great leaders who helped lead the way.
When we walked alongside the Vietnam Memorial, it wasn't the uniqueness of the structure we were struck by, it was the incredible number of lives sacrificed for an unjust cause that this heartbreaking symbol represented.
And when we recite the Pledge of Allegiance ... to the flag ... and to the Republic for which it stands ... one nation ... indivisible, we don't see a nicely stitched piece of cloth that represents idolatry, we see a symbol of America the beautiful and all the good it stands for.
I will recite it proudly every time I get the chance.