Travelers slide into the South on Route 81 and into the American Civil War.
The wondrous and beautiful Shenandoah River Valley was home to four years of that war from 1861 to 1865, and in the end was subjected to U.S. General Phillip Sheridan’s scorched earth campaign.
In 2007 I was traveling through the Shenandoah Valley on a newspaper assignment. It was a few days after the shooting at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. that left 33 people dead.
The bridges across the highway in Harrisonburg and Staunton, homes to several colleges, and others, were draped with banners in VT colors, expressing sorrow and solidarity. The pain of the event flowed throughout the deep and long valley.
Today, I imagine, those same overpasses proclaim the pain over the death of Heather Heyer, a woman killed during the right-wing marches and the street battles that engulfed Charlottesville last week.
The signs, I imagine, call out the hatred of the organizers, pray for Heather Heyer, and proclaim NEVER FORGET.
That was what they said in 2007.
But we do forget.
And when we do, Charlottesville happens. As it happened before, and not just in the South.
We are and have always been, a country running to the future.
Our declaration that all men are created equal is both a belief and a goal, and it fueled in two-and-a-half centuries a cultural, economic and social change worldwide.
But it takes work.
We don’t want to believe that disposed ideas can come back to life, that thoughts and actions so heinous they generated war, can still exist.
But in our rush to a more perfect union, debris falls to the roadside. It gets fed by resentment and then fueled with money and power, grows roots and survives.
There is room in human hearts or both love and hate, and all the wishful thinking won’t change that.
So tear down the symbols.
Stand the generals in the battlefield memorial parks where they can be reminders of the horrors of the place where thousands of combatants were killed and wounded. Send the politicians to a corner as dark as the ideals that let to conflict.
And then get back to paying attention to the real horror: The systematic and institutional erosion of hard-earned rights to vote, earn a decent wage, love whom we choose, to plan and dream, and even stumble on the way without being labeled a failure, in other words, to celebrate “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” in all its forms.
The Union troops on Little Round Top at Gettysburg did not hold the line so that an organization like the Klan with its history of terrorism and slaughter can unhindered march down modern city streets.
The troops on Omaha Beach did not claw inch by inch up the stubborn slopes so that Nazi flags could fly here without opposition.
Our founders sought a more perfect union; they were human, not holy.
It is an inclusive phrase and dream.
Each generation gets to make its choices about the meaning of that phrase.
Today, in this moment — as it was for the women seeking suffrage, the workers seeking better pay and working conditions, and for all those who sought civil rights — it is our turn to stand and advance the line.