(HOST)When it comes to the lives of young soldiers, commentator Caleb Daniloff has found that the more wars change, the more they stay the same.
(DANILOFF) Brian bit his lip as he talked about paintball,
truck engines, and how he’d saved for his first pick-up. He
was seventeen, a high school senior, and I was interviewing
him for a testimonial ad campaign.
My photographer asked Brian about his plans for next year.
He bit again at his chapped lip and said he’d enlisted – infantry. You’re probably going to Iraq, my surprised photographer said.
Or Afghanistan, or wherever they send us, Brian said. He and some friends had joined together. Brian’s tone was so casual,
he could have been talking about weekend plans.
I didn’t say anything. Part of me was impressed, retroactively jealous; that at seventeen he had the courage to make such an irrevocable decision. When I was seventeen, I was still trying to figure out how I might make it as a rock star.
Part of me was depressed though. Brian was barely shaving, his high school diploma not even printed. Watching him pose in front of his shiny blue truck, the tall, skinny kid seemed like a ghost already. Not that I saw a dark fate in the desert, but that the shape of his young life – his paintball games, his tussling with the family dogs, his truck engines – would surely never be the same. To what extent only time would tell.
I thought about Brian last weekend as I listened to Rokeby Museum educator Jenn Staats discuss Civil War soldier
Willie Stevens. Jenn has spent the last three years transcribing hundreds of letters between Willie and his family back in East Montpelier.
The collection ended up at the Rokeby when Willie’s sister, Anna, moved to the Ferrisburgh home-turned-museum after the war. Anna worshipped her older brother and kept everything from daguerreotypes to mini-balls to curls of hair.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Willie split with his peace-minded Quaker heritage. He and his best friend were among the first in town to enlist. Their regiment fought in
various battles including Fredericksburg and Cold Harbor.
In 1863, Willie was captured and spent half a year in Richmond’s notorious Libby Prison. When he was released in a prisoner exchange, he could form a ring with his thumb and forefinger and run it the length of his emaciated arm. His letters turned bitter. The next year, a miniball ripped into his leg and he died of his wound.
The surgeon scrawled the news of his death across his last letter home. When Anna read it, said she would never feel young again. She was in her early twenties, and now consumed by shadows.
Jenn wrapped up her talk by reading Willie’s eulogy, penned by his best friend, whom the war had left with one leg. The words seemed hardly touched by time.
“Our friend now sleeps with his kindred among the hills of his own Green Mountain home. Quiet and peaceful is his slumber, in strange contrast with the bloody strife and furious charge of battle. For him, there is no more pain, no more sorrow…”
As Jenn spoke, my eye was drawn to the small oval frame hanging above the doorway. I expected a clock. But instead of numbers and hands, there was Willie’s young face. Instead of time, I encountered timelessness. The same eyes that haunted his sister now haunted me. In Willie’s portrait, I saw that eternal band of dutiful soldiers, marching in blue wool and jungle green and desert tan. In the hearts of the living, their ranks are forever swollen, and the silence of their bootsteps loud as thunder.
This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.
Caleb Daniloff is a freelance writer, and recipient of the 2005 Ralph Nading Hill Jr. Literary Prize.