By Nancy B. Kennedy
A few years ago, our family stood shivering in a biting winter wind before the graves of a dozen Revolutionary War soldiers who died at the crossing of the Delaware River. My son, four years old then, seemed puzzled.
"Mama, are they hiding down there?" Evan asked.
Uh oh, I thought. I know what's coming.
"No, sweetie, they're not hiding," I said softly.
I waited. Would he want to know more?
"Are they coming back?" he asked.
I took a deep breath.
"No, sweetie, they're not coming back," I said.
We live in an area rich in Revolutionary War history. Here, George Washington crossed the Delaware to claim victories at the battles of Trenton and Princeton. At Princeton Battlefield, Gen. Hugh Mercer, though mortally wounded, refused to leave his men. Farther afield, Molly Pitcher hauled water for the troops and manned a cannon at the Battle of Monmouth.
Surrounded by memorials to the glorious deeds of the patriots, my husband and I nevertheless wondered when our son would begin to question the violence of war, when he would want to know about death.
From an early age, Evan loved Washington Crossing State Park. We'd have lunch at the Taylor General Store on Sundays, stroll past the historic buildings, peek in at the Durham boats. One time, we came across a musket demonstration, and Evan shrieked in delight as militiamen shot across the river at New Jersey.
In particular, Evan loved the visitors center. He liked Emanuel Leutze's huge painting of the crossing. He liked the gift shop, with its musket pens and cannon pencil sharpeners. But most of all, he liked the movie. He liked sitting in the darkened theater, watching the bloodless, almost cartoonish account of the Battle of Trenton. Guns exploded but didn't spray bullets; bayonets flashed but didn't render flesh.
But on that bleak January day, as we stood in front of those small, white headstones, I believe Evan's love affair with the park ended.
Over the years, Evan has remained fascinated with weaponry and battle, yet even now at age 10 he is sensitive about the reality of violence. He spells out words — k-i-l-l — that he can't bring himself to say. Studying for a test on the American Revolution recently, he turned a page in his social studies book to find Alonzo Chappel's sketch of Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge.
"What hardships did the soldiers endure at Valley Forge?" I prompted him.
"Please don't ask me about that, mom," he begged, covering the drawing with his hands. "I don't like to think about the soldiers suffering."
Evan has lived his entire life with this painting; a copy of it hangs in our living room. To some, the scene evokes courage and perseverance. My son, though, sees only the bandaged and freezing soldiers, some knee-deep in snow, bracing themselves against the wind, others with bare feet wrapped in rags huddling around a feeble fire, all of them hungry.
The pleas of your child are hard to resist. I scanned the textbook for less graphic aspects of the war — the Committees of Correspondence seemed a pretty safe topic to me.
But something stopped me. Like Evan at the soldiers' graves, I had my own moment of revelation.
I have never been able to stomach violence. I pass up movies that have any amount of gore. As a child, I did my own editing of war images. Our family frequently vacationed at battlefield parks; we have photos of my sisters and me atop just about every cannon in the Northeast. Yet I don't have a single memory of those times.
As an adult, I've avoided thinking about war, and on becoming a parent, my denial hardened. When we learned we were having a boy, my first thought wasn't about snips and snails and puppy dog tails. It was this: The government will never drag my boy off to one of its grubby wars!
But that night, while helping Evan study for his test, I had to face my — and Evan's — reluctance to consider the reality of war. Why should he study it if it makes him uncomfortable? I grumbled.
The irony of my opposition struck me then. There I was, comfortable in my own home, secure in a self-determining community in a free and democratic nation, yet willfully I was disregarding the sacrifices others had made on my behalf through the violence of war.
In that moment, I realized how wrong I'd been, that I must force myself to think about war even if it makes me uncomfortable. That leaving my comfort zone in this small way is the least I can do in gratitude to the men and women who have ensured my safety and freedom.
This is what I'll tell Evan the next time he is faced with the war-studded history of our nation, perhaps at our Memorial Day parade this year. After that, I think it might just be time to head back to Washington Crossing.
Nancy B. Kennedy is a writer and the author of two children's science activity books. She lives in Hopewell with her husband John and 10-year-old son Evan. Visit her website at www.nancybkennedy.com.
COPYRIGHT © The Times of Trenton 2009 Date: 2009/05/25 Monday Page: A09 Section: EDITORIAL