From The Ceremony of Innocence: On July 3rd

William on the moments before the Confederate barrage, prelude to Pickett’s Charge. William and what is left of the 21st Connecticut have been laying in the baking sun, exhausted after their efforts in the Wheat Field the day before . . . .

Over the years, in the unspeakable comfort of dining and drawing rooms so far removed from the dripping, reeking furnace of Cemetery Ridge as to be in another universe, I have been told by any number and all manner of passionless authorities the rebels fired at precisely 1:07 pm. The time thus definitely established, smugly attested to and seconded I would turn statuesque while contemplating ways to escape further discourse. Fruitlessly, of course, someone would inevitably offer the much bandied trivia that the sound was heard as far away as Philadelphia and Baltimore; “it was certainly the loudest sound yet heard on the North American Continent” . . . . and that would release all manner of speculation and superlative exposition concerning the simultaneous discharge of every motherfucking gun in the Confederate Army. This, and more, I have been told exclusively by men and women not there . . . .

. . . . because no one who was ever speaks of it for the gut-clenchingly simple, primal ball-clinching, reason hyperbole is not possible. In fact, none of the above, invented, mindless, ungrounded in reality, begins to reflect the souls eviscerating experience of being on the receiving end of that barrage.

It was not just that the sound deafened, left my ears ringing for a day; not just that the earth shook, trembled, undulated like a maddened surf and knees buckled, testicles sickeningly ascended, intestines jellified; nor that the air was sucked out by the sustained roar and the shock wave from the superheated muzzle born air that pushed over before, with, and behind the shot and shells; nor, the tactile, cold sweat inducing, hair raising on back of nape shudder when they cut by, impacted, filled the air with whizzing, snarling metal, cold equally deadly rock and wood slivers, and chunks of bone and flesh carried by thick, acrid, clouds of dirt, dust, followed by a fine mist of horse and human blood, like light rain after a hail storm.

Taken individually, or even in small groups, none of that accounts for our collective silence concerning the afternoon of the 3rd – – – it is that it all happened at once in the blink of an eye and our world tilted, swayed, veered, kiltered until it flipped entirely, no longer our world but Dante’s Plain of Burning Sand where we were assaulted by sound, feel, and a rain of fire for what seemed an eternity. Infinitely worse for us, though, as we were at least momentarily alive.

Through it all, I cowered against a warm stone wall and . . . .


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