Why was I so nervous? It was just a battlefield tour. Over the last thirty years with the National Park Service, I have led literally thousands of battlefield tours, hikes and walks. But this time it was different and I was anxious. Wait a minute, hadn’t I guided numerous VIPs across the battlefield -- Senators, Congressmen, foreign dignitaries, State Department officials, Generals, Cabinet Secretaries. Heck, I met Jimmy Stewart, Nancy Reagan and once spent the whole day leading the entire Kennedy family around Antietam with renowned Civil War historian Shelby Foote. Still I was apprehensive. This was not about me, it was about a young man who has been through radiation and chemo and was traveling 3,000 miles to visit the park.
This tour was different, unlike any I had been asked to present before. It was for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, www.wish.org. For a young man with a life threatening illness, it was his dream to visit Antietam, Manassas and Gettysburg battlefields. Now I have always known that Antietam is special place, sacred ground that should be preserved forever. However, I had not thought that if facing the greatest challenge in life that I would choose touring the battlefield as my one wish. Kids in this incredible program have done amazing things -- jammed with Carlos Santana, flown in a Navy fighter jet, gone to the Super Bowl, acted as the Chairman of Nintendo and of course vacationed in Disney. But for fifteen year old Clark, a young Civil War buff from California, his wish was to tour the battlefields.
The night before the tour I was very apprehensive. So I jumped on my mobile meditation device (better
The next morning was unusually clear and cool for the longest day of the year. Clark arrived with his older brother, Mom and Dad. He was a little shy, but very much a typical kid from what surely seemed a wonderful family. We spent the next five hours together sharing the incredible story of the worst one-day battle in American history. We talked about the normal battlefield subjects of weapons, tactics, terrain and soldiers. However, we also focused on the courage and sacrifice of the young men who once marched to the Cumberland Valley. How they faced adversity, doubts and fears. How there are more important things in life than ourselves. Things like preserving our nation, our flag and freedom. We stood where young Johnny Cook once stood. Just so happens that he was also fifteen.
At Antietam, he was the bugler for Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery. At the horrific Cornfield, Johnny assisted his wounded commander, faced mortal danger and helped load and fire the cannon. For his bravery, Johnny was awarded the Medal of Honor.
After a full day on the battlefield, we finished with a shopping spree in the park bookstore arranged by Antietam’s Superintendent and donated by Antietam’s generous cooperating association. Clark seemed so happy with his Antietam t-shirt, cap and model cannon. It was then that Clark’s father said to me that, “we are so blessed.” I will never forget his words or the quiet smile of his son. I will cherish forever the gift that I had been given of the privilege of sharing this day with this remarkable young man and his family. A powerful and poignant reminder of what is important-- the precious gift of life, family and making wishes come true.