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  • Crazy Chester followed me and he caught me in the fog
    He said, "I will fix your rack if you'll take Jack, my dog"
    I said, "Wait a minute, Chester, you know I'm a peaceful man"
    He said, "That's okay, boy, won't you feed him when you can"

    By Robbie Robertson, from “The Weight”, performed by The Band
    Why this obsession with someone I never met? This man died 15 years before I was born. He apparently was as conservative as I am liberal. Many of the things I didn’t like about my Dad growing up, were apparently many of the things that he had learned/inherited from this man, his maternal grandfather and second father figure. Likewise, I’ve always felt that many of the things about me that repulsed my Dad were traits I’d inherited from his father, also a man I never met – he’d died less than 3 weeks before I was born.

    Dad clearly still had many unresolved issues with his own father, which he thankfully, finally worked out in his own final years. Ironically, it was in those years that he and I became the closest of friends, and many of the issues between us more than healed. They were transcended, putting us both on a whole different level than I ever even imagined was possible.

    Maybe that’s it – maybe there is some thing that requires healing that draws me to Martin and his story. Maybe it doesn’t even have anything to do with me – but I suspect that it does.

    One of the things I really like about Martin is that he kept those diaries, that he religiously wrote in them, practically every day. He got the value of the written word, the importance of writing it down, to capture the day, in that way, for future reference.

    For the same reason, I always keep a scorecard when I go to the ballgame. All I have to do is take one look at the scorecard, and the whole game comes back to me. I’ll remember where I was sitting, who I met, even what I ate, the standout plays in the game – all of that, just by looking at what I wrote, a bunch of symbols and figures that mean nothing to anyone who doesn’t know baseball, but that tell a whole story about a game, to one who does.
  • There’s a gap in his diaries – after March of 1864, there are no other entries for the remainder of his time in the Civil War, which went through September of that year. There’s a good reason for that - the 61st Pennsylvania Regiment led the way at the opening of the Battle of the Wilderness, which began on May 5th of that year. They held their ground, but suffered 12 killed and 30 wounded that first day of battle. On the 6th of May, as the battle renewed, his regiment had a captain, a lieutenant, and 15 more men killed, while 40 men and 4 lieutenants were wounded. One of the latter was Gust, Martin’s older brother, the 2nd Lieutenant of Company K.

    In Dad’s words – “Martin often told the tale of how Gust was shot and Martin applied a tourniquet or did something to stop the bleeding, and stayed with him. When a wagon with medics came to pick the wounded Gust up, they tried to keep Martin from accompanying his brother, but Martin insisted. Later, the doctors said he had saved Gust’s life, that surely he would have died if Martin had not so steadfastly kept with him, staunching the bleeding.

    “From here on, the regiment was constantly engaged, fighting, digging trenches, advancing, fighting, digging in again, and on and on. Grant drove them hard. July 9th they were recalled to Washington, DC to defend the Capital and were immediately engaged in a bloody battle, and in pursuit of the enemy with much fighting. Finally, on September 7, 1864, the men of the regiment, whose term of enlistment ran out, were discharged. Actually, Martin’s enlistment had run out on August 1, 1864, (so he’d served an extra month and a week).”

    The fact that Martin made no diary entries during this entire period speaks volumes to me. I know what it’s like to not have anything to say, even to my journals. Those are usually the darkest periods, the periods that life becomes just too damned crazy, fast, hectic, and/or confusing to even write anything about it. They’re the times I don’t want anything to remember them by, preferring to just forget about them as quickly as I can. I have to think, by that point, he was so tired, so disgusted with the whole war scene, that he just wanted it to end, and go home.
  • There had been a point where Martin desperately wanted out. At the beginning of his diaries, we find him in the hospital in Philadelphia, in December of 1862, where he was sent suffering from “exposure”, whatever that meant, shortly after the terrible battle at Antietam, the single bloodiest day in American history, a couple of months earlier. There, he had crawled to within 50 yards of the enemy, and had been sent out into the field when a brief truce had been signaled for both sides to gather in their dead and wounded, which he was sent out to do, before firing recommenced. He was just 14 at that time.

    His best pal, George Lentz, had gotten out the previous January, and he wanted to get out of his enlistment. He tried going through all of the proper channels to do so, and kept being denied. They didn’t care that he was only 13 when he’d enlisted, and was then just turned 15. He had lied about his age, and now he would have to live with the consequences. Too bad, kid!

    Which brings me to another thing I believe that Martin and I did have in common. Here’s a guy who wanted something so badly that he snuck onto a train and hid out until discovery of him there would be too late to send him back. It wasn’t that he wanted to fight in the war so badly. No, it wasn’t that at all. He wanted to be where his older brothers and step-father were, he wanted to be doing what they were doing, he wanted to be like them, he wanted to prove himself to them, to measure up, to be somebody. I totally relate to this. This is how I was at the same age (13).

    At the same time, and paradoxically, he was fiercely independent. So was I. So am I.

    And, finally, he was a peaceful, nonviolent man. As best can be determined, despite being in the war for 3+ years, and having been at a number of major engagements – his company and regiment were at Antietam, Gettysburg, both Battles of Fredericksburg, Fair Oaks, the Wilderness, among others – Martin never carried, nor fired, a weapon. He was a drummer. He became, very quietly, a hero, by saving his brother’s life. He worked like a dog, as any accounts I’ve read about the life of drummers during the war, they were worked like dogs. They did all of the things that no one else wanted, nor had the werewithal, to do.

    He stuck it out, even after his step-father got killed, and both of his brothers got injured and wounded and left him there to fend for himself for the rest of the war. He hung in there. He honored his commitment. Many, by that time, were just leaving, heading for home, they just didn’t care anymore. They’d had enough, and just left.
  • At the height of his frustration, he went out on a 24 hour pass, and split town for Pittsburgh, all the way across the state of Pennsylvania. It took him 17 hours just to get there by train. He stayed there for 30 days, before finally returning to the hospital in Philadelphia. He checked in with the guard there upon his return, who took his pass and waved him through.

    Now, this is where he and I differ. I would have thanked my lucky stars, gone quietly back in there, and been home free. Martin had a higher level of honesty than I possess – he said to the guard, “You might want to double-check the dates on that pass!” The guard had assumed he was just returning from his 24 hour liberty. When he realized he was 30 days late, he threw him into the brig (jail).

    Was he trying to get thrown out? Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll never know. Because, in the middle of the night, an officer he did not know came by his cell, opened the door, told him to return to his duties, and to never mention this to anyone. He never did, and never saw that officer again. He was never held accountable for his 30 days of AWOL. He never looked back.

    Me? I went AWOL for 60 days, though I had only planned to go for 30. But I wasn’t trying to get out of the Navy, just transferred to another ship. I, too, was shown great compassion by an officer I did not know, who handed me a ticket to my freedom, offering me an honorable discharge, while I still had 2 years left to serve on a 6 year enlistment.

    I think it was when I learned that he, too, went AWOL, that I really warmed up to Martin, and decided that he was someone I felt a real kinship with.

    One of these stories, I will actually give a full, detailed account of my journey itself. I’m just not there, yet. There’s other stories that must be told, first. This was one of them.
    Photos were all taken by me, on Neill Avenue, the lost lane.
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