Detail of The March to Valley Forge, 1883, by William Trego (Wikimedia)

Today Valley Forge is solemn and miraculous.

I  remember my Dad pitching to us at Valley Forge Park. In June, my parents would stuff picnic essentials and their six kids into the station wagon and make the short drive out from our Philadelphia home. Today, the meadows enfolding the encampments have been returned to milkweed, goldenrod, and meadow rue. In our day, the grass on the wide, open plains was just right for makeshift baseball: Three on a side, first baseman, shortstop, one outfielder, car mats for bases. Dad was the steady pitcher, and, as in all good things, Mom was the umpire. Bare bones, but pure sport and pure joy, before the specter of time had come over the horizon. Love of baseball, and other fidelities, began right there.

These sojourns did not include a full educational tour of the site. We just wanted to get to that pleasant picnic area alongside a deep stand of oaks and maples, in proximity to our baseball diamond. There was one detour: Upon arrival, we began the afternoon with an inspection of the log cabins fashioned by Washington’s men. We stared, in silence, for about ten minutes, and moved on. A young boy thought these huts were pretty cool, much better than the play forts we put together out of boxes and crates behind the playground, even if the emptiness, the lack of anything fun in there, was a bit disappointing.

My father seldom commented. We just walked up to an open door and peered in. For my parents, love of America was never loud, but forever constant. Mom was a brilliant woman whose serenity flowed from her quiet communion with the saints. She was also a believer in miracles, a hard sell then, a harder sell now. Dad was a carpenter and a fundamentally honest guy. Years later he would take a week’s vacation to watch the Watergate hearings — just because he wanted to find out what was going on in his government. He got three weeks annually.

The games of youth faded. Hiking in the park followed, into adulthood. Some teammates passed on. Much later, there were the long walks toward the Memorial Arch at twilight. Yet while getting to the place was easy, getting the place was not. There was no incantation to magically infuse the historical text with a pulse. Was this a site of rare and special grace? As with all portals and holy places, a traveling Jacob was challenged to wrestle with the angels of imagination and empathy. What claim herein could the dead lay at the feet of the living? What was really going on, in those darkened huts, with their pinching, claustrophobic right angles? Where was the escape from hunger and fever, frost and fear? How to resurrect the passion buried under suburban haze?

The tales of a nation are encrypted, more often ignored, and rarely reincarnated in the heart. They take on flesh and form only when the living shed their own deceits and prejudices long enough to walk alongside those beyond the veil. Then will the stick figure rise from the page, with scent and sweat, glaring, cackling, and cussing, looking out his or her window toward his or her world. Absent dialogue with those who formed it, the past is actually always just the past, a bulb dormant beneath a blanket of icy indifference.

At long last, that conversation began after years of wrangling with Henry Brown’s words, carved high on a hilltop arch in the park: “And here, in this place of sacrifice, in this vale of humiliation, in this valley of the shadow of that death out of which the life of America rose, regenerate and free . . .” Vale of humiliation? Three odd words to unlock their humanity. Dedication, rage, fear, courage, and steadfastness are words associated with a warrior in a noble cause, not humiliation. Not for the American soldier. From portraits of fife and drum to cavalry charges to Marine landings, the imagery of our fighting men does not conjure up “humiliation.” Yet this was the shroud that hung over the valley.

The year 1776 was bravura inspiration for America. But 1777 was the depressive dawning of bleak and sapping doubt. Washington’s troops (it would be inaccurate to call them an army) were routed by the British at Brandywine and Germantown. The Founders fled Philadelphia as the British marched in to seize the new capital. The Crown saw nothing noble in Adams or Jefferson or Hancock. They were backwoods vermin in need of extermination, lest their pestilence spread. The signers of the Declaration of Independence grasped the daunting odds of this gamble, the peril for family and fortune, when they vouched for independence, yet most rushed to the cause with the same alacrity seen in their modern counterparts’ dash to Capitol Hill cameras. In 1777, the hangman cometh.

The retreat of the Continental Congress took them deep into central Pennsylvania, out beyond Lancaster. Washington’s sanctuary was only 20 miles outside of Philadelphia. When driving from Center City to Valley Forge today, it is baffling that the British never made that short trek to crush the colonials for good. This besieged and discouraged crew of ordinary men and women trudged into that valley at Christmastime, in 1777. When they marched out the following summer, they would bend the arc of the modern world.

Contemporary culture has self-prescribed early-onset dementia for our collective memories. We have forgotten our story, and searching for the missing person out in the darkness, the person who created the only home we’ve got, is something of a bother. Nations have traits, mannerisms, accents, idiosyncrasies, predispositions, and beliefs. No nation is more idiosyncratic than ours. The marvel of America springs from the absorption of disparate bloodlines of every random family tree into the roots of the vast and diverse national forest. Twelve thousand men suffered through Valley Forge. They were cultural products of their unique colonies. They differed in race, religion, and economic status. Doctors and lawyers, farmers and craftsmen, Northerners and Southerners, endured the deprivation without turning upon one another. Two thousand souls who marched in would never march out, but they perished due to starvation and disease, and not fratricide. When other revolutions turned to their reigns of terror, this nation found resistance to the plague of class warfare. In the shared torment of that winter’s cold and mud and dark, a new breed had been inoculated, to large extent, against an ancient malady.

Vale of humiliation. Washington was asking men to die for him, and he could not even put shoes on their feet. The troops knew, each morning, that what they would eat each evening depended on the luck of foraging parties sent out in search of game. They were tormented, viscerally, by the accounts of captured comrades in the city, so close, being brutalized by the Redcoats — about which they could do nothing. Unlike those who stormed Normandy or recaptured the Korean peninsula, they had no assurance that their family would be safe while they were absent, and cared for if they made the ultimate sacrifice. Homefront and War Zone were one and the same.

Humiliation. To the Loyalists in the colonies, to the English overlords, and to much of the world, they were not soldiers at all, but merely a mob of buffoons. A band of shopkeepers and smiths had thrown down with the Union Jack, a behemoth that, a few decades later, at Waterloo, would vanquish the greatest fighting force since the Roman Legions. And those shopkeepers and smiths had been defeated, dismissed, and sent scurrying to the valley of misery. Winter raged on. The voices of wives and children and the familiar comforts of distant homes plunged deeper and deeper beyond their grasp. The cabins became tombs. Washington felt his army fading away, about to disappear in the night like a dream, a dream of a country based on an idea, a dream that does not survive dawn’s realities.

And, yet, these dreamers and buffoons stayed at their post. Against convention, sorrow, anxiety, and loss, they dug in. Human souls, a mystery then, a mystery now, planted a bloody foot in a field of snow and cried out, “I will retreat no more.” After five thousand years, ordinary fighters, made extraordinary by imagination, courage, and love, bound themselves to this moment in Purgatory, and said to Ramses and Xerxes and King George, and tyrants to come, “Not one more mile, not one more day”! It would take another 80 years, down another Pennsylvania road, for that promise to be fulfilled for all. Here, however, in the Valley of Death, the pact was signed. A band of believers steeled their faith in the fire of starvation and disease and humiliation, looked History in the eye, and cried out, to an awakening planet, that the individual was the only true sovereign of the soul. Miraculous, indeed.

Richard Brady is free-lance writer and occasional carpenter living in Pennsylvania.

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