Washington’s Crossing

The Delaware River

The Delaware River

They think I’m mad, these few who are here on the banks of the Delaware. They think I’m out of my head. Me, I just think I don’t know what I’m doing.

The land is low and the river winds through it effortlessly. Trees cling to its banks, and the further down you go you realize just how close Pennyslvania is. A short walk if it froze or something you could probably swim in summer. I move off the grass and right down to the water’s edge, and ducks scatter from nearby brambles and brush, gliding out into the river, and then, as I keep walking, taking flight.

I am surprised by how clear the water is. I would have thought that a river as industrial as this would be dark and milky. But it’s clear – you can look right down and see the bottom. I can look right down and see my feet. I can see my feet because I have taken off my shoes and I have waded into it to give myself some impression of what it was like on that Christmas Day. But it isn’t working. For even though it’s January, it’s only about forty degrees out. So while the water is damn cold, amazingly it’s not cold enough. And the river bank is a mess of mud that I am slipping and sliding in. If this were 1776, it would be as immovable as granite. Plus I didn’t just walk twenty miles across equally frozen Pennsylvania farmland after sleeping under the stars in little more than rags. I drove here in my car.

Why? To figure out why, or maybe just how. How is it that on an insanely cold night, in the middle of the kind of Noreaster that the volunteers from Marblehead and Maine thought they’d escaped, did this happen?. Why was it here, on this improbable river bank, after escaping from New York with a riskiness that would make later generations recall Dunkirk? Why here, after being chased all the way across New Jersey as winter began to roar, dispirited, hopeless, winless, with the British sniping at them from behind, and with naysayers and backbiters sniping at them from everywhere else. Why here? Upstream from where the best troops that money could buy where warm and comfortable and well-armed.

I look out across the river and try to imagine it that night, and all I can think of is the painting. Emmanuel Leutze’s great masterwork, with Washington in the front, Monroe holding the flag, and great island-sized ice floes in the river. But you can’t trust Leutze, because he was a man with a mission. Standing in his studio in the middle of Europe, he wasn’t thinking about this riverbank. He was thinking about Europe. Thinking about using this great painting to rally the revolution going on around him. To inspire them with the trials of the past. To inspire them to create the paradise of the future.

All admirable goals, but, as I begin to lose feeling in my toes, I start to realize, not the point. Because these men were not thinking about the future. They were not even thinking about the past, really. They were thinking about the present. The miserable, horrible, nasty, brutish and short present.

Thomas Paine understood that. Because he walked out of New York with them. Walked in the trail their bloody footsteps made down the Palisades, across the Piscataway and the Raritan. That’s why he wrote that these are the times that try men’s souls. And why he wrote that he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Not tomorrow. Not seventy-five years from now in a studio in Bohemia. Right now. Because there was no more tomorrow for these men. If there was, do you really think they’d have tried it? Do you think they’d have loaded frightened horses and heavy artillery onto leaky flatboats in the middle of a blizzard? That they’d have stood virtually barefoot in a foot of freezing water – all for the privilege of walking through a blinding snowstorm into their likely deaths at the hands of the same German troops had already kicked their asses in New York? These are not the actions of men with something to live for. These are the actions of men hopelessly bound to the present. For whom the past was as useless and meaningless and stupid to them as the future was. This was about the now. And they hadn’t been beaten in the now, yet.

And maybe that’s why, years later, after having his fill of revolutions, Paine returned to a house not far from here. Maybe he wanted to be near the memory of the miraculous nowness of that night. Maybe he thought he could capture it’s magic. I don’t know.

But ultimately, that’s why this place is important. Beyond everything else that we think about when we think about Washington crossing the Delaware. Beyond the inspirational painting. Beyond even the war that was won. What this place reminds you is that you can change the present. It doesn’t say it will be easy. It doesn’t say it will be glamourous. It doesn’t even say you will always be successful. All it says is that it is possible.

And knowing that, I wonder: what do I do now?


~ by martinbihl on July 6, 2008.

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