“Grandpa, tell me a story,” Elizabeth begged. She playfully knocked on my leg with her candy cane. “Please?”
I pulled my little angel into my lap and settled her in the crook of my arm. She popped the tip of her candy in her mouth, twirling it around and around. I watched the red and white swirl, until the colors blended to one. Suddenly I remembered a day long ago when the red of blood and white of snow had blended to one. An unexpected tear formed and dropped.
“What’s wrong, Grandpa,” Elizabeth asked. “Why are you crying?”
“Oh, it’s nothing.” I swiped at the moisture on my cheek.
“It’s Christmas, Grandpa. We’re not supposed to be sad. Maybe if you tell your ‘Lizabeth, you’ll feel better, like Mama says.”
I tried hard, but couldn’t shake the feeling. “Ok, Little Angel, but it’s a sad story.”
“That’s ok. I want to make my grandpa feel happy again.” And so saying, she snuggled down deeper into my arms, staring up at me with her deep blue eyes.
“Alright. I’ll tell you how your daddy got his name.”
“Kirkland?” she asked.
“Yes sweetie, Kirkland.”
“It’s a funny name, Grandpa. I never heard of anyone else with that name.”
“Your daddy was named for a very special person,” I started. “Long, long ago, when I was younger than your daddy…”
“How can you be younger than Daddy when you’re a grandpa?” Elizabeth giggled.
I smiled. “Well, I was. At that time I was only 19 years old. Our country got into a big fight, a war. Men were shooting and killing one another.”
“O how awful,” she exclaimed.
“Yes, Elizabeth, it was awful. One day, just before Christmas, the two armies met at Fredericksburg. General Burnside – he was the boss – told us boys to run across a big field, jump over a stone wall, and attack the men on the hill above it. We ran like rabbits at that wall.” I shuddered, reliving the moment.
“Did you get the bad guys, Grandpa?” Elizabeth asked.
“No. Suddenly, Rebel soldiers – that’s what we called the other side – rose up from behind that wall and shot us down. We didn’t know they were there. I got shot in the leg” – I stopped to thump my wooden limb – “and all my friends fell around me.”
I stopped to stare into the fire. How could I explain to my 7 year old granddaughter the futility of those charges; wave after wave of blue getting mowed down like grass before some unholy scythe, resulting in almost 8,000 casualties?
I passed a shaky hand through my thinning hair and returned to the present. “I tied a cloth around my leg and waited. When night fell, doctors and medics worked to remove the wounded, but there were too many. In the morning they had to stop, or get shot by the Rebels.”
“I lay helpless on the icy ground. I got so thirsty it hurt to swallow. All around me I could hear the moans of my wounded friends.”
“Suddenly, a Rebel soldier leapt over that stone wall, loaded with canteens and overcoats. Our guys started shooting at him, but he never wavered. He moved to the nearest wounded soldier and gave him water. Then he wrapped him in an overcoat and moved on.
“We stopped shooting when we realized his mission. Eventually he came to me.” I squeezed my little angel hard, wishing, for the moment, she was that soldier.
“Without a word, he lifted my head and poured water down my parched throat. It felt like priceless liquid gold, washing away all the dryness.
“I nodded my thanks. He nodded back and moved on. He was no enemy. He was a kid – just like me. He never stopped until he had tended to all the wounded there. The moment he left the field, every Yankee and Rebel voice shouted as one, saluting his bravery.”
“Elizabeth popped up. “He was an angel!”
“Yes, sweetie, that’s what we called him – The Angel of Fredericksburg. He showed so much good in the middle of so much bad.”
“And then what, Grandpa?”
“After the war ended, I learned he’d been killed a year later. I also learned his name – Richard Rowland Kirkland. Your daddy carries his name now.”
At that moment my son entered the room. Elizabeth scrambled out of my lap and ran to her father’s arms.
“I love you so much, Daddy Kirkland. You’re the bestest!”
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