I’m in the 7th grade, soon to be 13 years old. I get up from bed just a little after 10:00 and go outside in the dark. I walk to the edge of the front lawn, just by the street, and I look up. It’s a mid-April night, the skies are clear, stars are visible, and the air is cool. I stare into the infinite darkness, and I ponder, as best as my pre-adolescent wisdom will allow, the scope of 100 years.
To fill 100 years I would have to live my same life over and over, eight times. Once, twice, three times, four … I can’t fathom this. The year 1865 was decades before all the oldest people I know were even born. My father’s father, “Pop,” is the oldest of my grandparents, and he seems the most like Abraham Lincoln of the family: he’s quiet, thoughtful, dignified, and good with his hands. I wonder if Pop, like Lincoln, had had rough and tumble experiences in his growing up or in his working as a machinist at the Shipyard. But he’s quiet and gentle with me, as I know Father Abraham would have been too.
The moonlight helps me read my watch. 10:15. In just a few minutes it will be one hundred years. My father will be 50 in a few months, I realize. He’s hardly a young man, and yet the time from 1865 until his birth is the same length of time that he’s been alive. I’m amazed. I can’t begin to grasp what 100 years is like. Images of horses and carriages, fields and plows, cowboys and lawmen, roadsters and bi-planes, flappers, Depression lines, a swastika, an assassination – a jumble of images from television and books and movies all race through my mind.
Then it’s 10:20. I look up. I listen for a sound, an echo, even an echo in my imagination, firing from deep within the abyss of years. It was at this very moment that a trigger was pulled in Ford’s Theater, 200 miles north of where I’m standing, a shot that ended my hero’s life. This exact moment, 100 years ago to the second. Now!
I listen. I hear just the sounds of a spring night, nothing more. The moment, like all moments, passes. But I’ve it. I’ve stood and remembered and listened. Maybe God knows I’ve been out here. Maybe God will tell Mr. Lincoln about this boy standing outside in the dark, in April, remembering him and missing him, too.
I walk back up to the front porch and slip inside. I go back into my room, where above my bed hangs a framed poster of the man. Dad knows of my fascination with this wise, tender President, and he frequently writes the Lincoln Life Insurance Company in Indiana asking for posters. Occasionally a brown cardboard tube will arrive with Dad’s name on it, and I get excited. I know what it is, and I’m eager to see the new print. Mom will frame it for me and position it right above my headboard. It’s always the first thing I see when I walk into my bedroom.
He is a silent, comforting presence in my life. Mom and Dad are good parents, for sure, and I know I’m fortunate. But life is still hectic and confusing, putting up with two noisy brothers, a big furry dog and a skittish cat, plenty of chores, and endless homework. At school I’ve been one of the new kids this year, and I’ve noticed that 7th grade girls are different from 6th grade girls. They whisper more and giggle more, and I worry sometimes that it’s about me – when my voice cracked in science class, or when I stumbled off the bus and dropped my books in the mud. Or when I lost my wrestling match because the head cheerleader’s brother twisted me like a pretzel in gym class. It’s been an awkward year.
But at home, in my room, there is this quiet understanding. Abraham Lincoln had known awkwardness and embarrassment, too, but he radiates serenity and acceptance. He tells me that my future will hold something deep and important that I can’t see yet. His eyes show kindness, which I crave. His gaunt cheeks and dark beard promise me wisdom to come, something I can’t locate at all in my chubby body and facial fuzz. His steady expression speaks of his determination to forge peace in a violent, hate-filled country. I love having Lincoln’s face watch over me at night, see me off to school in the morning, and welcome me home each afternoon. He is part of my private family.
Now 50 years have passed since that April night. A half-century again divides then and now. I’ve learned a lot about Lincoln as a father and husband. I’ve also learned about he led our bitterly divided country as the President.
I have boyhood memories of “The President” being a noble and impressive job, held by men of character. But from those days until now, our nation’s Presidents have been men who’ve been shot, ridiculed, lampooned, embarrassed, impeached, disgraced, impeached, vilified and impeached again – on and on. Some commentators consider our era now heading towards “another civil war.”
But I read, and I cultivate an odd dream. The dream is that somewhere in April of 2015, 150 years after that night in Ford’s Theater, an adolescent also captivated by the soul of Abraham Lincoln kept a brief nighttime vigil under the stars. Some young girl or boy noted the hour and the minute and slipped outside. That teenager listened carefully for an echo from the past and tried to honor it, and still tries to bring something of that moment into daily life.
That adolescent would be 20-something now, finishing school perhaps or entering the working world. I dream that Lincoln’s kindness and compassion, his strength and determination, his character and wisdom are still now deepening the soul of that person. I dream that that person will emerge in the years to come ready to offer Lincolnesque leadership to a family, a community, a company – and even to our own weary nation.