(This column has been modified from the original publishing date of April 29, 2014).
The bullet has followed me for nearly 40 years.
The little slug of metal is one of the few childhood souvenirs that I've managed to hang onto.
I've lost the bullet now and again, as I've moved from home to home and was stored away in drawer after box. It turned up again recently and I was glad it did.
To the casual observer it looks more like a rock than a lead slug. It is a true piece of history that has a history with me. It was among a can of bullets that a treasure hunter dug up on the battlefields of Gettysburg and offered for sale in a souvenir shop. When I bought it at a Gettysburg, Pa. trading post on Aug. 17, 1975, I felt that I had acquired the ultimate piece of Americana.
As I carried it out into the muggy humid Pennsylvania air to the car, I imagined it sailing in the thicket of projectiles fired during the three-day battle where between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers from both sides were killed. A total of 93,921 Union soldiers were engaged and 71,699 Confederate soldiers fought July 1-3, 1863.
The battle destroyed the town of Gettysburg. In fact, historian Bruce Catton wrote, "The town of Gettysburg looked as if some universal moving day had been interrupted by catastrophe." Bullets were so thick that 20-year-old civilian Ginnie Wade was hit by a stray one that passed through her kitchen in town as she made bread. Buildings were shot up and churches turned into makeshift hospitals where men screamed at torn flesh and bone. The stench of the rotting bodies, bloating in the hot summer weather, sickened people of the town which demanded the immediate and unpleasant task of collecting the remains for a mass burial. Over 3,000 horse carcasses were burned in a series of piles south of town.
Riding in the backseat of the yellow family Mazda station wagon on the highways and byways of half the American states, I'd pull out my historic treasure and admire it. While my young mind imagined this slug sailing through the air, it may not have been fired at all. It's nearly pristine. I only knew that it was intended for an enemy.
After googling the bullet, I'd say it's a .57 caliber Union three-ring "Minie," capable of ruining any day of the strongest man. It destroyed bone like snapping a twig. It was probably intended to be fired from one of two million Springfield rifles produced for the war effort. The U.S. Minie bullet was designed with two to four grooves and a cone-shaped cavity that allowed it to expand under the pressure to increase muzzle velocity. The Minie is credited with killing most of the 646,392 American casualties during that war.
Before you casually dismiss that 646,392, stop and think. That's about everyone living in the entire state of Vermont. All killed and bleeding red blood - not in a grainy black and white Brady photograph either. We know the impact a single death can have in our own family so imagine the grief accompanied by the loss of 646,392 - many young teenage boys.
I may have paid $2 for the bullet but today it's not worth a whole lot. I see similar ones selling on eBay for $15 to $25. To me, it's worth much more for sentimental reasons.
I turned 14 that very day. I was a moody, quiet, deep-thinking teenager who loved history. Pimpled and confused by hormones, I knew those days to be days when you just didn't like yourself - especially with two bickering brothers crammed into a backseat on a 5,600-mile trip. Little did I know there would never be another month-long, coast-to-coast road trip like that one again. Not with my intact birth family anyway. My parents split up two years later and five years later I moved out of my mom's home.
Few children get that opportunity that I got that summer of 1975. I saw so much and learned so much about the country and geography and history.
I suppose that my bullet was buried for decades in the dirt of Gettysburg, perhaps within shouting distance of where Abraham Lincoln stood on Nov. 19, 1863 to deliver his famous dedication remarks. Lincoln, of course, would later take his own bullet for the American cause in a war.
Having fired a gun in a firing range, I have a fear of a bullet, likewise, a tremendous respect for those who have been martyred in the cause of freedom. So last week when an elderly man shuffled into a local Burger King and I saw that his hat read "Purple Heart," I went up and thanked him for his service to our country. The man - judging by his age I'd say he was a Korean War veteran - then thanked me. Over 36,000 American lives were claimed in that war.
Maybe it's a corny thing to thank a Korean War veteran some six decades years later. Maybe it's just a gesture of appreciation considering that those men live with their wounds each and every day and they did it for their country. Just in the same way that my mom's brother, Carl Dodd, took a sniper's bullet in Vietnam. Only he came back with his country "spitting" on him. A bullet is the reason Tom Dimperio of Ceres today has one arm shorter than the other. He lost a section of bone after being wounded in Italy during World War II.
I recall being one of the first people to enter the crime scene in front of George's Liquors the day after Sgt. Howard Stevenson died there in a Jan. 9, 2005 gun battle with Andres Raya. I was checking out the bullet peppered wall when I spotted what looked like a piece of the wall on the ground. When I picked it up and flipped it over, I knew I had a bullet from the short-lived gun battle that took the life of a good man.
As I held the bullet, I remembered my Gettysburg bullet, wondering where it went. I thought about keeping the bullet and later donating it to the Ceres Library for a day when the shooting was more historic and less painful. The Ceres bullet represented such a painful event to contemplate keeping, so I handed it to Sgt. Trenton Johnson at the memorial service for Howie that night. Besides, it might have been evidence. He thanked me and suggested it was one of Howie's.
Howard Stevenson did not fight in a war against a foreign threat but did die in a war to keep peace and safety on the streets of America. That war may be more insidious and dangerous than all others.
Ceres may be 2,745 miles from the Civil War battlefield but the soldier who toted my Gettyburg bullet and Sgt. Howard Stevenson on a domestic battlefield 142 years later essentially died for the same cause.
How do you feel? Let Jeff know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org