Strange History, Life's Mysteries, and other Bloviation
William was only 9 years old when his father, Sampson, moved the family from the relative quiet countryside of Edgefield, South Carolina to the outskirts of Atlanta in 1853. The poor seventeen-year-old had worked as a laborer on a wealthy family’s farm in 1861 when the State of Georgia followed along with the rest of the south in declaring its own independence.
Secession brought war, and it wasn’t long before the young William found himself on the front lines with the 38th Georgia Regiment, serving with General Jubal Early’s Division under the command of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The young private enlisted with 1,200 men in his native of DeKalb County, Georgia, and things popped off in in a hurry. War is hell. There’s no denying it. William went through his fair share of it. Involved in almost every single major campaign, by the time the Battle of the Wilderness came to pass in May of 1864, the Confederate private was already a battle-hardened 20-year-old.
After a few years of early Confederate victories, the Union forces finally found a commander who didn’t turn and retreat in the face of an aggressive enemy. General Ulysses S. Grant, it seemed, was made of tougher stuff, and he was apt to stand up to the larger-than-life General Lee. The two military commanders faced off for the first time just southwest of the Chancellorsville battlefield where an outnumbered Confederate army had managed to outmaneuver a larger Union force and march to victory the year prior. In that battle, General Lee defeated by General Hooker, and the Yanks were forced to retreat. The Battle of the Wilderness, however, would be a different fight.
The young private knew the history, of course, and he was also acutely aware that the war had shifted from one of jubilant excitement among his fellow Southerners about the prospect of a new nation to one of surrender, retreat, and likely defeat for his side by 1864. After Gettysburg, a battle William had fought in, with the Rebel army largely outnumbered and in desperate need of supplies, things got worse each day.
Intense gunfire erupted on May 5th, 1864, as Union Major General Warren’s 5th Corps attacked Confederate Lieutenant General Ewell’s 2nd Corps through the dense forests of Virginia. It was there that William had his extremely close brush with death. Somewhere during the late hours of the day, William was lined up shoulder to shoulder with his fellow Confederates when a bullet buzzed into the line, tumbling end over end, hitting the young soldier right in the head! Knocked out of commission only for a short while, William understood that he’d come a fraction of an inch from certain death. He would have been just one more in the over 600,000 who would perish during the nation’s deadliest conflict.
But the bullet missed killing him.
He returned to his unit and got back to work performing the grueling grunt work that goes with being a lowly private. By 1865, during the Petersburg Campaign, southern forces were in near full retreat. Holding tightly onto defensive positions, by April 1st, the Union armies were finally able to break through Confederate lines. General Lee sounded retreat, and the race was on towards Appomattox. As the Confederate troops ran, however, William and another private, W.H. Mitchell, were ordered to stand on the edge of a massive hole left from the previous year’s famous Battle of the Crater just outside of Petersburg, Virginia. Standing at the crater’s edge, William fired his rifle to give as much cover as he could. The sheer numbers of Union troops coming up the hillside must have been awe-inspiring and terrifying for the young man. He must have stood there knowing that is luck had most likely just run out. Miraculously, however, he did not die, as he easily could have that day. He lived to rejoin the rest of his regiment, and according to his personal memoirs, he stood outside of Appomattox Court House and heard what General Lee said to his troops that day as the war for them came to an end.
Private William Andrew Brooks, my 3rd Great Grandfather (pictured right in 1925), joined the 38th Georgia with 1,200 men in 1861. When he went back home in defeat four long years later, only 100 men had survived. History wouldn’t have cared much whether one more soldier was killed on the battlefields at any point during the Civil War. In the face of so much death and destruction, one lowly private wouldn’t have had a major impact on the outcome of the war, or on how it was remembered. That Union bullet that came barreling in through the Virginia forests that hit, but did not kill, my grandfather was a mere millimeter away from preventing my very existence. That goes for a ton of other Brooks family members, too! No, history would not have cared, but I do. That’s what a lot of life is all about. The near misses. The small actions. The seemingly minor details. They do mean something, even if we can’t put it together looking forward.
The dinosaurs went extinct because an asteroid hit the right place at the right time, at least according to scientists who talk on PBS specials and who write books on the subject. If that heavenly body had come along minutes later, the damn thing would have missed the planet completely. Do you really think those field mice would have dared to pop up and evolve if big bad Mr. T. Rex had stood around waiting to eat them?
Nearly 137 years after William Brooks had his close encounter with death in the fields of Virginia, and about 66 million years after that asteroid killed the dinosaurs, I woke up one beautiful fall morning. Like my grandfather did, I put on my uniform, although mine said “United States Air Force,” and I got ready for the day. A Senior Airman at the time, the rank just before Staff Sergeant in the Air Force, I had only been working Network Security at the Pentagon for about four months since my move from England in May. I’d settled into my routine, and I knew the area fairly well. Anyone who has been stationed at the Pentagon knows it takes a while to learn the rings, floors, and corridors of the massive building. After having my morning cup of coffee, I realized I was on the verge of running late. (That kind of thing is frowned upon in the military). I jogged down the stairwell, and on my way out the main lobby doors to exit the dormitory, I noticed several other uniformed military service members standing around a large television. The Broncos had played the New York Giants the night before on Monday Night Football, but the sheer number of people standing around with sullen faces didn’t seem right for a simple sporting event.
“What is it?” I asked another Airman standing by the front desk.
“Dude, look!” he said.
I peered over his shoulders and on the television screen, I watched with horror as a passenger jet smashed into the side of the World Trade Center in New York City. The blood rushed out of my head, and my heart began to pound. “What the hell?” was all I could mutter. A 21-year-old at the time, my mind struggled to grasp the enormity of the situation. “How could they not see it?” I naively assumed it had been pilot error.
“Just look!” the other Airman said. His name is lost to time, I’m afraid to say.
I kept watching the screen, though I must admit, I didn’t want to. A second plane hit the tower, and my eyes went wide. “Jesus” and “Son of a bitch” and “Bastards” were common mutterings from the other Army and Air Force folks that shared the dorm building on Fort Myer. The next period of time was a blur. I recall going to a bus stop, waiting for a shuttle to take me to the Pentagon to start my day’s work. No one said much, as everyone was struggling to come to terms with the biggest attack on America since Pearl Harbor. Only weeks before, on leave back in Georgia, I’d had a conversation with my now late grandfather about the events of Pearl Harbor, and how people back then had run up to the General Store in town to sign up to fight back against the Japanese. We had both come to the conclusion during our long walk down the quarter mile driveway of his that the United States was woefully unprepared for such an attack. There’s no solace in being right about something so terrible, as anyone with an ounce of sense will tell you.
I remember looking at my watch several times as my bus was now more than twenty minutes late for the eight-minute ride to the Pentagon. When the bus finally showed up, and I climbed on board, I didn’t feel annoyed. Just numb. Moving along on the normal route, we overlooked Arlington National Cemetery, home to fallen military service members, including those who battled one another in America's Civil War. As my thoughts raced in my head, an airliner came into my field of view before quickly disappearing behind an orange, glowing thing. My mind did not process what I was seeing for a moment. The orange thing looked like a statue of some sort. Had I missed some enormous golden thing in the middle of the cemetery that I hadn’t seen before? Within a fraction of a second, however, my brain finally caught up with my eyes. The glowing thing was a fireball. Black smoke crept out from behind the orange and yellow flames. Within seconds, half the sky was blackened by the terrible evidence of death wafting upwards and mixing into the clouds.
“They just hit the Pentagon!” the bus’s CB radio announced. Someone on another bus, nearer to the explosion screamed to the other drivers. “Oh my God! A plane just hit the Pentagon!” the unseen bus driver said again. Our bus stopped, and there were gasps and a few cries of terror. I leapt out of the vehicle, not even really thinking, and began running back to my dormitory building to make emergency phone calls. In 2001, I didn’t even have a cell phone.
A car pulled over, and an Army Major looked at me quizzically. “You need a lift?”
“Yes, sir,” I said as I jumped in.
“Where are you in such a hurry to? Late?” He smiled weakly as if he’d been there, too. Perhaps as a young Lieutenant, he’d suffered the embarrassment of missing a meeting or keeping a higher ranking officer waiting a time or two.
“I can’t believe they hit the Pentagon,” I muttered, catching my breath.
“No, that was the World Trade Center,” he replied.
My eyes grew wide with fear. How had he not seen? I realized that he had been coming from the opposite direction. I pointed emphatically behind me towards the rear window of his tiny car. “No, the Pentagon!”
He turned, and his jaw dropped. “Oh, shit! Oh, Jesus! Oh, shit!” He just kept repeating himself and he slammed the gas to the floor. The tiny car did at least ninety until I pointed to my stop. I jumped out and ran inside to call my office and my family. Thankfully, I contacted my mother before she’d even seen the news that morning. I called my grandmother next, and she had seen the breaking news alerts. “I’m here, Granny. I’m alive,” I said. For the rest of my life, I’ll never forget hearing her say, “Thank, God.”
I can’t say for certain that having my bus be late that morning kept me from certain death. It did, however, change my outlook, and I came to grips with my own mortality at a fairly young age. One marriage, seven kids, and twenty years later, I can tell you that none of us knows how much time we have. It can be taken away in the blink of an eye. Those brief moments, tiny actions, and seemingly minor annoyances that we experience daily sometimes have a much bigger impact than we can ever imagine. Whether it’s an asteroid hitting just in time to destroy all the dinosaurs, a near miss, or a simple decision to follow one path instead of another, we’re all on a mysterious journey, and we’re all connected whether we like it or not.
Life is precious.
Don’t take any of it for granted.