Young Abe Lincoln, during his early boyhood (age 7 to 21) in southern Indiana, is invariably portrayed in paintings and drawings as a tall, slender, axe man who helped provide for his father’s family.
His facial expressions in these paintings, however, are of a person older than 17 or 18, or even 21, the age at which he left his father’s family in Illinois. Perhaps it was simply an artist’s interpretation, or, more likely, he was always old beyond his age given his role as family provider and caretaker in a primitive, rural environment.
I’ve studied Lincoln’s life in the places he lived beginning with his birthplace near Hodgenville, KY; his boyhood home in Lincoln City, IN; in Springfield, IL, where he spent most of his professional life as lawyer and statesman; and in Washington, DC, at the Lincoln Memorial and National Museum of American History where his accomplishments as a man and President of a nation at civil war are vividly displayed. Call me biased (full disclosure: I grew up just a few miles north of the Lincoln Farm in Indiana), but it is his boyhood experiences through which I see his life already developing deep meaning, characterized by purpose, belonging, transcendence, and storytelling, the pillars of a meaningful life.
It was 5:30 on a very hot and humid late June afternoon when Carol and I pulled into Lincoln State Park Campground just across the road from Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, a U. S. Presidential Memorial preserving the farm site where Abraham Lincoln lived with his family from 1816 to 1830. It was a 10-hour trip from the already hot Virginia Mountains to the even hotter hills of southern Indiana. The long ride provided lots of time to keep up with radio reports with headlines like: “Heatwave turns deadly in the east—.“ “Blistering hot weather to continue all week in the eastern USA.” But, hey, this camping trip was my idea. Months ago I was notified by high school classmates that there would be a reunion on this particular weekend. So, I thought, “how about a family reunion of the Burger Clan as well?” The word quickly went out via the jungle internet.
Growing up, I don’t ever remember taking a family vacation with my folks. We were a farm family with eight kids. It is hard to leave the daily needs of a diverse livestock farm. My folks were not campers, so what do you do with eight kids on vacation anyway? Especially if they were not very well behaved! The answer: Pile in the 1953 Pontiac on Sunday afternoons for the short drive to Lincoln State Park for a swim in the lake.
Driving into the Park after 60+ years was nostalgic, to say the least. As we entered the campground I quickly recognized four familiar camper trailers. By the end of the next day, there were 10 campsites occupied by the Clan. One of my sib sisters counted 52 family members (counting in-laws) spanning four generations. And these were offspring from only three of my eight siblings!
My high school reunion was fun. My wife thought I was the youngest and best looking of the bunch. Of course, she did! What a sweetie! But most enjoyable was our visit to the Lincoln Memorial and hanging with the family. I believe to really understand how Lincoln could have persevered as President during the horrendous years of the Civil War, one needs to study his early years in Indiana. One doesn’t acquire character and personal strength out of the blue in later life; it is usually imposed early via a combination of unplanned experiences and then reinforced through life.
Abe, at age 7, made the trek along rutted roads to the Ohio River from Hodgenville, KY, with his father and mother, Thomas and Nancy, and his 9-year-old sister, Sarah. After crossing the river by ferry, they literally had to cut a path through the forest to the land his father had laid claim. Abe immediately helped his father clear the land, build a cabin, and carve a new life in this largely unsettled wilderness. The demands of life on the frontier left little time for school; his formal education amounted to less than a year. But by age 11 he was a voracious reader. He read Parson Weems’ Life of Washington, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Robinson Crusoe, The Arabian Nights, among other classics of the times. He was often seen carrying a book as well as his axe.
Pioneer families had their share of tragedy. At age nine, Abe’s mother died of milk sickness resulting from drinking contaminated milk after their cow consumed the toxic white snakeroot plant. For young Abe it was a tragic blow; his mother was everything to him. Now, as a 9-year-old, he helped his father whipsaw wooden planks, build a coffin, and bury his mother on a wooded hill near the cabin.
He was very active in his community during his teenage years. He continued to grow in mind and body; by age 19 he stood six foot four. He could wrestle the best and chop with an axe better than any man around. Given his increasing knowledge and voracious appetite for reading about the outside world, he became quite the storyteller who held sway at the community store at Gentryville with his ever-improving oratory.
Before even reaching the age of consent, Abraham was driven with the purposefulness of a man twenty years his senior. He had long-term goals that reflected his community’s values to serve the greater good. He had a clear sense of belonging; he was affirmed by his family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers within his pioneer community. He transcended the tragedy in his life and traded selfishness for empathy to engage in a generous helpful behavior. And he was known as a boy storyteller who, through his own experiences, could emphasize growth, communion with others, and personal agency. Establishing these life pillars as a boy in this primitive rural environment is what allowed him to become the man he became; the one honored at the western end of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Instead of a campfire, the Clan sat in a circle around electric fans or baby pools filled with water, an occasional baby, but mostly adult feet. The oldest generation (mine) did most of the sitting, the 50 somethings did most of the drinking, the 20 somethings made the most noise, and the kids ran around camp but seemed to be the best behaved.
During the course of three days, there was time to catch up with each other’s lives, and remember those who passed, with stops at the several cemeteries. Especially nice were the one-on-one chats with the younger generations, nieces, nephews, and greats up and down the generational ladder. During these conversations, I sensed a lot of life-purpose, belonging, and some transcendence among the younger ones, but the storytelling was pretty much the dominion of the older folk and especially one master storyteller.
It was already hot at 7:30 am when we left the Land of Lincoln. I had not spent much time here recently, but it was very familiar. One hundred and twenty years after Lincoln, this land also nourished me in mind and body for the first two decades of my life. We headed east toward the Appalachian Mountains hoping it would be a bit cooler at a higher elevation. We had a 10-hour road trip ahead of us. I had lots of time to reflect on pillars of a meaningful life and make a self-assessment.