Why I once learned the Gettysburg Address by heart, and why I’m doing it again today

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The author getting ready to shoot the launch of aircraft on the USS Abraham Lincoln (Photo by David Clair)

Two score and seventeen months ago, David Clair and I boarded a COD (carrier onboard delivery) flight from San Diego to reach the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.

It was a couple of weeks before the 200th birthday of the ship’s namesake, and I had asked a selection of the crew to read aloud the 16th president’s most famous speech for a Time.com video.

I printed the words of the Gettysburg Address in large type on four cards and had them laminated. The cards would fit under a portable teleprompter that attached to my camera lens so we didn’t need electrical power. David and I were fully mobile and roamed the ship, meeting various members of its 5,000-strong crew, from the lowest ranked sailors to the top brass.

With our cameras we captured the ship at work as the carrier strike group preformed drills on the Pacific ocean about 100 miles off the coast of California. The eponymous function of an aircraft carrier is not just to carry aircraft, but to maintain them, repair them and, in some of the most stunning and exciting operations I’ve ever filmed, launch and recover these multi-ton airframes safely on a mere 4.5 acres of surface.

My piece would mix the recitation of Lincoln’s immortal words, paired with the dynamic work being done on board the carrier. It was a birthday gift to one of our greatest leaders.

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Listening to each of these sailors, naval aviators and officers take on the challenge of reading the address, I could tell the lofty 19th century language fell strangely on the ears of these young people: “…which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced,” or “to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion,” did not go trippingly on the tongue. Not to mention getting 20-somethings to say the word “hallow” and not “hollow.” (It reminded me of the joke I once heard in church about a child thinking God’s name is Hallow Ed. After all, it be thy name!)  Hearing the address over and over also allowed me to parse this very carefully worded speech, and understand the depth and nuance (the weight of each phrase) that gives it such lasting power.

David Clair (left) shoots video while a Navy photographer makes still pictures of a helicopter taking off from the ship's deck. (Photo: Craig Duff)
David Clair (left) shoots video while a Navy photographer makes still pictures of a helicopter taking off from the ship’s deck. (Photo: Craig Duff)

I love Lincoln’s use, and repetition, of the words dedicated (repeated 4 times), consecrated, devotion and nation (5 times). It is a brief speech — you can read the 278 words in about a minute and a half — but so beautifully constructed that it hits the gut and brings home Lincoln’s larger message of the war: that these dead shall not have died in vain, and the nation should use the memory of their struggle to reunite the country and birth freedom anew.

By the time I had finished the project (editing took four or five days), I could recite the address by heart. And I still remember the powerful phrases I repeated in the quilt of voices I stitched together, using repetition as punctuation for the most striking phrases in the text.

Over the nearly four years since I created the piece, I’ve forgotten much of the speech. So this morning, I’ve been practicing it again. Renowned filmmaker Ken Burns is creating a documentary project and has asked Americans to tape themselves reciting the address from memory. Many have already done so, and I plan to join them. I’ll post my version after I shoot and submit it to the project.

Until then, please spend some time with the crew of the USS Abe Lincoln (the ones on board the ship in February 2009).  There was a lot of talk between myself and the public affairs officer on the ship about who would say the final words of the speech: “shall not perish from the earth.” The words make up the ship’s motto, which is painted on the wall a level below the flight deck. The PAO and I talked about giving that line to the top leader — the admiral in charge of the carrier group. I thought it over and did end up including the rear admiral in the final seconds. But then I found another voice: that of a meek but poised African-American woman, whose shy voice was not only sweet, it also had a quality that spoke plainly, almost plaintively, the hope of a generation. I worked with composer Ron Riddle, whose sweeping music gave the piece intensity and passion, to play a lingering note that rang softly for several measures. Over that note, I gave the young woman the last word.

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