Was it part of a grand design?

February 11, 1994|By Martin D. Tullai

IT WAS Austin Gollaher who related the story of how he and a young friend -- at about age 6 -- were playing one Sunday afternoon when they decided to cross the creek to hunt partridges. The creek was swollen from recent rains and, in crossing on the narrow log, his playmate toppled into the water.

Neither boy could swim. So, with his unfortunate friend splashing and frantically yelling for help, young Gollaher quickly found a log pole, held it out and pulled him to safety.

Later, he described his emotions and his reaction: "He was almost dead, and I was badly scared. I rolled and pounded him in good earnest. Then I got him by the arms and shook him, the water meanwhile pouring out of his mouth. By this means, I succeeded in bringing him to, and soon he was all right."

Oh, what a lucky lad!

The same boy, now 10 years old, was at the mill driving a horse to get the grist turned into flour. While he was putting a whiplash to the animal and calling, "Git up, you old hussy, git up, you ole hussy," the horse kicked out with a fast hind foot that knocked the little tyke down and out of his senses just as he yelled, "Git up . . ."

He was taken home, washed, put to bed, and all night he lay unconscious. His family and friends feared for his life. Afterward, he spoke of it as a mystery of the human mind and wrote of himself: "In his tenth year he was kicked by a horse and apparently killed for a time."

Oh, what a lucky lad!

Almost a decade later, in the last of his teen years, this same boy was now a 6-footer with a well-muscled body. He had performed some odd jobs around the community, and his good work TTC impressed one James Gentry, a well-to-do land owner. Gentry hired him to help his son, Allen, deliver a cargo of farm produce down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

While trading on the Louisiana sugar coast, they were attacked one night by a band of blacks who surprised them and tried to steal the cargo and kill the crew. Gentry fought desperately, his hired hand even more so. Both suffered cuts and bruises -- but survived.

Oh, what a lucky young man!

Yes, he certainly was lucky. Three times he faced the possibility of death, and each time lady luck seemed to stand beside him to ensure his survival.

But was it luck? Or was it destiny -- a fate which was pre-ordained? His mother had conveyed to him her strong belief in the doctrine of fatalism. "Nothing can hinder the execution of the designs of Providence," went the creed. "What is to be will be and we can do nothing about it."

Later, it would be said that the young man not only accepted this belief, but that it became a dominant mood of his religion. Not surprisingly, many of his friends told of hearing him quote those fatalistically striking lines from Shakespeare's "Hamlet":

"There's a divinity that shapes our ends,

Rough-hew them how we will."

This we know: Abraham Lincoln grew to manhood. And from the millions of citizens of his time, he was the one chosen to lead the nation during the gravest crisis in America's history.

This personifier of the American dream, fittingly characterized by Lincoln scholar David Hein as "the representative of the common people who, in extraordinary and tragic times, rose to impressive heights of leadership and courage," accepted the responsibility humbly but with deep resolution. In the 185th year since his birth, we are again reminded that his labors ensured "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth."

Martin D. Tullai heads the History Department at St. Paul's School.

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