A Diner in America

August 1, 2008

It probably doesn’t look it, but it’s really a sort of magical place.

Well, it is to me, anyway.

The Lincoln Diner stands just a block north of Lincoln Square in downtown Gettysburg. I think it a pretty lucky thing that right at a nexus of all things American, past and present, some kindly fates decreed that there ought to be a place at that crossroads to sit down over some eggs and coffee and think about it all.

I used to live just a block away, in an apartment overlooking the square. From my desk, I could look out the window at the house where Abraham Lincoln stayed on the night of Nov. 18, 1863. The window of the room he slept in faced mine.

No, I never saw his ghost looking out the window. Gettysburg has turned haunting into a cottage industry, and turns out spooks as though it were an ectoplasm cannery, as though the entire nation’s past residents had existed mostly to scare the bejesus out of the rest of us in the present.

I hadn’t been to the diner much since I moved out of town some years ago. Finding myself in temporary bachelor circumstances, I climbed into the truck and chugged into town and wandered into the Lincoln Diner.

Nothing had changed, of course. Actually, the owners remodeled it a year or so back, but what they did is make it look more like itself, if you know what I mean.

The Lincoln is from the era when stainless steel was king. It looks like an eatery designed by NASA, or something from Meet the Jetsons, square and streamlined at the same time, in a style that never looks new, but never really old, either.

I found a booth in the back and started with coffee, and ordered breakfast. Probably the same breakfast I ordered the first time I ate there, nearly a quarter century earlier. Some of the same wait staff is still there, as are some of the same customers, along with students from the college, and here and there a tourist smart enough to stay away from the clown-themed food factories on the strip.

The first or second winter after I moved up here I sat, maybe in that same booth, and watched a whiteout obliterate the world. It was an hour or so after midnight and a late shift at the newspaper. So heavy fell the snow that I could not see past the railroad tracks beyond the sidewalk, and the white blur flared with flashes of lightning.

For a Georgia boy, it was exotic, a real adventure.

But the real magic of the Lincoln Diner, to me, is its position in a hub, if you will, of what the country is, a continuing dialogue between its past and present.

One of the routes that pass through the square is U.S. 30, the nation’s first transcontinental highway. I stood on it once in Nebraska, with the Pony Express route to my south, and a branch of the Oregon Trail still visible to my north.

Across the street from the Lincoln Diner is the old Western Maryland depot, where Lincoln arrived to give his famous address, and from which he departed to return to Washington, D.C. In 16 months he would be dead.

Across the side-street on the other side of the tracks is one of those franchise eateries. It used to be a new and used bookstore, one of two in the downtown area. It’s gone now, and the other one focuses more on original artworks. It is an irony that in the first nation with compulsory public education our illiteracy rate is higher than it was half a century ago, and even most of those who can read think they don’t have time.

West of the former bookshop stands the derelict remains of one of those off-brand gas stations. The lot is surrounded by a fence, and inhabited by construction vehicles. I don’t remember what’s planned for the spot.

Next to the diner is a bar. In fact, within a block of Lincoln Square are at least three bars. It may explain the general belief in spirits around here.

My breakfast comes. A local attorney at the next table finds a cell phone on the floor. It rings. It is the tourist who lost it, wondering where it might be. The attorney tells him, and walks to the front of the restaurant so he can hand the man his phone when he swings by.

The attorney sits back down, and tells his story to a couple of the long-time waitresses. It’s been so long since I’ve eaten there that only one of the old-timers says hello. I dig into my eggs, a little saddened. It’s like not being recognized at Cheers.


© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

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