(This is from the new work in progress: the Civil War novel, about the doings of Minnie Templeton Vining, tireless campaigner for the abolition of slavery before the war, and a nurse volunteer during it. In this chapter, Minnie has been left independently wealthy by the death of her father, and then of her oldest brother. She has decided to travel, and see something of the world.)

“Don’t fuss so, Richie,” Minnie chided Sophia’s seven-year old son, as she and Annabelle waited on the platform of the Lowell Street Station, that magnificent modern temple of commerce on Causeway and Lowell. The clamor of the busy station echoed around them; the shriek of steel wheels on rails, the gasp of steam escaping, newsboys shouting their wares. “We’ll only be gone for the summer. We’ll be back before you know it.”
She and Annabelle were to travel to Richmond by gradual stages and all the way by train, escorted by Cousin Peter and Annabelle’s son-in-law, Richard Brewer. Minnie had impatiently thrown back the black veil that draped her bonnet, and now a slight breeze from the harbor – wandering tentatively between the pillars which upheld the station roof, and the clattering engines with their burden of railcars – blew the ends of that veil to and fro. She and Annabelle wore the deep black of morning – although not the unrelieved shrouds suitable for widows, to Minnie’s great relief. She hated looking through a black fog of a veil.
“Don’t want Grammy to go ‘way!” Richie’s lower lip stuck out, mutinously, and he aimed a kick at the stack of trunks and carpetbags stacked next to Minnie and Annabelle and those friends and kin come to see them away. “Make her stay, Papa!” Sophia chided the boy, without any real conviction, but Richard shot out a swift arm and pulled the lad by his ear away from the luggage. Richie screwed up his face and yelped in pain.
“Stop that!” Richard commanded forcefully. “Behave like a young gentleman, Richie, or you’ll get a good thrashing over my knee!”
“Oh, you’re hurting him!” Sophia protested, while Minnie and Anabelle exchanged glances of mutual exasperation. Richie was a handsome lad, big for his age, well-mannered when he felt like it, but Minnie privately felt that Sophia mollycoddled and indulged him better than was good for his character; a young mother, and to date, Richie was the only chick in the Brewer family nest. Stubborn, willful and thoroughly spoiled, yet Richie was charming … when he wanted to be. Fortunately, Richard Brewer was not inclined toward indulgence.
“I’ll hurt more of him than his ear, if he doesn’t behave, my dear,” Richard sounded exasperated, even as Annabelle murmured, “All he hurt was his own toe, dear – I doubt that our luggage has any feelings at all.”
“It was an unmanly display of temper,” Richard retorted, in lawyerly dispassion. “And Richie is sufficiently old enough to learn not to give way to them. He is supposed to be the man of the house while I am away – not a spoilt infant.”
Minnie privately agreed with Richard – whom she had always found to be a sensible young man, sober beyond his years and yet graced with a puckish sense of humor which somewhat alleviated the solidity of his bearing and the burden of wealth and privilege. Her gaze fell with relief upon a pair off familiar figures, coming along the platform towards their party. To distract what she feared might become an unseemly public dispute, Minnie exclaimed,
“Look, it is the Reverend Doctor Slocomb, accompanying Cousin Peter! Dare I think that he has come to bid us farewell, or a safe journey? Or is he perhaps bound on a journey likewise? I would relish his company, if so – for his opinions and discourse are always so diverting!”
“I doubt that he can be parted so long from his adoring flock! Especially the ladies of the parish,” Annabelle observed, with a mischievous smile in Minnie’s direction. “Perhaps he is making an exception in your case, Minnie! You are, after all, an heiress to no small estate, and the good reverend is yet unwed…”
“Ridiculous!” Minnie snorted – for Annabelle would gently tease her about the handsome reverend – a half-decade Minnie’s junior, but his waving locks of dark hair already touched with gray, making him look as of he was her equal in years. And he was not unpleasing to look upon – nor was Minnie quite without susceptibility to male charms.
For the Reverend Slocomb was a man fully in command of those charms; a rugged physique, tall and broad of shoulder, a countenance in which the features of a classic Greek statue mingled appealingly with lively intelligence and charm. An passionate orator and of an abolitionist sympathies, his sermons in the pulpit of Beacon Street Congregationalist Church riveted the attention of all listeners, packed closely in the private pews and in the galleries – he had even had a collection of them published, and Minnie had purchased a copy from her allowance, although the late Judge waspishly described him as a producer of pretentious windbaggery sufficient to raise a Montgolfier balloon.
Now the Reverend Slocomb had spotted them – the party of three black-clad women, a man, and a small boy, with the towering mountain of trunks and carpetbags piled next to them on a pair of luggage barrows.
“My dearest Miss Vining!” he exclaimed, advancing and abeam with smiles, deftly evading a newsboy with his basket of fruit and sheaf of newspapers. The Reverend bowed over her hand, all honest and friendly affection. “Mrs. Vining, Mr. Brewer – good day to you all! My dear old friend Mr. Peter Vining tells me that you are departing with him on a journey of some time!”
“To visit kin,” Minnie couldn’t help but smile, and hoped that she was not pinkening – for Annabelle would tease her privately over that. “We will be in Richmond for almost two months – the length of summer. We felt the need of a change of scenery, and I am …”
“Tired of Boston?” Reverend Slocomb kept her gloved hand still imprisoned within his. Minnie felt the warmth of his regard, the appeal of his consideration and resisted the impulse to simper like a schoolgirl. Meanwhile, Cousin Peter Vining, advancing at a somewhat slower pace, leaning as he did on his trusty cane, flashed a boyish grin at the party.
“Belle, dear – Minnie! Richard, you young scamp! Here I am, better late than never. They were afraid I would be late for the train, pestiferous invention, yet better than marching all the way! Had you despaired of my arrival?”
Minnie flashed a brief smile at the Reverend Slocomb, sliding her hand out of his with a grace that obliviated any lack of manners. Cousin Peter Vining was over the allotted age of fourscore and ten and increasingly lame from toes lost to frostbite in the bitter cold of a winter encampment when he was a mere lad in the Revolution, although otherwise wiry and spry. Yet, in defiance of those years, and unlike the Reverend Slocomb, Cousin Peter still contrived to appear younger than his calendar age. It was in his eyes, Minnie had always thought – the lively interest and energy of her father’s younger cousin. Cousin Peter was raised in Milford in Delaware, and at the age of seventeen had followed Washington with stubborn devotion, marched south with the Delaware regiments and fought at Cowpens. The spirit of independence burned with a white-hot fervor in Cousin Peter – perhaps that kept him still young, after all those travails in his youth. It was his oldest daughter Susan, and her husband who had invited them all for a long visit – Minnie privately hoped that Cousin Peter was yet strong enough to endure the journey without damage to his health, for all that they had planned to do it in leisurely stages, and rest for a day or so between.
“An adventure!” Cousin Peter kissed Minnie’s hand, and then Annabelle’s. “I have never outgrown a taste for adventure! And Susan is my dearest child, and I long to see her again, one more time. She has six handsome children, and she sent me the loveliest letter some weeks ago – her eldest, Lydia, is collecting a button-string; a button from each of her relations! We can indulge Lydia with the very finest and most personal buttons, I daresay.”
“We can, indeed,” Minnie pushed back her bonnet sufficiently so that she could also kiss Cousin Peter on his age-withered cheek. “And we can present them personally, of course. I am anticipating this visit with such longing! It is not that I am tired of Boston,” Minnie added, with a sideways smile at the Reverend Slocomb. “But one longs, sometimes, for other vistas … other sights! I decline to rusticate away, to the point where I do not dare set foot outside my own doorstep, lest I encounter some unfamiliar sight and swoon out of fright at the strangeness of it all.”
“You were the perfect dutiful daughter, ministering to Ly, and then to Horace and George in these last years,” Cousin Peter murmured, his voice husky with suppressed emotion. “Eh – and you are well-deserving of a holiday, my dear Minnie.”
“A perfect saint,” the Reverend Slocomb added. “A model of daughterly and sisterly devotion – we shall miss your presence at our devotions, and in the good work performed by the good ladies of the congregation, Miss Vining. Hurry back to Boston, as soon as you may … your return will be an event much longed-for … I speak personally, of course. Although I am certain that the other ladies will welcome you home …”
“I am certain that they will,” Annabelle pursed her lips, just barely amending the cynical smirk in which they had originally arranged themselves. “We well know the degree of respect in which Miss Vining is held by the good ladies of the Beacon Street Church.”
Minnie just barely held herself back from sticking out her tongue at Annabelle – her oldest and dearest friend, who knew well where to jab the sharp needle of her teasing. An affectionate tease, for the most part – but Annabelle’s aim was as always, unerring.
“I have no apprehension when it comes to telling ladies like Lolly Bard when they are being silly geese,” Minnie retorted. “And that appears to be the source of the intelligence that I am respected among them,”
“Touche, Aunt Minnie,” Richard Brewer grinned. “A hit, a very palpable hit … I believe that is now our carriage, and now is the time to mount it – that is, if we wish to gain favorable seats for our party.”
“Lead the way,” They made their farewells to the Reverend Slocomb; Richard embraced his son – who seemed now merely sullen – and Sophia, bravely stifling tears. What he murmured to them was private, not for the ears of anyone else. In a spirit of rebellion, Minnie left the black veil hanging back over her shoulders, as Richard offered her his arm, and Cousin Peter did the same with Annabelle. Richard snapped his fingers at the porter with his barrow, already taking up the long handles, as another porter lingered, asking if he could be of service. Now was the moment of departure.

I scribbled the last words of Luna City #8 early Thursday afternoon. Left it all in suspense on the final page, as is usual with the Luna City series; resolve all the main story lines, wander down a few amusing byways as regards the (created) local history, explore the lives or experiences of characters, set up hints regarding the next installment, and then leave it all on a (temporary) cliff-hanger.
Yes, I’m evil that way. I want readers to buy the next installment, ‘kay? Just so they can find out what will happen next. Look, this has been the stratagem of story-tellers since the very art of story-telling began.

And then I set to work earnestly on the next … for which I had already scribbled two scene-and-character-setting chapters, and several pages of notes about mid-19th century female abolitionists, and ordinary women who took up the challenge of being battlefield nurses when the pustule of the peculiar institution burst in 1860-61 and plunged most of the somewhat united American states into a bitter and brutal war. They say that civil wars are the worst. It’s as if the hatred is all the more bitter when it’s not some alien and foreign invader burning crops, raping women, and stealing away the best, brightest and most noble of youthful manhood, along with the harvested crops: it’s all the more stinging when it’s kin and ex-friends doing all of the above. I guess that it is the aspect of personal betrayal that makes it all the worse.
It was all very complicated, you see. Human society, the interactions that we have with those of our kind most usually is more complicated that the political theorists and historians can comprehend. Just as a brief example – a recent bio of Audrey Hepburn revealed that her mother was quite the Hitler enthusiast … until the war began, Holland was occupied, and a near and dear relation was executed by the Nazis. So – serious reconsideration of sympathies, all the way around on the part of Mother-of-future-gamine-star.

Back to my original thought – the next book, set in the lead-up to, and during the Civil War, as seen through the eyes of a female abolitionist and later on, a volunteer nurse. Minnie Vining. She was briefly mentioned in Deep in the Heart, and at slightly more length in Sunset and Steel Rails, so that I must ret-conn her character and story-arc from those brief appearances and fill out such experiences which were hinted at in those books. Only daughter among four sons of a long-established and respectable Boston family, a family whose experiences in the American Revolution were also hinted at … and why am I writing all my family saga backwards? Starting from the 1830ies in Texas and filling it all in, backwards and forwards from that point? Eh … sounds like a personal problem.

So here it is – the next historical is a Civil War novel – a bit of a change in focus for me. Of the previous books, only one is set during that period, and that in the Texas Hill Country, where most key developments and events happened far offstage, and most main characters in it sincerely wished not to participate in the war effort in any way. The other books are set either before and on the frontier, or at some remove afterwards. This next one, with a working title of That Fateful Lightning goes straight into the weeds of the anti-slavery movement; how it came to be that the question of slavery roiled feelings throughout the decade before the war, and it how it came to be that partisans on both sides were more than willing to take up arms against kin, former friends, neighbors and total strangers.

I expect also to delve full into the eccentric operations of Civil War battlefield hospitals. I already have a tall stack of reminiscences by women who served in such hospitals, and in providing the necessary by organizing fund-raising bazars and extensive shipments of home comforts to men in the field. It may have been an almost natural thing for so many women to take up nursing at that time. In the days before antibiotics and notions of sterile bandages, women ordinarily spent a fair amount of time nursing the sick anyway; children, husbands, brothers and sisters. Taking up a temporary career as a war nurse was a natural extension. Organizing fresh bread, clean sheets, and tempting invalid meals on an industrial scale – must have been just another logical reach for someone already accustomed to doing so on a home-sized level. I have been mildly boggled to find out how the pre-war Army medical establishment, which was a tiny organization suitable to a tiny peacetime military, came to depend so heavily on the various local Sanitary Commission volunteers when it came to dealing with the huge numbers of casualties once the lead began to fly in earnest.
I honestly don’t know how long this will take me: maybe as early as the end of this year, perhaps into next year, say mid-2020. But in the meantime, enjoy the other historicals, the Lone Star Sons volumes, and of course – Luna City.

D-Day Troops Landing(A reprise post from a decade ago – a reflection on D-Day.)

So this is one of those historic dates that seems to be slipping faster and faster out of sight, receding into a past at such a rate that we who were born afterwards, or long afterwards, can just barely see. But it was such an enormous, monumental enterprise – so longed looked for, so carefully planned and involved so many soldiers, sailors and airmen – of course the memory would linger long afterwards.

Think of looking down from the air, at that great metal armada, spilling out from every harbor, every estuary along England’s coast. Think of the sound of marching footsteps in a thousand encampments, and the silence left as the men marched away, counted out by squad, company and battalion, think of those great parks of tanks and vehicles, slowly emptying out, loaded into the holds of ships and onto the open decks of LSTs. Think of the roar of a thousand airplane engines, the sound of it rattling the china on the shelf, of white contrails scratching straight furrows across the moonless sky.

Think of the planners and architects of this enormous undertaking, the briefers and the specialists in all sorts of arcane specialties, most of whom would never set foot on Gold, Juno, Sword, Omaha or Utah Beach. Many of those in the know would spend the last few days or hours before D-day in guarded lock-down, to preserve security. Think of them pacing up and down, looking out of windows or at blank walls, wondering if there might be one more thing they might have done, or considered, knowing that lives depended upon every tiny minutiae, hoping that they had accounted for everything possible.

Think of the people in country villages, and port towns, seeing the marching soldiers, the grey ships sliding away from quays and wharves, hearing the airplanes, with their wings boldly striped with black and white paint – and knowing that something was up – But only knowing for a certainty that those men, those ships and those planes were heading towards France, and also knowing just as surely that many of them would not return.

Think of the commanders, of Eisenhower and his subordinates, as the minutes ticked slowly down to H-Hour, considering all that was at stake, all the lives that they were putting into this grand effort, this gamble that Europe could be liberated through a force landing from the West. Think of all the diversions and practices, the secrecy and the responsibility, the burden of lives which they carried along with the rank on their shoulders. Eisenhower had in his pocket the draft of an announcement, just in case the invasion failed and he had to break off the grand enterprise; a soldier and commander hoping for the best, but already prepared for the worst.

Think on this day, and how the might of the Nazi Reich was cast down. June 6th was for Hitler the crack of doom, although he would not know for sure for many more months. After this day, his armies only advanced once – everywhere else and at every other time, they fell back upon a Reich in ruins. Think on this while there are still those alive who remember it at first hand.

No, I don’t think will ever reach Peak Stupid; just as we will probably never reach Peak Oil, either – since there appears to be an inexhaustible supply of the former, and more of the latter than the gloom’n’doom crowd apparently thought. But Deity on a Trisket, the farrago of Stupid on display just this past week is just plain mind-blowing. And I read a lot of history, so it’s not a total surprise to me that individually and en masse, humans are capable of the spectacularly moronic; things like Tulip Mania in 17th century Holland, pursuance of the Flat Earth theory after trips into space, and the Billy Jack movie series, not to mention the whole disco era in general.
So the Jussie Smallett supposed hate-crime on the below-freezing streets of Chicago on the coldest day of the year thus far (hey, it’s only February, I am confident that the remaining ten months of 2019 will bring us ever more bountiful levels of stupidity) has fallen completely apart – much as the intelligent and logical portion of the blogosphere had predicted upon being made aware of the specifics. Yes, a planned – with an astounding level of stupidity even for an actor – hate crime, intended to leverage a pay raise, and garner oodles of that sweet, sweet milk of sympathy for a victim. And the National Establishment Mainstream fell for it, hook, line, sinker and whatever else in an appealing sob story, not to mention quantities of gullible media celebrities, and gullible political celebrities. Oopsie. The most decent of them appear to have the nous to be resoundingly pissed with Mr. Smolett over how their sympathies were exploited. The indecent are lying low and doubtless waiting for the next shiny, flashy supposed hate crime to bubble up to the top of that pond of scum which appears to be our national thought leaders. Live and learn, people – there exists a long, long, long history of faked hate crimes. The most recent of which happened not two weeks previously, with the Covington Catholic students. Memories are short in the National Establishment Media gene pool; measured in hours, I would guess. Possibly this is a variety of genetic defect. More »

11. November 2018 · Comments Off · Categories: History

There is a lovely little classical piece by Maurice Ravel – Le Tombeau d Couperin, composed shortly after the end of the war, five of the six movements dedicated to the memory of an individual, and one for a pair of brothers, all close friends of the composer, every one of them fallen in a war of such ghastliness that it not only put paid to a century of optimistic progress, but barely twenty years later it birthed another and hardly less ghastly war. Maurice Ravel himself was overage, under-tall and not in the most robust of health, but such was the sense of national emergency that he volunteered for the military anyway, eventually serving as driver – frequently under fire and in danger. Not the usual place to find one of France’s contemporarily-famous composers, but they did things differently at the end of the 19th century and heading all wide-eyed and optimistic into the 20th. Citizens of the intellectual and artistic ilk were not ashamed of their country, or feel obliged to apologize for a patriotic attachment, or make a show of sullen ingratitude for having been favored by the public in displaying their talents.
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So – Luna City Lucky Seven is finished, changes suggested by the Beta readers have been incorporated – and the latest installment of the Luna City Chronicles is ready to roll, pending arrival of the final cover. Which should happen over the weekend, or perhaps early next week. While I wait on that happy event, I’ve been scribbling away on the first couple of chapters of the Civil War novel, and mentally mapping out a few plot points. This novel, tentatively entitled That Fateful Lightening, follows Minnie Templeton Vining, a Boston lady of certain years. She is a die-hard Abolitionist in the years before the war, and a volunteer nurse during it, as outlined in Sunset and Steel Rails, in which she was a secondary or even tertiary character.

This new project requires me to really begin reading up on contemporary accounts and memoirs – of which there exists a large number. Many of the lady volunteers who took up this heartbreaking task of nursing soldiers under desperately primitive conditions wrote about it all afterwards; after all, the Civil war was the pivotal event of 19th century America. For better or worse, the issue of free-or-slave roiled politics and intellectual life for twenty years before, and the aftermath of the fighting left scars which, as of a century and a half later, are still vivid and raw. Thanks to having been a devoted reader of American Heritage as a tween and teen, thanks to Mom’s life-long subscription, I have always known this in outline, and in small tableaus – but not in such depth and detail that I could write convincingly and authoritatively about it from the point of view of a woman completely immersed, day to day, in both these issues.

So – another long, deep immersion in memoirs and letter collections – facilitated by the fact that most of the women who penned accounts of their heroic labors in field hospitals, in organizing fairs and markets to fund the purchase of medical supplies and comforts, and the rounds of public speaking and article-scribbling – are mostly obscure these days; their memoirs, letters and diaries are mostly in the public domain and free. Which is another nice benefit, since I am not anywhere near the income level of those authors who can command huge advances from a publisher, a guest shot on the Today Show, or The View, or a carefully-engineered position on the New York Times best-seller list.

Me at a recent Halloween market, as Queen Victoria

The other nice benefit reading this kind of material is that one is able to absorb the vocabulary, those thought-patterns and attitudes of the time. To me, there is no bigger crime in the historical-novel-scribbling set than that of ‘presentism’ – that is, basically dressing up modern characters in period clothing and having them walk through a 21st century plot. The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there. One might as well start with reading the authentic words of the residents. Histories are a useful adjunct to all this, but the problem with that is that the professionals all have their own biases and perceptions – and since so many of the female Civil War memoirists were concurrently, or later involved in various feminist crusades … I do not want to be put through the necessity of fighting my way through a bramble of biases. The original biases of the ladies involved is quite sufficient, thank you. The third nice benefit is that I can count on running across events, characters, small exchanges which will inspire plot twists and secondary characters for That Fateful Lightening. This turns up interesting things as a result. Well, interesting things to me, hunting scavenger-like for interesting bits of fact, turns of phrase, coincidences, and personalities – I swear, most of the plot turns in the Adelsverein Trilogy came about because I ran into something in the research reading and thought, “Ohhh! This has to be in The Book!”

The first such volume I have begun reading is a collection of letters, letters from and to a once-notable Quaker activist named Abigail Hopper Gibbons; who campaigned for various worthy charities benefiting women and orphaned children, the elderly, abolition of slavery, the Sanitary Comission (which provided medical care for soldiers during the war) the welfare of veterans and woman’s rights. She was happily married, it appears, and raised six children with her husband. Alas, one died as an infant, another at the age of five years old, and a third while in college after an accidental fall. She was a good friend of Lucretia Mott, who was also a very good friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton – all these people tended to know each other, I gather – or at the very least, knew of each other. These ladies and a dozen others of whom I have collected up their memoirs would appear to have been very far from being meek, submissive, conventional image of a Victorian lady, sitting passively in her parlor embroidering and murmuring, “Yes, dear,” while her husband pontificated.

In fact, these ladies, in their corsets and bonnets, and skirts to the toes of their high-buttoned boots, threw themselves into battle-field nursing, operating field kitchens, fund-raising to purchase supplies, and personally overseeing the delivery of those supplies to hospitals. They were real fire-crackers, these ladies – and it’s going to be an adventure, exploring their world and their words.

 

The indy-author scene is not the only thing which has radically changed over the last decade; just the one that I know the best, though having the great good fortune to start as an indy author just when it was economically and technologically possible. It used to be that there were two means of being a published author. There was the traditional and most-respected way, through submission to a publishing house – which, if you were fortunate enough to catch the eye and favor of an editor, meant a contract and an advance, maybe a spot on the much-vaunted New York Times best-seller list. This was a method which – according to the old-timers – worked fairly well, up until a certain point. Some writers who have been around in the game for a long time say that when publishing houses began viewing books as commodities like cereal brands and ‘pushing’ certain brands with favored places on the aisles and endcaps, and treating authors as interchangeable widgets – that’s when the traditional model began to falter. Other experts say that it began when tax law changed to make it expensive to retain inventory in a warehouse. It was no longer profitable to maintain a goodly stock of mid-list authors with regular, if modest sales. Mainstream publishing shifted to pretty much the mindset of Hollywood movie producers, putting all their bets on a straight diet of blockbusters and nothing but blockbusters.

The other means of getting a book out there was what used to be called the “vanity press”, wherein someone with more literary ambition and money than sense and patience paid for a print run of their book, and usually wound up with a garage full of copies. Strictly speaking, this was not such a bad way to get a book in circulation, especially if it was an obscure topic, such as local history or an impatient, new author. Quite a few of the 19th century greats actually kick-started their writing careers by paying for a print run of their own works. My own Tiny Publishing Bidness was launched nearly forty years ago, and some of the local histories which we published, of interest to researchers in the field since they were mostly based on original research go for quite astounding sums on the rare book market.

Three elements have it possible to route around mainstream establishment publishing over the past decade and for independent authors to make a modest living from writing, or at least have a regular income stream. The first was the shift to digital printing from traditional lithographic press; once those big industrial presses begin rolling, there’s a thousand, ten thousand copies of a book printed in a matter of hours, and at a minimal per-item cost, but at a substantial overall expense for whoever was paying for the print run. Digital printing offered an alternative; a slightly higher per-unit cost but producing only as few copies as were required at a time. Almost at once, industrial printers began offering the digital option. New boutique publishers made their services available, for relatively modest sums: format the text to print specs, generate a nice cover, print only as many copies as required, and make the book available to distributors … like Amazon. Amazon’s development of an e-book reader, the Kindle (followed by other reader systems like Barnes & Noble’s Nook) was the third development which upended the traditional publishing industry, eliminating printing, storage and distribution costs in one go. (Although not editing, formatting and marketing expenses.) It doesn’t help that mainstream publishing, or what I’ve been calling “the literary-industrial complex” has been concentrating itself into fewer and larger houses, just about all of them international when they aren’t based in New York and throwing their energies into mass-marketing a diminishing stable of established authors, and through retail channels such as Barnes & Noble.

Curiously, this all has had the effect of leaving the field wide-open for independents like me, to small regional and specialist publishers – like the authors I spend three days with last week at the Word Wrangler Book Festival in Giddings, Texas. The book festival was started thirteen years ago, to benefit the public library in that town. Book submissions are juried by the committee – and the requirement is that the books have a Texas setting or interest. That’s pretty much it – although if they might be of interest to junior readers, that’s a bonus, as the Festival is the focus of school field trips on one of those days. Picture books, self-help, travel, gothic, romance, mystery, thriller, historical fiction – our books ran the whole gamut of interests. Just about every book on display was a quality production, the equal or better of anything produced by the publishing establishment. Indy authors have now been at it long enough to have developed considerable professional skills, either on their own or through networking with freelance talent, and professional organizations like the Texas Association of Authors. This is a paradigm shift that the mainstream publishing establishment wish would go away, if they even admit the existence of it, beyond some snotty remarks about the bad self-published stuff. (Of which there is quite a lot, admittedly. There is also an equal quantity of awful books published through the mainstream, although the copy-editing tends to be a little better.)

The towers of the Literary Industrial Complex are still standing, however cracked the foundations might be. One of the other writers at Word Wrangler has a lovely series of educational picture books. A couple of years ago, she explored the possibilities of the Texas-local HEB grocery chain stocking them, and regretfully decided against it. Accustomed to the good old ways of doing business with established big publishing, retail corporations like HEB have requirements for quantities, returnability, and pricing that simply can’t be met by indy authors and tiny regional publishers. Alan Bourgeois, who founded the Association, has been working with HEB and other companies to adjust their requirements. He has met with some success in this, although a recent meeting with the CEO of Barnes & Noble proved disappointing. The last big box book store chain still standing is still wedded to their old model, of preferring a policy of top-down management, rather than allowing local store managers latitude when it comes to hosting book events with local indy writers and prominently stocking indy-published books. The late lamented Borders and Hastings were much more receptive and responsive, generally. As a footnote and perhaps a harbinger of things to come; a French author, whose latest book was rejected by publishers, apparently because of the subject matter – went to publish it through Amazon … and that book subsequently won a national literary prize. But the French bookstores won’t stock it, because – Amazon has cooties, or something. When establishment publishers and bookstores reject authors whose books are embraced by readers, this does not portend well for doing business in the same old way. In any case, I believe there is not a better time than now for readers and for independent authors.

I cannot say how much the ditching of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name for a yearly award for the best in published books for children and young adults distresses and disappoints me. I am one of those millions of readers who read and adored the Little House books early on, which various volumes my parents presented to me for Christmas and my birthday from the time that I could read – basically from the age of eight on. I would sit down and read the latest gift from cover to cover almost at once, so much did I love the books. After so many decades of honor, respect, and dedicated fanship, after having basically created (along with her daughter) a whole YA genre – historical adventure novels set on the 19th century frontier – LIW is now writer-non-grata, in the eyes of a segment of the American Library Association which deals primarily with library services to kids. Henceforward, sayeth the Association for Library Service to Children, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award will now be called The Children’s Literature Legacy Award, or something equally forgettable. The public reason given for this are two-fold, as nearly as I can deduce.

In certain brief passages of her nine-volume retelling of her childhood on the post-Civil War American frontier, LIW reflected the attitude of wary dislike with regard to the presence of American Indians common to those 19th century Americans, especially those who lived in close proximity to them. In the eyes of tireless social justice warriors, which appear in oversupply in today’s hypersensitive age, this is practically the same as preaching genocide on every page. And in one single chapter, her father and several men of the town put on black-face makeup and performed a minstrel show to entertain their friends. Such a form of entertainment was as popular then as it is considered disgracefully racist today.

So, rather than look honestly at the mores of the past – and perhaps entertain the thought that many of those notions which today we accept merely as conventional wisdom will, in a hundred years or so be held in as much, or greater disfavor than those attitudes held by LIW’s family and neighbors. I wonder though, if the motivations of the members of the Association aren’t just a little more complicated than polishing their social justice credentials. The Little House series presents – more than anything else – the quiet, intimate epic of a strong traditional family; a hard-working, resourceful, loving family, equal to every imaginable hardship going, from frontier isolation, to plagues of insects, bad weather, and grinding poverty. The Ingalls do not lament their lot, as LIW presented them; they make the most of it, and eventually achieve a quiet and modest degree of prosperity.

The Little House series, originally written and published a little short of a hundred years ago, remain overwhelmingly popular. Thousands visit the places which LIW immortalized in her books – the places where she and her sisters lived and grew up, the farm which she and her husband eventually established in Missouri. The TV series very loosely based on the series continued for years. I cannot help wondering if the kind of family and community life thus portrayed in the book series runs counter to everything in those young adult novels currently being pushed upon the younger generation by teachers and the child librarians; books which revel in gloom, despair, dysfunction and nihilism, a kind of literary filboid studge, in which in every grim trope embraced on the page discourages kids from reading. So – a burnishing of social justice credentials or sabotaging a classic series to advantage of contemporary but unreadable books intended for the juvenile consumer? Discuss.

I freely confess to having initially thought that when Donald Trump threw his hat into the political ring and began campaigning for election to the highest office in our fair land – it was a colossal joke and not one in particularly good taste. But I was never an adamant never-Trumper, and eventually came to think that hey – a wheeler-dealer Noo Yawk property developer (who after all HAD run a good-sized business enterprise for years) couldn’t possibly stuff up the job any more disastrously than He Who Dances With Teleprompters and his merry band of faculty lounge theorizers, career bureaucrats and second-gen beneficiaries of elite parental, fraternal or marital connections. In any case – I’d vote for practically anyone than Her Inevitableness the Dowager Empress of Chappaqua, even if I had to pin my nostrils shut with C-clamp. So – what the hell. Reader, I voted for him. I have to admit that when it sends rabid lefty celebs like Robert De Niro into a spittle-flecked rant on live television, I am tempted to rub my hands together and cackle with evil glee like Mr. Burns in the Simpsons, watching them come unglued with their hate for flyover country and those denizens of it which also voted for him. A man is known in a large part by the character and quantity of his enemies; Trumps’ are as numerous and as varied as any collection of grotesqueries in a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

So I started this post as yet another meditation on how ever-flipping-out-of-their minds the current iteration of Trump-haters are … and then the meeting in Singapore happened, and actually promises … maybe, if all goes well, a resolution to a war which started just before I was born, in a country to which my father was stationed as an Army draftee when I was born, in which I served for a year (three and a half decades later) and in which my daughter might very well have drawn duty in her turn. The Korean War – bloody and vicious, as we are reminded through M*A*S*H reruns – ended in an armistice and a heavily-armed border which slices the Korean peninsula into halves. Not anywhere equal halves, other than geographical.

Back at the start of it all, the northern part of that peninsula was the industrially-developed part. The inhabited part, whereas the southern bits were the rural and primitive parts. The whole of the place, as I came to understand in the year that I lived there, emerged as a feisty and independent kingdom, with a very distinct culture, identity, and language; a language with its’ own phonetic alphabet – the notion of one of their genius kings. Not Chinese, definitely not Japanese, in spite of seventy years of heavy-handed Japanese occupation, which only ended after WWII. I liked Korea enormously, for all that my taste of it was relatively brief. Seoul was a hectic, spectacular, modern city. I think that I went across it in every direction, via the subway, bus, or by taxi, innumerable times on my way to do an English-language voice-job, and never felt the least bit threatened or in danger because of being a foreigner. I was not much taller than the average Korean woman, or all that much more fair-skinned, and with my hair bundled up under a beret, not all that much darker of hair color. Unless people looked directly at me … I didn’t stand out all that much and I worked at not attracting attention to myself anyway. (But with one of my comrades in doing voice-work, who was about six and a half-foot tall … yeah, then we got noticed on public transportation.)

The Korean nationals that I worked with, on my various voice and broadcasting jobs were a relatively cosmopolitan lot, and we talked now and again about the North, and the threat intermittently posed, most notably to Seoul, well within artillery range of North Korean big guns. Indeed, about every six months or so, the Norks indulged in what another blogger termed the Korean Motherland Unity Game of Repeated Chicken – a regularly-scheduled theatrical bit of sabre-rattling, to which the old Korea hands (and possibly most ordinary Koreans) eventually became pretty blasé. (More here from The Daily Brief) Is there now a possible end in sight to a situation which has existed slightly longer than I have been alive, through Donald Trump’s surprisingly cordial summit with Little Fat Kim? Speculation on the imminent collapse of the North floats around at about the same frequency as the Korean Motherland Unity Game of Repeated Chicken. But this time, I do wonder if the Reign of Kim really is on very shaky ground – and Little Fat Kim knows it and is nervous about survival – his personal survival and that of his circle. Bits and dribbles of dismaying information keep trickling out of the hermetically-sealed kingdom; that the soldiers forage for food in the cultivated fields, that the Nork soldier who defected across the DMZ was riddled with intestinal parasites, that the underground nuclear test site collapsed the whole side of the mountain where it was located, that whole districts are stripped bare of vegetation … and perhaps at long last, the Chinese are not quite so blindly supportive of their favorite client state. Is North Korea circling the drain of history, and the Kim regime is trying one last desperate throw of the dice while North Korea still has the appearance of a viable state? Discuss.

27. May 2018 · Comments Off · Categories: History

This week, I happened on a movie – Woman in Gold from a couple of years back. The movie starred Helen Mirren, who vanished so utterly into the part of an elderly Viennese Jewish refugee, Maria Altmann, that there was no trace of Helen Mirren visible – the way that good acting should be, but rarely is. Briefly, the movie concerned Maria Altmann’s epic legal quest to have a famous and insanely valuable portrait of her Aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer painted in by Gustav Klimt in the early years of the twentieth century – a painting which had been looted by the Nazis – returned to her. The painting gravitated into the possession of the Austrian government, from which it was eventually pried by dint of persistent and effective legal action. A decent movie overall, BTW. But what struck me in watching it was how much the mannerisms, the accent, the character of Maria Altmann reminded me of a certain family friend, a woman of the same vintage, and similar background; Viennese, of a prosperous family who also ran afoul of the Nazis, and finished up living in Southern California. I wonder if Lainie and Maria Altmann knew each other, back in the day? Lainie lived in the right part of town and had the kind of income and background to have patronized Maria Altmann’s upscale boutique. Never know now, I guess. But I sought out the text of an early post on Sgt. Stryker that I wrote about Lainie’s rescuing angel. More »

The absolute nadir of bad days at work was sketched briefly in a recent book about the Revolutionary War battle of Saratoga – a decisive turning point in that war. There is nothing much new in Dean Snow’s 1777: Tipping Point at Saratoga, save that the author has gone through just about every set of archives, memoirs, and reminisces existing, along with an exhaustive survey of the site itself, and produced an hour by hour account. No mean feat, especially since keeping track of time was an inexact science. (And would be for at least another eighty years, when the developing railways, with requirements for exact timetables over long distances, and necessary scheduling of use on single track routes made it mandatory that scrupulous attention be paid to these matters.)

Briefly, that campaign was series of battles, skirmishes, and clashes on the banks of the Hudson River where it passes through upstate New York; the culmination of a grand plan to slice the rebellious colonies in – if not half – at least thirds. The supreme British commander, General William Howe (rumored to be a backstairs cousin to George III, his granny having had a productive affair with George I), was pleasantly ensconced in New York, where he was assisted in his revolution-suppression duties by General Henry Clinton. The British forces had chased the rebellious colonials out of New York some months previously. All the notable cities of the Colonies were ocean ports; Boston, New York, Charleston, Savannah. Only Philadelphia was an exception – and it sat on the inland reaches of the Delaware River. Still a port – but far inland from the Atlantic Ocean. In any case, the grand scheme was to split off New England from the other rebellious colonies by coming down from Canada with an overwhelming force of British regular troops and hired German mercenaries.

This grand plan was the brainchild of a handsome, raffish adventurer of some military talent and high connections in the British aristocracy, one John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne. The son-in-law of an influential politician of the time, Burgoyne possessed the favor of influential friends, the reputation of an outspoken military innovator, a mildly distinguished record of active service in the Seven Years War, some talent as a playwright, and membership in the House of Commons. In 1776, upon the lower Colonies in North America becoming quite irredeemably rebellious, Burgoyne was given command of a force charged with recovering British control over Lake Champlain and the Hudson River Valley. Burgoyne’s grand theatrical plan was for three forces – one coming down the Mohawk River from the west, another coming upriver from New York – and a third, commanded by himself advancing south down the Hudson River, all converging near Albany at a date mutually convenient for all three – and that would put an end to this silly revolution nonsense. Against sober consideration of the odds, the territory to be covered and a sincere ignorance of the complications which this plan would fall heir to, Burgoyne was given authority to proceed. Which he did, with full enthusiasm, and an enormous baggage trail, a company which included the wife and daughters of the professional soldier commanding the German element, Colonel Friedrich Reidesel. (Who as a professional, thought rather ill of Burgoyne and Howe, and Mrs. Colonel Reidesel’s opinion was even blunter.) General Burgoyne was so confident of this plan that legend has it that he wagered ten pounds with Charles James Fox that he would return in a year, triumphant, with the rebellion utterly quashed.

The long and the short of it is that Burgoyne’s grand plan came to a grief which would have been – and was – predicted by soberer heads. Loaded down with heavy baggage both real and cultural, Burgoyne and his scheme crashed head-on into brutal reality. Their Indian allies bailed early on, the American Loyalists which he had counted on to report in substantive numbers did not oblige, the force sent along the Mohawk Rover was defeated in a fight at Fort Stanwix, and the large British force moving up from New York never materialized; General Howe went to take Philadelphia instead, leaving General Sir Henry Clinton in charge of New York. The sheer difficulty of moving his enormous baggage and supply train utterly crumbled his grand offensive plan once he met stiff resistance, a little way south from Saratoga.

A month-long series of bitter skirmishes, culminating in battles at Freeman’s Farm, Bemis Heights and the Balcarres Redoubt burned through supplies, horses, ammunition, men, and German/British morale. Gentleman Johnny’s best chance would have been to pack up what was left of his supplies, soldiers, artillery-train and beat a strategic retreat north. But he still held out a hope that General Clinton would send a relief force of 2,000 men to his aid, as General Clinton had promised. Messages between Clinton and Burgoyne were carried by an American Loyalist soldier, a man named Daniel Taylor, who carried them in a hollow silver ball, the size of a bullet as he stealthed his way in ordinary civilian clothing up and down the Hudson. On October 9, Taylor and another Loyalist were just returning from New York, with a message for Burgoyne. Upon approaching New Windsor, Taylor and his companion began seeing heavily armed men – but were they Rebels or Loyalists?

At this point in the fighting, not very many Rebels or Loyalists wore distinguishing uniforms. Taylor and his companion were challenged almost at once. Who were they, and what were they doing? Well, said Taylor, who are you and what are you doing? We’re guards for General Clinton, replied the men. Why – Taylor had just departed from Clinton’s camp, the day before! Hurrah, for Clinton making swift work of the distance. Much relieved, Taylor asked to be taken to the General, obviously assuming General Clinton might have additional messages for Burgoyne. The guardsmen obliged by escorting Taylor into the august presence of the general … and that was the point where the day became The Very Worst Day At Work Ever for Daniel Taylor.

Because this was not the British General Sir Henry Clinton … but the American rebel, George Clinton; a commander of militia, governor of New York (who would be re-elected to that office five times), brigadier general in the New York volunteer militia – and also a dear personal friend and supporter of George Washington. Taylor – whom one might assume was frozen in horrified realization for a brief moment and whose interior monologue might be imagined with some accuracy – grabbed the silver ball containing the message to Burgoyne from where he had it concealed on his person and swallowed it.

Too late. Orders were given, Taylor was separated from his companion (nothing is said of what happened to that man) a doctor was sent for, and an emetic administered – likely by force – and nature took its course. He vomited up the silver ball containing the message, and when it was opened, and the message read, there was no hope at all for him, save for dictating a confession to an obliging militia officer, and composing his soul; an enemy courier, carrying theater-commander-level messages, and out of uniform – such as they were at the time. He was hanged the following Sunday morning, from the branch of an apple tree near the church in Kingston, north of New Windsor, as the Rebels evacuated the area, in anticipation of the British advance. When Sir Henry Clinton’s troops did briefly reoccupy Kingston, they found Taylor’s body, and burnt the town in reprisal.

All to no purpose, as it turned out. Burgoyne surrendered within days – a precursor to the larger surrender at Yorktown, four years later, when the world turned upside down and Britain relinquished control of thirteen rebellious colonies in the New World.

11. May 2018 · Comments Off · Categories: Ain't That America?, History, Wild Blue Yonder

OK, so it was linked on Insty, but this was an incredible read: of the Pan-Am commercial flight which got caught on the wrong side of the world after Pearl Harbor, and had to go around the long way to get home again, with pluck, luck and sheer stubborn inventiveness.
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Enjoy!
I particularly liked the part where they visited a public library, searching for relevant information.

(The historic WWI Battle of Belleau Wood is a part of the background in A Half Dozen of Luna City … and for your edification – an essay on it, which will feature in the latest Luna City chronicle.)

1918 was not the year that the 19th century died; died in all of its boundless optimisms and earnest faith in advancement of the human condition. For Europe – cynical, cultured, hyper-superior old Europe – that could be said to happened two years earlier, along the Somme, at Verdun, in the tangled hell of barbed wire, poisoned gas and toxic, clay-like mud, the burnt ruins of the centuries-old Louvain university and it’s priceless library, destroyed by German ‘frightfulness’ tactics in the heat of their first offensive. Perhaps the 19th century died as early as 1915. It depended on which front, of course, and the combatants involved, still standing on their feet, but wavering like punch-drunken, exhausted pugilists. One may readily theorize that only blood-drenched enmity kept them propped up, swinging futilely at each other, while the lists of casualties from this or that offensive filled page after page of newsprint; all in miniscule typeface, each single name – so small in print, yet a horrific, tragic loss for a family and community hundreds of miles from the Front.
All this was different for Americans, of course; sitting on the sidelines, gravely concerned, yet publicly dedicated to neutrality, and firmly at first of the conviction that Europe’s affairs were not much of Americas’ business. But softly, slowly, slowly, softly – American sympathies swung towards the Allies, even though there were enough first- and second-generation Americans among German and Irish immigrants to have swung American public opinion among non-Anglo or Francophile elements towards maintaining a continued neutrality. After all, it was a war far, far, away, and nothing much to do with us … at first. But events conspired; the brutality of the Huns in Belgium (documented by American newspapers), unrestricted submarine warfare which extended to American shipping (and, inevitably, American casualties), and finally, the publication of the Zimmerman Telegram – and in the spring of 1917, President Wilson formally requested of Congress that a declaration of war on Imperial Germany be considered and voted upon. Said declaration was passed by an overwhelming margin, and by summer of that year, American troops were arriving in France – first in a trickle, then a flood.
The Belleau Wood was a forested tract thirty or so miles northeast of Paris; a hunting preserve in a stand of old-growth European forest, the refuge of wildlife, and for those whose favored recreation was hunting them. At the northern edge of the forest was two-story octagonal hunting lodge; built of stone, it was a place to shelter hunters for a night, during momentary bad weather, or a hearty meal, mid-hunt. Until the spring of 1918, it had been relatively untouched by a war which had turned acres and acres of French and Belgian farmland into muddy, barbed-wire entangled wastelands – many of which are still poisoned and unsafe, a hundred years after the end of that war. That forest tranquility ended when the expected German spring offensive slammed into the Allied lines – lines which now included the Americans – and punched through to the Marne River. The Germans had hoped to break through before the sufficient of the American Expeditionary Force arrived to make a difference in the wars’ outcome.
Late in May, German forces reached the Paris-Metz main road – and if they managed to break across the Marne and reach Paris, that one last throw of the dice would pay off for Germany; perhaps in victory, or perhaps in a negotiated and face-saving settlement with the equally exhausted and embittered French and British.

An experienced career soldier, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing commanded the US. Expeditionary Force. He had rejected British and French demands that the Americans be parceled out piecemeal among Allied units, and essentially fight under the command of French and British officers. This would not do – likely Black Jack was polite yet forceful about it. (His nic came from him having commanded a troop of black cavalry early in his career as a young officer.) The AEF’s 3rd Division went into the line to counter the German advance at Chateau Thierry – the 3rd Division, which included a brigade of Marines, had initially been held in reserve – was brought forward in a hurry. The Marines were pretty much seen as a second-class by the Army brass, according to some accounts: good enough to do rear-guard and support duty, and only thrown into what was expected to be a quiet sector because every able-bodied American serviceman was needed, in the face of the German spring offensive. Checked by stiff resistance at Chateau Thierry, the German advance poured into the woods, where the 3rd Division had just arrived. Retreating French troops, exhausted from the fight to keep from being overrun, urged the Americans to do likewise, whereupon one of their officers is supposed to have riposted, “Retreat, Hell – we just got here!”
Of course, the newly-arrived American troops were keen as mustard; champing at the bit, as it were – especially the Marines, few of whom were of the career old breed. Many were recent volunteers. Up until that moment, the Marines had been a rather small, and somewhat specialized service; more inclined to security on board naval ships and at US embassies abroad, perhaps a small punitive expedition where American interests were concerned in South America and the Caribbean; a military constabulary, rather than hard-charging infantry. Still, it was a service that took pride in having been founded by an act of the Continental Congress in 1775, recruiting at the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, beating the official establishment of the US Army by more than a decade. (Yes, there was a Continental Army during the Revolution, but it was more like state militias seconded for service in the colonies’ united cause. The US Army wasn’t quote-unquote officially established until the 1780s. Upon this kind of minutia are friendly service rivalries built.)

Throughout the month of June 1918, the Marines fought with bitter tenacity through the deathly woods; sharpshooting at first, with deadly effect, and eventually to point-blank, then with bayonet, knives, and hand-to-hand. They kept the Germans from moving out of the wood, and then fought them back, yard by yard, trench by trench. The trees in the forest, the boulders at their feet were shattered by artillery and machine-gun fire. The stench from the bodies of the dead – too many to bury, under the existing conditions in the early summer heat – revolted the living to an unimaginable degree. And still – they went on, clawing back the wood to Allied control. More Marines were killed in that single month than had been killed in action since their founding in 1775. The Corps would not face another butcher’s bill to equal it until the taking of Tarawa, a quarter of a century later, and half the world away. It was a special kind of hell, this fight in a 200-acre French woodland, fought by relatively untried young troops, motivated by pride in service, by devotion to comrades, and by the leadership – which in many instances devolved onto NCOs, and even individual Marines, like Sergeant Dan Daly, a scrappy Irish-American career Marine (who had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor – twice, for actions in the Boxer Rebellion, and then again in Haiti). In legend he is said to have rallied the troops with a shout of “For Chrissake, men, come on; do you want to live forever?!” (Or similar phrasing. The war correspondent Floyd Gibbons later wrote that he had heard a similar expression shouted by a senior NCO, and the legend attached itself to Dan Daly.)
In the end, the Germans were driven from the woods, at a horrific cost; 10,000 casualties among the Marines, including nearly 2,000 dead. There is no definitive record of German dead, although there were around 1,600 Germans taken prisoner. But the Marines had clawed back the deathly woods, blunted the last-ditch German offensive … and in November of that year, Germany threw in the towel. By agreement, it all came to a temporary end on the eleventh hour, the eleventh day, the eleventh month. Such were the enmities and resulting bitterness that the armistice held only for the time that it took for a baby boy born in that year to grow up and serve in his turn. The shattered forest was christened anew after the battle; since then it is called the Wood of the Marine Brigade and an adjunct to a American war cemetery. The American 4th Brigade was recognized by the French government by the award of a military honor, the Croix de Guerre. To this day, active-duty Marines serving in the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments are authorized to wear the French fourragere – an elaborate garnishment of looped and braided cords – on their left shoulder as part of their dress uniform, in honor of that unit’s service in the Deathly Wood, a hundred years ago. And to this day, successfully completing Marine Corps basic training means completing the “Crucible” – a 54-hour marathon march on short rations and little sleep, featuring grueling marches, obstacle course and team-driven combat-problem-solving exercise – some of which was drawn on the experience of the fighting in the deathly woods, a hundred years ago.

Just when I had begun to think that those who hate conservatives generally could not possible become any more irrational and deranged; that they had dug them so very deeply into the pit of despair, loathing and frustrated fury – along comes the twin scourge of “pro-Trump Republicans are Nazis!” united with the push to remove monuments with anything to do with the Confederacy from public spaces on the grounds that the historical figures so honored were supporting, defending or enabling the institution of chattel slavery. Some of the more creatively deranged or misinformed parties demanding the removal of such monuments have also expanded their monumental loathing to include Christopher Columbus, Fr. Junipero Serra, and Joan of Arc – although it is a puzzle as to why a French saint burned at the stake two centuries before the beginning of European settlement of North and South America should be slated for demolition or removal. Deep confusion on the part of the person who demanded its removal cannot be ruled out, although as my daughter has pointed out (rather snidely) chances are that they are a graduate of one of New Orleans’ finer public schools.

Still, I admit to being rather blindsided by the sudden storm of demands to remove these statues and monuments on the part of the current ‘red guards’ of the American left, remove them from the places where many of them had been installed for at least a hundred years and often longer. As an amateur historian, I find this horribly depressing; the monuments for both Confederate and Union heroes and events were put up within human memory as ghastly and savage a blood-letting as we ever inflicted on each other to this date. The question of chattel slavery and states’ rights sundered families, friends, communities, established churches, military academy classes; for four blood-soaked years, North and South tore at each other without pity or remorse … and at the end of it all, the country was painfully stitched together by millions of grave markers and the grief and regret of survivors. Indeed, the dedication of monuments was seen often as an honoring of former foes, an acknowledgement of courage and conviction, and of deep sorrow that it ever came to such a slaughter – a gesture of reconciliation. This kind of purpose is perhaps too subtle for the BLM/AntiFa/Red Guards faction to grasp, raised as they have been in relative security and plenty, suckling the teat of carefully fomented racial resentment, informed by a Zinnified view of history, and enraged beyond coherent dialog by the fact that better than half the voters in the country do not agree with them … on anything and everything. The Confederate memorials are a handy symbol, something which the rage of the BLM/AntiFa/Red Guards faction has seized upon as the heights from which to make a proxy war on the rest of us. Useless to point out to them that there is a danger of sparking a very real war, as bloody and desperate as the war that the statues commemorate.

It is a kind of madness, I have come to think over the past nine months since the election of Donald Trump; an irrational madness very much like the Great Satanic Day-Care Abuse madness of the 1980s and 1990s. This was a panic which grew and grew, sparked by the fears and uncertainties of parents, fanned to a wildfire by unscrupulous child welfare professionals, ambitious public prosecutors, and a very credulous media. Even at the time, soberer commenters were likening it to the Salem witchcraft trials. The Great Satanic Day-Care Abuse madness took longer to burn out, although at the end of it, the accused and convicted were mostly dead, not just locked up in prison. But in all three cases – there is a purpose behind the madness, and a whole group of interested parties hoping to make something for themselves out of encouraging it. In the case of the destruction of the monuments, memorials and establishments which most ordinary Americans cherish and honor – I cannot see how the campaign to destroy them will burn out of itself.
Discuss.

I took it into my head to see Dunkirk in a movie theater on the opening weekend. I don’t think I have done since the early nineties (when we returned from Spain, where movies showed at the base theater six months to a year after premiering.) The last time I saw a movie in an actual theater, instead of at home on DVD or on streaming video was – if memory serves – The Kings’ Speech, in 2010, or it may have been The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in 2013. We saw the latter in an Alamo Drafthouse cinema, notable for being set up in a civilized manner to serve tasty adult beverages before and during the showing, as well as equally tasty entrees. They also have a positively Soup-Naziesque attitude about talking, texting, ringing cellphones and children disturbing the movie experience – an attitude of which I regretfully approve. One toot on yer flute, or on your cellie, and you’re oot, as the saying about the woman in the Scottish cinema with a hearing horn used to go. Adding to the charm of the experience – you can book a ticket for a specific seat and showing through their website, and pay for it online in advance. Print out your ticket on your home printer, waltz into the theater at the appointed time – and yes, this is one thing I do like about the 21st century.
Back to the movie. The necessary trailers for upcoming releases reminded me powerfully about why I have not been to a movie theater for a movie since 2010 or 2013, especially a trailer for a superhero concoction called The Justice League. No, sorry; so much my not-cuppa-tea that I wouldn’t more two feet off a rock ledge to watch it, or anything else there was a trailer for. Fortunately, the pre-feature features were few and relatively brief.
Then to the main feature, which began very quietly, with a half-dozen British squaddies wandering down a narrow street on the outskirts of Dunkirk, under a fluttering of German propaganda leaflets … which set the situation as it exists, and supplies one of the young soldiers, appropriately named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), with a supply of toilet paper. Tommy is a luckless lower-ranks Candide, foiled numerous times in his efforts to get away from Dunkirk, the first of three different yet congruent stories told by the director, Christopher Nolan. Some viewers may have difficulty in following them, as they weave and intersect with each other. I did not – although how daylight and tide conditions changed abruptly from shot to shot and episode to episode in the narrative may baffle some viewers. Tommy’s soggy epic journey (he damn near gets drowned three times by my account) alternates with two other narratives: an account of the civilian boat-owning volunteers – epitomized by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his younger son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s school chum, George (Barry Keoghan). The Admiralty, under emergency orders, has begun requisitioning civilian boats for service shifting English and French troops off the beaches held in a pocket between Dunkirk and Bray Dunes.
This is historically accurate – the main harbor of Dunkirk was composed of an inner and an outer harbor. The inner was essentially unusable through German bombing by the time of the evacuation. The outer – a long sheltering mole-and-walkway – was difficult to moor large sea-going ships against, and hideously vulnerable to German bombing and strafing attacks, both to the ships and the ranks of soldiers drawn up to board them. Mr. Dawson’s substantial motor-sail yacht is one of those requisitioned to serve – because of their relatively shallow-draft – in taking troops directly off the beach to the larger ships at anchor in deeper water. (This character and account is clearly based on the experience of Charles Lightoller.) Mr. Dawson doesn’t want to turn his yacht over to the Navy and he heads out of the English harbor, (after ditching all the civilian accoutrements and taking on a load of life-preservers) with a crew composed of a pair of teenaged schoolboys.
The third element, after land and sea, is in the air; a pair of RAF Spitfire pilots, Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farner (Tom Hardy). They start on their mission to provide air cover to the evacuation, lose their flight leader even before they even get mid-way – and thereafter Farner, with a busted fuel-gage on his fighter-plane (which was top of the line in 1940) is on a tense countdown. Make his goal, achieve his mission of providing air cover for the evacuation before he runs out of fuel…
The countdown is one of the elements which makes this movie consistently suspenseful: the countdown of Farner’s fuel tanks, the countdown of Tommy’s ability to hold his breath, the arrival of the ‘little ships’ in time to do any good, the ability of Mr. Dawson’s crew to haul drowning soldiers out of the water before the oil from a sinking ship cooks off. This is punched up in the soundtrack, which is not so much music but the effect of a clock ticking, occasionally broken by a terrifying silence which means that the German dive bombers are about to attack. The soundtrack is mostly sound design, with very little music as we usually hear it. The only conventional and hummable bits are a version of ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations in about the last five minutes. The acting is likewise impeccable from the cast, especially Tom Hardy, who as Farner, had the challenge of spending most of the movie with his face covered by his oxygen mask and goggles.
Those are the laudable elements – now the severely critical comments based on the various books on Operation Dynamo. This is one of the historical events that I was obsessively interested in as a teenager. The movie vision of the smoke column on the horizon is lame. From all reports and photographic evidence – it was huge. Really huge – as could be seen from across the channel, covering a good quarter to half the horizon as one got closer to the French side. The crowds on the beaches were also much more substantial, if the historical record is any guide. The long tracking shot in Atonement gives, I think, something more of an idea of how chaotic, crowded, and desperate the situation in the Dunkirk-Bray Dunes pocket must have been. I was also thrown out of the story a couple of times by how many times the ‘stuck under a barrier and drowning’ trope was brought out and inflicted on key characters. Really, do this no more than once per character a movie. A lovely shot of all the ‘little boats’ coming to the rescue; they all looked so pristine. It was a fantastic touch to use some of the real surviving Dunkirk ‘little boats’, but only a few were shown, out of 250 or so known to have participated. As a matter of fact, many were towed across the Channel to the evacuation zone, most of them crewed by Naval reservists (as was shown in the initial scene with Mr. Dawson’s boat), and they bustled back and forth from the shallows, ferrying troops out to the deeper-draft ships standing off-shore, rather than make the cross-channel journey independently and loaded with troops. (The largest portion of troops rescued from Dunkirk were transported to safety on destroyers – not on the ‘little boats’.) The bit about the British Army engineers kluging up a pier by driving trucks into the sea at low-tide to create a makeshift pier to load from at high-tide – that did happen. I do wish that the incident of one particular ship-captain deliberately grounding his own ship to serve as a temporary pier and floating it off again at high-tide had been included – but that act of desperate improvisation was one of many.
On the whole, Dunkirk is well worth the time and cost to see in a theater, especially this summer. Regarding the previews of coming attractions, though, it looks like it will be another four or six years before I bother going to the theater to watch another one.

Atonement – Beach at Dunkirk (2007) from Wagner Brenner on Vimeo.

26. June 2017 · Comments Off · Categories: Ain't That America?, Air Navy, History, Old West

Edward Fitzgerald “Ned” Beale was a prominent 19th century hero, a celebrity, almost; a military officer, war hero, notable horseman and explorer, hero of the western frontier, good friend of several other notable frontiersmen, friend of one president, and appointed to offices of responsibility by four others – and those offices varied quite widely in scope. He was also a champion of the Native American tribes, prominent in Washington high society for decades, and seemed to lurk meaningfully in the background of key historical events at mid-19th century. Curiously, his name doesn’t readily spring to mind more than a hundred years after his death; the most prominent places bearing his name being Beale Street in San Francisco, and Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville in north-central California. One would think for all his various services to the nation and for his vast array of prominent and still-famous friends that he would be more of a household name. Perhaps he was for a while – but four decades or more of politically-correct restructuring of American history have elevated some, and reduced others to mere footnotes in dusty journals.

Beale as a young midshipman

Beale as a young midshipman

Ned Beale was born in 1822, in Washington D.C. – the capitol of a nation barely half-a-century old, to parents with connections to the American Navy. His father was a paymaster for the service, his mother the daughter of one of the first six commanders appointed by President Washington to head the new US Navy. So, it was only natural, when after the death of his father, Ned Beale was appointed to the Naval School in Philadelphia, a precursor to Annapolis. Upon graduation from the school in 1842, he was commissioned as a midshipman, and made voyages to the Indies, South America, and Russia. Three years later he was assigned to the Pacific Squadron, the command of Robert Stockton; an able and trusted officer, who had – as Beale himself would later have in his own career – the trust of presidents, and the friendship of the influential. Beale served as Stockton’s aide and private secretary; they were part of the American delegation to Texas when the Texas Congress formally accepted annexation to the United States.

Beale’s next assignment for Stockton was – not to put too fine a point on it – a spy, ordered to conceal his nationality and sail on a Danish ship to England, to suss out British feelings and possible war preparations over the contentious matter of the Oregon boundary. Barely having completed that assignment and reported his findings to President Polk, Beale was sent off hotfoot with dispatches to rejoin Captain Stockton, whose flagship happened to be in Peru at that moment. This necessitated that Beale make the journey by sea to Panama, cross the Isthmus and make his way to Peru – all this a kind of 19th century precursor to Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Stocktons’ ship detoured to Hawaii, and arrived in harbor at Monterey, California in July, 1846. War between the United States and Mexico had already begun. The Pacific Squadron’s orders, in that eventuality, were to seize those ports along the Pacific coast – especially those in California. Stockton set about doing so with zeal and efficiency. Ned Beale was detached to serve with a US Army column which had come at speed overland from Fort Scott on the Missouri-Mississippi under the command of General Stephen Kearny. Briefly pausing to take Santa Fe, and New Mexico for the US, Kearney’s advanced column – guided by Kit Carson — arrived in California out of breath and weakened after a marathon march of 2,000 miles across country. Kearney’s advance party, augmented with sailors and Marines from the Pacific Squadron clashed with Californio-Mexican volunteers and Mexican presidial cavalry at San Pasqual, near San Diego. Both sides claimed a victory – although Kearney’s force suffered the heavier losses, they eventually took San Diego, and Ned Beale was one of the heroes. Two months after the San Pasqual fight, he was sent east with dispatches. Over the next two years, he made six cross-continental journeys on official business; one of them in disguise to make a short-cut through Mexico to bring irrefutable proof of the tremendous gold strike in the California foothills at Coloma to the federal government. Amid these expeditions, he found the time and energy to marry; the daughter of a politician from Pennsylvania, Mary Edwards, and sire three children with her.

Beale resigned his naval commission in 1851, but in no way was he done with the far west, or assignments of great import to the federal government. He returned briefly to California, to manage properties owned there by his mentor, Commodore Stockton. On his way west, he squeezed in a spot of surveying for a transcontinental rail line through present-day Colorado to Los Angeles. Two years later, he was appointed superintendent of Indian affairs in California and Nevada. Thereafter Ned Beale spent a hectic decade exploring and surveying the west, establishing a wagon road between Fort Defiance, New Mexico to a point on the Colorado River between Arizona and California – the initial phase of this project involved another project of interest to the Army – the Camel Corps. He proved to be a champion of camels in the far west; when the Camel Corps was formally disbanded at the end of the Civil War, Beale purchased some of the surplus camels and kept them at his vast California ranch property. The camels also served in a later Beale expedition to extend the road from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to the Colorado River. That same route was later followed by the Santa Fe railway, US Route 66 and the present day I-40.

In 1871, Ned Beale purchased a mansion in Washington, DC – Decatur House, notable for being almost next-door to the White House, and entertained a wide variety of guests there over the following years – guests including U. S. Grant, and prominent members of his administration. He spent one year as ambassador to Austria-Hungary, and made as much of a social splash in Vienna as he had in Washington. Doubt less his experiences on the far-west frontier – which by that point was almost legendary – coupled with his considerable diplomatic skills and ability to earn the trust of important people had a lot to do with that success.

His final years were spent between Decatur House, the California ranch, and a horse farm called Ash Hill, close to Washington. He died at Decatur House in 1893, a few years shy of the twentieth century. Sailor, soldier, spy, surveyor, explorer, diplomat, rancher, man about town – and a fine judge of horseflesh. Not many men of his time could quite equal that resume in every particular.
(Ned Beale is set to appear as a character in the next Lone Star Sons book – Lone Star Glory, which I hope to bring out by November, 2017.)

This short has been around for a bit – but still..

Elsie the Contented Cow was created in 1936 first as a cartoon corporate logo for the Borden food products line; a little brown Jersey cow with a daisy-chain necklace and a charming anthropomorphic smile. Three years later, a live cow was purchased from a dairy farm in Connecticut to demonstrate (along with several other likely heifers) the Borden Dairy Company-invented rotary milking parlor – the dairy barn of the future! in the Borden exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair. The live Elsie, originally named You’ll Do Lobelia (no, I did not make up this bit) came about because an overwhelming number of visitors to the exhibit kept asking which of the demo-cows was Elsie. Of the cows in the show, You’ll Do Lobelia was, the keeper and administrator of the dairy barn agreed – the most charming and personable of the demonstration cows, especially for a generation of Americans who had moved on from a life of rural agriculture and likely never laid eyes on a real, live cow. So, Lobelia/Elsie was drafted into service for commercial interest (much as young American males were being drafted at about the same time for military service). Elsie, her assorted offspring, spouse (Elmer the Bull – the corporate face of Elmer’s Glue) and her successors continued as the public face, as it were – for the Borden Dairy Company, appearing in a movie, even – and the Macy’s department store window, where she gave birth to one of her calves. Her countenance adorns the labels of Eagle Brand condensed milk to this day.

But what – one might reasonably ask – has Elsie the Cow have to do with the Alamo?

There were cows in the Alamo – or at least, at the start of the 1836 siege. William Travis’ open letter from the Alamo, written as Santa Anna’s army invested the hastily-fortified old mission on the outskirts of San Antonio, included a hasty scribbled post-script. “The Lord is on our side—When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn—We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels & got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves.” A facsimile of the letter – a plea for immediate assistance – was printed at once, and published by the two major Texas newspapers of the time: the Texas Republican, and the Telegraph and Texas Register.
The Telegraph and Texas Register was owned by a partnership; a long-time settler in San Felipe de Austin named Joseph Baker, and a pair of brothers, originally from New York – John Petit Borden and Gail Borden, who served as editor, although his previous profession had been as surveyor and schoolteacher. Baker and the Bordens published their first issue almost the minute that revolution broke out in Texas, with the “Come and Take It” fight at Gonzales in late autumn, and subsequent issues of the Register covered the various issues and controversies in the mad scramble that was the Texas Revolution. And scramble meant literally – for by early spring, the Telegraph was the only functioning newspaper in Texas. John Borden left to join the fledgling Texas Army, and a third brother, Thomas, took his place in the partnership. On March 30th, the Borden brothers and their partner disassembled their press and evacuated San Felipe with the Texian rear guard, a short distance ahead of the advancing Mexican Army. They set up the press in Harrisburg two weeks later, and just as they were about to go to press with new issue – the Mexican Army caught up to them. The soldiers threw the press and type into the nearest bayou and arrested the publishers. Fortunately, the Bordens did not remain long in durance vile, for in another week, Sam Houston’s rag-tag army finally prevailed.

Gail Borden was still raring to go in the newspaper business, and mortgaged his Texas lands to buy a replacement press. The Telegraph resumed publication in late 1836, first in Columbia, and then in Houston – but on a shoe-string. The Borden brothers had sold their interest in the newspaper by the following year, and Gail Borden moved into politics, serving as Collector of Customs at Galveston, and from there into real estate, before developing an interest in – of all things, food preservation. His first essay was a sort of long-lasting dehydrated beef product, called a “meat biscuit”. The product won a prize at the 1851 London World’s Fair, and proved to be popular with travelers heading to California for the Gold Rush, and with Arctic explorers – but the US Army – which Borden had been counting on for a contract to supply meat biscuits – was not enthused, which left Gail Borden casting around for another likely product. There was a great concern at the time with the contamination of milk, especially in cities, especially since diseased cows could pass on a fatal ailment in their milk.
It took Gail Borden three years of experimenting, developing a vacuum process to condense fresh milk so that it could be canned and preserved. After a couple of rocky years, Gail Borden met by chance with an angel investor, who saw the utility of Borden’s process, and had the funds to back an enterprise called The New York Condensed Milk Company. Although Borden developed processes to condense fruit juices and other food products, milk was and continued to be their best-seller, especially when the Civil War broke out, and demand for the product rocketed into the stratosphere. By the time that he died, in 1874 – back in Texas and in a town named Borden, after him – no one could deny that he had not been wildly successful as an inventor and innovator.
In 1899, the New York Condensed Milk Company formally changed its name to the Borden Condensed Milk Company, to honor their founder. (There have been a number of rejiggering of company names since – currently the Elsie logo appears on the Eagle brand of condensed milk, through corporate machinations too convoluted to explain here, if anyone even would be interested.)
And that, people, is how Elsie the Contented Cow is connected to the Alamo.

I had an appointment with my primary care health provider at the dot of 9 AM Wednesday morning, down at the primary care clinic at Fort Sam Houston. Some years and months ago, they moved that function from the mountainous brick pile that is the Brooke Army Medical Center, into a free-standing clinic facility on Fort Sam Houston itself. I would guess, in the manner of things, that this clinic facility will undergo some kind of mitosis in about ten years, and split into another several facilities … but in the meantime, this is where I get seen for my routine medical issues … mainly high blood pressure. So; minor, mostly – immediately after retiring, I went for years without ever laying eyes on my so-called primary care provider. A good few of them came and went without ever laying eyes or a stethoscope on me, as well. But this last-but-one moved on, just at the point where he and I recognized each other by sight and remembered each other from one yearly appointment to the next. But once yearly, I must go in and see my care provider, and get the prescriptions renewed, and Wednesday was the day …

Fort Sam Houston – what to say about that place? Historically, it was the new and shiny and built-to-purpose military establishment after the presidio of the Alamo became too cramped, run-down and overwhelmed by the urban sprawl of San Antonio in the late 1870s. I have read in several places, that if the place is ever de-accessioned and turned back to civil authority as the Presidio in San Francisco was, that the inventory of city-owned historic buildings in San Antonio would instantly double. Yes – San Antonio is and was that important. It was the US Army HQ for the Southwest from the time that Texas became a state, the main supply hub for all those forts scattered across New Mexico Territory (which was most of the Southwest, after the war with Mexico), the home of the commander and admin staff for that administrative area. Every notable Army officer from both world wars put in serious time at Fort Sam during their formative military years, and the very first aircraft bought by the Army Signal Corps did demo flights from the parade ground. (I put a description of this in the final chapter of The Quivera Trail.)

But Wednesday morning, I was interested to know if the clinic administration had changed out the pictures of the personnel in the chain of command yet. (Military custom – someplace in the foyer of many units are a set of pictures; President, SecDef, and so on, down to the unit commander and the First Shirt. Part of the materiel which has to be learned in basic training are the names of the various authorities on it. The pictures are for the edification of those of lowly rank who often go for years without ever seeing the higher-ups of their chain of command in person. I went for a year once, without ever seeing my squadron commander, although I think I might have spoken to him on the phone once.) Anyhow, there was a link going around among some of the mil- and veteran blogs to the effect that a number of units had not yet received their official photographs of President Trump and General Mattis – and had filled in with print-outs of some of the more viral meme-portraits of them: President Trump standing on a tank, rolling through a battlefield, and Saint Mattis of Quantico, patron saint of Chaos with the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch in one hand. I was looking forward in any case to seeing the new pictures, and yes, they did have the new one of President Trump on the wall, but only a sign with the name on it where General Mattis’ picture should be. Ah well – the Army is notoriously humorless and Fort Sam/BAMC is the showplace of Army medicine, but as I walked past the display, I started thinking about how bizarre it all was. I think I first read about Donald Trump in the Village Voice, in the mid-1980s, or perhaps in some other publications in the late 1980s when he and Marla Maples were huuuge tabloid and gossip-column fodder: an almost richer-than-god and bigger than-life real estate developer, flamboyant, combative, crude, even – a hound for publicity even more than for pussy.

And now he is the commander in chief. It’s been like seeing Paris Hilton, or (god save us) one of the Kardashians with a heretofore unheard of skill set, suddenly developing political ambitions, going for it … and getting there. Who on earth would have foreseen that, twenty-five years ago? It’s weirder than anything made up by an author of political novels.
Discuss.

24. December 2016 · Comments Off · Categories: History, Literary Good Stuff

(This is a short-story version of an episode in Adelsverein: The Sowing, which I reworked as a free-standing Christmas story a good few years ago, for a collection of short stories. The scene; the Texas Hill country during the Civil War – a war in which many residents of the Hill Country were reluctant to participate, as they had abolitionist leanings, had not supported secession … and had quite enough to do with defending themselves against raiding Indians anyway.)

It was Vati’s idea to have a splendid Christmas Eve and he broached it to his family in November. Christian Friedrich Steinmetz to everyone else but always Vati to his family; once the clockmaker of Ulm in Bavaria, Vati had come to Texas with the Verein nearly twenty years before with his sons and his three daughters. “For the children, of course,” he said, polishing his glasses and looking most particularly like an earnest and kindly gnome, “This year past has been so dreadful, such tragedies all around – but it is within our capabilities to give them a single good memory of 1862! I shall arrange for Father Christmas to make a visit, and we shall have as fine a feast as we ever did, back in Germany. Can we not do this, my dears?”
“How splendid, Vati! Oh, we shall, we shall!” his youngest daughter Rosalie kissed her father’s cheek with her usual degree of happy exuberance, “With the house full of children – even the babies will have a wonderful memory, I am sure!” Her older sisters, Magda and Liesel exchanged fond but exasperated glances; dear, vague well-meaning Vati!
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I am currently torn three ways, between the start of the holiday market season for myself and my daughter’s various enterprises, my own blogging and writing, and a book project for a Watercress Press client. The book project is to do with local history, and a particularly contentious event during the Civil War – in Texas. Even as far west of the Mississippi as Texas was, from the main theater of war, some comparatively minor skirmishes in the first Civil War took place in Texas. And the final battle, and surrender of the last hold-out Confederate command took place down on the Rio Grande, and the very last Union Army casualty fell in that Texas fight. But that is stuff for history trivia contests. (The answers are, FYI, the battle of Palmito Ranch, and Private John J. Williams, of the 34th Indiana.)

The book project has a fair amount of my attention, as it touches on a local history matter featured in my own books – but in the interesting coincidence of the Tiny Publishing Bidness having published some of the local history books noted as sources, or citing local historians whom I have met or have had something to do with; the late Rev. Ken Knopp, James Kearney, and Jefferson Morganthaler, most notably – and referring to many of the sources that I read as research for the Adelsverein Trilogy. This book that I am working on now caps a series which can only be produced by a writer/researcher involved to the point of intense – yea, even fanatical interest – in a specific Civil War event. Seriously, Colonel Paul Burrier (USA, Ret.) has gone back into the archives of various establishments and re-published at his expense just about every relevant document there is to find in national and state archives regarding the locally infamous incident memorialized by the True to the Union monument in Comfort, Texas.

I’ve written here and there about the Nueces Fight/Battle/Massacre here, here, and there…and how the peculiar situation in the Hill Country of Texas – well-stocked with Abolitionist, pro-Union inclinations – generated a bitter civil war-within a civil war.

You would think that the Confederacy, after establishing the principle that if you don’t like the results of an election, you can take your marbles and secede, had little ethical grounds for persecuting those elements within Texas who didn’t like the results of the secession convention, and wished to take their marbles and rejoin the union – but they did, anyway. “It’s only OK when WE do it” has a longer-than-suspected-history in the Democrat Party, it seems. Colonel Burrier’s thesis is that influential elements among the Texas Hill Country Germans were organizing an all-out, balls-to-the-wall armed and political resistance movement, with the aim of breaking off from Texas, establishing a separate and free state, and rejoining the Union, just as West Virginia did. It’s liable to be a controversial one, since it is contrary to the accepted opinion, which tends more to the concept of relatively innocent non-participants in the peculiar institution generally, and disinclined to participate in the Confederacy’s war specifically – being brutally persecuted for exercising their rights of free speech and association. Repression bred resistance, and violence on both sides.

As in all civil wars, this one split families, friends and communities. One of the most heartbreaking that I can imagine, from reviewing and formatting Colonel Burrier’s assemblage of chapters and notes is that Fritz Tegener, who was elected leader of that party of militant German Unionists who went south towards Mexico together in 1862, was a married man with a small daughter and a two-months-pregnant wife, Susan Benson Tegener. When his party was ambushed by pursuing Confederates, he was badly injured, to the point of incapacitation in the resulting fight, but managed to survive and spend the remainder of the war south of the border in Mexico. Susan Tegener, whose two older brothers were members of the Confederate militia unit assigned to keep order in the Hill Country was taken into custody, along with the families of other suspected Unionists, but eventually released. Assuming her husband dead, Susan married twice more – to Confederate sympathizers. After the end of the war, when Fritz Tegener turned up alive and well, her divorce from him was, as might be assumed, spectacularly ugly. Fritz Tegener never acknowledged the second child as his … and Colonel Burrier suspects that Susan Tegener may have spilled all to the Confederate authorities about her husband’s planned departure with sixty other Unionists in 1862 anyway. Fritz also had two brothers; Gustaf, summarily hanged at Spring Creek later in 1862 by Confederate authorities (or vigilantes – hard to tell which, sometimes), and William – also lynched by pro-Confederate vigilantes the previous year – apparently for his disinclination to embrace the Confederacy.

The other sobering element is how swiftly things turned, and turned again, for many of the well-established and respectable men in the German community. The elected sheriff of Gillespie County, one Philip Braubach, was taken to San Antonio in the indignity of chains with a heavy cannon-ball weight attached. His companions in miserable captivity included two Hill Country store owners – one a former justice of the peace, and the other a former officer in the local militia. They all three were charged by a military tribunal and found guilty – fortunately they escaped shortly thereafter. Others coming under suspicion and persecution were just as well-established in their respective communities. They held responsible offices – state representative, justice of the peace, surveyor, militia company officer, ran profitable businesses, had the absolute trust of their friends, neighbors, communities … and for a season of madness, were branded traitors, plotters, brigands and revolutionaries. And for that, they spent three or four perilous years, hunted as outlaws and traitors until the wheel turned again …

03. October 2016 · Comments Off · Categories: Ain't That America?, Home Front, Old West

So that was a fun Saturday, although exhausting as it always is to pack the Montero, drive a certain distance, unpack the Montero, find a good spot, transport the canopy, tables, the tubs of books and the tub of table dressing and giveaway materiel, and the two camp chairs to it, and set up, ready for business. Then – four to six hours of face-to-face direct sales, broken by a sandwich from the HEB deli (No, lunch is a chancy thing at these events. There may be a food truck or a concession handy with something that we’d want to eat and don’t mind paying for … or not. We have wised up. We bring HEB deli sandwiches, and an insulated bag of bottles of drinking water.)

This is the second year for the Boerne Book Festival – last year there were about twenty of us, spaced out in a back room in the main building. If records and memory serve, we did sell a handful of books, but mostly, us authors were reduced to looking at each other after a certain point in mid-afternoon. I did have a table across from a local historian, Jefferson Morgenthaler, who did a very good book about the German settlements in the Hill Country – a book that I absolutely recommend, as he covered the same territory in non-fiction the same ground that I did in fiction. He is one of those local authors that I knew of, but had not met until that point – so last year’s event was not a totally wasted effort.

Neither was this year’s; they set us up on the landscaped grounds of the library, under the trees where a winding paved path went down to an amphitheater which was the venue for a couple of scheduled events, starting with a children’s ballet company performance: the mini-dancers performed as various forms of sea-life to the music of Saint Saen’s “Carnival of the Animals”. This was the most-well attended segment of the presentations in the amphitheater, I will have to admit, although the later presentations/discussions did have an audience. One of the authors wrote zombie thrillers and was of sufficient celebrity as these things go to have the local Barnes & Noble store with a representative sample of his books.

There were about thirty-five authors present, plus Alan of the Texas Author’s Association, who had a booth filled with books by members of the association. One of them was Clay Mitchell, who was a client of Watercress Press. Alice and I had done some substantive and line editing for his book, Amid the Ashes and the Dust, which is a terrific and evocative read, set in East Texas. Another was John Keeling, who has started a western series about cattle ranchers in Texas; the first book is called Take ‘em North: The 2E Brand Begins. We had a brief chat about writing about the post-Civil War long-trail cattle drives; always go back to the primary sources, we agreed. Just about anything about that enterprise that you saw in a movie or a TV show during the Golden Age of the Western (say from 1930-1970)  is liable to be howlingly inaccurate.

Boerne is one of those towns just about commute-distance from north-side San Antonio; with a very distinct identity, and a well-established historical district. The ambiance is one of very substantial proto-yuppie prosperity. A couple of new developments on the outskirts of town have sprouted up in the last few years, and the various businesses in the historic downtown have – for as long as we’ve been visiting – been very, very upscale. It is, in a word – a prosperous place.

My daughter and I did venture by turns into the used-book store, which is an outgrowth of the Patrick Heath Public Library; a lovely building on the grounds, with a two-level terrace at the back, and a beautifully-arranged selection inside. Seriously – this is a library used-book outlet, which was as well-sorted and set out as any high-end retail book store. My daughter bought Alison Weir’s bio of Henry VIII and I found a copy of the Crabtree and Evelyn cookbook, which I bought for sentimental reasons. And yes – I can’t resist cookbooks of a certain sort. I really used to love that company when they had an outlet in North Star Mall, across the street from the office building where I had a job, some years ago. Sadly, the Crabtree & Evelyn outlet vanished, seemingly between one week and the next. Eventually, there was nothing left in that mall which I was interested in, on my lunch hour, save maybe the Williams-Sonoma outlet. It all became high-end designer clothing, makeup and jewelry. I commiserated with the volunteer cashier at the bookstore about that. She was leafing enviously through the cookbook during the time it took for me to go back to our tent and get my purse. ‘Hah!’ I said. ‘You had your chance!’

So – a very good and reassuring start to the last-quarter-of-the year selling season. One of the readers that we sold a set of the Luna City Chronicles to, stayed for a while to lament about how her widely-geographically-spread friends visualized Texas … in a most unflattering way, of course. My daughter has marveled at how her English FB friends seem to think that we all live in little desolate towns, where tumbleweeds roll through deserted unpaved streets, and everyone lives in tumbling-down shacks with outhouses out at the back and gunfights in the streets on a regular basis.

No, it’s not like that – not anything like that at all… But perhaps we want to keep that quiet, because then everyone would want to move here, and that would quite wreck the place. Say, did I mention how hot it is in Texas during the summer? It’s boiling hot, miserable-hot, fry-egg-on-the-sidewalk hot. For five whole months, and sometimes six! No, stay away, stay away!

Anyway, the Daughter-Unit and I are planning out the next market events on our schedule; Johnson City and Blanco are a go for their markets, and Saturday morning at the New Braunfels Sophienburg’s Christmas marked in November at the New Braunfels Civic Center. Dates to be posted as soon as confirmed.

27. August 2016 · Comments Off · Categories: Geekery, History

A lovely animated visualization of how Pompeii was destroyed and buried –

14. May 2016 · Comments Off · Categories: Domestic, Geekery, History

I do wish they had paused long enough to look into some of the ground-floor shops, and into the church, too – but still, this is awesome.

Oh, yes – I’m still here. Finishing up work for a client, and the launch for the Second Chronicle of Luna City.

14. April 2016 · Comments Off · Categories: Domestic, Geekery, History, Literary Good Stuff

Coming up for air, after more than a week of … well, stuff. Firstly, Blondie and I decided to bring out the sequel to Chronicles of Luna City at the end of this months, rather than try and do three books all at once at the end of the year. I have the sequel to Lone Star Sons to write, and The Golden Road to finish – those last two got set aside in the rush to finish Luna City and Sunset and Steel Rails in time for the Christmas market season. Inspiration, OK? It strikes where it will. So – finishing that sequel and going through editing and layout, and devising new pictures for the chapter heads … and right in the middle of all that, my main computer chooses to not be able to internet. Seemed to be a purely mechanical thing – as in some connection in the innards not being able to connect – and I had some handy work-arounds, which were sabotaged by the wireless router crashing shortly thereafter. And then my daughter’s computer crashed utterly and irretrievably. Sigh.

This is why we have a spare everything, in boxes in the closet. Computer, monitor, router … and also why I back up everything to a thumb drive and an external hard drive as soon as I finish writing a chapter. And a laptop, which those generous people running the Amazon Vine program offered me earlier this year. I will never forget that horrible day around Christmas 2007 when I was just about ready to sit down and write that fifth chapter for Adelsverein: The Gathering – where Carl and Magda meet cute on the bank of a river when she is desperate and he is heroic – and the then-current computer crashed, taking all four previous chapters with it. My dear late friend, Dave the Computer Genius was able to sort out the crippling virus infestation after a couple of days, retrieve all my files (including the chapters!) and revive the then-current computer unit to serve for a few years more … but prepared is to be forewarned. Hence the redundant back-ups. And I also bought into some particularly effective virus-killing programs and have used them religiously ever since. This is my livelihood, OK?

Still, it does take some time to migrate everything to the new unit/units. It’s rather like a PCS – moving into a new space. There is some time required to settle everything familiar into the new location, get comfortable with the layout, locate the new electrical switches – especially because the new units and the laptop came already pre-loaded with Windows 10 … as well as some kind of leftover function that made me sign-in repeatedly, if I walked away from the computer or didn’t move the mouse or strike a key in one minute. Took two days to sort that one out, which tends to tell on the writing time, let alone re-installing certain necessary programs, which I was foresighted enough to have on original discs. (What is with this thing about paying a monthly fee to have certain programs available – a rant for another occasion, I think.)

Anyway, now settled into the new work-space and picking up those writing projects set aside, and thinking about new ones. What to work on when I finish The Golden Road? I’ve been toying with the thought of a WWI novel, since there are characters in The Quivera Trail and Sunset and Steel Rails of an age to have been affected by it. I may still do something of the sort, but writing about how the 19th century world came to an end in bloody mass-slaughter of men and empires, not to mention a certain degree of confident optimism … at this present depressing time, I don’t need any additional depression. I’m toying more energetically with the idea of an adventure set in the American Revolution; how the original Becker paterfamilias came to America as a Hessian mercenary, and deserted at the end of the war to stay behind, marry a local girl named Katerina, and set up a prosperous farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania. That would be more to my liking – picking up the circumstances briefly mentioned in Daughter of Texas, with a young Margaret Becker fondly recalling her grandfather; the wisest, kindliest and most humorous man of her acquaintance, who made certain that she and her brothers spoke proper German.

How careful he had been in speaking the old language, ensuring that she and Rudi said words in the proper way, so that Oma Katerina laughed and laughed, saying that the children sounded as if they had a broomstick up their backsides, so prim and careful with words and sounding like proper children of Hesse. Margaret had never thought that Opa had been sad about leaving his family, and his soldier comrades. The story of Opa and Oma had a rightness about it, the comfort of a familiar fairy-tale for children; of course young Opa Heinrich should stay in America and marry the young Oma Katerina. That was the happy ending which all fairy tales had.

That will be an interesting book to write, although I shall have to stretch my research library in a whole ‘nother direction; I do have some materiel about late 18th century America and life in the colonies – but more will be required.
And I will have to find the time to get out the sewing machine and start to work on my author-garb for the upcoming year – the Edwardian-style walking suit and a towering period hat to wear with it.

04. February 2016 · Comments Off · Categories: Ain't That America?, History, War

(OK – finally the last of the history post I started earlier this week. Things to do, places to, things to write about. I said I would have this second part on Friday, but … real world, you know?)

Towards the end of that day, May 6th, 1942, the road petered out. Stilwell abandoned the last of the trucks and the radio van – the radio set weighed 200 pounds alone. Last messages were sent, one advising General Brereton, in New Delhi that Stilwell and his party were on foot, heading for Homalin and then Imphal, and asking for them to be met at Homalin by resupply and medical aid. “Indian govt. should be warned rice, police, and doctors urgently needed by refugees on all routes to India from Burma. Large numbers on way. All control gone. Catastrophe quite possible. End.” Another, to the US War Department via Chunking, ended, “We are armed, have food and map and are on foot 50 miles west of Indaw … believe this is probably our last message for a while. Cheerio. Stilwell.”
More »

27. January 2016 · Comments Off · Categories: History, War

He was an abrasive man, as his nickname suggests – and had very little of soothing diplomacy in him. A soft-spoken and conciliatory manner might have served him better in the long run over the duration of his tour as the American commander of Chinese troops in Burma during WWII, but considering the dire situation there in March of 1942, perhaps irascible and decisive better served the immediate situation. A 1904 graduate of the US Military Academy, General Joseph Warren Stilwell had a particular talent for languages – to include blistering invective, written and spoken Chinese, field tactics and the training of soldiers. He had come to Burma to take charge of reorganizing the nationalist Chinese military forces there … just the Allied defense of South-east Asia crumbled under a vigorous Japanese offensive. The invasion of Burma was intended to cut off the land route which supplied China, blockaded along the coast by the Japanese. War materiel for China reached there only by ship via the Burmese port of Rangoon and thence by truck, traveling 700 miles over the Burma Road. This ran from Lashio to Kunming and Yunnan; a perilous track hacked out by hand labor through jungle and over steep mountains several years earlier.

The defense of Burma rested primarily on British, Commonwealth, and Chinese forces – all supplied with difficulty as the Japanese launched their great offensive in December, 1941. About the only thing that the fractious Allied command in Burma possessed in quantity was distrust, suspicion, and an awareness of impending defeat at the hands of triumphant Japanese pushing north along a line from Rangoon to Mandalay. Stilwell, nominally in command of the Chinese armies, was constantly back-bitten by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, who was reluctant to gamble troops and materiel, preferring to conserve them against future needs – fighting the Japanese in short term and Chinese Communists in the long. The Generalissimo also did not repose much trust in the British, either – suspecting them of imperialist designs on China. This was a distaste shared with Stilwell, although for a slightly different reason. Stilwell abhorred pomp, circumstance, military ritual, jazzy uniforms, many privileges of rank, and swagger sticks, in no particular order – some or all of which were delighted in by the British military establishment. (To be fair, some American officers delighted in them as well.)
Stilwell, who if anything was an active and hands-on commander, had two small field HQs – one at Lashio, and the other at a small town called Shwebo, just north of Mandalay – where Stilwell was when the commander of British forces in Burma, General Harold Alexander ordered evacuation of Burma. Allied defense of Burma had collapsed utterly; Alexander’s evacuation order was merely confirmation of the dire situation on the ground. British, Indian, Chinese, Burmese troops and civilians were already making a mad dash along any route leading to India and safety.

General Alexander had experience in military disaster and withdrawal, having covered, as a divisional commander in France in 1940, the evacuation of British forces at Dunkirk. Alexander had left on the last destroyer out of Dunkirk; Stilwell had much more strenuous plans. Even in defeat, and with a disinclination to pull rank for his own advantage, Stilwell had pull. An American transport aircraft arrived on May the 1st. Stilwell refused to get on it himself – he sent out fifteen members of his HQ staff instead, and set off north by truck and jeep, on a route which paralleled the railway between Mandalay and the strategic town of Myitkyina, where the airfield was still in operation. He started with a group of about eighty, with the intent of traveling by train to Myitkyina, evacuating all but a few by air and trying to rally the Chinese troops.
The railway turned out to be useless to them, blocked by damage to the rails beyond the power of Stilwell’s party to clear it. The best way of reaching India and safety, in Stilwell’s judgement, was to turn westerly, and head for the valley of the Chindwin River, and cross the mountains beyond on foot. This had the advantage of avoiding mobs of the defeated Allied troops and frantic civilian evacuees clogging the well-traveled routes out of Burma; the Japanese advance leap-frogging ahead … and with luck, would skim through before torrential rains of the seasonal monsoon. On the 5th of May, the general ordered several trucks of his convoy abandoned when they bogged down in a river ford. They carried on westwards toward the Chindwin with the remaining trucks, the lighter jeeps carrying the most critical supplies, and the radio van.

The party had grown since leaving Shwebo; by the morning of May 6th it was a multinational and civilian-military affair: nearly thirty US Army personnel – most of them officers of Stillwell’s staff, fifteen ragged British soldiers and fourteen Chinese, a volunteer medical unit commanded by Dr. Gordon Seagrave (the son of long-time American missionaries in Burma and fluent in the Karen language), including 19 Christian Burmese nurses, a small British Quaker ambulance unit, Jack Beldon, civilian correspondent for Time and Life Magazines, some native Burmese, Indian and Malayan cooks, and the Reverend Breedham Case, another missionary with extensive knowledge of upper Burma and the various dialects spoken there. One of the British officers, a Major Barton had also spent many years in up-country Burma. The knowledge of the country and languages possessed by those three – Major Barton, the Reverend Case, and Dr. Seagrave would prove invaluable to the party over the course of their long walk to India and safety.

(To be continued on Friday)