McBride At Rest

McBride At Rest

Friday, August 18, 2017

My Interview in Heaven

When I get to Heaven, should my beliefs of grace and forgiveness actually allow me to reach the Pearly Gates, I’m going to look up my old Uncle JJ McBride, the Civil War soldier-ancestor whose life inspired my Honor Trilogy of novels. Uncle JJ endured three years of arduous, and in the end, futile and tragic warring--150 years later, my wife endured three years of my writing about his three years of soldiering.

I want to ask Uncle JJ straight-up if he read the books I wrote with him in mind. If his heavenly presence tells me he has read them, he’ll likely be laughing. Here’s a possible transcript of that conversation in Heaven, starting with JJ adapting one of the best repeated lines from HBO’s Game of Thrones series.

Uncle JJ:  You seem like a pleasant enough fellow, and I do surely appreciate your remembering your old uncle. But the fact is about your books, You know nothing, Phil McBride. Things back then weren’t at all like what you wrote. All that stuff with me and Levi? He was slave. And me going to bed with a married Jewish woman? Really? Not to mention my making friends with the most famous Jew in the Confederacy. And that soldier who dressed like a man, but was really a girl. Come on, man.

Me: Well, Uncle, I was writing for an audience 150 years later in time. Things are different now. Readers expect different things from the good guy characters in the novels they read. People like a main character who has a good heart and is brave, but who also has a mischievous streak running through him. 

Uncle JJ: Well, at least you made me a good guy. Not like that Samuelson fellow. I admit you created one bad hombre there.

Me: Uncle, I’m glad you appreciate the villain. What about the battles? And camp life? Did I do better there than I did with Levi and Faith?

Uncle JJ: Not so hasty, young fellow. I didn’t say I don’t like Faith. Hell, boy, I’m flattered you put me next to such a fine woman. Too bad she’s only a character living on the pages of your books. If she were a real angel, I’d look her up. As to Levi, well, we all wish not a single African had ever been brought in chains to the New World. And it was best not to think about who begat who back in my day. Anyway, I had more pressing matters to worry over than my body servant.

Me: Like the Yankees?

Uncle JJ: “Yeah, like them. You did right well with the battles, for a guy who wasn’t there, that is.”

Me: And camp life as a Civil War soldier?

Uncle JJ: Wasn’t so bad. Of course I was an officer and had Levi taking care of my needs.

Me: What about your two battle wounds?

Uncle JJ: Hmph. I wouldn’t recommend getting shot to anybody.

Me: If you could change anything I wrote about your character in my books, what would it be?

Uncle JJ: Well, in your books you left me in the fight until the end. I’m glad you did that. I hated not to finish the thing. I owed it to the boys to have been there with them that last long year.

Me: Thank you. But what do you wish I’d written differently about you?

Uncle JJ: Well, it would have been good if we’d won after all that killing and dying.

Me: I couldn’t change the outcome of the war in my books, Uncle. That’s not historical fiction. I could only fill in gaps where there’s no record of what happened. That’s why I could create Faith and have you befriend Judah Benjamin, but I couldn’t let Lee win the war. Now, is there anything you wish I’d written differently about you?

Uncle JJ: I wish you’d made me younger. You pegged the real live me pretty good with all that bleeding blister and bloody boot stuff. I was just too danged old to be marching all those miles month after month for three years.

Me: Thanks, Uncle. Let’s talk again.

Uncle JJ: I’m sure we will since we’re both on duty here for the duration.

Me: Duration?

Uncle JJ: The duration of eternity, Nephew.

Me: So there’s time for me to write another novel?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Roses Are Red, Icebergs Are Blue

Roses are red, icebergs are blue…I think that was what my wife Nita is pointing out to me. We’re in a stretch of days which are hotter than blue blazes, every day passing the 100 degree mark. So I figure why not post a photo of a frosty Alaskan blue iceberg. It is probably making your screen cold to the touch. Enjoy. Maybe it will bring on a delightful shiver.

Extreme weather, be it hot, wet, or dry is a real deal here in Central Texas. I admit our only blizzards are at Dairy Queen, but floods are a recurring theme around these parts.  

In October of 1998, crazy heavy rains brought on record-setting floods where I live near Austin. Even the flood control dams failed to hold all that water. The normally mild Guadalupe River became a raging beast. The same thing happened to the nearby Blanco River in 2015. Vacation homes on the river became death traps in the middle of the night.

How do raging rivers connect to my new in-progress novel, A Different Country Entirely, a story about the Texas Rangers in the semi-arid regions of South Texas and Northern Mexico?

In October of 1855, 162 years ago, when there were no flood-control dams, rains along the Rio Grande River caused the river to run 15 feet higher than normal. The normally thin thread of placid water that is our border with Mexico became fast, wide, and wild.

That’s how the Rio Grande looked to Captain Callahan’s Texas Rangers. Raging. Formidable. Dangerous. And no bridge. 

The owners of the few small row boats the Rangers located refused to put their skiffs in the river for pay, and had to be forced at gunpoint to ferry the Rangers across to Mexico. Horses had to swim next to the boats. At least one man drowned and horses were lost in the swift current.

All that effort was just to get onto the forbidden Mexican side of the border. A week later when the Rangers had to re-cross the Rio Grande in a big hurry, things were even harder and hotter.

Harder because the river was still in flood stage and this time hundreds of armed Mexican soldiers were on their heels.

Hotter because the Rangers torched the town of Piedras Negras to cover their escape from Mexico. It was not a diplomatic visit.

Weather befuddles man’s best efforts. In one night, the hurricane of 1900 wiped away the city of Galveston and killed 10,000 people. The tsunami in Japan just a few years ago did the same.

In World War II, D-Day and the Battle of Bulge were greatly influenced by stormy weather.  During the American Revolution the ongoing heat-related deaths of soldiers wearing wool uniforms were a plague to the British generals. And flooding rivers have long played havoc with determined leaders like Captain Callahan.

I’d say weather probably changes history more than man does. Reckon? So when Texans or anyone talks about how bad the weather is, please don’t poo-poo them. Because we never know what tomorrow's weather will bring.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Game of Thrones, Paladin, and A Bad Idea

Game of Thrones (GOT) just started its seventh season on HBO, and I admit I’m a fan. I’m a nut for dragons and mothers of dragons, and giants, and really evil women like Cerci Lannister, and really creepy girls like Ayla Stark, and really tough ugly guys with hidden hearts like The Hound, and really smart little guys like Tyrion Lannister, and on and on.

In addition to the great characters, the complicated plot is written as well as anything I’ve seen on TV, and I’ve been watching since black and white 15 inch screens were the norm. Ask me sometime about Paladin. Talk about a member of the Black Watch. I bet he could have stopped a Night Walker.  Anyway, kudos to the writers of Game of Thrones.

Yesterday the online news included a bit that the writers of GOT have been tasked with writing a new cable TV series about a modern Confederacy, complete with slavery. Sigh. Another ‘what if’ alternative history series.

Please understand I like alternative-history novels. From Harry Turtledove, Gingrich and Forstein, to my friend Jeffrey Brooks’ alternative Civil War novels, I’m intrigued by those authors who dare to change history. Ballsy writers, every one. I’ve also enjoyed some of the episodes of the cable TV series where the Japanese and Nazis have divided the USA after winning WW II. Spooky, that.

Nonetheless, as a Southern man, and a GOT fan, Im fretting over the prospect of a tightly-written, visually exciting, action-driven cable TV portrayal of a modern Southern Confederacy as a bastion of slavery in modern times. I find the idea chilling, repugnant and socially dangerous. I agree with the person who just posted on a Civil War online forum that nothing good can come of such a TV series. Why go there? It’s would not be history, it would be entertainment that crosses that invisible line that keeps being shoved backwards.

Protecting and understanding our history, warts and all, is an honorable obligation, even the uncomfortable parts. That includes museum exhibits focusing on the horrors of slavery, just as it includes museum devoted to the Jewish Holocaust. It includes museums that display military artifacts from the Confederacy, and places like Andersonville Prison. You get my point.

To me, protecting history also includes holding the line on preserving stone monuments erected to honor the common citizen soldiers of the Confederacy. That said, I’m not so sure about defending those monuments outside public buildings honoring the political leaders who ruled the Confederacy. In a museum, yes, on the courthouse lawn, not so much. But that’s a different social conflict that will work itself out.

All that is to voice my opinion that it is unwise and needless to titillate TV viewers with imagined visions of modern institutionalized Southern slavery. One hundred and fifty-two years after the Civil War ended, we Americans are still uneasy about race relations.

I simply don’t see any benefit from a TV series that panders to the worst facet of our historical national story in a non-historical ‘what-if’ context.

Taking a deep breath and moving on, the manuscript for A Different Country Entirely progresses. The end is on the far horizon, like first seeing the Chisos Mountains as you enter Big Bend National Park.

I’m excited about my first novel set in Texas. It’s a tale of 1855 and is awash with ‘differences.’ Issues and people may have been similar to today, but were also very different back then. And, Texas was geographically way out there, and truly different from the rest of the states back then, likely even more than now.

Maybe I jumped on the GOT writers story because I’m spending a lot of keyboard time writing about the slavery aspect of my historical Texas story. Like with my McBee Civil War novels, I don’t want A Different Country Entirely to ignore the reality of slavery in Texas in 1855, but neither do I want to use slavery as a gratuitous sideshow.

Human bondage was, and is, a disgusting evil, surely, but forced slave labor also underpinned Texas’s cotton and agrarian economy until 1865, a decade beyond my story. It's ugly presence deserves a place in historical novels set in that time and place.

So, a prominent minor character is a slave named Thompson. But I can’t spoil my own plot, so enough of that.

Enjoy what’s left of a hot July.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Independence Day Morning in Galveston

Happy Independence Day, All Y’all.

I’m in the midst of a great week vacationing in Galveston. One spouse, two sons, two daughters-in-law, two granddaughters and two grandsons in one rented beach house with wi-fi and three toilets—Thank Goodness. Lots of sun, sand, and surf.

Being a clan of history nerds, we also visited the only bookstore in Galveston yesterday and carried out three sacks of new and used books. The store is locally owned and in the tradition of such places is nicely crammed floor to ceiling with shelves of new and used books and narrow aisles.

It is also the store where a good friend approached the owner on my behalf with my McBee Civil War novels in hand and asked if she might stock them. I was leery because my books are independently published, and I doubted one of the few brick-and-mortar bookstores left would accept them. When friend Dick e-mailed me that not only will the store owner put my books on her store shelves, but she would also schedule me into one of her monthly slots for a book-signing event in the store. Wow! I discovered that at least one independent bookstore owner likes independently published books.

The Galveston Bookstore features books of local Galveston interest and history. My ancestor John J McBride was a Galveston businessman before and after the Civil War, and is the inspiration for my central character in the three ‘Honor’ novels--John J McBee. After reviewing the novels, she decided that was enough of a Galveston connection. Wooo-Hah!

So, the ten McBride’s actually went to the bookstore yesterday so I could meet owner Sharan, thank her, hand over a box of my novels, and chat about what to expect on August 12th, when I go back for the Saturday afternoon book-signing. I’m happy, can you tell?

And I’m starting a new trend right here in this blog post. If the product of little independently owned breweries can be called ‘craft’ beer, books written by independent authors who don’t have agents or contracts with traditional publishing companies, can be called ‘craft’ novels. I write ‘craft’ novels, sometimes while sipping a cold ‘craft’ beer.

Now, back to Independence Day, a bit more somberly than usual, maybe because I'm surrounded by my wonderful grandkids and their wonderful young mothers all this week.

Our country was born by means of a terrible long war. We all know that. Wars are hard on the landscape and those who have the misfortune to live where battles are fought. That was true back in 1776-81 during the American Revolution, and in the 1860’s during our Civil War. Generals call damage to civilian homes and property ‘collateral damage,’ and simply prefer not to mention accidental civilian deaths.

In Redeeming Honor, I included a vignette during the great battle at Chickamauga, Georgia, a sad incident straight out of a Texas soldier’s diary. He describes how their advance was halted for a brief moment while a civilian family crossed their path. A young woman, holding two infants with two more children clinging to her long skirt, was fleeing. The young woman, whose husband was likely gone for a soldier, and her home either destroyed by artillery shells or overrun by soldiers, is hurrying towards the Texans, trying to get her brood out of harm’s way.

There were no photos of that scene to guide me as I created a word description of the frantic mother and her terrified children caught between two armies. I can only hope I somewhat captured the dangerous urgency of the moment.

Photography has changed from 1863 to 2017. Modern wars are well documented with visual images, sometimes documented with striking vivid images of moments we’d prefer to ignore, like this one.

While photography has greatly changed, the core aspects of war stay the same. Sadly. Tragically. This photo was posted online, taken this week. Mothers are still fleeing with their children when the war comes to their doorstep. In 1863 in north Georgia, America, and in 2017 in Mosul, Iraq.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Soldier's Heart

For those who read my last blog post, our Civil War reenacting group marched and did fire a dozen musket volleys in a small-town festival parade last Saturday. Two of us marched as Yankee soldiers in blue, at the end of the long rank of men in Confederate gray.

Now, to a new topic: The Civil War was fought in the Victorian Age, an era that authors and historians have dubbed a ‘romantic’ period.  I’m not sure I agree with the ‘romantic’ brand in regards to most facets of life in the 1860’s. I mean, I love air conditioning and my refrigerator, my car and my computer.

I love modern medicine, including that one of my grandsons came about through the science of an ‘in-vitro’ egg donor. We live in an incredible age, and growing more so every day. Far more ‘user-friendly’ than the 1860’s.

All that good stuff aside, this morning, for the first time, I read of an 1860’s medical term that does strike a quaintly romantic chord. It is a very genteel term for a common and awful outcome of war: Soldier’s Heart.

After the Civil War, men who suffered from debilitating mental conditions resulting their time as Civil War soldiers were said to suffer from Soldier’s Heart.

That term has now changed to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder –PTSD, a much more scientific sounding term. During World War I, when artillery barrages were horrifying in the frequency and duration, Soldier’s Heart was labelled Shell Shock.  Alliterative, but not a romantic term at all, but not yet a scientific acronym either.

In follow-up to reading “soldiers heart” used for the first time, I googled the term and found a fascinating article on the KLRU public TV station website that traced our American soldiers’ history with the anguish of their war experiences. Here’s the link:

Quoting one paragraph here with my annotations: “These people, (combat soldiers, now old and near death. Phil)  their spirituality is deeply affected by what they've done…they start talking about things that happened 50 years ago. Many are looking for forgiveness. Some have given up looking for forgiveness. (which is likely why so many combat veterans permanently seal off those memories and never speak of them. Phil)  They just feel this is something that does not fit with how they've lived their lives. Part of the work of dying is putting your whole life in context, looking at how it all fits together, and for people like this, this (having to kill in combat in circumstances when the moral rules of civilization are set aside. Phil)  doesn't fit. This is not how they lived. This is not how they were raised as children; it's not how they have functioned as adults. It's an interlude that lasted a year or two, and it does not fit anywhere. And (confronting and justifying those actions. Phil)  it’s very hard work. …”

I’m not a military veteran. I’ve not confronted Soldier’s Heart personally, nor have I included characters visibly suffering from Soldier’s Heart in my Civil War novels. It’s one place where I know I’m not qualified to tread, to presume enough insight to introduce a character who is coping with this dreadful outcome of combat. But I am touched deeply by the archaic term.

Moving on once more: Here is a photo taken a couple of weeks ago of two reenactors at a big Civil War reenactment in Virginia. It is an uncommon image of two reenactors in the roles of body-servant and officer, a common aspect of the Confederate army that is not often seen at reenactments.

African-American “body-servants” who accompanied affluent Southern soldiers to war were prevalent throughout the Confederate army. Most body-servants were slaves who cooked, kept house (kept tent, rather), and drove supply wagons. 

For obvious reasons, spending a weekend as a body-servant is not a reenacting impression that we often see. I wish I’d had a chance to visit with both these reenactors to learn how they felt about the experience.

Thinking of body-servants, the inspiration for the main character in my three Civil War ‘honor’ novels was an ancestor who served as a Confederate infantry captain, and who most certainly did have an African-American body-servant who was a slave.

The real body-servant of my ancestor is recorded as being a ‘mulatto.’ At the time, the term ‘mulatto’ meant a white father and black mother, such children being the unavoidable by-product of the peculiar institution of human slavery in the American South. Gag.

While I don’t feel competent enough to write about “Soldier’s Heart,” I did feel compulsively drawn to construct a fictional relationship between two such men who I’d found in my family tree.

I don’t know if ‘owning’ a slave puts that person in the family tree of the ‘owner,’ but it was enough for me to grow a sense of kinship with Levi Miller, the historical slave and body-servant to my ancestor, Captain J.J. McBride. And the result is in my three novels: Tangled Honor, Redeeming Honor, and Defiant Honor.

Thankfully, I’ll never know what my ancestors, men and women, felt about the enslaved African-American human beings they ‘owned.’  I’m sure to read their justifications for owning slaves would be deeply depressing.

Nor do I know what the McBride’s slaves thought about those who ‘owned’ them. I do know from primary source newspaper articles that Levi Miller for many months nursed his ‘master,’ my ancestor, through the captain’s lengthy recoveries from two serious battle wounds.

Yet, after the war ended and the slaves were freed, Levi Miller didn’t stay around. He quickly moved to another town in Virginia and found a job, many miles away from the McBride family. And Levi certainly did not go back to Texas with my first Texan ancestor—the Confederate captain, even after three years of serving and nursing him, and close daily contact during the war years.

Even knowing those historical facts, in my novels I built a slowly-growing positive relationship based on a possible blood kinship between the 20-year-old mulatto body-servant and the 42-year-old master.

Most likely, that sort of personal relationship between the two real men didn't exist, even if they might have been blood-relatives, based on the unwritten rules of the time, and what each of the two men did after the Civil War ended.

Perhaps I wrongly applied 21st century attitudes that rarely ever existed in the 19th century South. Acknowledging that likelihood saddens me, but I sure had fun creating a ‘what-might-have-been-if-only…’ relationship between Levi and Captain J.J.

And to  close on a more upbeat note, here’s a new photo of grandson Rory, whose 21st century spoon is involved in an ageless messy job. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Parading Longhorns, Apple Pie, and the Long Branch Saloon

I love parades. Mainly for their goofiness.  Here’s a guy riding a longhorn steer in my hometown of Lockhart’s annual parade just last Saturday, this year celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Chisholm Trail.

I’ll never forget the year our family was vacationing on July 4th in Silverton, Colorado and the parade included a number of young women attired as slices of apple pie. Sadly, the pics I took of them are lost to history.
Then there was the parade somewhere in Japan when we visited our friends in the Navy in the summer of 1980. It featured entries celebrating male fertility and you don’t want to see any photos of them, but visualizing a giant walking ‘wiener’ pretty well gets you there. Yes, it was gross.

Tomorrow morning, for about the 20th year in a row, our Civil War reenacting group will march in the Berges Fest Parade in Boerne, Texas, north of San Antonio. We love it because we get to march down Main St. and shoot volleys of black powder and make a lot of noise.

The crowd appears to love us. We sweat like pigs in our wool jackets and trousers and look forward to finishing the parade at the Long Branch Saloon near the end of the parade route.

The Long Branch is a typical small town bar with stools, a pool table and dance floor. The jukebox plays a lot of Willie Nelson tunes too loud, and a hanging TV seems to always be showing NASCAR races without sound. The beer is sold ice cold in bottles and is Texas-brewed mostly. Shiner Bock is king. Kids and dogs and faux Civil War soldiers are welcome. We pile our gear on the floor and lean our muskets in the corner. The front wall is two roll-up garage doors, usually open on parade day, with the air conditioning futilely chugging away. Men pee into a tin trough, and I don’t know what the ladies’ room is like.

We normally march as Confederates in the parade, but tomorrow at least two or three of the fifteen or so of us are going to wear Union blue uniforms. As Texas reenactors our written mission is to honor Texas’ Civil War citizen-soldiers. And some, not all that many, but some Texas men, joined the Union army instead of the Confederate army.

In fact, I will be marching to specifically honor the memory of John W. Sansom, who was a Comanche-fighting Texas Ranger before the Civil War. He lived in a little community named Curry’s Creek just a few miles from Boerne, where we will be marching in the parade tomorrow.

Even though a Texas Ranger, John Sansom opposed secession and when the war started, he traveled north to enlist in a Union regiment. After the war, he returned home and lived out his days as a farmer.

As a young Ranger, Sansom took part in the 1855 Callahan Ranger Expedition into Northern Mexico, where 110 Texas Rangers chased  hostile raiding Apaches, but ending up fighting Mexican soldiers. That rather messy expedition is the main action in my current novel-in-progress.

Years later, Sansom wrote a memoir of the expedition, which is how I learned of his history as a Union soldier, when 99 out of a 100 Texans enlisted as Confederates.

And I’m wearing a blue uniform tomorrow for one more reason. Bluntly, in light of this week’s horrific shooting at the neighborhood baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, a show of American unity is much better than a one-sided parade of Rebel soldiers. We do live in 2017 and not 1863, after all.

As to our firing black powder from our muskets while marching: One year we were positioned in the parade behind a trio of mounted armored knights on their big warhorses, and we weren’t allowed to fire blanks for fear of stampeding the horses. Frankly, I won’t be surprised if tomorrow we’re told not to burn powder because folks are edgy about gunfire this week. We’ll see tomorrow, I reckon.

Regardless of whether we fill the street with smoke from our musket volleys, we will be blue and gray together, strutting our stuff down a small town Main Street in Texas, then adjourning to a small-town Texas beer joint to let the sweat dry and enjoy a frosty bottle of one’s favorite beverage.

I hope you enjoy your weekend as much as I expect I will.

God Bless America. And parades.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Kilts, Bagpipes, and Highland Games

Nita and I just returned from our week-long automobile tour of Scotland—I drove a tiny car over 1,000 miles of narrow, curving roads, loving it. The scenery was spectacular, the little towns charming, the people cordial, the other drivers forgiving. And I did eat haggis once for lunch.

But for all the wide variety of landscapes and people, our day at the Gordon Castle Highland Games and Country Fair stands out. We sat on a hay bale for hours watching all the normal Highland games contests, plus a tug-o-war tournament, plus some spectacular bagpipe and drum marching bands, dancing Scottish girls, some fine modern Scottish music, parades of regal Gordon setters, and on and on.

And kilts. Check out the guy running the tug-o-war contests and these well-lubed fellows enjoying the band.

The tug o war pulls were almost still-life drama as both teams kept on the pressure waiting for the other team to slip or gasp or something. Each pull might last five minutes before once side was finally pulled over the line.

This little red-topped gal stole the show after her daddy took part in the tug o war competition.

The flying caber is one of the few we saw actually flip over high in the air and qualify. The pole is 18 feet long and weighs 150 pounds.

If I ever go back to a day of Highland Games in Scotland (fat chance), I’m first going to piss off Nita and spring for a kilt and all the trimmings, just so I can strut around in it all day, acting the part of The McBride of Family McBride.

 I hope someone will post a comment as to what the big green mushroom-ish looking things are. The Scots are a practical people is my hint.

Leaving the games behind, here’s some Scottish military connections from here and there. First is a dignified statue memorial to the WWII British Commandos. It’s on a mountain top in rugged Scotland because that’s where the newly-formed commando units trained.

Next are two trophies from the 1800's displayed in two Scottish regiments’ museums housed in castles we toured. First is a French Eagle captured in combat at Waterloo by a sergeant in the Royal Scots Grays Cavalry Regiment. That was a big deal.

Next is a a Zulu knobkerrie picked up on the battlefield by a private in a Highlander foot regiment. The Zulus were a nasty but worthy opponent, and this a nasty, but ornate, killing club.

Third is the grave marker for the heart of Robert the Bruce. The betraying clan  leader in the Brave Heart movie became the revered King of Scotland, and, yes, just his heart is buried here. Before he died, Bruce ordered his heart be removed and carried into the next battle with the army he’d led so his men would know that he had not abandoned them, even in death. The burial site is the now-ruined Abbey at Melrose.

The stone swine gargoyle high on the wall of the ruined Abbey overlooking Bruce’s buried heart is playing a bagpipe. Go figure.

Take the last two images as you will. I yam what I yam, and I see what I see.