McBride At Rest

McBride At Rest

Monday, February 25, 2019

A Palm Tree, A Wall, and a Battlefield

South Padre Island is where Texas college kids go to party on the beach during spring break. Do I look like a college kid? I didn't think so.

So our group of four retired couples went on a cold, windy week in February. (The pool was heated the pink margarita was not.) I think this palm tree outside our rented condo balcony sums up the weather we enjoyed. I’m not sure if ‘Mr. Palm’ was guarding us or waiting to eat us.

One day we visited the Battle of Palo Alto National Military Park located just north of the Rio Grande River. Palo Alto was the first battle of the little war fought from 1846 to 1848 between the United States and Mexico. The two-year war was the concluding act of fifty years of fighting over land that now constitutes Texas, and much, much more soil that is now part of the United States. Like almost half the United States. In that part of Texas, the conflict stemmed over Mexico’s claim that Texas ended at the Nueces River, about a hundred miles north of the Rio Grande, versus Texas’ claim to all land north of the Rio Grande River, not the Nueces River. That includes the fertile strip of farm land we Texans now call ‘The Valley.’

The battlefield at Palo Alto for the first hundred and fifty years after the war remained as privately-owned ranch land where cattle grazed and local folks picnicked and hunted for cannon balls. It wasn’t until the presidency of George Bush I that the Department of the Interior acquired the land. It was not until the presidency of George W Bush that the visitor center, complete with a fine short explanatory film, museum and book store, and the interpretive battlefield walks were built. I’m sure it’s just coincidence that the father and son presidents haled from Texas when the land was bought and the site developed.

The landscape reminded me very much of the grassy, marshy landscape at Culloden battlefield in Scotland, where English soldiers, musketry and cannons destroyed the Highlander warrior clans. 

At Palo Alto, eighty years after Culloden, I suspect many of the U.S. Army soldiers were recent immigrants from England. And the same combination of superior firepower and training sent the Mexican army reeling at Palo Alto.

Finally, because we were just north of the U.S.-Mexican border—the Rio Grande River—we were all curious to see ‘The Wall’ which is so dominating the news these days. From a state highway we were close enough to take this photo in a tiny crossroads hamlet.

Yes, the wall already goes this close to houses where people live. By the way, we also saw a few big tethered blimps floating above the river, I suppose providing airborne video border surveillance where the wall is not built.  We also saw an endless number of white and green Border Patrol vehicles and black ‘Task Force’ SUV’s everywhere we went. Our nation’s ongoing efforts to guard the border we won (some would say took, others would say saved) by force of arms back in 1846 at Palo Alto, right in the same neighborhood, is highly evident.

I am a Texan who views building more miles of wall along the Rio Grande as an expensive waste of money that would be better spent on services to detox and provide job training to those Americans whose lives are being shattered by Mexican drugs. Nonetheless, I have now seen a bit of the Great American Border Wall, and have shared a photo with you.

I promise that my next blog post will focus on the serendipitous outcomes of my research efforts for my new novel.


Sunday, February 3, 2019

3 Bad Things and 1 Good from my Spring Working at the Texas State Senate 50 Years Ago

I was twenty years old and still an idiot with a half-formed brain. Please remember, I grew up behind the Pine Curtain in East Texas, a second son of parents who hosted John Birch Society meetings in our home. I had only been in Austin for four months, so I was just beginning to shake the forces of the dark side in which I had been marinating since birth.

Having run through my meager savings during my first semester at UT, I needed a job. My roommate from home told me he had a job at the state capitol lined for the upcoming legislative session. I thought that sounded  good for me too, so during the Christmas holidays I called a man named Jack Strong, our state senator, and asked about a job during the upcoming session. I got a polite forget about it, that dozens of young people wanted the few jobs he had to offer.  After meeting that fast dead-end, I called a neighbor who was the County Democratic Chairman and asked if he might put in a good word for me with the senator.

When I got back to Austin for the new semester, a job as an assistant sergeant-at-arms in the state senate awaited me. Hmm, so that’s how things work.  Trouble was, it turned out that I had most likely inadvertently snatched that job from my best friend. So, did I back out and search for another job? No. The guilt that hung over me for doing an accidental end-run around my best friend was Bad Thing #1 about my spring in Texas State Senate.

The 1969 Texas Senate was ruled by the youngest Lt. Governor in Texas history, Ben Barnes, a red-headed man in his early thirty’s who was known around Austin as a skirt-chaser. An Austin TV channel at the time opened its 10 PM news show every night with a family-focused quip, “It’s 10 pm, do you know where your children are?”  Soon bumper stickers appeared on cars around the capitol: “It’s 10 pm, do you know where Ben Barnes is?”

Even if you are not an old geezer Texan, you might recognize two of the state senators in that 1969 session who went on to Congress in Washington DC and gained made nationwide fame for themselves: Barbara Jordan and Charlie Wilson.

First, Barbara Jordan. Here’s her photo with Lt. Gov. Barnes in 1969. She was an African-American, now deceased, the lone ethnic minority senator among 32 Senators.
Thirty-one Senators who were white men with big egos, and one heavy black lady who probably reminded most of them of their maid. It was a time when neither Blacks nor women were welcomed on the hallowed floors of the state capitol. For all that, when Senator Jordan spoke, everyone stopped what they were doing and listened. They did so in Austin in 1969 and they did so in Washington DC and around the country in 1974 during the Watergate Hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Her voice was special. It resonated, and she had a big brain behind that voice that cut to the chase of complex issues. She was terrific, and I’m glad I was close to her a few times.

Sadly, my only personal anecdote of being near Senator Jordan is Bad Thing #2 of my five months working at the State Senate. One of my menial jobs was operating the elevator behind the Senate Chamber. It opened into the grand hallway where the senators’ offices were jammed together.  One day Senator Jordan and another African-American woman got on the elevator on the second floor and rode down to the first floor, where a pair of white middle-age women brushed past them as two exited and two entered my elevator. As the door was closing with just the two white women and me on the elevator, one said, “They do have a distinctive smell, don’t they?” looking at her friend and me. I said nothing and probably even smiled politely. Wimp! For fifty years I’ve kicked my own butt for not having some snappy retort to let her know we were no longer in the era of Jim Crow and blatant racism. But I was silent. No excuse.

Thus, when the insightful comments of US Congresswoman Jordan during the Watergate Hearings were replayed on the evening TV news, I could only silently applaud, because to say more was to bring back my own “‘fraidy-cat white-boy” moment a few years earlier.

Then there was Charlie Wilson, another East Texan like me. Senator Wilson was flash personified. He had been a Navy officer and remained a very sharp dresser. He was also a womanizer and an alcoholic. He was a liberal democrat in a conservative district. His best quotes are too profane for me to write. He inspired a best-selling book and a movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts as the lead characters. All because in the 1980’s U.S. Congressman Wilson persuaded his fellow Congressmen to secretly fund the delivery of modern anti-tank/anti-helicopter hand-held missiles (Think a rocket-bazooka) by mule train to the Afghan Muhjadeen who were fighting the Soviet army. And those Stinger missiles were incredibly effective against previously invulnerable Soviet helicopters that were dominating the war. The nasty little hand-held missile knocked hundreds of expensive Russian helicopters out of the sky. Here’s a photo of Congressman Wilson in Afghanistan.
Yes, those Afghan Muhjadeen were the precursors to the same Afghans we’ve been fighting for the past 15 years. But who knew we’d wind up following the Soviets in that crazy place long after the Russian bear boogied back to its own heartland with its stubby tail tucked between its legs. We can pretty much thanks the womanizing Congressman from Lufkin, Texas for that. The guy who wore pink shirts and loud ties on the otherwise dowdy floor of the Texas Senate in 1969. 

And my biggest Bad Thing #3 from those five months: I diddled them away. I wasted them by not rubbing elbows with people who might open doors for me, or making friends and networking, as we call it now, with other young men who were ‘connected.’

Instead, I was a contented idiot punching elevator buttons and running the big Xerox machine in the Secretary of the Senate’s office, instead of realizing I’d been gifted with an ‘in,’ at the tender age of twenty. I was more interested in drinking beer, riding my motorcycle, and reading escape fiction than milking the udder of the politically-privileged that had been pressed into my palm.

In some reflective moments, I applaud my ‘independence’ of half a century ago. But then I circle back around to, “Damn, wouldn’t it have been fun to be a key staff member of a Congressman or Senator in Austin or Washington?” Oh well, life’s little regrets, fifty years later.

The big Good Thing from my five months at the capitol was that it greatly impressed my grandfather, who I loved deeply. He’s the guy who took me as a little kid to the cattle auction barn and taught me to pee between the fence rails instead of finding the Men’s Room. As teenager, he took me deer hunting and after I worked in the capitol he called me ‘the Senator’ for a long time. Daddy Todd (our name for James Orland Todd) was already coping with Parkinson’s Disease by then and has long since passed away from that horrible affliction.  But I will always remember how secretly proud I was when he called me ‘the Senator.”

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Book People, Skylines, and the 17th

Last week I received a wonderful delayed Christmas present.

The photo is me and our next-door neighbor Mary Lou at Book People in Austin. Mary Lou and her husband Wayne have been close friends for over thirty years.  My delayed gift came from them—paying the fee and contacting the fellow at Book People to put copies of three of my books on the shelves and tables in the store.

If you are a lover of books, an hour in Book People is like an hour in heaven. The store sits on the same corner as Whole Foods and Waterloo Records, two of Austin’s commercial icons. Book People is also in the shadow of a dozen glass condo towers that have taken over Austin’s skyline. Those incredibly slender, sometimes curvy, sometimes boxy, sky-high glass fingers are surely striking, but also somewhat sad to us old geezers who liked being able to see the state capitol dome and the UT tower from anywhere in central Austin.

Regardless of the urban landscape, for the next several months, among the hundreds of titles written to appeal to a demographic that is half a century younger and dresses oh so differently, A Different Dragon Entirely, A Different Country Entirely, and Texans at Antietam will share the shelf space in the Book People store.

Hopefully the book covers will invite book shoppers to visit Texas’ pre-skyscraper, pre-flying drones, pre-hipster history—a historical past, and a more fanciful past with a flying horny-toad dragon who understands Latin.

I’ve begun a new manuscript, back to Texans in the Civil War, this time in our neighboring state of Louisiana.  My home team is Company K of the 17th Texas Infantry, who historically were from my hometown of Lockhart, near Austin.  The novel is without a catchy title so far, but something will pop up before it’s a finished work. 

Here are photos of the 17th’s regimental flag, which still exists, and a 17th soldier’s tin Lone Star pin that many Texans wore on their jackets or hats.

The first half of the story takes place among the dozens of cotton plantations along the west bank of the Mississippi River, across the Big Muddy from where Vicksburg is under siege by General Grant’s Union army. 

The 17th fights in the vicious little battle of Milliken’s Bend in June, 1863, just a month before the starving Confederates surrender Vicksburg, and just before Lee’s army battles at Gettysburg.

The battle at Milliken’s Bend was small, about 1,500 soldiers on each side, but it was the very first clash between black Union soldiers recruited among the recently freed slaves from the nearby plantations, and Confederate soldiers. The fact that those Confederates were Texans who were fighting in their first battle of the war, and most of the freedmen Union soldiers had never fired their muskets before the battle, makes it even more interesting.

The whole historical story is complicated by the overt racism of the time. As I read primary sources and come across incident after incident, I understand why few modern historical novelists are willing to tackle the ugliness of that season in that place. Then there is the ugliness of the political-military issues surrounding the plantations and the valuable cotton that both sides wanted, but which both sides were willing to destroy to keep from the other side.

I’m finding the overlapping issues are complex and challenging to work into a novel that creates likable characters on all sides in a dark time where violence routinely trumped reason.

The second half of the 17th’s story happens the following spring when the Texans fight in two big battles—Mansfield and Pleasant Hill. This time the setting is further west in The Howling Wilderness, as a Union soldier termed the dense pine forests where General Taylor’s Confederate army dueled with General Bank’s Union army in 1864.

More in future blog posts about the 17th.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Canteens and discuses

Welcome to 2019, even if I’m two weeks late.

My first goal this year is pretty common: Lose enough belly fat so I can tighten my belts by at least two notches, by April 17th.  The date is when I’m doing a program about my Civil War novel Tangled Honor at the Rosenburg Library Noon Reading Club in Galveston. (Thanks to my Galvestonian friend Dick Gray.) Besides that vanity-centered motivation for losing blubber, Mike the gym guy posted a new article on his bulletin board next to the gym sign-in sheet. The article draws a link between surplus belly fat and increased odds of dementia. I was a high school principal for a decade and do remember the old saw that “Principals never die, they just lose their faculties.”  That was funny way back when, now not so much. 

The last time I dropped a lot of weight was in 2012 and I kept a daily journal as self-motivation not to stray. It worked, as evidenced in this photo of me at a Civil War reenactment at Shiloh, Tennessee in April of 2012.

I still wasn’t a flat bellied Yank, but that was as good as I get. Those are my son’s blue trousers, and there’s no way I’d get them buttoned up today. I intend to wear them again at a reenactment in Alabama in April of 2019.  

No daily eating journal this time, but don’t be surprised if updates appear in blog posts, since now you are my witnesses, and I’d rather brag about progress than confess to a failure of determination to stay the course.

Speaking of Mike the gym guy, his wife Carol Finsrud, is co-owner of the gym and also is literally a world-class track and field athlete. She throws stuff. She’s been doing it since she arrived at UT in Austin from Minnesota. Now over sixty years old, she still flies around the world competing in the Masters’ Senior Division and keeps bringing home big ole gold medals. On the wall of their gym is this mural size painting on canvas of Carol throwing a discus.

I’ve gazed up at that painting dozens of times as I push barbells and grunt. Eventually, I think the image of Carol throwing the discus simply seeped deep inside me.

Why else during the climatic fight would my teenage blonde heroine in A Different Dragon Entirely spin and hurl a disc-shaped wooden canteen packed with gunpowder?

So, imagine Carol with longer hair, and instead of gym-shorts and tank-top, wearing her father’s long-sleeve spare shirt and his over-sized black Sunday trousers held up by suspenders. Picture the discus as a platter-shaped wooden canteen with a sparking fuse coming out of the spout, and you are there. You’ll have to read the novel to learn if the makeshift bomb did its job.

A Different Dragon Entirely is historical fantasy, and while the term may be an oxymoron (two opposites in a single term), historical fantasy is also a recognized sub-genre of popular literature.  Not alternative history where a single turning point in a battle or politics is changed, creating a different outcome, but rather introducing a fantasy element--like a dragon--into real events—like the great Texas Comanche Raid in 1840 that resulted in the burning of the bustling new port of Linnville on the Gulf Coast and the Battle of Plum Creek.

That’s enough from me to start 2019. Keep reading whatever you enjoy and remember that words do indeed matter.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Little Teddy and the President's Funeral

Today is a Teddy Day, a day during which Nita babysits our six-month old grandson. This morning was not typical, as she and I and Teddy spent two hours in front of the TV watching the funeral service for President George H.W. Bush.  I found it to be a dignified and stirring service which made me proud to be an American and a Christian. I won’t dwell on the pageantry or the terrific tribute speeches except to say I was holding my breath for son George W to get through his talk without choking up. He almost made it, and I say hoorah for him for getting that far.  A eulogy to one's father or mother has to be the hardest talk any man can ever give. 

I also loved the Episcopal priest’s display of the little plaque that President Bush had given him. On it is engraved “Preach Jesus every day. Use words if you must.” Amen to that.

The part of the service that prompts me to write this blog post is that as expected grandson Teddy maintained his infantile behaviors throughout the service. He played during the talks sometimes babbling to himself, and he ignored the choirs and the hymns. He took a nap, then  slopped his way through some mashed carrots, drank a bottle of mama’s milk, and played on the floor. Until the near the end.

When the man soloist closed the service by singing the Lord’s Prayer, Teddy stopped messing around in his grandmother’s lap and simply sat still, staring with wide eyes at the TV from the opening “Our Lord Which Art In Heaven” until the closing “Amen.”  The soloist with the tremendous tenor voice didn’t hurry. Yet Teddy stayed with him all the way.  Teddy may only be 180 days old, but this morning the little guy already recognized and honored Jesus's prayer when he heard it. That made grandpa proud too.

So, Rest in Peace, President Bush, from our Grandson Teddy and the whole McBride household.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Four States That Are Not Geography

There no novel writer’s point to this post. Nope, this one is about ‘states,’ and not the geographical ones. This one is all about my sweetheart Nita, who as a young gal in a state of confusion, married me a long time ago. Our marriage has resulted in two sons who tricked two beautiful young women into marrying them, and now Nita and I are the grandparents of a bounty of young’uns.

Last week being Thanksgiving, #2 son and family stayed with us for most of the week. A loving family is a beautiful thing, but it is not restful when two become seven, or eleven when #1 son and his family join in. Chaos is the natural state of such times. But the week was a wonderful sort of chaos, what with the cooking, playing, and ongoing chatter. And the new swing out back didn’t hurt, and little Rory’s second birthday cake was a hit, too. As was the Saturday trip to our favorite Mexican Restaurant in Austin.

Then came Sunday morning when Nita headed to church before others were even up, to sing in Morning Glory, our church’s contemporary early service music group. After that service, she joined the robed choir for the traditional service. Then home to bid goodbye to #2 son and family. Then a much-deserved nap, then back to church for the annual ‘Hanging of the Greens’ and chili supper. Whew. Call Sunday a busy state at the end of a long, but special week.

Now it’s Tuesday, and I’m sitting across the living room from Nita while she holds our fifth grandchild, little Teddy. Nita shares babysitting duties with Teddy’s other granny while his mom is at work. Teddy caught the local ‘crud’ that is going around making life miserable for those so affected. Nothing fun about coughing, a snotty nose and a fever. He is normally a good little six-month old guy who squeals in happiness and entertains himself. But not with the crud. So, yesterday, Nita held Teddy for eleven hours, cooing to him, bathing him, and rocking him, and is immersed in the same routine today. A state of nurturing love that is the specialty of moms and grandma’s. Teddy may have the crud for a couple of days, but he is one lucky little guy.

So, my after-Thanksgiving prayer of thanks is for sweet Nita and all the other grandma’s in the world who live every day in a state of sharing their wealth of love and their seemingly boundless energy with the rest of us.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A friend sent me a blog post last week written by a novelist of middlin’ success. The blogger is a professor by day, so he doesn’t support himself as a novelist. His big question was ‘Why do we keep writing novels that so few people will read?’  This from a guy who is far higher on the ladder to novelist fame than me. He’s halfway up to the top rung of the ‘annointed ones,’ while I’m still looking at the bottom step.  He claims that over his career he has made enough in book royalties to buy three cars. Hmph.  I’ve made enough in royalties over six years to buy three tanks of gas. Well, maybe a little more, but you get it.

His big point was that writing is hard work. I love the quote, “Easy reading is hard writing.” Oh, so true.  I can’t really remember what the guy wrote as to why he keeps writing. Obviously, he must enjoy the process, challenging, frustrating, and mentally strenuous as it is. He must also feel some level of gratification with his published books and his status among his friends and in his professional circle as a novelist. I ditto all those reasons.
For me, writing goes beyond enjoyment. It’s a compulsion. I’ve been a chronicler of my life experiences since my brother and I started regularly exchanging hand-written letters back in the early ‘70’s.  I still keep records of all sorts of odd things, like all the vehicles I’ve ever owned—motorcycles,  cars, trucks, vans, and SUV’s, color and cost included.

When I was taking part in tabletop wargame tournaments, I recorded the details of every single game I played. (I wasn’t a very good tabletop general.) When I became a Civil War reenactor, I began an ongoing color-coded table of every reenactment I attended, weather included. And I wrote eighty articles about reenacting for the hobby’s national magazine, The Camp Chase Gazette.

I still write annual Christmas letters to enclose with the Christmas cards we mail. (Yes, we still buy cards and stamps).  And now, I blog and write novels that not very many people read.

Why?  Because I can’t stop myself. I’m addicted to words. Not so much the spoken word, but the written word.  I’m not real outgoing at social gatherings. In fact, I’m a classic wallflower who enjoys being on the edge of a group watching and listening to the others. That said, I’ve done my share of being a ‘sage on the stage’ during my career as a high school principal and teacher-trainer, so I know I can do such things, I just prefer not to. But leave me alone—with a legal pad in the ‘70’s, a typewriter in the ‘80’s and a laptop computer since the’90’s ‘—and  I start spewing words.

Isaac Asimov once was asked what he would do if he was told he had only eight minutes to live. His answer, “Write faster.”
So, there it is. I’ll write J you when I decide not to write anymore.

Meanwhile, here is my newest novel: A Different Dragon Entirely.  

I’d describe the book as historical fiction about the great Comanche Indian Raid of 1840 and the subsequent Battle of Plum Creek, except that one of the two main characters is a mutant giant flying horny toad dragon.  Honestly, it’s more of a girl-meets-dragon bromance.  The whole thing is just for fun, although I did stay true to the recorded first person accounts of the Indian raid and the battle. I borrowed the title and some characters from my novel about the Texas Rangers of 1855, A Different Country Entirely.

But the horny toad dragon is my Texas-esque creation, vaguely inspired by Naomi Novik’s series of novels about the wonderful dragon Temeraire during the Napoleonic wars.
The Kindle version is available on Amazon right now, and the paperback version will soon be, if not already. Those folks at Amazon are nothing if not efficient. Good thing, since they just about own the economy now.

Anyway, I hope you will take a look on Amazon, and maybe buy an ebook or a paperback. Just click on the cover image of the book over there to the right.