McBride At Rest

McBride At Rest

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Major Dundee and Captain Callahan

It’s not easy for writers to be original. Considering the great Greek tragedies were written three thousand years ago, the Bible nearly two thousand years ago, and Shakespeare’s plays five hundred years ago, I suppose the difficulty of finding “new” storylines should not be a surprise. Not to mention that there are now over seven million different book titles for sale on Amazon, a number that grows daily.

That said, as an author of historical fiction, I do my writer’s due diligence to make sure I’m not inadvertently rewriting a story already well told by someone else. For the new book based on the historical 1855 Texas Ranger Expedition into Mexico to chase down marauding Apaches, I’ve googled “Captain Callahan” and “Callahan’s Expedition” and other names and key words. I’ve yet to come across anything more than a historical journal research article. No novel, no movie.

But an hour ago, lying awake in bed listening to the morning doves coo, two words struck me: Major Dundee. Dammit. Did Moses himself—Charleston Heston—and director Sam Peckinpah—The Wild Bunch--steal my thunder back in 1965?


Major Dundee is a great action film held together by three of my favorite supporting actors: Slim Pickens, Ben Johnson, and Warren Oates. Those three guys define the word “Western.” Besides Heston, there are other Hollywood big names of the ‘60’s, like Richard Harris who was King Arthur in Camelot  and was A Man Called Horse, and James Coburn who was In Like Flint and one of The Magnificent Seven, and a lot more. And a couple of beautiful women and some nasty Apaches. And a company of French army mounted lancers in wonderful red, blue and brass uniforms.

Wikipedia says Major Dundee may be channeling John Wayne’s classic Western about searching for a stolen child, The Searchers, and maybe even Melville’s classic novel and film, Moby Dick.  The former, for sure, the latter is a stretch for me.

Groups of armed Americans going south across the Rio Grande into a land where they aren’t supposed to go is a plot that works for Americans. We do like our irascible bad-boys-in-charge who brush off the delicacies of international borders in the interest of doing the right thing—like recovering stolen children and punishing murderous Native Americans. That’s the core plot in Major Dundee and in my novel.

The Magnificent Seven goes a step further with Yule Brenner—the bald Siamese monarch in The King and I--and his band of unlikely heroes taking on ten times their number of bad Mexican banditos to save the innocents of a Mexican village. Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch are pretty much bandits themselves, and the shoot-out with the Mexican Revolution army guys, complete with evil German advisors, is the original, blood-filled, slow motion, machine-gun film climax.

But what about Major Dundee and McBride’s book-in-progress A Different Country Entirely?

In real history in 1855, Captain Callahan led 130 mounted Texas volunteers into northern Mexico, with permission from the Texas governor, with the stated purpose of punishing marauding Lipan Apache Indians. One thing led to another, until fifteen miles south of the Rio Grande River, on a Tuesday afternoon, October 3, 1855, Captain Callahan’s Texans ran head into the Apaches they’d been searching for—Apaches with friends, waiting for them.

Bristling with Colt revolvers and muskets, the Texans charged forward against a larger combined force of Apaches and Mexican mounted volunteers, who were possibly Mexican army soldiers. The battle stretched through that day, that night, and all the next day and night. During the second night, Callahan ordered the border town of Piedras Negras torched to cover their slow ferrying of horses and men across the flooding Rio Grande River, back to the safety of Texas. The whole expedition was not the Texas Rangers' finest hour and that's likely why no film has taken on the story. But, that's the core history around which I’m building my novel.

Back to the fictional Major Dundee. His outfit winds up fighting the pursuing French cavalry in the middle of the shallow Rio Grande River. Very colorful and exciting action.  And not my story. The film and Captain Callahan’s Expedition have some shared elements, but I don’t think I’m channeling Charleston and the guys.


But I’ve gotten a blog post out of it and shared a couple of great ‘60’s movie posters. Have a good weekend.

Friday, April 21, 2017

My Street's Special Day



I live on San Jacinto Street in Lockhart, Texas, a little place southeast of Austin. Today is San Jacinto Day, and not's about our street.  This is from the Texas Day By Day website:
"On this day in 1836, Texas forces won the battle of San Jacinto, the concluding military event of the Texas Revolution. Facing General Santa Anna's Mexican army of some 1,200 men encamped in what is now southeastern Harris County, General Sam Houston disposed his forces in battle order about 3:30 p.m., during siesta time. The Texans' movements were screened by trees and the rising ground, and evidently Santa Anna had no lookouts posted. The Texan line sprang forward on the run with the cries "Remember the Alamo!" and "Remember Goliad!" The battle lasted but eighteen minutes. According to Houston's official report, the casualties were 630 Mexicans killed and 730 taken prisoner. Against this, only nine of the 910 Texans were killed or mortally wounded and thirty were wounded less seriously."


And here's the connection to my new novel-in-progress: One main character, James Callahan, was a soldier in the Texan army, a sergeant in one of Colonel Fannin's companies. He fought in the losing battle at Coleto Creek a few weeks before the battle at San Jacinto and was taken prisoner along with Fannin's entire force. With great luck, he was one of the 15 or 20 men taken out of the Goliad church being used to imprison the 400 or so captured Texians, and sent to build a bridge several miles away. So, he missed the mass execution of the Goliad prisoners ordered by Santa Anna.
Callahan escaped his Mexican army captors and was still in hiding when the epic battle at San Jacinto took place.
Another minor character in my book, Nathaniel Benton, was in Sam Houston's army, but missed the battle at San Jacinto because he somehow seriously shot himself in the foot in the days before the battle. He was part of the "left-behind" camp guard during the battle.
Both these fellows historically became captains of mounted volunteer "ranging" companies in the thirty years following the Texas Revolution, chasing Apaches, Comanche's, and Mexican bandits.
I'm just finding it odd and a little amusing that two of the Texas soldiers who missed the final act of the revolution, surfaced later to lead a Texas Ranger military expedition into Mexico,  which is the focus of my book.
The action in my new novel, A Different Country Entirely, takes place 19 years after San Jacinto, but the legacy of the afternoon fight near Buffalo Bayou--the Battle of San Jacinto, shaped nearly everything about Texas in those decades between 1836 and 1865, when the end of the Civil War changed things again.
One does wonder, if Santa Anna had been on his game on April 21st, and beaten Sam Houston's ragtag army at San Jacinto, which by all logic, he should have, and asserted his iron-hand control over all of Texas, after executing several hundred more Texian "soldier-traitors", would Texas today be a Mexican state?

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Stinker Challenge

I have a stinker streak in me, without a doubt. Babies can be real stinkers, and I’m not even talking about the obvious. Take a look at this photo of Grandson Rory, who is putting stinker eyes on his dad for reasons only a wee babe can imagine.


As a retired high school principal, over the years I learned a lot about stinkers. But that's for another blog. As a reader and a writer, I've learned something about literary stinkers. Here's Literary Stinker Law #1:

Stinkers make crappy main characters. Novels about stinkers don’t get passed along to a friend. Instead, readers get fed up with stinkers and toss those novels in the trash—unfinished. You and I and every other reader simply must like the main character in a novel, or else.

I know, I know there was Dexter on TV and some other murderous main characters on the screen, Still, Dexter was likable, and his propensities to mayhem was always towards very bad people. 

I’m hard pressed to think of an unlikable stinker who is the main character in a popular novel, especially a novel by a southern author and set in the south. I personally found Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, to be a stinker, and quit reading it towards the end, but the record-breaking sales of GWTW say otherwise. I’m thinking more of Atticus Finch and Huck Finn. Guys like that.

So here I sit in Recliner #7, the morning after Easter, midway through writing A Different Country Entirely, my new novel, which centers on a real adventure led by a true-blue stinker. I’m wondering if the stinker in my new book will cause it to get tossed unfinished into lots of trashcans. Of course, I hope not.

The stinker is Captain James Callahan, who led the 115 Texans who historically undertook the adventure that I’m writing about. The primary sources of the time reflect that Callahan really was a stinker, and I’m determined not to whitewash the history in this historical novel. An accurate portrayal of how things historically were is important to me, and I think important to readers. Otherwise I’d just write and they’d just read fantasy fiction.  

My Stinker-Challenge is not easily resolved. I can’t simply edit my historical stinker out of the story. He’s the catalyst, the core of the historical side of the plot. Nonetheless, I’m striving to keep him out of the main spotlight as much as I can. To that end, I’ve upgraded a fellow who would typically be a supporting character into the main character role.

First Sergeant Milo Macleod, like all first sergeants, is the man who makes sure that what Captain Callahan wants, gets done, He and Stinker Callahan have a backstory together that involves both mutual respect and a growing concern by Macleod that his boss has serious “flaws.” That’s not a new issue in military fiction, for sure. Mutiny On The Bounty and The Caine Mutiny, and so forth.

Be assured that First Sergeant Macleod won’t foment a mutiny, but he will find himself, more than once, between a rock and a hard place, left to feel his way through, where there are no good paths. He'll have to find a way to work around the unacceptable facets of Callahan's orders and still get the job done. A Stinker-Challenge.

I expect we all find ourselves in the dark, feeling our way along, probably more often than we let on. Situations that looked oh, so rosy, one day, look oh, so stinky later on.  You've been there, you get it. 

Back to Sergeant Macleod and Captain Callahan, when A Different Country Entirely rattles the windows all across America as the newest book everyone’s gotta read, you’ll know I won the Stinker Challenge.  J






Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Stormy Bluebonnets and the Death of Young Jouette McGee

This photo was shared on Facebook by a friend, and I love it. It was taken this week at Brenham, Texas, in the heart of bluebonnet country. My son says it must have been heavily photo-shopped to achieve the lighting so spectacularly. Maybe, but I don’t care.

I’ve been writing daily on my new novel about Central Texas in 1855, a stormy time in the history of the fledgling Lone Star state. There were some big un-resolvable issues tormenting the state’s leaders and citizens: A bankrupt state treasury, Indian depredations, and the growing support for southern secession from the Union. 

Back to the photo, I look at the huge dark cloud over the bright lights of a small Texas town surrounded by a lovely blanket of bluebonnets, and think, yup, this photographer pegged us—pegged us way back then, and since the Texas Legislature is in session as I write this, pegged us right now.

Thankfully, Indian depredations are no longer an issue, but have been replaced by fears of immigrant terrorists using the Rio Grande valley as a highway like the Apaches and Comanches did in the 1800’s. The state treasury is far from bankrupt, but from the fighting in the Capitol over the state budget, you’d think there was no oil in Texas. And, then there’s the issue of states-rights, a moving target that never seems to quite go away, even if secession is off the table.

So, beautiful bluebonnets under dark storm clouds it is.

As to novel-writing, I’ve been learning this week about one of the first Methodist ministers in Texas. His name was John S. McGee, a Kentuckian, who in the early 1850’s was sent to Texas to serve as a circuit-riding preacher, serving Seguin and a few smaller settlements in the area between Austin and San Antonio.

Reverend McGee enters my story because historically his 14 year-old son Jouette, the oldest of  McGee’s 13 children, all with the same wife, was killed by Indians on July 4th, 1855. The murder occurred when Jouette’s mule balked and refused to run when the boy, and the man who was with him, saw the Indians approaching them. The farmer, who Jouette was helping search for stray cattle, was mounted on a robust mare and successfully outran the Indians. He didn’t, or maybe couldn’t, save Jouette, but he immediately reported the attack.

Jouette McGee’s murder was one of the final straws that convinced the Texas governor to approve Ranger Captain Callahan’s request that his expedition be allowed to cross into Mexico, if needed, in pursuit of the marauding Indians seeking sanctuary in across the Rio Grande.

I’ll note that the same band of Indians on the same day also killed a 14 year-old slave girl named Lucy who was caught carrying a bucket of water from a stream to the house. While her death was noted, it was not part of the list of Indian murders that prompted Captain Callahan’s expedition of reprisal.

Bluntly, Black slaves, male or female, were property, and far too often, while the loss of a slave was regretful, the death was considered no more serious than the death of a good horse. As I write that and think about it, I’m still dumbstruck that our country--my country--my state--even my family--owned slaves until the end of the Civil War. What were they thinking, our ancestors?

So here I sit in Recliner #7, every day, creating characters and conversations to fill in the gaps around the stories that have survived, to recreate historical events from a tempestuous time 160 years ago. I’m loving that it’s a story about where I live, in a time when Anglos and Hispanics and Negroes and Native Americans were all tangled up in “A Different Country Entirely,” this place named Texas.

Finally, just because I think they are an interesting-looking couple. who lived difficult and interesting lives, I’m including images of Reverend McGee and his wife Ann Hawkins McGee.
Still a handsome couple for the times, whenever it was these paintings were done, and I bet she was a looker when she was a young bride. My wife says Ann McGee looks tired, and after 13 pregnancies and births, raising so many kids, and enduring the early deaths of some of her brood, I bet she was. Heck, four grandkids in the house at the same time wears us out.



Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Dementia, A High School Photo, & Texas' Great Wall

Yesterday I learned via a Facebook post by his wife that a friend of 30 years has Altzheimer’s. We attend the same church, and Gary was a school board member in our small town when I was the high school principal. From time to time, he and I would lock horns over school matters, as opinionated men tend to do. But we got past those disagreements out of respect for each other.

What made things fun was that Gary and I look alike, so much alike, in fact, that sometimes we’d each be spoken to by someone who thought we were the other. We both enjoyed those mix-ups, because invariably that confused person would talk about school, bringing both of us a few “Ah Hah!” moments.

Dementia is one of the cruelest diseases I can imagine, and it is heart-breaking to learn that someone is afflicted. The best I can do is “pass the peace” as we do each Sunday at the beginning of our church service. So, “Peace and Grace be with you, Gary.”

Speaking of high school, my 50th high school reunion is this summer. I don’t know if I’ll go, but just a few minutes ago, I saw on Facebook a color photo snagged from our senior yearbook. The photo was taken at an after-football game dance at the Round-up Club, a teen spot in our East Texas town.

I smile now at the image because I’ve always pretty much been a wallflower in social scenes. I’m a sideline guy. Yet, there I am in the middle of this mob, the short guy sideways to the camera with the light-blue jeans and shirt, and a navy-blue dickie. Yes, a dickie. I was indeed Howard Wolowitz in the flesh in 1967, even if my hair cut was better.

That embarrassment aside, in the picture I’m talking to a girl named Polly who reads this blog, but whom I haven’t seen in several decades.

Two of my good friends from the day are also near me in the image. Garland is the big blond guy dancing with his back to the camera, wearing a blue and grey sweater. Gar died of heart problems two years ago after a career as a Navy officer. 

Next to me, also facing away from the camera, is a tall, skinny drink of water named Wesley. He’s wearing a red plaid shirt, and was my best friend since we were twelve. Wes died a suicide victim in 1987, was an Army veteran, and a deeply troubled, but gentle soul.

So, the image is also sad to me, since I still mourn for both those guys, and for other friends from my younger years like Kenny, Greg, and Melanie, who’ve gone on to “their great waking-up day” ahead of me.

I’m learning that in spite of the joy of grandchildren and a long happy marriage to my beloved Nita, life is fragile, and sometimes gets a little melancholy, the older we get.

Moving on: I’m determined to link this post to my novel writing experiences of the past week or two, so here goes. If you look at the faces and arms in that 1967 high school photo, you should notice how very white everyone is. 1966-67 was still during the era of segregated schools in Longview, Texas. I led a very white teen-age life, rarely ever encountering African-Americans, Hispanics, or Asians. Not a point I’m proud of.

However, in my new novel that is set in central and south Texas in 1855, the cast of characters is a delightfully varied. Texas was a huge mixing pot of cultures in the 1850’s, as three major ethnic groups and multiple sub-groups violently wrestled over control of the vast landscape. Cheap land that was more or less empty did draw attention.

Milo Macleod, Jesse Gunn, and James Callahan are the main characters, all inspired by real men who were white Texans, having immigrated from Alabama and Georgia. But, the three are constantly encountering, in no particular order: Native American Indians, African-Texans, Mexican-Texans, German-Texans, Irish-Texans, and a visiting New Yorker who knows he’s in a “different country entirely.”

I’ve pledged to keep my blog posts non-political. I want this space to be my voice as a writer of historical fiction--and a grandpa. There are ample folks fussing about politics without me adding to the cacophony. Nonetheless, sometimes, old history stretches its long arm into today’s world.

I’ve not been able to escape that my book plot of 1855 parallels today’s political issue of building a bigger, longer wall in South Texas between us and “them”--our neighbors in Mexico. In 2017, it seems the wall will be a 30-foot-tall concrete edifice, challenging China’s great wall in scale.

Back in 1855, the South Texas “wall” was comprised of mobile companies of heavily-armed, mounted white men. Their job was to seek out Mexican bandits and hostile Native American terrorists to “punish” them for their unwelcomed incursions. (Punish meant killing as many as possible.)

My new book is a fictionalized account of Captain James Callahan’s mounted volunteer company, one of the more infamous ranging company adventures. Captain Callahan did not buy into the idea of Texas being a cordial neighbor to Mexico. He would have liked today’s great wall plan.

To be sure, in the 1800’s, the savagery of the Apaches and Comanche’s deserved that terrorist tag. Yes, they were fighting to defend their own homeland from the ever-increasing waves of a foreign race of immigrants. Yet, savagery is savagery, regardless of the reason for it.

We still use companies of roving armed men--and women—in the US Border Patrol and Texas State Troopers, but today’s “mounted ranging companies,” apparently are not enough. So, this year we’ll start building a bigger, better border wall just on our side of the international border with Mexico, to protect the same ground from new bandits perceived as a threat to our homeland. Texas is now our homeland, because after all, back in the 1800's we took Texas from the Mexicans and the Native Americans by force of arms, fair and square.

All of which makes me sigh. Sometimes, even after 162 years, we look up and see things haven’t changed all that much, and realize that finding the path to peace and grace, and neighborliness, is oh so slow.


Saturday, February 25, 2017

Olive Oatman and Caroline Hoffman

Olive Oatman.  It’s a pleasant alliterative woman’s name that might bring to us senior citizens a fleeting memory of Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive Oyl.

 While Miss Oyl was a cartoon character, Miss Oatman was an attractive real woman with a tragic and harrowing life story.

In 1851 Olive Oatman was a fourteen-year-old girl, one of seven children of a couple who were in route to a new life in northern New Mexico. They had begun their trip in a wagon train of Mormon families, but had split off to continue on their own, just the one family and their one wagon in the vast prairie.

One day, a  band of hungry Native American men, who were walking, approached the wagon and asked for tobacco and food. Mr. Oatman gave them bread, but refused to share more of their supplies. The Indians attacked the family, murdering the father, his pregnant wife, four small children, and, seemingly, one teenage son, Lorenzo. Olive and Mary Ann, her eleven-year-old sister, were taken as captives.

 The two sisters survived a long and arduous trek on foot, only, to use an overly polite term, to live as concubines. Olive’s younger sister died. Both were crudely tattooed on face, arms, and probably chest, in the fashion of the women of the tribe.

Olive's teenage brother Lorenzo had not died during the attack on the family, and heroically walked back to the wagon train the Oatman wagon had split from. He recovered and for five years searched for his taken siblings. I don’t think John Wayne’s The Searchers classic western movie  is based on the Oatman story, but there is a resemblance, and it might well have been one inspiration for the Duke’s fine film.

At the age of nineteen, after five years of captivity, Olive Oatman was discovered and freed. One thread of her actual story suggests Olive left behind two children, conceived by rape and born during her captivity, but the poor lady would not confirm that. I can’t imagine how any parent would cope with that added complication.

Olive lived until she was sixty, and her life as a freed prisoner is worth a quick reading on Wikipedia. It is a story of post-traumatic stress and contradictions. She wore a veil over her face and long sleeved dresses to hide the tattoos, yet she posed for the photos included here, and even went on the lecture circuit to promote a popular book about her captivity. In spite of the horrors of the story, she was willing to time and again revisit the terrible years by speaking about them from a stage.

Olive Oatman wound up recanting her story as told in the lurid book, written by a profit-driven preacher. In an example of unexpected rectifying grace, while on a speaking tour, Miss Oatman met and  married a good man in 1865. They adopted a baby girl, and she quietly lived the second half of her life, as a housewife. Olive died in Sherman, Texas in 1905 at the age of sixty-five.

In real Texas history, Comanche and Apache depredations were the catalyst for the Texas Ranger Callahan Expedition in 1855, which is the topic of my new novel-in-progress. By the way, the word depredations was a popular term in the 1800’s for Indian raids in which the slaughter of cattle, the theft of horses, the murder of settlers, and the ‘taking’  of women and children were the norm.

To set the stage in my new novel for the historical Callahan Expedition, undertaken to punish the hostile Native Americans, I’ve included a fictitious depredation by a band of Lipan Apaches. It was tough to spend a few pages creating likable characters, and then telling of the sudden horror that turned a special day into a nightmare of death and captivity.

As a writer, I find it uncomfortable and highly unsettling to think up and type paragraphs that vividly describe the violence, horror, and just plain ugliness of two utterly different cultures clashing along their shared frontier. Yet, to gloss over the cruelty of either culture towards the other is not acceptable to the historian in me.

My story does indeed include a ‘taken’ young woman named Caroline Hoffman. Is she rescued as Olive Oatman was? Does she die in cruel captivity as Olive’s little sister did?  The book won’t be finished for several more months, but even then, I imagine my answer will be a sidestep to encourage folks to read A Different Country Entirely.  Stay tuned.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Another #100 Celebration

This is another of those #100 celebration blog posts, but not anything I did this time. This Sunday, Boy Scout Troop 105, sponsored by the First United Methodist Church in Lockhart, Texas celebrates 100 years as a troop sponsored by the same church. I think that is noteworthy. Troop 105 was not the first Boy Scout troop in Texas, but was among the first five.

A few of you might remember reading my blog post from two years ago--Just A Rock. That post tells the story of probably the worst day of my life, a day of utter failure and humiliation as an 11-year old Boy Scout at his first summer camp. I had a hard time writing that post. It was not an easy memory to confront, but it is an important little slice of Phil. I hope you’ll read or re-read that two-year old post that I’ve dug out of the archives and included at the bottom of this post.

Happily, I got over the Just-A-Rock misery and went on to enjoy Boy Scouting as one of the foundation activities of my teen years.  I suppose I was a likely candidate—not an athlete, not a scholar, but a little guy who liked to read and loved being outdoors. And I probably liked the uniform and being able to earn awards and then wear them.

Merit badges are the core awards in Boy Scouting. Well over a 100 different merit badges each with its own list of requirements constitute a wide choice of interests for Scouts to pursue. The photo below are three merit badge sashes of three generations of McBride boys.

First is my father’s merit badge sash. He was a Scout in the 1930’s during the Great Economic Depression. In the middle is my sash, that of a Scout of the 1960’s. And last is one of my sons’ sashes-- I can’t tell which one--who was a Scout in the 1990’s.  And, yes, mine has the least number of merit badges sewn on—21, the minimum number needed to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. I’m sort of a minimalist achiever.



I’m proud that my dad and two uncles all earned their Eagle Scout ranks way back when, as did my brother and I, and all three of our three sons. Eight Eagle Scouts, over three generations, with four great-grandsons in a fourth generation on the ground, one now a Cub Scout, next in line.

Please take a close look at the merit badges themselves. They reflect our changing world. Pop earned Animal Husbandry, Bookbinding, and several craftsman-focused merit badges. My sons earned the Computer merit badge 25 years ago, and now stand-alone home computers are outdated relics of the early ‘90’s. Computer technology has now morphed into the world-wide internet--a key underpinning of our globe-spanning civilization.

We all had to earn some core merit badges, some of which haven’t changed: Lifesaving (the one merit badge that my dad and I both struggled to earn), Personal Fitness, Camping, Safety, and Reading. Citizenship merit badges have grown from the Home and Community, to include the Nation and the World.  Pop taught my sons to use hand-tools to earn their Woodworking merit badges.

Moving past the merit badges, Pop went to the first National Scout Jamboree for a week in 1939, where he camped on the National Mall in Washington, DC. My brother and I both went to later National Jamborees in the 1960’s. My sons did not, but I went with them to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico in 1999 on a 90-mile backpacking adventure, which takes me to the photo below.


This one image of my sons at Philmont best describes why I’m still such a fan of the Boy Scouts of America. The organization has had its share of problems over the decades, to be sure. Some self-induced, some not. It’s not been easy for the Boy Scouts to stay relevant to teenage boys starting in 1910, still a time of horse-drawn carriages, until now in 2017, a time when driver-operated automobiles may well be on the verge of obsolescence.

But this picture makes my point: There are my two teenage boys, up on a mountain, in the middle of that ten-day backpacking trek, having to figure out how to work together to saw through a big old tree trunk, as a service project.

They are on a trail on which they’ll never walk again, removing an obstacle for the benefit of others.  They could have said, “Screw this. I’m hot and tired. I really don’t care. Let someone else do it.” I imagine that’s what they secretly wanted to do. But they were good guys and plowed their way through, most likely fussing and cussing at each other with every stroke of the unwieldy two-man saw.

Corny? Yeah. Important? Yeah.  I believe we all need to get past the big damned rocks we can’t carry on our hips, like I had to do as a 11-year-old shrimp at my first Scout camp.

And we all need to work together to saw through the obstacles blocking the trail for others, like my teen-age sons did as a reluctant team at their last Scout camp.

So, shake a Boy Scout’s hand this weekend as the fine old organization we imported from England celebrates its 107th birthday in the USA.

Just A Rock ---A post from February 2015

I was eleven, still four months from twelve. I was short for eleven, still waiting for the growth spurt that never came. But I was a gung-ho Boy Scout and had already earned my First Class rank, three steps up the ladder in less than a year. And now I was at Camp Tonkawa for a week. No low-level advancement classes for first year Scouts for me. I was ready for merit badges classes, and that was a big deal to this eleven year old.

I also had been through all the Red Cross swimming classes at the neighborhood public swimming pool, but wasn’t old enough to take the Lifesaving class. So guess what merit badge class I signed up for at my first summer camp.

All of us who wanted to take the Life Saving Merit Badge class had to demonstrate our swimming skills and stamina to the waterfront staff. I did that, swimming across that cold dammed-up spring maybe a thousand times before they consented to let me in the lifesaving class.

The first class was the next morning and I was pumped. There were a dozen or so of us, all older and taller than me. So what. I was at home in the water, like a frog, and eager to get it on.

I was the first one chosen to do the initial drill to again proave that we had the right stuff.  The day before we just swam to show we were good in the water. Today we had to swim with a rock on our hip. A simulated, unconscious person, as it were. Not a fighting, thrashing panicking person who would try to climb all over us, just a dead weight rock. No problem, it was just a rock.

The rock looked big, but I had swagger. I got in the water and stood next to the rock wall that lined the bank and had been built by the CCC some twenty-five years earlier, and made the spring such a fine well-defined swimming place.

I took the big rock in both hands, finding it heavier than I thought it would be, and shoved off.  I got the rock settled on one hip and used scissor kicks to keep going towards the middle of the springs. I had to use one hand to keep the big rock in place, so I did an improvised one-armed sidestroke to keep my head and shoulders up. I still had swagger, and said a little mantra, “It’s just a rock, just a rock.”
Halfway across the call came to stop and drop the rock. I did and it sank. Like a rock. I tread water and nodded when the Merit Badge Instructor yelled at me to go down after it and bring it back.

I nodded and did a fine fishy sort of arching dive and swam right down to the rock. I picked it up and pushed upwards, but didn’t go far. I let go of the rock and came up for air. Three times I did that. My kicks weren’t enough to propel me and the rock to the surface.

The orc-instructor on the bank yelled again for me get the rock and finish. I yelled back that I was trying to do that. He yelled that if I didn’t get the rock off the bottom and bring it to him, I was out of the class. I tried once more with no more success.

I swam to shore, got my towel and was told that was it for me. Maybe next year I’d be bigger and stronger. I nodded and made the long walk back to my tent on the other side of camp.

No one else was there, everyone being off to their own first morning of classes. I shut the tent flaps, lay down on my cot and cried like a kid. The swagger was on the bottom of the spring with that just-a-rock. No mom or dad, no big brother, not even the scoutmaster to console me. Just me and my shame and anger at my failure. It sucked, and the memory of it still sucks. It was a long day.

The next morning I started a different merit badge class, Nature, I think it was. When I turned fourteen, I enrolled in a Red Cross Lifesaving Class at the YMCA. I was still the shortest student and probably the youngest, but I passed the big test after the series of Saturday classes. No rocks, though.

Where’s the tie-in of this little pity party tale from my childhood to the Civil War novels I’m writing half a century later? Only that I was at Camp Tonkawa, and an unnamed Tonkawa Indian brave is one of the first characters who John McBee meets in the Tangled Honor.

Can’t say they become friends, but they have a brief relationship. I must have blotted out the memory of the just-a-rock story when I was writing that part of Tangled Honor, or I would have killed off that Tonkawa sonofabitch.  Writers can get even with bad memories that way.


Camp Tonkawa is no longer a Boy Scout camp. It’s now a privately-owned RV camp and the dammed-up natural spring swimming pool is still in use. The photo is from the RV camp website and is the very spot of my come-uppin’s that June morning in 1961. If you look closely, about half way out you can detect the just-a-rock on the bottom. Well, not really. But I can still see it down there, up close and personal.