McBride At Rest

McBride At Rest

Friday, July 19, 2019

Me & American Outlaws

Twenty years ago, or maybe it was nineteen, I worked one day as an extra on the movie set of American Outlaws. My ‘co-stars’ were Ali Larter (of a memorable scene in Varsity Blues), Scott Caan (son of James), Colin Farrell  (Alexander the Great himself), Timothy Dalton (a once-only James Bond), and the glorious Kathy Bates (who made us all cringe when she used a hammer on James Caan’s knees in Misery).

American Outlaws cost $34 million to produce--$125 went to me for my day’s work. I suspect my named co-stars worked at a higher pay grade--and brought in $13 million at the box office. Wasn’t exactly a slam-dunk movie, but I have the disk and it is fun to watch every now and then.

My appearance is visual only, and only for a few seconds, while the fellow in front of me made a much better daily wage speaking a few lines to Colin Farrell who was portraying Jesse James, telling him that General Lee had just surrendered in Virginia.

My son Ben was working at the local movie theater in Lockhart when the film came around in 2001, and the theater owner obligingly snipped a couple of frames from the reel and gave them to Ben to give to me, since I was a hometown guy and a star in the film. There I am, on celluloid and the silver screen with brushed-on grit and grime on my face and wearing my Confederate reenacting uniform.

There were thirty or more of us extras in the line of dirty Rebs marching along in that scene. I heard one fun comment from the staffer in the costume trailer who was handing out artfully ragged Confederate uniform costumes to the guys who answered the call for extras, but didn’t have their own outfit like we reenactors did. He said those uniforms had been hanging in a studio storeroom since they used in the fantastic wide-angle scene of the Confederate wounded lying on the ground in Atlanta in Gone With the Wind some sixty years earlier. Maybe that was BS or maybe he was telling it straight. I dunno, but it was a great line.

Anyway, I was near the front of the line of extras, with my mug visible, with directions to dare not look directly into the lens of the camera, and to look grim and weary. How I came to be in front of the line and behind the actor who spoke is a mystery. I confess I did figure out that those guys in the back would likely not be seen in the final movie version, but I didn’t fight to move up in the column, like the third monkey in line to get on the ark. Maybe I did growl once or twice and shove a little bit, though. After all, nobody was going to call me by name to go to the head of the line, so a man had to look out for his fame and glory.

 We did at least fifteen takes of the tiny scene, enough to make me wonder how a whole film is ever finished. We were on a remote location at Camp Swift near Bastrop, thirty miles east of Austin. There were innumerable vehicles, generators, shade awnings and comfortable chairs for the real actors. We Rebs waited in the shade of some trucks, sitting on the grass, likely getting chigger bit. There were numerous young pretty women darting around on important errands. We were fed well. I never laid eyes on Ali or Kathy or Tim since they weren’t in our scene.
I’m glad to have the two frames of film as a memento of a long, hot enjoyable day seeing how Hollywood works out in the backwoods, near Bastrop, Texas.

There is a geographic link in this memory, as my new novel in progress, With Might & Main, features a couple of historical characters who were from Bastrop. One was Colonel R.T.P. Allen, a West Pointer, who opened and ran a military academy in Bastrop before the Civil War. He served as the first commanding colonel of the 4th Texas Infantry regiment in Virginia, and then the 17th Texas Infantry regiment, which fought in Louisiana, the outfit the novel is about. Unfortunately, while Allen was acknowledged to be an exceptional drill master, he must have been a very difficult man, for he was removed from not one, but both of his  regimental commands during the war, including the 17th.  Allen finished the war commanding the POW camp in Tyler—Camp Ford.

The other fellow from Bastrop was an attorney before the war, Captain Elijah Petty. He wrote dozens of letters home to his wife that have been published, and provided me with wonderful ‘behind the scenes’ snapshots of life in a Confederate army regiment.  Reading his anecdotal, sometimes lengthy and detailed letters about his personal daily activities and what was going on around him, was similar to working that day as a movie extra—seeing how sausage is made, so to speak. Petty was a handsome guy and his historical fate is part of the climax of With Might & Main, so I’ll leave you guessing.  His letters reveal a devoted husband and father who was very concerned for his family back in Texas, as well as loyal Confederate officer.

I hope to have the manuscript of With Might & Main completed by the end of August. More later.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

With Might and Main

How about that guy. More than a bird, more than an eagle. He’s All-American, wide-eyed and laser-focused on his job. On this Memorial Day weekend, I think that photograph superbly exemplifies our military servicemen and women. Bless them all.
Now, moving back in time, since my 2019 novel-in-progress tells a tale about the 17th Texas Infantry during the Civil War, here are two photographs of Texas soldiers who served in that regiment. Both were similarly wounded in the Battle at Milliken’s Bend on the west bank of the Mississippi River in Louisiana on June 7, 1863. Both were shot in the shoulder during the Confederate assault.

You can see that the first image is of a young man. That’s Captain Elijah P. Petty of Bastrop, Texas, whose collection of dozens of letters he wrote home to his wife and daughter have been published in a book titled Journey to Pleasant Hill. Fascinating letters. They reveal a loving, honorable husband and father, and dedicated officer.  There’s no post-war photo of Captain Petty because he died leading his company in battle on April 8, 1864 at the Battle of Pleasant Hill. He was killed when a little iron ball—grapeshot—fired from a cannon smashed into his chest.
This second photo is of another officer in the 17th Texas Infantry, Captain Samuel McDowell of Lockhart, Texas, my hometown. McDowell led Company K, the company that I’m writing about.

 After being wounded in battle, McDowell became ill and couldn’t shake the debilitation, so he was sent back to Texas. He recovered and lived until 1920, and was 87 at the time of the photo.

At age 93, as Americans were fighting in Europe during WWI, he wrote a simplistic but charming poem about being a soldier for his eight-year-old great-grandson’s birthday.  Here’s one verse, one line of which I’ve lifted to be the title of my Civil War novel about the 17th Texas Infantry, the outfit in which Captains Petty and McDowell honorably served.

Oh, I wish I were a soldier, you bet.
I’d fight with might and main,
Maybe I’d strut around with epaulets
When home I’d come again.

I mentioned in a post earlier this year that I was still searching for a good title for my new novel about the 17th Texas. With Might and Main, it is, even if that’s not a phrase that’s still used today, it does the job for me and came from the pen of a real soldier who is central to my tale. Thank you, Captain McDowell.

On Memorial Day weekend, a day of remembering that began in 1866 in honor of those who gave their ‘last full measure’ during the Civil War, I hope you will hold still for a minute or two. Hold still while you cast a prayer of thanks for all the military service men and women who still protect us, and the memory of all those who for nearly 250 years have fought ‘with might and main’ for our country.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Library Museum Closet

I want a job where I can go to the closet and bring out a box of toys like these:
First, the Confederate uniform jacket and shirt, and one home-knitted blue sock of 15-yr-old Private Joe Weekes, who was captured at Ft. Gaines on Mobile Bay, Alabama.

Second, the privately-purchased Sharps carbine of a gentleman named Tucker who lived in Galveston and served the Confederacy.

Third, a preserved square of hardtack carried home by a Wisconsin soldier.

Fourth, a box of 6 Colt Army Pistol cartridges from the Laboratory of the Confederacy.

The word dumbfounded isn’t strong enough to describe my surprise yesterday when I saw all those items laying on a table.

Eleanor Barton, the archivist of the Galveston Rosenberg Library Museum, and hostess of the museum’s quarterly noon reading group, brought them out of storage to add ‘spice’ to my talk about Tangled Honor, one of my Civil War novels.

I was already honored for the invitation to talk to the group about the Galveston connection of the historical Capt. JJ McBride of the 5th Texas Infantry in Robert E. Lee’s army, and his slave Levi Miller, the two main ‘fictionalized’ characters in Tangled Honor.  

Yet, when I saw the Private Weekes’ uniform jacket, with a value of many thousands of dollars, my brain forgot my book characters. Instead I stood wide-eyed in front of the table, peering down like a spellbound school kid. I don’t think I drooled on any of the artifacts, but I can’t guarantee it.

It didn’t hurt that in 2004, as a Confederate reenactor-living historian, I spent a very wet weekend inside Fort Gaines where Private Weekes became a prisoner of war. It didn’t hurt that a historical character in my Texas Ranger novel, A Different Country Entirely, carried a Sharps carbine in his 1854 tour of Texas.

And it didn’t hurt that last week I’d baked a dozen hardtack crackers to show to a bunch of school kids during my Civil War soldier program. That’s me in the uniform (reproduction uniform, not an artifact) of a Union lieutenant at Kelly Lane Middle School.

After the shock of sharing the spotlight with the treasures from the library museum, I had a great time yacking with the two men and fifteen women about Tangled Honor and Galveston. I admitted that the main woman character is not a typical Victorian-era wife, but Charles Dickens has that genre well covered. My character, Faith Samuelson was created for ‘spice,’ just like the artifacts set out on the table for my talk.

They professed to like my accurate portrayal of the military history and daily lives of the soldiers, and they were intrigued, as I’d hoped, about the evolving relationship between the master-and-slave main characters, which is one of the core themes in the novel.

I tried not to pitch the two follow-up Honor novels that complete the story begun in Tangled Honor. I likely failed at that since I’ve become an unabashed self-promoter of my novels, but no one seemed to mind.

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.