McBride At Rest

McBride At Rest

Monday, January 16, 2017

Captain Sam Foster and MLK Day

Today is Martin Luther King Day, our newest national holiday. It seems a good day to share one of the most striking comments I’ve yet to read from the pen of a Confederate soldier. Stay with me on this one.

From Texas Confederate Captain Samuel Foster’s Diary.

Captain Foster was a company commander in the 18th Texas Dismounted Cavalry and had fought in a dozen major battles over 2 ½ years of war. This entry in his diary was written somewhere on his long walk home shortly after the final surrender of the Army of Tennessee in April 1865.

"May 19, 1865

I saw some Negro children going to school this morning, for the first time in my life. In fact, I never heard of such a thing before; nor had such a thing ever crossed my mind.

I stopped a little Negro girl about 12 years old dressed neat and clean, going to school with her books—

I asked her to let me see what she was studying—She pulled out a 4th Reader a Grammar Arithmetic and a Geography—I opened the Grammar about the middle of the book and asked her a few questions—which she answered very readily and correctly. Same with her Geography and Arithmetic.

I never was more surprised in my life! The idea was new to me.

I asked her who was her teacher. She said “a lady from the north.”

I returned to camp and think over what I have seen.

I can see that all the Negro children will be educated the same as the white children are. That the present generation will live and die in ignorance, as they have done heretofore.

I can see that our white children will have to study hard, and apply themselves closely, else they will have to ride behind, and let the Negro hold the reins—

I can see that the next generation will find lawyers doctors preachers, school teachers farmers merchants etc. divided some white and some black, and the smartest man will succeed without regard to his color.

If the Negro lawyer is more successful than the white one, the Negro will get the practice.

The color will not be so much as knowledge. The smartest man will win in every department in life.

Our (white) children will have to contend for the honors in life against the Negro in the future—

They will oppose each other as lawyers in the same case.

They will oppose each other as mechanics, carpenters, house builders, blacksmiths, silver and goldsmiths, shoemakers, saddle makers etc.

And the man that is the best mechanic lawyer, doctor or teacher will succeed."

I was blindsided by this utterly unexpected diary entry when I was researching for my first novel Whittled Away. I can’t add to Foster’s eloquence and perceptiveness.

But I will sadly note--then came Jim Crow laws and separate but equal schools, which were very separate for 100 years, and never equal.

Now 152 years after Texas Confederate Captain Foster sat on a log and wrote that diary entry on his 1,000 mile walk home after three years of a brutal war, a war in which the victory of his army would have kept black men enslaved, I so hope we are finally well down the road of the vision Captain Foster foresaw in 1865.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

45 Years and a Trip to Piedras Negras

Gentle Readers,

You stuck with me last year when sometimes I meandered from writing about writing, and instead shared some personal aspects of my life-- the sorrow of my mom passing away and the joy of grandson Rory’s birth. Today is January 8th--Juanita’s and my wedding anniversary every year, and today begins the 46th year of our marriage. We tied the knot in Urban Park Methodist Church in Dallas on January 8, 1972, 45 years ago today.

Here is a photo of our very first “date,” an impromptu trip to Piedras Negras, Mexico after an afternoon University of Texas football game in 1969, a year the Longhorns won the National Championship.  Someone in the car—not me—said turn right and we all go home, turn left and we can go to Mexico. Well…we were very young, and you’ve got start a romance somewhere.

Nita and I are the couple in the middle, with the Mexican barkeeper’s head stuck between us. Yes, we landed in a cantina in Piedras Negras. What a beginning, huh? Who’d a thunk I’d be telling this story nearly half a century later.

I’d stick in one of those beautiful church wedding photos to commemorate our anniversary, but wedding photographers were beyond our means back in ’72. I could put in a beautiful wedding photo from either of our sons’ more recent weddings. But this is my blog, so instead you get to see the very beginning of our nascent romance, in a Mexican bar.

Looking at that old picture, the post-game trip to the border was an odd kick-off for us. Neither Nita nor I were ever “wild things,” even if we were children of the ‘60’s and met at the most liberal university in Texas. We were both raised Methodists, for heaven's sake. (By the way, I really can use liberal and Texas in the same sentence, but only when referencing The University, not the capitol building and its inhabitants.)

Odd beginning or not, I’m here to say 45 years later, that the sweet gal changed my life, that in the four and a half decades since we said “I do” to each other, the biggest joys in my life have revolved around her. She has blessed me in every way, and I love her as much, likely even more, this morning than I did on January 8, 1972.

Enough of the mushy stuff, and thank you for your patience.

There is a new McBride novel link in this post, because the main characters in my newly begun manuscript, Texas Ranger Captain James Callahan and Sergeant Constantine McCloud, are going to spend some time in Piedras Negras, Mexico. They visited in the fall of 1855, not after a football game, and 114 years before Nita and I got there.  Regardless, those old Rangers maybe even had a cold Negro Modelo cervaza in the same cantina where Nita and I had our first date.

But my new book characters won’t have as a good time as we did, because bullets were flying in 1855, and Captain Callahan ordered the whole town of Piedras Negras burned down the night he was there. I guess his beer wasn’t cold enough, or maybe it was too hoppy. Anyway, I’ll be writing more about that in future posts.

We woke up to 20 degree temperatures in Lockhart, Texas. Thought we were at the North Pole.  Have a good week.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A New Novel About A Guy Named Constantine

It’s 2017, and the house is quiet. We have un-decorated and taken down the tree, stored the ten stockings hanging from the mantle, and stashed the talking, belching, rump-shaking naughty Santa Claus doll that scares grandson Jackson. 

Since 2016 is gone by, here's my favorite family photo of the year, one my wife sneakily took one afternoon last May. That's Jackson with the pacifier and me with the Longhorn t-shirt. It must have been a good meal.

The Dallas Cowboys are in the NFL Play-offs, and I’m pecking away at a new manuscript. Life is good.

Writing-wise, I’m leaving the Civil War behind me in favor of 1855 Texas, with the action starting just a few miles from where I’m sitting in Recliner #7.  The foundation of the new book sprung from my assigned “spirit” in last year’s local Historical Society fund-raising Cemetery Ramble “Talking With the Dead.”

I took on the role of Constantine Connolly who lived and died in Lockhart and is buried here. Over two nights, I told his life story twenty-four times, condensed to eight minutes. I feel like I know the guy fairly well now. So now, I’m writing an early Texas novel based on his real experiences as a new immigrant.

As a young man in 1855, two years after his arrival in Texas from Alabama, Constantine served a three-month stint in the Texas Rangers. He was the 24 year-old First Sergeant in Captain James Callahan’s company of Rangers during the “Callahan Expedition” into northern Mexico. 

The official purpose of the expedition was to pursue and punish Lipan Apaches who had been raiding into central Texas with growing impunity. Callahan’s unofficial agenda also included capturing as many runaway slaves living across the Rio Grande as they could.  

There’s a lot of historical back-story to Callahan’s Expedition that I’ll work into the novel plot, but the key thing is that Captain Callahan led 110 Texas Ranger militiamen across the Rio Grande River—illegally— into Mexico to punish a band of Apache raiders for the depredations they had been making into central Texas.

The outnumbered Rangers wound up in a gunfight with both Indians and Mexican cavalry, who did not welcome the Texans into their country. The Rangers  withdrew to the border town of Piedras Negras (across from modern-day Eagle Pass, Texas). 

When darkness fell, Captain Callahan ordered his men to torch the entire town of Piedras Negras, home to about 1,000 people, to provide light and to distract the Mexican soldiers, while his men were ferried a few at a time back across the flooding Rio Grande River into Texas. 

There are lots more details in the period accounts of the expedition, including how the US Army officers in Eagle Pass reacted to Callahan incursion into Mexico. To summarize, it was not the Texas Rangers’ finest hour, even if it was a popular action with the Anglo settlers in central Texas who had endured two decades of horrifying Indian raids. The home folks saw Callahan's reprisal raid as a bit of long-overdue sweet revenge.

The actual battle between Callahan’s Rangers and the combined forces of Mexican cavalry and Indian warriors is called the Battle of Rio Escondido, since the conflict took place near the Escondido River.  As far as I can learn, there’s not been any movies made about the battle by either Mexican or American film makers, but here is a poster for a Mexican film with the same river title. I’ve no clue what the film is about, but I like the art of the poster.

I’m writing the new book with a residual sense of gratification that the McBee Civil War trilogy is a done deal, as we say down here.  Perhaps it’s normal that after three years of living every day with the characters in my head, I’m still hearing their voices as I’m creating new characters.

And I’ve indulged in every novelists’ sweet dessert of putting a new book’s characters in contact with characters from an earlier book. The new novel starts in 1853, which would make the young Confederate soldiers who marched off to war from San Antonio in 1862, 10 year old boys in 1853. Two of those of those Confederate soldiers, Bain Gill and Jesús McDonald, are the main characters in Whittled Away, my first Civil War novel. They already have made a cameo appearance as 10-year-old boys in an early chapter of the story of Captain Callahan’s expedition.

So, Happy New Year to each of you. Keep reading good books.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Chirstmas Stockings Butting Toes

Half point right, half point to the left. It’s not a political statement. Our family just can’t decide how our stockings should hang. It’s that extended family stuff, maybe, since every family has its own Christmas customs which newlyweds have to mix and match as they sort out how to accommodate all their new in-laws’ quirky holiday expectations.

It was easier when Nita made the first two pretty stockings for her new husband--me--and herself. But as two stockings grew into ten, the simplest thing like which way to point the stocking toes grew complicated. And if our offspring keep on having more offspring of their own, we’re either going to have to stretch the fireplace mantle or shrink the size of the stockings, and we all know that size matters. Who wants a Christmas stocking that’s too small for a tire gauge, or the other useful things I enjoy dropping into my kids’ stockings?
As to Nita’s broken arm, it’s mending without a cast or surgery, but she is wearing a fitted cloth sling cinched up tight 24/7, except during her showers. What I learned the second day, however, is there’s another treatment required for a broken right upper arm, when the arm is attached to a lifelong wearer of contact lenses who suddenly could not take out or put in her contacts with only her left hand available. The girl had to have prescription eyeglasses--that day. So, a shout-out to the Vision Works store that efficiently provided one-day service using her contact lens prescription, had hundreds of choices of stylish frames, and took our vision insurance plan.

In fact, the whole stressful broken arm episode including an ambulance ride, instant X-rays by a Star Wars-looking mobile contraption in a hospital ER, then the eyeglass shopping under duress, was a fine example of the under-appreciated luxuries we Americans simply expect. Everything worked when we needed it to, when we were short of patience, dependent on others for their services, and Nita was coping with a constant pain-in-the-arm, trying not to be a constant pain-in-the-ass to me and others.

So, this Christmas blog post is all about our blessings. Blessings for living in a place where things work, and there’s no Civil War going on, no bombing of apartments and neighborhoods like in Syria where children are being buried in the rubble of their own homes. Where Nita’s broken arm can receive immediate response no differently than if she’d suffered a life-threatening injury. And where Christmas stockings pointing both directions on a mantle still sing Merry Christmas in somewhat harmonious joy.

Enjoy the last few shopping days.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Two Ladies-Two Cities

Life mimics art.  Well, maybe not really art. In Defiant Honor I needed to inflict a “minor” battle wound on the main character, Major John McBee. It had to be a wound that would heal soon enough for his return in a few months for the next battle. So…I aimed a cannon loaded with canister-12 golf ball sized iron marbles-at him. One canister ball bounced a couple of times, causing it to lose velocity, before the “spent” ball hit McBee’s upper arm and broke the bone.

I wrote that a couple of months ago, and it must have struck my wife’s curiosity bone. Two days ago, just home after two weeks of grandmothering little Rory and his sisters, sweet Nita tripped and fell, hitting her right arm on the hard, non-yielding edge of our china cabinet. Her upper arm bone broke. Snap. She yelled.

In Defiant Honor, Major McBee was the recipient of the new procedure that British army doctors had developed for their soldiers in the Crimean War in the 1850’s—wrapping the broken limb in plaster of paris to prevent the reset bone from shifting. We’ll see next week if Nita gets surgery and a steel pin in her arm, or a cast or something else. Meanwhile, her right arm is in a sling, strapped to her torso, and she’s learning how to function as a one-armed lady.

Speaking of ladies, a few weeks back a middle-aged lady approached my bookstall on vendors row at the Plantation Liendo Civil War reenactment just north of Houston.

Every year, I reenact at Plantation Liendo, and for the last three years I have spent the time before the afternoon battles hawking my Civil War novels to spectators and other reenactors.

In my newest novel, Defiant Honor much of the action takes place in the fall of 1864 during General Grant’s siege of Richmond, Virginia, which was the Confederate’s capital city.

Back to Plantation Liendo: The lady picked up the display copy of Defiant Honor and asked a good question: “Why is the title defiant honor?”

My response was honest: “Because by that time in 1864, after Atlanta fell, and Lee’s army being hugely outnumbered, I suspect General Lee and President Davis knew they weren’t going to win. They were holding out in hope that Lincoln would lose the Presidential election and the new president would sign a peace agreement. But when Lincoln was re-elected, Lee knew Lincoln would not negotiate a peace settlement that would let the South become a separate nation, and Lee knew the Confederacy didn’t have the resources to win militarily, so their hopes turned into honorable defiance-hence the title Defiant Honor.

The lady’s facial expression suddenly darkened, and she countered that General Lee kept maneuvering his army and it certainly was more than defiance.

I replied that his maneuvering during the second half of 1864 was only to shift his outnumbered forces around his ring of defenses to keep Grant out of Richmond and Petersburg. I said Lee’s army was far too small to both defend Richmond, and take the war to Grant out in the countryside away from the city defenses.
Here's a simple map of the Richmond-Petersburg seige.

She told me she was from northern Virginia and I had it wrong, that battles were fought on her family’s land, that the people who live in Virginia, where it happened, understand that General Lee still had a real chance to beat Grant.

I said something about food shortages in Richmond and repeated a comparison of the sizes of the armies. About midway through my final rebuttal, she quit listening, and walked away in a huff.

I think maybe my answers just made her mad. Boy, did I break the first rule of salesmanship, that the customer is always right.

But the exchange was a good reminder that some folks are still sensitive about things that happened 150 years ago, and at least in the South. Always remember Faulkner: “The past is not dead; in fact, it’s not even past.”

Moreover, this nice lady reminded me with her very clear body language: You just don’t mess with the memory of General Lee. Even now.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Rory's Home

New Grandson Rory was born at noon on Monday and came home at noon on Wednesday-yesterday. Here he and I are, still in the hospital, meeting each other. I think I was paying more attention than he was. 

 Now, I’m sitting in my son’s nice two-story house in a Dallas suburb watching how new baby Rory is an instant change –agent, more powerful than a new boss in any office. 

In Defiant Honor, I awarded one of my favorite three-word sentences to Elizabeth McBee, who is the main character’s mother. She lives in Lexington, Virginia, a war zone. Her prodigal son brings home a pregnant woman, his new “wife,” seeking refuge for her. As the war drags on, two of Elizabeth’s slaves die violently. She is herself shot and carries an ugly scar on her temple. Her financial security is kaput. Her house is struck by a cannon ball, and invaded in the middle of the night by Union soldiers, one of whom she fatally shoots. Elizabeth McBee is a formidable grandmother. After all that, as Elizabeth comforts an odd young woman whose life has included even more unexpected turns than her own, Mrs. McBee hugs her and confesses, “I hate change.”

Don’t we all, at least every now and then, even if fleetingly, hate change. But life brings an endless series of unexpected changes. For better or worse, change is inexorable. Those poor folks who live where wars rage around them, whether in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in 1864, France in 1916, England in 1942, Iraq in 2001, or the Congo, Syria, or Afghanistan right now, surely have it the worse. Wars toss all the rules out the window, and those whose land and towns become battlegrounds, suffer.

Yet, we can’t stop studying war, writing novels about war, and going to see war movies. We profess to hate wars, but we are addicted to them. Why? Beats the hell out of me, but I’m one of the afflicted. 

Back to the here and now, Rory’s two sisters clearly love him, but we can already see the youngest sister, Violet, barely beyond her baby years herself, grappling with her changed status as the wee darling of the family. The first grader, Eva, is doing better, much to her parents’ relief.

This would be the place to shift into a post-election sermon about change, but I won’t. I’ve promised not to let politics seep into my blog posts.

I just took a break from the keyboard to cook bacon and eggs with granddaughter Violet. Her favorite part is cracking and dumping the raw eggs into the bowl.

Reminds me of the old quip about the chicken and the pig. When it’s time to prepare breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig, well, he’s committed. He’s all in, no more standing back to watch. I suppose the great American electorate decided to take on the role of the pig when we chose our next President. I mean, we’re all in, all committed, no going back. I just hope our new head chef keeps a sharp eye on the frying pan and doesn’t burn the bacon. Oops, I did preach, didn’t I. Sorry.

With the McBee Civil War saga a done deal, I’m briefly between writing projects. Which reminds me (yes, two ‘reminds’ in one blog post) of what granddaughter Eva asked me as we were waiting in the car drop-off line at her school yesterday. I told her that I had been a school principal once upon a time, and the astute first grader replied, “I know that. Why did you like being a school principal more than being a book writer?”

Since my sales have yet to reach to John Grisham or Jeff Shaara heights, I answered something about paying the bills. Then, it was time for her to get out. I went around the car, opened her door and helped her put on her massive backpack from which her lunch box dangled. With a guilty channeling of Forrest Gump, I called out as she trotted happily toward the front door, “I love you, Eva Rose.” And without turning she called back, “I love you too, Granddaddy.” What gets better than that to start a new day?

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Blog Post #100 and Defiant Honor

This is Blog Post #100.  A Roman C.  A Ben Franklin.  Ten tens.  Five score. 99+1.

#100 is a number that people celebrate. A Centennial Celebration.  A hundred of anything seems important because a person, an idea, or a nation stuck with something long enough to reach three digits. It’s taken me over two years to reach Blog Post #100, and I thank you for sticking with me, whenever you started reading my blog posts.

What better time than Blog Post #100 to shout out that I’ve finished Defiant Honor, the third and last novel in the McBee Civil War trilogy. I’m happy! I’m relieved! It’s a wrap. It’s in the can, as they say in the movie business. In fairy tales, they write, “And they all lived happily ever after.” In schmaltzy westerns, he and she ride off into the sunset, sorta like a Cialis ad, only not in bathtubs. In the book business, we type “Finis” or “The End.”

And I’ll ask for you, because I know you’re thinking it J: How does Defiant Honor end? Defiantly or meekly? Is the last chapter the last battle? Will the last page make me cry, or pump my fists like Rocky? Is the last sound a cannon’s roar or a mouse’s whimper? Are the characters who took us through three years of war, intrigue, and romantic entanglements still alive at the end of the third book? 

I’m not spoiling the book’s suspense by revealing the last chapter, or the last battle, but the last sentence in Defiant Honor reads,

“The painter was coming to finish the nursery walls that day, and she was still undecided on the color.”

Huh? Did Pollyanna join the McBee family? Painting nursery walls is not a very bellicose final statement to end three books, over a 1,000 pages of Civil War and family strife in the 1860’s. Nonetheless, I promise that the last sentence wraps up a whole lot of gritty war drama and saucy romance, and not everybody lives happily ever after.

I’m proud of the cover of Defiant Honor and owe a big thank you to the graphic designer, Karen Phillips. The cover might be considered busy in this era of bold simple book covers, designed to draw the eye as thumbnail size images on Amazon, America’s bookstore. The title letters are sure-enough bold. As for the two photos, they certainly project that the book is about the Civil War. The Confederate battle flag is still being carried forward, but is juxtaposed beneath several African-American Union soldiers celebrating under Old Glory. That cover design is not accidental. 1864 was not a happy year for the Confederacy and the soldiers of the 5th Texas Infantry.

Here’s the whole photo taken at a reenactment outside Richmond, Virginia a couple of years ago. I’m one of the captured Rebel reenactors kneeling in angst, while reenactors of the 22nd  Regiment of US Colored Troops (USCT) pump their weapons in the air in victory. Kudos to “embedded photographer” Jeff Cantrell for that striking photo.

A little more about the two race threads that run through Defiant Honor. Racism was rampant in the 1860’s. Many, if not most, Confederate soldiers hated the idea of ex-slaves and black freemen being good soldiers, of black men being on equal terms with them. The clashes between the “African-Yankee” regiments of the US Colored Troops and white Confederate regiments were brutal. Individual soldiers’ efforts to surrender were often ignored. Instead, the soldier who quit fighting was clubbed, shot, or bayoneted, sometimes with the epitaph “Remember Fort Pillow!” being shouted by both black soldiers wearing blue and white soldiers wearing gray.

Fort Pillow was the first publicized occasion of Confederate soldiers ignoring the universal “hands up” and killing black Union soldiers who tried to surrender. I’ve read Civil War soldiers’ memoirs from both black and white soldiers that mention both sides using “Remember Fort Pillow!” as a battle cry. It was an ugly facet of our Civil War that I’ve intentionally included in Defiant Honor.

The other race thread is that of Levi’s situation as young man with a white father who is also the man Levi must serve every day as his body servant. While John McBee eventually, reluctantly acknowledges the likelihood that he is the father of the young man who literally is his personal slave, they live in a society where that version of paternity mattered not one whit. One drop of Negro blood establishes an abyss between them over which no bridge could be built. Until John and Levi do so anyway. And that was my favorite part of writing the book. Slowly constructing the forbidden bridge between John and Levi McBee was immensely gratifying and more than offset writing the vicious battle scenes between white and black soldiers.

Since Defiant Honor just became available for sale on Amazon, and since Christmas is around the corner, here’s my once-a-book self-serving request that you consider buying a copy as a Christmas gift for someone. Or for yourself. My wife and I both think Defiant Honor is a good read—my best yet.

A Kindle download on Amazon cost $3.99. A paperback cost $14.99. Or, if you see me, ask for a paperback copy. There’s a face-to-face discount and no shipping charge. I carry copies around in my car trunk, like aspiring novelist John Grisham did before he became The John Grisham.

Here’s the link to my author’s page on Amazon where you can buy any of my novels, including Defiant Honor, in paperback or Kindle download:

Happy Thanksgiving to all y’all. Nita and I are expecting a new grandson anytime now, and are ready to lavish some lovin’ on the little guy, like butter on a hot roll.