McBride At Rest

McBride At Rest

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Soldier's Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 16, 2017

Parading Longhorns, Apple Pie, and the Long Branch Saloon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Bless America. And parades.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Kilts, Bagpipes, and Highland Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.