McBride At Rest

McBride At Rest

Friday, October 6, 2017

Another Chalk Mark

It’s my birthday, a day I’ve always enjoyed. Can’t remember a bad one. Here's a few random reflections, likely stemming from putting another chalk mark on the wall of my life span.

My most recent blog post, the one about standing for the national anthem, garnered more page-views than any of the other 120 posts I’ve written over the past three years.  Nearly 400 people took a look at it, a number that was no doubt boosted by a couple of friendly Facebook shares. Thank you all for reading it.

To a writer, that sort of response is a better birthday gift than almost anything. And to me, it reflects that issues like patriotism are on all our minds in these troubled days. Then the historian in me asks what days have not been troubled?  Still, how we fit concepts like patriotism into our worldview, especially as Christians, must be important to a lot of us.

It’s been a year and a few weeks since my mother passed away and I’ve thought about her more this past year than I did when she was living. That’s not a realization I’m proud of, but it is a fact.

My dad just turned 97 and his memory is slipping, along with his eyesight. I love Pop, a man who still volunteers at the local hospital once a week, and until his eyesight got too bad just last year, he and my stepmother were still delivering Meals on Wheels to the ‘old people.’

I admit I still chafe sometimes over my father's lack of involvement in my life when I was a kid. But he was a man of his generation, a guy who spent a career literally working six long days a week, and often went ‘back to the plant’ for a while on Sundays.

I’m glad that later in life, Pop and I made three trips together, just he and me traveling. First, the two of us went backpacking at Big Bend National Park when I was nearly 30 and he was nearly 60.  We trekked to the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains, carrying everything, including water. That was tiring, but  the days together with no one else to carry the conversation, put the two of us on the path of a father-son friendship that I wish we’d been able to start on 20 years earlier. I suppose it's just easier for fathers and sons to do that once the son grows up and mellows for a decade or two or three.

I say that because thirty more years passed by, three busy decades when I was a working father myself. Only when our nest was empty of our grown sons, and I was in my late 50's, and Pop was in his 80’s, did he and I travel alone again. We drove from Texas to Lexington, Virginia to seek out clues to our ancestors who lived there in there in the 1800’s.

I expected long periods of silence in the car, but Pop chatted through every mile of it—four days of chatting. I swear he just decided to make up for those years of having to put his job before his kids, by telling me everything he still remembered about his own youth.

Lastly, just a year ago, with me in my 60’s and Pop at 96, we went together to New Orleans. Not for the jazz, but with a bunch of other WW II veterans and their ‘guides,’ to the WW II National Museum, on a trip pampering and recognizing the old vets.  That was cool.  Pop felt honored, and I felt honored to be with him.

BTW, Pop was a ground crew technician for the secret Norton bombsight, and served in Europe. He shipped out three days after he and my mother married in the living room of the base chaplain's house, and he was overseas for 2 ½ years before he saw his new bride again. Today, we are clueless about that sort of personal commitment to a national war effort.

I’m going to the gym now, another compulsion my dad has modeled for me throughout the second half of his life. Crazy old men. I wonder if I talk the ears off whoever is lifting weights when I’m there.

Monday, October 2, 2017

3 Peas in a Pod of Patriotism

The flag. I want to talk about the flag. This time NOT the Confederate battle flag, and where/when should it be flown. But, the other one. The one that matters a lot more than as a historical relic: Old Glory-the tattered one shown here in at a Civil War reenactment at Port Hudson, Louisiana.

The NFL has brought us a new opportunity to reflect on when to stand, or rather, when is it grudgingly okay NOT to stand, during our national anthem, a patriotic tune aptly named The Star Spangled Banner.  Old Glory and the national anthem are really two peas in the same pod of patriotism, so when I say flag, I mean the song too, and I suppose the Pledge of Allegiance is the third pea in that pod of national patriotism.

First and last, I believe patriotism to one’s nation is good, and is absolutely necessary for the health of a nation. But absolute, blind patriotism is a two-edged sword that will grievously wound the wielder. Think Japan and Germany during WW II.

When I was a fourteen-year-old Boy Scout, I attended the National Jamboree at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, a place that rivals any other historic bit of geography as the birthplace of American patriotism. Valley Forge is not a battleground. It’s not a Yorktown or a Gettysburg or a Belleau Woods or a Pearl Harbor. Nor is it a hallowed hall where our Constitution or Declaration of Independence were hammered out.

Valley Forge is where George Washington’s pathetic little Continental Army first wintered and survived while it learned to be an army, to be something more than “a rabble in arms.”  Valley Forge was a school of tough love, and without Valley Forge, we quite literally would still be flying the British flag outside our courthouses.

As President Trump did this past summer, new President Lyndon Johnson spoke at the Boy Scout National Jamboree in 1964 at Valley Forge, and I sat.  I didn’t stand. I didn’t stand because even though LBJ was a fellow Texan, he was also a Democrat, and I grew up in a family of very right-wing Republicans. I hadn’t yet cut loose on my own. I wasn’t yet thinking for myself politically. So, being a teenage jerk whose brain was still clicked off, I sat in protest while those all around me stood and clapped.

I don’t know if my scoutmaster saw me sitting while all others stood when the President of the United States was introduced. But if he did see me, he should have kicked my ass and jerked me up. He should have pulled me up, not because of his personal politics or my parents’ politics, rather because I was an American kid, and because the person who was serving as the President of the United States was being introduced.

We should, we must, honor the president, any president, because the Oval Office defines us a nation. Our national identity comes not so much from the person sitting behind the desk for a short span of years, but the ongoing fact that as a single national voice, we over and over and over elect just one, only one, person to serve as our national leader for four years.

Who we elect is secondary to the fact we continue to elect our president, time after time. We damned well better honor the Oval Office, and teach our children the importance of honoring that office, regardless whose butt is behind the desk.

I’m not through: Six years later, in 1970, I was no longer a young Republican, and I one day found myself among 20,000 other college students marching down Congress Avenue in Austin in protest of the Vietnam War.  I was sort of grown then, yet I honestly don’t know if Walter Cronkite’s news coverage of Vietnam had penetrated my noggin. I was a busy college guy, but I figured it was okay to protest with thousands of others one pretty spring day.

Moreover, I had lost the draft lottery. I had recently sat by myself at a breakfast table in the Student Union and opened the Daily Texan newspaper to find where my birthday had been drawn among the 365 possibilities. Let me assure you, that is one unforgettable way to confront your level of patriotism. I was still enjoying a college deferment from the draft, but looking at my #88 draft number, I knew that when my deferment ended, I would be drafted, and I was NOT about to go to Canada to join those who had fled their own draft notices.

Anyway, was it a sensible contradiction for me to take part in a non-violent protest against the war? The war which I might soon enter wearing a soldier’s uniform?

The answer really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the protest march by thousands in Austin was protected free speech and I suffered no punishment for it--not like so many of the civil rights protesters during the 1960’s, whose cause was indisputable in hindsight.

Flash forward 14 more years from 1970 to 1984. I was the still-green principal of Lockhart High School, and we had weekly pep-rallies for the football team. Almost every week I would notice one or two jerks, usually 14 year-old freshmen, on the top row of the bleachers who were sitting during the national anthem. Then and now, I wished I could have pinged them with a BB gun pellet.

You see where this is going: When it is right and when it is wrong to participate in a symbolic protest towards things that greatly worry us?

We Americans can be cantankerous and contrary in our attitudes about almost anything. In spite of our deep commitment to the First Amendment that protects our right of free speech, we have a national history of sometimes shutting down that right for the greater good--at least the greater good is the reason used.

An early example is the tens of thousands of Americans who remained loyal to England during our Revolution, and were soon afterwards forcibly deported to Canada. Their land, homes, and businesses were lost and their wealth redistributed.

Another: after the Civil War, all Confederate veterans lost their right to serve in public office during the decade of Reconstruction.

A third example: during WW II, thousands of Japanese-Americans were forcibly relocated to live in detention camps, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

And there were the indignities condoned towards African-Americans during the 100 years after the Civil War ended, under Jim Crow laws and segregation. I won’t even mention the thousands of black men being lynched during those decades.

My point is that for all its importance in holding us together as a nation, patriotism can get out of hand, and when that happens the First Amendment, the right of free speech, is an early casualty.

The current hubbub about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem is complex. Unlike me as a 14 year-old dumbass at Valley Forge, those guys are way too big to pull to their feet, and unlike those ninth grade jerks at pep rallies, the NFL guys wouldn’t feel a BB pellet through their uniform pads and their own muscles.  And they’re not kids like I was.

I confess to a knee jerk reaction to criticize them for disrespecting Old Glory, before I even have a thought about the issue they are trying to address through their kneeling.

On the other hand, assuming the NFL players understand they are perhaps putting their livelihoods at risk, why shouldn’t they take advantage of their own particular mutual bully pulpit to draw attention to an issue?  Especially if it is an issue that much of white America does not view as a societal problem. 

I can’t forget that my parents and grandparents despised the non-violent, non-rioting civil rights protests of the 1960’s. Yet, those marches, sit-ins, speeches, and court-forced school desegregations--a few infamously under the protection of armed National Guardsmen, were necessary. They were sometimes ugly, but they served their purpose of not allowing us to continue turning away from the truth that racial integration was the only right path for America.

Back to today: If our police officers across the nation are indeed prone to using firearms too quickly against blacks when enforcing our laws, that is certainly a proper issue to study and to pro-actively address.

As to sitting or kneeling during the national anthem as a means of symbolic protest about anything, I’ll stand for the right of each American to make his own choice about that, without fear of legal repercussions. I hate the sight of anyone kneeling during our national anthem, but to me, that is free speech. And, that’s how rationally patriotic Americans are framing the discussion. The fringes are shouting nonsense as they usually are, but the vast majority of us are now thinking about why the NFL players are kneeling so conspicuously.

How should the owners of the NFL teams should respond? Well, the teams are their enterprises. They own the logos, the stadiums, the uniforms. They make their own rules, and the players are their employees. In the end, the owners will weigh their own best interests.  We’ll see how it plays out, so to speak.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Arrowhead or cutesy Christmas Tree?

Even though I’m a graybeard, and have lived long enough to know better, sometimes I take ‘cute’ too far.  Have I done so again with this artsy-fartsy text design? It’s for the back cover of my new novel, A Different Country Entirely

My hope is that the shape resembles a spear point or an arrowhead (but NOT a Christmas tree), since both are relevant to my story, and the blurb is to entice a shopper to buy the paperback, of course.

a dusty
corner of
Texas Ranger history-
The Callahan Expedition.
The year 1855 - the edge of Texas.
Indian savagery vs. the Rangers’ Colt pistols
Apache flight to sanctuary across the Rio Grande
Pursuit by Callahan’s Rangers into Mexico.
Battle between Texas Rangers
and Mexican lancers
at Rio Escondido.
the town

So, what do you think? Is the spear point/arrowhead okay, or too cute? If it stays, I've no doubt the shape will be refined by Karen Phillips, the talented graphic designer who does the cover art for my novels.

As to the text, would it tempt you to buy the book? Back cover blurbs are hard to write because of their brevity, but every shopper looks at the back cover to see what the book is about. So, wise authors don’t take the back cover content or its appearance lightly.

Here, I worry that this bare-bones description doesn’t include a word about the characters, only the historical action. The novel certainly includes complex relationships and romance among the characters, but I'm intending to market A Different Country Entirely much more from the the historical angle than I have my Captain McBee Civil War series. 

Again, what do you think?

Please do email me your opinion at or leave a comment on the blog for all to see.

Otherwise, the draft manuscript of my first Texas Ranger novel is done except for a bit of clean-up. I anticipate that my next blog post in a couple of weeks will be to announce that A Different Country Entirely is available on Amazon as a paperback or a Kindle ebook.

Friday, August 18, 2017

My Interview in Heaven

When I get to Heaven, should my beliefs of grace and forgiveness actually allow me to reach the Pearly Gates, I’m going to look up my old Uncle JJ McBride, the Civil War soldier-ancestor whose life inspired my Honor Trilogy of novels. Uncle JJ endured three years of arduous, and in the end, futile and tragic warring--150 years later, my wife endured three years of my writing about his three years of soldiering.

I want to ask Uncle JJ straight-up if he read the books I wrote with him in mind. If his heavenly presence tells me he has read them, he’ll likely be laughing. Here’s a possible transcript of that conversation in Heaven, starting with JJ adapting one of the best repeated lines from HBO’s Game of Thrones series.

Uncle JJ:  You seem like a pleasant enough fellow, and I do surely appreciate your remembering your old uncle. But the fact is about your books, You know nothing, Phil McBride. Things back then weren’t at all like what you wrote. All that stuff with me and Levi? He was slave. And me going to bed with a married Jewish woman? Really? Not to mention my making friends with the most famous Jew in the Confederacy. And that soldier who dressed like a man, but was really a girl. Come on, man.

Me: Well, Uncle, I was writing for an audience 150 years later in time. Things are different now. Readers expect different things from the good guy characters in the novels they read. People like a main character who has a good heart and is brave, but who also has a mischievous streak running through him. 

Uncle JJ: Well, at least you made me a good guy. Not like that Samuelson fellow. I admit you created one bad hombre there.

Me: Uncle, I’m glad you appreciate the villain. What about the battles? And camp life? Did I do better there than I did with Levi and Faith?

Uncle JJ: Not so hasty, young fellow. I didn’t say I don’t like Faith. Hell, boy, I’m flattered you put me next to such a fine woman. Too bad she’s only a character living on the pages of your books. If she were a real angel, I’d look her up. As to Levi, well, we all wish not a single African had ever been brought in chains to the New World. And it was best not to think about who begat who back in my day. Anyway, I had more pressing matters to worry over than my body servant.

Me: Like the Yankees?

Uncle JJ: “Yeah, like them. You did right well with the battles, for a guy who wasn’t there, that is.”

Me: And camp life as a Civil War soldier?

Uncle JJ: Wasn’t so bad. Of course I was an officer and had Levi taking care of my needs.

Me: What about your two battle wounds?

Uncle JJ: Hmph. I wouldn’t recommend getting shot to anybody.

Me: If you could change anything I wrote about your character in my books, what would it be?

Uncle JJ: Well, in your books you left me in the fight until the end. I’m glad you did that. I hated not to finish the thing. I owed it to the boys to have been there with them that last long year.

Me: Thank you. But what do you wish I’d written differently about you?

Uncle JJ: Well, it would have been good if we’d won after all that killing and dying.

Me: I couldn’t change the outcome of the war in my books, Uncle. That’s not historical fiction. I could only fill in gaps where there’s no record of what happened. That’s why I could create Faith and have you befriend Judah Benjamin, but I couldn’t let Lee win the war. Now, is there anything you wish I’d written differently about you?

Uncle JJ: I wish you’d made me younger. You pegged the real live me pretty good with all that bleeding blister and bloody boot stuff. I was just too danged old to be marching all those miles month after month for three years.

Me: Thanks, Uncle. Let’s talk again.

Uncle JJ: I’m sure we will since we’re both on duty here for the duration.

Me: Duration?

Uncle JJ: The duration of eternity, Nephew.

Me: So there’s time for me to write another novel?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Roses Are Red, Icebergs Are Blue

Roses are red, icebergs are blue…I think that was what my wife Nita is pointing out to me. We’re in a stretch of days which are hotter than blue blazes, every day passing the 100 degree mark. So I figure why not post a photo of a frosty Alaskan blue iceberg. It is probably making your screen cold to the touch. Enjoy. Maybe it will bring on a delightful shiver.

Extreme weather, be it hot, wet, or dry is a real deal here in Central Texas. I admit our only blizzards are at Dairy Queen, but floods are a recurring theme around these parts.  

In October of 1998, crazy heavy rains brought on record-setting floods where I live near Austin. Even the flood control dams failed to hold all that water. The normally mild Guadalupe River became a raging beast. The same thing happened to the nearby Blanco River in 2015. Vacation homes on the river became death traps in the middle of the night.

How do raging rivers connect to my new in-progress novel, A Different Country Entirely, a story about the Texas Rangers in the semi-arid regions of South Texas and Northern Mexico?

In October of 1855, 162 years ago, when there were no flood-control dams, rains along the Rio Grande River caused the river to run 15 feet higher than normal. The normally thin thread of placid water that is our border with Mexico became fast, wide, and wild.

That’s how the Rio Grande looked to Captain Callahan’s Texas Rangers. Raging. Formidable. Dangerous. And no bridge. 

The owners of the few small row boats the Rangers located refused to put their skiffs in the river for pay, and had to be forced at gunpoint to ferry the Rangers across to Mexico. Horses had to swim next to the boats. At least one man drowned and horses were lost in the swift current.

All that effort was just to get onto the forbidden Mexican side of the border. A week later when the Rangers had to re-cross the Rio Grande in a big hurry, things were even harder and hotter.

Harder because the river was still in flood stage and this time hundreds of armed Mexican soldiers were on their heels.

Hotter because the Rangers torched the town of Piedras Negras to cover their escape from Mexico. It was not a diplomatic visit.

Weather befuddles man’s best efforts. In one night, the hurricane of 1900 wiped away the city of Galveston and killed 10,000 people. The tsunami in Japan just a few years ago did the same.

In World War II, D-Day and the Battle of Bulge were greatly influenced by stormy weather.  During the American Revolution the ongoing heat-related deaths of soldiers wearing wool uniforms were a plague to the British generals. And flooding rivers have long played havoc with determined leaders like Captain Callahan.

I’d say weather probably changes history more than man does. Reckon? So when Texans or anyone talks about how bad the weather is, please don’t poo-poo them. Because we never know what tomorrow's weather will bring.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Game of Thrones, Paladin, and A Bad Idea

Game of Thrones (GOT) just started its seventh season on HBO, and I admit I’m a fan. I’m a nut for dragons and mothers of dragons, and giants, and really evil women like Cerci Lannister, and really creepy girls like Ayla Stark, and really tough ugly guys with hidden hearts like The Hound, and really smart little guys like Tyrion Lannister, and on and on.

In addition to the great characters, the complicated plot is written as well as anything I’ve seen on TV, and I’ve been watching since black and white 15 inch screens were the norm. Ask me sometime about Paladin. Talk about a member of the Black Watch. I bet he could have stopped a Night Walker.  Anyway, kudos to the writers of Game of Thrones.

Yesterday the online news included a bit that the writers of GOT have been tasked with writing a new cable TV series about a modern Confederacy, complete with slavery. Sigh. Another ‘what if’ alternative history series.

Please understand I like alternative-history novels. From Harry Turtledove, Gingrich and Forstein, to my friend Jeffrey Brooks’ alternative Civil War novels, I’m intrigued by those authors who dare to change history. Ballsy writers, every one. I’ve also enjoyed some of the episodes of the cable TV series where the Japanese and Nazis have divided the USA after winning WW II. Spooky, that.

Nonetheless, as a Southern man, and a GOT fan, Im fretting over the prospect of a tightly-written, visually exciting, action-driven cable TV portrayal of a modern Southern Confederacy as a bastion of slavery in modern times. I find the idea chilling, repugnant and socially dangerous. I agree with the person who just posted on a Civil War online forum that nothing good can come of such a TV series. Why go there? It’s would not be history, it would be entertainment that crosses that invisible line that keeps being shoved backwards.

Protecting and understanding our history, warts and all, is an honorable obligation, even the uncomfortable parts. That includes museum exhibits focusing on the horrors of slavery, just as it includes museum devoted to the Jewish Holocaust. It includes museums that display military artifacts from the Confederacy, and places like Andersonville Prison. You get my point.

To me, protecting history also includes holding the line on preserving stone monuments erected to honor the common citizen soldiers of the Confederacy. That said, I’m not so sure about defending those monuments outside public buildings honoring the political leaders who ruled the Confederacy. In a museum, yes, on the courthouse lawn, not so much. But that’s a different social conflict that will work itself out.

All that is to voice my opinion that it is unwise and needless to titillate TV viewers with imagined visions of modern institutionalized Southern slavery. One hundred and fifty-two years after the Civil War ended, we Americans are still uneasy about race relations.

I simply don’t see any benefit from a TV series that panders to the worst facet of our historical national story in a non-historical ‘what-if’ context.

Taking a deep breath and moving on, the manuscript for A Different Country Entirely progresses. The end is on the far horizon, like first seeing the Chisos Mountains as you enter Big Bend National Park.

I’m excited about my first novel set in Texas. It’s a tale of 1855 and is awash with ‘differences.’ Issues and people may have been similar to today, but were also very different back then. And, Texas was geographically way out there, and truly different from the rest of the states back then, likely even more than now.

Maybe I jumped on the GOT writers story because I’m spending a lot of keyboard time writing about the slavery aspect of my historical Texas story. Like with my McBee Civil War novels, I don’t want A Different Country Entirely to ignore the reality of slavery in Texas in 1855, but neither do I want to use slavery as a gratuitous sideshow.

Human bondage was, and is, a disgusting evil, surely, but forced slave labor also underpinned Texas’s cotton and agrarian economy until 1865, a decade beyond my story. It's ugly presence deserves a place in historical novels set in that time and place.

So, a prominent minor character is a slave named Thompson. But I can’t spoil my own plot, so enough of that.

Enjoy what’s left of a hot July.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Independence Day Morning in Galveston

Happy Independence Day, All Y’all.

I’m in the midst of a great week vacationing in Galveston. One spouse, two sons, two daughters-in-law, two granddaughters and two grandsons in one rented beach house with wi-fi and three toilets—Thank Goodness. Lots of sun, sand, and surf.

Being a clan of history nerds, we also visited the only bookstore in Galveston yesterday and carried out three sacks of new and used books. The store is locally owned and in the tradition of such places is nicely crammed floor to ceiling with shelves of new and used books and narrow aisles.

It is also the store where a good friend approached the owner on my behalf with my McBee Civil War novels in hand and asked if she might stock them. I was leery because my books are independently published, and I doubted one of the few brick-and-mortar bookstores left would accept them. When friend Dick e-mailed me that not only will the store owner put my books on her store shelves, but she would also schedule me into one of her monthly slots for a book-signing event in the store. Wow! I discovered that at least one independent bookstore owner likes independently published books.

The Galveston Bookstore features books of local Galveston interest and history. My ancestor John J McBride was a Galveston businessman before and after the Civil War, and is the inspiration for my central character in the three ‘Honor’ novels--John J McBee. After reviewing the novels, she decided that was enough of a Galveston connection. Wooo-Hah!

So, the ten McBride’s actually went to the bookstore yesterday so I could meet owner Sharan, thank her, hand over a box of my novels, and chat about what to expect on August 12th, when I go back for the Saturday afternoon book-signing. I’m happy, can you tell?

And I’m starting a new trend right here in this blog post. If the product of little independently owned breweries can be called ‘craft’ beer, books written by independent authors who don’t have agents or contracts with traditional publishing companies, can be called ‘craft’ novels. I write ‘craft’ novels, sometimes while sipping a cold ‘craft’ beer.

Now, back to Independence Day, a bit more somberly than usual, maybe because I'm surrounded by my wonderful grandkids and their wonderful young mothers all this week.

Our country was born by means of a terrible long war. We all know that. Wars are hard on the landscape and those who have the misfortune to live where battles are fought. That was true back in 1776-81 during the American Revolution, and in the 1860’s during our Civil War. Generals call damage to civilian homes and property ‘collateral damage,’ and simply prefer not to mention accidental civilian deaths.

In Redeeming Honor, I included a vignette during the great battle at Chickamauga, Georgia, a sad incident straight out of a Texas soldier’s diary. He describes how their advance was halted for a brief moment while a civilian family crossed their path. A young woman, holding two infants with two more children clinging to her long skirt, was fleeing. The young woman, whose husband was likely gone for a soldier, and her home either destroyed by artillery shells or overrun by soldiers, is hurrying towards the Texans, trying to get her brood out of harm’s way.

There were no photos of that scene to guide me as I created a word description of the frantic mother and her terrified children caught between two armies. I can only hope I somewhat captured the dangerous urgency of the moment.

Photography has changed from 1863 to 2017. Modern wars are well documented with visual images, sometimes documented with striking vivid images of moments we’d prefer to ignore, like this one.

While photography has greatly changed, the core aspects of war stay the same. Sadly. Tragically. This photo was posted online, taken this week. Mothers are still fleeing with their children when the war comes to their doorstep. In 1863 in north Georgia, America, and in 2017 in Mosul, Iraq.