McBride At Rest

McBride At Rest

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Olive Oatman and Caroline Hoffman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 10, 2017

Another #100 Celebration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just A Rock ---A post from February 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 3, 2017

A Stranger in A Strange Land: Frederick Olmsted in Texas

I’m well into writing the manuscript for my new novel, which is about Texas in the 1854-1855—pre-Civil War.  For a guy who has lived his whole life in Texas, I’m learning a lot about how things were right around where we live, but way back then-- over 120 years ago.

Life was hard in 1855 for almost everyone compared to our lives today. There were few safety nets to protect people from the unexpected, or the “expected, but dreaded.” Things like the sudden deaths of infants and toddlers and the deaths of women during childbirth, debilitating work injuries to men, a worn-down wife’s unwanted pregnancy resulting in a tenth child to feed, a bad harvest, and on the forward fringe of American civilization-- burned homes and stolen horses during Indian raids. Hard became harsh very quickly, or simply skipped harsh, and went right to tragic, like tortured, murdered settlers and women raped, then taken away by marauding Indians.

I just bought a book first published in 1857 that is giving me a fresh period view of early Texas from someone who was “on the outside looking in.”

The book is My Journeys In Texas, a travelogue written by Frederick Law Olmsted, who was a correspondent for a New York City magazine. Olmsted and his brother traveled for months through Texas by horseback in 1855.  Olmsted was also a well-known successful landscape architect who designed New York City’s Central Park and the Boston Commons.

Here’s a photo of Frederick Law Olmsted.

Olmsted frankly didn’t like Texas, or Texans, very much, except for the German immigrants who settled New Braunfels, a town between Austin and San Antonio in what is now Central Texas. He approved of their industriousness, their sense of order, their manner of building sturdy rock and timber homes, the neatly painted and decorated interiors of their small houses, and probably, their beer.

Conversely, Olmsted found the Anglo-settlers of East Texas to be lazy, poor, and almost universally uncurious and non-intellectual. He related story after story of stopping at isolated cabins along the roads through East Texas and being aghast at the poverty, laziness, and lack of concern of the folks from whom his party bought food.

His view of the Mexican residents of San Antonio is similar, with cultural differences acknowledged. He did comment, though, that he liked tamales and tortillas, and enjoyed the international flavor of San Antonio itself.

Olmsted wrote at length about slavery as he encountered white slave owners and black slaves in his travels. He was a staunch New England abolitionist, who was vocal in his moral opposition to slavery, as well as having a growing practical opposition.

He observed that a paid laborer in the north did four times the work of a slave in the south.  He wrote that the economics of the south revolved around some 8,000 large plantations whose owners dominated everything. He opined that slavery robbed needed jobs from white laborers, who consequently were bereft of any economic well-being, relegated to a fragile existence in dire poverty on unproductive small farms.

He also noted that every man he met in Texas carried Colt revolvers, as he also did. And he made the point that most men with whom he visited during the evenings in hotels and taverns had come to Texas fleeing some personal troubles left behind them in other southern states, troubles that were usually legal.

Yes, he was pretty darned critical. But Olmsted sure had a turn of phrase. In fact, I’m testing a new title for my book, using one of Frederick Olmsted’s descriptions of Texas, as he found our Lone Star state in 1855: A Different Country Entirely.

And, Yes, I've already written Olmsted into my book's plot. He is just too interesting a guy to leave out, and the timing of his travels through Texas coincide with my story-line perfectly.

Finally, here’s a modern photo of a young friend of mine with his two daughters in front of the Alamo. He’s a reenactor wearing 1830’s clothing, and even if he is portraying a militiaman twenty years earlier than my story, I think he projects a fine impression of a rough-and-tumble Anglo Texas settler. And his two girls are cutey-pies.

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.