Sunday, November 4, 2012

Surrender of Secession, Day One

It's Westville, Day Two for me, but for the reenactors it's opening day.

Today's the day the Army moves in to establish martial law. These guys really did this thing up right. From the moment the park gates opened, every reenactor was in role and there was something going on every minute of the day. If you are used to those "reenactments" where guys stand around tables with their gear to show you, then you really have to experience the SouthEast Coalition performances--because that's exactly what they are. Being at Westville this day was like walking around on stage in the middle of the play. If you happened along in the middle of something, they would deliver their lines to you: I dropped something, and a Yankee soldier, picking it up for me, said, "See, ma'am, we're not all bad."

After the orders were read to the townspeople, the soldiers went over to the tavern to wet their whistles, and a mini-riot broke out. In reprisal, one of the soldiers took a hatchet to a barrel of whiskey. Over the cries of the town drunk ("Not the whiskey!") I heard a citizen heckling, "Ain't you took enough from us already?"

Southern resentments were plain. Later in the morning, the muleskinners gave the newly-arrived carpetbaggers a ride over to the boarding house. I happened by and overheard one of the men on the wagon muttering, "Look at him goin' in the front door!" And as the townspeople gathered at the courthouse in the afternoon to take the oath, one old rebel lay out front on the lawn under a shade tree and heckled them for knuckling under.

Yet another resident of the town cautioned me against being out alone, as, he said, "There are Yankees about. And it is widely rumored that they consort with the devil and eat small children." Neither of which I saw as presenting much risk to a 60-year-old writer, but hey.
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Saturday, November 3, 2012

John and Sassy

As promised, I bring you John and Sassy.

I learned that when you are ready to go, you say, "John and Sassy, step gee!" (or "haw," I suppose, if that is the direction in which you wish to travel), and you pop the reins so they get a gentle slap on the butt with them.

These are the springs, the oval metal things you see under each end of the bench:

And that's it. It would have to be a pretty rough ride!

I watched the lady in the top photo attempt a dismount later in the day, and it was not pretty. Her skirts seemed to want to tangle around everything in and around the wagon and her legs as well. You have to wonder how many women fell and got hurt or even killed because of all those skirts and petticoats.

This is the brake. You don't use it like a car brake, exactly. For example, if you want to stop the wagon, instead of breaking you say, "Whoa, team!" and the mules do the stopping.

Because the wagon is so heavy, you do have to help the mules by braking by a notch or two even on slight, short downhill grades. And of course, as you can see here (forward is off, back is on), you use it as a parking brake.

John and Sassy were busy all weekend. The went to town for supplies, they gave carpetbaggers a ride to the boarding house, they took the family into town to see the Yankees establish martial law, and they moved the body of a soldier that was being reinterred.

During the little graveside ceremony, they waited patiently at a discreet distance, snorting in agreement when the preacher asked God to send the Yankees home safe to their families too, preferably sooner rather than later.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Westville--Day One, Part One

I've been back since Sunday, and I'm still not recovered. That, and two days of severe computer problems after my return, combined by network outages due to the storm, make up my excuse for not posting earlier. Heck, I'd originally planned to post each evening, but I didn't have internet down there.

Be that as it may, I am now going to tell you all about the Surrender of Secession re-enactment, put on by the Southeast Coalition of Authentic Reenactors with some participation by the Authentic Campaigners crowd. Both of these organizations are deadly serious about getting it right, and reenactors actually had to have an invitation to participate in the weekend at Westville. I would not have missed this for the world, for just this reason: It was an unparallelled opportunity to learn.

I originally understood that they were to 'go live' first thing Thursday morning, so I made my plans to be there. As it turns out, only a smattering of reenactors were already onsite. The good news, though, is there weren't many tourists there, either, so I was able to shoot a lot of exteriors without people in modern garb wandering through.

One of the first things I noticed was that various female reenactors' skirts were of widely varying lengths. I wondered if that was a class or age-related thing, and so I asked this lady.

"We're poor," she told me. Their clothes were by this time all old or hand-me-downs.

I had not thought about the practical effects of that, and would not likely have read it or picked it up from looking at old photographs, either. So I thought about what it would mean for an adolescent girl who'd grown a few inches during the war years but could not afford new clothes, and now her skirts are too short. Her ankles show, and maybe even some leg. I suppose that a woman could sew in panels to let out the waist and shoulders, or she could let out pleats and gathers, but once she started sewing bands of fabric around the hem (assuming she had any) to lengthen her skirts, she'd be looking like a walking patchwork quilt.

If you look closely, you can see this woman's bare feet peeking out from under her skirt. And later, I overheard a mother explaining to her child that no, she could not wear her boots to go to town, because "we have to save those for special occasions." So I thought about the embarassment, the shame, even, of going about barefoot, of how it would feel when you saw people spot your dirty, bare feet sticking out. Or when they looked down at your children's feet, black with dirt. Or even of the embarrassment you might feel on someone else's behalf if, say, you had shoes, but the fellow you met on the sidewalk didn't.

In my next post, I'll tell you about John and Sassy, and what I learned about mule-driving.
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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Old Friends

Cover of "Surface Tension"
Cover of Surface Tension
I settled into bed last night and opened Christine Kling's Surface Tension on my Kindle, looking forward to starting a new story. To my amazement, there in the Acknowledgements was a familiar name: Lynne Barrett.

Lynne had the apartment next to mine when she was working on her MFA at UNC-Greensboro, back in the mid-70s. I remember encouraging her to submit some of the stories she'd thrown in a drawer, and she offered me encouragement of a different kind. I got a bad grade on a psych paper, and Lynne accompanied me to the college book store where she directed my purchase of Strunk & White's Elements of Style and Fowler's Usage. She instructed me to read them cover to cover. I can't say I ever completed that assignment, but I did use them both heavily for the rest of my undergrad career, and I never got another grade like that--not for the writing, anyway.

I still have both tattered, yellowed copies.

After graduation, Lynne went off to Pittsburgh to teach creative writing at Carnegie-Mellon. I had an ex-roomie living up there for a while, too, and so saw Lynne again at least once, but after that we lost touch. Then, a year or so ago, when I was looking for an old story of hers, I found her on the 'net, writing and teaching in Florida. She even has a Wikipedia entry.

It was cool to see a student acknowledge her in the same sentence with James W. Hall and Les Standiford. I knew her when.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Well, this is embarrassing!

The Old Plantation, ca. 1790-1800. Watercolor ...
The Old Plantation, ca. 1790-1800. Watercolor by unidentified artist. Original painting in Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Author Kevin Levin, over at Civil War Memory, tweeted this post the other day, alerting all interested parties to the existence of the Sons and Daughters of Antebellum Planters, 1607-1861. When I read the post, I thought Mr. Levin was joking. I followed the link, though, and I can tell you, people, this is a real thing in the world.

"Antebellum Planters"? Really? By this they mean plantation owners, which they define as 500 acres or more. Now we all know you couldn't run a 500-acre plantation back then without slave labor. What's funny (in the ironic sense) is that they seem to realize on some level that this is a pretty lame euphemism for what they're really talking about--slave owners, not to put too fine a point on it--for in their mission statement they put "planters" in quotation marks every time the word appears. So why not just call it what it is? It's the Sons and Daughters of Slave Owners Society.

They have posted on their website a list of ancestors who are pre-qualified, as it were (click on the tab that says "Ancestors"), and as a dyed-in-the-wool genealogy nerd, I couldn't resist reading it to see if any of my family's folk were on there. Not that I really expected to find any, mind you, because my family (direct lineage, at any rate) tended to be small farmers, and most of them didn't own slaves.

There are some founding fathers on the list, like Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and a few other names you might recognize, along with some Mayflower families. There are a few surnames on there that appear in the outermost branches of my genealogy, but none that jumped out at me as being direct ancestors, until I got nearly to the bottom, where I saw, to my horror, a fourth great-grandfather--to wit, one Reuben Nail.

A closer examination of the list against my genealogy database later revealed not one, but two Edwin Conways, my eighth and ninth great-grandfathers, so it seems I'm doubly qualified for membership.

Now, that's embarrassing.

Among the Sons and Daughters of Long-Dead Slave Owners' objectives are
"To study and apprecaite [sic] the rural and country life led by our ancestors in all of the original colonies and territories from which the 48 states of the continental United States are derived;
To inculcate true patriotism and a strict devotion to historical truth"
Well, they can't spell. That much is clear. (Reuben couldn't either, as he signed his Revolutionary War pension application with his mark.) And they don't know how to use spellcheck. So you have to wonder just exactly how accurate their version of history might be. Or maybe you don't: It's probably an easy guess that they believe in Black Confederates, that the war wasn't over slavery but States' Rights, and that the North started the war. I'd be willing to bet that they're every man jack of 'em unrepentant Lost Causers.

And I wonder, too, do they admit to membership the African-American descendants of these "planters" and the slaves who made that nice "rural and country life" (isn't that redundant, by the way?) possible by their labors? And while we're on that subject, Reuben's original stake appears to have been land taken from loyalists: Wonder, if I became a Daughter of the Defeated member, if I'd be rubbing elbows with descendants of those Englishmen who also contributed to my ancestors' life of leisure in the country?

No, wait. Of course not. Membership is "by invitation only". That's a time-honored Southern circumlocution for "Gentile Whites Only". In their case, it does double duty, for if they had to accept applications from all qualified Sons and Daughters of Dead Slave Owners, they couldn't consistently reject all the Brits and Blacks without jeopardizing their 501-c status.

Oh, yeah. Didn't I mention? They're a charitable organization! Chartered in (where else?) Texas. Of course, their "charity" so far seems to consist mainly of putting up plaques, benches, and statues in places that are already quite wealthy, like Callaway Plantation in South Georgia, a former working plantation still in the hands of the original owner family until very recently. It is now a sort of open-air museum where--wait for it--you can pick cotton. I am not making this up. 

And they have insignia!


Isn't it cute? It's a picture of The Big House! Probably not safe to wear out in public, though: too inflammatory.

All joking aside, I'm all for remembering the past, lest we be condemned to repeat it and all that, but celebrating an ancestor for the sole reason that s/he owned slaves? I don't think so. In fact, it embarrasses me no end that I might have cousins, no matter how distant, who do think so.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012


OK, so I got my first bits of feedback on my novel tonight. I read a scene from the middle of a chapter early in the book, one that is still basically in "first draft" status. It was scary not only because I've never done this before, but also because the passage contains the "n" word in several places, and this was a very noisy restaurant, so I was going to have to yell. And you know how that goes: You'll be yelling something, and all of a sudden, just before you say something awful, the whole place goes quiet. . .

That didn't happen. I did have to yell, and my dinner companions still had trouble hearing me. But when I was done, the woman next to me said, "Is that the beginning of your book? I  would definitely keep reading!" and I wanted to pump my fist. My friend Andi told me she couldn't believe I could write convincingly about something I had not experienced, and that was welcome confirmation that all this background reading I've been doing is paying off.

But best of all, really, they were asking questions about the characters and the situation that would be already established in the book by this time, but which were not clear from this excerpt. I was pleased to find myself coherently explaining things like the Fort Pillow massacre and the role of the USCT at the Crater. The first woman wanted to know something about the characters' backgrounds, and I explained that J.T. was a carpenter before the war, and Fanny was working as a housekeeper. She told me, "I thought so, from the way they spoke," and I knew I had nailed the dialogue!


Experienced writers, I am sure, take this stuff for granted. But not beginners like me. 

There was no critique--this group will not be good for that. But it was good for me to try a reading and not have everybody suddenly find excuses to leave the table, or perhaps worse, just sit there in dead silence. When I do hook up with a proper reading group and read for some criticism and suggestions, it won't be so scary.

Or so I'm hoping.

Friday, March 23, 2012

My First Reading

"TUESDAY" production sign"TUESDAY" production sign (Photo credit: Vaguely Artistic)A few months ago, my friend Andi invited me to drive up to Goin' Coastal in Canton for $20 lobster night and have dinner with her and three of her friends. Andi is a neuropsychologist and my consultant on head injuries and neurological disorders not only in my day job, but also for the novel and an unrelated short story I'm working on. Andi is the only woman I know who can discourse on decorticate Confederate soldiers and lobsters (something to do with humanely killing the latter without destroying the taste, right before they go into the pot) almost in the same breath.

Perhaps taking her consultant role a bit too seriously, she told everybody I'm writing a book (she's almost worse than Mr. Wood in that regard) and so of course the ladies all wanted to know all about it. Seems they've tried their hands at writing, too. I am practicing taking myself seriously as a writer, and so I was able to say a bit about it in an organized fashion and to make clear that it is little more than an idea at present without disrespecting it or myself. One of the women offered to be a beta reader, when it gets to that stage. I was thrilled. People have said they can't wait to read it, or would buy it when it's out, but I get few serious offers to read it. This was clearly a serious offer. So. Now I won't have to beg for readers. The lobsters arrived (presumably decorticated--none of us wanted to believe they'd been boiled alive), the conversation moved on to other things, and that was that.

Or so I thought.

This afternoon I got an e-mail from Andi saying they all wanted to do the dinner thing again, same place, same menu. And that her friend the beta reader suggested that we all bring some of our writing. I immediately began thinking of excuses to be on the west coast come Tuesday night (which would take some doing as I could, hypothetically speaking, barely manage bus fare to Atlanta). I rationalized my visceral reaction by reminding myself that better writers than me have advised against letting friends and family or writing groups see your work "too soon". Of course, I have no idea exactly when "too soon" is, or is not, but it was convenient to interpret it for my purposes as easily encompassing Tuesday.

But then I got to thinking about it. Maybe it's not such a bad idea. Maybe a scene or two, a snippet of dialogue, is ready for prime time. Hell, this could even be fun!
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