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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

imagination

"A Scratch with the Rebels" -- The Inspiration

Where do baby books come from? I get a variation of this question at almost every talk I give. Readers want to know where or how their favorite authors come up with their stories.  At first, I found it easy to answer. I wrote "A Scratch with the Rebels" to tell the story of my great-uncle's Civil War regiment and their experiences.  Buet the full story is much more complicated.
 
My interest in James McCaskey started when I was only a child. I could remember seeing a  mysterious headstone that bore the name of my great-uncle James McCaskey, who was killed in the Civil War. It was only much later that i returned to Pennsylvania to learn more about him. After much searching, I found this marker in the same Pennsylvania cemetery where many of my other McCaskey ancestors are buried. It reads:

                                                                       James McCaskey
Born
April 12, 1839
Died
June 16, 1862
James Island, S.C.
 
Those details are all correct; the military action on James island was the Battle of Secessionville.  The problem is that the notification of his death says that his body was never found. The official records say that the Confederate troops buried the Union soldiers killed in the battle (some 509 of them) in unmarked graves on the battlefield. North Sewickley Cemetery records indicated that the headstone was placed in 1875, after Mrs. Jane McCaskey purchased three adjoining plots and ordered three matching stones — one for her recently deceased husband John, one for herself, and one for her missing eldest son James. A tombstone does not always equal a real burial, of course. Obviously, James's headstone marks an empty grave, a not uncommon phenomenon during a war that swallowed up so many young men on distant battlefields. The Grand Army of the Republic honors James McCaskey's service every Memorial Day by placing a flag on the grave site, but even their records stop short of stating that he is actually buried there.

 I learned more when I discovered in my mother’s attic a small packete of letters from Uncle James written during the war. James McCaskey was killed in the little-known Battle of Secessionville in June 1862.  I was moved by the letter of notification written by his commanding lieutenant -- and particularly touched when I realized that on that letter the blotches were caused by someone's teardrops that had made the ink run.
 
The letter that really got my attention, however, was written by a fellow soldier who described the experience of the battle in a letter to his sister.  It was full of bravado -- almost exhilaration -- as he talked about those who had been wounded or killed.  He said things like, ""Not me! I didn't duck, neither.  I stood up cause I wanted to see where the bullets was comin' from." For a long time I couldn't understand why the sister had passed this letter on to James's parents.  It didn't feel comforting to me.  It seemed almost heartless, as if the neighbor had thoroughly enjoyed his experience.
 
In one way or another, I've been working through those conflicting emotions of cockiness and grief ever since. They led me to explore the Civil War holdings of several local libraries and genealogical societies in western Pennsylvania and in South Carolina. I discovered one treasure trove of artifacts at Penn State, and another at the at the US Army Military History institute. Each one took me deeper into the story.  It took me twenty-five years to get it all down on paper.

 

What's That Noise?

Let me set the scene.  It's a rainy Sunday morning -- early -- as in before 10:00 AM. I haven't even turned on the TV, so it's very quiet. (And note: I'm getting more than a little deaf, so I'm used to a quiet world). My condo unit is at the back of the building, facing a row of tall and bushy cedars and junipers, which make fine insulation against the sounds from the street on the other side.

I'm alone in the house, except for the four cats, who were last seen still sleeping on top of the bedspread. (Note #2: Being alone in the house does not spook me, ever. I'm used to it now, and most of the time, I actually enjoy it.)

I do not hear phantom noises. Just the other day, my next-door neighbor was complaining that the yard men never trim her shrubbery away from the house. As a result, she hears the branches scratching against her window every night. "Doesn't it bother you?" she asked. "It always sounds to me as if someone is trying to remove the window screen."  Then she cocked her head and said, "Oh, you don't even hear it?"  She was right. I don't. But even if I did, I don't think I would imagine a prowler at my window screen. We're talking holly bushes here -- those with the stiff and prickly leaves. I wouldn't venture in amongst them for any reason short of a life or death emergency.

And yet, there's a noise. I can't tell where it's coming from. (That's another consequence of going deaf, I've discovered.)  It's a crackling noise -- not spaced out at regular intervals, but random -- the kind that make you wait, holding your breath, for the next one to come -- or not. My imagination -- used to coming up with logical explanations for most of the world's phenomena -- plays around the possibilities.

Fire? Possible, but it doesn't really sound like that kind of crackle. Besides, fire implies smoke, and there's nothing wrong with my nose. I'd smell a fire before I heard one.

Electrical sparking from wiring inside the wall? No, the smell argument still applies. There's no mistaking an electrical fire.

An anode tube getting ready to burn out? Oh, that one reveals my age! TVs and computers now run on circuit boards, not tubes. Even the so-called "lightbulbs" in this room are really full of florescent gas, not crackly wires.

A mouse? No way. Not in a house full of cats.  I can't even wiggle a toe under the bedclothes without somebody pouncing on it.

At last I look behind the desk, feeling more than a little silly at my nervousness. And lo, there is a cat back there -- a big, orange, 20-pounder -- and he's crouched over something, growling at it. I imagine a rat, a lizard, a snake, a huge palmetto bug, maybe even the chipmunk who lives on our porch.

Very cautiously I nudge the cat away with the toe of my shoe, thinking that if it's a snake, my bare ankle is a goner. And what do I find?

Bubble wrap!