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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

August 2015

Do You Remember What the Civil War Accomplished?

I’m not usually a big believer in the theory that history repeats itself, but today — hoo, boy! —I’m overwhelmed with a sense of déjà vu.

I have been spending many of my waking hours this week on a line-by-line, word-by-word, comma-by-comma review of the first-pass edit of my WIP, “Yankee Reconstructed.” This is the stage at which my editor often catches the little mistakes that creep in over the months-long process of writing a novel.  Simple errors, like a change of names or eye-color, are easy to correct.  Consistency in capturing attitudes from 150 years ago is more difficult to handle.

My new book covers the 10 to 15 year period immediately after the Civil War, known to historians (and the people living through it) as Reconstruction.  Highlights of that first ten years include the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which established the basis for all of the following civil rights legislation up to the present day. So I’ve been carefully examining what my characters have to say about those amendments — both pro and con — and particularly, the 14th Amendment, which says:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

This morning I opened my Yahoo! home page to check my e-mail, and the first sentence to hit my eye declared that Donald Trump says, “The 14th Amendment is unconstitutional.”  

Really?  Has he no understanding of constitutional law and what it takes to make a change in that constitution? Do his followers have no understanding of the struggle for civil rights that has gone on for 150 years? Has there been no moral progress on this issue in the past 150 years?

I do not wish to ignite or engage in a political argument here in my blog, and I will not publish comments on this post. However, I return to my editing with an even stronger conviction that modern readers need to learn more about what went on in this country immediately after the Civil War.

Someone once asked me if I really believed that people should take time to read history-based books about events that took place long ago. Oh, yeah!

A Chair for the Devil Is More Fun than Editing a Book Manuscript

Yes, the first sections of my Work-in-Progress (hereafter known as WIP) have started to come back from the editor. Now we start a lengthy process, in which she points out inconsistencies or logical errors and I try to worm my way out of the difficulty by re-writing.  We'll also be involved in lengthy debates about Oxford commas, the number of dots in an ellipsis, and the purpose of a colon. I'm averaging about 15 to 20 pages a day, so this is a lengthy process. And while I'm thus occupied for most of every day, I thought I'd entertain you with some bits and pieces of family legend destined one day to make their way into another book.

The first one has to do with an interesting piece of furniture.



This chair was hand-carved in Ohio in 1905.  My Uncle Frank Connor gave it to his wife Lola as a wedding gift. It's called The Devil Chair, and it came with explicit instructions. It must sit in the living room, facing a window.

Why? Because if the Devil comes by, he'll look in that window, see the chair, think there's already a devil living in your house, and he'll go elsewhere.

















Can you see the face in this close-up? Find the eyes first, and then the rest -- a flat nose, a sneering mouth with huge fangs, a stylized beard, and elaborate curving horns -- all appear.
 

I grew up being terrified of that chair. When we visited, I couldn't take my eyes off of it for fear the Devil would jump out. So what did Aunt Lola leave me in her will? Naturally, the Devil chair! And yes, it  sits in my living room facing the window. I've owned it for 55 years, and, so far,  it seems to have worked! 

Pictures Can Be More Powerful than Words



Pictures can be more powerful than words? As a writer, I don't often agree with that statement, but there are always exceptions, and this particular photo caught my attention over the weekend.  It's our wedding portrait, of course, which already makes it special, but most of the time, I focus on Floyd and me -- how young we were, how sure of ourselves and our plans, how excited to be setting off on our Air Force adventure. I can look at this picture and know how happy I was, and the look on Floyd's face reminds me that he was  saying, "Can we just get on with it so we can get out of here?"

This time, however, I looked at the family, and i saw things I didn't know -- or recognize -- way back on December 17, 1960. Take a look at Floyd's folks, first. I can now almost see their jaws clenching. They were being polite and charming, but I was not the daughter-in-law they had envisioned. They hoped for a good little Catholic girl. (That's  a Methodist church we're in.) And they wanted a homebody, someone who would persuade their son that this idea of making a career out of the Air Force was a bad idea. (With a career Marine brother giving me away, I could hardly wait to see how far away the Air Force would take us.) His mother's expression, particularly, tells me that while she had accepted the inevitable,  she was thinking that she didn't have to like it.

Then there's my side of the family. My mother, first. Wow! I have complicated memories of her. We didn't agree on much, and the strains of planning a wedding had not helped our relationship. But I see a whole lot now that I didn't understand then. My attention first went to noticing how thin she was that night, compared to how I usually remember her. Then it hit me. My father had died just two years earlier, so she was still a relatively new widow. (Only now, in my own new widowhood do I recognize that thinness as a symptom of grief.) And then I see how desperately sad she looked. Brave -- holding her chin up -- but about to lose her only daughter, just as she had lost her husband and her only son -- to places far away. She had promised me a beautiful wedding, and she fulfilled that promise, but it must have come at a terrible price.

And then, of course, there's Brother Jack, whose photos had brought me to this one.  Here he looks absolutely haunted, and so he was. He had hitchhiked from El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in California, just to be there to walk me down the aisle. But with him he brought heavy burdens -- another horrible war experience in Korea, standing as a witness to the hydrogen bomb tests at Eniwetok (with the dangers that exposure had meant), a wife with thyroid cancer, two little girls (ages 8 and 12) who might have to be raised without a mother, and, of course, the undiagnosed PTSD that left him with nightmares and raging alcoholism.

I understood none of those things that night, and perhaps it was a good thing that I did not. But it's also a good thing that the picture serves to broaden my understanding now.


The Marine in My Life -- Staff Sergeant Jack McCaskey Kerner

A folder on my desktop holds the genealogical research I’ve done on my mother’s family.  She was the youngest of eight girls in a family not far-removed from pioneer status in the hills of western Pennsylvania.  Her father was six years old at the start of the Civil War and died at the beginning of the 20 century, leaving his German immigrant wife to manage the farm and family. Their mother floundered under the need to provide for those girls, and the sisters themselves chose eight very different paths to survival. Their stories are the stuff of novels but they are in danger of being lost through time.  With the exception of one male cousin, I am the last surviving member of a generation – the children of the sisters.  Moreover, I’m the only one who knew 5 of the 8 sisters and all of their children. If I don’t attempt to tell their stories, no one else will be able to do so.

I've always been fascinated by their lives, but have been hesitant to write something that would offend family members.  Now I've decided that a fictionalized version will work -- with enough details changed (and the names, of course ) so that folks won't be finding grandma's dirty laundry being hung about.

And with that thought in mind, I've been exploring old family photos and scanning them into my computer for guidance and inspiration.  Some were taken in my own lifetime, but most go back well over 100 years.  Today's treasure trove of photographs contained several pictures of my half-brother.  He was 21 years older than me, so we didn't have that usual sibling relationship that stems from common experiences growing up. 

In fact, World War II saw to it that we were living half a world apart.  I was under two years old at the time of Pearl Harbor, but my very first clear memory is of Jack bounding up the stairs from the basement door to tell us that he had just enlisted in the Marine Corps.  It was December, 1941, and by the first of the year he was off to basic training, and then (I know now)  he was thrust into the Battle of Guadalcanal.  My mother spent the next three years in daily torment, waiting for letters and praying that no solemn men in uniform would knock on our door.

Then comes another clear memory, this one at the beginning of 1945. The radio and newspapers were full of horror stories of the Battle of Iwo Jima, and we knew that Jack's unit was probably there. But his enlistment was up, and my mother clung to the hope he would be home.  The Iwo Jima battle raged through February and was not declared a victory until March 26th.  Then, on Friday, March 30, 1945, the phone rang. Jack was on his way home.  He made it in time for Easter Sunday, and today's photographs brought that day to life for me.

How thin he was, but still jaunty in his dress blues.  And these two tiny photos are too formal to reveal what a homecoming it was. It was joyful, and overwhelming, and also full of terror for the struggles that lay ahead for the Marine in my life.They are enough, however, to set me once again traveling through these memories to somehow tell my family's stories before they are lost forever.


Monkeyshines and Shenanigans

For those of you who have wondered whatever happened to the monkey who escaped from the zoo and kept Memphis enthralled for days, here's the latest report, shared from the Commercial Appeal:


Zimm, a 3-year-old Sulawesi macaque, remains behind the scenes after her July 9 escape from her enclosure at the Memphis Zoo. The entire exhibit is still closed to the public; she and her zoomates are together in the “night house.”A recent report gives new details on how the monkey was able to escape her enclosure and on efforts to capture her.

After the escape, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums assessed Zimm’s exhibit and similar ones, which is standard, said Angie Whitfield, director of marketing and communications at the Memphis Zoo.Zimm maneuvered through two security measures: a “hot-wire” and an inverted incline on the back wall of the exhibit. Zimm scaled the back wall, constructed of large gunite stone blocks.

“The grout lines between the blocks were recessed allowing the monkey to grip the stone edges and traverse horizontally over her moat and out of the exhibit,” the report said.The report notes that this is the first instance of an animal escaping the 20-year-old enclosure.Senior veterinarian Felicia Knightly hit one of Zimm’s hind legs with a tranquilizing dart, but the drug did not sedate her.

Zimm then managed to climb the fence and jump into the drainage ditch, despite staffers on the other side. She ran about 75 yards into a culvert that drains stormwater from the zoo’s Northwest Passage and Teton Trek exhibits, according to the report.

The report states from there, zoo staff left the monkey with a trap baited with fruit and closed the culvert opening with wire mesh while checking the blueprints of the culvert. Zimm had access to at least a mile of underground pipes, and the only way out was the way she came in.

When Zimm responded to the bait, staff took her to the vet where she was “immobilized and thoroughly examined,” according to the report.Whitfield said one solution from the AZA includes sending Zimm, the only one of her kind here, to another zoo. She said it is common for zoos to discuss transporting animals to new facilities regardless of the situation.

In addition to the AZA, the USDA also performed an inspection, which Whitfield said was a standard procedure. A repair to the entire exhibit’s grout lines began July 16.Whitfield said reports are complete, but zoo officials are not awaiting anyone’s permission to release the animals back into the enclosure.“She’s still having interaction with other animals,” she said of Zimm

. “Internally, we’re trying to find what the next best steps are for her.”Zoo spokeswoman Laura Doty said no date has been set to bring Zimm and the other animals in the exhibit back on display, but that everyone will know when she returns.