Monday, July 18, 2016

From Battlefield to Park

While I was in the east I visited  Civil War battlefields near Richmond, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness and Antietam.  I am drawn to these places in part because I was a soldier and in part by fascination with history.  I first visited the battlefields around Richmond in the 70's when I wanted solitude and a short drive.  I went for the for solitude but spent much of my time there reflecting on what happened on those battlefields and comparing my own combat experience.  Despite the terrible violence those places endured, they are now at peace.  I find comfort and hope in that transition. 

On this trip I found history at all three battlefields, solitude at Richmond, commercial development around Chancellorsville and The Wilderness, and complete restoration at Antietam.  And at each place I could not escape the scale of the fighting and was eternally thankful that my experience was nothing like the meat-grinder slaughter of the Civil War.

Greg Moser and I went out to Fort Harrison and Malvern Hill south of Richmond on a cloudy drizzly day.  Originally part of the Confederate defenses around the capitol, Fort Harrison fell to Union forces in September 1864.  Walking the interior of the fort amid the remains of earthen walls and artillery positions looking into the woods that have filled in their fields of fire in the past century-and-a-half seemed claustrophobic in the muted afternoon light.  Malvern Hill was much more open--deadly open to the Confederate troops that charged into well-placed Union artillery on the high ground in what was the last of the the Seven Days Battles in 1862. Looking down the barrel of a Union cannon into an open field of charging Confederates  was a stark reminder of war's grim efficiency.

My visit to Chancellorsville and The Wilderness was mostly a drive-thru on my way to Elizabeth Furnace.  I stopped at the Chancellorsville visitor center on Virginia Route 3.  Traffic all the way out from Fredericksburg was heavy through a sea of big box and strip mall development.  I was happy to turn into the calm of the visitor center for a lunch break.  Since I was short on time I palnned to get out and walk at The Wilderness but missed the turn-off and did not backtrack.  What the visit demonstrated to me was the extent to which Virginia was contested land.  Chancellorsville happened in 1863 and is regarded as Lee's greatest victory.  The Wilderness was a year later and was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.  I saw the same cycle in Richmond where Confederate victories early in the war were matched with defeats in subsequent years.

Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland is not a place to find solitude.  Lots of people were there on a Friday afternoon in June when I visited on my way north out of Virginia .  Pat Doyle came over from Frederick, Maryland and joined me for the visit.  While waiting for him I attended an orientation.  The walls on three sides of the room were floor to ceiling windows that offered a view of  virtually the entire battlefield.  The view added to what was a well-informed and lively presentation by a young ranger.  He knew the history of the battle and the larger campaign, what the commanders where thinking and trying to accomplish, and what happened when those plans collided.  In that room, the ranger could walk from side to side, point and say this happened there, that occurred over there and explain the errors and plain good luck that happened throughout the battle.  And we could see the places he was talking about.  The orieintaion offered a good understanding of events that gave meaning to the detail we would later see throughout the battlefield.

Our tour was mostly by car but we were out and walking at various sites.  The day was sunny and hot, unlike the day of the battle which is reported as cloudy and dreary.  Our conversations varied, much of the time we spent visualizing a very different landscape than the one we were viewing.  Instead of the few odd tourists at pull-outs, thousands of men contended here in desperate combat.  The Antietam battlefield has been restored to its condition on September 17, 1862 so the landscape we viewed was as it appeared on the morning of the battle.  All very peaceful, very neat.  Not at all how it appeared that evening, strewn with the carnage of America's bloodiest day.  These days the landscape is strewn with monuments and memorials to the units that fought here.  I saw many for units from my family's native state, Pennsylvania.  Often Confederate and Union memorials were on either side of a road marking what had been the epicenter of one part of the battle.  One notable memorial is for Clara Barton who tended casualties here.

We finished up at Antietam National Cemetary.  Union battle dead are buried here in honored glory along with a few interments from later wars.  The centerpiece statue has what appears to be a correction or maybe repair:  a white stone insert that adds the numbers 6 and 2 to the date of the battle.   By the time we returned to the visitor center it was closed and most everyone was gone.  The day's heat was beginning to break and the light had softened.  Good news for me as I headed west to Cumberland, Maryland.

A visit to a battlefield park is a sobering experience for me.  Sure it's a park--peaceful, orderly, usually interesting, often quiet, generations removed from the day of battle.  But the place is infused with the presence of men who fought and died in that place.  Their presence comes with every visualization and remembrance of the event.  Lincoln's words at Gettysburg apply here, too:  the soldiers have consecrated these places.

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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Ambush in Nice

"After the slaughter in Nice, are we safe anywhere?"

The headline, as intended, caught my attention.  My immediate answer "No we aren't safe anywhere."  As long as people are sufficiently warped to want to kill other people and the means are available, sooner or later the killers succeed.

That fatalism comes to me from jungle patrol in Vietnam.  We knew there were people out there who wanted to kill us and we more or less expected it even as we hoped to just luck out.  The world seems to feel the same these days.  Whenever I hear of a mass murder I always think of the victims being ambushed in the course of what used to be normal life. 

In infantry school we were taught how to respond to an ambush.  The first lesson was that if you know that you are being ambushed, the enemy has missed its best chance to kill you.  If you were in the killing zone, you would already be dead.  Second, the last thing the ambusher expects is for the his targets to attack.  He wants you pinned down so he can get another chance to kill more of you.  Charging the ambushers is your best bet for staying alive.  End of lesson.

A simple lesson. 

If it were only that simple.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2016


From late April to the beginning of July I was on the road driving from Olympia to Virginia and other points east.  Between the hustle of the trip and erratic internet access, I found little time or opportunity to post here.  I wrote each day in my journal but none of those thoughts made it online, so they don't truly exist in today's world.  Now that I am home, some of those thoughts are likely to show up here.  I guess I could post on Facebook but that medium doesn't seem to be the right place for extended thought and commentary.  That leaves this humble blog as my best bet.  Blogwhore that I am, I will, of course, link here from the Book of Faces

My trip's purpose was to spend some extended time with my long-time friend Peyton and see other friends and family in in between.  This would be the second longest time spent in in Virginia since moving away 34 years ago.  I was in Virginia for six weeks hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2002 but most of that time was spent on the trail.  This time around the whole point of the trip was to see and spend time with people I've been close to throughout my entire adult life. 

That I did despite Peyton suffering a stroke about a month before I departed.  By the time I arrived, he regained most of his lost capabilities but was still weak.  We did not canoe the James River as originally planned but kept ourselves occupied.  I did a lot of just hanging out at his peaceful rural nine acres in Nelson County, walked the wooded property, read the Washington Post actual newspaper (which is much better than it's website), hiked on the Blue Ridge Railroad Trail (which Peyton helped build), hauled trash, cleaned out a drainage ditch, and pet dogs.  During my time there, my brother came up from Atlanta with an extra bike for me and we did a couple of nice rides in the Shenandoah Valley.  One day in June Peyton and I spent the day handing out cold beer, soda and water along with various sugar and fat-laden treats to Appalachian Trail hikers where the trail crosses Virginia Route 56.

So as not to be an extended house guest, I made forays to Richmond and other parts of Virginia, enjoying the company and hospitality of other good friends.  Richmond in 2016 is very different from the city I left in 1982.  The James River Park system is much expanded with access to Belle Isle.  Warehouses and shuttered factories are becoming condominums and craft breweries or distilleries.  One friend who was colleague and a frequent hiking partner has a house on the Mattaponi River northest of Richmond and hosted a cook-out attended by many of my former colleagues.  Most are retired.  At least one's still working.  We've all changed a lot over the years. We were much younger when I left Richmond.

Even the Civil War battlefields have changed.  The Park Service has acquired new acreage to protect more of the sites and the interpretation is much more inclusive (i.e., African-Americans and Union perspectives in addition to what had always been Confederate-centric.  The National Battlefield Visitor Center is located on the site and remaining buildings of the Tredegar Iron Works which served as the primary iron and artillery production facility for the Confederacy.  When I went to that site in the late 70's, I found it completely overgrown and fenced off.  These days the site is very accessible and busy.  It even includes a statue of Lincoln and his son.

Along with friends from work I also caught up with friends from the Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club in Richmond.  We hiked along the James River floodwall where we watched ospreys circling above the swift-moving water and saw the restored canal locks at Rocketts Landing.  Like the Tredegar, the locks were not part of anything Richmond paid attention to.  One of the friends I saw was the leader of my first club hike (where I met three of the friends I visited on this trip).  He was 58 then and could outhike any of us 30-somethings.  These days he's 94 and still going, although more slowly.  Another friend is in his early 80's and has completed most of a cross country walk.  He plans to finish next year.

Not all of the hiking club friends were in Richmond.  I traveled to Harrisonburg, Virginia, met two others and we headed to a third hiker's place in Sugar Knob, West Virginia.  We spent a fine evening talking and just taking in the solitude.  The following day we did a short hike to the High Knob fire tower and along the ridge before calling it quits in the rain.  Heading back to Nelson County I followed Skyline Drive through Shenandoah Park to Rockfish Gap where I picked up the Blue Ridge Parkway and followed it to Reids Gap, one my most special places.

Two weeks later I joined one of those friends on an Appalachian Trail work trip.  She maintains a section of the trail in Shenandoah National Park.  She, a club member who came down from the DC suburbs, another woman and I spent about three hours weed-whacking and mowing sections of the trail on a hot, humid day followed by a picnic lunch in the shade and another three hours of conversation.

In late May, I spent two days camping at Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area west of Front Royal, Virginia.  The recreation area is located in Fort Valley which bisects northern end of the Massanutten Mountain.  I first hiked and camped there in the summer of 1972 after returning from Vietnam.   The valley was secluded, mostly farm and pasture along Passage Creek and national forest on the slopes and ridgelines.  It was a welcome refuge then and I was pleased to see that the valley has changed little since then.  I saw a new house here and there and what had been a crossroad in the valley now has only one business, altough the buildings remain.  I hiked a short distance on the Signal Knob Trail but spent much of the time just watching the light filter through the trees and listening to the creek flow.

 There's more to this story--the trip out, the trip back, the week between leaving Virginia and finally heading home--but this is probably enough for now.  I'll leave those stories for another post.

One item goes without saying but I will say thank you to all the friends who shared their homes and time with me.   Our time together was the whole point of the trip and reminds me that I am a very lucky man.

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Monday, April 04, 2016

An Observation

Mock Paper Scissors has a good take on Booman's thoughts about a NYT opinion piece about why Donald Trump will not break the Republican Party.  All are worth reading.

Booman concludes, "It’s simply not true that the Republicans can hold together indefinitely under this kind of pressure. I believe the proof of this is what we’re all witnessing right now."

We can hope.

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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter 2016

Easter 1916


I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.


That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse.
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vain-glorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.


Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter, seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute change.
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim;
And a horse plashes within it
Where long-legged moor-hens dive
And hens to moor-cocks call.
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.


Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death.
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse --
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

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Saturday, March 26, 2016

To Caucus We Go

Today is caucus day in Washington. Not only do I get to participate but I need only walk across the street to do so. Can’t get much more democratic and local than that. And yet we will be declaring our choices for President of the US. Right in our own neighborhood.

I will go to support Bernie Sanders whom I have admired since I first learned of him as the socialist mayor of Burlington and followed his career as Vermont’s sole representative in the House of Representatives and US Senator. I liked him last summer when he declared to run for president as a Democrat. To me that is Bernie using the opportunity available to take his ideas to a wider audience. At that point, all I expected was a valiant attempt to include human values into a what has become corporate party. The resulting campaign has achieved that far beyond what I expected. 

Win or lose the nomination, Sanders has demonstrated strong support—over 40 percent of chosen (not super) delegates—for his ideas and has stirred the political consciousness of a new generation of voters, those who will live to see the future consequences of the decisions we make today. If Clinton comes to the convention with the enough delegates to secure the party’s nomination, she and the Democratic establishment would be wise not to ignore Sanders’ delegates and ideas.

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Soldier's Tale

Listening to Folk Alley this morning I heard Tim O'Brien's version of "Mick Ryan's Lament", an account of one of the American dead at Little Bighorn.  I had not heard the song before.  The tune is a familiar one--a traditional Irish drinking song -that was adopted as the marching song by various British and American military units, most notably George Custer's 7th Cavalry.  I also recognized the tune's name--"Garryowen".  Garryown was the official tune of the 1st Cavalry Division in which I served in Vietnam.  The division adopted the tune when it was created to consolidate Army cavalry units in 1921.  When the Division left Vietnam in March 1971 it left a separate brigade in Vietnam.  The brigade included one battalion of the 7th Cavalry regiment along with one battalion each from the 5th, 8th (mine) and 12 Cavalry regiments.  The brigade was called the Garryowen Task Force and I saw that name used in various descriptions.

At the time I did not know that "Garryowen" was an official division tune so I thought it unfair to just bundle the other cavalry regiments under the rubric of the 7th Cavalry which incorporated Garryowen into its insignia.  Of course, that was a minor irritation in a war zone and my concern was fleeting.  It did, however, imprint "Garryowen" on my brain so I was all ears when I heard the melody this morning.

"Mick Ryan's Lament" is especially moving for me because the lyrics reflect my own experience in Vietnam.  Like Mick Ryan I was fighting people who were fighting for their homeland.  Like him I "turned into something I hated."  Unlike Ryan I was not killed and carry that memory.  I did not need the song to recall the memory but when the song recalled it, the memory hit hard.

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