Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Rambling: A year of listening, observing and learning

Ken Rutherford on the Cross Keys (Va.) battlefield in the Shenandoah Valley.
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In rambling from Picacho Pass, Ariz., to Resaca, Ga., over the past year, I've focused on becoming a better listener. A better observer, too. Ah, what stories can be mined -- and what lasting connections can be made -- if you do. "If you make listening and observation your occupation," a smart person once said, "you will gain much more than you can by talk."

Here are people who have enriched my life over the past year:

On Father's Day weekend, Ken Rutherford and I toured the Cross Keys, Port Republic and Piedmont battlefields in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. We talked about the Civil War, football, life and his life-altering experience: In 1993, Dr. Rutherford, a professor at James Madison University, was critically injured in a landmine explosion in Somalia. His legs were amputated. Ken's tremendously inspiring. Read my Civil War Times column.

W.C. "Burr" Datz holds a copy of an old image of the creation of the Robert E. Lee sculpture behind him.
Moments after I pass through the white doors of Lee Chapel on the Washington and Lee University campus in Lexington, Va., docent W.C. "Burr" Datz springs into action. “Do you have 10 minutes?” the Long Island native asks from atop the stage. Datz, whose white beard gives him a passing resemblance to Robert E. Lee, is flanked by a large painting of George Washington to his right and one of Lee to his left. Next to him is the chapel's original wooden podium, a work of art that dates to 1868. Behind Datz is the main attraction: a small room that houses Edward Valentine's impressive memorial sculpture of the recumbent Lee. Read more.

Stan Hutson in the Slaughter Pen at Stones River (Tenn,) battlefield.
“It’s all gone,” Stan Hutson tells me, referring to core Stones River (Tenn.) battlefield. Remorseless developers have pounded the life out of much of this great battlefield, where more than 24,000 souls became casualties in one of the bloodiest fights of the Civil War. Our aim on this deep-blue sky afternoon is to find where five of them fought and received their mortal wounds. What would we see on this battlefield lost? Read my Civil War Times column.

Larry DeBerry at his relic shop near the Shiloh (Tenn.) battlefield.
Shortly after greeting a visitor at his small museum/shop near the Shiloh (Tenn.) battlefield, 72-year-old Larry DeBerry deploys a time-tested technique to win him over: He tells a great story. "See over there?" he says, gesturing to painted toy figurines that fill several shelves at Shiloh Battlefield Museum and Souvenirs. The longtime accountant tells how he acquired the massive set (from an elderly man in New Mexico) and points out figurines of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong ("look at that receding hairline") and a reviled Japanese World War II military commander (Hideki Tojo) whose name escapes him. Later, DeBerry hands me a very special gift. Read more.

Trapper Haskins founded a vintage baseball league -- it plays by 1864 rules -- in Middle Tennessee.
On the 157th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, I met Trapper Haskins at Duncan Field, scene of savage fighting in April 1862. The National Park Service granted permission for his Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball to play a doubleheader on the hallowed ground. In 2007, Haskins, a custom wood worker, was in Port Huron, Mich., working on a Gloucester schooner. At the local library, he saw a flyer for a vintage baseball team seeking players. He joined and was hooked. Read my story in America's Civil War magazine.

Along a wall at the H Clark Distillery in Thompson's Station, Tenn., site of the 1863 battle, sat a massive tub of brown liquid. Spent grain, it's called. A local farmer takes this waste product from the alcohol-making process and feeds it to his cows, a pleasing feast for the animals. “The cows love our bourbon mash,” Kim Peterson, the distillery's tour experience manager told me. "They come running for it. Then they just lay in the field, chilling.” She wants to shoot video of the cows enjoying the mostly alcohol-free slop someday. What a scene that must be. Read more.

At Point Park atop Lookout Mountain, Tenn., I briefly spoke with a group of Union reenactors portraying a Kentucky unit. The distinctive smell of burning firewood filled the air. Small talk led to a discussion of Civil War flags, which led to this image of Todd Watts of Nashville. The flag was a tremendous backdrop for a photo that was an exclamation point for a great day walking an awe-inspiring battlefield.

“Ladies and gentlemen, on our right is the oldest living fossil,” a reenactor said in jest about 83-year-old Jere McConnell at the reenactment at Resaca, Ga., in May. Jere sat by a tent eating a hamburger, giving visitors pointers in between bites. Wearing Federal blue pants and Confederate homespun, he told me he has reenacted for 30 or so years. What a distinctive face! Read my Civil War Times column.

And then there's 76-year-old Charles Garvin, a reenactor since 1962. He was chewing on the stubby remains of an unlit cigar at Resaca as we talked about his hobby. He made me laugh when he mentioned a reenactor who used to put moonshine in his canteen. “He put in some water," he told me, "to make it 100 proof.”

On the 2.5-mile trail at Fort Pillow (Tenn.), I met a terrific couple from Louisiana, Carolyn and Mike Goss from Bossier City. Carolyn's great-grandfather George "Washie" Johnson, who served in a Louisiana regiment, lost a leg at the Battle of Mansfield (La.) on April 8, 1864. He was probably only a teenager. After the war, "Washie" eventually turned to drinking and gambling. (He apparently had a fondness for slot machines.) Johnson also befriended a former slave named Dick Chaney, who was treated like a member of the family. When Chaney died, he was buried next to the Johnson family cemetery in Louisiana, outside the fence. Years later, Carolyn discovered the fence was extended around Chaney's grave. How cool. Read more.

No one on the planet knows more about the rich Civil War history of Culpeper County, Va., than Clark "Bud" Hall. No one is as passionate about saving hallowed ground there than the ex-FBI agent and former Marine. “Young Americans fought, bled, and died on our Civil War battlefields,” he told me, “and I profoundly believe we share a collective responsibility to secure and save these sacred fields.” Above, Hall leans against a pillar at Powhatan Robinson’s war-time home, “Struan.” It was used by Union Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren as a headquarters and by the Army of the Potomac as a hospital in the aftermath of the Battle of Morton Ford’s in early February 1864. Hall knows the 1840 house and its owner well; its expansive porch is a perfect place for a man with a full flask and an active imagination. Read my Civil War Times column.

As a steady rain sent many fans scattering for shelter in the bars at the NFL draft in Nashville in late April, David McCormick watched from behind the counter at Ernest Tubbs Record Shop. The 69-year-old Tennessee native has worked at the store since 1968, owned it since 1972. Outside the Lower Broadway landmark, a large sign proclaims “Real Country Music Lives Here. Our 72nd Year.” Inside, the aisles are filled with country music albums and memorabilia. "It’s a joy for me every day to meet people from all over the world who may find something here they want," McCormick said. Oh, man, I wish I asked him one more question: "Did you know your building was used as a Civil War hospital during the Union occupation?" Read my Yardbarker story.

Retired chimney sweep John Mack – you can call him “The Mad Hatter” -- aimed to persuade visitors at the Resaca reenactment to purchase replica coonskin caps. The 6th Alabama, the “Raccoon Roughs," wore them, he insisted. Years ago, Mack was passionate about the Revolutionary and French and Indian wars, leading an inquisitor to believe the caps with real raccoon tails may simply be, ah, re-purposed.

Melea Medders Tennant has lived on the Resaca (Ga.) battlefield most of her life. "I can’t tell you how many times I've been working, pulling weeds and [visitors] come by telling me about a great-great uncle or great-great granddaddy who fought here." Occasionally, Tennant gives them a bullet she found on the battlefield. Melea regrets not keeping a diary to document meetings with battlefield tourists. On a Saturday afternoon, Tennant took me to see the remains of embrasures for Captain Maximillian Van Den Corput's "Cherokee Battery" of four Napoleons (above). It used to be her family's property. Read more.

On a Sunday morning, Gary Burke and I stood on a graffiti-marred, modern overpass in South Nashville to view a seldom-seen railroad cut. It was there on Dec. 15, 1864, that Burke's ancestor and his comrades in the U.S. Colored Troops were caught “like pickles in a barrel” during the Battle of Nashville and routed by Confederates. Burke once sneaked into the cut — it’s about 10 feet deeper than it was during the war — because he wanted “to feel the fear that went through them.” Read my Civil War Times column.

At the Resaca reenactment, Robert Miller sat at table with a pile of his books on the 129th Illinois, his great-great grandfather's regiment. His ancestor was killed at the northwestern Georgia battlefield, less than a quarter-mile from where we talked on a blazing-hot Saturday. The 78-year-old retired computer programmer from Oklahoma enjoyed telling me about Private Joseph Peters of Company F. Miller eagerly agreed to be photographed holding a copy of an image of his ancestor. We shook hands as we parted. It was one of the firmest handshakes I can remember.

In the pre-dawn darkness in Plains Ga., Mayor Lynton Earl Godwin III – almost everyone calls him “Boze” -- talked about his friend, Jimmy Carter.  He has known the former president most of his life. “He has not forgot where he comes from,” the 75-year-old told me. “He hasn’t changed one bit.” How I got to Plains in the wee hours on Super Bowl Sunday was, well, a little odd. The day before in nearby Andersonville -- site of the notorious Civil War prison camp -- I stopped in a small antiques store. "Does President Carter still teach Sunday school in Plains?" I asked the lovely woman behind the counter. "He sure does," she told me. "You should go." I had nothing to wear but a sloppy sweatshirt and black sweat pants. It's OK, she said. And so I booked a room in Americus, got up super-early the next morning and ...

... attended a Sunday school lesson  with these nice folks.


Enjoy the journey.


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