Thursday, August 11, 2022

A slow-motion look at a vintage baseball game at-bat


A Nashville Maroons player in the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball belts the “onion” — the baseball — to right-center during a game at Bicentennial Park in Nashville. Read my story in America's Civil War magazine about my playing experience in the association.

Thursday, August 04, 2022

'Incredible bravery': A visit to New Market Heights (Va.)


Tim Talbott stands by Four Mile Creek, an obstacle for the USCT on Sept. 29, 1864.

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Dripping with sweat on a sweltering Virginia morning, I trudge behind Tim Talbott deep into the woods, a half-dozen or so miles south of Richmond. In the distance, traffic drones on the interstate. But it seems like we’re in another world.

Talbott's T-shirt, drenched in sweat, features a copy
of a painting of a USCT soldier.
“Is this remote enough for you?” says Talbott, the 52-year-old chief administrative officer for the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust. We are tramping upon the New Market Heights battlefield, where, on Sept. 29, 1864, 14 U.S. Colored Troops and two of their white officers earned the Medal of Honor for valor.

Days before I set up my visit to Virginia, Talbott messaged me about New Market Heights: “It’s always an honor to be on that ground.” But this important battle gets stiff-armed in the history books.

Talbott grew up in Madison, Ind., a stop on the Underground Railroad—the network escaped slaves used to flee to free states and Canada. He has a deep interest in the experiences of Black people during the Civil War. The wallpaper on his phone is of Frederick Douglass, the famous orator, abolitionist, writer, and reformer. The copy of the painting on his maroon T-shirt, drenched in sweat, is of a one-legged USCT soldier on crutches. New Market Heights is his favorite battlefield.

During our nearly two-hour trek, Talbott and I examine the remains of earthworks of the famed Texas Brigade, swat away spider webs and mayflies, battle briars, remain wary of ticks, and explore Four Mile Creek—a major obstacle for the USCT as they advanced under withering fire toward the Rebel works. The USCT eventually forced the Confederates to abandon their line.

“Incredible bravery,” Talbott says of the Black soldiers at New Market Heights.

For more, read my book, A Civil War Road Trip of a Lifetime, coming soon.

Remains of earthworks constructed by the Texas Brigade
Tim Talbott navigates a path deep in the woods.

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Thursday, July 28, 2022

I love 'witness trees.' Plus, a true story about one in Nashville!

Sid Champion V, a great dude, at Champion Hill (Miss.) battlefield

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Mrs. B loves Civil War "witness" trees. So if you'd like to send me a hunk to add to my collection in the garage … 😁

True story: After a violent storm in Nashville, I noticed limbs from the witness tree scattered about. So, I called a friend, a lawyer and longtime relic hunter. My friend called the property owner, who let us inspect fallen limbs during a tree trimming.

“You get this one,” my friend told me. Several waves of his metal detector had determined no wartime metal embedded in my hunk.

Then he had five or six other large hunks of witness tree hauled away. A few waves of his magic wand over them indicated the presence of… well… something inside each.

Weeks later, he had the hunks X-rayed at his veterinarian, expecting the things to “light up like a Christmas tree” with battle relics. The result: Zip. My friend looked like his dog had just died. One of my hunks, probably filled with wartime lead, still rests in my garage.

In this post are a few of my favorite witness trees.

Let’s keep history alive. 👊

Nashville: Granny White Pike, on old Lea Farm
Antietam: Burnside Bridge
Antietam: West Woods. This one is probably gone.
Fisher's Hill (Va.) battlefield. Magnificent.
Nashville: Secret location
Nashville; This one toppled in storm. My brother-in-law Nels gives perspective.

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Thursday, July 21, 2022

5 minutes at grave of Confederate Lt. general John Pemberton


Born in Philadelphia to a prominent family, John Pemberton married a Virginia woman named Martha Thompson in 1848, and lived in the South before the Civil War. A captain in the regular army when the war began, the West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran marched his troops to Washington, resigned his commission, and joined the Confederate army in 1861. Pemberton became infamous in the Confederacy for surrendering Vicksburg, Miss., on July 4, 1863. He died on July 13, 1881, and was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadealphia. Read more on my blog here.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Faceoff: 'Sledge of Nashville' vs. 'Wizard of the Saddle'



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At the excellent Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, Union General George Thomas, a Virginian and West Pointer who remained loyal to the United States, faces off against Rebel cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, a post-war KKK member and notorious slave trader. The life-sized painting of Thomas is something to behold. In July 2021, the bronze bust of Forrest was removed from the Tennessee State Capitol. The removal of Forrest followed years of protests and pressure by activists. In the summer of 2020, Gov. Bill Lee declared it was time for the bust to go. 

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Thursday, July 07, 2022

Then & Now: Preservation at Cold Harbor (Va.) crossroads

Cropped enlargement of June 1864 image by Timothy O'Sullivan (Library of Congress)

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I recently spent time reporting in Mechanicsville, Va., for a Cold Harbor-related story. It was good to see the American Battlefield Trust had purchased the site of one of the taverns that once stood at the Cold Harbor crossroads. A post-war structure already has been demolished. Two inns stood at the crossroads in 1864—one photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan on June 4, 1864. It was run by W.P. Burnett. The “Now” image shows that site, although not from the same angle as O'Sullivan's. Here’s an ABT video about the inn. I counted 15 soldiers in this cropped enlargement of the O'Sullivan image, which you can click on to enlarge further:
 


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Thursday, June 30, 2022

Then & Now: Deep Bottom Landing (Va.) at James River

1865 image of Deep Bottom Landing pontoon (Andrew Russell | Library of Congress)
Present-day view of the site, a popular fishing spot.

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After the Battle of Cold Harbor in June 1864, Ulysses Grant had Benjamin Butler place a small force from his Army of the James here at Deep Bottom Landing to protect the pontoon bridge that allowed Union forces to cross the James River. It’s an important but seldom-visited spot. Apparently it’s a good place to fish. The site is south of seldom-visited Fort Harrison, Confederate defenses south of Richmond. A fabulous bike trail nearby. I’ll be back.
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Thursday, June 23, 2022

'Are you Union?': My first ghostly adventure in Gettysburg

Weirdness at the Sachs Covered Bridge
Your adventurous blogger

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So I went on a paranormal adventure in Gettysburg over the weekend, words I never in the history of ever expected to type. It was a night of spirit meters, ectoplasm, EVP recorders, and a bump in the night on the Sachs Covered Bridge at 12:03 a.m., which is roughly five hours past my usual bedtime.

Oh, that bump in the night isn’t what you think. It was merely a Rem Pod placed on the bridge to detect spirits. You can get one of those merry-go-round-like thingies online if you are interested, according to Hayden, the dude from an after-hours paranormal place in town.

A Rem Pod used to detect ghosts.
At the bridge, things kind of got weird, and that was long before I met a woman from Ohio named Janet (completely sober), whom I observed holding a sticklike thing and asking the spirits at the bridge:

“Are you Union?”

“Are you Confederate?”

I was told that a Sachs Covered Bridge spirit nicknamed “Tennessee” will smoke your cigarette if you leave one on the railing. I got a chill just writing that sentence, and I don’t even smoke.

Our lead investigator told me of a soldier ghost she spotted on the Baltimore Pike one night after her shift at the Dairy Queen. So, I clutched the steering wheel extra-hard and kept my eyes peeled on the drive back to my hotel. Don’t worry, Mrs. B. All is well.

Much more on this adventure in my book, coming soon. 🙏

Let’s keep history alive. 👊

A skirmish was fought here near the McCurdy Schoolhouse. But I detected no ghosts.
A device used to detect spirits.


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Thursday, June 16, 2022

An adventure near the Big Black River in Mississippi

The muddy Big Black River.

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On a recent adventure with the inimitable Sid Champion V, we stopped to admire the mighty and muddy Big Black, near where Ulysses Grant pummeled John Pemberton on May 17, 1863. The Union victory led to the 47-day siege of Vicksburg. You can still see the foundation stones of a destroyed wartime bridge in the water.

Champion, as he often does, told a story. He was giving a Civil War tour here to a husband and wife. From a spot above the river, far from the slow-moving Big Black, the woman spotted an alligator, ran to car, and locked herself in.

“No alligator is gonna chase her up here!” Champion scoffed.

This backwoods adventure also included me shooting of a photo of a huge “witness tree” in someone’s front yard, examination of ground where Yankee artillery killed Confederate General Lloyd Tilghman, and a brief side trip to the restored wartime Coker house.

I think we also passed a chicken processing plant and talked about squirrel hunting and squirrel brains.

Let’s keep history alive. 👊 | For more, read my book, coming soon. 🙏

Witness tree on Smith Station Road.
Restored Coker house, a wartime residence.
Death site of Confederate General Lloyd Tilghman, killed May 16, 1863 at Champion Hill battle.


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Thursday, June 09, 2022

Meet the Mississippi museum owner who makes you think

Charles Pendleton opened his museum in May 2021.

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Meet Charles Pendleton, a 53-year-old Vicksburg, Mississippi-born owner of three oil change stations; former classic car collector; father of three (a registered nurse, attorney, and a Marine); and president of the remarkable Vicksburg Civil War Museum, where for the $7 entrance fee you can examine his collection of thousands of Civil War artifacts and stimulate your mind. It’s the only museum I’ve visited where you can get a scoop of Blue Bell Ice Cream (five bucks a cone) and listen to the blues played on a continuous loop.

A Battle of Chattanooga war log.
Pendleton, whose Civil War collecting began in 2018, may be a universe of one. I know of no other Black person who owns a Civil War museum. His opened in May 2021. The museum, at the corner of Washington and China streets, is housed in a former drugstore. Its owner displayed Civil War relics and sold “voodoo lotion” in the back. 

Pendleton’s wife runs the oil change business while he pursues his Civil War passion. Most of his collection he purchased at Civil War shows. “People know when I’m there, I’m there to spend money,” Pendleton said.

To your right, as you enter the museum, Pendleton displays copies of the letters of secession, word for word, for the 11 Confederate states. Turn left to see a collection of artillery shells. In the back, you’ll find a replica slave cabin and one of the most remarkable set of documents you’ll see anywhere: framed bills of sale for a young slave named Ella from 1848.

The Mississippi River cruise boats empty nearby, so Pendleton gets a steady flow of visitors—“100 to 150 a day,” he told me. As we chatted, a visitor from London offered Pendleton a museum review.

“Amazing job. Brilliant.”

For 90 minutes the next day, Pendleton and I discussed Civil War monuments and race. He asked hard, thought-provoking questions. I plan to visit with him again soon. Until then ...

Read more about Pendleton in my book, coming soon. 🙏

Pendleton's huge collection of artillery shells.
A display on slavery.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2022

Cold Harbor, ghosts, spirit energy and black vultures

      2nd Connecticut Heavies suffered more than 300 casualties here on June. 1, 1864. 
                        (CLICK AT UPPER RIGHT FOR FULL-SCREEN PANORAMA.)

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Now I’m highly suspect of battlefield ghost stories, but open to the concept of spirit energy. During my first visit years ago to Cold Harbor (May 31-June 12, 1864), the killing ground in Virginia, the hair on my arms and neck stood straight up on ground where the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery suffered dozens of losses. The place felt eerie then and has during each subsequent visit. 

As darkness settled over Cold Harbor a decade or more ago, I met a local couple walking their large dog. They said they often walk the battlefield.

Remains of Cold Harbor trench.

“This was an awfully bloody place," the man said.

The woman nodded and then glanced at their dog.

“He often goes into the woods," she said, "to chase the ghosts."

The story about the ugly birds gets me most.

“Black against the pale hot sky they drifted into sight by ones and twos, floating high above the overgrown creek bottoms and zigzag trenches,” Ernest B. Furgurson wrote in “Not War But Murder, his book on Cold Harbor. “Gradually there were dozens of them, wheeling, banking, slowly spiraling lower, slipping down toward the fields so thickly dotted with Union blue.”

In June 1864, the black vultures had come to feast on the dead and wounded. I have lain in the very same fields, staring at the sky.

What an awful place.


SHARE: Have your own spirit energy/ghost stories? E-mail me at jbankstx@comcast.net. Your story could end up in my book, coming soon.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

'Where dreams come true': Reenacting on Georgia battlefield

Melea Medders Tennant and her family reacquired their hallowed ground. 

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So I attended the annual Battle of Resaca (Ga.) reenactment on the very ground fighting occurred in May 1864, and naturally Nashville-based Mrs. B gave me grief.

“I want my axle to come home with my car.”

We can trace Mrs. B’s angst to my recent adventure in rural Mississippi in her SUV — she calls it “Murray” — on roads that were, ah, a little suboptimal. Let it go, Mrs. B! Murray can take anything I dish out. Well, except for that ford on the Potomac River when I was following the September 1862 route of A.P. Hill to Antietam.

I passed on these Ulysses Grant cigars.
Anywho, the day at Resaca became sublime when I spotted my friend Melea Medders Tennant. The ground upon which the reenactment was held—hallowed ground—had been in her family for generations. Then it slipped away.

Months ago, Melea and her family banded together to reacquire the property, more than 400 acres in all. Her sister received the news of the deal closing as she arrived at Disney World and spotted the “Where Dreams Come True” sign. Melea and I hugged.

The rest of the day was kind of a blur. For a buck, I bought a bumper sticker reading “We Will No Longer Be Called Hillbilly Rednecks. We Will Henceforth Be Known As Appalachian Americans.” (Mrs. B refuses to let me stick it to Murray.) A sutler named Chuck, who was eating venison meatloaf, baked beans and mashed potatoes and sweating profusely, called Union Army renactors who skedaddled early “pansies.” I ran out of money and tried to score a free Sno-Cone at the cash-only stand on hallowed ground but struck out. Ugh. I’m a longtime journalist/freeloader, lady!

By the way, Mrs. B’s Murray made it home sort of OK.

Let’s keep history alive.

For more, read my book, coming soon. 👌

Rebel musicians in action.
The reenactment took place where the fighting did in May 1864.

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Thursday, May 19, 2022

In a Connecticut cemetery, two brothers are not forgotten

A before and after of the Hollister brothers' marker in a Middle Haddam, Conn., cemetery.

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More than a decade ago, I spotted a grimy gravestone for the Hollister brothers—Francis, 20, and Frederick, 18—in Union Hill Cemetery in Middle Haddam, Conn. Both served in Company K of the 14th Connecticut and died of disease within a half hour of each other in a camp near Fredericksburg, Va., two days before Christmas 1862.

“They lost their blankets at Antietam and for three months had to sleep out of doors or crouch scantily clad all night long over a smoky camp-fire, from which exposure they died,” according to a regimental history. The brothers' bodies were returned to Connecticut and buried "with appropriate ceremonies" on  Jan. 11, 1863.

Now the good news from Kimberly, who read an old post on the brothers on my blog. She and her husband cleaned the stone. Fabulous work.

“It took about three separate cleanings to get the gravestone as white as you see it. It could stand to use at least two more cleanings this season because there is still some very slight staining over the epitaph, and it's still a bit spotty at the bottom of the gravestone. This was one challenging stone to clean! It was black with years of biological growth and sticky tree sap, forming a thick cement-like layer on the gravestone. We also planted some daffodil bulbs (which have since bloomed) and placed a new GAR marker for the brothers.”

Let’s keep history alive. 👊


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SOURCES
  • Page, Charles, History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, Meriden, Conn.: The Horton Printing Company, 1906
  • Hartford Courant, Jan. 20, 1863

Thursday, May 12, 2022

An Antietam story comes full circle for me

A collection of documents and a war-time image of William Horton, courtesy of a
Horton descendant. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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When we lived in Connecticut, I visited an unforgettable cemetery in rural Stafford Springs. The place became seared into my brain for two reasons: the yapping (and unchained) dogs nearby and the beautiful, ornate gravestone of William Horton. On Sept. 17, 1862, the 31-year-old lieutenant in the 16th Connecticut suffered a mortal wound in the 40-Acre Cornfield at Antietam.

William Horton's gravestone in Stafford Springs, Conn.
Nearly 10 months later, another tragedy rocked Horton’s widow Laura: the death of the couple’s young son, James.

Ten years after my visit to the cemetery, Horton’s story came full circle for me. I recently opened a packet mailed by a Horton descendant. It included a copy of a wartime image of Horton, pension documents, and a copy of the sermon preached at his funeral on Oct. 8, 1862.

The crowd was so large at the service that Reverend Alexis W. Ide moved it outside and preached from the steps of Stafford Springs Congregational Church, "under an awning formed by the national flag."

Ide's 27-year-old brother, George, a private in the 2nd Massachusetts, had been killed at Cedar Mountain in Virginia nearly two months earlier.

Ide delivered a sermon that was equal parts eulogy, political diatribe and instruction on how the country should remember its fallen soldiers.

"A nation should mourn for its slain in view of the fact that the cause of patriotism is a holy cause," Ide said. “Human governments are institutions of God. The powers that be are ordained by God. Whosoever resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God."

Late in his sermon, Ide addressed Horton’s 27-year-old widow.

"It is God who has removed your husband, your nearest earthly friend; and He thus designs to bring you nearer to Himself. He is the God of the widow and fatherless. A most weighty responsibility now rests upon you, for a wise improvement in this providence. Your husband, and the event, you must leave in hands of the supreme Ruler of the universe. Real good from your present affliction can only be found in God.”

Let’s keep history alive.

16th Connecticut monument in the 40-Acre Cornfield at Antietam.

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SOURCE
  • "Sermon Preached Oct. 8, 1862, at Stafford Springs, at the Funeral of Lieut. William Horton of Co. I, 16th Conn. Regt. Volunteeers, Who Was Killed at the Battle of Antietam, Sept. 17, 1862," A.W. Ide

Thursday, April 28, 2022

The epic, never-to-be-forgotten history of Oyo

OYO Hotel in backwoods Virginia. Bring your own mints for the pillow.

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When we lived in Connecticut, I asked Mrs. B one night what she was planning for dinner.

“Oyo!”

That sounded great. Probably a Brazilian dish or maybe Mexican. I was famished and exhausted, having just completed a two- or three-hour workday and some daydreaming about a Springfield musket or a 100-pound artillery shell. So I started mulling what kind of wine I should have with this “oyo.”

My specialty.
A little cabernet? Maybe a petite syrah? We both like great food, and Mrs. B is an outstanding cook, much better than I am, although I did make her one of my renowned "happy face" breakfast specials one day.

So I finally ask her, "What's oyo?"

"On your own."

Oyo? Oh, no.

So on a recent Civil War adventure, this sign appeared in some godforsaken, backwoods Virginia town I refuse to name because it’s not polite. (Pssst: It’s Wytheville.) Wonder if you must supply your own mints for the pillows.

Oyo? Ho-ho. 😃


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Thursday, April 21, 2022

How a smart cookie created Abraham Lincoln in Oreo icing

A closeup of careworn Abe Lincoln, The Cookie. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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Laura Van Alstyne Rowland has something probably no other Lincoln fanatic on the planet owns: an Oreo cookie with a profile of the 16th president in the white icing. And, yes, I’m jealous.

Laura Van Alystne Rowland poses with the cookie 
in her Lincoln Room.
In 2014, Tess Collett—an intern in a Utah hospital under Rowland’s supervision—created it with toothpicks and love. Then she gifted it to Rowland, now a retired clinical social worker. The cookie hangs in a frame in the Lincoln Room of the Rowlands’ historic home in Sharpsburg, Md., steps from a bust of Lincoln, dozens of Lincoln books, and framed snippets of hair from Abe and Mary Lincoln.

Like Lincoln, the Oreo isn’t perfect—the cracks snaking through the chocolate wafer and the flaking frosting make the eight-year-old cookie creation look careworn. But in its own quirky way, the thing exudes confidence, an aura even. So, I sought out the—oh, gawd, please stop—smart cookie who created it.

Collett, a 31-year-old, self-employed  testing psychology worker, has a PhD in clinical psychology. She splits time between Salt Lake City and Phoenix. Collett apparently also has a master’s in Oreo Cookie Crafting, which they didn’t offer last century while I attended West Virginia University for 13 years.

“Laura was such a supportive, amazing supervisor at the hospital,” says Collett, “and I was a young buck and knew she loved Lincoln. It was her passion.”

Tess Collett, "artsy" Lincoln
 cookie creator
So, Collett—an “artsy person” with “scattered passions”—found an image of Lincoln on Google and went to work creating the gift. She estimates it took 30 minutes to scrape away the icing with a toothpick to make Abe.

“It was like sculpting.”

Upon receiving the Lincoln Oreo, Rowland looked at it with "amazement and love," says Collett.

“It was a one-of-a-kind gift for a one-of-a-kind person.”

I recently persuaded Rowland to take the framed Lincoln Oreo on a road trip in the footsteps of the real Lincoln on his early October 1862 journey to the Antietam battlefield. What a treat. The Oreo, which refused an interview request, somehow survived the arduous round trip from Sharpsburg to Frederick, Md. But after examining a closeup photo of her long-ago creation, Collett expressed concern.

"I might have to make her a new one. That thing is really starting to look old."

No one, after all, wants to see a cookie crumble. 😃


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Saturday, April 16, 2022

A 'potato digger' and comedy: A day at military collectors show

"Potato Digger" machine gun, just like grandpa used in the garden.
Jefferson Davis inkwell ($3,000)

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So I’m at the Tennessee Military Collectors Association show in Franklin, Tenn., looking for Civil War artillery shells, firearms, bullets, and other stuff Mrs. B is really interested in. Then I spot a beauty, a World War I Browning machine gun. The dealer says it’s called a “Potato Digger” and can shoot 30 aught-six rounds that will put a hole about the size of your fist through a target. The weapon is still fireable, but it's probably not a good thing to try at your home.

Ancient scuba helmet: $450
Now Mrs. B surely could use a “Potato Digger” for our kitchen. So I figure maybe that’s my “in” for purchasing the thing. I mean, she loves cooking and gardening. So I text her: “Can I buy a machine gun?” Obviously, that’s a strategic error. I should have texted: “Can I buy a potato digger?” It takes awhile for her to reply, which is deflating. The only negative is the price of the beast: $25,000.

Mrs. B's tardy response is remarkable for its brevity: "No."

So I lower my sights, so to speak, and inquire (gracefully) about purchasing a real inkwell stolen by a Yankee soldier from the residence of Confederate president Jefferson Davis in Richmond. It’s only $3K. Mrs. B’s texted response after I text a photo and explain the historical significance of the inkwell is… well… kinda graceless:

🤣

Despondent, I walk the floor in a zombie-like state, looking for something she might OK. Then the morning becomes a blur of pineapple hand grenades; an Englishman showing me cufflinks with a specks of gold inside and a "Gentleman's Magazine" from 1775; a 100 percent original Japanese WWII winter pilot helmet with rabbit fur lining ($625); Nazi flags and faux “potato masher” stick grenades turned into beer keg taps (only 125 bucks apiece); an ancient scuba diving helmet ($450); a woman feeding her kid in a surprising way; a teen saying, “We need to bust a move”; a 20-something telling some geezer, “I get most of my news from Newsmax”; and overhearing some high-testosterone guy in weird glasses saying, “I don’t ever want to get married, I have a condo in Barcelona.” 

This place is comedy gold.

Sure, this will stop me.
Then I see a note on a binder cover that reads, “WARNING! If you are offended by female nudity, DO NOT open this binder.”

I'm stopped in my tracks.

And then I see “it.” No, not nudies. It’s my real quarry, a cancelled check from Charles Bronson, the macho actor from the 1970s. It’s among a stack of cancelled checks from such notables as Telly Savalas, Sandra Dee and Tony Danza. Dude wants 35 bucks for the Bronson check. It's a popular seller, he says. But I don’t have the courage to run this past Mrs. B.

I probably need to go.

By the way, those hand grenades are probably gonna look great on somebody's fireplace mantle, especially if they're deactivated.

Let’s keep history alive. 👊

An early "Gentlemen's Magazine," long before Playboy.
Checks of the stars.
Someone's going to put these on their fireplace mantle and bad things will happen.
German World War I medals.
Faux Nazi stick grenades turned into beer keg taps. Yours for only $125 apiece.
Toy tankers. Keep them away from the pineapple grenade above.
WWII Japansese pilot helmet. Doesn't look safe.

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