Tuesday, November 19, 2019

A SEASON OF CHANGE . . .

    I haven't written here much lately; the fall of 2019 has been unusually busy.  For my literary fans; I am still writing!   I have been pecking away at my latest novel, PRESIDENT HAMILTON; it seems every time I get closer to a conclusion another plot twist inserts itself and I have to add another chapter or two. That's the thing about changing history - it's hard to know when to stop!  Changing one thing changes everything; as I constantly remind my students, history turns on tiny hinges.  But the story is progressing nicely and should hopefully be done by Christmas, or at least by the end of the year.

     What else?  Of course, my teaching job keeps my pretty busy most of the time.  This fall I have five courses that meet every day and one that meets two days a week, plus I am teaching a night class at the local community college on top of that. I teach 7th grade Texas History, 8th grade U.S. History, 9th grade World Geography, 10th grade World History, 11th grade dual credit American History, and a course I created a few years back simply called "Modern America" - it's a survey of pop culture, history, sports, and politics from the 1970's to the present.  I came up with this class because, like virtually every college history instructor I know, it's really hard to cram in everything from Reconstruction to the Present in a single semester.  Most college instructors I know rarely get past the fifties; in a good year I'll get to Watergate - but that still leaves around 45 years of history untaught.  Modern America covers the gap, so I make sure that my high school kids graduate knowing about everything from Iran/Contra to 9/11, from the first Star Wars movie to PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.  I have a ton of fun teaching this course.  This spring I will be adding 12th grade U.S. Government to the schedule; it's always fun teaching government in an election year, and we'll get to track the primary elections first hand and enjoy watching some of the debates.

    Besides writing and  teaching, my wife Patty and I have found a new church home at First Baptist, Campbell, TX.  After spending almost 25 years in the pastorate, it is a relief to just be a church member again.  Patty plays for the Praise Team, and I have been asked to share a couple of Sunday morning messages by Bro. Danny, our pastor.  But both of us are involved only to the extent that we choose to be; it's nice to know that someone else is in the hot seat for a change!  The folks here are friendly, and the church is just the right size for me - they run around 50 people a Sunday.  Not too big, not too small.  From the very first time we visited it just felt like home.

   But the main reason that I haven't written here much lately is because of the gigantic, life-changing, home-rearranging, bank-account-emptying event that now looms less that two weeks away: MY DAUGHTER IS GETTING MARRIED! 

   Patty and I had twin girls in 1994, Rachel and Rebecca.  Both girls eschewed dating in high school and then acquired boyfriends the year after they graduated.  Both girls stuck with the first guys they dated.  And now both girls are getting married!  Rebecca will walk the aisle and become Mrs. Joseph Reyes a week from this Saturday, on Nov. 30, and wedding preparations have kept the whole house hopping!  Joseph is on active duty in the U.S. Army and is stationed in El Paso, TX.  Rebecca will be moving out there with him right after the wedding, setting up housekeeping in a nice offbase apartment.  Rachel will be marrying her beau, Shawn Grantham, in March and they are looking for a place here in Greenville.

   It's a true season of change for Patty and me.  Both girls have never lived anywhere but home, and knowing Rebecca will move out in two weeks and then Rachel following her in March has thrown us both into a tizzy!  All the usual wedding preparations and accompanying stress are underway; and in addition to seeing both of our girls finally launched from the nest comes the responsibility now thrust upon us of finding home caregivers for my aged mother-in-law.  It's been a busy, stressful time this fall, and the next two weeks are going to be absolutely crazy!  But, that being said, it's also exciting, as change always is.  We will find a way to move on, to take care of the things and people we need to take care of, and continue facing life together as we have done now for nearly 35 years.

   No one knows what the future holds, but we know Who holds the future.  With faith in God and confidence in each other, we continue to move forward.

 I'll keep you posted as to how things work out.

  

Friday, October 18, 2019

FOR TEACHERS: THE TOP TEN FORBIDDEN REPORT CARD COMMENTS!

       As we wrap up the first quarter of the school year, and begin the tedious task of filling out our student's report cards, all teachers hit that moment when they open the "Comments" box and have to come up with a way to tell Mom and Dad that their precious little Johnny (or Janey) is either not performing quite up to academic snuff, or perhaps could use some serious behavior modification.  That is when the age-old dilemma sets in - exactly how HONEST do I want to be?  There is a fine line between acknowledging the seriousness of a child's problems and being hauled into the administrator's office to face a  firestorm of parental ire.  So, this post is especially for all of you newer teachers who may not be quite sure exactly where that line falls.  Here are the top ten comments that you NEVER, EVER want to use on a student's report card!

10. "Dumber than a box of rocks!"  OK, this is just clearly out of bounds, even if, in the heat of being told that Genghis Khan killed John F. Kennedy, you might want to say it.  And, you can't pretty it up by substituting "a bag of hammers" or "a bowl of potato salad."

9.  "Obnoxious little twerp!"  Again, you may occasionally feel this way, but really, ya JUST CAN'T SAY IT!!!  (And, again, substituting other words for "twerp" doesn't make it acceptable.  Instead, focus on what needs improving: "Johnny needs to learn not to put boogers in Suzie's hair!" or something like that.)

8.  "This student should go far.  Australia would be a good start!"  OK, this one begins in an acceptable fashion, but the second half spoils it.  Jut think that part.

7.  "Did you drop him on his head as a baby?"   First of all, if the parent actually DID do this, they probably feel incredibly guilty and bringing it up is not a good idea!  And, if they didn't, they will resent both what it says about their parenting AND their child's abilities.  This one will get you hauled before the principal for sure. 

6.  "Have you considered home schooling your child?  You're really missing out not seeing him every day."  Nice try.  The kid is in your classroom so the parents can A.  Work to earn a living, and B. Not have to deal with the stuff that made you ask this question!

5.  "I hear that XYZ School down the road is much better equipped than we are to deal with Janey's unique learning style."  OK, this is classic buck passing, and parents will see through it in a minute!  Not only that, your administrator will NOT appreciate your trying to reduce enrollment, and XYZ School probably has a little Janey of their own that they will lob in your direction in a heartbeat if you send them yours!

4.  "Are you SURE Johnny is related to his older sister?"  Yeah, we all have those families where the big brother/sister is one of those overachievers that make us feel like Mr. Chips, but then their younger sibling makes you contemplate the joys of early retirement, or maybe even homelessness.  Again, parents resent the implication.  Just snag one of his fingernail clippings and send it off for a DNA test if you really want to know!

3.  "Perhaps Johnny needs a new hobby to work off some of that energy - maybe alligator wrestling or cliff diving in Sri Lanka?"  Chances are they've already got him doing a few of those things; if not, they're not going to sign him up just because you suggested it!

2.  "This semester, Janey has reached rock bottom and appears to be renting a jackhammer to dig even further."  OK, this is a bit more acceptable than some of the above, but you might want to dress it up a little bit.  No parent likes to be told their kid has dug a hole they have no hope of climbing out of!

AND THE NUMBER ONE REPORT CARD COMMENT YOU SHOULD NEVER, EVER USE:

1.  "Theoretically speaking, of course, how much would you miss him, really?"


Some things are better thought than spoken.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

OF CHILDREN, TIME, AND A RIVER . . .

      Yesterday, for the twenty-fourth time since being hired on as a history teacher at Greenville Christian School, I loaded up my junior high history class and headed out with a gaggle of parent drivers convoyed up behind me towards the North Sulphur River.  For those who don't live here in North Texas, the Sulphur is a large, artificially channeled river bed.  Once a winding East Texas creek, looping all over the bottom like an epileptic snake, in 1928 local farmers got tired of the Sulphur overflowing its banks and drowning their crops every year.  So they hired the Army Corps of Engineers to come in and straighten the river, cutting a smooth, straight channel for over 40 miles to help the rich bottomland drain faster and spare their crops.  Of course, when you straighten flowing water, you also speed it up, and when flowing water speeds up, it erodes the banks faster and carries more debris downstream.  The channel that was completed in 1929 was about 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep in the middle.  Today, the North Sulphur Channel is about a hundred yards wide at the top - wider in places - and it cuts down through 30 to 40 feet of topsoil, Pleistocene clay, and Cretaceous ocean floor.  It gets deeper and wider every year as the floods carry more and more bank and river bottom away.
  
    What was an absolute disaster for soil conservation proved to be a wonderful boon to those of us who collect fossils and Indian arrowheads.  Thousands of Native American points, knives, and tools have fallen into the river and been deposited on the gravel bars that cover its bottom over the years. Many have been recovered by collectors, but many remain to be found.  Fossil bones and shells from a variety of upper Cretaceous marine fauna, ranging from the fearsome fifty foot long mosasaurs to giant oysters and tiny seaworms, are also scattered throughout the gravel.  To the searcher with sturdy boots, a keen eye, and the patience to focus on staring at rocks for hours on end, the quest is nearly always rewarded with something amazing.

    Of course, more importantly for 7th graders, the river is also swarming with frogs, baby ribbon snakes, the occasional turtle, and lots of that lovely and mysterious substance that somehow finds its way onto skin, hair, and clothing during the course of the day - MUD!  I have watched 7th graders find lots of cool things over the years - fossilized shark's teeth, mosasaur vertebrae, Indian arrowheads, mastodon enamel, you name it - but the one thing they seemingly ALL find is a way to get completely coated in mud!  They scoop it, throw it, roll in it, get stuck in it, and do everything but EAT it! 
   Every Sulphur River trip is different.  Last year, the river was just coming off of a 30 foot rise, and there was only one set of tracks ahead of us.  The gravel had been thoroughly tumbled, and the river bottom ripped up and redeposited.  We found eight mosasaur vertebrae, five arrowheads, and dozens of other bits of bone, teeth, shells.  Every student went home with something! Water was flowing freely, and the kids got muddy but were able to wash it off in the flowing stream.  It was one of the most successful river trips in recent history - and I had my friend and videographer, Holly Rice, along to chronicle the day.  You can see the video footage from that day on my YouTube channel here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbZoE8p1m8E

   Of course, I doubt anything will ever equal the field trip I took back in 1997.  Conditions were dreadful, it had been a dry summer and only one small rise had happened since school started.  The water had just come up a couple of feet, enough to put a thick coat of mud on top of the gravel bars and make it that much harder to spot fossils!  But then I happened to look in one of the small flowing water channels between the gravel bars, and just enough bottom had been peeled up to expose a complete Mosasaur skull just coming up out of the shale!  I screamed myself silly that day, and with the help of one student and a couple of parents, I dug up the entire skull and hauled it out of the river before sunset!  I don't have any video footage from that day, but you can see the skull and hear me tell the whole story of finding it at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7Z28c2LdbE&t=17s

   Yesterday's trip was unique.  Conditions weren't great - the river hasn't had a solid rise big enough to turn over the bottom since early July.  The gravel bars were covered with weeds and grass burrs, but the last rain had put just enough water in the river to rinse things off a bit.  There were footprints everywhere; many, many hunters had scoured the gravel ahead of us. But no one can find everything; we started finding small fossils almost right away, and by the end of the day we had picked up an impressive collection of shark's teeth, one mosasaur tooth, one arrowhead and one preform, numerous invertebrate fossils, and many small fragments of fossilized bone.

   But the thing that will stand out in my memory from this trip was the SNAKES!  Right away when we got there, I spotted a small ribbon snake that had grabbed a frog in its mouth as I entered the river.  I grabbed it and it spat out the frog, and I showed it to all my students and posed for pics before letting it go.  Then I caught a small banded water snake not five minutes later, and after that it was on.  Eight snakes, two water snakes and six ribbon snakes, were caught before the day was out.  It got to the point that the kids would holler: "Here's another snake, Mr. Smith" and I'd holler back: "Is it striped and little?" and when they said "Yes!" I'd say "Then you can go ahead and play with it!"  One girl, named Avery, caught a baby ribbon snake and carried it around with her for over an hour, naming it "Salazar" and planning to take him home and keep him.  Their relationship tragically ended when Salazar got tired of being carried and nipped her on the hand; it didn't break the skin but she did get the message and released him.  Junior high romances rarely last!!

    All in all, it was another memorable trip.  We got back to the bridge, and the kids changed into dry clothes (under the careful supervision of chaperons of the same gender!), and then we posed for pictures in front of a bit of graffiti that's now been painted on the bridge for a decade or more - some optimistic soul wrote: "Meagan, prom?" and someone else - possibly Meagan - wrote a huge "NO!!" next to it.  I now have eight straight years of pictures of my kids posing by that painted exchange. They are all hilarious!

   And of course, the favorite part of the trip for the kids AND sponsors is the stop for burgers on the way home.  Braum's Ice Cream and Dairy Store serves hamburgers and fries (good ones, too!), plus some of the best ice cream in Texas.  The kids chowed down and the weary chaperons joined them, happy that another year's worth of memories had been successfully made.  Best of all, we got back to school at 3:10 - five minutes before the bell that marks the end of the school day!

    Over the last twenty-four years, many students have come and gone through my classroom, and many wonderful and fun memories have been made.  But the one day that they all remember, long after they graduate, is the day of the Sulphur River trip.  Speaking of which, only 364 days or so till I take the next batch of kids up there . . . .

Monday, September 16, 2019

HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL . . . (Confessions of a Cowboy Fan)

   Aaah, September!  The weather begins to cool off a bit from the brutal heat of a Texas summer (at least, it should by the end of the month - it was still 96 degrees outside today!), students are back in the groove of a new school year, Friday night lights blaze across Texas, and Dallas Cowboys fans do their best to convince themselves that THIS will be the year.  Finally, after an exile that has stretched over two decades and change, Dallas will return to the Superbowl, and we will be able to relive the glory days of Troy and Emmett and Michael, when playoff appearances were guaranteed and championships were a safe bet.

    These haven't been our glory years.  The slow disintegration of the dynasty built by Jimmy Johnson, the micromanaging of a narcissistic owner who won't tolerate independent thinking from a coach (Jerry Jones has fired EVERY SINGLE COACH the Cowboys have ever had - except for the current one!), the desperate search for a franchise quarterback, the up and down seasons, and most recently the playoff appearances that end after the first round is done.  We've lost some heartbreaking, nail-biter games that we should have won (I STILL say Dez caught that ball against Green Bay!), gotten blown out when we were expected to win, and basically floundered as a "better than average, but not good enough" team for the last decade.

   And yet we fans hope on.  We pin our dreams on each new coach and quarterback, each offensive coordinator, each first round draft pick.  We tell ourselves NOT to get too excited, that it's way too early in the season, that we haven't faced a real threat yet - and then we cheer ourselves silly on game day.  No matter how hard we try to suppress it, that "delusive phantom of hope," as Patrick Henry calls it, continues to taunt us and lead us on . . . and we continue to follow.  How far will it lead us this year?  Will it be a mid-season collapse?  A catastrophic injury to a key player?  A heartbreaking first-round loss to a hated division rival?  Which, oh which, will it be?

Or . . .

   Will Dak and Zeke and Witten lead us out of the wilderness at last?  Will Jason Garrett finally be able to don a Superbowl Ring?  Will we be able to crush and humiliate the obnoxious Eagles, the proud, pugnacious Packers, and those cheating chumps the Patriots?  Could this be the year it actually, finally, really, for sure HAPPENS???

   I DON'T KNOW.  It is early in the season.  We've beaten two teams that we were SUPPOSED to beat.  Next week's game, against the hapless Dolphins, pretty much guarantees us a 3-0 start, barring a complete offensive collapse in which every player on our roster dies of bubonic plague - and even then I am not sure the Dolphins could beat the zombie Cowboys! But then the real fight begins.  We will face teams with actual winning records.  We will suffer injuries, setbacks, and stupid penalties. We faithful fans will begin to lose hope with each loss, only to regain it with each win.  As I said, it's early in the season.


   But for the moment, my Cowboys are 2-0.  I'm going to pause and take a deep breath, and smell that sweet aroma that is still hanging in the air, before the winds of that fickle hussy Fortune blow it away for good.  Can you smell it, too?

   It's the scent of hope.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

So it begins . . . again!

       Hard to believe that it's been a month since I posted anything!  But even harder to believe than that is the fact that another summer break is over, and the new school year is beginning.  Last Wednesday we returned for our in-service days, last night was our "Meet the Teacher" night, and tomorrow the kids will be returning to the classroom.  This will be my twenty-fourth year teaching here at Greenville Christian School, and as I think about the coming year, I can't help but be excited! 

     As we were sitting in one of our meetings this week, and our new headmaster was talking about his vision for the school, my mind began to wander (OK, let me say this first of all, this is NO reflection on Mr. Reisner.  Being as ADHD as I am, my mind is a migratory beast - imagine, if you will, a wildebeest on methamphetamines!  That's my brain, minus the drugs of course - it is this great shaggy mental beast bouncing around like a ping pong ball in a drier.  But I digress.  Of course, that's kind of the point of this whole parenthetical essay, isn't it?  Speaking of which,  I need to close these parentheses soon. Let me see if I can locate my original train of thought.  There it is.  Swinging aboard with one leg, climbing back in, and . . .) back to my very first year at GCS.  It was the fall of 1996, and I was looking for a new job, since the new director of the Museum where I was working had apparently decided that she didn't want me there and was going out of her way to make my life miserable.  It was August, and options were limited. My dream was to teach college classes full time, but a four year university wouldn't touch me without a PhD, and while junior colleges were fine with me as an adjunct, full time positions were few and far between!

     Then one of our friends suggested that I look into the Christian School here in town.  I knew very little about the place other than its existence, and I also knew classes were going to start any day, so I looked up the number in the local phone book (kids, ask your parents what a "phone book" is), then said a prayer and called.  The secretary, Lori Roberts, answered, and as I recall, my introduction went something like this:

     "Hi, I'm Lewis Smith, and I know it's really kind of late in the summer, but I was wondering if you had any teaching positions still open, preferably full time?"

     She responded: "Well, actually, we do have one three quarter time position left open, and I won't say we're desperate, but at the same time, classes start back in one week and we really need a history teacher!"

      I won't say I heard angels singing, but I won't say I didn't, either.  I do remember taking a VERY deep breath and saying: "Well, I have a bachelor's and master's degree in history, I've taught college classes as a TA, and I've been a Director of Education here at the museum for the last two years."

     She said: "Come down and apply, please!"  and I did.

     So I went in and had an hour long conversation with the headmaster, Glenn Slater, who, as it turned out, had taught history there for twelve years - AND got his bachelor's and master's degrees from the same university, same department, and same professors (mostly) that I did!  When I told him I had a letter of recommendation from Dr. Robin Rudoff, I think that may have cinched it - I didn't know it at the time, but Dr. Rudoff very rarely gave out such letters, and he had been my thesis advisor and had served on Mr. Slater's thesis committee.  So, I filled out the application Wednesday night, met with the headmaster on Thursday morning, was interviewed by a hiring committee on Friday night, and then was told Saturday morning that I'd gotten the job!  I took great delight in writing my letter of resignation to the Museum Director (I didn't really burn the bridge there, OK, but I may have poured a wee smidge of gasoline on it - I was VERY unhappy in that job!) that day, and then on Monday morning I showed up for work. Two days later the kids showed up, and by spring I was in love with my job and with my students. 

      It's now the fall of 2019.  Tomorrow the doors will open and the kids will come pouring in, and my annual war on ignorance will commence.  Three classrooms I've taught in, six headmasters I've served under, a couple thousand kids I've taught (at least!).  We've been through cricket infestations, a water snake in the library (I did NOT put him there, OK, I just caught him and released him!), the exciting discovery of a mosasaur skull, the escape and recapture of my corn snake Napoleon  (yes, that one IS on me!) a LOT of April Fool's pranks, countless papers graded, essays read, lectures given, chapel messages preached, as each and every day I try to inspire in my kids a love of history and learning. 

     I know some people hate their jobs and find them a constant source of stress and aggravation.  I sympathize, but I cannot empathize.  My work is fulfilling, it is important, and it has eternal consequences.  For you see, I don't just teach my kids about the fascinating and sometimes bizarre history of the human race.  I teach them eternal truths about God, and man, and our place in HIS wonderful world.  I do my best to live out my faith before these students in such a way that they will want to share it.  We pray together, we read the Bible together, we laugh together, and we cry together sometimes.  We are a family.  GCS is my home, and my students are more than just my students - they are MY KIDS, and I love them.

      Can tomorrow just get here already?????

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Great Tarantula Selloff of 1975!

Tarantulas are a staple of life in most of West Texas.  Big old hairy things, far more scary looking than actually dangerous, you see them crossing the roads at night and occasionally find them under a board or sheet of tin.  I live on the easternmost edge of their range, so they are fairly rare in m neck of the woods - I haven't seen one around here in years.  But it wasn't always that way.
 
When I was a kid, there was an area in north Greenville, across the street from the park, where an old railroad had once run.  The metal tracks had been torn up, but the rail bed was still there, as were the wooden ties.  This rail bed was home to the only colony of tarantulas in our area.  I'd go up there every time I came back to Greenville (we were living in Dallas at the time, where my Dad had taken on a pastorate) and lift up a tie to hunt for them. Usually there were two or three under each railroad tie, living in separate burrows. I'd catch one and leave the rest; taking it back to our house to show off at school or sell to a classmate.

Now, during our time in Dallas, nearly every Sunday after church, we went to eat at Luby's cafeteria in Town East Mall.  Right across from Luby's was a huge pet store called SunRay Pets (sadly gone now).  I'd eat my meal in like, five bites, and then run over to the pet store to hang out and look at all the cool critters while mom and dad finished their meal at a leisurely pace, visiting with the other church members.  The store had boa constrictors, birds, fish (even a couple of piranha that were labeled NOT FOR SALE!).  And they had spiders and scorpions.  One thing that surprised me was how expensive pet tarantulas were!  Plain old brown tarantulas, just like I caught on the old tracks, were going for $15 each (keep in mind, this was 1975 - that was some serious money!).  So I asked Bernie, the store manager, what he paid for them.  He said he bought them for $7.50 each and sold them at 100% markup.  Well, being the young capitalist entrepreneur that I was, I asked him if he would buy them from me for $5 each.  He said "SURE!"

So that Saturday, armed with a king size pickle jar, I went up to those tracks and lifted up every single railroad tie. Hairy spiders scurried hither and thither to escape abduction, but few did. I caught a grand total of 23 tarantulas.  At $5 each, that was A HUNDRED AND FIFTEEN DOLLARS!  That was almost unlimited wealth for a 6th grader in 1975! My eyes were filled with visions of all the things I could buy with this small fortune.  I got home with the jar and dumped them all in a big terrarium in my room, and Dad promised to take me to SunRay pets first thing the next morning so I could sell them.  (Oddly enough, my mother, who was terrified of snakes, was somehow OK with 23 large hairy spiders contained only by a thin wall of glass in her youngest son's bedroom.)

I slept the sleep of the noveau riche, my mind aflutter with visions of spider-fueled wealth, and all the comic books, monster magazines, and scale models I would be able to buy soon.  Sure, I heard some odd sounds coming from the tank on my dresser, but it was full of energetic spiders! No problem, right?
 
Then I  woke up bright and early, and looked into the cage to see . . . dozens of spider legs and ONE very fat tarantula!  They had all eaten each other during the night, and the rustling sounds I had heard were the noises of arachnian mortal combat.  Apparently, there could be only ONE!
 
(Actually, that's technically inaccurate; late that afternoon as I was cleaning spider legs out of the cage I found one very small tarantula that had hidden under a rock to escape the carnage.  I was trying to grab him when the big one spotted him and had him for dessert.)
 
I honestly did  not know they were cannibals!
(To quote WKRP IN CINCINNATI, "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!")
I kept that undefeated champion and named him Goliath.  He was my pet for the next two years, then I sold him to my 8th grade English teacher for $20.  He was a big spider, as large as my hand, but i still would rather have had my $115.
 
And I don't think I've seen another tarantula in Greenville since then.  Apparently I wiped out the whole colony!

Friday, June 28, 2019

A Sneak Peek at my new novel: PRESIDENT HAMILTON!

  I admired Alexander Hamilton, the man, long before the musical came out.  He was a brilliant politician and perhaps the most influential cabinet member in the history of our nation. But what would have happened had he NOT perished in that deadly duel with Aaron Burr?  Could he have revitalized the Federalist Party?  Might he have been elected President?  What sort of leader might he have been?  Back in January, I decided to answer these questions in a new novel of alternative history.  I am now fifteen chapters in, and it's coming along quite well!  So tonight, for all my loyal readers, I am offering a sneak preview of Chapter One.  My story begins in a prologue that tells the story of the fateful duel; but with a different outcome.  Now Alex returns to New York, his side throbbing from a deep gash where Burr's pistol ball nearly took his life . . .

  
                              CHAPTER ONE

 

          “A duel?  Alex, how could you!?”

          The smack of Eliza’s hand across his cheek echoed through the house like a thunderclap.  They had been married for nearly twenty-five years, and Hamilton had seen his wife hurt, angry, mournful, happy, and excited, but the emotion that blazed from her eyes was one he had never seen before. It was pure rage; a towering fury that made him shrink back from her, combat veteran though he was.  His cheek reddened from the resounding slap she’d given him, but her words hurt far worse than the blow he had taken.

          “Our son died in one of those stupid, stupid ‘affairs of honor,’ and now you dare to go and engage in one yourself?” she shouted, her normally pale-tinted face flush with anger.  “What would I have done if you had died?  How could you even think about such a thing?  To rob me of my husband, after fate has already stolen our sweet Philip from me? Do you think that I could possibly live without you?”

          She burst into tears, but her gaze remained fixed on him and her anger did not relent.

          “My dear Betsy,” he said, calling her by the pet name she loved. “Please forgive me.  Honor required -”

          “Bugger your honor!!” she shouted, and he flinched.  He had never once, in all their years together, heard her use that phrase. She grabbed the sides of his head and tilted it downward so that their eyes were locked.

          “I am sorry,” he began, but she placed her hand over his lips.

          “I love you beyond all reason,” she said fervently.  “I have borne your children, I have stood by your side even when you betrayed your vows to me.  I have counted myself blessed to be wed to the most brilliant man on earth.  I did not complain when you paid more attention to my sister than you did to me. I have endured, I have forgiven, and I have always been proud to be your wife.  But I want you to swear a vow to me, here and now, Alex, that you will never fight in another duel.  No matter what the provocation, no matter how deep the insult cuts, you will NEVER do this to me again.  Because if you do, I will leave, and I will take our children with me.  It will break my heart, and it will probably kill me – but I will do it.  I cannot bear the thought of losing you. Am I clear?  Will you promise me?”

          “My dear heart, I could never refuse you,” he said.  “This was the end.  Enough is enough, as they say.  I will toss these pistols into the Hudson tomorrow, and never own another set.”

          She stared into his eyes for a long moment, trying to measure his words and the spirit behind them.  Finally, she sighed deeply, and the anger in her eyes began to fade.

“Then we shall speak of this no more,” she said, “but I meant what I said. Do not forget that, my sweet, irreplaceable Hamilton!”

          With that she threw her arms around him, and he winced even as he returned her embrace.

          “Oh, Alex, you are hurt!” she said.

          “Burr’s bullet grazed my ribs,” he said.  “It is but a flesh wound.”

          Doctor Hosack had bound the wound tightly before they left Weehawken, but the blood had soaked through the bandage and stained the clean shirt Alex had donned after the duel.  The gash in his side was not deep, but it was painful.

          “We’ll see about that,” Eliza said.  “Up to the bedroom with you!  Junior, fetch me hot water and some clean washcloths, please!”

          Alex’s second son and namesake was eighteen years old and bore a distinct resemblance to his father, although he was not as much of a prodigy as his father and older brother had been.  He had been listening to his parents’ quarrel from the door to the drawing room; and now he ran to the kitchen to follow his mother’s command.

          Hamilton let himself be led upstairs.  He was still shaken enough by the events of the morning and the unexpected fury his bride had directed at him that he dared not resist.  Eliza set him down on the edge of the bed and used a sharp penknife to cut through the white linen that bound him around the chest, exposing the wound to the noonday light streaming in from the window.

          The bullet wound was a bit worse than he realized at first – an ugly gash about four inches long, still seeping blood around its edges.  The skin had been peeled back by the ball’s passage, and Hamilton realized that he could actually see the white bone of one of his ribs exposed. 

          “I’m sorry,” he managed to say before turning his head and throwing up the glass of brandy he’d accepted to steady his nerves after the duel.  He had seen men killed, and done his share of killing, as a young man during the Revolution, but seeing one’s own bones shining in the light of day was a bit too much for him.  As young Alex cleaned up the mess, Eliza busied herself wiping the wound down with hot water and new linens.  There were tears streaming down her cheeks as she worked.

          “My Hamilton,” she said after a moment, her voice catching.  “A matter of an inch or so and you might have been lost to me forever!  What were you thinking?  Was Mister Burr so vile to you that you were left with no choice?”

          Alex sat up, his head still swimming but the nausea gone for the moment. He leaned forward and kissed his dear bride on her forehead, his own tears falling onto her upturned face and mingling with hers.

          “Oh, Eliza, my honor is dear to me, but not so much as you!” he said.  “I will say this much, and then speak of this matter no more.  Aaron Burr was a great threat to our Republic; he was the American Catiline, and I had to act the part of Cicero without the powers of a consul.  I baited him, and he challenged me.  But, as God is my witness, I let him take the first shot!  I gave him every chance to abandon his challenge, and instead he did his best to kill me.  I was not going to return fire, but when I thought of all that I had nearly lost – I could not help myself.  I took my shot, and I killed a man.  I killed the Vice President of the United States. Now I must ponder what to do next.  Burr is not without friends, you know.  I am afraid this matter is not settled yet.”

          “Do what you must, dear husband,” Eliza said as she wound clean strips of cloth around his midsection.  “But remember my words! No more duels, ever, or you will lose me and the children, whether you survive or not.”

          “Then my dueling pistols will be retired permanently,” he said.  “I have risked all once; I will not do so again.  From now on, words will be my only weapons.”

          Hamilton stood so that his wife could finish applying the bandage, and then reached into his wardrobe for a clean shirt and waistcoat.  He looked down at his trousers and saw that his blood had dripped down onto them, too, so he returned to the wardrobe and retrieved a complete change of clothes and began to get dressed.

          “You need to lie down!” Eliza said.  “You’ve lost a good deal of blood, and that wound will reopen if you strain yourself.”

          “I must speak to someone,” Alex said.  “It is a short walk, and when I am done, I promise to return and spend the remainder of the day resting.”

          “You should let it wait,” she gently scolded him.

          “Eliza – I must do this,” he said firmly.  “My conscience will not let me rest until I do.”

          “Your conscience?” his wife asked.

          Hamilton bowed his head, and then opened his heart to his wife.

          “I killed a man, Betsy,” he said.  “Not in the heat of battle, or under the moral cloak of a just war for one’s country.  I stared down the barrel of a pistol and pulled the trigger and watched his spirit leave his body.  I need to know . . .”   He hesitated and swallowed hard.  “I need to know if my soul will be damned for all eternity as a murderer,” he finished.

          He retrieved his walking stick from the corner and gingerly made his way downstairs and thence out onto the street.  He could hear the hue and cry of the great city of New York as it sprawled out around him, the fastest-growing city in America, and his adoptive home for thirty years now.  It was a short walk from his house to Trinity Church, and the rectory where Bishop Benjamin Moore lived was right next door.

          The news of the duel had spread rapidly, and a news crier was standing on the corner selling a special edition of The National Gazette, the Republican newspaper once edited by Philip Freneau.

          “Vice President Burr Murdered by the Monarchist Alexander Hamilton!” the crier proclaimed.  “Read all about it!  General Hamilton guns down Burr in cold blood!”

          On the next corner, a rival news crier for Hamilton’s New York Daily Post was touting the alternative version of the story.

          “Aaron Burr nearly kills Secretary Hamilton!  Vice President killed in self-defense after shooting the Federalist leader!” the newsboy screamed out.

          Hamilton took little note of either of them; the fact that Burr had shot first and wounded him rendered Alex legally untouchable.  Duelists were occasionally prosecuted in New York, but when they were, it was invariably the person who shot first and killed his foe that drew the ire of prosecutors.  As for New Jersey, where the fatal encounter had taken place, dueling was also illegal there, but prosecutions were quite rare.  Hamilton was more concerned about the judgment of a much higher authority, and that was what drove him to the rectory despite the aching wound in his side.

          Trinity Church was the tallest structure in New York City, its central spire rising two hundred feet into the air.  There was a large burial ground in the back; Hamilton’s son Philip was interred there.  As Alex surveyed the modest marker that he and Eliza had placed over his son’s grave, he swallowed hard and touched the throbbing bullet gash in his side.  A matter of inches, and his own grave would have been dug there, next to Philip’s.  He imagined how different life in New York – indeed in America – might be if Burr’s bullet had found its mark.  Would anyone remember Alexander Hamilton, if he died now?  Perhaps his tenure as treasury secretary might earn him a footnote in the history books, but Alex had little doubt that had he perished that morning, as Burr intended, his legacy would have been small and soon forgotten. No more, he swore to himself!  America had not heard the last of Alexander Hamilton.  His life’s work was not yet finished.

          Benjamin Moore was a tall, long-nosed Episcopal bishop of the traditional sort; his sermons were longwinded and pedantic, but he had a solid grasp of doctrine and was a sound scholar of the Christian faith.  The Hamiltons rented a pew in Trinity Church and attended services occasionally, even though Alexander was not an Episcopalian.  It was, however, the closest church to their modest Wall Street home.  Beyond that, Alex liked the man, pure and simple, and had ever since the first time he met him.

          “General Hamilton?” Moore said when he came to the door.  “Good afternoon, sir, what may I do for you?”

          “I take it you have not heard the news, then?” Hamilton asked him.

          “I have been in my study, preparing my Sunday sermon,” Moore replied. “I have heard no news of anything today.”

          Hamilton sighed and summoned up his most engaging smile.

          “I need to speak with you at length, sir,” he said.  “May I come in?”

          “Of course, General,” the bishop said.  He was a courtly gentleman, only six years older than Hamilton, but he carried himself with the dignity of a venerable greybeard.  “It was inconsiderate of me to leave you standing on my doorstep.”

          Hamilton entered and sat down on a comfortable, padded chair near the fireplace.  Since it was high summer, there was no fire, but the drawing room was comfortable, well-lit, and inviting.  Bishop Moore called for tea, and the maid brought in a steaming pot and two cups a few moments later.  Hamilton gratefully took a sip and then leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes for a moment.  All the adrenalin that had fueled him since he woke long before dawn was spent, and he felt exhausted.

          “So, what brings such a noteworthy person to my door on this fine Wednesday afternoon?” the bishop finally asked.

          “I killed a man today,” Hamilton said, too weary for pretense.  “I shot Vice President Burr.  He had challenged me to a duel, and I would not retract my assessment of his character, so I met him at Weehawken this morning. I had fully intended to throw away my shot, but when he fired first, his bullet grazed me and but for sheerest chance would have killed me.  At that moment I returned fire and struck him in the heart.  Sir, I am a military man, as you know.  I personally killed men during the Revolution, and I felt that the righteousness of our cause removed the stain of that sin from me.  But this was different.  I looked at Colonel Burr down the barrel of my pistol and pulled the trigger and sent him to his grave.  My conscience is deeply troubled.”

          “It should be,” said Moore.  “Murder is a mortal sin, my friend, and dueling is nothing short of legalized murder.  It is a holdover from an age of barbarism and savagery and has no place in a civilized society.”

          Hamilton nodded sadly.  He knew that Moore had publicly condemned dueling from the pulpit on more than one occasion.

          “I have not always been a good man, Bishop Moore,” he said.  “But I have tried hard, in my latter years, to atone for the sins of my youth and to be a good Christian. I’ve tried to become a better man.  I have raised my children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord and read the Bible to them every day.  I pray with them every morning, and I spend my own time in prayer each day.  You are a man of God, sir, deeply read in the Holy Scriptures.  In your learned opinion, have I damned my soul by doing this?”

          “You have sinned, there is no doubt, General,” he said.  “You have killed another man in a violent affair that we dubiously call a matter of honor.  I cannot think that God is pleased with what you have done.  But I also believe that even the worst of sinners is not beyond redemption.  While the Holy Writ teaches us that grace is given, not earned by our own works, I do believe that there is something to be said for making restitution for our sins.  God accepts the sacrifices of a broken and contrite heart, General Hamilton.  Is your heart grieved that you have done this?”

          “It is,” Hamilton nodded as he spoke.  “I had no desire to kill Colonel Burr when we rowed out to Weehawken.  But it was obvious that he had every intention of killing me.  If I had thrown away my shot, I am sure he would have demanded another round of fire, and another.  I could see my death in his eyes, and I killed him to save my own life.  I was thinking of my wife and children at that moment, more than anything.  I wanted to live for their sakes, and the only way to do that was for me to pull the trigger.”

          The Bishop sighed, and rose from his seat, staring out the window into the busy New York streets.  He remained silent for a long moment, and then spoke again.

          “I cannot absolve you from this, General Hamilton,” he said.  “But you can atone for what you have done, I think.  You say that the Vice President fired first, and that he intended to kill you.  Were you struck?”

          “Yes,” Hamilton said.  “The bullet grazed my side.  An inch or two more, and it would have gone through my vitals.”

          “Then God spared you for a reason,” Moore said.  “His purpose for your life is not yet accomplished.  Redemption remains possible. I would say to you, though – do not squander the second chance you have been given!  Humble yourself before the Lord and seek His purpose for the life that remains to you.  God does not hide His will from us, Alexander.  If he has some object you are intended to achieve, He will lay it before you.  Be attentive and listen for His voice.  I do not think the gates of heaven are shut before you because of this one act.”

          Hamilton nodded and rose with a groan.  The wound was positively throbbing now, as if someone was jabbing him in the side with a red-hot fireplace poker.

          “Are you well, General?” the Bishop asked.  “Do you need me to call you a carriage?”

          “I will be fine,” Hamilton said.  “The wound is painful, but not serious.  My home is not far distant; I prithee come and visit me soon.  Help me seek the will of Christ for the rest of my life.”

          “I will gladly do that,” said Moore.  “The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost; how can I do any less?   And you, neglect not the Lord’s house on Sundays!”

          “I’ll be here as often as I can,” said Hamilton. “That I promise.”

          With that he rose and made his way to the door, grateful he had brought his walking stick.  The late afternoon skies were bright and clear; the day had gone from pleasantly warm to uncomfortably hot, and Hamilton’s vision was swimming. As he made his way up the street, he saw people pointing and whispering.  The word of Burr’s death had spread like wildfire through the city, thanks to the intense competition between political newspapers.  He was not afraid; he had braved angry mobs all over New York when he battled the powerful Clinton faction during the debate on ratifying the new U.S. Constitution in the summer of 1788.  Besides, Alex knew that Burr was not as popular with New Yorkers as he had been a few years previously – the man’s constantly shifting political allegiances had disillusioned many of his supporters.

          “Hamilton!” a familiar voice called.  It was Pendleton, his second from the morning’s affair.  “Egad, Alex, are you all right?  You look as white as a sheet!”

          “I am well enough, Nathaniel,” he said, “but I am very weary, and this wound is paining me.  Will you walk with me to my door?”

          “Gladly,” his friend said.  “The city is all abuzz regarding this morning’s duel.  Burr’s faction is trying to paint you as a murderer, but most people don’t seem to be buying into that idea.  The fact that he shot first, and struck you, shows that you acted in self-defense.  I think you will have no legal worries.”

          “That is comforting,” Hamilton said.  “I wish my own conscience would let me off as easily.  I tell you, Nathaniel, as dangerous as Burr was, I still would undo this entire confrontation if I could.  The Vice President’s death is on my hands, morally speaking, even if I am not legally culpable.”

          “You said nothing of Burr that was not true,” Pendleton told him.

          “I know,” Hamilton said.  “The man was dangerously ambitious.  But I wish there had been another way to end our dispute. Here, help me up the steps, please.”

          They had arrived at Hamilton’s house as they spoke, but Alex found he simply did not have the energy to mount the few steps up to the front door. Pendleton took him by the arm and let Alex lean on him.  Eliza was already opening the front door by the time they got to the top step.

          “Alex!” she said, and he could tell she had been weeping while he was gone. ‘Heart of mine, are you well?”

          He summoned up the strength to smile, even though the room was spinning all around him.  Her eyes anchored him, and his love for her was like a lifeline in a storm.

          “I am absolutely fine, my love,” he said, and then fell headfirst into the front corridor.  He was saved from smashing his face on the floor only by Eliza catching him and breaking his fall.

          “Mister Pendleton, please fetch us a doctor!” she exclaimed.  “Junior! James! Help me get your father into bed!”

          Hamilton protested feebly as his wife and sons half carried him up the stairs, but he no longer had the strength to stand alone.  Alex Junior held him upright as Eliza stripped off his waistcoat and shirt.  Both were stained with blood, and his bandage was soaked.

          “Whatever it was, it could have waited!” Eliza snapped.  “You have reopened your wound.  Now lay back and be still.  James, get me hot water and more clean kerchiefs.”

          “I will be fine, I am sure,” Hamilton said, and then darkness closed in around him.