Monday, August 21, 2017

MECHANICAL APTITUDE (AKA That Thing I Don't Have!)

    There are guys who are born with a wrench in one hand.  They can change their own oil, rewire a trailer, diagnose mechanical problems, change spark plugs and "points" (whatever those are) - some of them can even take a thing apart and put them together again and the thing will still work!  These guys go on to become auto mechanics, aircraft technicians, lawn mower repairmen, architects, carpenters, and other occupations that make far more money than us history teachers.

    Then there are guys like me.  I am the reason those guys exist.  On a good day, if I take my time and am very careful, I can change a tire without setting the car on fire.  If I'm lucky.  And there my mechanical abilities come to a screeching halt, not unlike a Hefty garbage bag full of cream of tomato soup hitting the pavement after being dropped from the top of AT&T Stadium.  Seriously,  I'm not only the reason mechanics exist, I'm the reason they get paid so well.  I am a helpless hostage to their skills.  They can do by nature stuff that I could not do if you waved a million dollars under my nose and got Anne Hathaway to stand on the sideline and cheer me on in a French maid uniform . . . but I digress.

    One example:  Earlier this summer I was mowing my lawn (DON'T even get me started on mowing!  I am a sixth generation Texan, and I don't mind a hot dry summer. In fact, I look forward every year to the lawn turning brown and dying and the soil turning to concrete by mid-July, so I can put the mower in the shed till next spring and devote my time to far more important pursuits, like figuring out the next plot twist in GAME OF THRONES or waiting for the lake to drop far enough for my favorite arrowhead spots to come out of the water.  But this year we have had nearly a foot of rain in August - AUGUST, when it's supposed to be a hundred and six degrees outside!!!! - and my lawn was beginning to resemble the Amazon basin until I spent four hours cutting it down to size this afternoon.  Did I digress again?  I think I did.  Where was I?  Oh, yeah, I need to close these parentheses!)

    Anyway, I was mowing my lawn a month or so back, and my lawnmower threw a belt.  Where it threw the belt, I do not know - it looked like the belt was still there, just not doing its belty job, which was to make sure my blades turned rapidly and cut the nasty green stuff that just won't quit growing this year.  But my friends all said it had "thrown a belt," although none of them could tell me how far the throw was, who caught the belt and whether or not the runner was safe.  At any rate, with only a tiny amount of my vast yard actually mowed, my riding mower had been reduced to the world's slowest four-wheeler.  So I did what any red-blooded American male utterly devoid of mechanical aptitude would do: I went on Facebook and griped about it.

    Here's where one of my friends jumped in - I'll call him Dave because, well, his name IS Dave.  I was in mid-rant about having to take the mower to the shop and spend money I didn't have, and he said: "You don't have to take it to the shop, it's a simple fix."  I said: "For you, maybe.  I have a hard time figuring out which end of a hammer to use."

    He then adopted that tone (I presume, our communications were all written, but in my mind he was speaking in that slow, sonorous voice that a shepherd uses to persuade a particularly dense sheep that it can cross a trickle of water in the pasture without being eaten by crocodiles) which people with mechanical aptitude use to make guys like me feel particularly useless.

    "It's SIMPLE," he said, "you just loosen the thermo-weeble gasket with a sonic screwdriver until the particle flange detaches from the warp core.  Then you take your tricorder and use the basic principles of leverage to crawl through the Jeffreys tube and re-attach the belt to the servomotor, being sure not to unhook it from the router."

   Now Dave might argue that he said no such thing, and he might be right, because what he was telling me seemed to be written in a rare dialect of Sanskrit spoken by drunken Hindu monks who took language lessons from drunken monkeys.  In other words, I couldn't understand a word of it.  He went on to try and break it down into even simpler terms, using a combination of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Hebrew folklore to show that to anyone with a shred of mechanical aptitude that changing a drive belt was a simple, five-minute job - a job that a moderately well-trained chimpanzee should be able to do.  In the end, I meekly shredded my man card and put the mower on a trailer and took it to the shop, where they ("they" being members of a sinister society of guys like Dave who understand how mechanical things work; it's a form of black magic) did mysterious mechanical things that made it work again.

    But that was not this summer's only attempt to drive home the fact that I was born with less mechanical aptitude than Donald Trump has grace and good manners.  A couple weeks back, me and my friend Danny hooked up my faithful vessel, the Water Turkey, for a run down to Lake Limestone - only to find that my trailer lights were as dead as the tradition of wearing petticoats to Ft. Lauderdale during spring break. Now, I had actually wired the trailer myself originally - well, technically, me and my friend Ray wired it.  To be COMLETELY honest, Ray wired it while holding out his hand and asking me to give him the necessary tools, which I sometimes actually located in six tries or less!  When that set of lights went bad after two lake seasons, I took the boat trailer to a local shop and had it professionally rewired. That was over three years ago, but now the trailer had gone dark again.   Danny plugged and unplugged the connector that hooked the trailer's lights to my SUV's electrical system, studied it a moment, and said "Well, I think you've either got a short or a ground wire not doing its job."  Not wanting to appear ignorant, I nodded in solemn agreement that, yes, there was a short wire on the ground not doing its job, even though I looked on the ground and didn't see a wire anywhere.

    "Can you fix it?" I asked.  "Sure," he said, "but you should be able to do it yourself.  Just get a groundwire connector, a thermo-weeble gasket, a pair of seismic pliers, some eclipse glasses, and a proton generator.  Hook the trailer to a superconducting supercollider, give it a jolt of dilithium, and you should have lights in no time."

    I looked at him in astonishment, because he was speaking (apparently) the same dialect of Sanskrit that Dave had used when telling me how to fix the drive belt.  Finally, turning over those arcane phrases in my mind and wondering how on earth he had memorized so much of the Necronomicon, I said "Well, we could just drive it on down to the lake and work on it later, right?"

    "Sure," he said.  Despite my best attempts to turn the conversation to arrowheads, women, the Civil War, a recent uptick in dog hickeys, and the startling drop in the price of imported tarantulas from Brazil, Danny kept coming back to how easy it should be for me to fix those trailer lights when I got home.  Finally I broke down and admitted to him that, no matter how many times he repeated it, I still had NO idea what he was talking about.  He looked at me the way I look at 8th grade students who for the life of them cannot seem to recall that Grant fought for the Union and Lee for the Confederacy!  I was going to give him my man card, but then I remembered that I shredded it in shame when I took my mower to the shop.  So my boat trailer still has no lights!

   I think I'll invite Danny over, and offer to grill pork spare ribs if he'll rewire the trailer.  I might be mechanically illiterate, but I can do pretty good things with cut up pieces of dead pig - enough that I might even be issued a new man card.

    Mechanical aptitude.  I think it's a cult!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

BOOK SIGNING ETIQUETTE FOR DUMMIES (Because Writers Have Feelings Too!)

   As of this month - on August 14th to be precise - I have been a published novelist for three years.  During those years I have done about a hundred book signings, give or take a few.  I thoroughly enjoy getting out and presenting my works to the public, and if a store is busy I generally manage to have double digit sales.  I love meeting people, talking to people about my books, and above all, I love it when someone reads the back of the book blurb, and their face lights up and they say: "I love stories like this!"

   However, I must admit there are a few things people do that drive me nuts.  I really do believe that most people are decent and polite, given a chance.  But lots of folks have never actually met an author peddling his wares and aren't sure how to handle the situation.  SO, for all you non-writers out there, here are some things you can do to make sure an aspiring new novelist doesn't go home in tears from his or her first book signing!

   1.  GIVE THE WRITER A MINUTE OF YOUR TIME.  Chances are that slim novel lying on the table there (OK, OK, mine are not that slim, I know!) represents months, if not years, of effort.  Composing a story, writing it down, editing it, looking for an agent, looking for a publisher, wrangling over cover art, purchasing copies wholesale (which often represents a huge investment from a person who doesn't have a lot of cash) - none of this is easy.  Even if you have zero interest in the person's book, take a moment of your time, let them tell you about it, and congratulate them for getting this far!

  2.  DON'T THANK THEM FOR NOTHING.  When I see someone come into the store where I am signing, I have a standard line that I use (with minor variations): "Good morning!  Would you like to check out my new novel?  I'm doing a book signing today!"  I get all kinds of responses, but the one that drives me up a wall is when the person looks right through me and says: "Thank you!" without ever making eye contact - and then walks right past me!  Excuse me, but what on EARTH did you just thank me for?  Seriously, even "Sorry, I don't have time right now!" is better than that.  Writers are people, show them a little courtesy.

  3.  AT LEAST THINK ABOUT BUYING THE BOOK.  I get that not everyone is a reader (although that fact makes me very sad).  I realize that not everyone relishes historical fiction with a Biblical twist, which is what I write.  But still, everybody knows somebody who reads!  And, as I always say, a signed first edition makes a marvelous gift for Christmas or someone's birthday.  Besides, who's to say that the struggling young author sitting at that table might not be the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling?  Heck, that signed book might be WORTH something someday!  Nearly all writers start at the bottom, doing what I've been doing for three years now - sitting at a table trying to persuade total strangers to buy their books. Give'em a break and plunk down a twenty.  You won't miss the money in a week, and you may be the only sale they make that day!  (It doesn't happen often, but it has happened to me, and it's a real kick in the teeth to drive fifty miles and not make a sale!)

  4.  IF YOU BUY THE BOOK, REVIEW IT!  Writers LOVE feedback!  Negative or positive, Amazon and Goodreads reviews mean that people are actually reading and reacting to what we have written.  The only thing worse than looking at your book's Amazon page week after week and realizing that your sales rank hasn't budged is looking at your book's Amazon page and seeing that no one has reviewed it in weeks.  I've been fortunate - my books have generated 67 Amazon reviews and I have only ONE negative review.  Goodreads folks are a little more picky, but even there all four of my books are in the 4 point range out of 5 possible.  We love reading your comments, so go ahead and post a review.  Tell us what we did right.  Tell us what we did wrong.  Tell us you love us.  Tell us our writing is less comprehensible than moose drool.  Just tell us SOMETHING!

  5.  DON'T WASTE OUR TIME.  The only thing worse than having someone blow by you without a word is having someone sit and talk to you for thirty solid minutes, asking you all kinds of details about your book, reading the back and the prologue, and then NOT making a purchase!  We love visiting with you, but ultimately, a writer at a book signing is "on the clock."  We are there to make money for our selves and our families, and most of us are not rich.  So if you're going to take up a big chunk of our time, go ahead and make that purchase!


   There are probably some other things I could list, but these are the things that drive me nuts when I am sitting at a table trying to make a sale.  So please, follow these simple rules and you will make your local author a happy camper.  OH! - and speaking of making a sale:  Here is a link to my that will take you to all my books on Amazon.  Because online sales are important too!

https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1?ie=UTF8&text=Lewis+Ben+Smith&search-alias=books&field-author=Lewis+Ben+Smith&sort=relevancerank

Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Poem About Something We All Have in Common . . .

I never thought I would be one of these guys that freaked out over getting older - until I turned fifty.  Then, all of a sudden, my age and the realization that my time on this planet was, most likely, over half done just threw me for a loop.  I am still sorting out how I feel, and earlier this week this poem came to me.  It sums up my current feelings pretty well:


REFLECTIONS ON MORTALITY

 

The photograph is faded and yellow, taken in my twentieth year.

When Reagan was President and I wore Navy whites,

And life seemed endless and I had no fear.

For I was slim and tan and young and nice to look upon – or so I’m told.

Years unnumbered lay before me, pages of life yet unwritten,

And if it occurred to me, I laughed at the thought of growing old.

 

Now the photo album has come unbound, pictures of my now-spent youth,

Lie tumbled and jumbled in a box full of memories –

And when I look in the mirror it tells me the truth.

For the man I once was has long since gone, his trim form but a memory.

Hair has greyed, waist has thickened, and though I’m still strong,

I see the old man I’ll soon become standing there, staring into me.

 

Too soon!  Not yet!  There is so much living I have not done!

Sensations unfelt, things untried, I feel that I must hasten quickly;

For more than half the sands in my hourglass have already run.

Youth was a blur, youth was an era; it felt like a short eternity.

Now my father is gone, my mother is old, my siblings about to retire,

And when girls smile at me, it seems like a cold act of charity.

 

I see with a clarity the young cannot know, I see the future that beckons;

The slow decline of my body, the withering of my mind,

As all the choices I have made demand to be reckoned.

A decade, perhaps, maybe two or three, is all that I have remaining.

Will I be hale and strong til the end?  Or an invalid,

Helpless, lying in bed, demanding and complaining?

 

This cannot be!  I won’t allow it!  I refuse to grow any older!

How many before me have screamed at the clock thus,

Their demands growing louder and bolder?

But time, the great teacher, instructs us all in reality,

For no matter how much we scream and rage,

We cannot outrun our mortality.

So what can we do, but live, and live large, seizing each day as it comes!

We know not how many we have, or how few –

As we march to the beat of our own set of drums.

From this day forth I shout from the ramparts a new battle cry;

Let all who hear take note and take heed,

If nothing else I will live ere I die!

This is the last third of my life’s brand-new creed.

 

 

Lewis Smith

Age 53

July 2017

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A TRIBUTE TO MY MOM . . . .

   I have written a lot about my Dad in this blog over the last six months.  His final bout with illness, followed by his passing away in May, brought forth a flood of fond memories of happy times that helped stave off some of our deep sadness at his death.  But, looking back, I do wish now that I had written some of those things when he was still alive and of sound enough mind to read and appreciate them. I resolved that I would not make that mistake twice.

   Today my extended family gathered to celebrate my Mom's 85th birthday.  The actual date was back in May, only a few days after my Dad's funeral.  None of us felt quite like a party so soon after such a sad occasion, so we decided to wait and celebrate a bit later in the summer.  It was quite a gathering - my three siblings and their spouses were there, and seven out of ten of mom's grandchildren, as well as four out of ten great-grandchildren, plus two of my three first cousins - the son and daughter of mom's sister Bobbie (now deceased), plus assorted in-laws and one boyfriend.  We had plenty of food, laughs, and stories (including a rare opportunity for me to embarrass my big brother instead of vice versa!), and Mom was showered with gifts, cards, hugs, and wishes for many more happy and healthy years to come.

    Laura Smith is one of the most remarkable ladies I know. She and my Dad were married in 1950, right before he was recalled to military service during the Korean War.  My sister Clinta was born not long after that, then my brother Dwain, my sister Jo, and finally me - a bit of a surprise, in 1963.  Mom was a military wife briefly, but she spent over fifty years as a preacher's wife, in a time when pastors and their families were both looked up to and held to a very high standard.  She raised four kids who all grew up to be good and reputable adults (my Dad used to say with a wink: "Ain't one of my kids been in jail!") despite a few bumps along the way, including my oldest sister's "Flower Child" phase and my repeated attempts to talk her into letting me keep a pet snake.

   Mom was a teacher by profession, high school English to be precise.  She was strict but fun, demanding high quality work from her students but also investing in their lives and reminding them that she cared about them as people, not just as numbers in a grade book.  All of us had her as our classroom teacher at one point or another, I think, and she made a point of showing no favoritism and accepting no excuses when it came to our schoolwork!  But let someone treat one of us unfairly and she would sail into battle with all guns blazing, as evinced the time I got kicked out of Mr. S---------'s class after spending one period as "Teacher for a Day" my senior year.  I said (erroneously, as it turned out, but in good faith) that Hitler had been born out of wedlock, and the history teacher flew into a rage and booted me from his room!  Mom was NOT happy and let him know in no uncertain terms.  (I think Mr. S--------- may have been a member of the Hitler Youth as a child, but that is pure conjecture on my part.)

   Mom loved her students, and they loved her back.  In the mid-70's, when the "Pet Rock" craze was at it height, all her students started bringing her pet rocks.  She named each one, stone by stone, and one kid even built her a little house for them!  She displayed them at the front of her room and referred to each rock by name.  (I think she was just grateful to have the most maintenance-free classroom pets of all time!)  She was sponsor for the Future Teachers of America for many years, and after I graduated she switched career tracks and ended her time in the public schools as a high school counselor.

    Mom was a perfect match for my Dad.  He adored her and delighted in giving her gifts on special occasions, and their love was evident, not just in the way they spoke to each other in public, but in the way they treated each other at home.  She was Dad's best friend, his refuge in time of stress, and his constant companion.  I remember one time when I was about 14 or so, and we were trying to find our way to an obscure Dallas hospital to visit a sick church member.  Dad got turned around and simply could not locate the place, and was getting more and more frustrated.  Now, my Dad VERY rarely swore (I think I maybe heard him cuss 3 times in my entire life!), but he did have a number of colorful East Texas-isms that came out when he was mad, and one of them was the adjective "frazzlin' ".  He must have said it a dozen times during that drive, and finally my dear mother leaned over and put her hand on his arm and said "Honey, I think you are frazzlin' your vocabulary tonight!"  Dad burst out laughing, his anger dissipated, and I think we even eventually found the hospital.

    Mom loved church - she sang in the choir, played the piano, performed solos (or "special music" as we call it in Baptist churches), and taught Sunday School classes.  She stood by my Dad through some of the difficult times in his ministry, through combative business meetings, irate deacon interviews, and tragedies within the church family.  She was his partner in ministry and his refuge from its storms.  She was a role model to the younger women in the church, and to some of the older ones too, and how they all loved her!

    But above all, my Mom was a loyal and devoted spouse to my Dad.  During their retirement, they traveled together around the country, sometimes driving and sometimes going on tour buses.  Later they got an RV and spent months at a time at places like Cooper Lake Park and Lake Wright Patman.  But the place that truly captured their hearts was Mountain View, Arkansas.  They wound up leaving their RV there full time and driving back and forth several times a year, staying for two or three months at a time in the "Folk Music Capitol of America," where they made many friends.

    When Dad fell and broke his hip, that was the end of their traveling days.  His health went downhill after that - within a year he was a permanent resident at a local nursing home.  Mom continued to see him every day - unless it was raining, for she will not drive in bad weather.  But for five years, she would get up, get dressed, go to the nursing home, and sit with Dad till lunchtime.  They would eat together, visit with the other residents, and then she would take him back to his room.  Only when he went down for the inevitable after-dinner nap would she leave, running her personal errands in the early afternoon, then driving back to her apartment and doing it all again the next day.  Even though Dad was sadly reduced by dementia during his final two years, he always recognized her, always thought of her, and always worried about her.  "Take care of your momma!" he admonished me at the end of nearly every visit.

   Mom showed us all that "Love Wins."  When Dad was in his final illness, she stayed with him every day, only going home at night because we kids insisted.  She never left without kissing him goodbye and telling him she loved him.  Her devotion never wavered, she never grumbled or complained about her lot, and in the end, she said her goodbyes with dignity and love, one last lesson for us all.  The day after Dad's funeral, she told me: "I took a vow - 'in sickness and in health, till death do  us part' - and I kept it as well as I could."  That was very well indeed.

    Now, for the first time in 67 years, she is on her own.  She attends church every Sunday, goes to events with her Sunday School class, reads books, watches her beloved Texas Rangers, and has dinner with whichever one of us kids is free to take her as often as we ask.  She told me her new policy is to refuse no invitation, so her days and evenings are often taken up with concerts, dinners, and even stage plays.  She came to our house for the Fourth and enjoyed dinner and time with our family and friends.  The joy in her face at the party today, seeing so many familiar and much-loved faces, was a reminder that she is far from done with living yet!

   My Mom was always a good teacher - and I think she has many lessons yet to impart to us all. May she keep teaching them for many years to come!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

I THINK I AM ADDICTED TO DEBATE . . .

    Actually, I know I am.  I used to love discussing politics, but the subject has become so ugly of late, with so much bitterness on both sides, that I tend to shy away from that these.  You can look back on some of my posts here from last year if you want to see how I felt about the election, or simply take my word that, for the first time in my life, I saw it as a true no-win scenario.  But despite stepping away from that particular area, I still love taking any complex issue and going back and forth, point by point.

    Religious debate is a favorite of mine.  I am a Christian and make no bones about it, and I believe that the claims of Christianity have far more historical credibility than those of any other faith.  I love engaging atheists and agnostics and discussing the historical evidence that underlies the Bible, especially the Gospels.  I have studied the issue enough that I am able to counter a lot of their arguments and counterclaims, and I feel as if the whole process of engaging people who don't share my beliefs actually strengthens my faith rather than undermines it.  And, every so often, I actually manage to change someone's mind.  One of the proudest moments of my life was about seven years ago, when a longtime agnostic friend sent me this email:  "You know, I've been thinking about it, and I have decided that the single best explanation for all those stories about Jesus rising from the dead is that He really did!"  Walking that person into the path of belief remains one of my very proudest achievements.

   I also like debating historical issues.  I have very little patience for those who say the Civil War was not about slavery.  This comes as a surprise to many, since I am a sixth generation Texan and a tenth generation Southerner.  All my ancestors, on both sides of the family, fought for the Stars and Bars - but I do believe they were on the wrong side of history, and that the whole "State's Rights" argument was largely created after the war to enshrine the Lost Cause in something more noble than the auction block and the whip.  A lot of people simply don't want to hear that, especially Southerners, but the historical facts are in my favor - and MOST people can discuss this one without getting too angry.

   Presidents?  Oh, I love discussing their merits and demerits, who is overrated (Jefferson, Kennedy)  and who is underrated (Grant, Cleveland).  I have read dozens of Presidential biographies, and I thoroughly enjoy discussing the lives of our nation's leaders in the past.  I also recognize that it takes about twenty to thirty years to truly pass historical judgment on a Presidency; before that political passions are still too strong. 

   What else to I enjoy debating?  Well, movies and such - although that is largely a matter of taste, I will still defend SUCKER PUNCH against all detractors, and insist that SAVING PRIVATE RYAN got totally ripped off for Best Picture in 1998.  "Shakespeare in Love"??? Really?    I l also love discussing what portrayals of well-known historical figures are best, and which are worst.  I follow some sports, mainly Dallas Cowboys football, and I will go to my grave saying that Dez CAUGHT THAT DARNED BALL in the playoff game against Green Bay a couple years back.

   I always try to be civil and friendly during these discussions.  If someone cannot debate an issue without getting their feelings hurt or becoming abusive, I simply won't debate them.  And one of the few things I will absolutely "unfriend" someone over on social media is if they are rude and ugly to other people in the discussion.  I have many friends and family members whose political and religious beliefs are different from mine, and we bat stuff back and forth all the time.  But if someone jumps into the discussion and starts being abusive and nasty, they are gone!

    There are a few topics that I simply hate getting into, and both of them involve conspiracy theories. A few years back I tangled with a Holocaust denier.  He wasn't a knuckle-dragging skinhead, but a man with some education and an array of websites and literature at his disposal.  But there was a nasty undercurrent of anti-Semitism that pervaded his arguments.  Once I commented that it was difficult for me to believe that the testimony of tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors was all a fabrication, and his response was a snarling: "They've gotten away with this for way too long!"  I was kind of glad when the forum where this off and on conversation had gone on for over a year shut down, because that guy made me feel like I needed a hot shower after I read his posts.

   The other thing that drives me nuts is the whole 9/11 "Truther" movement. I've had the privilege of being friends with several people, over the years, in the intelligence community.  They are good, decent people, patriotic Americans all, who love this country and defend it at great cost.  I find the idea that these same people, my friends and their co-workers, would willingly murder 3000 American citizens to achieve some sinister foreign policy goal, to be deeply offensive.  Plus the whole idea is just plain silly.  The stuff these nuts come up with - drone airplanes, crisis actors, tons and tons of high explosive somehow smuggled into one of the busiest workplaces in the whole world under the noses of 50,000 employees, it just staggers the imagination.  Not to mention the whole concept of "the secret too big to keep" - it would have taken a minimum of a couple thousand people to carry off a conspiracy of that magnitude, and there is simply no way that it could have happened. A covert op with a dozen agents is incredibly difficult; a covert op involving several thousand operatives that STAYS covert - no way!  But facts and logic never get in the way of conspiracy theorists, and any credible study or published report that contradicts their narrative is "part of the whitewash."  I sometimes try to point out stuff like this, but honestly, these people are not worth the effort.

   So there it is, the confession of a junkie.  I am addicted to debate - point by point, hopefully polite and civil, you take your side and I take mine and may the best mind win.

   GO!

  

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

SOME THOUGHTS ON THE FOURTH . . .

Happy Fourth of July.
No silly memes or cute cat pictures this post. I want to talk about what it means to be an American Patriot on our nation's birthday. America is a nation of astonishing diversity, both in ideas and in cultures. Yet our one of our national mottos is this: "E Pluribus Unum" - Out of many, one. We are ALL Americans, with all our different ideas, skin colors, and religious beliefs.
It disturbs me when I see some people on the far right or far left saying it is time for a second Civil War. Patriotic Americans do not wish their fellow citizens dead and maimed; patriotic Americans have no desire to see American cities in flames, America's beautiful countryside turned into a battleground, America's wives widowed and her children orphaned. The last Civil War killed 750,000 Americans - a second one, with the brutal technologies of war that exist in the modern world, would leave millions dead.
Right and left, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, we are all Americans. We may have very different ideas about how to run the country, about what candidates to support, about what rulings our courts should make. But in the end, we live in one country, we salute the same flag, we are governed by the same Constitution. On this Fourth of July, let us remember the words of a great American, at a time when the country was almost as bitterly polarized as it is today. It was 1801, and Thomas Jefferson had just emerged as the victor in a bitterly contested Presidential election that was thrown to the House after the electoral votes ended in a tie. This is what he said:
"During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. . . . . But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."
Happy Birthday, America.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

CIVILITY: A Post-Mortem

  Civility is dead.  This has been commented on repeatedly in the media, and repeated on various social networking platforms.  The brutal political cycle of the last couple of years drove a stake through the heart of decency, to the point that I think we can honestly say the idea of principled, polite disagreement has becoming increasingly foreign in Americas' public discourse.  There have been times in the past when we have been almost as polarized as we are today, and there have been times when we have been almost as rude as we are today, but barring the restoration of dueling, I don't see how we can get much worse than we are now when it comes to public discourse.  I mean, even Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton wrote each other respectful letters about their disagreements before they strapped on their pistols and shot at each other!

   I'm a historian by temperament and training.  As such, I've always tried to look at the big picture and not fall into the "things are worse now than they have ever been" trap.  In many ways, we live in better times today than our ancestors did.  People aren't routinely lynched for the crime of being black, people with mental, sexual, or socially "different" lifestyles are no longer stoned, burned at the stake, or sentenced to years of electroshock therapy.  Slavery has been legally abolished throughout the civilized world. Women can vote.  We have air conditioning (and it Texas summers, that is a HUGE technological blessing!). In so many marvelous ways, we in the Western world live better than human beings have been able to since the dawn of time.

    So why can't we be nicer to each other?

    For years I have drawn cartoons and pasted them to the whiteboard in my classroom for my students to read.  Some are just plain silly, and some are me trying to make a point with a dollop of humor.  Last fall I drew one showing three men having a debate.  The two on each side were shouting at each other.  One said: "You're a commie liberal Muslim-hugging snowflake!" while the other shouted: "You're a racist, homophobic right-wing teabagger!"  Then the guy in the middle spoke up and said:  "Can't you see that you are both loyal Americans who love this country but have different ideas about how it ought to be run?"  At that, the other two looked at him and screamed in chorus:  "What's wrong with you???"

    That sums up a lot of it.  We have slanted "fake news" websites right and left, the complete marginalization of the traditional media, and the constant self-affirmation that comes from social media circles whose members all share the same political beliefs. This is compounded by the number of complete nutjobs from all fringes of the political spectrum who bog down serious consideration of issues with conspiracy theories so ridiculous that no one should give them the time of day. The result is that real truth is more elusive now than ever.  So otherwise rational human beings are convinced that Bush and Cheney conspired with Israel and "big oil" to murder 3000 people on 9/11, or that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim who deliberately weakened America to help groups like ISIS establish a global caliphate, or that "Big Pharma"  (Rule number one of demonization: reduce a vast, complex industry owned by multiple interests to one word, then put "Big" in front of it!) is hiding dozens of "cures" for cancer in order to make more money by keeping people sick.  Put all this together, throw in a healthy dose of pure ignorance, mix in generational anxiety over America's ever-changing social mores, and what do you wind up with?  Tens of thousands of people whose minds are completely closed to any explanation of events that does not suit their world view; who have lost all sense of nuance and complexity and embrace a simplistic, black-and-white view of the universe which is populated only be true-believing Patriots and The Others - an evil, vast group of villains conspiring to destroy Mom, apple pie, baseball, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.

   Gone are the days when Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill could go at each other hammer and tongs from nine to five on Capitol Hill and then have cocktails at the White House that evening, when Bill Clinton could bash the Republican Congress on the campaign trail and still poach their best ideas, sign them into law, and then take credit for them when they worked.  Now we are so polarized that ANY effort by people on either side of the political aisle attempt to work out some form of compromise to actually get something done, they are demonized as an "establishment sellout."

    Well, as a historian, I can tell every one of you, both left and right - America as a nation was built on compromise! Our Constitution itself is nothing more than a bundle of compromises arrived at by a group of men deeply divided on the fundamental nature of our country - were we a confederation of sovereign states or a single nation made up of locally autonomous political districts? They couldn't agree on everything, so the document our nation is built on deliberately left many questions to be worked out in the future, by practice, trial, and error.

   Can we bring civility back?  Maybe.  The best way to start is by us as individuals being civil to each other.  Don't call people names because they disagree with you.  Don't post inflammatory political articles until you verify whether or not they are factual - and even then, consider whether or not repeating this material will do anything to improve the situation it complains about.  If someone posts something derogatory of offensive about a position you embrace, or a politician you admire, instead of shooting back with hateful invective, read it carefully. Research it to see if the claims it makes are true or not. Ask the person if they have ever considered the opposite point of view.  TALK, don't yell.  We've yelled at each other enough.

   Civility may be dead in America today.  But it doesn't have to stay that way.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

ARE THE GOSPELS HISTORY?

    I have long said that, if the four Gospels found in the New Testament - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - were not the founding documents of Christianity, virtually no one except a few crackpots would challenge their authenticity or their historical accuracy.  After all, they are better attested than any other work of the ancient world, by far.  The closest rival is Homer's Odyssey, of which there are some 700 Greek manuscripts, of which the oldest dates some 900 years after the original work's composition.  With the New Testament, on the other hand - well, there are 6000 Greek manuscripts, the oldest of which date within a generation of the originals.  Of those 6000 Greek manuscripts, over a third of them are our Gospels, including the oldest known fragment of the New Testament (for the moment) - the Rylands Papyrus Fragment, which contains six verses from John 18 and is generally dated around 110-125 AD (most scholars feel John was written around 95 AD).   That figure doesn't even begin to count the Syriac, Latin, and other languages into which the Gospels were copied within two centuries of their composition, or the thousands of quotes from the Gospels found in the writings of second and third generation Christian works from the Second Century.  While there are many variant readings in these hand-copied manuscripts, the variations are generally minor and there are only a handful of passages in the whole NT where the original wording is in any serious doubt.  In other words, when it comes to the four Gospels, we are pretty darned sure that the manuscripts we have today are virtually identical to the original works.

    But does that make them history?  Not necessarily.  There are many myths and legends of the ancient world which have been passed down that no one takes seriously.  We may study the great tales of Greek mythology, but we don't really believe that Zeus and Poseidon were real, or that they castrated their father Kronos, or that there really was a god-king named Osiris who ruled over Egypt and was sewed back together by his wife Isis after his jealous brother cut him into pieces.  Nor does anyone really think that Hercules was real, or that he performed the twelve labors legend ascribes to him.  So are the Gospels just mythology then?

    Well, take a look the first few verses of the Gospel of Luke:  "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught."  That does not sound like a fairy tale, does it?  More like the introduction to a court briefing, or a historical essay.  Myths, by definition, are stories that form over a long period of time. Sometimes they conglomerate around an actual historical figure (there may have well been a man named Romulus who helped found the city of Rome), but they generally incorporate more and more fantastical details around that person until the historical figure at the heart of the myth is lost in a sea of tall tales, exaggeration, and hero worship. Invariably, the mythical figure lived long, long before the time when his tale was recorded.  Jesus was never represented in the Gospels as anything other than a real person, born in recent history, with known associates who passed along his teachings.

    Skeptics will tell you that the Jesus of the Bible was a mythologized historical figure.  The radical  Galilean teacher who drew a large following and then was crucified by the Romans had a series of tall tales woven around His person over many years, until He became a supernatural being who could heal the sick, raise the dead, walk on water, and ultimately conquer death itself.  Of course, for this to be true, two things have to be assumed about the Gospels: First, that they were not written by eyewitnesses or drawn from eyewitness testimony - since the real eyewitnesses would have known that all these ridiculous, supernatural stories about Jesus were just tall tales.  And secondly, that the Gospels were not written down until Jesus and his original followers were long gone and the myths had sufficient time to form and crystallize among the second and third and fourth generation followers of Jesus.

    The problem is, both of those assumptions are false.  I know, there is a cottage industry of books by skeptics like Bart Ehrman and John Shelby Spong and a host of others who will do their best to convince you that the Gospels were not written down for a very long time - maybe a century! - after the crucifixion.  But hard scholarship belies their claims.  First of all, a single century really isn't time for a fully blown myth to form.  Look at Suetonius' biography of Julius Caesar. It was written a hundred and fifty years after Caesar's death in 44 BC, but it is still considered one of the standard sources for Julius Caesar's life, and his account is generally considered accurate.  The fact is, all four Gospels were composed in the First Century AD.  Even if they were composed in the 90's AD, that puts them within 60 years of Jesus' death.  And the majority of scholars believe that the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were written between 60 and 80 AD.  Certainly they were around by the 90's, since Clement of Rome quotes from all three in his letter to the church at Corinth, composed in 96 AD.  By the second century, all three of these Gospels were widely regarded as authoritative and apostolic in origin.  John's Gospel may indeed date to the 90's AD - but that comports well with several early accounts that John lived to be a very old man, over 100 at the time of his death, and that he wrote his Gospel near the end of his long life.  John also alludes to his unusual longevity at the end of his Gospel.

    During the Second, Third, and Fourth centuries there were numerous Gospels composed that claimed to be written by major figures in the life of Jesus.  There is a Gospel of Thomas, a Gospel of Judas, a Gospel of Peter, as well as a dozen or more others.  All of them were promoted by splinter sects - many of them by a group known as the Gnostics, who broke off from the mainstream apostolic church around the end of the First Century.  Not one of these Gospels was embraced by the mainstream church or accepted by the men known as the Apostolic Fathers - people like Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias, and Irenaeus, who were born in the latter part of the First Century and who could remember encountering the disciples of Jesus when they were young men.  All these men accepted the canonical Gospels and rejected the Gnostic works for the forgeries that they were.  All four of the Biblical Gospels were ALWAYS associated with the same names we hang on them today, so the traditions of authorship go back as far as the Gospels themselves.

   While the exact date the Synoptic Gospels were written may never be determined, the fact is that the arguments for early authorship actually carry a lot more weight than those for later authorship, when viewed objectively.  Let's look at Luke's works in closing.  Luke wrote two books in the New Testament - the Gospel that bears his name, and the Book of Acts.  Acts tells the story of the disciples of Jesus from the time of His resurrection right up until Paul's journey to Rome under arrest, having appealed his case to Caesar (Nero Caesar, to be precise) when he saw that he could not get a fair trial in Jerusalem.  The book ends with Paul still awaiting trial in Rome, receiving guests, and preaching the Gospel to all who come to see him.  The date would have been around 62 AD at that point.

    The next eight years were HUGE years for the early church.  The Great Fire of Rome broke out, Nero blamed the Christians for starting it and outlawed their faith, Peter and Paul were both put to death, along with some 20,000 Christians in the city of Rome alone.  James the brother of Jesus was killed by an angry mob in Jerusalem at the beginning of a great rebellion in Judea, and - oh, yeah!  The city of Jerusalem was sacked and burned by the Romans, and the great Temple of Herod was torn down to its foundations, exactly as Jesus had predicted in the Gospels.  Now, a careful historian like Luke, who records many, many details in his two books with painstaking accuracy - so much so that classical archeologist Sir William Ramsay regarded him as "a historian of the first rank." Why didn't Luke record any of these events that loomed so large in the history of the early church?

    Occam's Razor is an ancient premise that the simplest explanation is nearly always the most likely.  If we use that in this case, the answer becomes very clear: Luke didn't include the Great Fire, the deaths of Peter and Paul, or the destruction of the Temple in the Book of Acts because THEY HADN'T HAPPENED YET when he finished his books!  No other explanation of their omission makes more sense than this. So what does that mean?

   Well, it means that the Book of Acts was written before 62 AD.  That means the Gospel of Luke - his "former treatise," as Luke calls it in the introduction to Acts - would date even earlier, perhaps around 60 AD.  And since virtually all scholars agree that Luke used the Gospels of Mark and Matthew as sources for his own work - well, that means both of them were likely completed before 60 AD as well.  So let's do the math now - assuming Jesus was crucified in 33 AD, which most scholars feel is the most likely year, then that would place the three Synoptic Gospels as all having been written in the late 50's AD.  That's only 25 years after the fact!  We know, at that time, that James the brother of Jesus was still alive.  Peter and John were still alive.  Jesus' mother may well have outlived her son by as many as 20 years, so the Gospel writers would have had access to her version of events as well.  In short, all the major eyewitnesses of Jesus' life were likely still alive when the Gospels we have in our Bible today were written.

    You may believe or not believe them, as you see fit.  But one thing is perfectly clear - they are NOT myths, not by any scholarly accepted definition of the term.  They are early accounts of real events, composed by or with the testimony of eyewitnesses.  In short, they are HISTORY.


   Now, if you like historical FICTION, I have written a book that weaves the writing of Luke's works in with the history of the Roman Empire in the mid to late First Century AD.  If you enjoyed what I wrote above, or just like historical fiction and this time period in general - well, here's the Amazon link.  Enjoy!!

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1632132729/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1491859610&sr=8-2&keywords=THEOPHILUS%3A+A+TALE+OF+ANCIENT+ROME

Thursday, June 8, 2017

GOING TO TEMPLE - And I'm Not Even Jewish!!

   Once a year, usually the first weekend in June, like grizzled salmon swimming upstream to spawn, Texas arrowhead collectors convene in the small town of Temple, about an hour north of Austin, for one of the largest Indian Artifact shows in North America.  Hosted by the Genuine Indian Relic Society, the gathering is held at the Mayborn Convention  Center on the north side of town - a sprawling civic center that is the size of two football fields and holds two hundred and fifty eight-foot-long tables, arranged in rows, groaning beneath the weight of tens of thousands of arrowheads, spear points, grooved axes, celts, scrapers, flint knives, fossils, rare minerals, Spanish artifacts, and every other sort of ancient tool you can imagine.

   I've gone to the Temple Show every year since it began.  Generally speaking, there are three kinds of people in the collecting world.  There are guys like me - the "arrowhead hunters" - who find all of our stuff ourselves and display our cases with pride, even if our artifacts aren't necessarily as pretty or as big as some of the stuff other guys have.  We go out and walk riverbeds and wade in creeks and hike plowed fields and comb shorelines to rescue these bits of the past, and we are DARNED proud of them!  Then there are the dealers. These are guys who buy entire collections for resale. They may keep a few pieces, but to them, an artifact is primarily a way to make a quick buck.   They will find some old farmer's collection and give him a few hundred dollars for it, which he will gratefully accept.  Then they will pull out one or two pieces that they want to keep, and put a price tag on all the rest.  When you consider that a single perfect Clovis or Scottsbluff point can sometimes be worth over $10,000, dealers can make big profits on their investments. But the vast majority if points in any personal finds collection are common examples of common types, so often dealers will buy an entire collection just to get a half dozen really good pieces.  Of course, they also get burned by fake relics sometimes, since people have been knapping out "modern" points since the 1890's!  Finally, there are the buyers.  These are guys with pretty big money who collect the best of the best, or maybe they are looking for specific artifact types.  Many of them don't sell at all, but they come to the show to scour collections of the "hunters" and "dealers" that are there.  Unlike the dealers, buyers will pay top dollar for a piece if it is something they really want, and they may chase the same artifact for years, gradually raising their price until the finder finally caves in and sells it.  (For the record, I try to keep most of my personal finds, but when the money gets downright stupid, it is, after all, just a rock I found on the ground!)

    So Thursday afternoon, June 1, 2017, I packed up my cases of points, boxes of fossils, and multiple copies of my books, and then Patty and I headed down to Temple together.  It's a three hour drive, and we got there around 9 pm and checked into our hotel.  We crashed almost immediately, since we'd put in a very busy day long before we left Greenville.  The next morning we got up, ate breakfast, went to the Mayborn Center, and set up my tables.  While I am primarily a hunter, I did sell a few of my very best personal finds back in the early 2000's when we were pretty poor and our daughters had a lot of medical bills.  Around 2008 I decided enough was enough - out of my ten all-time best personal finds, I had sold seven!  So I began buying a few points here and there, mainly on EBay, so that I could sell them at just enough of a markup to at least pay for going to the show.  More recently, after I became an author, my arrowhead business declined to the point (ha ha! pun!) that I pretty much quit buying.  I didn't have much sales inventory left at all  this year, in fact, so I after setting up I wandered over to the table of a dealer who is a good friend of mine and picked up a few pieces  that I knew I could turn a small profit on.  By noon I had sold one arrowhead, a nice fossil, and a sword that my daughter's boyfriend sold me the year before that I no longer wanted. Then it was time to go to Doug's!

     My friend Doug S. has a nice little ranch just east of Temple built on top of a large Indian camp.  We met in 2007 and he invited me to come out and dig for points on his place with him. He has found thousands of points there, some very nice.  Over the next ten years, I found maybe fifty or sixty nice points on his place, going down to hunt with him once or twice a year.  Honestly, most of the best camp is now dug out, and even with a screen table and a front end loader we only found one whole artifact this afternoon - a nice Clear Fork Gouge that my wife pulled off the screen.  But, it was a beautiful day, and we got to play in the dirt and have a little fun and hang out with some nice folks.
After that, we went to the hotel and cleaned up, ate a very nice dinner at Texas Road House, and then hit the sack early, watching a movie together in bed before fading off to sleep.  Saturday was going to be a big day!

   The next morning we rose early, grabbed a quick bite, and were at the Convention Center by 8 AM.  I uncovered my tables and set up.  I got to see a ton of old friends and some very beautiful artifacts (I never have time to walk around all I want; I'm too busy hustling books and stuff at my table!).  I sold seventeen of my novels, almost all my nicer fossils, and a few decent points, making enough money to pay for all the trip's expenses and come out about $200 in the black at the end of the day.  I saw collectors from all over America, got to hold some incredible artifacts, and thoroughly enjoyed seeing many of my friends again.  By four in the afternoon the show was winding down, and I began to slowly pack away my stuff.  We carried the heavy cases and frames of points and spears and boxes of rocks and stacks of books back out to the car, and by 6 PM we were on the road, headed north, back to home.

    But the call of the flint is strong, and I imagine that come next June, I'll be on I-35 heading south with a carload of flint and high hopes of rocks and friends and fossils and pointy things and adventures in the dirt . . .

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"TEAR DOWN THIS STATUE!" - Harming History or Erasing Racism?

       All across the South, especially in cities with large black populations, war has been declared on the monuments of the Confederacy.  New Orleans has taken down several statues.  In Charlottesville, Virginia, the image of Robert E. Lee - once an icon of Southern gentility and heroism - has been removed from the park that once bore his name.  If the trend continues, in another twenty years a foreign tourist in the South will have no visible clues that there ever was a Confederacy, or that the South once belonged to it.  What should we make of this?

     In the interest of full disclosure - I am a white male, a descendant of slave owners.  I am a sixth generation Texan and a tenth generation Southerner.  My ancestors, on both sides of the family, fought for the South in this nation's most destructive conflict.  My grandmother's grandfather was a veteran of the Texas Revolution, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War, who survived all three unharmed and lived into his nineties.

      But, before you start measuring me for a Klan robe, let me give you the other side of the coin.  First of all, unlike far too many Southerners, I will freely concede that the Civil War was about slavery, first and foremost.  Anyone who argues to the contrary simply has not read the primary source documents.  Read Southern newspaper editorials from 1859-60, read the speeches made on the floor of Congress by the South's representatives, read the Ordinances of Secession that each Southern State published as they voted themselves out of the Union.  That hoary old Southern canard, "states' rights," barely gets a mention, but nearly all of them either refer to slavery directly or indirectly ("to preserve our domestic institutions" - do you think they meant that Lincoln's election was a threat to marriage, or parenthood?).  The bottom line is this: the South seceded to avoid a perceived threat to the institution of slavery. (Ironically, Lincoln had repeatedly said he had no intention of disturbing slavery in the states where it already existed.  Had the South not seceded, the "peculiar institution" might have slowly fizzled out over the next generation instead of being torn from them by force.)  True, the North did not wage war on the South initially for the purpose of exterminating slavery, but to preserve the Union which the South was attempting to destroy.  (I always wondered why Southerners call it the "War of the Northern Aggression" when the South fired the first shots!)  Over time, it became apparent that the surest way to defeat the South was to eliminate slavery, hence the Emancipation Proclamation, and Lincoln's extremely risky battle to get the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress before the war ended, so ably chronicled in Spielberg's movie LINCOLN.  He wanted to be sure that slavery was permanently scotched, so that it might not spark another horribly destructive war.

       So, for me, the bottom line is this: the South was on the wrong side of history.  They were fighting to preserve a monstrous and immoral institution against the sweeping tide of human freedom that came from the Enlightenment.  Indeed, it is horrifying to see how willing and indeed eager they were to throw America's founding values under the bus in order to justify the Peculiar Institution. "All the societal ills of the Northern States descend from their erroneous view that all men are created equal," wrote George Fitzhugh in his 1850 "Sociology of the South."  Slavery is incompatible not only with the founding principles of America, but also with the spirit of Christianity.  Yes, the New Testament does condone slavery in Paul's epistles (and it is worth noting that slavery in the ancient world was a very diverse institution), but in the end, can any of us truly "love your neighbor as yourself" and then sell him on the auction block?  Can we "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and separate husband from wife, child from mother, in order to deliver them to a lifetime of brutal servitude?  I would answer a resounding "No!"

      At the same time - this current trend disturbs me.  There is a tide of hateful ignorance behind it that would have us forget the lessons the nineteenth century taught America at such bitter cost.  History is a harsh instructor: its lessons are dear-bought, but well-bought.  By erasing the monuments to men like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, we erase the lessons we can still learn from them, the most important of which is that good and decent men can sometimes be deluded into defending monstrous institutions in the name of tradition, and even - bizarrely enough - in the name of "liberty".  By all means, let us take down the worshipful placards bemoaning the Lost Cause that the Daughters of the Confederacy erected by the tens of thousands across the South and replace them with more contemporary, intellectually honest text. But let us also give Robert E. Lee and his subordinates their due: they were men of decency, honor, and courage who fought with great skill against overwhelming odds in a cause that they believed to be right.  We can salute their bravery and admire their martial abilities without embracing or misrepresenting the cause for which they fought. 

      Public morality is elastic.  Practices that would have earned their participants a jail term not too many years ago are celebrated today; actions that our grandfathers would have cheered are now regarded as loathsome and disgusting.  Who knows which of our current trends will wind up on the ash heap of history?  The old adage: "Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it" still applies.  Let us not rob our children of the chance to learn these lessons the easy way, so that they will not have to re-learn them in a way as difficult as any battle the Army of Northern Virginia ever faced.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

INTERVIEW AT WEEHAWKEN

    I want to thank everyone who took the time to visit this page last week and read the tribute I wrote to my Dad.  The fact that five hundred people did so was a very humbling experience for me, and a reminder of how much people loved him.
   In the midst of all I went through over the last few days, I sought escape in writing, and this short story came to me in the space of a single afternoon.  The life of Alexander Hamilton has always fascinated me, long before HAMILTON: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL came along.  What might have happened had he lived to a ripe old age, and fulfilled the promise of his earlier political career?  Of course, for that to happen, a certain encounter along the shores of the Hudson on the morning of July 11, 1804 would have to have gone a little differently . . . .




        Alexander Hamilton grasped the gunwales of the barge as the murky waters of the Hudson rolled beneath them.  The sun was just clearing the horizon, and the bluffs at Weehawken loomed ahead, illuminated by early morning rays.  Atop those bluffs was a flat area, lush with summer greenery, about a hundred yards in length by forty in breadth.  It was out of sight of the nearby docks and walkways, a secluded field where duelists had met off and on for over a century. There Hamilton would face a man whom he had despised for years, a man he believed had every intention of killing him.  This man was also the Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr of New York. 

          Hamilton was deep in thought.  He did not want to fight this duel, and despite his contempt for Burr, he had no particular desire to kill the man.  He had made out his will the night before, and in it he had announced his intention of throwing away his shot.  As a Christian, Hamilton had come to despise dueling -especially since his beloved son, Philip, had lost his life in a duel three years before.  Certainly, he had no wish to die – indeed, he felt he had much to live for.  He had not abandoned all hope of becoming President someday, despite the scandal of his well-known affair with Maria Reynolds.  Someone would have to undo the damage Thomas Jefferson was busily inflicting on the country; why not Hamilton? There was no other leader in the Federalist Party who had his credentials, or his political ingenuity.  He was not yet fifty years old, and in excellent health.  His prospects were still bright.

          And yet – he could have evaded this duel had he really wanted to, but the cost would have been his personal honor.  He meant everything he had said about Burr – the man was an unscrupulous snake who coveted power at all costs. Hamilton could not apologize to Burr without retracting what he had said, and what he had said was true.  Jefferson, his former cabinet colleague and great rival, had often denounced Hamilton as an ambitious, unscrupulous monarchist – a charge Hamilton resented.  Certainly, Hamilton lacked Jefferson’s blind faith in the wisdom of the masses, but there was a far cry between believing the country should be led by wise, educated men of substance and property, and actually craving a scepter! Hamilton found it ironic that a man who accused him of royalist ambition should take as his running mate someone who truly lusted for that kind of power.  Even Jefferson had come to realize what Burr was, finally, and had already let it be known that he would run for re-election that fall with a different Vice Presidential candidate. 

          Burr had seen the handwriting on the wall, and had switched parties yet again, trying to win the Federalist nomination for Governor of New York.  Although he had not held political office in a nearly a decade, Hamilton was still the leader of New York’s Federalists, and he had let it be known to all and sundry that he was adamantly opposed to Burr’s nomination.  Burr had lost both the nomination and the election, in which he had run as an independent.  Seeing his political career in ruins, he blamed Hamilton for his failure – and he was right.  Hamilton took a certain grim pride in destroying Burr’s prospects.  He had not done so out of malice, but out of genuine concern for his country’s future.

          Now, however, he was paying the price. In a newspaper interview, one of Hamilton’s friends, Charles Cooper, had mentioned some of the things Hamilton had said about Burr, and the Vice President, incensed by the statement that Hamilton had a “yet more despicable” opinion he had left unuttered, had issued a challenge that Hamilton could not refuse. 

The former Treasury Secretary looked at the portmanteau containing the dueling pistols.  One of them, he knew, was the same gun that had killed his son Philip three years before. Philip – Hamilton still had to stifle sobs of grief when he thought of his beautiful son, a bright and shining light snuffed out before his time, killed defending his father’s honor on this same bloody ground.  He still remembered the grief on his wife Eliza’s face as their son had breathed his last, and closed his eyes, trying not to imagine her expression if he, too, died in the same place.

“Are you well, my friend?” Nathaniel Pendleton asked him.  One of Hamilton’s close friends, he had volunteered to act as second in this “affair of honor.”

Hamilton forced a smile he did not feel.

“Well enough, Nathaniel,” he said.  “My bosom and I have been debating each other.”

The keel of the barge grated on the sand and gravel of the shoreline, and Hamilton rose and sprang lightly to the shoreline.  A clear-cut path led up the bluff, and Pendleton and Dr. David Hosack started after Hamilton as he briskly climbed up.  Hamilton turned at the sound of their steps and frowned.

“Doctor, you should wait with the barge and the rowers.  You will be called if your services are needed,” he said.

Hosack nodded.  Dueling was illegal in New Jersey, although it was not prosecuted as vigorously there as it was in New York.  As the attending physician, he could be called on to testify in court if he actually watched the duel in progress. Granting the witnesses a level of deniability was customary in such affairs; the doctor always remained out of the line of sight, and the seconds turned their backs to the duelists.

When they reached the top, Hamilton found Colonel Burr and his seconds, William van Ness and Matthew Davis, as well as another man Hamilton did not know, had already arrived and cleared away the brush that had grown up that spring.  Pendleton and van Ness conferred for a moment, then Hamilton and Burr drew for position.  Hamilton won the draw and chose the high ground, facing across the river to the city.  The sun was now well above the horizon, so that its glare would not blind him.

“Gentlemen, now is the moment.  Should either of you wish to end this affair, you may do so now,” said William van Ness.  “General Hamilton, will you apologize for your egregious insults to the honor of Colonel Burr?” During duels, it was customary to refer to one’s opponent by his military rank, if he had one.  

“Had the Colonel confined his demands to a single remark, I might have been prevailed upon to consider an apology,” Hamilton said. “But what he has required is that I recant every opinion I have ever held of him and publicly expressed.  That I cannot do and retain my honor.  Will the Colonel modify his demand?”

Burr shook his head silently, refusing to meet his opponent’s eyes.

“Then we shall proceed,” said van Ness.  “Do you have the weapons, Judge Pendleton?”

“I do,” replied Hamilton’s second, opening the portmanteau and presenting the well-oiled dueling pistols.  Burr chose first, and Hamilton followed.  The two men walked ten paces and turned to face each other.

“You may each have a moment to confer with your men,” said Davis.

Pendleton leaned in close to Hamilton.

“Do you wish to activate the hair-trigger?” he asked.

Hamilton thought for a moment and shook his head.  He knew that each pistol contained a gear that made the trigger much more responsive, but he was more accustomed to the traditional heavy pull flintlocks required.  Besides, he fully intended to throw away his shot, so aim would not matter.

But should he throw it away?  This was the question that had raged through his thoughts ever since he had accepted Burr’s challenge.  The Vice President was a dangerous man, a man whose ambitions boded ill for the country.  If he killed Hamilton, it was quite possible the consequences of that deed would destroy Burr’s political prospects forever.  But what if they did not?  There was not a single Federalist leader who had Hamilton’s stature or connections.  Jefferson detested Burr, to be sure – but Jefferson would not be President forever.  Who would be left to check Burr’s path the Presidency if Hamilton died.  James Madison?  The diminutive Secretary of State was a brilliant man, but a poor politician.  Burr was effortlessly ingratiating, a man who could easily persuade gullible people of his sincerity.  His path to the Executive Mansion would be easier with Hamilton out of the way.

Still in an agony of indecision, Hamilton reached into his pocket and retrieved his spectacles.  If he did decide to shoot, he thought, he wanted his aim to be true.  He surveyed the ground one last time and nodded.

“Back to back, gentlemen,” van Ness said.  The Vice President and the former Treasury Secretary took their positions.  Pendleton, van Ness, and the others stepped away from them and turned their backs. 

“I will count to ten, and then you may turn, face each other, and fire at will,” said Burr’s second.  “One, two . . .”

As he marked off his paces, Hamilton’s mind was still racing.  Finally, as van Ness got to the count of seven, he decided.  He would let Burr shoot first, and then respond accordingly.  Let God decide the outcome – if he died, then Burr was meant to go on to greater things.  But if Burr missed -

“Ten!” Burr’s second said, and the two men turned.  Burr’s face was twisted with wrath; he had been practicing with a pistol all week, and now he took deadly aim at his hated rival.

A shrill shriek broke the silence of the morning.  It was only an osprey, stooping to catch a fish, but for that split second, to Alexander Hamilton, it sounded like the anguished scream Eliza had uttered the moment she saw Philip’s pale, stricken face after their son’s fatal duel.  Hamilton swiveled his head to track the sound, and as he did so, his body rotated slightly.

The osprey saved his life.  Burr’s bullet struck his side, penetrated his clothes, and glanced off his ribs, leaving a gash but doing no serious damage. The pain of the impact caused Hamilton to wince. He looked at his side, where the blood was already staining his jacket, and then looked down the field at Burr.

The man’s sneer slowly faded to shock as he realized that his shot had failed to finish his opponent.  In that moment, Hamilton saw in Burr’s eyes the fury of the man’s ambition and folly suddenly giving way to fear.  The former Treasury Secretary slowly clenched his jaw.  Burr had indeed tried to kill him – and failed!  In that moment, Hamilton saw all that he had nearly been robbed of – the love of Eliza, the best of wives and best of women, who had stood by him, forgiven him when he strayed, and comforted him in his grief when their son died.  He saw Philip’s face, his beloved son, killed by one of Burr’s more scurrilous minions.  His beloved mentor, the father figure who had raised him from obscurity and seated him at the right hand of power, George Washington, stood there in his mind, unbowed by age or sickness.  Hamilton thought of himself as the guardian of Washington’s legacy, and he had nearly let Burr destroy that legacy.  In that realization, he made up his mind.

He took careful aim at Aaron Burr’s heart, and pulled the trigger.  Burr’s eyes widened as the bullet struck home, and the Vice President slowly sank to the ground.  At the sound of the second shot, the seconds slowly turned around. 

Van Ness quickly strode to Burr’s side and spoke his name.  Burr opened his eyes briefly, and then they closed for the last time.

“General, are you all right?” Pendleton asked, his voice full of concern.

“His bullet grazed me, nothing more,” said Hamilton.  “Let us go.”

 

**********************

A week later, the President of the United States sat down to the breakfast table with his Secretary of State, James Madison.  Jefferson’s red hair had gone grey in his later years, but his face was unlined and youthful still, and his gaze as piercing as ever.

“Can we somehow hold Hamilton accountable?” asked Madison.

“That would be most difficult,” said Jefferson.  “Burr shot first, he shot to kill, and Hamilton, by all the codes of honor, was fully justified in returning fire. Not only that, but the fact that I had already made up my mind to replace Burr as Vice President will be cited as evidence that I agreed with Hamilton’s assessment of his character.”

“So Hamilton is still a force to be reckoned with, then?” Madison said.  “That is most unfortunate.  Without him, the Federalists are a motley crew of miscellaneous dissidents.  But with his mind and pen to guide them, they can easily become a potent threat.”

“I do not doubt that he aspires to occupy the chair where I now sit,” Jefferson said.  “He might have been here already, were it not for his feud with Adams and his involvement with Mrs. Reynolds.”

“Surely the electors would never choose as President a man who is a self-confessed adulterer and killer!” said Madison.

“America is changing,” said the President, rising and sipping his coffee.  “It is a change you and I have worked for, putting the choice for the next President more into the hands of the people and less into those of the political elites.  Hamilton will not run against me this fall – it is too soon. He will bide his time.  I imagine he will campaign for the Senate in two years, and from there establish a platform from which he can step into the Presidency. The people love a man who is willing to defend his personal honor, and who is humble enough to confess his sins publicly and seek forgiveness.  We should never have threatened to expose Hamilton’s affair! The ‘Reynolds Pamphlet’ may have hurt him in the short term, but over time his honesty will be remembered above his indiscretions.”

Madison sighed, and walked to the window, looking out on the capitol city.  Washington, DC, was still a work in progress – stumps stuck out of its muddy streets, and half the buildings were unfinished.  But the seeds of the Republic had been planted there already, and were beginning to bear fruit.  Jefferson came up behind his friend and laid his hand on the man’s shoulder.

“I will admit, Thomas, I had hoped to succeed you in the Presidential chair,” Madison said wistfully.

“You may do it yet,” said Jefferson.  “But first you will have to face the candidacy of Alexander Hamilton.”