Now Is Better

I don’t recall exactly how I learned that a school friend from years ago had written a novel, but I was immediately intrigued enough to look into it. A novel! That’s real writing, integrating creative imagination with the real world. I admire that ability.

The book had a title that gave me pause — The First Year It Sleeps — what in the world could that be about? My interest was piqued even more when I saw that the setting was a place very familiar to me, in the real world, and the time period was — Hey! Omigosh that’s when I was a kid. I had to read this book.

Click the pic, preview the book online.

Well, I read it, and I was enticed page after page to keep going for one familiar clue after another as to exactly where this or that happened, and was this or that piece of the puzzle real or was it part of the fictional story. That kept my nose in the book. I remember how our parents worried about polio in the 1950s, and maybe we even knew a kid with it. I remember the freedom of speeding recklessly on a bike, of conspiring with friends to go sneak into some forbidden place or get lost in the woods, to get creepy-scared in an eerie cemetery, to have secrets, to have a friend move away, forever! To learn about  bullying one way or another, or to be put in fear of your life by a grownup. There was the teacher with the odd mannerisms, the nuns with their stern ways. To take a dare to go up to some old spooky place — say, an abandoned manor house — where a mysterious old recluse lives, and, what now, ring the bell and run? Sneak inside? Hide there overnight knowing there must be ghosts? Boo! Dare ya! Turns out it wasn’t just my neighborhood and my time; it was the story of everybody whose childhood included being able to play, run, laugh, and cry.

I wrote a review about the book on Amazon.

The First Year It Sleeps by Brenda Gibrall

I was drawn into the story initially because it was about the time and place where I grew up. So many of the place descriptions took on special meaning because I had lived in them. I marveled, despite that would-be advantage, at the detail and vividness that came through. If I had been a stranger to the place I would have seen it just as fully through the author’s skillful descriptions.

The story brought me back in time as well, not just place, seeing the world through the eyes of a group of play-friends as they learn about life. The differences between the several families, the sometimes-furtive outings and dares, the secrets, the kid stuff. Learning grownup stuff too, overcoming segregation and revealing insights on Southern race relations of the time, in touching perspective. A mysterious death, some classic kid detective work, what more could a story need?

There’s more to the story.

Not long after reading the book, I had occasion to visit my old home town. Before leaving Colorado for Richmond, I contacted the author to check out some of the clues I had found, to see if my guesses were correct on the places and some of the characters in the story. I asked if the spooky old manor house was real, or if she had built it from research and imagination. It was real. Not really abandoned and spooky — that was literary license — but it was a real house. Not only that, but it was built around 1780. 1780! And it’s still there! And it’s a ten-minute walk from the house where I lived as a child! Lots of things in Virginia are old, but I had no idea of anything like that.

My curiosity was engaged to the extent that on that visit to Richmond I went to see the place. Mr. Vernon Creekmore owns it now. He lives there and runs a high-end antique business from the house. He is not a descendant of earlier owners, but he is a fine historian of the place. He was at home when I stopped by, and he graciously invited me in to learn about the history of the house and its former very large estate. It had been a horse farm, and had a racetrack located where the McGuire VA Hospital is now. That hospital was across an open field from my old home.

The first of my McDonald forebears to settle in Virginia were my great grandparents Archibald Macdonald and his bride-to-be Margaret McDonnell, arriving well after the Civil War. Archer and Margaret were married in Richmond in 1881. He was a farmer, raising strawberries and asparagus. Archer’s land was divided among his children when he died, and then some of those divided to theirs. As I learned from what Mr. Creekmore described, my great-grandpa’s farm was within the area formerly included in this estate. The farm and its racetrack were called Broad Rock.

The land was adjacent to the land of Col. Robert Byrd II (big name in Virginia). The house was built by Col. Archibald Cary though he had an estate in Buckingham County and may not have lived at Broad Rock, or not for long. It was built around 1780-1790 as shown by the kind of nails used, according to Creekmore. Maj. Ball, a supplier for the Revolutionary War, bought it and it was during his tenure that the horse racing was at its apex in the late 1700s.

Broad Rock Racetrack was one of three racetracks in the Richmond area. Virginia was big in early horse racing, and Ball was big in horse racing. Around 1780-99 a famous race horse was brought over from England, Diomed. He sired Ball’s Florizel, famous for his bad temper; William Ball owned the horse and he was so fast and so mean that no one wanted to race him. He went to stud at an early age. Also famous in the line: Turpin’s Florizel, Sir Archy. Horse-racing fortunes were made and lost, and this line went on from Virginia, leading into the world-class Kentucky racing culture.

Now, I don’t know anything about race horses or horse racing, except I bet $2 on a horse once and decided it’s not my path to riches. Nor do I know about those Revolutionary War era Colonels and Majors, but still, it was fascinating to connect with that history of the place where I played tag with cousins and learned to ride a bike. Colonel Cary, the one who had the house built, was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses for Goochland, 1748; Justice for Chesterfield, 1750; Burgess 1758-74; of Committee of Safety, 1774-76; of Colonial Committee of Correspondence of all the Revolutionary Conventions & Speaker of the State Senate from 1776 until his death.1 He married Mary Randolph, daughter of Col. Richard & Jane (Bolling) Randolph, of “Curles.” She is an ancestor cousin of mine, daughter of Jane Bolling whose sister was my 6th great-grandmother Martha Bolling. Then later, among the owners of that house, Ball married Bettsy Cheatham. She was another distant cousin, and the Cheatham family was the family that owned the land when part of it was taken by the Government after WWII for that VA hospital.

I am reminded of a moment I wrote about in A Breeze in Bulgaria.

     I passed by a monument in the center of town, “The Column.” I stopped for a moment to try to read it. It was written in an archaic version of the alphabet…. It was something about the Turks…. Seeing me peering at it, an older man stopped alongside me and looked at it too, probably for the first time as it often happens with things we take for granted.
     I was surprised when he turned to me and said, “Istoria.”
     History.
     I said, “Da, istoria, interesno.”
     He replied, “Sega e po-dobre.”
     Now is better. 2

Now is better.

Think about it. The Good Old Days, our glorious history. Do we long for a return to those old times? We have it tough now? Life was better, simpler, easier? The American presence on this continent started with freezing and starvation. The Revolutionary War, with Patriot and Loyalist neighbors attacking and killing each other even before it turned into a war between armies. Slavery. The Trail of Tears. The Civil War. Reconstruction. Starvation. Trench warfare in The War to End All Wars. Prohibition. Gangster murders. The Dust Bowl. World War II. OK, how about the 50s, all OK, right? Sure, if you were white and middle class or a factory owner. Civil Rights violence in the 60s. I’ll let it go at that; work your own way through the 70s and up to now.

Now is better.

History

When I was in training for my Peace Corps assignment in Bulgaria, we exercised our community involvement muscles by organizing a civic improvement event. We recruited kids from schools and orphanages, did pledge drives and bake sales, organized volunteers, and had a great time of it. We contracted with a local welding shop to make some sidewalk trashcans, got children into teams to paint them, bought paints and brushes, and had an art contest in the town square to decorate the cans and award prizes for the best designs. As part of our Bulgarian lessons concurrent with the project, we made posters to advertise the event and tried to come up with team names to suggest to the kids. Peace Painters, Paintbrush Friends… simple and corny phrases with words we could find in our ever-present English-Bulgarian dictionaries. The word we found for “Friends” was Drugari. (‘dro͞o·gə·rē).

Our Bulgarian language teacher frowned and said, no! That wasn’t appropriate, not at all. What, the word “friends” is not OK? We were steered to a synonym, Priyateli, and told that was a nicer word. “We just don’t use that old word much anymore,” she said. We persisted: why was her reaction so negative? A little reluctantly she explained that was what Communist Party members called each other before the old government fell. Comrade! That was the word for Comrade. The word, swept up in the tumult of history. had been spoiled.

History turns things around. In a book I’m reading, Margaret Mitchell & John Marsh: The Love Story Behind Gone With the Wind, I read how the young author was imbued from childhood with her Georgia history in the early twentieth century. She recalled long summer evenings with her extended family, hearing stories of hardships and triumphs down through the generations from back as far as the earliest days of English colonial life, up through the terrible war which was then still smoldering hot in the memory of her elders.

“None was a more powerful storyteller than Grandmother Annie, who told Peggy endless tales about the Civil War, bloodthirsty Yankees, freed slaves, scoundrelly scalawags, cheating carpetbaggers, and the importance of behaving well in the face of either defeat or prosperity.”

Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind was made into a movie, epic in its scope and grandeur and immensely popular since 1939 for showing the tragedy wrought by the Civil War. History. Like The Wizard of Oz, it is an early Hollywood classic that has endured to a robust old age while lesser works of film art faded and died. The film has been shown in Memphis’ historic Orpheum Theatre as part of a summer film festival for 34 years. No more. It offends. Canceled. Things change.

I recently read and shared (on Facebook, if you must know) an interview by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the subject of Confederate monuments. Confederate. That’s another word that has changed, like drugari. She took the position that the monuments were a part of history, should be given appropriate context and not be torn down. With Charlottesville fresh in the news, I rather thought it would be an opportunity to examine a different view than what most of my friends are exposed to in their (our) own silos and echo chambers.

By Hal Jespersen at en.wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By way of background for why the topic was of such interest to me, I grew up in Richmond, Virginia (google “Monument Avenue“). What I knew about Robert E. Lee and the other Confederate figures was informed by the perception that they were bound by a sense of duty and honor, and took up arms to defend their beloved home states (never mind who fired the first shots). On my walk from the bus stop to my high school, I passed the Confederate Widows’ Home and would wave to the little old ladies sitting on the veranda in their rocking chairs. They would wave back and smile. In my basic training for the United States Air Force, after leaving my home state behind, I was required to memorize, among other things, “Lee’s Quote.” It was, “Duty then is the sublimest word in the English language. You should do your duty in all things. You can never do more. You should never wish to do less.”

It is hard now to understand the depth and passion of that feeling of loyalty and duty to one’s home state that Lee felt, rather than to all of the states together, but that was 1861. Things were different. Then once the war started, it could only be governed by the relentless, inexorable logic that war brings to itself. I concluded my sharing of the Rice interview with a quote from a thoughtful reader of the Dallas Morning News, saying that “We cannot change history by removing statues and renaming schools…. We can change the present by stressing positive concerns, such as equal educational opportunities, equal job opportunities and equal respect for the opinions of others.”

I took a solid drubbing in the ensuing discussion. The points did not turn on duty and honor, but on traitors, treachery, and comparisons to Hitler. The most insightful comment in the discussion, the one that got my reasoned attention, was from my friend Ivan. He wrote that he thought my argument was focused too narrowly.

“The issue is not the monuments as reminders of history, the issue is that they are part of the broader effort, to maintain racism, and even restore racist policies. The white supremacy groups wanted to preserve the monument because it enhanced their views, not because they appreciated the historical value.”

My initial reaction had been that the momentum seems to be on the side of the monument-destroyers, and I thought it was a damn shame. The exchange made me think, and read, and think some more. I was aided in this by another friend, Laura, who put me onto a set of videos that exposed a sore point: my view had been shaped within the confines of a privileged position that I seldom, if ever, even perceived let alone understood what advantages it had given me.1 And finally, this article was most instructive in my eventual conversion. The Myth of the Kindly General Lee.

I have changed my view. The big bronze statues along stately Monument Avenue have long been a subject of contention, and now I can see what must have been obvious to others for a long time.2 Sadly for some and triumphantly for others, the tide is flowing and it will take them away. As the saying goes, take it as you will, “They’re history.”

As a native Virginian, I hold a tinge of regret for their passing. I have released the bitterness of thinking “It’s a damn shame,” but a faint scar of regret will remain. The regret is for illusions lost, but it is rightly overshadowed in standing on firmer ground.

[Edit: For an update as of June 2020, see the blog post here.]

Nothing More Than Nothing

It’s March, and in Colorado it’s snowing today! We had a sunny 73-degree day yesterday (23°C) and now there’s over a foot of fresh new snow on the ground. It’s still piling up as the daylight starts to fade. I’ve been warm inside, enjoying the luxury of seeing the beauty of it without having to be somewhere else. It makes me appreciate how much I like to be where I am.

I love the snow! The kid in me remembers the excitement, the delight of running in it, slipping and falling and sliding in it, eating it, throwing it, and the steamy wool smell of warming up after playing in it. As a grownup in my working years I lived in warm, sunny places — Texas, Thailand, Taiwan, and Southern California — until Stormy and I retired from regular work and went to Bulgaria as Peace Corps volunteers. We were so glad to get reacquainted with seasons! The sheer delight of seasonal changes included extremes of weather and temperature that we had not felt in years. It awakened those childhood memories for both of us. When we moved to Colorado a few years later we came into the realization that it’s something that we love. Change.

We’ve seen a lot of change in our lives. (I know, you don’t want me to start with the “When I was a kid” stories.) I went to a panel discussion about climate change last night, and a friend of mine has written a book on the matter. Harlow Hyde, served with us in Bulgaria. His book is titled Climate Change, of all things.1 Harlow is a numbers guy, and he has a serious background as a student of weather trends. He backs up his thesis with solid facts, and an engaging sense of humor. He rigorously lists all the big factors of climate, including the anthropogenic one (that’s us!) He lists and evaluates various links between human activity and rising global temperatures. After all, every single one of us little heat engines spend our lives turning food into energy, throwing off heat all the time! Then there’s the way we burn stuff, move stuff around, and make stuff out of other stuff. Just a little bit of heat from each activity, each individual one of us making hardly enough to matter. (He repents, actually, for his part in this travesty.) Well, I don’t want to give away the plot and you should really read it yourself. It’s an excellent and well-researched piece of work.

And politics — talk about change! What, are there changes in the country? Um, yes. What happened to Hope and Change? We’re seeing Panic and Change! Frenzy and Change! Fear and Change! But change, as always, is the constant. We live in it, react to it, and make it happen — or, depending on the subject, try to keep it from happening. Ha! Might as well try to keep the sea from rising.

Take closing the borders, sending people back to where they came from, for example. Can anyone have a civil conversation on that subject? I wonder. I know people who are working with refugee resettlement agencies, helping war refugees — refugees from bombing and fires and knives and threats and killings, who have lived in refugee camps for years and years, in tents or temporary shelters with freezing winter huddle-around-a-fire misery or desert scorching hot blazing-sun misery, relieved to be out of mortal danger but living in uncertainty and frustrated with slow-molasses bureaucracy and hopeful, ever hopeful of a life where they can work and raise their children in peace. And I know other people who call that kind of work, helping those people settle in America, dangerous, foolhardy, even treasonous. We can’t know they won’t bring their wars here, they say, and turn on us. They’ll bring their laws with them. They’ll take our jobs from us. Our economy can’t bear the burden. We can’t bear the burden.

snow treeToday’s snowfall is a burden on the trees. It’s heavy and wet, as is normal for snows this late in the season, so I put on my big-boy boots and went out with a long stick to knock the big fat clumps off some of the branches that were sagging heavily under the weight. We’ve had branches, big ones, break off with that kind of load. I couldn’t reach all of them that needed it, but it was the lower ones anyway that were reaching out farther, straining and nearly defeated under the heaviest loads. Needless to say, they were greatly relieved.

I thought of a little story about snowflakes. I read it as part of a 50th Anniversary memorial ceremony a few years ago, for Peace Corps volunteers who had died in service. It was called Nothing More Than Nothing.

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a coalmouse asked a wild dove.

“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.

“In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the coalmouse said. “I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow – not heavily, not in a raging blizzard – no, just like in a dream, without a sound and without any violence. Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the 3,741,953rd dropped onto the branch, nothing more than nothing, as you say – the branch broke off.”

Having said that, the coalmouse flew away.

The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for awhile, and finally said to herself, “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”

  — from New Fables, by Kurt Kauter (1913-2002)2

One more. Perhaps.