Trapped By a Poem!

by Joe Meyer on September 23, 2007 · 0 comments

My first posting, Brett informs me, should be one of personal introduction, something with which I’ve almost always had great difficulty. But it helps to be a little crazy, so I’ll push stalwartly on like the old grenadier that I’ve been lately pretending and imagining myself to be.

It feels extremely comfortable and somehow vindicated to count myself now among The Order of Civil War Obsessively Compulsed! I’ve a mind to order a new carving of the family shield with the acrynym “TOCWOC” prominently emblazoned across its width. After all this time I feel as if I’ve finally come home. Its been a long, long journey…begun in a Fifth Grade classroom some 50-odd years ago.

“You may now get out your reading book and turn to page 43,” said Sister Mary Sarah James, much too pleasantly. She peered out expectantly at us from her neatly-boxed, black and white Catholic nun’s habit on that hot, stifling and listless afternoon. There was something troubling about the way she always seemed so crisp and fresh while the rest of us slowly wilted away in that old brick classroom, breathing in that stale, motionless air thinly laced with the faint smell of chalk dust and spoiled milk. As I dejectedly turned the pages with knotted brow, feeling the onus of another boring and excruciating memorization drill for Friday’s upcoming test, I had no idea that my young life was about to be transformed.

Page 43 of the reader contained a remarkable black and white illustration, one of those very simply rendered yet amazingly attractive drawings with beautiful gray shades that paid tribute to the adage that “one picture is worth a thousand words.” Beneath the drawing appeared the scripted title and the first few stanzas of a poem that has echoed within my mind ever since; John Greenleaf Whittier’s, “Barbara Frietchie.”

“Up from the meadows rich with corn, Clear in the cool September morn,…”

The illustration was of Stonewall Jackson, sword in hand, at the head of a scruffy, but nonetheless dangerous looking column of Confederate troops, questioningly staring upwards at a white-haired matron defiantly waving the Stars and Stripes from her upstairs window. Somehow my brain was suddenly and uncontrollably adding all sorts of things to that illustration; expanding it, coloring it, animating it!

“…The clustered spires of Frederick stand, Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.”

I could almost begin to smell the dust rising from the road, hear the soft, quick flapping of a bird’s wings as it took flight from the approaching column. I could almost feel my eyes beginning to squint against the sudden rash of glittering reflections that cast off from a host of polished gun barrels as the column eased through a slight bend in the road.

“Round about them orchards sweep, Apple and peach trees fruited deep,…”

I could see a few of the soldier’s arms reaching up to pluck the fruit from richly-burdened overhanging limbs, some of them quickly climbing the railed fence alongside the road for a better purchase and just as quickly leaping back down into their file, their jaws already working the object of their plundering into a sad relic of its former shape.

“…Fair as the garden of the Lord, to the eyes of the famished rebel horde.”

So completely taken with Whittier’s words was I that it was with no small amount of difficulty that I was finally forced to put the reader aside for the next lesson. Whittier’s poem had invaded my head, my heart and imagination as nothing else ever had.

“On that pleasant morn of the early fall, When Lee marched over the mountain-wall;…”

It was as if some strange, strong wind from the past had suddenly blew over me from head to toe, whispering to me in voices long since hushed, telling me that a great story of intense drama, terrible suffering, incredible adventure and heroic sacrifice was waiting to be read, waiting to be revealed to me if I would only seek out its pages.

“…Over the mountains winding down, Horse and foot, into Frederick town.”

I was completely trapped within that poem, wanting only to remain there until I had gleaned and soaked up every last bit of suggestion and nuance that I could discover. This was something, I felt, so moving and so deeply personal to my own soul that I would not be able to share it with my closest friends, nor even with my own parents. How could they have understood my excitement, my fired imagination, my overwhelming, sudden thirst for something so remote?!

“Forty flags with their silver stars, Forty flags with their crimson bars,…”

I was secretly convinced, as some other boys my age would have been about a career in sports, that Mr. Whittier had taken pen in hand for the express purpose of indelibly imprinting me with the terrible glory of that great American Civil War, and that I had been challenged to discover as much about it in my lifetime as I possibly could. From that moment on a Civil War history book of some kind was never far from my hand. From that moment on I had become trapped by a poem, relegated to delving into the past as I tried to live the present. It became my passion.

Much has happened to me since that day. I ascended through the school grades, much like any other young kid, played high school football and dated the gals, scraped through two years of college, grew to manhood in the Viet Nam era and volunteered my service for three years in the Navy. After that I restlessly sought a more personal kind of adventure, sailing for another four years as an assistant-engineering officer in the Merchant Marine with the old Standard Oil fleet out of Richmond, California, getting to see a good part of the Pacific. Ports of call included the usual refinery and fuel storage stops on the Pacific Coast, Alaska, and Hawaii, with excursions as far west as Wake Island and Dutch Harbor.

My sailing days ended when I broke my own standing rule about never dating girls from my home city of Sacramento! Tossing away the sailor’s watch cap from the Golden Gate Bridge after my marriage, I donned the trappings, in succession, of a sawman in a lumber mill, a school custodian, an audio/visual clerk, and then, of all things, an independent milkman! Those were hard years for me, a time of poor choices, much like that marriage of 15 years! (I believe that some of my dementia started then!)

After passing through the world’s most acriminous divorce ever, I took to the road as a truck driver, finally gravitating back to the engineering side of things with a well-respected, fertilizer company in Northern California. By the time I retired, some 18 years later, I had gotten legal custody of my first two, achingly missed children, re-married to an outrageously wonderful woman, fathered two more wonderful sons, and became a grandfather for the third time at the age of fifty-eight! An impish heart condition then sidelined me from the ranks of the normal work force and forced me to reconsider my own mortality!

But somehow throughout the unexpected twists and turns of my life, my Civil War library grew (sometimes having to go grievously and pathetically into boxed storage) while my knowledge expanded; the candle that was lighted by Mr. Whittier in the Fifth Grade still burns brightly, in some ways brighter than ever! I have time to write now, time to research, time to more deeply explore and discover what was contained in those whispers from the past. I’ve read, and read well, sometimes in odd places and situations: like on the thickly-painted ready bench of an ammo locker under the forward 5″38 gun on a destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin; a smoothly-rounded granite rock in the high Sierra; a rough, corral beach littered with small pieces of old rusty steel; a smokey barroom stool in Sitka; a creaky hallway waiting-bench outside of a family law courtroom; a carved up picnic table at a dirty roadside rest stop; an operator’s perch in a phosphoric acid chemical convertor; and a draftsman’s table in a engineering office.

Now, in the years left to me, I might just be able to make some slight yet meaningful contribution to that mass of knowledge that we call the history of the American Civil War. I may not succeed, but I’ll have a great time trying! After all, some of our best moments happen after we reach the age of sixty!

“Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then, Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;…”


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