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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Travels through History: Going to Chambersburg for the Burning Re-enactment

            I’ve always been interested in history. There’s something about the stories of that past, which are just so amazing. As a storyteller, I have a chance to invent histories for characters who are as real as any person that I might meet on the streets. In this way, I like to create characters who are complex and go much deeper than the surface of just doing something because it is something that must be done. People do things for a reason. They have to or it's in their nature. Why should my characters be any different?

            The writer Kurt Vonnegut explained how he never wrote a villainous character, and while I can’t say that (because Joseph Smothers, Eli Jordan, Brandon Evanovich, and Lester Grimsley were pure evil), I can say that I’ve put histories into people (even unlikable ones) that keep them far from perfectly good or bad. Oh, I’m not trying to be Flannery O’Connor with her idea that “a good man is hard to find” (in fact, they’re all truly tarnished at their core), but I do want ink and paper characters to feel like flesh and blood humans. There’s no point in deifying anyone since none of us are perfect, so why not have otherwise heroic characters with anger issues, depression, communication issues, and denial of who they really are?
Shelby Foote, who wrote a several thousand-page collection of stories about the history of the Civil War, once reflected how his greatest compliment on this 20-year work was how it couldn’t possibly be real. It was just too fantastic, but it was all true, or as true as historical non-fiction handed down over the decades can be.
 I’d like to be that kind of a writer.

However, that would mean getting through my writer’s block to knock out huge chunks of my story that need editing, and I haven’t been feeling up to that lately (though I'm 160+ pages into the 390+ that I've written). I’m moving through short chunks when I have time, but for all I wanted to write and rewrite, I just haven’t been in the mood to sit down and knock out 20 fresh pages a day like a good writer should. 
Nevertheless, I have been getting inspired for future writing with the things I’ve been doing, so I’ve got that going for me.
For instance, the weekends have definitely been good chances to do and to be able to get out and enjoy trips to do things like last weekend when we (the collective wife and I) went to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, for their annual re-enactment of the 1864 burning of the town by Confederate Forces.

Chambersburg has a really neat history that seems like the kind of thing that could play well in the hands of Foote (and I’m sure it did, though I didn’t read his account of it). Here, the Confederates decided that after the Union “invaded” the South and burnt down their homes (thank you, David Hunter) that they would repay the North in kind by ransoming a chosen town, Chambersburg, for $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in bills to offset the costs of the places they torched (Chambersburg was purposefully picked due to being a Union supply center and home of vocal abolitionist / anti South types). When they didn’t do this, the commander, General John McCausland, who was acting on the orders of Jubal Early, got 2,800 Confederate cavalrymen and artillery units to incinerate 500 homes. This act left 2,000 people homeless.
Nevertheless, not all Confederates were on the side of “an eye for an eye.” In fact, Colonel William Peters, who was a wounded and decorated combat vet for the Rebels, actually resigned his position rather than engage in something he couldn’t defend. He was arrested, but later cleared. Other Confederate troops helped townspeople put out the fires because that's what sane people do.
To me, events like this show us how human we as a people can be (even though, sometimes, we can be really horrible as well. Ideally, someone should have stopped the attack, but when mass insanity rules, sometimes it takes a sane man to either refuse or to undo the damage done by others. I think that’s a lesson we can all learn from in life.
A similar event happened during World War 1 when the British and the Germans had a brief and peaceful celebration between the trenches. When the Germans came out singing Christmas carols, the Brits were shocked, but when they saw how they weren’t carrying weapons, they began to shake hands, give away gifts of desserts and cigarettes, sing songs, and even play soccer! The truce was only a short one, beginning on Christmas Eve and going through the next day, but here were real people with real differences (and real guns and bombs) taking the time to do something that most people would consider an absurdity during the heat of battle.
Celebrating a holiday and being people... go figure. It never happened again for fear of reprisal from the troops' own command.
But that's not the only historical stories I'm drawn to. There are tales of many preserved events that appeal to me. For a variety of reasons, I find myself drawn to one figure or another, but all of these reasons come back to the individual’s choices and actions in the face of life / death. The existential crises of meaning and purpose are the things that define us. That's what really moves me.
This could be the former Salem preacher George Burroughs allowing himself to be arrested and taken back to the places past from his new home in Maine in order to be put on trial for “coming out of his body” to bewitch the town’s young girls (he would die for these charges of being the “ringleader” during the famous witch trials of 1692). It could also be Black Elk attacking himself for his lack of faith, which caused him to fail in his mission to protect the Native Americans of South Dakota (the Lakota – often called Sioux) from the end of manifest destiny and the movement toward reservations (finalized at Wounded Knee). No matter what it is, there is something fantastic about a deep and imperfect person, which comes off as the truly American novel.
If all novels are a journey inside ourselves or outside in the world, then the best stories are ones that play both roles at once.

And that to me is what this amazing re-enactment was. With lights flashing on the buildings and smoke machines pouring out, the town was on fire again. A narrator told the story after local people playacted the roles of townspeople and military figures. It might not have been Broadway, but it was done with feeling and reverence for history.
That means something.

Throughout our time together, my wife and I have been to many places for history like this. We don't always get there the first time (like the Antietam Battlefield Memorial Illumination, which took years to get to, Chambersburg was at least a 3 year plan to get there), but we got there.
Now that we've removed this from our list, next year is about going to the Mermaid Parade on Coney Island since we didn't do that this year.
I really got into understanding these things during my time in England, when I ended up at places like the Uffington Horse, Avebury, and Ely Cathedral. While never a fan of kings and queens, I did love the castles, the supernatural, and all things associated with historic times long before I was born. You know; the ones that get the imagination going. I’ve also found myself keeping up with current events since I was a paperboy in my high school days.
It’s been said that you can’t know yourself unless you know your history. I feel that’s completely true, and it is important to know and understand our immediate history.
That being said, I’ve never been one to see things in subdivisions other than that of a country, and even then, I've often wondered, "What is America?" as I've sought to understand it since that inebriated day on the bridge over the A14 roadway in Bury St. Edmunds. Maybe in playing for Team USA, whether I saw myself as a red-blooded American or not, that’s why I never got the kings and queens. Call it a bias perhaps, but that’s my DNA programming, and that’s the old normal.
I'm kind of stuck with it.

All the same, I do understand how some cultures were marginalized and not spoken about as much as they should have been, so I see the importance of that, but for me personally, I don’t see myself as being a part of a subculture (which would be “German” since that’s where my ancestors came from). I grew up in a time where most of the people I knew saw themselves as American. Small town Pennsylvania in the 1970s and 1980s was just that way. While I can't say for sure, I assume Europeans feel the same way about themselves (as part of their home country), unless they came from a recent or proud immigrant heritage that finds something to trump their current GPS location. 

Even now, while identifying as a person with Parkinson’s, I find it hard to group myself into that category, even though I try to be very active in life toward this cause (both online and in the real world). Sure, I am a person with a disability, but that doesn’t mean I’m all people with disabilities or the spokesman for this condition. I guess I don't know how to act other than just being me (which works - no matter how eccentric or odd I may be). Then again, that could be because of my recent diagnosis, and my still relative invisibility to the average person who can’t see my tremors (medicated) and doesn’t know my other symptoms are part of what makes me a “parkie.” Weird walk and non-blinking eyes, I am who I am. Even to myself, I know I have things, and I can feel them sometimes more than others, but other than my dystonia foot when I’m walking too fast down paved streets and having to balance myself to put on my underwear, I don’t tend to see my symptoms as more than the new normal.
Then again, sitting here at the beginning of Stage 2, I know the progressions are going to alter things more than trying not to focus on the tremors when they came to be in 2011.
But until that time, all I can do is enjoy life, understand life, and smile, smile, smile (because there’snothing else to do…) while I CHOOSE TO LIVE LIFE.

And so as the heat of mid-summer and the end of a college term comes to an end, I now look forward to a few weekends to do fun things between now and August 5th when the wife and I travel to Georgia to see her sister and her kids. As vacation is finally planned, I’m thinking about a lot of waterfalls (Amicalola, Anna Ruby, and Tallulah Gorge) as well as the beginning of the Appalachian Trail on SpringerMountain. I know we’ll break up the ride on the way back stopping somewhere, maybe seeing the Smokies and Shenandoah Mountains a little bit, but whatever it will be, it will be great.

And we’ll absorb the sense of place and life, and it will be inspiring of all things literary and wonderful. I can’t wait. 

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