Monday, February 16, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- Observing, Learning

Less than a year after his return from England, Thomas Nelson married Miss Lucy Grymes, a daughter of Philip Grymes of Brandom, in the neighboring county of Middlesex.  They settled permanently in a commodious house built for them by Nelson’s father, the new house nearly opposite his own.  In between his yearly trips to Williamsburg as a burgess representing his county, York, Thomas lived in a style of great elegance and hospitality.  Upon Thomas’s marriage his father had been given him an independent fortune and taken him into the family business.  From his long resident in England, Thomas had acquired some of the manners and pursuits of its country gentlemen.  He would ride out daily to his plantation, a few miles from York, with his fowling piece and an attending servant.  He kept a pack of hounds at a small farm near the village, and in the winter his friends and neighbors would join him once or twice a week to participate in a fox hunt.  Young Nelson’s home became the center of genteel hospitality.  It was said that no gentleman ever stopped an hour in York without receiving an invitation to it.

Nelson found time during his residence in Williamsburg as a burgess to further his education.  For a short time he attended William and Mary College.  It was here that he met a young law student from Albemarle County, Thomas Jefferson.  In 1763 Thomas’s father took under his care his orphaned niece, Rebecca Burwell.  The twenty-year-old Jefferson, four years older than Rebecca, fell in love with the girl, and during their rather sporadic courtship became quite intimate with the Nelson family.  This relationship was to be maintained through the Revolutionary War.

As a burgess, Thomas Nelson served his country from 1761 to his appointment to the Continental Congress in 1775.  He did not take an active part in the debates of the Assembly during the stormy years prior to the American Revolution.  There were many gentlemen in the Assembly who were older than he and who possessed greater political experience.  Better that he receive his training and acquire political wisdom by observing others and working quietly in various committees of the Assembly.

At the end of May 1765, following the passage of the Stamp Act, Patrick Henry managed to push through the Assembly several resolutions that, in essence, denied the right of Great Britain to tax the colonies.  There is no record of how Nelson voted on the resolutions; but, considering his political feeling and actions following the Stamp Act, we can assume that he supported them.  Following the repeal of the Stamp Act in March 1766 the British Parliament passed the Townshend Acts.  The new measures were designed to raise a revenue by taxing common articles used by the colonies: glass, lead, paper, and tea.  The House of Burgesses rose again in opposition, sending to the king in 1768 a petition and to Parliament a memorial and remonstrance.  In 1769 it passed resolutions claiming the sole right to tax the colony's inhabitants.  The governor dissolved the Assembly following each action taken.  In 1769, the members met in The Apollo Tavern, where they signed a non-importation association written by George Mason and presented by George Washington.  They pledged not to import or have imported any of the Townshend goods until the duties were repealed.  A merchant, standing to lose more in material gain than most of the Burgesses, Nelson signed the agreement. 

Following the repeal of all of the Townshend duties (except that on tea) in April 1770, the colonies and the British government enjoyed a brief period of relative peace.  However, the winter of 1772-1773 was not a good time for Nelson.  His father died November 19.  Thomas’s religious upbringing is reflected in a letter he wrote soon afterward to his father's friend, Samuel Martin.  “It falls to my lot to acquaint you with the death of my father …  His death was such as became a true Christian, hoping through the mediation of our blessed Savior to meet with the reward promised to the righteous” (Meade 210).  The funeral sermon delivered by a Mr. Camm, the president of William and Mary College and minister of York, summarized the qualities of the elder Nelson.  “… his own gain by trade was not more sweet to him than the help which he hereby received toward becoming a general benefactor.  He is an instance of what abundance of good may be done by a prudent and conscientious man without impoverishing himself or his connections, nay, while his fortunes are improving” (Meade 209).

President Nelson left to each of his five sons – Thomas, Hugh, William, Nat, and Robert – landed estates and servants.  But to his eldest son, Thomas, he left 40,000 pounds, equivalent to $133,000 at that time.[1]

Work Cited:

Meade, Bishop (William).  Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia.  (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1891).  I.  Print.

[1]  Ibid., 208.  Page, Genealogy, 152

Thursday, February 12, 2015

"Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom"
by Lynda Blackmon Lowery

I was 28 when courageous black Alabama citizens and white sympathizers set forth March 21, 1965, across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin their successful march to Montgomery, the state capital, to demonstrate their determination to force the state of Alabama to allow all of its black citizens to register to vote.  I, like many Americans, had watched on television the brutal acts committed by the local police and sheriff’s deputies to end demonstrators’ attempt March 7 to cross the bridge and march to Montgomery.  Having lived in Tennessee for two years, having years later received a bachelor’s degree in history, and having thereafter become a public school teacher, I had not been na├»ve about racial prejudice prior to the Selma events.  Nonetheless, I was shocked.

A week after recently watching the movie Selma, I read a, excellent memoir (just published by Dial Books) about the Selma to Montgomery event written in retrospect (assisted by two professional writers) by a teenage participant, Lynda Blackmon Lowery.  Unlike the movie, Selma, many parts of Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom; My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March stirred my emotions.  Geared for readers in their teen years, the memoir reaches out as well to adults born after 1965 and to jaded seniors like me.

Here are my reasons for recommending this book especially to young people.

Turning 15 is a personal story.  We experience vicariously the thoughts, emotions, and actions of an actual participant.  We gain insight about the effects of racial hatred on actual African Americans.  We learn of the sense of security felt by most black children growing up in segregated black communities.  We understand better the need black Americans felt to right collectively racially-committed wrongs.  Mrs. Lynda Lowery cites her grandmother’s advice: “… if you give someone or something control over you, then you’ve given up yourself.”  We celebrate the realization experienced by thoroughly-segregated people like the young Lynda that white racists did not represent all white Americans.  After the bloody attempt by early demonstrators to cross the Pettus bridge March 7, many white people traveled to Selma to exhibit their support.  Lynda wrote: “It was a whole different feeling suddenly with white people living in your house.  They marched with us and were willing to go to jail with us.  They ate what we ate.  We cooked collard greens and cornbread, and they ate it and enjoyed it as much as we did.  They were happy to be with us, even if they had to sleep on the floor.    There was a whole new feeling in Selma.”

I especially appreciated the details Mrs. Lowery gave us about her experiences.  Here are two examples of information I did not know and found fascinating.  School children were used extensively to demonstrate and crowd the jails.  Mothers who were maids took employers’ food home surreptitiously that their children ate the next day after they were arrested and put in jail.  Twenty-one school girls, mostly high school students, were put in a steel cell (called the “sweatbox”) that had no windows, water, toilet, or lights and kept there until every girl had passed out.  It is always the detail of individuals’ lives that make history especially interesting.

This memoir is written simply, but it touches upon all the important Selma/Montgomery subject matter events.  Anybody who reads at or above the sixth grade level will have no difficulty finishing it in one sitting.  Yet the reader will be informed about every topic or event an instructor would want a student of his to read about, examples ranging from the different instances of segregation existent in Selma to the deaths of three people murdered, one by the police and the other two by racist thugs.  Mrs. Lowery also explains, quite simply, the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 and how it has been degraded most recently by the United States Supreme Court.

Finally, I am concerned about what our young generation doesn’t but should know about our nation’s past.  Racism in America persists.  My grandchildren and friends their ages should be exposed to appealing sources of information that instruct them to recognize that no nation is a “shining city on the hill” and that those who proclaim such assertions should be looked upon with skepticism.  Take nothing, therefore, for granted.  Human history is a story of struggle for freedom and dignity against unwarranted control.  Lynda learned from her experiences that “the person I wanted to be was a person who would stand up against what was wrong.  I wanted not only to protect myself, but to protect others, not only to fight for myself, but to be out there fighting for others.”

Mrs. Lowery’s memoir is a worthwhile, appealing book.             

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"Private Life"
by Jane Smiley

“Private Life” by Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Jane Smiley is a third-person narrated account of the life -- from the age of five in 1883 to the age of 64 in 1942 -- of an accommodating, submissive woman, Margaret (Mayfield) Early, who must finally, out of necessity assert herself. I felt that Smiley’s narration, a consequence of Margaret’s compliant nature, lacked excitement until maybe a fourth of the way into the book when she marries her husband, Captain Andrew Early, an egotistical astronomer and physicist. I empathized more and more with Margaret’s character as her dissatisfaction with Andrew progressed.

People late in life tend to judge their past lives in terms of accomplishment and fulfillment. Margaret’s judgment becomes one of bitterness, toward those who have manipulated and controlled her and toward her own cowardice of accommodation. Accomplishment requires courage. Fulfillment requires contentment with outcomes and with oneself as a human being. Throughout most of the novel Margaret lacks the courage to forge her identity and determine her future. She has allowed stronger-minded individuals to control her. Her enjoyments result from her associations with strong-minded yet considerate acquaintances: her eccentric, exciting sister-in-law Dora; Mrs. Lear, a neighbor and wise advisor at Mare Island Naval Base, Calfironia; Mrs. Wareham, a compassionate boarding house landlady in Vallejo, California; Pete Krizenko, an adventurous, mysterious Ukrainian entrepreneur for whom Margaret feels an emotional and sexual attraction; and the Kimura family – the aging father, an exquisite painter; the mother, a tireless, traveling midwife; and the daughter Naoko, a trustworthy midwife and housekeeper.

At the beginning of Part One of the novel we learn that Margaret, living near St. Louis, Missouri, has repressed her memory of a public hanging that her older brother had taken her to witness when she was five years old. Both of her brothers die during her childhood. Margaret’s father, a physician, kills himself. Margaret’s mother Lavinia moves her family to her father’s nearby farm where they reside until her three daughters marry. From an early age Margaret learns resignation.

Lavinia considers Margaret, at age 23, to be lazy because she is content to read books rather than assert herself to attract suitors. Daughters of several of Lavinia’s friends have taken school teacher jobs in Idaho to find husbands. Margaret tells Pete Krizenko fairly late in the novel: “I was the third sister even though I’m the oldest. There’s always a beautiful sister and a smart sister, and then there’s a sister that’s not beautiful or smart.” Lavinia places her daughters Elizabeth and Beatrice in social circles where their attributes attract eventual husbands. Margaret appears destined to be an old maid. However, Mrs. Jared Early, a rich, seemingly generous, well-educated widow and elitist member of high St. Louis society, befriends Lavinia, and, ultimately, Margaret. Her son, Andrew Early, educated at Columbia and the University of Berlin, and recently a professor at the University of Chicago, visits St. Louis. Mrs. Early arranges for Lavinia and Margaret to spend a fiercely cold winter night at her residence. Andrew is present. Margaret had met him by chance briefly several years before. Margaret experiences “the distinct feeling of staring into her own future … The play had begun. The customary ending was promised. Her own role was to say her lines sincerely and with appropriate feeling. At her age, she thought, she should know what those feelings were, but she did not.”

In the spring of 1903 Mrs. Early arranges to have her son and Margaret tour the exposition grounds of the 100th year celebration of the Louisiana Purchase. Margaret recognizes that “he was not exactly like other mortals—he knew more, saw more. His mind worked more quickly and surveyed a broader landscape.” Submitting to the wishes of her mother and Mrs. Early, Margaret persuades herself to believe that, unlike other couples, they could share a unique life. He leaves St. Louis to spend several weeks in Washington, D.C. Afterward, he travels to Arizona and California. Lavinia advises patience. Eventually he returns and proposes. Thus begins their unique, increasingly unhappy marriage.

Years later Margaret discovers several letters that Mrs. Early had written to Andrew about the purpose of the marriage.

"Our thoughts about certain persons here in this town may not have come to anything (though the girl and her mother still seem receptive enough), but there are other girls and other mothers. My very least favorite thought is that of you solitary and alone, with no companion and no one to care for you. … No, the girl is not educated nor evidently intelligent, quiet without being mysterious (though I think there is more to her than meets the eye), but what do you want in a wife at your age? [He was 38, she 27] … I do not, frankly, think that you could abide a rival or even a young woman who considered herself your equal and spoke her own ideas back to you with any sort of self-confidence. … This girl is a well-made young woman with proper instincts and reasonable connections. Her mother has trained her to take care of household matters."

Telling Margaret’s thoughts, the author narrates: “in the end, Mrs. Early carried her point—she had chosen the local old maid, harmless but useful, to marry and care for her darling son” and that Lavinia had been “in on the plot. … Not only had he [Andrew] entertained doubts about her, he had tried her out, seen that he could have her, and then doubted and hesitated and suffered before taking her as the least of evils.”

Margaret learns that Andrew is actually two men. “When he was wondering [his greatest talent], he was a likable, congenial, and sociable person. When he had stopped wondering and was convinced that he knew the answer, he became stubborn and stern.” Before their marriage, while he was at Columbia and Chicago, he had challenged his superiors’ theories and made enemies. Married to Margaret, forced thereafter to work independently of academia, at a naval observatory at Mare Island, California, he spends most of the next three and a half decades of his life seeking to achieve scientific world acclaim. He writes numerous newspaper and scientific journal articles; he makes speeches; he writes lengthy books about the universe. “Private Life” is as much a portrait of an unstable genius who, craving adulation and not receiving it, becomes delusional and callously destructive as it is the portrait of a not remarkable, submissive, but decent woman who must defy her deep-rooted passivity to take command of her life.

Margaret’s and Andrew’s dual stories weave through many important historical events: the San Francisco Earthquake, World War I, the influenza epidemic of 1918, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism in Germany, Pearl Harbor, and the internment of Japanese American citizens.

Early during my reading I considered not finishing the novel. “The pace is slow,” I complained to my wife. A fourth of her way through the book, while I was writing the first draft of this review, she disagreed. “It’s not slow at all.” I persevered and was amply rewarded. This is a thought-provoking book. In strategic places Jane Smiley’s excellent command of language stirred powerfully my emotions. I conclude this review with this example, the death of Margaret’s jaundiced baby.

"Alarm and guilt surged in her, burning upward from her feet, enveloping her head, her brain, her mind in a fever of knowledge. … Alexander started to make a noise, high-pitched and distressed, and to arch his back. It seemed to her that he was crying for help, so she picked him up and went to the door of the room and opened it. Naoko was in the hallway. She looked at her, and without Margaret’s saying a thing, the girl ran out the front door. Margaret closed her door and carried Alexander over to the bed. She sat down and readied herself to nurse, but in that short moment, the moment between her sitting down and her putting him to the breast, he lost even that ability—Margaret felt it. It was a feeling of something dissolving. She looked at his face. She saw that he had but one thing left, which was that he could look back at her. She stroked the top of his head, moving the thin hairs this way and that, feeling the smoothness of his golden skin. She held him closer, as gently as she could. And then, in the way that you can feel with your baby but not see or sense with anyone else larger or more distantly related, she felt the life force go out of him entirely."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- Early Life

In Capital Square in Richmond today stands an equestrian statue of George Washington.  A tourist would notice six figures mounted at the base of the statue.  Chances are he would recognize instantly the importance of three of the figures: Patrick Henry, the orator of the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and John Marshall, the famous Supreme Court Justice.  But the other three figures about the statue – George Mason, Thomas Nelson, and Andrew Lewis – might mean nothing to him.  Seconds later he would probably walk away, intent upon seeing another historic monument in historic Richmond.

Mason, Nelson, and Lewis were important leaders.  To the general public, however, they are anonymous patriots, their significance overlooked or underemphasized by the biographers of the giants of American history.

Thomas Nelson is the subject of this new series of posts.  He can be taken as a test case of the importance of obscure Revolutionary War leaders.  If he had not died relatively early, he would probably have been an important national political figure.  Even so, his life was full and his contributions substantial.



In describing the seaport town of York to Sir Henry Clinton shortly before the beginning of the American Revolution, a British officer wrote: “The people in and about it, influenced by the family of Nelson, are all Rebellious” (Riley 22).  If the officer had remained in the town longer and inquired about the Nelson family, he might have left contemplating just how far beyond the boundaries of foolishness this rebellious family might go.  They were merchants, the first in York, one of the wealthiest families in the colony.  If the existing breach between the political and economic interests of Great Britain and her colonies should expand to the point where neither antagonist could reverse course, if the ultimate solution to this clash of interests could be none other than a clash of arms, the Nelsons stood to lose economically far more than most Americans.  Yet, from the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, the family’s history is one of consistent loyalty to colonial principles.  The British officer might have explained all of this with the thought that many men lose their senses in times of strife, but a crisis can also inspire the employment of rare qualities of character, one being courage.

Thomas Nelson, the founder of the wealthy Virginia family and the grandfather of the subject of this post, came to the colonies from Penriff, near the border of Scotland, shortly after the turn of the Seventeenth Century.  He established himself in York as a merchant, married a Miss Reid of the neighboring county, and had two sons and one daughter.

Thomas Nelson’s two sons, William and Thomas, upon reaching their adulthood, also settled in York.  Both men took an active role in Virginia politics.  Thomas -- Thomas Nelson Jr.’s uncle -- was secretary of the governor’s council for over twenty years.  William became a member of the House of Burgesses from York County in 1742.  In 1744 he joined his brother in the council and later became its president.  Due to the length of time both men held these positions in the council, they came to be called Secretary and President Nelson.

Importing goods from the merchants of Philadelphia and Baltimore, then in their commercial beginnings, William Nelson acquired a large fortune.  After the death of Governor Botetourt, Nelson was acting governor of the colony from October 1770 to August 1771.  While he was “the right hand of George III,” he remained loyal to colonial ideals.  His letters to merchants at this time reveal his indignant opposition to onerous acts passed by the British Parliament, unwarranted impositions, he believed, legislated upon colonial rights and privileges.  Bishop Meade wrote that he left “none to doubt where he would have been when the trumpet sounded to arms” (Meade 209).

William Nelson married a Miss Burnwell, a pious and conscientious woman.  All of their daughters died before they reached the age of twelve.  Of their six sons, one burned to death and another damaged his brain in a fall from an upper story of the Nelson house.  These tragedies turned Mrs. Nelson ever closer to her religion.

She was particularly attentive to the religious training of her children.  She taught them to be punctual and conscientious in their daily prayers, set for them an exemplary example, and prayed for them often.  Equally concerned with their children’s religious upbringing, William took the lead in affairs of the local parish.  On Sundays, generous as well as pious, he had a large dinner prepared to which both rich and poor were invited.

Thomas Nelson, Jr., the eldest son, born December 26, 1738, had the qualities of courage, generosity, honesty, and leadership – so apparent during the Revolution – instilled in him in the Nelson home. 



At the age of fourteen Thomas Nelson, Jr., was a rather high spirited boy, energetic enough to give his father uneasy moments.  The boy had become old enough for President Nelson to consider sending him to England for a formal education.  It was the custom of many wealthy seaboard Virginia families to send their eldest sons to London for that purpose.  In a year, or perhaps two, Thomas would be ready.  Then, one Sunday morning while strolling about the outskirts of York, father Nelson’s aristocratic soul was rudely shaken.  He had come upon his son playing in the streets with several of the little Negro boys of the village.  Realizing the delicacy of such an association and the difficulty of preventing future ones, Nelson decided quickly that it was time for Thomas to begin his English education.  A vessel stood anchored in the harbor ready to sail.  Thomas found himself aboard it the next day.  He would not return for nine years.

President Nelson placed Thomas under the care of two friends: a Mr. Hunt of London, and Neilby Porteus, then fellow of Cambridge University, later to become a bishop.  Nelson needed six years of preparation before he entered Christ’s College at Cambridge in 1758.  He was then placed under the care of a Dr. Newcome at the Hackney School, in the village of the same name near the outskirts of London.  He then entered Cambridge under the private tutorship of Mr. Porteus.  In letters to Hunt and Porteus, President Nelson shows his pious concern for the improvement of his son – “in all things, but especially in morals and religion.”  Thomas’s spirited nature yet troubled him.  He had exhibited behavior unbecoming a gentleman of his station by associating with Negroes.  What form might his behavior take now that he was older?  Nelson requested of his friends that during the vacation seasons Thomas be placed under the supervision of an eminent scientific agriculturalist, so that “the temptations incident to young men during the vacation” resulting from “a disposition to idleness and pleasure” be avoided.  Additionally, when Thomas returned to America, he would be able to make adequate use of the soils of Virginia (Meade 206).

Regardless of what President Nelson may have wished, Thomas’s activities were not devoted exclusively to the studying of books and soils.  Nelson saved a man from drowning.  Ironically, the man was a kinsman of Lord North, Prime Minister just prior to and during most of the Revolutionary War.  In appreciation of Nelson’s heroic deed, the Lord presented the young man a gold snuff box containing a fine miniature of himself (Davis III 119).

After three years of tutorship by Mr. Porteus, Thomas was ready to return to York.  However, due to his father’s great concern for his spiritual upbringing, Thomas’s departure was delayed several months.  The elder Nelson had learned that two young Virginians, whose habits he feared, though they were sons of the first families of the colony, would be aboard the ship that Thomas was scheduled to take.  Thomas, therefore, was ordered to remain in England until another ship sailed for Virginia.

A blue-eyed, light-haired youth of twenty-two, exhibiting a ruddy complexion, finally returned to Virginia at the close of 1761.  His father was happy to find a general improvement in his son, but regretted that he had adopted the bad practice of smoking tobacco – “filthy tobacco,” he wrote his friends in England.  The elder Nelson also complained that Thomas ate and drank “more than was conducive to health and long life, though not to inebriety” (Meade 217).  If the reunion of father and son had given the President some cause for feeling a bit surprised, it gave Thomas far greater cause.  While Thomas was still on his voyage home, his name had been entered, undoubtedly by his father, as a candidate to the House of Burgesses from York County.  Thomas was greeted at the dock with the news that he had been elected a burgess.

Sources Cited:

Davis III, Edward Morris.  “Historical Silver in the Commonwealth of Virginia.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (April 1941) XLIX.  Print.

Meade, Bishop.  Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia.  Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1891)Vol. I.  Print.

Riley, Edward M. “Yorktown/During the Revolution.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (January 1949), Vol. 57.  Print.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

This year I will be posting fewer articles – no more than two or three a month instead of the usual five or six.  I need to resume writing my second novel, tentatively entitled “Alsoomse and Wanchese.”  It will be about the lives of certain Algonquian natives mostly of Roanoke Island prior to and immediately after their first encounter with English explorers sent to North America in 1584 by Walter Raleigh to locate a desirable site to found a colony and base for privateering operations.
I will post occasional updates about the writing of my novel, review American historical novels that I have recently read, and pass along other information of a historical nature that I wish to share.
This month I will begin a series of posts about the life of Thomas Nelson, third governor of Virginia and signer of the Declaration of Independence.  He was the subject of a graduate history term paper that I wrote many years ago while attending UCLA.  My professor, historian Charles Page Smith, asked me about whom I would want to research.  I told him, “Thomas Nelson, a direct ancestor on my mother.”
“Oh,” he said, surprised.  “So, apparently we are related.”  I discovered later that Professor Smith was a descendent of John Page, a prominent Virginian in the late 18th Century and Thomas Nelson’s cousin. 
Professor Smith granted me access to the famous Huntington Library, which contains a substantial collection of rare books and manuscripts concentrated in the fields of British and American history, literature, art, and the history of science.  Wikipedia states that “use of the collection for research is restricted to qualified scholars, generally requiring a doctoral degree or at least candidacy for the Ph.D. and two letters of recommendation from known scholars.”  That definitely was not me.  At the time I wasn’t fully aware of the privilege he had bestowed.  I was able to locate collections of correspondence between Nelson and very important contemporaries including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  Here also were rare 19th Century biographies, microfiche newspaper articles, and other valuable sources of information.  The months I spent researching and writing my term paper were among the best of my life.  I discovered that I enjoyed research and that I had sufficient discipline to persevere in the struggle to organize my findings and express them cogently.  The experience served me well when I began teaching, and my teaching eventually led to my becoming a writer of historical fiction.
Years later when I delved into my mother’s ancestral past, I discovered that I was not related to Thomas Nelson, as my mother’s mother had thought.  I was related to Peter Nelson, the pastor of the church that Thomas Nelson attended during his final years of life. 
Thomas Nelson’s name will not be found in high school American history textbooks.  In books about the American Revolution his name might be found in several indexes with maybe two or three page numbers following it.  He is a member of the second tier of American leaders whom the general public would not recognize and without whom our nation in its struggle to win independence would not have prevailed.     

Friday, December 26, 2014

April 19, 1775.  Simon Winsett and his two brothers, Samuel and John, all of them Lexington militiamen, have marched to their cousin’s house by Spy Pond near Menotomy, Massachusetts Colony.   Their intention is to fight the British column that is retreating under heavy fire through Menotomy (present day Arlington) toward Cambridge and Boston.  Stopping by the cousin’s house to eat something before continuing on to Menotomy, they find that Mary, their cousin’s wife, is bedridden and that her disobedient daughter Prudence has wandered off.  Fearing that Prudence might fall accidentally into the pond (her grandfather had drowned there), they go searching for her: Samuel and John traveling the path along one side of the water and Simon the path along the other side of the pond.  It has been established earlier in the novel that Simon is disrespected by his family and is an outcast in the community.  His fighting the redcoats this day has been a concerted attempt to win favor.

"Rendered Mute"
Pages 358-362

           Samuel and John had sent him off to search this side of the pond while they walked the path paralleling the other side, reasoning probably that if Prudence had taken the path Simon’s way they would have seen her. Leave him waste his time investigating on the slim chance that she had crawled into some little nook of vegetation. Maybe that had been their thinking, more than their wanting to get rid of him. Whichever was true, he didn’t care. His day’s accomplishments had pretty much quashed his need to be resentful.

     The qualities that he had demonstrated no enemy of his could successfully deny. Any man that called him a scheming no-account would be seen for what he was, a peaching liar! Why, therefore, should he be angry about this assignment? Why not take advantage of it? Enjoy the sun’s warmth, Simon. Listen to the waterfowl. Look at the reflecting water. He would continue to push away low-hanging branches where burrows of earth and thickening moss might lay hidden. He would do that, knowing he wouldn’t find anything. Not a raccoon or any other wild animal certainly, which would be instantly gone upon hearing his approach. It didn’t matter. Samuel and John were right in their thinking. Let them find her. Let them receive Mary’s gratitude.

     He came upon where he and his brothers had forced their way onto the path. What lay ahead was new. Conceding the slim possibility that Prudence could have strayed this far and beyond, he would search more carefully, yet continue to enjoy his surroundings.

     Hearing the noise of nearby waterfowl, he stepped off the path and stood at the top of a steeply inclined bank, the terminus of a narrow inlet. Black-billed ducks, searching for food, were paddling through tall reeds. Perhaps old Jason Winsett had fallen in here. What made brother John such an authority about this, or anything else he claimed he had an answer for? John’s bluster and bantering ways, and the gullibility of fools! Why was it that he alone saw John for what he was?

     Simon, you’re bitter, he chided.

     What of it?

     He expected to hear at any moment a shout of discovery, a “Simon, we found her!” but, then, maybe not. More likely they would be thinking, Let old Simon wander about while we bask in Mary’s joy. John’s thinking anyway.

     Rather than voices he heard the distant pop of musketry. From Menotomy. A bit west of the town, he judged. So, the regulars had finished their rest at Will Munroe’s tavern and were about to catch hell. And he and his brothers had missed their chance to be a part of it. He thought it funny that they had walked five miles and might not have a thing to say for it tomorrow but that they had searched for a disobedient child.

     Simon came to where creek water emptied into another cove. Evergreen branches hid much of the little gully. Heeding his responsibility, he stepped off the path. Planting his left foot on a twisted root, he raised the lowest pine branch.

     Almost immediately he saw white leggings. A heartbeat after he beheld the grim face of a British soldier.

     Shock waves radiated beneath his flesh. God Almighty, was his first thought.

     “Stand easy! I be yer prisoner!” the large figure exclaimed.

     “What the hell!” Simon responded.

     “I naught be ‘avin’ me musket, see? I naught be wantin’ t’fight!”

     “All right, then,” Simon answered. God in heaven!

     “‘Ere. ‘Ave a look.” The soldier raised his hands above his shoulders. Simon noticed that he was big, and young, close to John’s age. A grenadier, he thought. Strong, and because he had gotten here so soon, damned swift!

     “I’m comin’ in,” Simon said, drawing back a second branch to see where he could place his left foot. “Don’t be tryin’ nothin’.”

     “Don’t be afeared o’ that. I’ll be stayin’ right ‘ere.” The soldier was seated on what looked like a flat-surfaced rock.

     Simon jumped; the branches recoiled. Straining to see, Simon remained stooped. Should have ordered him out! he thought. Stupid!

     “There be a little bank ye can sit on.” The soldier pointed. “Ye’ll see better in a bit.”

     Reaching with his right hand, Simon found the mossy surface.

     “Just be knowin’. I naught be intendin’ no ‘arm.”

     Simon sat on the bank.


     Simon was able to see the man’s features.

     “I coulda charged ye just now.”

     “I know.”

     “But I didn’t, see. I naught want t’fight.”

     Simon nodded. Had he sensed that?

     “That’s why I ran.”

     Like the wind! Simon had to ask. “How … how did y’get here so fast?”

     The soldier stared. Turning his head a bit, he listened to the far away sounds. Of a sudden he laughed.

     Sensitive to mockery, Simon flushed.

     That? I be in this ‘ole ‘ours now.”

     “How’s that?”

     “When we be marchin’ past ‘ere in the dark, I be tellin’ me sarge I be havin’ t’drop a loaf, see? He didn’t like hearin’ it so I said in me best toad-eatin’ voice, ‘I’d not be wantin’ ye havin’ t’be smellin’ me backsides all the way t’Concord. Be back in a blink, I be.’ Got into some bushes, kept goin’, never looked back.” Watching Simon, the soldier grinned. “Not too comfortable ‘ere. Bloody stiff I be. Bloody ‘ungry, too. But I did drop me loaf!” The grin stayed.

     Simon wanted to smile.

     “You’re tellin’ me you deserted, early this morning? And you’ve been here ever since?”

     “I be mindin’ now maybe tis a mistake.” He sighed. He stared down his left leg.

     Seeing as how he had been discovered, yes, it had been a mistake. A big mistake!

     The young man touched his left knee.

     Simon had a second question. “Why did y’desert?”

     “Because … I don’t be wantin’ t’ …” He looked off. “I hate me life!” The grenadier’s eyes bored.

     “Why?” Simon asked after a reasonable silence. “Why do you hate your life?”

     The soldier glared. “I be a miner, not a bloody soldier!” He grimaced. “Least, I was a miner, ‘til the cough d’got me. Then what t’do? Work’n the fields? No ‘irin’. So I put on me stock, see. Floured me ‘air. Sold me soul t’the Sarge ‘n’ Lieuten’nt Hull!”

     “And now you’ve deserted.”

     The soldier scowled. “You against that?”

     “No. I want t’know why you chose today. Why not before? How long y’been in Boston?”

     “A lot a questions, rebel.”

     “I’m … curious.” Simon hesitated. “I don’t mean no offense.”

     The grenadier stared at him for several seconds. “Suspect not.” He flexed his left knee, grunted, extended the leg.

     Simon waited.

     “We come down from Canada, the 4th Regiment, last December. Too cold there. Bloody cold in the tents ‘ere. Then we moved into the new barracks. Like bein’ in a bloody gaol. ‘Ow t’get out? Some did; some from the 10th got caught! Not me! Figured I’d better wait.”

     Simon was taken by the soldier’s courage. Not too long ago he had considered leaving the family farm to start a new life in Connecticut. This was different. To have struck out blindly in a foreign land!

     “But … you must’ve had a plan!” Simon exclaimed.

     “Right. Like I said. ‘Please, sarge, I gotta go,’ hide in the bushes, run. That was me plan.” He winked.

     Simon laughed.

     Seconds passed.

     The soldier said, “The trouble ‘ere be I don’t be knowin’ what t’do.”

     “How’s that?”

     “I’m . . . afeared.” He looked away. “Ye be ‘earin’ that?”

     Simon listened to what was now fierce combat.

     “I’m affrighted t’be showin’ meself.”

     “I would be, too.”

     The soldier nodded.

     “What is it you want?” Simon asked, anticipating the answer.

     “I want t’be goin’ someplace, away from ‘ere. Go where I can work, be me own master!” He looked at his rolled up coat, wedged beneath his bent right knee. “Far away from that!”

     “Travelin’ about, lookin’ like y’are, talkin’ the way y’ do, that would be difficult.”

     Slivers of light were streaking through the branches.

     “All this while, I be sittin’ ‘ere thinkin’ and thinkin’. Comin’ up with nothin’. Maybe I should just give meself over.”


     Startled, the grenadier looked at Simon strangely.

     Surprised also, Simon knew his outburst required an explanation. He recognized as well that the soldier had stopped talking like a prisoner. “If you do,” Simon said, disturbed by the second thought, “the first angry militiaman that sees you will shoot you. Or you’ll get swapped for one of ours.”

     The young man grinned. “Don’t be wantin’ that.”

     “So, … what are you plannin’ t’do?”

     “Aye, there’s the rub.”

     Simon knew how the soldier might accomplish it. Provided he, Simon, helped! Because of what his life had been he was tempted. Tempted and threatened. Rendered mute, beside this humorous, pathetic redcoat, whose name he didn’t know, who wanted him to speak.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Teaching -- Memories
Memories are an indication of a life well or ill spent.  Give your heart and soul to what you do and you will be rewarded.  Appreciative school children give back.
One morning just before lunch recess I found a twenty dollar bill lying next to a leg of one of the student desks.  One boy had not yet left.  He saw me pick up the bill.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
“I’ll take it down to the office.  Maybe the person it belongs to will report losing it.”
The next day I asked the school secretary about the twenty dollar bill.
“Two boys came by this morning and got it.”  I asked their names.  One was the boy that had seen me pick up the bill.  The other, somebody I didn’t know, claimed to be the student that had lost the money.  The principal suspended them.  I said nothing about the incident to my student upon his return.  His parents had no doubt punished him.  He had been suspended.  Why pile on?
Several months later I asked for a couple of volunteers to score and time keep a girls B-team basketball game on one of the outdoor courts.  Because I was the coach of the A-team, which would be playing in the gym, I could not do it.  Nobody offered to help.  At the last minute my student that had been dishonest volunteered.  He did the job well.  I was touched. 
One incoming eighth grade group of students had the reputation of being difficult.  The girls, especially, were uncooperative.  Forewarned, many of the teachers chose to be stern disciplinarians.  “Here are the rules.  Woe unto you if you break one!”  I went the other way.  I was open to them.  I tried to recognize and respect their needs.  At the end of the year members of two of my classes contributed money to buy me a pair of jeans, a shirt, and nifty shoes.  I remember particularly one incident.  On consecutive days a girl notorious for not telling the truth lingered to talk to me after the end of class.  The final day she stayed too long and asked me to write a note to excuse her impending tardiness.  I wrote something like “Sarah left here at 10:46.”  She told me that the note wouldn’t do.  She’d get in trouble.  I told her that I couldn’t lie; I hadn’t detained her; she had decided to be late.
“What should I do?” she asked.
“Tell the truth.  Mr. B---- is one of the fairest teachers on the faculty.  Tell him.”
Mr. B---- spoke to me that afternoon.  He was surprised and pleased.  I was pleased also that she had told the truth and pleased that he now viewed her differently.
One year fairly late in my teaching career I was teaching two GATE (gifted and talented education) classes.  One was an English class, the other an American history class.  Students eligible to take such classes had to have scored 130 or above on a school-administered intelligence test.  School policy (or maybe the policy of the principal at that time) did not allow any student to take two GATE classes taught by the same teacher.  A mother of a very bright student insisted that her daughter be placed in both of my GATE classes.  The principal refused.  Not the least intimidated, the mother sat conspicuously outside his closed office door.  Time passed.  The principal relented.  The mother had been one of my prize students the second year I taught at the school.  (See my “teaching” post “Getting Better,” Sept, 2, 2014)  I was extremely flattered.
Half way through my teaching career I had a student handicapped by cerebral palsy.  He and I would spend lunch recess time “shooting baskets” in my room.  I would hurl a taped, wadded sheet or two of used ditto paper at my desk waste basket from the far reaches of the room.  He would shoot the “ball” five or six feet away.  We had competitive games, replete with hyperbolic, sports announcer-type commentary.    Four or five years later one of his older brothers came into my room during my preparation period.  He handed me a soft, stuffed, reddish-colored, cloth-covered “ball.”  Saying nothing to me, he left.  I realized that my lunch recess friend had died and that his brother had carried out a dying wish.
Fairly early during my career one of the boys in my class had been acting out too much.  I spoke with him privately.  He was very unhappy.  His parents were hollering at him constantly.  He was giving them considerable grief. 
“What is it they want?” I asked.
“A lot.  They want me to do this.  They want me to do that.  They’re so unfair.”
I told him rather forcefully that they had the right to expect certain things from him.  I suspected that he believed they didn’t love him.  I said, ”Do what they ask.  See how they react.”
A week later he was happy.  “Things are much better,” he told me.  He stayed that way most of the rest of the year.
Little things.  A girl, a C student, wrote in my yearbook: “You made me want to learn.”  A much picked-on seventh grade boy that I had tried to protect during the second year I had taught at the school appeared maybe twenty years later in my classroom during our school’s annual May open house. He was there with relatives.  A cousin of his -- or maybe his nephew – was one of my students.  He wanted to say hello.  Years after I retired, a sales clerk in a department store in Eugene, Oregon, looked at my wife’s credit card.  She remarked that she had had an English teacher once named Titus.
“Oh?  Where was that?"
“You wouldn’t know the place."
“What city?  My husband was an English teacher.”
“That couldn’t be.”
“What city?”
“My husband was your teacher.  Why is it that you remember him?”
“He’d have waste paper shooting contests.  He played games with us.”
(Late during my career I had two principals that insisted that “time on task” was everything.  Not a minute of class time should be wasted.  My contention was that a little bit of play at the end of a period when necessary work had been completed raised student morale, which, in turn, heightened motivation to learn)
And one very serious thing. 
I coached boys and girls afterschool sports teams for a number of years.  I eventually limited my coaching to girls, mostly eighth grade, basketball.  Near the beginning of that stretch of time I had difficulty putting together a team.  Most of the athletic girls that year, displeased with their physical education teacher/coach in the seventh grade, decided not to play any afterschool sport.  I knew of three girls who did want to play basketball.  They were not socially connected with the boycotting group.  They were skilled players.  (All three would receive basketball scholarships from division one colleges)  There was also a fourth girl – I will call her Harriet – who was new to the school.  Early in the fall the three girls had befriended her.  She was athletic but not basketball skilled.  These four attended my first practice.  I told them after the practice that they would have to recruit other girls to play, that I would need at least three additional players.  Otherwise, I would coach the seventh grade team.  Three additional girls came to the next practice.  One was fairly athletic, the friend that accompanied her was not, and the third girl, lacking skills, just wanted to play sports.  We had a team.
The schools in our league played a short schedule of games – no more than ten.  The season ended with a championship tournament.  We won the tournament.  In the next-to-last game of the tournament Harriet chased after a ball that was going out-of-bounds.  She fell into the wooden bleachers and injured her leg.  That evening I visited her parents.  Her father, an FBI swat team leader, was irate that the host school had allowed the bleachers to be so close to the court.  I listened to him vent; eventually, his temper eased.  Several weeks passed.  The girls wanted to play more games.  Why not? I thought. I added two seventh grade players to our team and scheduled six games against teams outside our league area.  We won five of them.  Afterward, we were invited to play in a tournament hosted by a private school.  We won our first two tournament games.  The next morning a terrible event happened.
One of the three skilled girls, Debbie, whom I had as a student, told me that just before the school day had started a car had stopped at the curb in front of the school and an adult in the car had told Harriet to get in.  Debbie was afraid that something bad had happened to Harriet’s father.  About twenty minutes later I received a call from the school secretary.  Harriet’s father had died of a heart attack.  Harriet wanted to talk to me and would call the office during my preparation period.  I hung up the phone.  Debbie and a friend of hers were watching me intently.  I looked at them and nodded.  They burst into tears.  I gave them hall passes to go to the girls bathroom.
Harriet called.  She needed to talk.  She had always been afraid that her father might be killed in the line of duty.  She had witnessed at a previous school how a girl had been affected by her father’s unexpected death.  Harriet had noticed an immediate strangeness in how the girl affected and her friends related.  She didn’t want that to happen to her.  Her friends would surely treat her differently.  She did not want to be pitied; she did not want to be viewed as a victim.  Later that day I talked to several of her teammates.  I could see strain in their anticipation of how they would need to comport themselves.  That night we played in the championship game – without Harriet -- and lost.
The next day I arranged to take all of the players to Harriet’s house.  They joined her in her bedroom while I talked with her mother and aunt.  Harriet’s mother told me later in the year that this act had helped Harriet considerably.  I am certain that her teammates -- giving their loyalty, solace, and strength – gained as well.
I am thankful I chose not to work in a different profession.  Teaching brought out the best in me.  Although I made mistakes, I benefited people.  I was rewarded for it.  I am one of thousands of retired teachers able to say that.  I fear that today’s teachers twenty years later will not be able to.  Corporate leaders and complicit politicians seek to establish conformity in how and what public school children are taught.  “Efficiency,” they maintain, “enables high achievement.”  (Never mind that all the testing they require and the new curricular material they mandate reap substantial profit)  Eliminate the “bad” teachers and hire young teachers who will “get with the program,” they maintain, and the problem of American public education is solved.  I do not agree.