Saturday, October 5, 2013

Grand Music, Pages 224-226

Accepting pleasure without celebration, disappointment without complaint, Amos Barrett, like a twig in a pond, drifted.
     Not a planner, he was an accepting doer. His beliefs were his neighbors’ beliefs. A corporal in Captain Brown’s company, he had not dwelt on the prospect of life and death combat but he had thought that some day it might happen.
     His day had begun at 3:00 a.m. when the Concord alarm bell had roused him from his bed. Standing in front of Wright Tavern, he had watched the arrival of fellow militiamen and an admixture of old men and adolescent boys. The arrival of an entire company from Lincoln an hour before dawn had surprised him. Other companies from towns to the east and north would also be arriving, his sergeant had thereafter boasted, Colonel Barrett -- Amos’s uncle -- having sent messengers off to Stow, Acton, Sudbury, and Bedford. Just about every town had raised its own minuteman company. It occurred to Amos that these companies were now doing what their name signified.
     After a shouting Reuben Brown had ridden in from Lexington, Amos had thought briefly about dying -- days, he realized, before his twenty-third birthday! It had been a passing thought, shunted aside by what he had really wanted to think about, firing at strutting lobsterbacks. Therefore, he had willingly joined his company, one of four that Major Buttrick had sent off toward Lexington, Buttrick’s thinking, Amos’s as well, that it was better to confront the enemy firsthand to know straight off what had to be done.
     They had marched proudly past Meriam’s Corner and over the little bridge that spanned Mill Brook. We’ve never drilled or paraded here before, he thought. Always by the millpond. Always the same drills.
 This was a new experience. It would have a different ending. He felt strangely affected.
 He seemed to be seeing and hearing as never before.
 He knew it wasn’t because he was afraid. Or overly excited. He was just, … extremely alert! Like a hunted animal, he supposed. Strange, he thought, that he had conjured up that comparison, being that he and his company were doing the hunting.
     A mile and a half out of Concord Major Buttrick’s lead company halted. “They’re comin’!” Daniel Fuller shouted. The entire column stopped. Not seeing the regulars, listening intently, Amos heard blue jays. Trying to locate them, he saw behind leafing tree limbs the ridge top of a barn. “Stand ready!” Amos’s captain, David Brown, shouted.
     Seconds later Brown rode to the front of the column. Doing what the men in front of him were doing, Amos stepped off the road. There they were, the terrible redcoats. Coming over a rise. What struck him most was the shine of their bayonets. Too bad we don’t have any of those, he thought.
     He watched Major Buttrick, at the head of the column, talking with his captains and lieutenants. What was the matter with him? The regulars were getting closer. There were an awful lot of them. Hadn’t Buttrick seen that? Amos looked fleetingly at the pine wood thirty rods to his right.
     The front part of the redcoat column was swallowing up space! Buttrick and his captains were still palavering. “Damnation!” Was Buttrick planning to bid them “Good morrow”? Share with them a dish of tea? If they get within thirty rods of me, I’ll load my musket, orders be hanged, and head off for those trees!
     But the Major’s conference was breaking up. Amos’s captain turned his horse about. Twenty seconds later, facing the company, Brown shouted, “We’re going back! Look alive! We'll be showin' those damn Redcoats how well farmers march!”
     The fifers and drummers, at the rear on the march going out, stepped off. Amos marched smartly to their music. The rhythmic sound of the many shoes pleased him. A different music started up behind him. The British fife and drum corps was answering. He strained to recognize what their musicians were playing but could not. He grinned. Whatever it was, the mixture of tunes sounded good. Grand music they marched to, he thought, oblivious of the comic spectacle Buttrick’s militia and the British column exhibited.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


Book Review

Cress Delahanty

by Jessamyn West

“Cress Delahanty” by Jessamyn West is one of those rare books that causes me to celebrate life. Mrs. West is a masterful writer. I read this book in the 1980s when I was teaching fourteen-year-olds and loved it. Now, having a granddaughter of that age, after reading it a second time, I revere it.

The reader experiences the growth toward emotional maturity of Crescent Delahanty from age 12 to 16 in the late 1930s and early 1940s. She and her parents live on a citrus ranch near Santa Ana, California. Not particularly attractive physically but highly observant and introspective, she is an only child awkwardly seeking social standing and peer approval. As she grows older, she learns indelible lessons about people and life that her supportive, usually perceptive parents frequently sense she is experiencing and strive to guide her through. These lessons are revealed through vignettes, selected occurrences that do not preach, do not explain, do not dramatize. We experience what Cress sees, hears, thinks, and feels. We adults, drawing on our own experiences, are permitted to infer what Cress has discovered for the first time. This is a coming-of-age novel in the best sense. No stereotypes here. Each experience is intelligently selected and sparsely, cleanly, and sometimes humorously narrated.

I will provide one example.

Late during her thirteenth year Cress is invited to stay over the weekend at the house of a classmate, Ina Wallenius. Ina wants to be Cress’s friend. Cress doesn’t particularly want to go. Cress had reached [precariously] the upper level of her high school’s social structure and Ina was at a lower level “reaching upward. A visit could put Ina up where she was, or just as easily put Cress down where Ina was.” Ina is somewhat peculiar in appearance and conduct. She lives with her father in a neighborhood of small houses built on a hill amid oil derricks. “A ratty little town,” Ina apologizes as the two girls get off the school bus to begin the weekend.

They enter Ina’s house. To Cress’s great surprise, the rooms are immaculate. Every household item is precisely placed. “Half a lemon rested in the exact center of a saucer, and the saucer had been placed in the exact middle of the window sill. The chairs, ranged around the set table, were all pushed under it a uniform distance.”

Cress meets Mr. Wallenius, who greets her and goes off to wash for dinner, which his daughter has carefully prepared. Before they eat, he asks Cress to read a chapter from the Bible, a daily occurrence in his house. He has selected a chapter that contained words that, elsewhere, “it would be very wrong for her to whisper or even think about.” The father asks Cress, “Did you understand what you read?” Not wanting to be tested, she answers that she hadn’t. Mr. Wallenius seems pleased.

He asks Cress, “Have you ever been kissed?” Knowing he doesn’t mean family kisses, she answers, ”No.” He tells her she is big enough. “I guess it goes more by age than size,” Cress responds.

Mr. Wallenius invites Cress to take a little walk with him while Ina washes the dishes. Feeling uncomfortable, Cress answers, “I wouldn’t feel right, not helping.” Mr. Wallenius says, “Washing them alone is a little punishment I planned for Ina. A little reminder. Isn’t that true, Ina?”

They go outside. The father warns Cress about rattlesnakes. He is carrying a long stick, tells her how he has killed a few. They come upon one of the sump holes in the neighborhood. Mr. Wallanius goes into the bushes and comes out with a live gopher snake balanced on his stick. “With a gentle movement, Mr. Wallenius laid, rather than threw, the soft, brown, harmless thing in the sump hole. Ignoring Cress’s pleas to spare the snake, he watches it fight to survive. “Sink—swim; sink—swim. … Up—down; in—out,” he repeats. “It’s dying!” Cress protests. She breaks away from him, flees down the hill, and walks the long distance home.

Her parents ask her why she has come back. “Homesick” is her answer. Does she want a bedtime snack? The chapter ends this way: “It sounded good, but Cress was silent. She sat down in her father’s chair and nodded yes to him, because suddenly she was too tired to speak even so small and easy a word.” Ina and her father and this experience are not referred to thereafter in the book.

I admire Jessamyn West’s ability to provide sensory detail in her narration almost as much as I do her selection and portrayal of her subject matter. She is not pretentious in her word selection; instead she is simple, direct and, most importantly, exact. Here are two examples:

“Mrs. Delahanty stood in front of the fireplace, close to the fire until her calves began to scorch, then on the edge of the hearth until they cooled.”

“It was only the smell of the oil—which was taste as much as smell—the sight of an occasional sump hole at the end of a side street, and the sound of the pumps that reminded Cress where she was. The sound of the pumps filled the air, deep, rhythmical, as if the hills themselves breathed; or as if deep in the wells some kind of heart shook the earth with so strong a beat that Cress could feel it in the soles of her feet.”

“Cress Delahanty” is not a novel that teenagers would especially enjoy, in my opinion. Oh, but what a pleasure it is for parents and grandparents to read! I can imagine them finishing each chapter thinking, “Yes, this is how it is” or “I can believe this. Such a good person being made stronger. Mankind needs strong, sensitive people.”    

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Get Me Matt Damon!

Brookline, Massachusetts, physician/militiaman Eliphalet Downer’s exploits during the Revolutionary War could easily be made into an action/adventure summer movie. I see Matt Damon (using his Boston accent) playing the swashbuckling Downer, who makes one brief appearance in my novel, “Crossing the River.”

Downer, turned 31 April 4, 1775, is described by two historical sources as a man that fits the actor’s physical makeup. Francis S. Drake in his History of Roxbury describes Downer as a “skillful surgeon” and a “hard, rough man.” General William Heath in his Memoirs remembered Downer as “an active, energetic man.”

Early in my imagined movie, theater-goers would witness Downer (1744-1806) escaping death three times. The time: mid-afternoon, April 19, 1775. The place: Menotomy (now Arlington), Massachusetts. The circumstance: militiamen from various towns including Brookline fighting scattered redcoats hand-to-hand on the town’s broad plain below the Meeting House as one thousand plus British regulars retreat from Concord to the sanctuary of Bunker and Breeds Hills and the guns of the man-of-war “Somerset,” anchored between Charlestown and Boston.

We see Downer, eager to participate, running past a two-story house. Two soldiers appear at one corner of the building. They see him, hurry after him. Downer turns. One of the soldiers falls, shot from behind by an unseen militiaman. Downer raises his musket, fires. The second redcoat falls, moves his right arm, lies still. Downer hurries off, toward the broad field, where squads of soldiers, separating from the British column, are attacking militiamen arrayed loosely and provocatively in different locations.

Massachusetts Provincial General Heath and Doctor Joseph Warren, on horses, appear fifty yards to Downer’s left. Downer is not aware of their presence. Here is how I narrate the beginning of Downer’s next close encounter with death.


Across the expansive plain below the Menotomy meeting house militiamen by the hundreds had refused to give ground. Having galloped through their groups to inspire valor, Heath, followed by Doctor Joseph Warren, had stopped his horse repeatedly to behold and exhort.

Squads of regulars had repeatedly left the column to drive back their slayers. Riding past his warriors, Heath had shouted, “Fire! Stay your ground! Reload! Fire!”

One encounter had thrilled him. He would learn afterward that the American had been the physician-turned-militiaman, Eliphalet Downer. Five cursing regulars had caught Downer and four compatriots crossing an uncontested section of the plain.

“You, damned rebel! Do you dare face?!” the nearest had challenged.

“I dare face!” Downer had shouted.

Standing forty feet apart, they had hastily fired. Thereafter, they had fought.

Downer had parried his attacker’s bayonet thrusts with the barrel of his musket. One early stab had cut into the fabric of his coat. A goner, Heath had concluded.


Forty heart-throbbing seconds later, Downer prevails, in quick succession striking a blow to the redcoat’s neck and right shoulder with the stock of his musket, seizing the soldier’s weapon, and stabbing the regular with the weapon’s bayonet. We have a close-up of Heath and Warren’s expressions of amazement. Fired upon, the two men ride off. Pan to where the death duel has taken place. The soldier lies motionless. Downer has left.

The scene shifts to the interior of a barn. We see a wounded soldier lying on bloodied, scattered hay. Downer enters the barn to prime the dead redcoat’s confiscated musket, his own weapon broken and discarded. Downer sees the soldier, hesitates. He goes to him.

“I’m a doctor,” Downer whispers. “May I dress your wound?”

The soldier looks at him, rolls suddenly toward his musket, seizes it. “Damn yer!” he rages. “I’ll dress yer wound for yer!” Downer steps back, his musket without ball and powder. The soldier, managing to sit, aims. Powder explodes. The soldier crumples, lies still. A militiaman appears from behind Downer. “A close one, that, eh, Doc?”

The two men stare at each other while the sounds of battle become manifest.

Fade to an indoor scene, Downer’s home in Brookline. We see his wife, and his three sons and one daughter, between the ages of two and eight. Downer is telling them of his experiences and what he has learned of the day’s outcome. He predicts accurately that war with England has begun. He declares his intention to serve the province’s cause as a surgeon tending the wounded and sick.

We experience the fighting (the Battle of Bunker Hill) at the top of Breeds Hill. We see Doctor Warren standing fast. Short of ammunition, the militiamen begin to vacate their position. Warren is one of the last to leave. A British officer calls out to him. Warren, recognizing the man, smiles. He is shot in the face, from another direction. We see then militiamen fleeing across Charlestown Neck. The wounded are being helped by comrades. Many stop. We see Downer moving from location to location tending to the most needy.

We see the date March 17, 1776 on the theater screen. Long lines of soldiers are being loaded on transport boats. The British evacuation of Boston has begun. Downer and his three sons watch from a vantage point on Beacon Hill. A man (played by Ben Affleck) approaches. “Doctor, I be askin’ the need of your service!” the man declares. “You’ve heard, I conjecture, the word ‘privateer’?”

“A ship t’be fitted with several cannon t’prey on British vessels?”

“Just so. We capture their crew, take them and their ship back to Boston, share the profits after we sell the ship’s valuables. A dangerous endeavor, surgeon. I’m the owner of the Yankee, the first privateer, I believe, t’be sailin’ out of Boston. I’ll be needin’ the service of a man such as youself, I hear. A fightin’ man and a damn good doctor. Will y’be joinin’ me?”

The boys look quizzically at their father. “Give me time to think about it,” Downer responds.

Fade to a scene on a long dock. The privateer waits for Downer to come aboard. Downer embraces his children, then his wife. She is crying.

“Mary, we’ve been over this. I must serve my country, as best I can. We must all sacrifice. I promise you I’ll return.”

Fade out.

"We Will Live and Die Together"

The following scene, which I may include in a forthcoming novel about the conflict caused by English attempts to establish settlements at Roanoke in the 1580s, sets up an interesting side-note to Humphrey Gilbert’s botched attempt to found an English colony off the coast of Maine.
Gilbert and his crew sensed how close to Sable Island’s rocks the Squirrel, riding the crests of turbulent waves, had come.  If he dared to put out to sea, how many days or weeks would it be before he could return?  On this island roamed wild pigs and cattle, set ashore by Portuguese explorers.   He had to replenish his food supply.  The alternative was to return to the Queen in disgrace!  The Newfoundland fishermen had warned him about Sable Island, about how in bad weather too many ships had been dashed against its rocks.  "Approach it in the best of conditions."  Well, he had done the opposite.
Slanting rain pelted him.  He turned his face away from its force.  Minutes passed.  Sailors were staring at him, turning their faces when he attempted eye contact.  He would wait a bit longer!
If the fog lifted, he could then be certain.  If not, …   The waiting was intolerable!   He stared, at drifting, amorphous shapes.
A ferocious blast of wind drove him off his feet.  He careened down the slippery starboard deck, his right leg striking stanchions.  Adjusting painfully to the roll of the ship, gripping a foremast spar, he stood.  The boards beneath his feet trembled.  Fear constricted his throat.
"Admiral!  Here!"
Gilbert hesitated, then followed the beckoning sailor to a cluster of four seamen just aft of broadside.  There!  The fog had opened.  Gilbert's largest ship, the Delight, was coming apart on dark rocks.  And in the water . . . the ship's crew: heads, flailing arms.  Miraculously, a boat in the water, just beyond, in one eye-blink, capsized.  Churning bodies, disappearing.  Gone!
For an hour Gilbert’s two ships maintained their positions.  Then he ordered their departure.  All one hundred of the Delight’s crew had perished.  Numbed with guilt, he retired to his cabin.
There were sixteen survivors.  During Gilbert's seventeen day lay-over at Newfoundland, his carpenters had built a pinnace (a small sailing ship used frequently to transport people from ship to shore).  The Delight had towed the pinnace behind her to Sable Island.  The sixteen sailors boarded her.  They headed northward, attempting to steer with one oar.  On the seventh day of their ordeal they reached the shoreline of southern Newfoundland, where they ate wild peas and berries.  When a French ship discovered them, four had died.  The remaining twelve were transported across the Atlantic to a Spanish port near the French border.  They crossed over into France that night, and they eventually returned to England.
Richard Hakylut’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation includes an account of their survival by the master mariner of the Delight, Richard Clarke.  Here is my summary, aided by excerpts from his account.
Some of the Delight’s company in the water were able to swim.  They recovered the pinnace and hauled out of the water others afloat, including Clarke.   Eventually, sixteen men occupied the boat.  Expecting death, they were determined to “prolong their liues as long as it pleased God.”  They anticipated “euery moment of an houre when the Sea would eate them vp, the boate being so little and so many men in her, and so foule weather.”  For two days and two nights their boat went where the ocean directed them, “God pleased to allow their boat to live in the sea.”
A master named Hedley proposed to Clarke that it might “please God that some of vs may come to the land if our boate were not ouerladen. Let vs make sixteene lots, and those foure that haue the foure shortest lots we will cast ouerboord preseruing the Master among vs all. I replied vnto him, saying, no we will liue and die together.”  Hedley asked Clarke if his memory of their location was good.  Clarke answered that he knew how far off land they were (“but threescore leagues from the lande”) and hoped to come to land within two or three days.  This put them all “in comfort.”
“Thus we continued the third and fourth day without any sustenance, saue onely the weedes that swamme in the Sea, and salt water to drinke.”  On the fifth day Hedley and another man died.  During all of the five days and nights “we saw the Sunne but once and the Starre but one night, it was so foule weather.”  All were very weak.  Doubting that they would ever reach land, they wished to die.
“I promised them that the seuenth day they should come to shore, or els they should cast me ouer boord.”  At 11 a.m. on the seventh day they sighted land (southern Newfoundland), and at 3 p.m. they reached shore.  All during the seven days and nights the wind had “kept continually South.  If the wind had in the meanetime shifted vpon any other point, wee had neuer come to land: we were no sooner come to the land, but the wind came cleane contrary at North within halfe an houre after our arriuall.”
“But we were so weake that one could scarcely helpe another of vs out of the boate, yet with much adoe being come all on shore we kneeled downe ypon our knees and gaue God praise that he had dealt so mercifully with vs. Afterwards those which were strongest holpe their fellowes vnto a fresh brooke, where we satisfied our selues with water and berries very well.”
The area abounded with berries.  They spied a little wood consisting of pine, spruce, fir, and birch.  They made a little house with boughs inside which they spent the night.  The next morning Clarke “deuided the company three and three to goe euery way to see what foode they could find to sustaine thenselues, and appointed them to meete there all againe at noone with such foode as they could get.”  They found great stores of peas “as good as any wee haue in England: a man would thinke they had bene sowed there.”  They rested there three days and three nights, eating berries and peas.  Afterward, they rowed their boat along the shore five days, putting on land “when we were hungry or a thirst.”   
They “came to a very goodly riuer that ranne farre vp into the Countrey and saw very goodly growen trees of all sortes.”  There they happened upon a French Basque whaling vessel, which took them across the Atlantic Ocean to the Spanish harbor, The Passage.  “The Master of the shippe was our great friend.    When the visitors came aboord, as it is the order in Spaine, they demanding what we were, he sayd we were poore fishermen that had cast away our ship in Newfound land and so the visitors inquired no more of the matter at that time.”  Had he told the truth, Clarke and his men would have been put to death.
That night their friend put them on land “and bad vs shift for our selues.”  They were ten or twelve miles from the French border.  They walked that night into France and “came into England toward the end of the yeere 1583.”
You may read a brief biographical account of Richard Clarke by the historian David B. Quinn by accessing