Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Civil War

Pumpkins into Coaches

In 1961, when I was nine, I fell under the spell of a crum­bling stone tow­er. It stood on the weed-choked prop­er­ty of the Port­ner Manor in Man­as­sas, Vir­ginia, cat­ty-cor­ner from my cousin’s house. As a devo­tee of Trix­ie Belden books, I craved mys­ter­ies the way oth­er kids longed for ponies. Here was a mys­tery with­in spit­ting dis­tance!

My cousin and I talked about the “Civ­il War look-out” tow­er until we final­ly had to climb it. Fight­ing bri­ars, we thrashed our way to its base. Ivy cloaked the three-sto­ry red sand­stone struc­ture topped with gap-toothed bat­tle­ments. Up close we noticed port­holes and arrow slits. Some of the spi­ral steps out­side the tow­er had caved in. We strad­dled the gap­ing hole, half-expect­ing a bony hand to grab our ankles, and crawled to the top.

The two upper floors had col­lapsed, but the round walls were intact, cov­ered with creamy wall­pa­per and fad­ed squares where pic­tures had once hung. We crept back down the steps and peered into the hole, cer­tain a tun­nel con­nect­ed the tow­er to the estate gate­house. Then we flailed through the bram­bles as if chased by Portner’s ghost. Back at my cousin’s, we threw our­selves on the ground, sweaty and vic­to­ri­ous.

The “Civ­il War” tow­er real­ly dat­ed to 1882 when the man­sion was built. But even if we’d known that fact as kids, we wouldn’t have cared. Man­as­sas was steeped in his­to­ry, but we traipsed through the decades, mix­ing rock­ets and can­nons with gos­sip and make-believe in our dai­ly play. We heard our grand­fa­ther, who’d been an under­tak­er long before we were born, say cryp­ti­cal­ly that dur­ing the Depres­sion “peo­ple were too poor to die,” and won­dered what hap­pened to those peo­ple. Every­thing was a mys­tery.

An American ChildhoodIn An Amer­i­can Child­hood, Annie Dil­lard wrote, “We chil­dren lived and breathed our [city’s] his­to­ry … We knew bits of this sto­ry, and we knew none of it.” My cousins and I knew bits of our town’s sto­ry and yet none of it. Geog­ra­phy was a tool to suit our pur­pos­es. We raced around the near­by bat­tle­field, dodg­ing mon­u­ments, our games shaped more by our imag­i­na­tions than what had actu­al­ly hap­pened there.

In the field between the lum­ber yard and my cousin’s house, we turned over stones, hop­ing to find arrow­heads or cement-col­ored minieˊ balls. We chased milk­weed fairies to make mod­est wish­es and, once, mar­veled at a clutch of speck­led killdeer eggs rest­ing in a peb­ble nest. Our sneak­ers pressed into the past, kicked up the red dust of the present, and point­ed toward the future. We walked, as Dil­lard said, “obliv­i­ous through lit­tered lay­ers” of his­to­ry, tres­pass­ing, run­ning across oth­er people’s yards. We owned that town.

Now I live in Fred­er­icks­burg, Vir­ginia, a town even rich­er in his­to­ry. I step across the same cob­ble­stones where Wash­ing­ton and Jef­fer­son once walked. Five major bat­tles ripped through here dur­ing the Civ­il War. I wouldn’t expect kids today to won­der about Jef­fer­son or Chan­cel­lorsville as they dri­ve down Route 3. But I don’t see their sneak­ers touch the ground much, either, except dur­ing soc­cer and soft­ball games.

Where are their mys­ter­ies? Do they weave Wal­mart and Dol­lar Gen­er­al into their free play? Movies and TV bom­bard kids with enough toys, cos­tumes, and spin-offs to fuel “imag­i­na­tive” play into the next mil­len­ni­um. Why would they scrounge for arrow­heads when they have the lat­est Hap­py Meal toy to keep them enter­tained for five sec­onds? Or the thrill of a flashy new app on their screens? What do they own?

Know you what it is to be a child?” Frances Thomp­son wrote in 1909. “It is to turn pump­kins into coach­es, and mice into hors­es, low­ness into lofti­ness, and noth­ing into every­thing.”

Port­ner Manor was turned into a nurs­ing home in the late 60s. After stand­ing 86 years, the “look-out” tow­er was torn down in 1978. The nurs­ing home moved to bet­ter facil­i­ties, and the man­sion fell to neglect. It’s for sale now, pos­si­bly head­ed for the wreck­ing ball.

When I recall that twi­light climb all these years lat­er, I’m not sure if I real­ly saw the creamy wall­pa­per, or made it up in height­ened antic­i­pa­tion, or dreamed it. But I can still see dusty pink cab­bage ros­es in my mind’s eye (though I ques­tion wall­pa­per­ing the inside of a round stone tow­er).

Most­ly I remem­ber the smooth sand­stone steps beneath my sneak­ers, the sun-warmed walls against my palms, the deli­cious floaty feel­ing in my stom­ach, and those lofty sum­mers when we turned noth­ing into every­thing.

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Old

Virginia Euwer WolffThat’s your Great-Grand­fa­ther Who Lost His Arm in the Bat­tle of the Wilder­ness.” That was his name. In a big gold gilt-framed pho­to: a dis­tin­guished-look­ing, white-haired, mus­tached gen­tle­man high above the upright piano in my grandmother’s music room. This Civ­il War vet­er­an was her father-in-law, and he and his wife in her match­ing frame watched over the music room for as long as I can remem­ber. His wife looks severe: per­haps it was her high lace col­lar, the hard life of a 19th Cen­tu­ry woman, and the long wait for the pho­to­graph­ic plate’s expo­sure.

My hor­ti­cul­tur­ist great-grand­fa­ther with the long name had con­vinced his son, my por­trait pho­tog­ra­ph­er grand­pa, to move the entire fam­i­ly 2000 miles west from Jamestown, New York to the foothills of Mt. Hood in Ore­gon in 1911, there to begin grow­ing apples and pears on land whose price matched its fer­tile but irri­ga­tion-chal­lenged soil. My grandma’s opin­ion: “But only if we can live close to the school and close to the church.” The Civ­il War hero, his wife, and my grand­par­ents and their three young chil­dren trav­eled by train, with box­cars full of fur­ni­ture, to a com­mu­ni­ty of rut­ted roads and tena­cious, weath­er-tough­ened farm­ers and log­gers. My grand­par­ents’ big house got built beside the church.

Irri­ga­tion was the most piti­less of the orchard’s many obsta­cles. The farm didn’t last long. The Great Depres­sion hap­pened. My grand­pa re-edu­cat­ed him­self as an elec­tri­cian, and drove a Mod­el T Ford to his jobs well into the 1950s.

Now, sum­mer­time 2016, I’m sit­ting on a chair from that music room, as I have done for decades. Not the piano stool. (“Vir­ginia, do NOT spin on the piano stool. You KNOW that.”) This is a straight-back maple chair, prob­a­bly from the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, with curvy lines, turned legs, and a heart carved out of its back. Who made it and where? Why didn’t I ask when I was a kid and Grand­ma or Grand­pa could have told me?

It has silent­ly held up its end of my dai­ly work­ing bar­gain with­out com­plaint.

My grand­par­ents’ for­tunes fell, the great-grand­par­ents died, the three chil­dren grew up. Grand­ma opened a board­ing house for school­teach­ers, and the board­ing music teach­ers gave lessons on her piano. Ram­bunc­tious school­yard kids walked tame­ly through my grand­par­ents’ door, car­ry­ing their red John Thomp­son music and their yel­low and green Schirmer’s.

My moth­er had mar­ried her true love, a lapsed Penn­syl­va­nia lawyer turned Ore­gon farmer who had built a large log house three miles from town. My broth­er and I made a fam­i­ly of four, hap­py and com­plete.

Grandma’s and Grandpa’s din­ing room, with a great big table (for all of us rel­a­tives and all those board­ing teach­ers), opened into the music room, and some­one (any­one) could play “Hap­py Birth­day” on the piano for who­ev­er was cel­e­brat­ing: age 6, 46, or 76.

We chil­dren dec­o­rat­ed the music room Christ­mas tree with raggedy and chipped orna­ments from his­to­ry (why didn’t I ask for their sto­ries?), and my vis­it­ing cousin and I gid­di­ly over­re­act­ed each year, as our gifts pro­gressed from iden­ti­cal dolls to iden­ti­cal bot­tles of Evening in Paris per­fume.

I think that dur­ing the 60-plus years this util­i­tar­i­an chair spent in the music room it was nev­er wit­ness to inso­lence or pro­fan­i­ty.

I knew my grand­par­ents were promi­nent in the church, in posi­tions of pow­er. A few times each year Grand­ma pre­pared the cubes of Com­mu­nion bread, and as I grew I was allowed to help her pour her home­made grape juice into teen­sy glass­es in the holy, shiny tray-rack thing. Grandpa’s role was even more essen­tial: He start­ed the church fur­nace ear­ly on Sun­day morn­ings, and on choir prac­tice evenings, and made sure every­thing was work­ing right in every room of the build­ing. He made church pos­si­ble.

Years lat­er, my big broth­er whis­pered to me that Grand­pa was the church jan­i­tor, and that he and Grand­ma were prob­a­bly doing those jobs to ful­fill their annu­al tithe. We were in church, and our moth­er, as usu­al, was on the organ bench, bring­ing Bach and Schu­bert and all those beau­ti­ful loved ones to the rur­al fam­i­lies in the pews.

I don’t think I ever heard my grand­par­ents dis­cuss reli­gion. It was just there, an unequiv­o­cal force, like a moun­tain or an ocean or God.

The fam­i­ly side­stepped dis­pu­ta­tious­ness, didn’t stoop to quar­rel­ing. When peo­ple got peev­ed about wartime rationing or went mute about Hiroshi­ma they did it with­out mak­ing a fuss. I nev­er knew which mar­riages were unen­durable yet iron-tight, I nev­er knew which grownups had “er — uh — a problem…” Things and peo­ple didn’t break apart. Except that peo­ple died. When they did, our grief was wild and silent.

Your father was a won­der­ful man, Vir­ginia.”

I know.”

You look like your father, Vir­ginia, you have his eyes.”

Do I?”

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Grand­ma washed on Mon­days (tubs, blu­ing, the cranked wringer, hun­dreds of clothes­pins, yards of clothes­line), ironed on Tues­days (all those board­ers’ sheets went through a mar­velous machine called a man­gle), sewed and mend­ed on Wednes­days, teach­ing me to use a Singer machine for per­fect seams by using only my foot on the ped­al.

Elvis Pres­ley began to sing. Our fam­i­ly went on as if he had had the good man­ners not to. But he had stirred some­thing in my vis­it­ing cousin and me, and it lay stealthy and uncom­pre­hend­ed inside us.

We spread out, we learned to vote. Now, years too late, ques­tions per­sist, cast­ing every­thing in the shad­owy half-light of incom­ple­tion.

Had the Civ­il War sergeant (Penn­syl­va­nia 105th Infantry Reg­i­ment) kept a war diary? How did Grand­pa real­ly feel about leav­ing stu­dio pho­tog­ra­phy and try­ing to be an orchardist? What might Grand­ma have said about spend­ing her entire life tak­ing care of peo­ple? Why did the church break into fac­tions? Why did our fam­i­lies trust to school to teach us what Hitler had actu­al­ly done? How many sud­den grownup silences did my vis­it­ing cousin and I snick­er through, instead of prob­ing?

And that’s a thing I’d like to change, if I could. We know chil­dren can’t deci­pher the secret mes­sages that adults send in plain sight by means of eye­brows and cod­ed ges­tures. But I wish the young were quick­er to devel­op anten­nae for the waves of his­to­ry, its tragedies, its hilar­i­ties, its noble strug­gles.

I’m duly ashamed that I don’t even know where this beloved chair came from.

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Keystones of the Stone Arch Bridge

Keystones of the Stone Arch Bridge

In down­town Min­neapo­lis, Min­neso­ta, span­ning the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er, there is a “Stone Arch Bridge” that resem­bles a roman viaduct with its 23 arch­es. Built at a time when Min­neapo­lis was a pri­ma­ry grain-milling and wood-pro­­duc­ing cen­ter for the Unit­ed States, Empire Builder James J. Hill want­ed the bridge built to help his rail­road reach the […]

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