Thursday, June 27, 2013

Gettysburg redux all over again

There are a few things I enjoy more than my annual trips to Gettysburg for the Civil War Institute.

I just can't happen to think of them right now.

What? The Civil War Institute? What the heck is that all about?

I tried to explain this to a colleague the other day just before leaving for my 23rd Institute, which is usually held close to the anniversary dates of the actual battle (July 1, 2 and 3). The conversation didn't go particularly well.

"Institute?" she asked. "What do you do there? Do you get all dressed up and march around the battlefield eating crackers and sleeping in tents? Iddn't it hot and sticky?"

"Nope," I replied. "I don't reenact. The Institute is a bunch of seminars and lectures and field trips. We listen to authors, professors and battlefield guides, stuff like that. If you're into the Civil War, it's really a lot of fun."

"Lectures?" she asked. I could see her eyes starting to glaze over. "You go to lectures on your vacation? That doesn't sound like much fun to me."

Licensed Battlefield Guide Charlie Fennell tells us what happened here.
"It's really not that bad."

"And you don't get all dressed up?"


"Well, why do you go to lectures? Don't you already know who won the battle?" she asked.

I smiled. "Civil War scholarship is constantly changing," I said. "They're always finding letters or documents or artifacts that shed new light on the battle and giving you new interpretations. It's fascinating."

By this point, her eyes had stopped glazing over. Now they were actually starting to cross. I mean it. I thought I could actually see her eyeballs trading places in their sockets. I took this as my cue to cut this thing short. We were nothing more than ships passing blindly in the night on this one.

"I go with the same three guys every year," I said. "We stay in a dorm room on the campus of Gettysburg College for five days, and we've been the same roommates for all those years. It's kind of like boys' week out."

That seemed to be a good way to end the conversation without having to explain myself any further. It made it something she could relate to. It sounded more like a bunch of guys renting a condo at the beach than a bunch of nerds needing to find some lives.

"Well, you have a good time," she said. "So you don't get dressed up, huh?"

This year, being the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, our focus was very tight. An evening field trip marched us across Pickett's Charge. Another replicated a military staff ride that condensed the three-day battle into eight hours on a day that reached 91 degrees. Yet another field trip took us out to the pastures of the 13th Vermont.

I'm already starting to look forward to next year. We'll be looking at the 150th anniversary of the battles of 1864: the Wilderness, Spotsylvainia, North Anna, Cold Harbor, places like that.

Sigh. I can hardly wait. My eyes are already starting to glaze over.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Words R Us

For some reason unknown to me, I've been on a serious reading jag.

About a year or so ago, I was shamed into reading a classic by a couple of friends of mine, "To Kill a Mockingbird," a book I probably should have read decades ago. I enjoyed that experience so much that I dusted off my library card and started checking out books left and right.

I checked out classics: "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz" fell into my scope (Alice was a little too bizarre for me, but I did enjoy the Wizard). So did other books, usually World War II and Civil War histories, for which I have a great interest and passion.

I recently purchased a Galaxy tablet, which allows me to app up Kindle and other 21st century reading subscriptions — as well as access to Angry Birds. (Somebody rescue me now. Quick. Please).

At any rate, having tumbled into a career of writing myself, I think I can appreciate with some insight the skill, talent and craft of the giants, even if I could never emulate them.

This was never more true than with F. Scott Fitzgerald after I checked out "The Great Gatsby." I really thought I had read this book back in high school as part of my college preparatory summer reading program all those years ago, but clearly I had not. I was shocked by how thin — about 130 pages — the novel was when I checked it out. And yet, it was chock full of life, imagery and parable.

Witness as Fitzgerald describes Nick's encounter with Tom Buchanan as they discuss Gatsby: "Before I could reply that he was my neighbor dinner was announced; wedging his tense arm imperatively under mine, Tom Buchanan compelled me from the room as though he were moving a checker to another square."

Wow. That paragraph certainly paints a picture in the brain. The entire book is like that. Fitzgerald has vaulted way beyond Hemingway and Faulkner in my humble esteem.

Another author I've come to respect is Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of the Liberation trilogy dealing with the European campaigns of the United States military in World War II.

Under Atkinson's brush, this is hardly dry history. Words of description rise and fall throughout his narrative as if floating in a tidal basin. I read all the time and there were words I'd never seen before, or if I did, had no clue what they meant: pellucid, sangfroid, anabasis, insouciance, gyre, uxorious, quotidian. This could seem intimidating to the casual reader, but in Atkinson's hand, they are the artist's tools. And when you learn the definitions, they are nice surprises. Holy smokes.

Or should I say, they become pellucid?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Timing is everything

A couple weeks ago, during the Memorial Day break, my car suddenly and without warning started making a horrible metallic sound, sort of like the noise a freight train makes when it applies its brakes.

"Oh, no," I thought. "My brakes."

There's nothing sadder than seeing your car carried away. Sigh.
Sometimes the noise would get louder and sometimes it would soften. But it wouldn't go away. We rolled down the windows, and the sound that sounded to me like it was coming from the rear of the car now sounded like it was coming from somewhere up front. My car, apparently, is an acoustic shadow on wheels.

We pulled into a parking lot. I had Kim drive in a circle to help pinpoint the sound and quickly identified the noise as coming from the right front wheel.

Although I had my suspicions,  I googled "Metallic noise in Volvo wheels" and was quickly directed to Hub Wheel Bearings. Uh-oh. Suspicion confirmed.

I wallowed somewhere between frustration and anger. My car, new to me although it's pre-owned, has less than 50,000 miles on it. It's a young car — it shouldn't be having these kind of problems.

The offending, hard-hearted noise maker. Sheesh.
Now here I was, stuck with a car I wouldn't drive for fear of doing even greater damage, and on Memorial Day to top things off. Who in the world would be open to work on it? Perfect timing.

Turns out, the dealership in Winston-Salem was open. I made plans to have the car transported there.

We picked it up the next day. The problem wasn't hub wheel bearings at all. There, scotch-taped to my bill, was a gray paving stone.  Somehow it had gotten caught in the brake calipers of the wheel, and while it didn't do any damage, it could have.

                                                          •    •    •

That Friday, our coffee-drinking social group made plans to have our second annual picnic on the grounds of the Childress Vineyards.

About 12 of us showed up — a nice little crowd, a bit more than what actually shows up for coffee — and we placed our orders.

Kim and I decided to share a chicken salad croissant. Into her second or third bite, Kim paused. Then she chewed very gingerly.

"I think I lost a filling," said Kim.

My heart sank. This is the kind of stuff that happens to me. A couple months ago I broke a molar that resulted first in a crown, and then later in a root canal. Turns out Kim partially broke a molar. Great. Our dentist is closed on Fridays. Perfect timing.

Kim patiently waded through the weekend, cautiously chewing everything on the other side of her mouth without complaint. She made an appointment with the dentist first thing Monday morning, and by noon, she was all fixed up.

I'm checking the calendar now to see what's up next. Great. The Fourth of July.

Shut my mouth...

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Everything is Underhill Rosy

Date night couldn't get here soon enough.

At our age, Kim and I have date night on an irregular basis, usually determined by how exhausted we are from the rigors of the previous work week. Or even the previous eight hours. Depends.

That means sometimes we can go months without a date night because falling asleep in front of the television sounds (and sometimes is) more inviting.

But not this Saturday night. Underhill Rose, an uniquely talented female folk trio from artsy Asheville, was going to be at High Rock Outfitters, and we weren't going to miss this. We'd seen Underhill Rose perform on two previous occasions — once at HRO and once at the Barbecue Festival — and we considered ourselves to be loyal fans.

This particular night was the Lexington release party for their new CD, Something Real, which actually had been released universally the day before in Asheville. (I don't think I'm implying that Lexington therefore lives in its own universe when I put it this way, but I might be).

We knew the group had a dedicated following in Lexington, and in anticipating a large crowd at HRO, Kim and I decided to get there early to guarantee ourselves a seat in a venue that might hold 75 or so posteriors.

So we showed up at 7:45 p.m for the 9 p.m. concert. Ooops. When we walked through the door the place was empty except for the three women at the bar. "I guess we're early," I understated to Kim. The three women turned to us and smiled. Yep, you guessed it — they were Molly Rose Reed, Eleanor Underhill and Salley Williamson, Underhill Rose their very selves. "I guess we're real early," I said with my rapier-like wit and we engaged in a little small talk with them before they left to go backstage to get ready to perform.

Let me pause here for a moment to say this: the band members are exceptionally kind and courteous to their fans. Kim and I feel like we're on the ground floor of something big about to happen as we watch their development as artists. I can't help but feel they're on the cusp of greatness, or at least of making the big time. I hope so. Incredibly, as they take this uncertain journey, they all continue to hold bill-paying full time jobs. Holy cow.

They mostly write their own music, influenced as it is by the soaring sensibilities of the Appalachian Mountains that is in perfect confluence with the French Broad River as it carries their life experiences and life essentials downstream. It all shows up in their music.

But I have to tell you — I didn't see this coming. Showtime arrived to a less-than-full house, but that just made it better for the customers, if not for the performers. Underhill Rose had the complete attention of the audience, without the distracting murmurs of talker groups that usually cluster at the bar. It was like being on a sound stage, it was that wonderful.

And, oh my goodness, the music. Something pivotal has happened to the group since we last saw them, which was last October at the Barbecue Festival. Maybe it was while recording Something Real, I don't know. But the three-part vocal harmonies were tighter, crisper, than I remembered. Eleanor's banjo was precise, and Molly's guitar was gilt-edged. Because there is no percussion, Salley's upright bass becomes the group's integral driving force. They all seemed incredibly confident, both in their music and in themselves. I hope it's the confidence that can make a difference.

Now, one more thing. I can't get Bob Dylan's "Wagon Wheel" (now a hit by Darius Rucker) out of my head. About a week ago, I emailed Salley through Facebook (yes, we're friends, but it's a long story) asking if they do covers, and if so, could they do "Wagon Wheel" when they come to Lexington? The song has a North Carolina theme and I thought it would be a natural for their harmonies.

Near the end of their second set — they must have done at least 20-25 songs in two hours — they announced they were going to do a special request. Kim looked at me. I shrugged my shoulders, thinking it might be somebody else's special request. I still didn't believe it even through the familiar opening chords. Then they started singing. I shook my head. Eleanor smiled at me. So did Molly.

So did Kim. What a date night.

Underhill Rose - Wagon Wheel