Monday, July 29, 2013

Brotherly love

Back in April, my youngest brother, Scott, who lives in Iowa and whom I haven't seen in more than 11 years, sent me an email saying that he would be in Gettysburg for a week on a family camping vacation in late July. Would I mind making the "short hop" up from North Carolina to meet him and his family on the battlefield?

My brother Scott (right) and I meet at Lee's Chapel in Lexington, Va.
I guess "short hop" here is a relative term. After all, he was coming from Des Moines, which is just a left turn from the far side of the universe. All I had to do was drive 400 miles. Easy.

"What, is he crazy? Kim, look at this. He's nuts," was my immediate response. Aside from the "short hop" comment  — which I think was offered facetiously — I would be in Gettysburg three weeks earlier for my annual pilgrimage to the Civil War Institute. There was no way on God's Green Earth that I was going back to Gettysburg three weeks after I'd already been there, even if I hadn't seen my brother in 100 years. I was not going to turn this into a commute.

I stewed. I steamed. I epitheted.

Then a light bulb clicked on. "You know," I said to Kim. "We could meet halfway. I wonder if he'll come to Lexington, VA? That's almost halfway for both of us. I could do that. Plus, there's Civil War stuff there, too, like Lee's and Stonewall Jackson's burial sites, VMI, Washington & Lee University. It's perfect."

So I called Scott. He said he'd think about it and let me know.

Scott and his companion, Shelly, with Kim and myself at Jackson's grave side.
About a week ago, he said OK. The plan was on. Kim and I made reser-vations at a bed and breakfast, The Abigail Inn (see here), which once served as a frat house for W&L. (The fraternity, we were told, lost its charter decades ago when frat brothers apparently stole a train. Honest. You can't make that stuff up.)

Anyway, Saturday arrived under a steady drizzle. Kim and I got to Lexington first and we killed some time walking around town and scouting out restaurants before checking in at the Abigail.

Then it was time to meet. I had suggested Lee's Chapel as the rendezvous point, because it was centrally located and easy to get to. Plus, it's where Lee is buried, as well as his horse, Traveller.

Finally, as we waited at the top of a hill, Scott and his family arrived. When he approached, we shook hands, then embraced. Scott is 10 years younger than I am, and growing up, I was his babysitter. I was basically a different generation than his, so even as brothers, I don't think we were particularly close. That's not a commentary, it's just how it was. We actually seem closer now that we're further apart. Go figure.

But time and blood mingled well in Lexington, and it is about time. I'm 62 years old. Our "middle" brother, David, who lives in Alaska, is 59. Scott is 52. Time is fleeting and the distances are great. My brothers (aside from my wife) are all the family I have left. I don't mean for these reunions to be so few and far between, but they just are. I haven't seen David in more than 12 years.

We spent about four hours together, reminiscing while we ate lunch and relaxed. Then it was time for Scott and his crew to get back to Gettysburg.

Kim and I are thinking about a full family reunion. Iowa is the logical central gathering spot for the three Wehrle boys, although I have major reservations about meeting in a cornfield (I know, I know, that's a stereotypical view of Iowa — but it's all that I have).

Then Kim suggested that we meet at the Grand Canyon. Hmm. Makes sense. A vast chasm in the middle of nowhere. And yet, something beautiful beyond description...

Friday, July 26, 2013

All in the (Civil War) Family

The email caught me flatfooted.

It was from my youngest brother, Scott, who lives in Iowa. He'd done some genealogical research into Albert Clewell, an apparently long-lost relative of ours who'd fought for the 153rd Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Union Army's 11th Corps during the Civil War.

The 153rd PA was a nine-month regiment who answered President Lincoln's call for 300,000 volunteers in the second half of 1862. Consequently, the regiment fought in two significant battles, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, before being mustered out in late July of 1863.

I could already draw a line of ancestry to brothers William and Sylvester Clewell — they are my great uncles on my mother's side of the family. But I wasn't so sure about Albert. Although I thought there might be a family connection, Albert wasn't a brother to William and Sylvester, even though all three of them served together in Company A of the 153rd. I just wasn't sure. It made me a little uneasy.

This was important to me, since I'd come into possession of some of Albert's memorabilia, including his discharge paper and a postwar Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) kepi. I wanted to be the legitimate caretaker of these items.

But Scott, with help from and his own sweat equity, connected the dots and found out that Albert was indeed a great cousin of ours. Wow. That was exciting.

His email said that William was the son of Thomas who was the son of John, etcetera, etcetera, pretty much proving our lineage to Albert.

Then, at the end of his email, Scott tossed in this final throwaway line: "Additionally, John Bloss, mom's great grandfather, served in the 129th PA, Co. K., from Aug 11, 1862 to April 27, 1863." That was all Scott wrote.

What? WHAT?

I knew there was a Bloss in the family tree, but it never occurred to me that a Bloss could have fought in the Civil War. I guess I was too invested in the Clewells to worry about a Bloss. But Scott had found that out.

So I did some fast checking of my own. The 129th PA, like the 153rd, was also a nine-month regiment. Companies C, F and K were raised in Northampton County (as was the entire 153rd PA) while most of the rest of the regiment came from Schuylkill County.

They were first posted in Washington DC, and then showed up at Antietam — the bloodiest single day in American history — a day after that fearful battle produced a butcher's bill of nearly 23,000 casualties. Or the population of, say, Lexington and Tyro combined.

But on December 13, 1862, the unit found itself at Fredericksburg with orders to assault Marye's Heights.

Oh. My. God.

The 129th was under the command of Col. Jacob Frick, part of the 1st Brigade of Gen. Erastus Tyler. They were a part of Andrew Humphreys' Third Division, which was a part of Dan Butterfield's Fifth Corps, which served under Joseph Hooker's Center Grand Division, under the overall command of Ambrose Burnside.

The 129th made the assault late in the day and suffered a sorrowful 139 casualties, with their claim to fame being they got closer to the stone wall at Fredericksburg than nearly anyone else. I don't know how many men were in the regiment to begin with, but I'm guessing somewhere between 500 to 800, since full-strength regiments (of which there were few) usually had 10 companies of 100 men each.

I knew the 129th was also at Chancellorsville in May, before their enlistment ran out, and I was excited at the possibility that I suddenly might have a great-great grandfather, two great uncles and a great cousin on the same battlefield, but that would be asking way too much.

While John Bloss may have survived the massacre, his Company K record shows he was discharged "by special order" on April 27, which would have been a week before Chancellorsville. I don't know what "discharged by special order" means, but I'm pretty sure it's not dishonorable or the result of a court martial. I'm guessing he was probably wounded badly enough at Fredericksburg to be sent home, since his enlistment was almost up anyway. In any event, he was not at Chancellorsville.

All of which gives me pause while I do some reverse engineering. If John had died at Fredericksburg, then he doesn't marry Celinda and there is no daughter Mary Bloss (born 1865), who doesn't marry Albanus Wambold, who then don't have daughter Grace, who doesn't marry Harry and then don't have my mother, Carol, who doesn't have me. John Bloss is a blood relative, not a relative by marriage like the Clewells. As my wife clearly pointed out, because I was too flustered to see it in Scott's email, I have Bloss blood in me.

John, incidentally, lived to be 91 years old (See here).

A friend of mine told me that if I keep researching my Civil War family tree, I might end up finding a general somewhere. I don't know if I can handle that — the enlisted men are amazing enough.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Lexington Historic District, Part IV

Last week, the Lexington Planning Board approved, by a 5-2 vote, to recommend to city council for its approval an amendment to an ordinance that will allow the Park Place plat to become a Local Historic District.



We appear to be one step — perhaps the final step — closer to having an historic district in a process that first came about nearly 10 years ago. That means some of the wonderful and nearly 100-year-old buildings within the proposed boundary (roughly from West Center Street to Third Avenue and South State Street to South Payne Street) will find safe haven in protection from potential outside development as well as preservation for future enjoyment. "Preservation" and "protection", of course, are the key words here.

While there is some residential opposition to having an historic district (mostly in response to a perceived "added layer of bureaucracy"), having an historic district makes considerable sense to me.

The proposed district is adjacent  — and within walking distance — to the revitalized Uptown Lexington commercial district. Uptown Lexington, in turn, is adjacent to the proposed Depot District which already hosts a vibrant Farmers' Market. Taken as a whole and together, these projects put Lexington in a progressive, forward-moving fast lane. It makes us relevant.

But just to satisfy myself, I conducted a private, unscientific poll of my own. We were in Statesville  Saturday, where my wife was fulfilling a business request for her new employer. Meanwhile, I walked around town, eventually making my way into the city's Davie Street-Broad Street historic district, which was approved in 1980. I walked a mile out on Davie and returned back on Broad. The place is loaded with Craftsmen, Four Squares, Bungalows and an occasional stately Queen Anne here and there. To me, it rivals Salisbury's historic district

I counted just three properties for sale on my walk, leading me to two conclusions: a) property values are stable, even in a recession, and b) people apparently are happy to live here, not feeling any undue added financial burden to maintain their homes in accordance with guidelines.

While walking, I found a man mowing his lawn and we engaged in conversation. He told me he really enjoys living in the district. Because the district was formed more than 30 years ago, it actually spurred subsequent renovation of the Statesville's adjacent Downtown (as opposed to Lexington's "Uptown" — I wish I knew the difference), which features sandblasted store fronts, brick crosswalks in the streets and attractive curbside landscaping. Another area, near Mitchell Community College, also saw its neighborhood raise itself.

These are solitary, individual stories, of course. Each town is different, with its own response to what lies ahead. But it's amazing to me how looking back at our past can help us move forward into the future.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Tomato war

So far, the squirrels are up 7 to 2.

For the past seven years or so, my wife and I have planted each spring a cluster of Mortgage Lifter tomatoes in our modest garden. When left to their natural growth cycles, these heirloom beauties can get as big as softballs. And, oh my, they're so delicious when placed between two slices of Sunbeam bread (there is no much preferred Wonder Bread anymore, a victim, if I recall, of a doughy takeover by Flowers Foods. Sigh), slathered with Hellman's mayonnaise.

Our incredibly tempting Mortgage Lifter tomato garden.
 It wasn't until about three or four years ago that I found out that squirrels, of all animals, apparently like tomatoes as much as I do. I thought they were into peanuts and acorns.

Evidence of this tomato-mania are the residue of half-eaten little green tomatoes sprinkled around my back yard. Every once in a while I'll see a squirrel in the corner of my yard pointing at me, laughing his nervous little tail off. Proof positive.

Occasionally, a half-eaten tomato somehow makes its way into my front yard.

This squirrel-tomato phenomenon was originally held at bay, I think, by a feral neighborhood cat that spooked the squirrels into acceptable garden etiquette. But the cat either moved on or passed away a few years ago, giving the squirrels free rein in my tomato patch.

We've tried our own remedy or two. Whenever we get really frustrated, we circle our tomato plants with moth balls, which helps for about four hours. Unfinished tomato salads still show up in our yard the next day, so it's only a temporary solution that makes us feel like, hey, at least we tried to do something.

Look closely and you'll see a tomato on top of the trellis.
 Any other options — poison bait, pellet guns, birds of prey — seem unusually harsh with wildly unpredictable ramifications in their own right — so we just muddle on.

I've actually considered getting squirrel food and setting it in a tray next to the tomatoes, hoping that the squirrels will opt for the food meant for their specific tastes and leave the tomatoes alone. But I also have this nightmare that the food will do nothing more than attract a thousand squirrels to my tomatoes and not much else.

In the meantime, until I can come up with an acceptable solution, I'm reduced to keeping score. So far this summer, the squirrels have absconded with seven tomatoes — two of them about the size of baseballs and both on the verge of turning red — while I've managed to pick off two immature but potential sandwich gems.

There's about four or five others I could snip off right now, but they are very green; not even a hint of ripening at this point. And while I know they can ripen on my kitchen counter, I also know they won't get any larger. So I hope against hope that they will survive the squirrel massacre.

Yesterday, the squirrels reached the pinnacle. There, sitting on the top of my wisteria trellis, was another half-eaten tomato. Unbelievable.

You know, I don't think I'd feel so bad if they'd just go ahead and eat the whole tomato. At least that way, there'd be no incriminating evidence littering my yard. What I don't know won't hurt me.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fired up on the Fourth

A few months ago my wife, Kim, got it into her head that she wanted a new hibachi grill.

There are two valid reasons for this:

• Our old Weber grill is as old as our marriage. In fact, it was a wedding gift to us from nearly 33 years ago. I don't know who gives Weber grills as wedding gifts, but I can tell you no gift was ever as appreciated as this one, and no gift has ever given us better service, but its time has clearly come and gone — it's about to finally rust out;

Our trusty 33-year-old Weber has grilled its last steak.
 • My wife remembers the old hibachi grill we had prior to the Weber, and she remembers how good the steaks and burgers and dogs tasted, and so do I. Logically, I'm not sure how much a grill contributes to taste, but I guess there must be something to it.

We'd done a preliminary search for a hibachi grill, but couldn't find one anywhere. Not at Wal-Mart, not at Lowe's, not at Target. They are just not on display in the stores. The demand seems to be for gas grills — even small gas grills that look like hibachis.

At any rate, while I was off studying the Civil War in Gettysburg a couple weeks ago, Kim went online and ordered a hibachi from Target. It was waiting for me when I got home.

This wasn't just any grill, though. It was a 32-pound cast iron Lodge sportsman grill that required some assembly. Any "some assembly required" usually brings me to my knees, but this was nothing more than threading a couple of screws to hold the base in place. I could do that. Whew. That was close. All we had to do was wait for the Fourth of July.

We'd bought a couple of two-inch thick filets, and when the Fourth finally got here, we were ready to go.

So I thought.

Our new Lodge hibachi grill. Our steaks never tasted so good.
 I'd read somewhere that somebody used 16 charcoal briquets in their Lodge, so I counted out 16 of my own and put them in the fire box. It didn't look like enough, so I added four more. These are the instant-light kind, so I figured, hey, no problem.

Except that I couldn't get the charcoal lit. I tried about 10 matches. Nothing. I started sweating in the thick humidity. It occurred to me that I could burn the briquets with paper in the fire box, but every time I lit a match, a breeze kicked up and snuffed out the match, like in a cartoon. The timing was exquisite. It would have been comical if it wasn't so frustrating.

But, hey, I've got a four-year college education. I can handle this. I went into the house and came back out with a butane candle lighter, one of those lighter's with a long snout. Ahh, a steady flame resistant to the wind. I knew I had the answer. I clicked. The lighter lit. But the charcoal wouldn't catch.

I started swearing in my sweating, churning up enough blue air to probably get me ex-communicated from any church in the western hemisphere. My T-shirt was drenched. And a thunderstorm was suddenly brewing up.

Why wouldn't the charcoal ignite? Could it be because the briquets came from a bag that I opened a year ago and left on the back porch? Hmmm, maybe. Any chemical hydrocarbon primer on the briquets probably evaporated out of the bag 10 months ago.

What to do? We had no lighter fluid on hand because, you know, we didn't need any. The briquets were supposed to be self-starting: just add flame.

Kim came out the house moments later with a half empty bottle of lamp oil. Green lamp oil for our old-timey hurricane lamps. I'm pretty sure the oil wasn't scented, but I'm not positive. What the heck? I carefully drizzled a little lamp oil on the briquets and triggered the butane lighter. A gentle but reassuring whoosh came out of the fire box. Flame covered the briquets.

Success at last.

Within a half hour we were enjoying our incredibly delicious filets, grilled to perfection on our brand-new hibachi, seasoned ever so slightly with garlic, pepper and green lamp oil.