Sunday, July 27, 2014

Civil War name game

I was reading yet another Civil War book not too long ago —a speculation that the South could have won if it had followed Stonewall Jackson's vision to attack the North's infrastructure as opposed to what actually happened, which was the South's following Robert E. Lee's insistence that Southern independence depended on destroying the Army of the Potomac in costly battles of attrition — when it occurred to me why this totally American war is rather difficult for most Americans to grasp.

It's the names involved.

No. Really. It can get confusing in a hurry.

For example, one of the early commanders of the Union army was a fellow named Irvin McDowell. He lost the war's first major battle at Manassas, VA., a place really not that far from a village called McDowell.  The Battle of McDowell, as it turns out, was won by Stonewall Jackson a year later, in May, 1862, during his Shenandoah Valley campaign.

I'm pretty sure McDowell, the guy, was never in McDowell, the town. Thank goodness for small miracles.

I've learned that when you're in the Shenandoah, you go "up the Valley" when you're heading south, and "down the Valley" when you're headed north. It's because of the physical lay of the land and river flow, and not because of the way it looks or feels on a map. Jackson, for example, went down the Valley on his way north to Cedar Mountain prior to Second Manassas.

I almost quit my Civil War studies right then, my logic being, well, logical, and apparently, all bets are off in the Shenandoah.

And wait a minute. There was a Second Manassas? More than one? Yep. Right there at Bull Run. Same place. Except, early in the war, the Confederates named their battles for nearby towns, while the Union named them for geographic features. That confusion pretty much stopped by 1863, otherwise, the struggle in Gettysburg well might be named for a lazy little creek and consequently Lincoln might have delivered the Willoughby Run Address. Not quite the same impact there.

Confederates call the Battle of Antietam "Sharpsburg," while Seven Pines (part of the Seven Days Battles — I know — in the Peninsula Campaign) is also known as Fair Oaks, while White Oak Swamp is also called Glendale. Or Frayser's Farm.

I have a headache.

We all know the Confederate president was Jefferson F. Davis. Did you know there was a Union brigadier general named Jefferson C. Davis? No relation. The Yankee Davis had a distinguished career going for him — he helped win the Battle of Pea Ridge — until he shot and killed his superior general, Bull Nelson, in an argument in late 1862. That incident, no doubt, would have delighted Jefferson F. Davis, if he was ever made aware of it. Somehow, Yankee Davis — who was a capable general — avoided charges in the murder and continued his service. He ultimately ended up stationed in Alaska after the war, never promoted, the army being the army in its infinite wisdom.

John B. Gordon was a Confederate general at the Battle of Willoughby Run, but another Rebel general, James B. Gordon, was not. Neither was Confederate general George W. Gordon, who went on to help found the Ku Klux Klan after the war. George Gordon Meade, however, was the Union general who directed the Yankees to victory at Willough... never mind.

J.E.B. Stuart was a famous Confederate cavalry commander (not Calvary, by the way), but Gen. George H. Steuart also led Confederate horsemen in the war. He was called "Maryland" Steuart so as not to be verbally confused with JEB.

I'm not sure I even want to consider A.P. Hill and D.H. Hill, two Confederate generals who served Lee well. D.H. Hill ended up as Stonewall's brother-in-law, which may or may not add to the confusion. A.P. Hill lost his girlfriend, Ellen Marcy to future battlefield opponent and former West Point roommate George B. McClellan. Umm, McDowell. No, McClellan. That turned out to be a good thing for Ellen, because ol' A.P. dealt with a bout of gonorrhea in his Cadet days.

Edwin Stanton was Lincoln's Secretary of War, but I'm almost positive Stanton never visited Staunton (pronounced "Stanton"), VA., which was an important Confederate supply depot and transportation center up — no, wait, down — no, up — in the Valley.

You can't make this stuff up and it just goes on and on. Alexander "Sandie" Pendleton was a capable and respected staff officer for Jackson, but his father, William Nelson Pendleton, was Lee's ineffectual if not incompetent chief of artillery.

And don't forget Albert Sidney Johnston and Joseph E. Johnston, two Confederate generals who were not related. Albert was in the western theater and died at the Battle of Shiloh. Joseph was wounded at the Seven Days — two months after A.S. was killed — and was replace by some guy named Lee.

I've been told that I could be a good teacher of the Civil War, or maybe a battlefield guide in my retirement. But I think not. I'm probably better off simply reading books about the war and popping Tylenol.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Coach Crim

Perhaps one of the most difficult moments in Kent Crim's life was when he stepped down as the boys' basketball coach at West Davidson.

It was about the only time I ever saw him perturbed, outside of the occasional bonehead call by a referee.

Kent Crim shows off his 200th victory basketball.
It was 1990 and Crim was already in the fourth year of his Parkinson's Disease diagnosis — a 28-year struggle that would gradually envelop and consume him until he died last Saturday at the age of 69.

Crim cited "widening" philosophical differences between him and the school administration over the direction of a team that had gone 235-194 over 17 seasons, including an appearance in the state championship game in 1984 which resulted in a heartbreaking 73-68 loss to Hobbton.

But the team was 61-83 over Crim's last six years and I think even Crim knew it was time for a change — even though his son, Jonathan, was coming up through the system and Crim wanted a chance to coach his son.

But it never happened.

"The bottom line is that we haven't won in the last few years," said Crim in a story in The Dispatch. "And if a coach lacks passion and enthusiasm, and it's no longer fun, then it's best to get out of it."

Life sometimes can take some unfair detours and I guess what matters is how we negotiate those sharp, sudden curves. Crim, armed with a practical intelligence and a wry sense of humor, was well-equipped for the journey. I knew him not only as a friend, but as an English-teaching coach and guidance counselor who would occasionally quote Shakespeare, or Faulkner, or Fitzgerald after a game. That was certainly different.

Even in the story announcing his resignation as coach, Crim couldn't resist: "I don't think you'll find anybody, anywhere, who treated his players better than I did," said Crim. "If Kent Crim has one fault, it's like Othello, who loved not wisely, but too well."

See what I mean?

I was sports editor of the paper at the time and I was always on the lookout for qualified correspondents to help us cover games. Crim seemed like a logical choice and he readily accepted. Although the Parkinson's prevented him from using a keyboard — he would dictate the copy to his wife, Jane, who would type the story on the computer for publication. The two of them together, with sometimes opposing views of what happened in the game, resulted in some memorable evenings at The Dispatch office (humorously, Jane was petrified of computers) — he actually did a pretty good job for us.

For some reason, life kept being unfair to Crim. He lost Jane to cancer 10 years ago, when she was just 58. Meanwhile, his Parkinson's got progressively worse and he closed out his years at Alston Brook nursing facility, surrounded by old friends, and new ones.

I wrote a column about Crim after West Davidson christened its basketball floor as "Crim Court" in 2008, and I ended it with a quote from Hamlet.

I tried searching for another acceptable quote for this blog, but nothing is better for the moment than the one I used back then:

"He was a man, take him for all in all,
"I shall not look upon his like again."
                   - Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A 50-year marriage

Kim and I went to the 50th anniversary celebration of some friends of ours in Burlington Saturday evening.

There were about 80 people there, including a handful of folks we knew other than the anniversary couple. And even though we got to the restaurant about 15 minutes early, most of the invitees had already arrived and claimed their seats. Consequently, we ended up sitting at a table with complete strangers.

I can't remember the last time I went to a golden anniversary, if ever. But a couple of epiphanies greeted me almost as soon as I walked into the room. The first, of course, was just how long 50 years is, especially in a human lifespan. The second was just how fast 50 years can fly. After congratulating Bill and Cathy on their milestone, Kim and I moseyed over to a table that displayed their wedding photos, wedding announcements, newspaper clippings and even their cake topper from July 1964.

Bill and Cathy — then and now.
It was the photos that really slapped me upside the head — they documented the journey in time the two of them have shared. Subliminally, I was compelled to reflect on my own journey through time and the trip we all make — of aging, surviving, of friends and family. I was thinking these thoughts without consciously thinking of them, if that's possible. I guess it is. Epiphany.

Bill and Cathy have fared particularly well over the years. Both are still as slim as their wedding day. Both appear to be in reasonably good health — not a cane, walker or wheelchair in sight. Both are still sharp as tacks. Bill, in fact, has a penchant for telling corny jokes and loves to laugh more than anything, I think. Except when he's trying to make someone else laugh.

After a nice buffet meal, it was time to cut the anniversary cake. Almost unbelievably, the woman who cut their wedding cake 50 years ago — as well as their 25th anniversary cake — once more performed the honors. Holy smokes.

Plans were made for her to be at the 75th anniversary.

But that wasn't all. The bakery that made their wedding cake 50 years ago is still in business — and made the cake we enjoyed last night. It was, said Bill, only the second 50th anniversary cake they've ever made. "I'm kind of proud of that," said Bill.

I looked around me and realized that a remarkably large number of people there were also present at the wedding 50 years ago. I'm not sure what my epiphany was there, but I was amazed. Maybe the water is better in Mebane, I don't know. But it was noteworthy.

Near the end of the evening several people got up to tell a story or two about the anniversary couple, which threatened to turn the celebration into a roast, but it never really got that far. In fact, only a few people got up to say something.

Apparently, it's not easy to roast Bill and Cathy.

Then Bill rose. I expected another corny joke. Instead, I saw a side of the man I never saw before. I saw him publicly tell the world, in a trembling voice, he's eternally thankful for the woman who's shared his life for 50 years. Tears rolled down his face. Tears rolled down mine. He told us he's a wealthy man, a millionaire, not because of money, but because his friends have given him a wealth far more than money.

I glanced at Kim, who didn't see me glance at her. We'll be married 34 years in October. No epiphany here: I'm a rich man.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Wehrle facsimiles

Every once in a while, just to amuse myself, I google my name — Bruce Wehrle — just to see what I'm up to these days.

Almost without fail, I get links to various blog posts I've entered, some of them going back several years. I also get hits for some columns I wrote — maybe from as far back as 10 years ago — when I was a sports writer/editor for The Dispatch. Finding this stuff, in this manner, should serve as a warning for all of us — anything you put on the Internet just doesn't go away.

But that's OK. There's some fun stuff here, too.

For example, on this latest search, I came across the Parkhotel Wehrle, located in a place called Treiberg, Germany.

The 400-year-old Parkhotel Wehrle — my kind of place.
 Thanks to some genealogical research by my father decades ago, we knew about something called the Hotel Wehrle, which we thought was some quaint hostel in Baden Baden, an incredibly scenic region of western Germany in the Black Forest where Wehrles were thought to originate (the Wehrle surname is rather uncommon. There's only several thousand of us worldwide, I'm told, so bumping into another Wehrle is something like having an epiphany. Well, at least it is to other Wehrles, I guess.) We also saw a picture of the hotel in some travel magazine once, and I have to tell you, it really looked inviting.

Thanks to the Internet, I learned the correct name of the place is the Parkhotel Wehrle, and it's loaded with history (see here). I mean, it's 400 years old. It's older than the United States. Napoleon Bonaparte slept there while conquering Europe. And it's a well-regarded five-star inn to boot.

Now I'm kind of wondering if any Wehrles are operating the joint. Maybe there's a cousin Horst running around taking reservations. That would be cool. Maybe I'd have a place to stay if I ever got to Germany.

Because Wehrles come from the Black Forest region, I sometimes wondered if there were ever any cuckoo clock makers among us.

Don't laugh. I googled "Wehrle clocks" once and came up with a site that told me about vintage Wehrle clocks dating back to 1815 that were built to German precision. Wehrle chronometers, in fact, were especially highly regarded. Heck, I'd never even heard of Wehrle clocks before, and now all this.

I once thought I'd like to have a Wehrle alarm clock and get a couple to send off to my brothers for Christmas presents. But I acted too slowly. The company apparently hit a bad patch and sold itself to Chinese interests in 1997. Now, instead of clocks featuring mechanical precision, they are said to be battery operated digital devices. My interest in them now wanes.

I did find this (see here) about Emilian Wehrle. I suspect there might be a family tie somewhere, but who knows? Maybe I can research Emilian while staying at the posh Parkhotel Wehrle.

There are times when a Google investigation might reveal too much information. I did find a Bruce Wehrle in Raleigh who owned a 1966 white Mustang convertible, just like we did. That was neat. Until he died and then "Bruce Wehrle" showed up in an obituary.

I also found this Bruce Wehrle (see here). Uh-oh. Alleged criminal activity by a Wehrle never occurred to me before. And the fact that we share the same exact name is a little unnerving, especially when a search of Wehrle's residence in Middletown, New Jersey, "revealed a small quantity of crystal methamphetamine, two shotguns, a handgun and approximately $3,000.00 cash."

A search of my residence would reveal a Ragdoll cat, medication for my a-fib and loose change amounting to $9.57 cash.

At this point I decided it was time to quit my research. I was uncertain what else I might find.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Kim Church's 'Byrd'

My reading list suddenly took an unexpectedly local turn a few weeks ago.

A friend of mine, Lexington native Kim Church, was appearing in a Greensboro bookstore to give a reading from her debut novel "Byrd." My wife and I missed her Saturday afternoon reading at the library in Lexington a month earlier because of a nap that lasted longer than it should have. Hey, at our age, naps give no warning until it's way too late.

Kim Church
But we didn't want to miss out, so when Kim's wide-ranging book tour came to Greensboro, we posted little reminders about it around the house. And this time we made it.

Let me explain something first. While I love to read, I'm mostly a history and sports guy. I do enjoy spellbinding fiction — "To Kill a Mockingbird" comes quickly to mind, not to mention a little Stephen King or G.R.R. Martin now and then — but new fiction better be pretty darn riveting to capture my sometimes driftwood attention span.

And I had my doubts. I wasn't sure how a coming-of-age novel, written by a woman about a small-town North Carolina girl, was going to resonate with a guy who grew up reading Sports Illustrated while taking side trips to Gettysburg.

I should have known better. I've known Kim since the late 1970s, when I first came to Lexington to write for The Dispatch and she was friends with the paper's then-photographer Gareth Wetherill. Both of them more or less took me in when I was young and new to the area, and for which I am forever grateful.

But you could see something smoldering in Kim even then. She went on to become a successful Raleigh-based lawyer, but written words were her burning avocation. She's crafted poetry that has appeared in such publications as Painted Bride Quarterly, Shenandoah and Mississippi Review.

Somehow, "Byrd" took hold inside her, resulting in a project whose seeds were sown for the creation of her primary character, Addie Lockwood, as long ago as 1998.

Kim artfully paints pictures with her words. Witness this on page 8 as she deliciously describes Addie's friend Shelia:

"In fourth grade she sits next to Shelia DeLapp and watches her practice her cursive: the slow, fat letters; the way Shelia bites her tongue when she writes; the way her hands sweat and make the notebook paper bubble up. At the end of every word, Shelia lifts her pencil off the page and rolls it around in her fingers to redistribute her weight on the lead.

"Shelia spells her name with the L before the I, prettier than the way most people spell it, even though she pronounces it the same. She-la."

Nuance. Detail. And some by-golly I-never-thought-of-that insight. These are some of the tools that writers use to bring their truth to storytelling. Some have it. Some don't. Kim does. Clearly.

Here's another example as she writes about Addie's middle-age relationship with William, a muralist:

"At forty-one, Addie is taking soy vitamins for hot flashes. She rinses her hair with henna to color the gray.

"William is forty-three and wears gel inserts in his shoes.

"Neither of them thinks of love the way they used to, as something to be fallen into, like a bed or a pit. It isn't big and deep and abstract. Love is particulate. It's fine. It accumulates like dust."

Holy cow. That's me speaking now, a different kind of writer making my own insight here. Holy cow is the best I can do because my own words escape me. See me nodding my head in awe. Some passages in this book read almost like poetry anyway. Holy cow.

Positive reviews seem to be following "Byrd" around, including those from New York Times bestselling authors Ron Rash and Jill McCorkle, as well as others like Patricia Henley, Debra Monroe and Angela Davis-Gardner.

"Byrd" may not be a story for everybody. Addie has a child outside of marriage and puts it up for adoption. But then Addie writes letters to the child she'll never meet. It's the letters that sometimes give compelling counterpoints and punctuation to the storyline. It's a novel of choices made and not made.

I'm not sure where "Byrd" puts Kim in the realm of Lexington authors, but I'm guessing she's going to be a hard act to follow in any event.

That's my insight.