Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Civil War Dichotomy, an Essay

In 1861, the culmination of a series of political conflicts caused the nation to spiral into the bloodiest war it ever fought, more deadly than the two World Wars, and more tragically divisive than Vietnam or Iraq. In the early years of the nineteenth century, the booming, industrial north and the mostly agrarian south constantly came into conflict on a variety of issues, most importantly that of human slavery. That fundamental disagreement boiled over into armed conflict resulting in the first modern war.

Slavery is so alien to us today that it is difficult to comprehend the countenancing of human bondage. Something that civilized people now recognize as a barbaric and inhuman scheme seemed to the rich planters of the mid-nineteenth century a profitable economic institution. Anti-slavery voices in the south were almost non-existent at the time, shouted down by slavery’s proponents. In the north, however, an abolitionist movement grew stronger by the day, led by freed slaves and Christian groups intent on ridding the country of the curse of slavery.

While wealthy slaveholders demanded the right to hold slaves, there were millions of southerners who were never slaveholders, and had no stake in the institution. The vast majority of southerners were in fact small farmers, sharecroppers, tradesmen, and the like. They lived from season to season, surviving on what they grew, purchased, or bartered, with little hope of significant economic betterment. Content to feed their families, and have a roof over their heads, they, the ordinary people, had no reason to go to war with the north. In order to provide them with a compelling reason, the wealthy landowners, slaveholders, and politicians developed the concept of “states rights” to convince the common people that going to war was in their vital interest.

Much as masses of people have been misled and duped over the millennia, so were southerners sold a bill of goods to inspire them to fight for their beloved Southland. Wars have to be sold, for the obvious reason that they are both horrendously painful and dreadfully expensive. To garner support for a war, you have to convince people they are fighting for some great purpose, such as doing God’s will, stopping Communism or Fascism, or ridding the world of a dictator’s weapons of mass destruction. Southerners were sold on the fact that the scheming politicians of the north wanted to take away their rights. Never mind that the primary right the abolitionists, north and south, wanted to take away, was the right to own human beings, which was something that affected virtually none of the people who would ultimately suffer the most. The vast majority of southerners could not afford to own slaves even had they wanted them.

The north did its share of selling as well. The Radical Republicans in the north insisted that subduing the “rebellion” was crucial to the existence of the country. What the north referred to as “rebellion” was in fact secession, a very different thing altogether. Indeed secession was something many scholars believe was perfectly within the right of any state or states at that time in our history. Our country was then (and still is) the United States, not the United State. At the time of the Civil War, when one spoke of one’s “country” it was usually in reference to one’s home state, not the Federal Union. Other states had tried without success to secede at various times, including some in the north, so the concept was not without precedent. To help sell the war, however, the north insisted that the act of secession was in fact rebellion, and had to be put down by force of arms.

There was, then, conflict among both northerners and southerners about whether the country should travel the path to Civil War. Once the die was cast, however, both sides for the most part pitched into the process with great fervor. There were cheerful pro-war songs in the south with lyrics like, “Wait for the wagon, the dissolution wagon. Hop on the wagon and we’ll all take a ride.” While on the lips of northerners were uber-righteous songs such as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The nation went to the holocaust with cheerful hearts, martial music, and, for some, dreams of great personal glory. It was in essence a sort of tragic, collective errand of fools. What began with bright hope and regional patriotism would end with the death and debilitation of hundreds of thousands of young men, and the country would never be the same. As it has been said of the Civil War, “America was crucified on a cross of black.”

As the war began, virtually shining with promise, wealthy landowners, bankers, and men of other privileged classes often raised their own regiments, thereby becoming instant colonels. Some simply joined existing regiments, and obtained rank based on their financial status or political connections. The graduates of the military academies were in strong demand to fill out the officer corps, of the regular army in the north, and the newly formed regiments in the south. The men of farm and mill, however, could expect to serve their time in the army as mere private soldiers, otherwise known as “ground pounders” or “cannon fodder.” Still they came to volunteer, answering the call enthusiastically, if naively.

As a consequence, military organizations, like the famed Army of Northern Virginia, were led by the social elite, and peopled by men of common stature. The work was done, and the blood was shed primarily by what we would today call the “working class.” The landed gentry, the slaveholders, successful politicians, businessmen, and others with a substantial stake in the war, could often serve in relative comfort, or could buy or bribe their way out of service entirely. The common soldiers, on the other hand, often served in conditions, which one would not permit an animal to endure these days.

Those who chose not to serve were eventually forced to do so by the conscription laws. One could either bleed on the battlefield or bleed before a firing squad; take your choice. Men with no stake in the war, other than their perceived “rights,” bore the burden and sacrifice which rightfully belonged to the slaveholders and the wealthy.

To compound the injury, most of those men who marched off to join the struggle left families back home. Women were left with the entire responsibility of providing for their children and themselves. They also often had to provide for their soldier husbands fighting far away. The Confederate government, in particular, often failed miserably at equipping and feeding its troops. The folks back home sent clothing, canned food, and other goods to help sustain the much-deprived men in the field.

At the same time, the women were often expected to do the hard labor to keep farms running, or perform other work to generate enough income necessary for survival. They often had to deal with lawless and predatory men completely alone. Their lives were made brutally hard for completely unsupportable reasons; wealthy people wanted slaves, and politicians north and south could not come to a rational and peaceable agreement. The whole affair soon became one tragedy piled upon another.

The common soldiers may have been ignorant, but most were not stupid, and they soon saw through the façade of “states rights,” coining the term “a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.” This helps to account in part for the increasing flow of deserters as the war dragged on. Men were fighting for someone else’s cause, paying the price in blood and treasure. All the while their families suffered back home. It became an intolerable situation, and as a result, both armies experienced a staggering rate of desertions.

Though the Confederates deserted in great numbers, particularly after 1862, Union soldiers took to their heels at an even greater rate. Over 200,000 Union troops deserted during the course of the war. Men literally “voted with their feet.” The men believed their families had suffered enough, and since there was little personal stigma, they often simply quit the army, and went home.

Stark indeed are the social and political divisions in the country today. Nonetheless, they pale in comparison to the divisions of the Civil War era. As poor Southerners suffered for the benefit of rich plantation owners, and as poor Northerners battled for abstract ideals, or simply for a paycheck, the societal fractures of the Civil War era were manifold. Political and moral failures led to America’s holocaust. Let us indeed hope that such failures never again lead to the fatal divisions that so traumatized America during her tragic Civil War.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Free Chapters

Since I published my book in September of 2006 I have heard many good things about it from my readers. It is very gratifying that people who read it take something from it that is meaningful. It is always interesting to me that different people get different messages, and focus on different aspects of the book.

I decided that I wanted to begin to share, at least part of the book with the world in another way, namely, here on this blog. In the archives you will find Chapter One of the book and below this post, I have just posted Chapter Two.

I am not sure how many chapters I will ultimately include here, but let's take them one at a time. I hope you enjoy the first two chapters. If you like them, you can always go to Amazon.com and order the book. Happy reading.

Scarecrow in Gray, Chapter Two

Copyright 2005, 2006

Chapter Two

The day dawns bright but
the prospect is grim
on the road to a land
strange and dark and violent.

Camp Vance was only about thirty-five or forty miles from my farm, so I figured I could walk it in two days time or less. Early in the morning of August 23, 1864, I kissed my wife good-bye, hugged Jane and Susan, and started down the path to the Camp Creek Road to make my way to Camp Vance, which was over near Morganton. As I rounded the bend in the path, I turned back and waved at my family. I felt my face get hot and my breath got short. I didn’t know if I would ever see them again or not. My wife stood with my two little flaxen haired girls huddled close. She smiled bravely but even at a distance I could see the glisten of tears on her cheeks. Little Susan turned and buried her face in her mother’s dress. Jane looked at me with a doleful look and waved good bye. I turned and walked on down the path. I left my very heart standing on that ridge above Camp Creek.
The thought of the long road to Camp Vance was oppressive to me. The things that gave me such joy, the beauty of God’s nature around me, seemed superfluous and sullied somehow. My legs felt heavy before I had gone a half mile. I walked on like a man asleep on his feet, a dull ache deep down.
Life sometimes takes curious turns, and one’s aspect can change from day to night and back again in the space of an hour or a minute. Such a change occurred when I had barely begun my journey. I hadn’t gone much more than a mile when I saw Whit Whitaker ambling down the rutted road from his cabin on the lower slopes of Hogback Mountain. Whit hollered at me and I stopped to wait on him. He had a bundle over his shoulder like I did. He was still a hundred feet away when his coarse voice rang out. “You goin’ to sign up. I am!” I nodded.
Whit was the type of fellow who always thought he knew better than anyone else about most any subject you wanted to talk about, religion, politics, farming, or anything else. The fact was most folks realized that half the time he was flat wrong but everybody hereabouts knew him and made allowances. Whit was a bit older than me, about thirty-four, two inches shorter and probably thirty pounds heavier, a deceptively powerful man who had worked with logs and lumber all his life. He always said that logging and lumber work would make a man out of you or kill you in the process. He had brownish hair, ears rounded from too many boyhood fights, a droopy mustache and he wore an old slouch hat, the brim turned up in front. He always had a big chaw in his mouth and there was usually a trickle of tobacco juice running down one corner of his mouth or the other. Doc Callison in Gilbert Town said you could predict whether the day would be sunny or rainy by which side of Whit’s mouth the tobacco juice ran down that day. Doc always was one who tended to say things that were ridiculous and try to make people believe them, but the twinkle in his eye usually gave him away.
Whit spat out a big stream as he walked up to me. “Did you get conscripted too?”
I shook my head. “No, I quit the militia and I’m signin’ up; ain’t gonna be called a dodger.” He laughed his hoarse laugh, sounding a little like Moses when he’s feelin’ sick at his stomach.
He said, “We’ll most likely both end up planted on some hill in Virginia so we’d better get a good look at this old valley now, because we ain’t ever a goin’ to see it again.” He grinned. “Whit, you need to learn when to make a joke and when not to. I don’t think this is jokin’ business,” I said, somewhat irritated.
Whit looked a little sheepish. “I reckon it don’t hurt to joke about such matters. It ain’t gonna change things one bit. At least we can go to our death with a smile,” he said with a grin big as Texas. I didn’t answer him, he always did think he had to have the last word and that what he thought was the way it was or the way it ought to be.
“Yo’re lucky you didn’t get conscripted,” he said. “They came by Frank Scoggins’s house about three weeks ago and tole him that he had ten minutes to gather his belongin’s and say his good byes. I heered his young ‘uns was a squallin’ and his wife was a beggin’ them not to take him. It was a regular pitiful sight, is what I heered.”
I looked down at the rutted road and said, “I heard about it too. They say they need men real bad, that sickness and Yankee bullets are destroying the army.”
Whit said, “Think of it as an adventure, Francis. I never seen Virginny before and I sort of look forward to it, though I’d as soon not have blue bellies shootin’ at me whilst I’m lookin’ around!”
I shifted my musket. “Oh, they’ll be shootin’ all right, and we’ll be the targets. I’ve had two brothers die already and one took to his heels. We don’t know what became of him. I hear it’s so bad that there’s more men leavin’ and comin’ home, than there are new ones to take their places. It don’t sound like much of an adventure to me, Whit.”
Whit grinned. “Well, Francis, we’re on our way for good or ill, so let’s try to act like it’s an adventure ‘cause it will be one way or t’other.”
He might not have been the most desirable of companions, but at least he was someone to talk to besides the crows and the rabbits. I tried to count my blessings. It was not easy. As I walked out of the valley, I felt like something was emptying out of me, like water out of a bucket. I never felt that way before or since, but I felt it that day. We walked for a long time without saying much. Whit seemed to be more thoughtful than usual. The sun rose higher. I pulled out my Pa’s old pocket watch. It was almost eleven o’clock. I suggested we stop over by a little branch that ran near the road and eat a bite. I had some biscuits and some fried chicken, and he had some cornbread and fatback, so we sat and ate.
Whit regained his voice and started on the war again. “Francis, this ain’t our fight. You know them politicians in Richmond is just a bunch of fools and buffoons. They gonna get us kilt.” I reminded him that a short while before he said it was going to be a great adventure. He looked thoughtful for a moment and then he started on the Confederate generals. He said, “Them generals up there is pitiful. They cain’t figure out how to whup a few city-boy Yankees.” Then he said, “They’s plenty of outliers over in the high mountains and we kin go over there and stay until the war’s over. The provost marshals and the militia is afraid to go over there after them boys because they’s a lot of ‘em holed up in that rough country and they don’t aim to be took alive.” I looked at him and shook my head.
Then he took up the theme about how it was a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight. He said it was all about the coloreds and he didn’t own any and why did they bother hard workin’ folks like us anyway. I let him talk, because there ain’t much else to do with Whit, unless you want to slap him, because when Whit’s gonna talk, he’s gonna talk. I sort of faded him out and listened to the buzz of the bees and the rustling of the wind through the white oaks instead. The day was getting hot; rolling white clouds spotted the deep blue sky. It reminded me of wash day and clothes on the line, for some reason. I missed home already.
As soon as we ate, we got started toward Morganton again, walking the dusty, winding road through the mountains. It rose through the passes and then wound down into the valleys. Here and there we passed a farm. Most of the farmers that had not gone off to war were harvesting their crops. It seemed their numbers were few. Most of the fields looked neglected. I felt a pang at not having completed my own work. Between the farms the oaks, hickories and chestnuts crowded the road side, and the deep forest stretched up the mountain slopes, running up and over the craggy summits.
Whit still talked, mostly complaining about being conscripted and about the “durn fool Confederate Government in Richmond that couldn’t run a war well enough to whup a few sorry Yankees.” It seemed to be his theme for the day. I mostly let him talk and tried to listen to the sounds of the woods and fields and, like always, I watched the sky.
The day’s monotony began to replace the anguish of leaving home. I stopped for a moment to watch a red tailed hawk circling overhead. He flew in lazy circles and then at a point about a hundred yards away from us; he suddenly hurtled downward like a bolt of dusky lightning. When he was about six or eight feet off the ground, his wings flared wide, his talons stretched down and he snatched up a fat field mouse and carried it away on powerful wings. I marveled, as I often did, at how he spotted the mouse in the tall grass from several hundred feet in the air; and then swooped down to the exact point to seize the little creature.
As he flew off, Whit said, “Why ye watchin’ that hawk, Francis?”
“Well, I just find it amazing the way they hunt and catch their prey. They move so fast and right to it. God knew what he was doing when he made hawks.”
Whit looked at me a bit sideways and said, “You seen hundreds of them things, Francis. What’s so interestin’ about ‘em today?”
I smiled at him. “I just think it’s something to be admired, don’t you?”
“Well, I s’pose so. Say, I wonder what a hawk would taste like?”
I had to laugh. “Not too good, I think. They eat rats and snakes. I sure don’t plan on finding out.”
I brought along one of my two smooth bore muskets and a fair amount of musket balls and powder. The musket was old and worn and I was hoping they would provide me with a better weapon once we got to Richmond, or maybe even at Camp Vance, but I thought “better safe than sorry.” I shot a fat rabbit along the way for our supper. Shouldering that old musket felt like I was off on a long hunting trip instead of off to kill some of my fellow men. That thought kept coming back again and again. It didn’t seem to bother old Whit any, but it bothered me plenty. Truth is I didn’t know whether I could shoot another man or not. It preyed on my mind, a gnawing thought that imposed itself from time to time. Here I was a small time farmer with forty-two acres, which I still owed the bank thirty-seven dollars for, on my way to fight for the Confederacy and I didn’t even know if I could make myself shoot a Yankee. Some soldier I was.
Along about five in the afternoon I asked Whit how much longer he wanted to walk that day. He said maybe another hour; that he was tired. Well, I was tired too but I said we should walk until dark so as to make as many miles the first day as possible. He finally agreed, but not without some persuading on my part. I told him I was going to walk until dark whether he did or not. He didn’t much fancy walking alone, so he agreed.
The sun was getting low in the sky when suddenly we heard voices and crying or yelling, up around a bend in the road. It gave me a very bad feeling here in this sparse country, so I checked my musket to be sure it was ready and we walked on cautiously to see what was making all the fuss. Down to the right side of the road, beyond a grassy field, there were some trees and bushes which formed a deep thicket. The noises were coming from there. There was a sharp scream like a woman or a child in terrible pain. The sound made my blood chill and Whit looked at me like he’d seen a ghost. “We gotta find out what’s goin’ on,” I said. Whit nodded. I checked the musket again to make sure it was loaded and capped. We ran across the field and into the thicket, me in front, Whit right behind me, his Bowie knife at the ready.
As we pushed our way into the thicket, my musket held ready, I could see some people on the ground in some sort of struggle. There was a girl laying there crying hysterically and two men cursing and laughing. There was a big man with a gray hat on top of a young girl and another man holding her arms. The man holding her was as thin as a rail and dirty as a hog in a wallow. He laughed and grinned, toothless in front. The girl was struggling and kicking but they had her pinned down.
When I realized what was happening, my fury rose up, and my body grew taut. Whit gasped, “Good God!” The man holding the girl looked up. Grasping my musket by the barrel, I lunged at the holder and swung my musket so the stock caught the man square in the mouth. There was a loud cracking sound.
He fell backwards with a scream, blood spurting from his nose and mouth and I knew he was out of it for now. The other man jerked around and looked at me, his face as red as a beet and his eyes wild. He had pig-like eyes and his fat face was smeared with dirt and grease, a scraggly beard across his ample jaw. I brought the musket back around and swung it again and hit him a glancing blow in the side of the head. The butt plate caught his left ear and almost tore it off, blood splattered the leaves nearby.
I straightened myself as he toppled over. My heart pounded like it was going to leap plumb out of my chest. He came up fast for a big man, pulling a long hunting knife. I yelled at him to stop as I brought my musket back into firing position, but he kept coming at me. His eyes were filled with pure hate and pure malice. As fast as I could I cocked the musket and pulled the trigger. The hammer clicked. The cap had jarred off. The man grinned and moved toward me. His left eye twitched, his stringy yellow hair hung limp. His belly bulged over his pants. Even as he came at me I wondered how he had got fat in these lean years. He laughed coarsely and said, “Looks like you’re out of luck, mister. I’m agonna kill you!”
I said coldly, “You still got it to do, mister. I ain’t goin’ easy!” I turned the musket and grasped it by the barrel. He came at me with the knife moving back and forth, thrusting it at me now and then, and grunting out a little laugh each time. I took a couple of steps backwards and then I brought the musket back and swung at his head as hard as I could, stepping into the swing. He raised his arm to ward off the blow, too late. The stock connected with his head just above his left ear. There was a sharp crack. He staggered to his right.
His eyes crossed and then closed and he dropped to his knees, stayed there for a few seconds, and then pitched face down to the ground, his skull indented on the left side. Blood began to soak the ground around his head. Whit and I stood there for a moment. Then Whit sidled up and said in a shaky voice, “I think you killed him, Francis.” I nodded. Then I spun quickly to look at the holder. I need not have worried; he was lying on the ground, holding his face, moaning and crying. Whit looked around and kept saying, “Oh Lord, Oh my Lord.” The scene was like something from a nightmare, a hysterical young girl, a dead man covered with his own blood, another rolling about in pain, and two bewildered farmers, gaping and gasping for breath.
The crying, moaning girl began to gather her torn clothes around her. She was a frail, brown haired girl with soft brown eyes. I went to her side. I didn’t know what to say or do. The poor girl had just been violated and beaten. So I just asked her if she was able to stand and she nodded yes, tears streaming down her reddened face, but she didn’t look ready to stand. So I sat down beside her, offered her some water, and asked her who the men were. She said she didn’t know. I asked her name and where she was from. She said she was Janie Samuels and her Pa was deputy sheriff Robert Samuels of McDowell County. She lived about two miles up the Pea Ridge road. She had been out picking flowers, when the men came upon her. I said, “We’d better get you home.” I gave Whit the rope off my bedroll and told him to tie the holder’s hands behind him.
He nodded at the dead man and said, “What about him?”
I said, “We’ll mark the place with a piece of his shirt and let someone come back for the body.”
Whit said, “What about animals?” He knew that bears and bobcats would make a feast of the body.
I spat out the words, “After what these two did to that girl, I don’t rightly care.” It wasn’t the Christian thing to do but the dead man had acted like an animal. Maybe being eaten by one would be his just reward.
It was one of those times when something happens that changes you, maybe forever. I had crossed a bridge I could not re-cross. I was now a killer, something that did not wear well on me. I tried to live like the Good Book says and treat my fellow man as I would like to be treated. I suppose coming face to face with a cold hearted animal of a man brings down the best of intentions.
I helped the girl to her feet. Whit had tied up the holder. He jerked the man to his feet and then shoved him toward the road. He took his knife and cut off a piece of the dead man’s shirt and tied it on a wild cherry limb beside the road. I tried to steady the girl as we walked. We had only gone a few hundred feet when the girl grew increasingly faint. It looked like she had lost some blood, but it came from a private place and I could not tell how badly she was injured. She began to stagger and seemed about to swoon. I tried to steady her. I finally gave Whit my musket and bedroll and picked her up as she passed out cold.
Whit and I decided the two men must be Confederate deserters. One had an old forage cap and the other had a military haversack. They were probably heading for the high country, though the holder couldn’t or wouldn’t talk. When Whit asked him his name two or three times, he finally mumbled that his name was Charles Shepherd. That’s all he would say. He knew he was in a world of trouble whatever he did or said. Whit prodded him on with the barrel of the musket. He staggered, his head hung down, the front of his shirt covered with his own blood.
My arms and back ached from carrying the girl up the Pea Ridge road some two miles or so. It was nearing dark when we arrived at the farm, the unconscious girl in my arms. It was the only farm along that stretch of road. A neatly dressed lady came running out the door of the farm house with her hands up to her mouth. She screamed, “Oh, Dear God! What happened?”
I said, “This man and another, well, they attacked her.” Just then, a big man with a pitch fork ran out from behind the barn to see what the commotion was. We told them the story as best we could. The big man took the girl and went inside with the lady. Whit and I stood there watching the holder until the big man came back a few minutes later.
He went straight for the holder screaming, “What did you do to my little girl?” His voice was tight and his face was twisted with rage. The holder was so scared he fell to his knees and begged the big man not to kill him. The man stopped and kicked dirt at the man. He turned to me, still shaking, and said, “I’m Robert Samuels, I’m a deputy.” He stopped, like he was choking. Then he said, “I swore to uphold the law but I’m tempted to hang this devil right now.”
I looked at Whit and then back at the distraught man. “Mr. Samuels, I’m Francis Yelton and this is Whit Whitaker. We’re from Rutherford County, near Gilbert Town, and we’re on our way to Camp Vance to join the army.”
He reached out his hand. “Mr. Yelton, Mr. Whitaker, I am much obliged. I’m real sure that if you men hadn’t come along, my daughter would be dead right now.” He paused, looked down with his hand over his eyes for a long moment. Then he composed himself and said more calmly, “I’ll take care of this man. We’ll tie him up in the tool shed tonight and I’ll take him into Morganton tomorrow and we’ll put him in jail until the judge can hear the case. Meanwhile, my wife has some supper cooked, so I would be much obliged if you fellows would join us. You can sleep in the barn tonight and start out with me to Morganton at first light. There’s fresh hay and it will be better than sleeping in the woods.”
“We shore appreciate it, Mr. Samuels,” said Whit.
Mrs. Samuels prepared a good meal, much better than rabbit cooked on a spit in the woods. We didn’t see the girl again. She stayed in her room. Her mother said she wasn’t hurt too bad, but I knew than an inside hurt is much worse than one on the outside. On the bright side, the girl was young and there would be time to heal. At least she would have the chance to heal. Still, something like that will stay with her forever. In my mind I could see her as a young woman, marrying, having a family, but her mind going back to this day from time to time, reliving the nightmare all over again.
Mr. and Mrs. Samuels were so grateful they could scarcely do enough for Whit and me. We ate supper like it was our last meal on earth. We all felt thankful to be alive after such an ordeal, and they most grateful that their daughter was still with them. I guess we all shared something more than the meal that night.
Mr. Samuels walked us out to the barn. “We tied a piece of shirt up on a cherry tree near where the dead one is,” I said.
Mr. Samuels sighed, looked down the road and said, “I’ll send Luther Gates from down the road to fetch whatever is left of him tomorrow. It don’t appear to be any great loss.” He looked toward the tool shed and said, “I’ll take that one some water and some bread. It’s the Christian thing to do, though that’s the only reason I’ll do it.” Mr. Samuels showed us to our bed for the night and walked silently back to the house.
“That poor man’s hurtin’ bad, Whit.”
“I know. If somethin’ like that happened to one of my girls...” Whit trailed off. We both lay down on the fresh straw. After a while, Whit said, “How does it feel to kill a man, Francis?”
I grimaced in the dark. “None too good; in fact my insides are turning over.”
Whit sighed. “Already killed a man and we ain’t even in the war yet. It’s not a good sign, Francis.”
I didn’t answer. A man was dead, a family was torn to pieces inside, and you’re in the middle. I stared at the rafters in the barn for a long time. Whit rose up on his elbow and looked at me in the light of the lantern. “Thar’s blood on yore sleeves.” I looked at them, then at him. His eyes were intense, sorrowful. We both settled back. The barn was quiet and after a while we slept.
After that day, Whit looked at me a little differently. I guess he saw another side of a man he thought he knew. I learned that it didn’t take war to bring out that side. It pains me to say it would come out yet again.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Big Smith

Copyright 2008

He walked to the fields behind his mule
Sam
A day of plowin’ in mind on the eighty acres he farmed
back there in 1869
The Big War was over, and he came back
lead ball in his stomach
don’t bother him much

Bothers him more that his brother
Will
didn’t come back with him
left there in that sandy Tidewater soil
when Lee tried to push McClellan
into the sea
with half as many men
Will was one

Canister tore him apart on Malvern Hill
they made a charge a fool would spurn
Smith found half of him
his mouth still workin’
but nothin’ comin’ out
there in Virginia
Summer of ‘62

He can still see Will’s eyes
beseeching him for something he couldn’t give
his legs back
his life back
home

He puts a trembling hand to his brow
a tear streams from each eye
He’s glad no one can see

Brothers like Will don’t come along every day
One year apart, they took care of each other
Watched out for each other
growin’ up on a poor farm
in the Southern hills
where winters were so cold it hurt
where food got scarce and the boys went barefoot
in the snow
But they had each other
Brothers they

Off to war together
Glad to serve
Proud to help drive the Yankees back

One is wounded
One is dead, the lucky one

Smith wipes the tears
flicks the reins and the mule moves
plow sinking deep in the soil
sinking deep in his heart
where the furrows never close
and the past is never past.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Hallelujah Breakdown

Copyright 2008

I tell you what, my friend
today was a whale of a day
for old men and old dogs
sun was bright
spattering the ground with brilliance
dappling the forest with shivering light

And here I am at a keyboard
pecking away
trying to tell you
don’t sit there in four walls
get out to where the clouds race
across the sky
and the cardinals sing
and streak red across your vision

Where the ground hog shuffles and digs
and the fox trots
and the crow flops across the sky
awkward as a teenager

and the breeze ripples your shirt
and your lifeblood pounds in your ears

frail human
time is short
live each moment
breathe the precious air
caress the bark of an oak tree
and pray that we remain
for another season.

Cherry Blossoms and Scarecrows

Many thanks to Linda Austin, co-author of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight: Memories of a Japanese Girl for mentioning the essay below about Robert E. Lee and also recommending a visit to this humble blog. She did so on her fine blog at http://moonbridgeblog.blogspot.com/ which is entitled "Cherry Blossom Memories." As an aside, my favorite ornamental tree is the Yoshino Cherry. Nothing is prettier in Springtime. Thank you, Linda.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Robert E. Lee and The Spirit of Conciliation

Copyright 2008

As the country agonizes about dishonesty on Wall Street and in Washington, and the contentious election cycle, there is a powerful lesson from our history about the need for conciliation and coming together. The current political situation threatens to divide our country even more deeply than it was during the Vietnam era. We as a people need guidance. Our nation’s civil war provides many lessons about conciliation as well as the results of failing to reconcile. Possibly the greatest single positive example from that war was the life of Robert E. Lee.

For most Americans today, if they think of Lee at all, he was someone we read about in high school history. Perhaps we saw a portrait of him astride his horse, Traveler. To most, he is a figure from an ancient and hopelessly retrograde culture, who could not possibly have any relevance in the new millennium.

He was indeed a product of his time and his culture, a man who tolerated human slavery even as he deplored it. He led an army, which was the martial instrument of a racist and repressive society, though one which held itself to be civilized and indeed enlightened. While he did hold such a post, and indeed held it with incredible energy, creativity, and resolve; at the same time he was by all accounts kind-hearted, humble, and sincerely religious.

History itself seems mostly irrelevant to the vast majority today. “Why should we dwell on the past, when it is dead and gone? This is the Twenty First Century!” I would submit that history has exquisite relevance for this and any other generation. The people who passed before us with their combination of heroism and butchery, triumphs and foibles were, after all, made of the same stuff as you and I. The culture has changed, as have attitudes, but the human animal in most ways has not. We have the same desires, hopes, aspirations, and we all still have our prejudices, as much as we may protest to the contrary.

Lee, if he were alive today, I believe, would have a very different message from many of our contemporaries who like to wave the Confederate battle flag. Many of these “neo-Confederates” talk a lot about heritage and pride. However, the messages on both sides of the flag and heritage debates are divisive, and often sown with arrogance and resentment.

Lee was indeed a respecter of heritage, with a noble lineage and family ties to George Washington. His actions after the Civil War demonstrated, however, character of a type, which is very rare indeed. After a humiliating and devastating defeat, he refused to call out bands of diehards to fight a vengeful guerilla war in the mountains and backwoods of the South, as many of his subordinates and various firebrands remonstrated. He most certainly could have done that and it would have divided the country to this day in a way, which would make what happened in Northern Ireland look like a Sunday School picnic.

Neither did Lee attempt to cash in on his name, which was venerated almost as deity in the South. One insurance company offered him $50,000 per year (a king’s ransom in 1865) to be its President. When he protested that he knew nothing about the insurance business, he was informed that he did not need to – they just wanted to use his name. To this, he quietly replied that his name was not for sale.

He also did not become bitter and lash out verbally at his former foes. Instead, he took the helm of the nearly defunct Washington College in Virginia and spent his last years in training the young to deal with the realities of the new United States of America, building what today is Washington and Lee University.

He urged his former officers and men to put aside hatreds and return to their farms and shops and to rebuild the society, which had been destroyed, to put behind them the bloody and bitter struggle. He was a voice of conciliation and forgiveness. He neither said nor did anything to encourage the voices of discord. He put his Christian faith into practice under the most difficult of circumstances.

It is safe to assume that were Lee alive today, he would counsel the same in our society. He would encourage the races to be done with hatred and to move on in harmony; to cease and desist from the continual one-upsmanship that pervades our social and political life today; to give more and demand less.

He was a man who subsumed his own selfish desires and ambitions to do his duty as he saw it. As war became imminent, he rejected the honor of leading the Union Army, which had all the advantages necessary for success, to cast his lot with his countrymen and kin in a dangerous and desperate struggle, because he could not lift his arm against his own. It is highly probable, given his considerable abilities, that had Lee accepted the command of the Union Army, the war would have been shortened by two years or more, and that Lee would occupy a place in history alongside Washington and Lincoln. Lee was no fool; he knew this very well. Still he chose what he believed to be his duty over self-promotion.

This is a key for Americans today. Our commercial and capitalist society, with all its advantages still encourages self-interest and greed at the expense of compassion and generosity. Our competitiveness tends to stifle the higher impulses to conciliation, which many consider a sign of weakness. In fact, it takes far greater strength to conciliate than to confront, to forgive than to hate. It is easy to show hatred and lack of compassion. It takes strength to reach out.

I believe we should learn from our past, take the best from history and from its protagonists, and use it to move humanity beyond the petty hatreds of race, class, or region. Having studied the life of General Lee, I believe there is very much about him which is truly exemplary, a pattern for modern man.

It is patently criminal that in our effort toward political correctness, we have virtually expunged his name from public school history books. I can hear the naysayer’s chorus now. “He should have fought a defensive war...he had slaves...he alone was responsible for losing the war...he should have done this and he should have done that, etc.”

Intentional, malicious criticism of Lee is becoming sport among some so called scholars, as they sit on their duffs in their comfortable Monday morning quarterbacking chairs, whilst ensconced securely within their tenures. The vast majority of them could not lead a group in silent prayer; much less lead a rag tag army to immortality on the battlefield, as did Lee.

Spare me the jealous character assassination. The truth is that Lee was one of the best military commanders our country ever produced. More importantly, after the tragic and untimely death of Lincoln, and after the war was over, he did in fact do more to promote harmony in this country than anyone of that era.

We owe a supreme debt to him for that, not insipid criticism 135 years after the fact. Heroes are in short supply, we need to revere the greatest and learn from them, not excoriate them for their failures. However, Lee was far nobler than I, and he would have said to ignore the carping critics and move on with the work at hand. He would have said to build bridges, not entrenchments. He would have said to put duty above self. Now there is truly a lesson for today.

Dianne Salerni's Features

The talented author of High Spirits: a Tale of Ghostly Rapping and Romance, Dianne Salerni, posts features of various IAG authored books on her web site. It is most interesting and informative. You can check the work of the talented Ms. Salerni and the IAG authors (including this one) at http://www.highspiritsbook.com/Spotlight.htm.

Adios, Minnine Mouse

It was a sweet kiss
atop my head
the cartoon lips and
the big sounding
smack
as the shutter clicked
and Minnie draped her
warm arm around me
and bizarre does not begin
to describe the feeling
when you are vamped
by a cartoon mouse
impressionist
dressed up
in crinoline
and absurdly large
mouse head
the big bow in front
like an oddly
shaped hat
and the short girl
in the costume
generating heat
from her exertions
impersonating the girl friend
of the iconic mouse.

Then off she goes to the next table
and I marvel at her energy
and her persistent good cheer
in the face of hundreds of
squirming, scrambling, pinching
children
and one grandpa
kneeling for a picture
who was strangely moved
by the silly kiss
and the friendly goodbye.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The King is a Dancer

Copyright 2008

The necrotic spectre leaps
pale as breasts
in the moonlight
seeking animate creation
from which to suck the breath

Catlike in the cradle
eyes bright gold and slitted
peeking round tomorrow for
his victims of the now

Point to point in circles
uncaged in war to prey
the king is never idle
a dancer midst the fray

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Versa, It's Vice

Copyright 2008


the words are my puppets
i jerk ‘em around
they stand at attention
or lie flat on the ground

my pen is a bullwhip
to lash lazy ones
i brook not one sluggard
keep ‘em under the gun

but as I close watch
the words as they dance
and laugh and sing smartly
of fate and romance

there seems a small problem
befuddled i see
to my consternation
the real puppet’s me

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Dianne Salerni's Featured IAG Books

Author Dianne Salerni is featuring different books each month on her web site, based on various themes.

"I have posted the IAG Spotlight for July on my website, featuring books by Al Past, Marva Dasef, Linda Tuck-Jenkins, Amanda Hamm, Joseph and David Rhea, Robin Reed, Ann Keller, Lee Cross, and Sylvia Engdahl."

Check out these great IAG authors at http://www.highspiritsbook.com/Spotlight.htm.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Last One

My Uncle Norman Yelton passed away today. He was the last of his generation in our family, the last of fourteen siblings. I wrote this poem in his honor.

Copyright 2008

His hands shook a little as he lit his cigarette
his gnarled fingers skillfully flipping the lighter
with a click
A smoke cloud blew upward and
he closed his eyes in pleasure
“Been smokin’ sixty two years
and loved every one of ‘em.”

Then he spoke of the past with a look in his eye
that told me he saw seventy years gone
like it was yesterday.
Days when Roosevelt was President
and swing music was new
and folks rallied around
to defeat a primal evil
and save the world.

He told of getting sick on the victory ship
in the North Atlantic
and how the German torpedo missed them
by fifty yards.
Of how the landing at Normandy
took five of his friends
their lifeblood leeched out
on that grim and sandy shore.
And how they fought the Nazi’s
and the plink of a round against his helmet
of twisting his ankle
and then marching fourteen miles
of sleeping in the mud
for eight straight nights
of being spattered by the brains
of his platoon sergeant
in front of a little church in France
when the Germans opened up with their Mausers.
He killed three of them,
said it was the first time he had told anyone.

He was sick with the flu for two weeks in November
confined to his bed in the field hospital
they told him he almost died of exposure
but he went back as soon as he could
caught up with his comrades at a bridge
where one German tank blocked the road
and Sammy Nelon of Huntsville swam across,
climbed on the tank
and shot the driver with the lieutenant’s .45.
Then he slung a satchel charge into the treads
but it went off before he could get clear.
Sammy was nineteen.

A single tear trickled down.

He looked out the window at the blowing leaves
“This’ll be my last winter. Will you see the antifreeze gets changed?”
A practical people, this greatest generation.
The house was quiet, just the old man and me.
I nodded yes and he nodded too.
The last of his family, the rest all gone
and he alone just waiting
for the final reunion.

Monday, June 23, 2008

At Night on Winterstar

Copyright 2008

There is quietness here
on this pinnacle at six thousand feet
where balsams sway in breezes
from the west
and speak to the weary traveler
in airy tones redolent
with scents of
the mountain forest at night.

The tent puffs and ripples,
the wind insistent now
the storytelling takes on
an urgent air
though the night is long
and we have eternity
here on top of this soaring
granite mound
amidst the forested giants
craggy and old.

Speaking in whispers now the wind
seems resigned
as though just another mortal
has lain here and listened and will
do naught
but listen
it sounds weary
like an old woman slowly sweeping
an endless corridor.

It sighs with
exasperation as it sweeps across
the ridges
and tumbles into the valley
and the rain comes with a soft patter
laughing at the wind
as it has since creation
crying also
for the mortal who lies
wondering at it all
wondering for a moment
only
until his thoughts are stilled
and he lies within the solid earth.

And the wind and the rain and the mountain
continue
until that momentous day
when the rocks melt
and time ceases
and the wind learns
what it means
to be mortal.
and the rain laughs
no more

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Canta Libre

Copyright 2008

by Barry Yelton

Early in the morning when the sun lifts its head
above the blue horizon
and the rooster sings his atonal song,
the spirit is lifted almost absurdly
given life’s circumstance.
Here on this showy crest where blueberries grow
like crabgrass
and a grumbling black bear ambles
through, taking her fill,
I stand, breathing in the vernal air
of the new day.

A Neil Diamond song about freedom and music
runs through the morning
as we explore the high country
like tourists from Mars.

There is no greater freedom than that found in the mountains,
where no alarm intrudes or schedule inhibits.
They are places of solace and hope.
Somewhere deep in tribal memory they reside
those highlands of Scotland
and wooded hills of the Rhineland,
where ancestors fought bloody wars,
lived in caves and ate raw meat.
Even they stood at times on hilltops
far away
and wondered at it all
and even now their dust
fills the valleys
and they rest in their final emancipation,
their song of freedom
forever wafting on ancient winds.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Mule Named Dawg and a Dog Named Myool

Copyright 2008


Round the bend and up the road
lives a farmer name of Micah Joad
Joad’s gotta mule name of dawg
He can plow a row and pull a log

Down the road and around the bend
lives a farmer name of Howard Lend
Lend’s gotta dog name of Myool
Long in the tooth but he ain’t no fool

Lend come around to farmer Joad’s
needin’ a mule to pull some loads
Cuttin’ logs and takin’ ‘em to town
Thought old Dawg could pull ‘em on down

Brought old Myool along for the ride
That dog stayed right by old Lend’s side
Until the minute he spied old Dawg
Joad a plowin’ him out in the fog

Now Myool took out after old Dawg
And Dawg took out into the bog
Dog named Myool chasin’ a mule named Dawg
Peculiar doin’s out here in the fog

Down they went Dawg and Myool
Dawg had the lead but begin to drool
Myool was a catchin’ up real fast
But Dawg refused of bein’ passed

So Dawg sped up and turned the bend
Right behind was Myool and Lend
Lend was a hollerin’ to beat the band
For all this nonsense he wouldn’t stand

Old Joad come along but he was old
He give it his best but begin to fold
Old Myool caught up with the hard runnin’ Dawg
So Dawg just stopped beside a log

Myool was a barkin’ to beat the band
A carryin’ on and a raisin’ sand
Dawg just turned his rump toward Myool
Then Myool went and broke the cardinal rule

He stood a barkin’ at old Dawg’s rump
When Dawg let loose and give him a thump
Myool went a flyin’ across the log
That’s what happens when you’re kicked by Dawg

So the moral of this here story is
Mind what’s yours and him what’s his
Don’t borry a mule, no matter how poor
Cause dogs and mules don’t mix for sure

Monday, June 2, 2008

Gold Mountain

Copyright 2008

Along the tree strewn ridge on a sparkling fall day
the light glistens on the rocks and the cool breeze
ruffles my hair as I stride the wonderland that is the Blue Ridge.
Now and again I catch a glimpse of distant valleys
bejeweled with lakes, golden in the afternoon sunlight,
beyond them distant ridges of hazy blue which melt into the sky
thirty miles distant.

It is a time and place of revelation,
when the clock means naught and time is held suspended
like a thought in a tired mind at days end,
while I walk these ridges in the warmth of gratitude
and hope in the future of a troubled earth.

It would not be hopeless were Nature in charge
and man but a player in the cosmic game.
But taking to himself the fate of the globe
smashing and staining, his hands drip with
blood drawn from mother earth.

I wonder as I hike these ancient hills
if even they will escape that day of reckoning
when mountains smoke and
oceans boil like cauldrons.

I wonder if man will somehow open his jaded eyes
and see.

But then, across the valley there, a hawk glides
on thermals that carry her high on the dusky wings
of this blessed day and I smile
because hope will not go easy.

Anniversary

Well the one year anniversary of this little experiment in soul baring, self-absorbed bloviating has come - and gone - without my realizing it. It was May 24 of 2007 that I posted the first chapter of Scarecrow in Gray. Time flies, as they say, when you're having fun.

It has been instructive, the way this blog has changed over that year. It has become primarily a place for publishing my little poems and book reviews (both of my work and others). It has also become a place where I can help promote (in a modest way) my friends of the Independent Authors Guild, a collective of self published and small press published authors seeking to gain recognition for their work in the brutal, over-crowded world of book publishing. They have been very helpful to me and I am trying to return the favor by adding their links to the blog as well as featuring a different IAG author each week (look at the column to the left).

I suppose I started with the idea that I should opine and wax eloquent about this subject or that. The fact is that although I am very interested in politics, hiking, and other things, my first love is the writer's art. Therefore, since I do not have legions of publishers clamoring to publish my poems and essays, I publish them here and at authorsden.com. I suppose it is a natural progression.

I hope something here makes you think, inspires you, or just entertains you a bit. After all, you're the reason these words are on this page.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Scarecrow in Gray in Front Street Reviews

Reviewed by Mary Lydon Simonsen, author of Pemberley Remembered

The title of this novel, Scarecrow in Gray, refers to the soldiers of the Confederacy who are reduced to fighting in uniforms that are little more than rags. Because there is so little food left in the bleak landscape of what was once the Confederate States of America, these undernourished men fight one hopeless battle after another in an unwinnable war, and their lack of food has given them the appearance of the scarecrows guarding their now abandoned farms.

This is the story of Francis Marion Yelton who did not go off to war. The war reached into the distant mountains of North Carolina, carrying him away from his family and farm into the maelstrom of the last desperate months of the Civil War. The author, a descendant of Francis Yelton, a private in a Confederate regiment, has expanded on family lore to tell the story of a man who probably realized the war was lost even before he arrived in training camp. From the filth and tension of an Army camp to the terrors of Petersburg and the long hard road to Appomattox Courthouse, Barry Yelton recreates with measured prose the desperate battles of the closing months before the Confederate surrender in April 1865.

In the midst of unspeakable horrors, he keeps his character tethered to a saner world by frequent references to the natural beauty around him: “The night it was a vast obsidian dome infused with sparkling points of light.” Mr. Yelton has the soul of a poet, but his beautiful prose is not at the expense of detailed and horrific descriptions of the battlefield where brave, but outnumbered, Confederates await the next Yankee onslaught: “Then we heard it, the low roar of the blue ocean, coming out of the woods, then the pounding of thousands of horses’ hooves.”

Scarecrow in Gray is reminiscent of Cold Mountain and The Black Flower and is a compelling tale of one man’s attempt to do his duty while preserving his humanity.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

News Flash - The Dead Mule

Two of my poems have just been published by the online magazine of Southern literature, The Dead Mule. You can find it at www.deadmule.com. If you like quirky, you'll love this site. Happy reading.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Lugoff, by Barry Yelton

Copyright 2008

in a broke down little place
just off the interstate
west to nowhere
summer heated sidewalks
burn the soles of small
brown feet
stepping quick
in front of mama
into the laundromat

and dark seamed faces
stare blank
from the half shaded porch
of a tumbledown grocery
hands of mill and field
of a thousand tiresome yesterdays
and the smoke from cigarettes
curls upward
and aggravates the flies
buzzing slowly
in the dense summer air

seems distant somehow
he thinks
that long lost past
living in another time and place
when joints didn’t ache
with arthritis
and calloused hands
did hard work all day
and caressed the body
of his woman at night
when energy surged up
and life seemed sweet
distant now
far away in a
wearisome place
a man is too tired to even dream of
a lost place
lost in the haze and the heat
years ago

the cigarette burns slowly down
unnoticed
until the sting causes him to drop it
on the dirty boards of the porch

lordy

over yonder in the shade
of a dusty old oak
a flop-eared hound
sums it all up
with one,
huge,
sigh

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Golfer, by Barry Yelton

In a long curving arc
it soars
gleaming in the sunlight
racing over the green grass
the towering pines
and lands
with a splash.

He mutters imprecations at the vile thing
the day growing darker
and after two birdies on the front nine
and the fruit of a successful wager
dangling like a golden carrot
He curses again at his fate
Bogey.
Twelve over par for the round.
The tragedy of it all

One can only but weep at the sight
of the golfer
resplendent in his khakis and golf shirt
easing into the soft leather of his Mercedes
defeat and despair etched on his face
The day was a disaster
embarrassed and harassed
a C-note poorer
he slowly drives to his home near the club

The gardener waves cheerily
as he comes up the drive
but he doesn’t see
The seven bedroom colonial
seems to mock him today
the polished marble and hardwood
seem cold
He lost

Wearily he trudges up the winding staircase
the crystal chandelier glowing warmly
fails to lift his spirits.
Booting up one of his five PC’s
his portfolio he eyes
The tragedy continues
down five hundred grand
almost five percent for the year!
To the liquor cabinet for the twelve year old Scotch
succor just a few steps away
the broken man finally
finds relief

Walking to the window, Scotch in hand
seeking comfort in the long expanse of lawn
The azaleas are in bloom
and the songbirds sing sweetly
but alas his gloom is not broken
He watches the gardener
lucky man that he is
What care does he have?
He did not shoot eighty today!
He did not lose 4.7% of his portfolio this year!
Oh the unfairness of it all!
Look at the man
working in the sunlight
cheerful and smiling

Ignacio trims the hedges just so
sweat streaming on his brown, smiling face
unaware of the angry gaze of his employer
from the second floor window
of the brick and stone mansion
He works with a purpose
for six twenty-five each hour
living with eight others
in a ramshackle trailer
so he can send an amazing
one hundred dollars per month,
to his family in Guatemala
so they can buy rice and beans
and will not starve
and perhaps Rosita can buy
for the children
some clothes this year
perhaps even shoes
so their feet don’t get bloody
working in the cane fields
He works even harder
and glances at the sun
growing low to the horizon
Soon to the second job
cleaning garbage trucks for the city
standing shin deep in the muck
for eight more hours
scrubbing and shoveling
but he doesn’t mind
This year perhaps he can buy a new dress
for Rosita
his beloved
and he smiles broader at the thought

But the man sipping Scotch
no such happiness has he
for life has turned dark
he shot eighty today

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Valley of Waters

Copyright 2008
Barry Yelton

In the cool of the evening, by the surging stream
the night wind sings to the canvas of stars
and time slows to an ebony crawl
in the valley where life abounds like raindrops.

I listen to the sounds that come dancing around me like fairies
the flittering bat, the talking water, the mysterious rustle of leaves .
They all tell some tail I don’t quite understand
but know it has been told for an age and more.

And I shiver in delight as the cooling wind ruffles my hair
and caresses me like passion.
The light from the stars dresses the night in elegance
and the animal sounds in the forest seem far away.

I gaze at the canopy of light and darkness and wonder
could this all be by chance?
Or in the wisdom of the great I AM it began with a roar
a burst of cosmic stardust and riotous sound and searing light .

Then settled into this dreamy night on this whispering shore
while a small mortal bound for the earth
marvels at it all and dreams of meeting
the One who brought it all to pass.

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Given

It seems to me that
light plays games
with aging eyes

when reading a computer screen
or sanding a window sill
or driving on a tree shaded road
when the light strobes
and flickers

and darkness and shadow
intermingle
then disperse
with terrible alacrity

and you can barely
refocus
before the next spatter of
light or shadow

attacks your retina
like a windmill
gone mad.

The counterpoint of aging
is the fascination
of the maudlin retrogression
of the human frame,
creating the continual
daily melodrama
of irresistible decline.

So, fellow traveler,
be you eight or eighty
know this

you will and will
fail and fall
sag and settle
wane and weaken


until the reaper
takes your hand
and you lie still
swaddled in silk

through eternal night

And the soul
yet wings toward starry realms
and purest light
where dwells Hope
and renewal
and reunion

on avenues
where abide
the angels.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

and Roll

pulsing sound burns out the pain

a river of fire
white hot
and
surging through
in a rush

light and movement high
on a painted ridge
swirling like a dancer

now ringing like an enchanted
bell from a distant cathedral

towering

now sad, now bright
always charged

like lightning.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Passing of Arthur C. Clarke

Copyright 2008

Gazing at the ebony canvas
stretching unfathomable into nine billion
yesterdays
he stands on the Sri Lankan shore
imagining.

Sitting at the table
creating worlds within worlds
the end of childhood
the rendezvous
the odyssey
geosynchronous visions.

Grasping the ungraspable
thinking the inexplicable
dreaming
learning
living in a quiet place
on a small planet
in an obscure solar system
in galaxy number nine billion and one.

The gift of new clarity,
was laid at our feet and
the hope of tomorrow
by
the majestic seer.

May he rest in peace
with supernova
illuminating his path
to brighter worlds
beyond.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Featured IAG Author

Each week this blog will feature a different author from the Independent Authors Guild group, of which this writer is a member. The people in this group have been extraordinarily supportive of my work and have provided extensive reviews, links on web sites, and other kindnesses. I wanted to return the favor in a small way.

I have read the work of many of these writers and reviewed some of them as well. Many have considerable talent and have not yet been recognized by the mainstream traditional publishers. Some are self published, like myself. Others are published by small presses without the clout of the major houses. All that I have encountered have been sincere and serious about their work.

I trust this new feature will inure to the benefit of both the featured authors as well as the readers of this blog. You may discover hidden literary gems and exciting new talent among this group.

The first featured author is Dianne K. Salerni. Ms. Salerni started a forum on Amazon.com for self published and small press authors of historical fiction. I joined in the discussion and it evolved into the Independent Authors Guild. Ms. Salerni deserves a lion's share of the credit for bringing this group together. Many have become friends. I believe all have benefited from the information, comraderie and sometimes commiseration this group has facilitated.

Like independent films, or indies, independent authors and publishers have to scramble for attention, respect and, yes, sales of their work. It does not come easy. 100,000 books are published each year in the U.S. Only a small handful become best sellers. Only a relatively small minority sell more than 1,000 copies. There are many fine books that never see the shelf of a bookstore.

Conversely, famous authors can put out almost anything and find a broad audience. They don't even have to be writers. They just have to be famous. Witness all the books published for people like talk show hosts, sports figures, celebrities, etc. Few have much value. Even fewer are written above an eighth grade level.

Good writing is an art. It is often referred to as a "craft," as though it is akin to basket weaving. Excellent writing is far more involved, subtle, and creative than craft. It is truly art, because the work, if it is fiction, is created from whole cloth. At its best, it is not regurgitated nor recycled. It is new and fresh and it takes the reader to another time and place.

Independent Authors Guild is an effort to support and encourage the efforts of fledgling writers who too often are ignored by the traditional publishing industry, which struggles for sales in a shrinking pool of readers, and therefore has to ruthlessly select what it thinks will sell enough books to cover the cost of production, printing, and publicity and generate a profit.

They also guarantee the bookstores that they will take back any unsold books. This is very risky and very expensive. That is why traditionals must be so selective. Many receive literally hundreds of manuscripts each month, while publishing only a small handful at best. The rest find the slush pile, otherwise known as file 13. Unfortunately the baby is often tossed out with the bath water. It is not quality the publishers seek, it is broad appeal and salability. And their judgement is obviously far from infalable. It is a terrible dilemma for unknown writers seeking an audience for their work.

Kudos to all those who write, because it is what they must do.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Speak Softly

Barry Yelton

Please don’t shout
the night is still
day is over
and hope.

Now is the time
for quietness
for peace,
time.

She lies so still there
swaddled in silk
with flowers
and family

“The wind passes over it
and remembers it
no more.”

And yet I remember so much
days of hopeful youth
when she sang to me
talked with me
loved me

like no other ever will.

Speak softly now, the angels come
upon clouds of startling light
to take my mother
home.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

This is No Boy Scout Trail

Barry Yelton

From the moment we start up the forty degree gradient
our feet slipping on the wet leaves and rolling twigs

I know this hike was planned by Satan

We struggle up the steeps for three hundred yards
then the trail moderates for a quarter of a mile before the switchbacks

More fun to be had on the switching, rock climbing, root grabbing
seep laced trail. Am I sure I want to do this?

The first backpack is always the toughest. They say it gets easier.
Today seems to go on forever, until I walk 100 feet then stop and pant
and lean over, hands on my thighs, my thousand pound pack
shoving me forward, my heart pounding jack hammer strokes
not good for a man of 54, who’s eaten too many Big Macs
and sat behind a desk for too many years.

My more fit companion is patient. He stops, takes pictures and smiles knowingly.
We aim for a summit seven miles and 3,000 vertical feet distant
We are not going to make it. Let me rephrase...I am not going to make it.

So we stop and drop our packs on some conveniently placed boulders
An outcropping on the mountain side made for an exhausted hiker.
My partner scouts ahead and leaves me in the bear infested forest
(Was that something moving down the trail?)

He returns after what seems three hours with good and bad news
A good campsite for the night, but a steep scramble off the trail
We take it.

I feel better. Night falls, we eat potatoes and onions, grilled on a camp stove
The dark envelops us enfolding our universe
The air gets cold, early April at 5,000 feet in the Blue Ridge
We watch a blazing illegal campfire a half mile down the mountain side
and though tempted, we don’t build one

Settling in to the tent for the night, the wind whispers up the mountain side
singing a post modern melody as old as the moon
the bag is warm, the leaves underneath are soft
quiet conversation ebbs, as sleep comes on the final tide

Feeling Like Adolph Menjou Redux

Barry Yelton

I like the snags.

Did I tell you that?

I saw a light at the summit of the mountain
when clouds tagged the ridges
and sunlight played silly games
on the slopes

The light was bright, moving slightly
A star? Maybe but it seemed too close
A hiker? With a 10 Million candlepower lantern if so

No the light did not come from this side
of the divide...
Far over, it came, far over where
fairies fly in formations like bombers

And dreams are more commonplace than here
And people speak well of one another
and hope is not a four letter word
that rhymes with dope.

I walk toward the light, my legs burning
my heart burning
the incline is steep, the rocks impede my path
but still, I must touch it

The light on the mountain
that comes for over there

Then again, maybe I won’t, yes I will
The light can’t avoid me
forever...

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hypocrisy in America

There has been a great deal of discussion in the media in recent years about the celebration of Christmas in the public domain. Some have asserted that displays of the Nativity scene and symbols such as the cross are religious and therefore have no place on public property because of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The Establishment/Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It is a two pronged statement that prohibits an official state religion, like the Church of England, while clearly upholding the right to religious practice and expression. The anti-religionists give the broadest interpretation to the Establishment Clause, while the Free Exercise component is viewed in the narrowest possible way.

If federal, state or local governments were setting up churches or other places of worship and encouraging or mandating people to worship at the state church a religion would have been established. However allowing private groups or individuals, including churches, temples or mosques, to utilize public spaces for gatherings or religious displays should be no more considered the establishment of religion than permitting a fifth grade art exhibit depicting “Mother Earth” on Earth Day.

To believe that such exhibits violate the Establishment Clause is to take such a broad interpretation of it as to strain credulity. The intent of the framers relative to the scope of the clause is evident since the same First Congress that proposed the Bill of Rights also opened its legislative day with prayer and voted to apportion federal dollars to establish Christian missions in the Indian lands.

In my opinion, those earnest worshipers of the Establishment Clause, who on other issues often look upon the Constitution as a “living, breathing document,” are less concerned with the government establishing a religion than they are with marginalizing those who actually have one.

The ACLU, which was established by a Marxist, amazingly seems to battle even the most benign expressions of faith in the public square, such as The Boy Scouts use of a public park, while at the same time vigorously defending the rights of organizations such as NAMBLA, which advocates and promotes the vilest crimes imaginable, citing “free speech.” I suppose the warm waters of free speech end at the shoreline of religious expression. Hypocrisy never had a more shining avatar.

There is not simply a “War on Christmas” taking place in our country. There is a more fundamental conflict of values in progress with underlying agendas on both sides. The groups and individuals that TV commentator Bill O’Reilly refers to as “secular progressives” are aggressively trying to remove all expressions of faith from all public venues.

They want “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. They want “In God We Trust” removed from our currency. They want crèches, the Ten Commandments, and Christian crosses removed from every public space. In short they want any evidence of religious faith confined strictly to private property.

Why should we care about this “culture war?” We should care because by marginalizing Christianity in particular, the secular progressives will move a step closer to their dream of an America without God, Who demands certain behavioral norms that inconveniently conflict with the laissez faire moral attitudes of 21st century America. The ACLU and other radical “progressive” organizations want to manipulate what America sees and hears while maintaining their imagined status as defenders of “free speech.”

They know that if you marginalize God by confining religious expression to private property you limit and diminish the message. By limiting the message, your secular progressive message has less competition in the public marketplace of ideas. They don’t want children to see a Nativity scene on a courthouse lawn and be curious about the Child in the manger.

Once you limit religion to the private sector, then you have less resistance to your goal of a Godless, faithless, libertine America where the only behavior not tolerated is the expression of faith in God. Nothing else explains the rabidity with which the secular agenda is being pursued today, after over two hundred years of mostly peaceful coexistence of government and religion in our country.

The imaginary “wall of separation” between religion and government does not mandate that religion be shoved out of public life. It simply means what Jefferson and the other framers intended and that is the prohibition of formal state religion - nothing more.

The soothing words of those who see no problem banishing God from public life, whether it is a cross on public property or the act of wishing someone Merry Christmas at the mall, are calculated to make the average American believe that all is well and that there is really no problem with keeping religious expression strictly in the private arena.

They even try to foist upon us the canard that somehow public expression of religious faith “cheapens and demeans” that faith. Institutions like the ACLU and their fellow travelers, such as George Soros, don’t spend tens of millions of dollars every year fighting public religious expression and traditional values for nothing. They are cleverly hiding their true intent, hoping that the apathetic majority won’t notice – until it is too late.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Across the Space, by Barry Yelton, 2007

now in lasting twilight
your mind sight seeks renewal
reaching upward toward the pinpoints
on the hoary head of night

toward never worlds seen only
in your visionary dreams
with ostentious variations
on your planetary theme

the third stone marks exception
to the universal rule
of mindful, random glories
and oppressive, lifeless orb

On that great day of speaking
when the vastness whirled to being
It was known that you’d come seeking
and perhaps known what you’ll find

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Reunion!

A national Yelton reunion is being planned for October 18 & 19, 2008 in Rutherford County, NC. All the Yelton's who are descended from James and Isabel Hinson Yelton of Overwharton Parrish, Stafford County, Virginia, circa 1722, are invited. Others who may be from other lines, unknown to our family genealogist are welcome as well.

There will be cemetery and historical site tours on Saturday the 18th and a covered dish luncheon and reunion events at the Cliffside Baptist Church Fellowship Hall in Cliffside, NC. on Sunday, October 19.

Email me at yelton18nc at aol dot com if you want more information.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Time and Again

Here it is, second half of the first month of the New Year. 2008 somehow has a ring of unreality to it. I had just settled into 2007 when all of a sudden, it's over!

Everything changes and yet nothing does. The world and its woes are like a broken record, forever repeating the same mistakes, crimes, and other perfidies. Warms the heart; it does.

I laugh when I hear people talk about how this is the 21st century and the old mores are as passe as hoop skirts and gingham. As if somehow we have transmogrified into another species in the past few years and none of the verities of the past applies anymore. This is the thinking of the shallow minded and the callow.

If you think the law of gravity has been suspended; just take a step off a tall building and see. The same with basic mores. A brave new world is neither new nor brave, just morally convenient for those who can't see beyond their noses.

And there you have it, more musings from temporally challenged. You can pay attention or not. Free will hasn't been suspended either.