Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Fixer

There’s nothing more historical than U.S. Presidential elections. With Ted Cruz’s recent stunning endorsement of Donald Trump, I thought a little political humor I wrote below might help us get through the current election cycle.

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Brethren of the True Faith Mitch and Paul had spent over six years in the Desert, cast adrift among the sands. They took some solace from having prevented the Usurper from achieving most of his objectives. And now they smiled at one another, knowing the Usurper’s days were numbered. As they witnessed the fifteen from the Tribe and two outsiders enter the ring, surely, they thought, one of their peers will seize the mantle and lead the Tribe to victory in the Ultimate Battle against The Others.

“Surely, we can simply anoint Sir Jeb as our champion,” whispered Brother Mitch.

“No,” said Brother Paul. “There must at least be the appearance of a contest.”

“Perhaps, but why allow the Joker and the Witch Doctor into the contest? They are Outsiders, not Brethren of the True Faith.”

“Fear not, Brother Mitch. They won’t last among the seasoned warriors. We need their followers in the Ultimate Battle. Allow them to make fools of themselves. A misstep here and a misstep there, and they’re out of the contest.”

Fifteen Months Later

And, lo, it came to pass on the 462nd day, Brothers Mitch and Paul shielded their faces with their robes as the desert sands swirled around them.

“Why?” asked Brother Mitch.

“How?” asked Brother Paul.

“He made every mistake in the book,” said Brother Mitch. “He insulted all of the lords.”

“And even Ladies Carly and Megyn,” said Brother Paul.

“Low Energy Jeb, Little Marco, 1 for 38 Kasich.”

“And Lyin’ Ted,” piped in Brother Paul.

“Not to mention his impersonation of the crippled beggar who sits outside the city gates.”

“And that comment about blood coming from Lady Megyn’s whatever.”

“And everyone who disagrees with him is a LOOZAH.”

“Just how does he get away with it?” asked Brother Mitch.

“Too many contestants. The Joker charmed the Dispossessed. They didn’t fall in line this time.”

Suddenly, a great sand spout arose in the distance and headed directly toward the two great men. They ran in all different directions, but the sand spout shifted in turn and came to a halt before them. The sand spout disappeared as quickly as it arose, but in its place stood Lucifer in the guise of a well-tanned Wall Street banker.

“Who are you?” asked Brother Mitch. “Where did you come from?”

Lucifer smiled. “You have come to me many times in the past. Do not insult me by pretending otherwise. I heard you speaking poorly about The Fixer. I’ve come to ease your minds about your champion.”

“How so?” asked Brother Paul. “He is profane. He’s insulted half of the voters and all of the Tribe’s great leaders.”

“Tell me, Brother Mitch, what is your heart’s greatest desire?”

“To put one of our own on the throne. To have unfettered control of the Empire.”

“That is not the rumor whispered by all inside my palace walls.”

Brothers Mitch and Paul looked at one another. “Ah!” shouted Brother Paul. “Yes, we yearn to designate the successor to Brother Scalia on the Empire’s Court of Ultimate Justice.”

“And to what lengths will you go to fulfill your hearts’ desire?”

“Why,” said Brother Mitch, “we’d go to the ends of the Earth.” Brother Paul nodded in agreement.

“Then you would throw your support behind The Fixer?” asked Lucifer.

Brother Mitch grimaced like he was sucking on a lemon. Brother Paul ground his teeth like two stones in a mill. The two men gauged one another. Both nodded. “Why, yes,” said Brother Mitch, “if we knew for a certainty that would guarantee our choice of Brother Scalia’s successor, we would do anything.”

“Anything?” asked Lucifer.

“Anything,” said Brother Paul.

Lucifer pulled a tablet from his breast pocket and recorded their names. “If you bow down in humble submission to The Fixer, I shall fulfill your greatest desire.”

“But how?” asked Brother Mitch.

“How can you make such a promise?” asked Brother Paul.

“I am he,” said Lucifer with a smile that revealed bright sharp teeth and a forked tongue, “who fulfills the wishes of those who lust for power, just as both of you have done since your youth.”

“You are God?” asked Brother Paul.

Lucifer laughed. “Heaven forbid. I am he who was once favored by God. Nevermore. I curry favor among those who know the poor will always be among us, those who will sacrifice their very souls to achieve their worldly ambitions. You have always followed me and always will. Now, go, and just as The Fixer shall obtain his heart’s desire, so shall you.”

“And by what sign shall we know you can fulfill such a promise?” asked Brother Mitch.

Lucifer’s eyes opened wide to reveal tongues of fire, before simmering down. The Brethren’s faces turned white as a sheet. “Very well, I will provide you a sign. Before the sun sets four days hence, Brother Ted will prostrate himself before the Fixer. All the Brethren of the True Faith shall follow.”

With that, Lucifer’s eyes flared again as he spun into a sand spout and disappeared from their sight.

“What just happened?” asked Brother Mitch.

Brother Paul surveyed the landscape. “The Devil’s in the details, Mitch, but if Lyin’ Ted does the implausible, we just sold our souls.”

Short story copyrighted by J. Edward Gray/James Gray

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Putting the History in the Historical Novel: Cold Harbor

This is the twelfth in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about the “Associates,” the principals in the Central Pacific Railroad, the company that built the western leg of America’s first transcontinental railroad. This week, I return to the Civil War, specifically the battle of Cold Harbor.

In an earlier article on this site (May 23, 2014), I spoke about Cold Harbor as a battle which witnessed General Ulysses S. Grant at his worst and at his best. At his worst, because he failed to insure adequate surveillance of his enemy. Lee exacted a bloody, unnecessarily costly price, a fact that Grant acknowledged in his memoirs. It’s difficult to fathom today. On the morning of June 3, 1864, Grant ordered an attack of 60,000 Union soldiers across open ground. Along a seven-mile line, Lee’s soldiers stood safely behind log and earth barriers. The Confederates stacked logs with openings at eye-level, where a soldier could stand and fire his rifle with little danger of being struck by return fire. Artillery units were primed to bombard the enemy. Most of the slaughter was over in eight minutes. Seventeen hundred men lay in windrows. Another nine thousand lay wounded on the field, expecting their commander to request a truce so they could be retrieved from the field.

In New Garden, I lend the battle a personal touch, illustrated by the plight of two brothers at dawn of the fateful day:

Perry McDougal’s thoughts drifted to Hemlock Lake. If he survived the war, he would return there and never leave. He would marry Gloria McBride and have at least ten children. He would gladly leave the war behind him and never speak of its horrors.

It was the only cool part of the day, but Perry was all perspiration. He knew the Federals’ failure to attack the previous day had given Lee too much time. Perry knew it. His brother Tom knew it. All sixty thousand men about to make the frontal assault knew it.

Perry nervously opened his cartridge box, fingering its contents. The paper encasing the ball and powder grew damp with perspiration.

Somehow Perry calmed down as his hands dried.

“Tom,” he whispered.

“Yeah, Perry,” Tom whispered back.

“If you make it, tell Pa I didn’t shirk. I didn’t waver.”

“Shut up, Perry. You’ll make it. Don’t bring us bad luck.”

And then came the horror of the rebel barrage:

The sun then appeared to flash above the horizon, but, no, that wasn’t east. Twenty-five thousand rebel muskets fired, along with over a hundred cannon.

Tom glanced left. Perry had pushed left, as if doing so might save his brother.

The glimpse was horrible. A head, a limb, then the entire mass of his brother disintegrated before him, just as the shock of the rebel explosion threw him to the ground.

Tom awoke, unable to hear anything. He crawled to his right, safe, he thought, in a swale. Minnie balls whistled around him or thudded in his comrades’ bodies, now lying in rows like fallen dominoes.

It wasn’t much, but Tom recognized it instantly. Somehow the blade of a pen knife had survived the volley. Tom could make out the engraving, “Perry A. McDougal” with “1863” beneath the name. Tom had bought the knife in Baltimore for Perry’s birthday last November. The brothers had been safe at the time, pulling artillery duty outside the city. Tom grabbed the blade, then fell back into the swale. He had seen nothing resembling his brother. Tom lay still through the day’s scorching heat, soaked in sweat, with black flies and mosquitoes waiting for him to die. At nightfall he crawled back into the safety of the Union camp.

New Garden, pp. 277-278.

“Unconditional Surrender” Grant had never suffered a defeat on the battlefield. Rather than admit one now, Grant attempted to negotiate a truce, as if the battle had been a draw. Lee would have none of it. Grant persisted, asking that Lee demonstrate humanity toward the “suffering from both sides.” Finally, on Tuesday, June 7, Grant acknowledged defeat and Union soldiers recovered their brethren under a flag of truce. Only two Union soldiers remained alive on the field. Any other survivors had crawled back into Union lines under cover of darkness. For many, the delay had sealed their doom or cost them an arm or a leg from prolonged exposure. For all of them, Grant’s pride had inflicted unnecessary misery.

As I stated earlier, Cold Harbor also illustrated Grant at his best. He was not immobilized by the horrible loss. Instead, he planned and executed the next critical step. On the same day he acknowledged the defeat, he sent General Phil Sheridan with two cavalry divisions toward Charlottesville. Lee had no choice but to order cavalry General Wade Hampton to respond in kind, taking his cavalry to intercept Sheridan. The cavalry served as Lee’s eyes, scouting the enemy’s movements. Without Hampton near Cold Harbor, Lee could no longer keep an eye on Grant. Ten miles downriver from Cold Harbor, Grant’s engineers laid a half-mile pontoon bridge across the James River. Had Lee learned about the crossing in time, he could have destroyed Grant’s army. The Union army’s deliberate withdrawal across the James allowed Grant to “steal a march” on Lee. By Monday, June 13, the Yankees were safely across the James and Grant had set up headquarters at City Point (modern day Hopewell).

Please consider a longer read. New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

Trouble at Mono Pass, the sequel to New Garden, is available on line and at the referenced Greensboro locations. In California, it is available at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (Lee Vining) gift shop, the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore (Lee Vining), and the Donner Memorial State Park Bookstore (Truckee, Californi

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Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The Associates

This is the eleventh in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about Collis P. Huntington, one of the principals in the Central Pacific Railroad, the company that built the western leg of America’s first transcontinental railroad. This week, I turn to the “entire team,” of which Huntington was only one.

They called themselves “the Associates.” In addition to Huntington, they included brothers Edwin B. and Charley Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Leland Stanford. During most of the construction period, Huntington remained in New York as the company’s Eastern Agent. E.B. Crocker, called “the Judge” because of a brief term on the California Supreme Court, served as the company’s general counsel and Western Agent. Stanford handled the western political connections and Hopkins managed the books. In contrast to the Union Pacific’s principals, who led construction of the eastern leg from Omaha to Promontory Point, the Associates worked well as a team. That’s not to say they never disagreed, as illustrated in the following passage from Trouble at Mono Pass when fictional character Richard Grier, Judge Crocker’s right-hand man, returns home from the office at the end of the day and talks with his wife Lydia about a recent acquisition:

“Another late evening, Richard?” asked Lydia as the grandfather clock in the foyer struck eleven o’clock. “You do nothing but work.”

“We put the finishing touches on a major deal today, Lydia. The Central has acquired the Western Pacific. We now have rail rights to Stockton and San Jose. I’m sorry, but I could not discuss the details with you before now.”

“Is that why you have spent so much time lately in San Francisco?”

“Yes. It was touch and go, not so much with Charlie McLaughlin, who wanted to sell the Western, but among the Associates. Stanford and Judge Crocker saw it as a golden opportunity. Hopkins and Charley Crocker thought they had enough on their plates already.”

“So, I guess Huntington cast the deciding vote?”

“Not really. He sent a telegram neither approving nor rejecting the transaction. In essence, he left it up to the others. Hopkins did not really want to go along, but he did so once the Judge convinced his brother.”

Trouble at Mono Pass, p. 69.

Richard goes on to discuss the merits of the transaction.

I also provide the reader insight about Charley Crocker, who managed construction of the railroad. He was quite a contrast to his better educated brother, E.B. In one chapter, Richard’s son Richie tells his father that he wants to quit school and go to work on the railroad. Richard obliges his son in hopes that the back-breaking labor will change his mind:

They took the five o’clock morning train to Cisco. The train steadily chugged uphill from Sacramento through the foothills, where Richie detected small patches of snow in the amber fields of Spanish oats. Once the train climbed into the Sierra Nevada, the snow could be measured in feet. As the train slowed just after four p.m. for the Cisco stop, well over a mile higher than Sacramento, Richie found himself in a world of snow and ice. Sierra winters last well into May.

 

Charley Crocker stood at the platform waiting for them. Standing a hair above six feet, he weighed well over two hundred pounds. “Good afternoon, Grier. So this is the young man who is bored with the classroom. Can’t say I blame him. I spent most of my youth doing farm labor. I worked in a saw mill and an iron forge, too. If you want to drive men to accomplish a task, it’s best to have done hard labor yourself sometime in your life. What’s your name, son?”

Trouble at Mono Pass, p. 106.

In their correspondence, Judge Crocker and Huntington often took potshots at Stanford’s work ethic. I make several references to Stanford’s work habits, including one in which Judge Crocker makes a locomotive available to main character Jack Grier after the Crawford Gang has kidnapped Richard’s daughter Ellen and the Judge’s daughter Kate:

“As far as I know, [Wessels, Crawford’s inside man] never laid eyes on us,” said Jack.

“You can’t send a whole army after him. He’d know right away. *** It would help if we can get to Truckee before Wessels.”

“That’s no problem,” Crocker replied. “We’ve got the Governor Leland Stanford sitting idle, just like its namesake. It can haul one passenger car and one horse car. You can be out of here in an hour if that suits you.”

Trouble at Mono Pass, p. 225.

These are just three brief examples. I try to use history accurately in the context of the story. I hope the reader is entertained and learns a little history along the way.

 

Please consider a longer read. New Garden, the novel in which I introduce the reader to the Grier family, is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

 

Trouble at Mono Pass, the sequel to New Garden, is available on line and at the referenced Greensboro locations. In California, it is available at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (Lee Vining) gift shop, the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore (Lee Vining), and the Donner Memorial State Park Bookstore (Truckee, California).

 

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