Father, when you spoke
I believed you, for you spoke
NOTES: In many ways, my dad was a simple man. Farmer. Mechanic. Forced to drop out of high school to work during the Great Depression, he never had the opportunity go back to school to pick up his education again.
He never travelled to Europe or learned a foreign language. He never made a lot of money, or tasted the luxuries of life.
But he knew what he thought and what he believed. And when he talked about his beliefs, his strength of conviction came through his voice.
Often he was expressing his belief in the products of the Ford Motor Company. He was a confirmed Ford man. He claimed he had seen the insides of enough cars and tractors to know how each one held up, and which ones were made out of cheap materials.
He would just utter a phrase like, “The Ford Model T …” and let it hang there and resonate in the air. He said it with such reverence that those who heard it just knew that the Ford Model T had not only been a great automobile, but a miraculous product of a genius.
He could inspire similar feelings of reverence with exclamations like, “President Abraham Lincoln,” or “Old Thomas Edison.” You just knew these were great men.
We didn’t have pastors or full-time clergy in our tiny little Church of Christ congregation. The leadership was handled by laymen like himself. When he would stand up on Sunday mornings to “wait on the communion table,” he would recite the words by heart from the King James Version of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
“That the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed took bread, And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take it, eat: this is my body which is broken for you. This do in remembrance of me.”
Hearing him say it, you had no doubt that this was just the way it had happened.
Perhaps the most convincing and poignant expression of his conviction came many years later, as his wife lay in a nursing home, long lost to dementia. “Your mother,” he said, “was the best. I never met another women like your mother. Never.”
Through accidents of timing and draft lotteries, the last person in my direct line to fight in a war was my paternal great grandfather, Frederick Nathaniel Ball.
His last battle happened to be memorialized in a famous poem. I’ll tell you more about that in a moment.
Frederick was a Yankee. He was just a young man from Connecticut, who found himself serving in Colonel Phillip Sheridan’s Union Army during some of the most decisive action of the Civil War.
Sheridan’s orders were to take Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in order to stop the Confederates from using it as a base for attacks into the North. He was further ordered to render it useless as a source of provision for the Southern army.
This meant commandeering livestock, destroying railroads, burning barns, mills, and crops. Sheridan executed his orders so thoroughly the campaign was called “The Burning” by Southerners.
The scorched earth tactics used by Sheridan foreshadowed the more extensive March to the Sea through Georgia by Gen. William T. Sherman.
The turning point in the Shenandoah Campaign came at the battle of Cedar Creek on Oct. 19, 1864.
The battle started out as a complete rout by the Southern troops. The Yankees had been surprised at dawn by Jubal Early’s Confederate veterans.
Sheridan was returning from Washington and had spent the night in Winchester, several miles away from the front. When his troops were attacked, he heard the artillery, and raced on his horse to get to the fight.
Legend has it that Sheridan arrived just in time to rally his soldiers and turn the tide. This legend was amplified in a heroic poem by Thomas Buchanan Read called “Sheridan’s Ride.” The poem helped made Sheridan a hero in the North, and is even said to have helped Lincoln win re-election.
My great grandfather was right in the thick of this battle, and his experience has served as both a point of pride — and a cautionary tale — in my family down through the decades.
As the story has been handed down, Frederick was shot through his side. He stuffed a rag in the bullet hole to staunch the bleeding and managed to crawl back to safety. In this time before antibiotics, the odds of surviving a serious war wound was not great.
Frederick was one of the lucky ones.
In a few months the war would be over. He would head west to seek better prospects and cheaper farmland in Iowa. He married, raised a big family, which included my grandfather. Eventually the tribe drifted down into Missouri.
I can still remember my parents taking the book “One Hundred and One Famous Poems” down from the shelf and reading classics by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Whitcomb Riley, and Eugene Field.
And whenever we came to Thomas Buchanan Read’s poem, my father would repeat the story about our ancestor who was on the scene, and who survived. As he said, “if that Rebel soldier had been an better shot, none of us would be here.”
My taste in poetry has changed a bit since those days when I sat enthralled listening my father read Thomas Buchanan Read’s poem. But it’s a good example of a panegyric ode and it tells a rip-roaring good tale.
Here, for your edification, is the complete text of “Sheridan’s Ride.” They just don’t write poems like this anymore!
Sheridan’s Ride by Thomas Buchanan Read
Up from the South, at break of day,
Bringing to Winchester fresh dismay,
The affrighted air with a shudder bore,
Like a herald in haste to the chieftain’s door,
The terrible grumble, and rumble, and roar,
Telling the battle was on once more,
And Sheridan twenty miles away.
And wider still those billows of war
Thundered along the horizon’s bar;
And louder yet into Winchester rolled
The roar of that red sea uncontrolled,
Making the blood of the listener cold,
As he thought of the stake in that fiery fray,
With Sheridan twenty miles away.
But there is a road from Winchester town,
A good, broad highway leading down:
And there, through the flush of the morning light,
A steed as black as the steeds of night
Was seen to pass, as with eagle flight;
As if he knew the terrible need,
He stretched away with his utmost speed.
Hills rose and fell, but his heart was gay,
With Sheridan fifteen miles away.
Still sprang from those swift hoofs, thundering south,
The dust like smoke from the cannon’s mouth,
Or the trail of a comet, sweeping faster and faster,
Foreboding to traitors the doom of disaster.
The heart of the steed and the heart of the master
Were beating like prisoners assaulting their walls,
Impatient to be where the battle-field calls;
Every nerve of the charger was strained to full play,
With Sheridan only ten miles away.
Under his spurning feet, the road
Like an arrowy Alpine river flowed,
And the landscape sped away behind
Like an ocean flying before the wind;
And the steed, like a barque fed with furnace ire,
Swept on, with his wild eye full of fire;
But, lo! he is nearing his heart’s desire;
He is snuffing the smoke of the roaring fray,
With Sheridan only five miles away.
The first that the general saw were the groups
Of stragglers, and then the retreating troops;
What was to be done? what to do?-a glance told him both.
Then striking his spurs with a terrible oath,
He dashed down the line, ‘mid a storm of huzzas,
And the wave of retreat checked its course there, because
The sight of the master compelled it to pause.
With foam and with dust the black charger was gray;
By the flash of his eye, and his red nostril’s play,
He seemed to the whole great army to say:
‘I have brought you Sheridan all the way
From Winchester down to save the day.’
Hurrah! hurrah for Sheridan!
Hurrah! hurrah for horse and man!
And when their statues are placed on high
Under the dome of the Union sky,
The American soldier’s Temple of Fame,
There, with the glorious general’s name,
Be it said, in letters both bold and bright:
‘Here is the steed that saved the day
By carrying Sheridan into the fight,
From Winchester-twenty miles away!’
I owe some of my enthusiasm for poetry to my 11th grade English teacher back at Marshall High School in Marshall, Missouri–Paul Hagedorn.
He devoted an inordinate amount of time that year to the study of poetry. Our major assignment for the whole year, as I recall, was two-fold. We were to create a poetry notebook in which we copied — and illustrated, if we desired — a good number of poems that spoke to our hearts.
He encouraged us to venture beyond the usual suspects. So, along with poems by Frost and Edward Arlington Robinson, I included lyrics by Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. Then, we were to pick one American poet from a prescribed list of lesser known poets, and write a lengthy term paper on our choice. (I choose John Crowe Ransom because I thought his name was cool. Incidentally, I’m was happy with my choice.)
Mr. Hagedorn passionately believed that Walt Whitman was the greatest poet that had ever lived and he did his best to infect his impressionable students with this enthusiasm. I dutifully bought a paperback copy of “Leaves of Grass,” and read the whole thing.
I failed to completely fall in love with Whitman. Some passages were interesting and hypnotic. I recognized some of the cadence of the King James Bible, which I was raised on. He clearly was making an ambitious attempt to encompass the breadth and depth of all of America in his work. I appreciated that he was attempting to do something had not been done before in American poetry. But I never could figure out why my teacher was such a Whitman nut.
One poem that did thrill me, however, was “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” I understood it was an elegy to President Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated on April 14, 1864, just days after the end of the Civil War.
Lilacs were my mother’s favorite flower, and she had passed along that enthusiasm to me. So I was predisposed to be open to any poem about lilacs.
One other factor, just a few years earlier, America had celebrated the Centennial of the Civil War. I can remember fighting the Civil War during recess in grade school. Back in my hometown in the heart of “Little Dixie,” there were plenty of kids who had inherited Confederate sympathies from their families.
As the great-grandson of a Yankee soldier, I was clearly a Northern sympathizer. So, one year, I recall us dividing up and re-fighting great battles out on the playground.
Lincoln was a revered figure in my family. So, that made an elegy to him even more interesting.
As I re-read Whitman’s poem today, decades later, it feels a bit overdone. I had forgotten it was so long.
Just my opinion, but Old Walt could have used a good editor.
But here are those lines that are pure genius, and so beautiful that you think Whitman found them fully formed somewhere:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
It’s been a tough year for lilacs here in the Northwest. We had such a warm and early spring that many lilac bushes were tricked into blooming too early. Our premature spring was interrupted by some cold clear nights that nipped many lilacs in the bud.
Pity, because there is nothing quite like the heart-shaped leaf and the perfume of the lilac.