Ancestor haiku

Charlie Barlow and his team

Generations tilled
to eke out a meager life. Now I
scribble in comfort.


Notes:  I have to go all the way back to England in the 1600s to find an ancestor who had a desk job.  To the best of our family research, my great-great-great (etc.) grandfather was a clergyman back in the old country, who had the poor judgment to raise the ire of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In those days it didn’t take much to get your head separated from the rest of you.  Heretics and troublesome free thinkers could easily meet the same fate.

My forebear wised up in the nick of time and caught one of next boats after the Mayflower to the New World.  We are not sure if he stayed in the preaching business in his new surroundings in the Connecticut Colony, but as far as we can tell, all of those who followed him were dirt farmers.  (Which probably seemed like a safer line of work back then.)

Several generations later, after my great grandfather Frederick Ball narrowly survived the Civil War, he came back  home to find Connecticut getting crowded.  So, he headed west for the promise of cheap land and opportunity.  He wound up in southern Iowa, got married, acquired some land, and raised a family.

One of his sons was my grandfather, and he, too became a farmer, moving to Missouri to chase opportunity.  When my father came along, he showed considerable mechanical aptitude and had hopes of going to school to study engineering.  But the Great Depression dashed those dreams.  Dad had to drop out of school before he finished high school.  To  help support the family he became a farmer.

And  who knows, except for a twist  of fate or two, I might have followed right along and farmed myself.

But  my father had a bit of a mid-life crisis in his 40s.  When I was in first grade, he sold the farm and went in with his brother-in-law and a neighbor to buy a Ford Tractor dealership.  It was his one big entrepreneurial gamble in life.  And for a few years, it looked like it might pay off.

But some lean times for farm prices and some skullduggery by the neighbor-turned-business-partner, and the operation went broke.  They had to sell out cheap, and Dad was forced to fall back on his mechanical skills to make a living.

What this meant for me was that I spent most of my formative years in the town rather than on the farm.  So, while there were centuries of agrarian instincts bred into me, it didn’t take me long to adapt to indoor plumbing, central heating, and really close next-door neighbors.

And I certainly didn’t miss getting up early to gather eggs, milk the cow, or slop the pigs.

Oh sure, I still hoed beans, bucked bales, and detasseled corn as a hired hand in the summer.  But that was a job — not a way of life.

Even if my father had never left the farm, odds are I would have eventually left anyway.  That was the demographic trend during the whole last half of the last century.  The kids went away to school or to a big city for work, and tended never to move back.

It’s been hard on the farming communities.  And I know it was hard on the old folks left behind as their kids fanned out across the country.

When I stop to think about how much different my life has been from the generations before I marvel.  I have no explanation for why my entire adult career has been all inside work with no heavy lifting.

My father’s body bore the marks of a hard life in harder times.  He was kicked in the head by an ornery horse, and had headaches for the rest of his life.  His leg was caught between a hay wagon and a wall, and he walked with a limp.  He even had a few scars from surviving what he believed to be a mild case of small pox.

If the American Dream involves working hard and ensuring your children have a better life, then my parents and their generation certainly did their part.

Haiku for Memorial Day

My great grandfather the Civil War veteran.
Yankee ancestor,
Had Reb been a better shot
I wouldn’t be here.


I’ll pull out an old poem in honor of my last direct ancestor to be wounded fighting to defend our freedom.

In my case, we must go back a bit.  All the way to the Civil War.  My great grandfather, Frederick N. Ball, was serving in General Sheridan’s Army in the campaign to take the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.  When the Battle of Cedar Creek broke out, Sheridan was several miles away in Winchester.

As Sheridan was riding furiously back to rally his troops to victory, my ancestor was crawling back to safety after having been shot through the side early in the campaign.

The family story relates that he stuffed a rag in the hole in his side and made it to safety.

Thankfully, he survived.  Otherwise, this blog would be sadly empty today.

My war hero … and a classic poem

Frederick Nathaniel Ball
My great grandfather was wounded at the Battle Cedar Creek. If he had not survived, I wouldn’t be here.

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.

Colonel Phillip Sheridan arrives to save the day at the Battle of Cedar Creek
Colonel Phillip Sheridan arrives to save the day at the Battle of Cedar Creek

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!’

Lilac time

Lilacs
“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d”

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.