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!’

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More Haiku from Hawaii

Maui  sunset
“Don’t you wish it could be like this always?”

My recent Hawaii trip sent me back to the files digging through old poems.  As I mentioned yesterday, being in Hawaii puts me in a haiku state of mind.  Here are a few from previous trips to Hawaii.

More Hawaii Haiku

Sometimes don’t you wish
It could be like this always?
Mai tais at sunset!

Odor of mildew,
Shelves too full and disheveled.
Bookstore in Hilo.

Excited by blurs,
Amateur astronomers.
Cold night on Kea.

One night we visited a cousin of our friends on the Big Island. Our friend’s cousin had married a woman from Polynesia. His mother-in-law was the first to greet us, coming out of her garden. I was struck by the similarities of simple country folk, wherever they come from.

Hands full of basil,
The woman greets visitors,
So like my mother.

While we were at Hilo, a strong storm blew in from the northeast, with wonderfully big waves.  At first we watched the waves from a home safely atop a high cliff overlooking the sea.

Orion rising
To merry clinking glasses.
The night of big waves!

We drove down to a seaside park for a closer look. Then, an especially large wave came …

When you dared the wave,
It came, all right, making us
Climb trees like monkeys.

One adventure involved a very long hike through the Kilauea volcano park. It was like another world.

Lava and cinder,
Much more than I’d imagined,
Lava and cinder.

Japanese women
Warming themselves by steam vents
Of Kilauea.

Something about Hawaii and haiku

I tried to buy poems at the Haiku Marketplace, but none were for sale.
No haiku for sale here

Whenever I go to Hawaii, I fall into a haiku mood.

Not sure if it is the Japanese influences there, or if it’s all in my head, but I start thinking in short bursts.

Frankly, between the sun and the water and the tropical drinks, it’s a wonder I write anything at all. Maybe 5-7-5 is all I can muster in such taxing conditions.

Here are a few from my recent trip to Maui:

Hawaii Haiku

At Haiku Marketplace, Maui
Tried to buy poems
But they weren’t selling any.
False advertising.

Torpid Maui days
Lazy, languorous, and slow.
Kiss writing good-bye.

Give Maui credit
As for my wife, I must say,
She looks younger here.

Kapu is kaput,
The old gods are long banished.
You wonder who lurks.

So long Hawaii
Sure hate to leave your warm sun.
I have things to do.

Carver’s best poem?

Raymond Carver wrote “Hummingbird” for his wife, Tess Gallagher.

Raymond Carver wrote a lot about his difficult youth, about his battle with drink, and about fishing.

But he also wrote about love. Early on in my reading of Carver, I would skip over a lot of his poems because I detected early on the subject matter just didn’t grab me.

But I stuck with it and started finding gems. Like this one written to his second wife, the poet Tess Gallagher. I believe it was written late in his life when he knew he was dying.

Hummingbird
(for Tess)

Suppose I say summer,
write the word “hummingbird,”
put it in an envelope,
take it down the hill
to the box. When you open
my letter you will recall
those days and how much,
just how much, I love you.

I’m not sure it this is Carver’s best poem because I haven’t read them all yet. But, it’s a contender, in my book.

Wild Geese

Wild Geese:  I heard them long before I saw them.
Wild Geese: I heard them long before I saw them.

I must say … Raymond Carver is growing on me. Thanks to some literary friends, I overcame my prejudice against poets who “play with the net down” and write in free verse.

At first I was put off by Carver’s early focus on his alcoholism. But, after sticking with it, I’m warming to his honesty and humanity.

He can take a sliver of a memory and spin it into a little short story in the form of a free-verse poem. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that Carver is most well known as a short story writer.

His poems are little mini-short stories.

I’m also appreciating Carver’s blue collar roots. I’m not sure I should say he celebrates his blue collar roots. It just is, and he doesn’t shy away from it.

I’ve read that he left the Iowa State Workshop because he was having trouble fitting in with the “upper-middle-class milieu” at the school. And although his wife-at-the-time successfully lobbied for him to be given a second chance by comparing his struggles to Tennessee Williams’ difficult experience with the program 30 years earlier, Carver eventually dropped out with no degree.

I’ve known what it is like to go from blue collar roots in a small town to the jungle of an academic arena, and that’s a story for another day.

But, Carver has my empathy.

I’ve also come to appreciate how Carver can spin a little story and — BAM — just nail you with a feeling or an observation that leaves you pondering and pondering. He’s open and honest to a fault.

Whether he’s writing about getting letters from his kids asking for money, or about him committing adultery, you can be cocksure he’s telling you the truth.

I love, too, how his childhood in the American Northwest gave him insight into nature.

While I now live in the Northwest, I didn’t grow up here. I did grow up in the country in Missouri, so we have some shared experiences.

For the first few years of my life, I grew up on a farm. Here is a story of one memory from that time.

Wild Geese

I heard them long before I saw them
Like a cacophony of oncoming clown cars.
Rising up out of the valley
And breaking over the Douglas firs.
The biggest formation I’d ever seen,
A magnificent wedge of geese all headed somewhere fast.
There must have been a hundred of them
Flying so low they went by just-like-that
With two hundred wings pumping urgently in unison.
And then they were gone
With just a fading honking echo left behind.

Was it a flock like that, dear brother,
That enticed you to run out of the barn door
That evening so long ago, shotgun in hand,
Thinking you might have a chance at bagging one?

Mom and I were up at the house making cookies,
And I remember hearing eerie wails and noises
Coming from the dark outside
And laughing, thinking it must be some strange animal
Making its strange animal sounds.

But when the cries went on and on
Mom got worried and went to look.
It could have been worse, you know.
You could have blown your head off,
You big klutz.
As it was, you only tripped over the threshold
And broke your elbow, which was bad enough,
So bad you couldn’t wrangle open the barnyard gate,
And so bad it made you moan like a dying beast.

But we drove you all the way to Cameron that night
To find a doctor who could set the bone.
And you got a cast and it healed up mostly,
And though you’d live another 60 years or so,
You never would be able to straighten out that arm.

You did your best to teach me how to hunt
But I never was much for killing things,
Yet … any time I hear wild geese approaching
I still run to where I can get a clear line of sight,
If only to shoot them with my eyes.

That day we lay …

Lake of the Isles, Minneapolis
Lake of the Isles, Minneapolis

More than 40 years ago I read a poem by my friend and childhood schoolmate John Marquand that stuck with me all these years. It had something to do with love and a town in Colorado.

My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I think it started, “Remember the way we lay in Ouray ….” There was something about that repeated internal rhyme that knocked me out.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember any more of the poem. Years later I asked John about it and he couldn’t remember it either. Sadly, it may be lost forever.

That rhyme was kicking around in my brain recently and it inspired a poem about another experience in another place. It was Minneapolis, and it involved rediscovering love against all odds.

That Day We Lay Upon the Grass

That day we lay upon the grass,
A luminescent green.
The sparks that arced from arm to arm
Across the space between.

Our bodies quickened by the sun,
The willow leaves aflush,
The sunlight sparkling on the lake,
Our blood bestirred to rush.

Up and down the parkway, flowers
Enticing with their blooms,
Our loveless winter ended there,
Emerging from our tombs

For we had slept as sleepers sleep,
Unmindful of the world,
Astonishingly we awoke,
Much like a rose unfurled.

Poets on poetry

George Herbert
George Herbert (1593-1633)

By all accounts, George Herbert was a cool guy. Our knowledge is limited because he lived long ago … more than 400 years ago. He only lived to the age of 39, but that was in the days before antibiotics and indoor plumbing.

I’ve chosen to write about this poetic champion because of how he expresses his art as a means of worship.

Born into a wealthy artistic family in Wales, he enrolled in Cambridge with the intention of becoming a priest. He seems to have gotten sidetracked by politics, became a supporter of King James, and served in Parliament.

But King James died, Herbert’s secular prospects dimmed, and he became an Anglican priest in his mid-30s. He was reportedly an attentive parish priest. He cared for his parishioners, looking out for the poor and ill. He was only to live a few more years before dying of tuberculosis.

When I recently asked my Anglican son for suggestions he suggested Herbert. Coincidentally, I already had him on my list. His poem The Quiddity has been one of my favorites for some time.

Quiddity is a Latin word for “the essence,” or “what the thing really is.” The poem is a poet writing about poetry. It starts out with a litany of things that a poem is isn’t.

But, at the end of the poem, Herbert gets to the point about what a poem really is. And for him, poetry is the thing that brings him close to God.

The Quiddity
by George Herbert

My God, a verse is not a crown,
No point of honour, or gay suit,
No hawk, or banquet, or renown,
Nor a good sword, nor yet a lute.

It cannot vault, or dance, or play ;
It never was in France or Spain ;
Nor can it entertain the day
With a great stable or domain.

It is no office, art, or news ;
Nor the Exchange, or busy Hall :
But it is that which, while I use,
I am with Thee : and Most take all.