Playing Trucks, Undermining Foundations

Uncle Dillon had bought my brother Dale and me a set of toy tractor-trailer trucks and an assortment of accessories. Each of us had his own tractor, one red and one blue, I think. The set included a variety of kinds of trailers: a flatbed, a box trailer, a cattle trailer, and a car carrier. And then there was an assortment of highway signs.

Dale and I decided that the best place to play with these wonderful toys on hot summer days was in our cool basement. The basement was still unfinished, and its floor was just hard, leveled dirt. In the center of the basement were two 5 x 5-inch support posts sitting atop concrete piers about 6-8 inches deep. They held up the center beam of the house.

We already had a Tonka or Buddy L road grader, so we graded roads all over that basement. And we ran our tractor-trailer loads of imaginary consumer goods and livestock all over our basement roadway network.

At some point, I decided to start an excavation company to expand the economy of our basement world. The site I selected was right beside the first of the support posts, the one that was in the dead center of the house. I dug our dirt, loaded it onto an empty plastic dish on the deck of our flatbed trailer, and hauled it elsewhere in Basementville. I kept up my work faithfully every time we played there, which was practically every day.

One day, Daddy came down into this tiny world on some errand, and he immediately noticed my pit, where I had dug all the way down to the bottom of the pier and all the way around it. Suddenly we noticed that Daddy had added a Cape Canaveral (it wasn’t yet called Cape Kennedy) to our little world because he lifted off the ground. Was he ever angry!

Daddy caught up with me somewhere outside, where I was roaming the fields and woods, and he carried me quickly down to Basementville, but he wasn’t wanting to play trucks. He sat me down in front of my excavation site and gave me a very graphic lesson in what would happen to our house if I continued to dig away at the foundation post. I got the lesson with all of my senses: I saw what he meant, I heard what he said, and I certainly felt the intensity of his conviction!

The Bible asks, “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psa. 11:3). As a child, I learned an important lesson about how a little chipping away at foundations, a little erosion of values, and a little undermining of standards can go a long way toward producing massive failure. Just as I had threatened the very structural integrity of our home by my digging around the basement foundation post, even so our nation has eroded its Judeo-Christian values, and it will ultimately (short of a spiritual revival) lead to God’s judgment, just as my digging around the footer led to my punishment. I learned my lesson in that instance. The bigger question is whether the United States of America will learn God’s lesson before it’s too late.

Not long after the episode I’ve described, Daddy found the time and money to pour concrete in the basement. . . . Supporting the upper floors then were not wooden beams but strong, adjustable metal posts. His “urban renewal”program spelled the end of Basementville. It wasn’t merely a ghost town; it ceased to exist altogether. But the lesson has stayed with me ever since.

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

(Excerpted from Look Unto the Hills: Stories of Growing Up in Rural East Tennessee. Available from http://www.amazon.com.)

 

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Mile Markers

We’ve all passed them on the interstate. They’re ubiquitous. We can’t miss them, but we seldom notice them. We note them only when we’re in trouble and might need to refer to one to direct help to our location. We’re just too involved in our journey to notice them more than then.

I’m referring to those narrow, vertical green signs along the shoulder called mile markers.

Today, this post is sort of a mile marker for me. It’s not much of a mile marker to many bloggers who have been at this longer than I have. Maybe I’m just a late bloomer.

Be that as it may and for what it’s worth, this marks my 200th blog post since I began this blog on September 4, 2015. Much like what happens when I’m driving, I happened to glance to the shoulder during my writing journey and noticed this mile marker. It flashes past and becomes history as soon as I hit the “publish” button. Then the journey goes on as though the marker never existed. But for a brief moment, it made me reflect.

Why Did I Begin Blogging?

I had read and heard the “experts” say that every author must have a blog to gain “credibility,” to build and expand a “platform,” and to “brand” himself or herself. (Hmm. Doesn’t branding involve getting burned?!) I had only days earlier signed my first book contract with McFarland for Governing the Confederacy. (Only they changed my title to Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, which I thought was too long and ponderous and uninteresting for an effective title. But they were the “experts,” so that’s how it hit the market.)

I’ve never been much of a salesman, especially when it involves promoting myself, so even the baby step of starting a blog stretched me well beyond my comfort zone. I’m still uncomfortable doing so.

Has My Blog Achieved Its Purposes, Accomplished Its Goals?

I don’t know, but probably not if measured by the standards of those who presume to know. And judging from the successful blogs I read, I’d have to agree. I’ve gotten a few “likes” and fewer comments, and I have a couple of faithful followers. (They’re usually the ones who comment.) I have no idea whether it has led directly or indirectly to any book sales.

Judging by the number of readers, most “experts” would say that my blog is a failure. Agents, editors, and publishers want to see a lot of followers and shares. They judge the size of an author’s market by those magic numbers. Without them, they won’t consider the author’s works, no matter how well written or timely. Or, if they do, they won’t devote a lot of time or money marketing them.

The Positive Benefits

But my blog has accomplished a couple of things. First, it has forced me to write regularly, according to a self-imposed schedule. That is a big part of my journey. I determined (based on what the “experts” said) to post something twice a week, every Tuesday and Friday. Those self-imposed deadlines, the mile markers along the writing roadway, forced me to come up with things to write about. I don’t know if readers have found my subjects to be interesting, but those subjects interested me–at least at the time I wrote about them.

Most of my topics have related to historical events or historic characters. Sometimes they were about writing, editing, or publishing. Sometimes about educational issues. In a few instances, I’ve even forced myself to post something about my articles or books. And I’ve learned, unsurprisingly, that it’s much easier and more natural to write about those other topics than about myself or my writing products.

Second, writing a twice-weekly blog has forced me to plan. I can’t wait until the last minute and then just throw something together. Oh, I’ve posted a few things serendipitously, such as quotations that struck me during my reading or when something unexpected happened or came to my attention. When “the muse” spoke to me most clearly, however, was when I had a planned schedule, a prepared list of topics, each tied to a specific date that just happened to coincide with a Tuesday or a Friday. These were the items on the itinerary of my journey. Once posted, each became another mile marker passed, little noticed and insignificant.

The “experts” would probably say that I’m being too transparent here. But I’m just telling it like it is.

Mile marker 200 is now behind me. MM201 is approaching. I don’t know how many more such mile markers I have to pass during my journey. No one but God knows when or where one’s journey will end at one’s final destination. I only know that I must keep “driving” on my journey. I must write. I don’t know how many people are following me; I know that a lot of people are ahead of me, and a lot of people are passing me, progressing faster in their writing careers. But I just know that I must write regardless of numbers. That’s my calling. I’ll leave the numbers, the results–the “likes,” the “shares,” the “followers,” the sales–with God. After all, He is the only Judge of true success.

In yesterday’s sermon, our pastor hit the nail on the head and offered this food for thought: If glory goes to you, it’s not going to God.

Soli gloria Deo!

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

 

Lessons Learned: Writing

For the last 36 years (since my first article was published in 1981), I have been learning the art and craft of writing and the “tricks of the trade” of publishing. To paraphrase a certain insurance company, I’ve learned a lot (much of it the hard way) because I’ve seen and experienced a lot. And I’m still learning. Perhaps you can relate to some of the things I’ve learned. Here are a few of them but by no means all of them.

  1. Study the markets before you submit. When the first article I ever submitted was accepted and published and I got that check in the mail, I was hooked. I began cranking out article manuscripts right and left and submitting them so often that the postal clerks and I were almost best buds. But then reality struck: I began finding more rejections than junk mail in my mailbox. That’s when I realized that something was wrong. I wasn’t studying the markets and tailoring my submissions accordingly. When I began to do so, the acceptances became to creep in. Even some articles that had earlier been rejected found a home and were published.
  2. Rejection is not personal (usually). Publications have needs and guidelines, and those needs change over time. Sometimes the changes are seasonal. Sometimes they are topical. And sometimes they are philosophical. When the rejection reads, “Doesn’t meet our needs at this time,” we should take it at face value. In a few instances, however, maybe you and the editor just don’t hit it off. Or your writing isn’t quite up to the bar that publication has set. But those instances should be rare. Even if the rejection IS personal, move on. There are other publications and editors out there who want and need what you write. Forget the bad experience and create good ones elsewhere.
  3. Editors change. This point goes along with the previous item. Editors tend to move around a lot. If you have a good working relationship with an editor, work to stay on good terms with him or her. But realize that one day–sometimes sooner, sometimes later–that editor will move on. Be ready for the new editor and brace yourself for rejection–then move on. I once worked with the same editor at the same publication for nearly 25 years. He published almost everything I submitted. But he eventually retired. His replacement rejected everything I submitted. My writing hadn’t changed. The editor did. I submitted my work elsewhere, telling myself that he and the publication’s readers, not I, were the losers.
  4. Not everyone will rejoice at your successes. People are funny. One day, someone will cheer you in your writing efforts, but as soon as your work is published, he or she suddenly becomes sullen and silent or begins to find fault with your writing. I think it’s the result of a big lump of envy and a dash of jealousy that prompts the change. If you’re excited about your writing success, I hope others will be, too. But don’t count on it.
  5. Be faithful to your calling. If God has called you to write, realize that He does not use the same measuring stick for success that people use. He rewards faithfulness in performance, not outward results. This truth is hard to swallow when you’re getting rejection slips, but faithful persistence promises and pays an ultimate reward. Keep at it. All in God’s time and in His medium of exchange, you’ll see success.

What have you learned from your writing experiences? Care to share them? I look forward to reading them.

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

Memories, Memories

It’s happening with greater frequency nowadays. At least it seems to me to be more frequent.

I’m downstairs and need something (say the stapler) that is upstairs. I fly to the stairs and climb them as fast as my arthritic knees will allow. I reach the landing, step a few feet to the right, and enter my office. And then I stand there wondering what it was that I came up to get.

Failing to dredge that fact from my memory, I turn and trudge back down the steps. About three steps from the bottom, I suddenly remember. I turn in mid-step and retrace my steps back to the office. As I pass through the door, I spy a book that I had meant to reshelf yesterday when I finished looking up a bit of information but, sidetracked by something else, had placed on my wife’s school supplies cabinet. I grab the book and return it to its proper spot on the bookcase shelf. Then I walk over to my oak roll-top desk, shuffle a few papers, and stare into space wondering why I came upstairs.

Again failing to recall the purpose of my ascent, I begin the trek back down. Entering the kitchen, I again remember, and I make a third trip up the stairs, muttering under my breath, “Stapler! Stapler!” I repeat the word over and over until I put my hands on the stapler sitting on my desk. I then take it back downstairs and staple whatever it is that needs stapling.

That happens several times a day, it seems. It happens so often that it has long since ceased to be the topic of humorous, self-deprecating conversation.

Memory–or the lack of it–can mess with one’s mind, especially if he or she is a writer. Even moreso if one writes memoir or history.

Two or more people can experience or witness the same event, and yet each will have a slightly (or maybe even a vastly) different memory of it.

I first became aware of this phenomenon when my nieces and nephews came to visit us and asked, “Uncle Dennis, Dad told us that when you two were kids such and such happened. Is that really the way it was?”

Then I felt obliged to set them straight on what really had happened in the anecdote my brother had told them. Somehow, in his accounts, he was always the innocent victim, and I was the guilty party. In my account, it was the reverse; he was the instigator, and I was the gullible victim. Each of us remembered the same incident in dramatically different ways. And each of us is adamant that our rendition is the true and only reliable account.

The truth is that each of us tends to remember only certain details in a decidedly individualized way. We don’t remember some details at all. And we often misremember the details we do retain. That’s why it’s so important that we writers, especially those of us who are attempting to write memoir or history, study multiple perspectives before we write. Even then, we must recognize the fact that our flawed and failing memories and our biases or prejudices can mislead or deceive us as to the truth of our subjects.

Too often, historians (especially those whose writings are motivated or driven by a political or philosophical agenda) present a complex event or issue in an oversimplified way that ignores certain facts that do not fit into their scheme and present their myopic view as the only right view.

Take, for example, the issue of slavery in America. Too often, that issue is simplistically presented as a uniquely Southern institution for whom only Southerners bear blame and responsibility. In reality, it was a national issue. Had it not been for Northern shipbuilders, shipowners, and ship captains and Northern textile manufacturers who profited from the transportation and sale of slaves and used the cotton produced in the South as raw material for their goods, there would have been no demand for cotton and therefore no demand for slaves in the South. Besides, in the colonial period, there were slaves in every American colony, including those in the North. And not only black slaves but also Native American slaves. And little Rhode Island was a big supplier of slaves for the trade. The same problem is evident in the recounting of the treatment of slaves. Many slave owners and overseers were indeed Simon Legrees, but many others were not.

Too many historians also present slavery as the only cause of the war that soon engulfed the nation. They conveniently forget–or ignore–the many other issues that contributed to the eruption: the tariff, state sovereignty, the debate over federally financed internal improvements, regional disparity in representation in Congress, etc. In reality, there was no one cause of the war but many. To present it otherwise is sloppy history at best and intentional deceit at worst.

In memoir writing, memory can put one in a nostalgic mood and win the plaudits of relatives, or it can cause life-long rifts between family members who remember events differently than the writer presents them. The key is to present memories as clearly as one’s mind will allow but to do so as kindly as possible. As John Leax wrote in his book Grace Is Where I Live, “I take the stories of my people, I give them shape, and hand them down. What I pass on is truth made new–half-truth spun through kind invention.”

Now let’s see. I had one other point I wanted to make about this topic, but I can’t seem to remember what it was. Oh, well. Maybe I’ll have remembered it by the time I sit down to write my next blog post–or not.

 

In Memorium: Thomas J. Jackson

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the tragic death of one who can truly be called a “Christian soldier.”

In the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Confederacy had not only one of its greatest victories but also one of its greatest losses. Although the Southern armies won the battle, they lost one of their greatest generals through the wounding, and ultimately the death, of Thomas J. Jackson.

Many of Jackson’s contemporaries considered him to be a rare bird, an eccentric, a fanatic. Many of them complained about his various personal quirks, but much of their dissatisfaction with him actually lay in their dislike of his strict adherence to his religious convictions. Some of them even blamed some of the South’s military reverses on Jackson’s reluctance to wage war on Sunday, or “the Lord’s Day,” as Jackson called it. At least one of them (Richard Ewell), however, later accepted Jackson’s Christ as his own, and his formerly foul and obscene life immediately changed for the better. (The story of Ewell’s conversion and the influence of Jackson’s life is portrayed in the movie Red Runs the River by Unusual Films.)

Jackson expert James I. Robertson called Jackson “a man of arms surrounded by tenets of faith” (Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend, p. ix). It was the courage that Jackson’s faith produced on the battlefield at Manassas (Bull Run) that produced his nickname “Stonewall.” Jackson said that he felt as safe on the battlefield as at home in his bed because he trusted in God to protect him until his time came.

But Jackson’s faith was not something that appeared just on the battlefield or on the Lord’s Day; it was part of his everyday life. As a young instructor at Virginia Military Institute, Jackson confided to his sister, “I have so fixed the habit [of prayer] in my own mind that I never raise a glass of water to my lips without a moment’s asking of God’s blessing. I never seal a letter without putting a word of prayer under the seal. I never take a letter from the post without a brief sending of my thoughts heavenward. I never change my classes . . . without a minute’s petition on the cadets who go out and those who come in.”

Jackson became a Christian in 1849 when he was a major in the U.S. Army. And from the very beginning, he took his religion seriously, and he grew in his faith. Whenever he discovered something in his life that Scripture condemned, he sought to rid himself of it. Whenever he saw something that Scripture required but that was lacking in his life, he strove to add it. Shortly after Jackson’s conversion, the pastor of the Presbyterian church he joined in Lexington, Virginia, called upon him to lead in public prayer. Shy and ill at ease when speaking in public, Jackson stammered and stumbled through his impromptu prayer. After the service, he apologized to the pastor but said that if public prayer was his duty as a believer, he would work to improve his praying. “Call on me whenever you think proper,” he said. “My personal comfort is not to be consulted in the matter.”

That attitude of doing one’s duty regardless of personal cost was a trait that Jackson exhibited in not only public worship but also combat. “Duty is ours; consequences are God’s,” he declared. This was just one of many maxims that Jackson collected and sought to apply to his own life. Here are a few other examples of his maxims:

  • “Never try to appear more wise or learned than the rest of the company.”
  • “Endeavor to do well everything which you undertake.”
  • “Sacrifice your life rather than your word.”
  • “Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
  • “Lose no time; be always employed in something useful.”

Jackson was a stern disciplinarian. He did his duty, and he expected his men to do theirs. And they responded with alacrity to his demands upon them. He was a master of surprise and envelopment, and his First Brigade became known as his “foot cavalry” because they made so many rapid, forced marches, catching the enemy by surprise and often producing resounding victories for the Southerners. And his men loved him as troops did no other general other than Lee.

But Jackson was concerned with more than military victory. He was concerned about the spiritual condition of people, including both blacks and the men under his command. Even before the war, he sought the spiritual welfare of slaves as he taught the Bible to them in a Sunday school class for them that he started in his church. Some people laughed at him; others opposed him. Jackson was actually “on the perimeter of the law” of the times, which prohibited teaching of blacks. But he knew their spiritual need, and he taught them the Bible anyway.

During the war, Jackson encouraged his soldiers to attend worship services conducted by chaplains of various denominations. He continually sought more chaplains and did everything he could to support their ministrations among his men. He encouraged attendance at revival meetings. Yet, he forced nothing religious on them. His most severe requirements of religious conviction were those he placed on and expected of himself. He led in religion by example, and many an officer entered Jackson’s tent to find their general on his knees in prayer.

Yes, all that Jackson was seemed fanatical and extreme to his contemporaries, just as it does to his critics today. But his life holds forth important lessons for us.

Jackson was accidentally shot in the darkness by his own men in the waning minutes of the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville. When Lee learned of Jackson’s being wounded, he exclaimed, “He has lost his left arm but I my right arm.” Jackson’s wounds did not kill him; the pneumonia that set in did. His last words were, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

Jackson crossed over his final river at 3:15 p.m., Sunday, May 10, 1863, and rested in the arms of Jesus Christ. But he left a legacy and many life lessons for those who are wise enough to learn them.

[For more information on Jackson’s religious views and practices, see David T. Myers, Stonewall Jackson: The Spiritual Side, Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 2003.]

Playin’ Indians

Throughout much of my childhood, our family had no television. Although we apparently had been one of the first homes in the community to get a TV, a little disagreement between my brother and me over which of the two local channels we would watch resulted in one of us angrily turning the set off and on repeatedly until the tube blew. Daddy put the set into the attic and refused to get it fixed because of the animosity it had created between us boys. When I was nearly ready for college, he gave the set to my grandfather.

But during the short time we did have a TV, we watched a lot of “cowboys-and-Indians” programs. And, as kids are wont to do, after watching some of them, we ran outside and reenacted much of what we had seen, using our vivid imaginations in our play. Because our Uncle Dillon had given us cowboy outfits, complete with holsters and guns, that part of our costume department was pretty well stocked, but we were a bit lacking in the necessities for the Indian portion of our play. But that didn’t stop my brother from using available materials to create the proper attire and atmosphere to make our play realistic. As the younger, impressionable–and gullible–brother, I followed his lead.

One day, while playing Indians, my brother got a brilliant idea. He ran inside and soon returned with four of Daddy’s large work hankies.

“Take off your pants,” he ordered. I stood with my mouth open, but he was already stripping to his underwear. “And take off your shirt and underwear.”

In my innocence and trusting my all-wise older brother, I did as instructed.

“Now get your belt from your pants.” I did just as he was doing.

“Put your belt on.” He put his belt around his naked waist and cinched it tight. I imitated his every move. There we both stood, buck naked except for a thin belt around our waist.

“Now tuck these hankies into your belt–one in the front and the other in the back.” He demonstrated. I followed his example. And we were dressed like real Indians, complete with loin cloths. Near-naked savages.

“Something’s missing, though,” my brother lamented. He couldn’t stand for anything to be incomplete. For him, play was not real play unless you had everything just right. He didn’t want to leave anything to the imagination. That’s generally how it is when you’re buck naked–nothing left to the imagination.

“Indians wear war paint,” he mused aloud. “What can we use for paint?”

I didn’t like the sound of that, but I stood by dumbly, waiting for him to come up with an answer. He always did. I could pretend that we were covered with war paint and have a grand time playing, but not him. He had to have the real thing. He thought for a long time about our dilemma. He looked through the garage. (Looking back now, I’m surprised that he didn’t use Daddy’s house paint.) He looked through the chicken house. (I’m really glad he didn’t try to make war paint out of chicken manure!)

He went back outside and stood thinking. I waited patiently for the answer that he soon would arrive at and dug my bare toes into the sand where we played with our trucks and road graders and where we called doodlebugs from their under-sand burrows.

Suddenly, my brother’s eyes lit up. “I’ve got it!” he cried. “Come on!”

Like an innocent lamb, I meekly followed him to the nearby fence row. He reached up and pulled a handful of plump, dark polk berries from the stalk that rose through the barbed-wire strands. He took one berry between his thumb and index finger and squeezed it. Out came a deep, reddish-purple liquid.

“Here.” He handed me some of the berries he’d picked. “Now, squeeze them and put the juice on your chest. See? It’s just like war paint!”

We both applied copious amounts of the liquid all over our bodies. We painted designs on each other. On our chests, on our arms, on our backs, on our faces.

“Now we look like Indians!” my brother declared.

Or like something.

We played Indians for what seemed like hours and had a wonderful time. There we were in all of our natural glory, running and jumping and whooping like savages–for all the neighbors and passing strangers to see. Just the two of us, our nakedness covered–or not–by those loin hankies and polk berry war paint.

My memory is blank about what Mother did when she finally saw us. She was probably mortified. I’m sure, though, that whatever she did wasn’t pretty, and it surely must have hurt us more than it did her.

The Bible warns us against following a multitude in doing evil. I would have been better off learning not to be led astray by one bad example! I shudder to think what would have happened if he had encouraged me to eat those poisonous polkberries! Wait, maybe he did do something similar with grapes that our dad had just sprayed with insecticide, but that’s another story.

Lessons from Doing Genealogical Research

I’m told that March 11 was Genealogy Day. (Yes, I know that I’m a little late in getting this date mentioned, but. . . . Better late than never!)

“Doing genealogy” can occur at several different levels, from hobbyist to obsessive compulsive. Over the years, I’ve done my genealogical research in fits and starts, so I guess that I’m more on the hobbyist end of the continuum, although some people think I slide somewhat nearer the other end. It’s all a matter of perspective–and how much time and money you have to devote to the pursuit.

My initial motivation was the result of a sudden realization that I didn’t know much about my ancestors beyond my grandparents and that the people who could best inform me were quickly passing from the scene. If I was to get the facts (more so, the human stories behind the facts) I needed, I had to act quickly. So, in the little time and few opportunities I had, I began interviewing those people.

That’s when I discovered that not all of the interviewees agreed on many essential details. My paternal grandparents argued with each other over many of those details, and, not wanting to cause a rift in an otherwise exemplary marriage, I changed the subject. They sometimes referred to the same people but by different names or nicknames, so I often got confused. And sometimes they got sidetracked telling interesting stories about some of the people while forgetting about the genealogical details that were my main objective. But the stories were so good, and my grandparents obviously had so much joy and fun telling them, that I dared not interrupt to press for mere data.

And mentioning getting sidetracked, the same thing happened to me while I was doing research on the maternal side of my family. I became so interested in tracing the steps of my uncle (Mother’s brother) through Europe during World War II that his story just about hijacked my entire time. (After all, history, especially the history of that war, is “my thing.”) But it just illustrates how easily sidetracked one can get while researching genealogy.

The benefits of doing such research, however, are great–even if (maybe especially if) one gets sidetracked while pursuing it.

The Bible says that genealogical studies can be “endless” (1 Tim. 1:4), leading us to get sidetracked from more important things in this present life. But the lessons to be learned from genealogical research are tremendous. We just have to keep our research properly balanced with the other responsibilities of life.

Perhaps the greatest lesson it has taught me is that I have what the psalmist called “a goodly heritage” (Psa. 16:6). I’ve discovered that my family tree includes a long line of Christian ancestors who were either preachers or teachers, and that line extends all the way to the present generation: an aunt and a cousin were teachers. My brother was a preacher. I was a teacher. And one of my daughters is a teacher. Seeing such continuity of calling in one’s heritage can provide a valuable motivation to make something of oneself, something of which his or her ancestors would be proud.

I can trace my heritage back only to 1735, when Charles Matthias Peterson was born in Kjolen, Sweden. One of his three sons, Tobias, was the first white settler of Poplar Creek in western North Carolina and is my direct ancestor. But those 282 years is far enough back for me to recognize the goodly heritage I have. That time span should provide enough information to keep my genealogical research going for the rest of my life, especially as sporadic as that research tends to be and as many rabbit trails as it leads me down!

I know that some of my readers are also doing their own genealogical research. I hope they enjoy the pursuit as much as I have.

 

Best Lessons from Worst Teachers

Sometimes the best lessons one can learn come from the worst teachers.

Sounds ironic, doesn’t it?

As I recall the teachers I’ve had, from first grade through graduate school, however, I think that statement is absolutely correct. I’ve learned some of the most valuable lessons about how not to teach from teachers who taught incorrectly. (The bad teachers will go nameless in this blog!)

Knowing the subject matter is critical for any teacher. Students gain confidence and respect for a teacher who “knows his stuff.” But knowledge alone is insufficient. The teacher has to possess far more than mere knowledge. He or she must love the subject, and that love will come through to the students as enthusiasm, energy, vitality. The teacher must love the students, which means holding them to high standards of conduct and performance, making them work and exert themselves, and encouraging them to stretch their minds.

But an effective teacher must also know what he or she does not know and admit as much. Many teachers, when asked a challenging question, tried to muddle through an answer, hopeful that they would give the impression that they knew when really they didn’t. Apparently, such teachers thought that if they didn’t at least sound knowledgeable, the students would lose respect for them. Often, such teachers were evident by confusing, convoluted “answers” filled with a lot of meaningless jargon.

In fact, students respect a teacher who will openly admit that he or she doesn’t know an answer–but who works to find the answer and report back to the student what he or she has learned. A successful teacher is a perpetual student. No one ever knows it all about anything. Anything.

A successful teacher who is continually learning his subject matter will be eager to share that learning with the students. And that enthusiasm is contagious. An adage about writers is “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” One could paraphrase that for teachers: “No enthusiasm in the teacher, no enthusiasm in the learner.”

We’ve no doubt all known teachers who just went through the motions. They came to class every day dragging their feet and dreading every moment in the classroom. They took advantage of every break away from students. They showed no desire to enhance lesson plans, lecture notes, and learning activities, preferring to do the same things year after year after year. They seemed to be putting in time until they could retire.

I once had a history teacher who often got so lost in his own world of history that he seemed to forget where he was. He sat behind his desk as he lectured. Sometimes he stared out the window, and we could see in his eyes that he was in a world far away, perhaps in ancient Egypt among the pyramids of the pharaohs. Suddenly, he stood up like a rocket being launched, raised his voice, and uttered some profound statement (maybe about those pyramids or pharaohs). Then he walked slowly around the room, continuing to lecture calmly.

Lecturing from behind one’s desk is not necessarily the best way to keep a class of high school students awake, but that teacher showed how deeply involved one could get in the subject he loved. When we saw Mr. Lakin staring out the window with that far-away look in his eyes, we knew that he loved (and lived) history and was lost in the past. He wanted us to catch that vision of the past, too. I don’t know about my classmates, but I did. When he stared out the window and saw Egypt, his verbal description took me with him, and I saw those same pyramids.

Mr. Booher had problems knowing how to deal with junior high class clowns, but he taught me a love for geography and map work through his quiet, knowledgeable encouragement of my efforts. But his lack of classroom discipline also taught me to set a standard of conduct early in the year and then stick to it consistently. I learned from his example that a teacher can always relax classroom rules if the students prove they can handle such freedom, but it’s well nigh impossible to “crack down” once one has permitted lax behavior to become the norm.

I also recall many teachers whom I saw come to class with only the textbook in hand, and I saw them go home in the afternoon the same way. No homework papers to grade and return to students. No lesson plan book. No extra materials brought from home or the library to share with the class. No interesting object lessons.

For some reason, the coaches were notorious for this. Many such teachers “taught” by simply assigning problems or readings to be done during the class hour while the teacher looked through Time or The Sporting News. They had us students grade our papers in class so they wouldn’t have any work to do after school or when they got home that night.

I had one math teacher who began every class by assigning a set of problems and then spent most of the class period smoking in the teachers’ lounge. Was it any wonder that the boys in the class got into trouble? No one but the teacher was surprised when they jury-rigged the door to open only with great difficulty for a week and then rigged it the next week to open too easily. The teacher, having acclimated herself to exerting great effort to open it that first week, nearly injured herself the next week when the door suddenly flew open with ease.

A few teachers, however, were always bringing something interesting to class. Their arms or book bags or briefcases were bulging with things they wanted to share with us. They believed in “teaching beyond the textbook,” in sharing with us some of the things they had discovered on personal trips or in their private reading. Quite often, the things brought in had nothing to do with the day’s lesson, but it was something extra that the teacher wanted to share, and it whetted our appetite for learning. A hornet’s nest. A geode. A thingamabob or a dowhichit. It was like “Teacher’s Show and Tell.”

It doesn’t have to be great, fantastic, earth-shattering things; it can be little, simple things. An old photograph with a story behind it. An old newspaper clipping. A letter from a soldier during the war. Or even a gun or bayonet (back in the old days when that was allowed) brought back as a war souvenir. An interesting story from an eccentric character. Or a short selection from Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story.

One can learn important lessons from even teachers with bad practices. But it’s always refreshing to learn from a teacher who does it right.

Remembering a Buggy Battlefield

olusteekaflThe largest battle of the War Between the States that took place in the state of Florida occurred on February 20, 1864. That historic location was also the site of another kind of combat that my family and I waged several years ago when we took a little side trip to visit the Olustee battlefield.

Although the Battle of Olustee (or Ocean Pond, as it was known at the time) is today long forgotten by most people and little considered by those who do know about it, the official website of the battlefield (www.battleofolustee.org) says, “In proportion to the number of troops involved, it was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.” It almost became the site of my family’s own Waterloo.

The battle was the culmination of a move by Union troops from Hilton Head, S.C., to capture Jacksonville and then move inland, depriving the Confederacy of supplies of cotton, food, timber, and turpentine. Secondary motives were to recruit black soldiers from among the slaves that might be freed and to convince Unionist Floridians in the northern part of the state to form a separate government.

tseymourfineganjoseph63As the 5,500 Union troops under General Truman A. Seymour (left) moved into the interior of northern Florida with their 16 cannons, the Confederate forces under Brigadier General Joseph Finegan (right) put out a call for help and began preparing to force the enemy to colquittcivilwarfight on the Confederates’ terms. Southern troops from Georgia under the command of Brigadier General Alfred Colquitt (left) arrived to join Finegan’s force.

Finegan chose as his battlefield a place called Ocean Pond (today known as Olustee). He anchored the left end of his defensive line on the pond and his right end on an impenetrable swamp. He positioned his infantrymen in the narrow passage of dry land between these two points and supported the ends with cavalry.

The Union forces made first contact with Confederate skirmishers on the afternoon of the 20th, and the Southerners lured the Union troops into the preferred battlefield. It was covered with pine trees, but there was no underbrush and the Confederates had prepared no earthworks. The resulting battle raged until dark, when the Unionists retreated, leaving behind 1,861 dead. The Confederates lost about half that many (946).

The Confederate victory at Olustee allowed the interior of Florida to remain in Confederate hands for the rest of the war.

Several years ago, having read something about this little-known battlefield but wanting to know more, I decided that it also might be an educational stopover for my four daughters during one of our trips to visit their grandparents in South Florida. We got off of I-75 onto I-10 near Lake City and headed east toward Jacksonville. At that time, there had been no development along that route, and I was concerned about running out of gas or having car trouble in such a desolate place. And when you’re in unfamiliar territory, travel seems to take much longer than it really does.

About 15 miles east of Lake City, 50 miles west of Jacksonville, we found the exit for U.S. 90 and then traveled about 5 1/2 miles south to the battlefield. The only things we passed on the way were swamps, a prison (a desolate, swampy place is ideal for a prison, but don’t pick up hitchhikers!), and dismal-looking pine barrens. The entrance to the battlefield was nondescript and the battlefield itself was visually unimpressive. We drove up to a tiny, pine tree-surrounded building that seemed about the size of a POD or a shipping container. That was the welcome center and the museum.

Seeing a few monuments and cannons behind the building, we exited the car to stretch our legs and begin our educational tour. And what an education we got!

Gray clouds of mosquitoes attacked us as soon as we opened the car doors and followed us from exhibit to exhibit while being joined by reinforcements every step of the way. The girls got their exercise running and slapping and complaining. Even I, as focused as I was on gaining as much knowledge about this battlefield as I could, finally gave up trying to stay in one spot long enough to read anything. I was too busy retreating from mosquitoes. We found temporary refuge inside the tiny museum, but we could look at the few items housed there only so many times, then we had to dash to the car and hope that not too many of the enemy slipped inside with us.

The time we spent at Olustee was the shortest of all of the many visits our family has made to numerous Civil War battlefields. Granted, we were at Olustee in the summertime, whereas the actual battle occurred in February, but I still wonder how the soldiers of both sides stood it. Did they bathe in citronella before the battle? I also wonder how many of the 2,800 or so casualties in that battle were the result of mosquito bites! Maybe the mosquitoes, not Southern troops, were the reason the north-central part of the state remained in Confederate hands!

The Power of a Good Book Series

Never underestimate the power of a good book series, even if it’s not great literature, to spark an interest in reading. It might just develop into a reading habit that leads to great literature or even evolves into a career.

When I was in fifth grade at Halls Elementary School, Mrs. George conducted a contest in our class to see who could read the most books. She gave each student a small envelope inside of which were several ruled 3 x 5 cards. We each wrote our name on the flap of the envelope and thumb-tacked it, cards inside, onto a bulletin board. Mrs. George then took us to the library, where we selected whatever book(s) we wanted to read for the contest. When we finished each book, we recorded its title on the index card and chose another book.

I don’t know who won the contest (it wasn’t me), but in a sense I did win because that contest began for me a life-long habit of reading. The books I chose back then not only set me on the road to reading but also helped guide my career choice. I found through that contest that I enjoyed reading books in two particular series, one of which developed in me an interest in and love of history.

hardy-boys-mysteriesThe first series, the one that hooked me on reading, was the Hardy Boys mystery series. Of the 50 or so titles that made up the original segment of the series, I ended up reading about 44 or 45 of them. The titles are still vivid in my mind, as are the cover illustrations.

These books were not great literature by any measure; they were formula books. The basic plot line was always the same: the Hardy brothers are confronted with a mystery that baffles not only the local police but also their detective father, they set about solving the case with the occasional help of their “chums,” and they solve it after having some exciting and nail-biting adventures. When the publisher began revising the books and adding new, “modern” titles, and when the TV series came out, I was disappointed because neither the new books nor the TV version lived up to the standard that the original books had set. But the books in the original series kept me turning the pages under the bed covers using a flashlight long after I should have been asleep. And they made me realize that an entire world awaited me between the covers of books.

landmark-booksThe second book series that influenced me, the one that helped steer me into a career in teaching and writing about historical topics, was the Random House Landmark series of histories and biographies. I still remember the individual titles and cover illustrations on the books from that series. It was from those books, not my history textbook, that I really learned about the Pony Express, West Point, the military heroes of our nation, the battles they fought to win and maintain our freedoms, and many other topics.

landmark-alamoI remember that the title on the spine of a book was what first caught my attention. I lifted the book from the shelf and looked at the cover illustration–for a long time. Then I paged through the book, gaining an overview of what it was about and looking at any illustrations or photos that it included. If you study the accompanying photos of some of those books, is it any wonder that I became interested in American history? In those books was excitement, adventure–and I lived vicariously the events recounted in them.

During my early years of teaching junior high students, I bought several of the old Landmark books that I found in used book stores or at yard sales to stock my classroom library. Whenever students finished a test or some other seatwork, they knew that I expected them to be busy with some other constructive work until the rest of the class finished, andlandmark-pony-express one option was reading those books. Many of the students did read them and, most gratifying to me, they voluntarily discussed them with me. When I shifted careers and left the classroom, I donated the books to a school. I sort of wish I had kept them. Looking at the covers, reading the titles, and remembering the joy they gave me when I first read them, I sort of want to read them again.

landmark-flying-tigerslandmark-d-dayUnlike the Hardy Boys series, which used many mediocre ghostwriters under the pseudonym “Franklin W. Dixon,” Random House had some world-class authors and experts in history writing the Landmark books. They included such people as William L. Shirer, Quentin Reynolds, John Gunther, Pearl S. Buck, F. Van Wyck Mason, Richard Tregaskis, Bob Considine, Robert Penn Warren,C. S. Forester, John Toland, and Ted W. Lawson. Lawson’s writing (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo) really snagged my interest because he wrote from first-hand experience as one of the pilots on the famous Doolittle raid on Tokyo in the early months of World War II.

Yes, these two series of books hold a special place in my curriculum vitae. They helped lay a foundation for reading that has served me well over the years. Do you have a similarly influential series that you would like to share? If so, I’d be interested in hearing from you about it.