Sunday, November 23, 2008

What are you reading?

I have a book problem. I never met a bookstore, library, or book club I didn’t like. I have stacks of unread books and magazines around the house, most of which are nonfiction, most of that, history. I'll get around to them all one day. Once in a while I pick up a work of fiction. As you might imagine, it's almost always historical fiction. The more accurate the better; I hate catching an author with a historical inaccuracy. It turns me off for the rest of the book. From then on I can’t trust any historical “facts” presented in the story. After that, it’s just brain candy. Admittedly, fiction is my guilty pleasure just the same. But I don’t feel like I’m learning anything.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. I picked up the book Faded Coat of Blue by Owen Parry in a used book store. It is actually part of a detective series set within the backdrop of the Civil War. I enjoyed the character of the heroic sleuth, Able Jones, who was a Welsh immigrant making his home in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Since I was living in that area of the country at the time, I saw that the author was dead on historically accurate with the history of the coal mining region of Pennsylvania. I really enjoyed the book, but I was upset when the author had the main character secretly meet President Lincoln, who asks him to work for him as a secret agent. Thus the stage is set for a detective series within the Civil War. Okay, so I read a few more books in the Able Jones series. It's a fun read, but as I said: brain candy.

One of the books that really turned me on to military history was The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. I read the book the first time as an assignment for a military history class when I was in ROTC. Since then I’ve read the book three more times and I must have watched the movie version, Gettysburg, at least a dozen more. One of the reasons I like the book so much is the attention the author paid to historical accuracy. All of the characters in the novel are historical personalities. The only thing made up in the book is the conversations the characters have with each other. Michael Shaara’s son, Jeff, has taken up the family business. Jeff Shaara writes with the same standard of historical accuracy and now has a long list of titles on Amazon. He has done a prequel and a sequel to the Killer Angels, and done works on the Revolution, the Mexican War, World War I and World War II. I just yesterday finished The Steel Wave, Jeff Shaara’s second volume about WWII. I liked it so much, as I do all of his work, I mailed it to my dad to read. It’s not brain candy, or even brain fast food. Think of it as a healthy brain sandwich.

The bottom line is that I think we can learn a lot from historical fiction, whether by reading a novel, or watching a movie. It doesn’t just have to be about military history. Movies (that are almost always books first) like Seabiscuit and A Beautiful Mind were box office successes AND historically accurate. Or at least these works are historically accurate enough to teach the story while entertaining. These works should not be discounted as a way to learn history. I find history exciting. It's unfortunate that many others don't. History makes for a good story. Why can’t we get people interested in, and excited about, history by presenting it as the drama that it is?

Monday, November 10, 2008

For Veterans Day

It’s Veterans Day and I have strong opinions about it. I hate that to most people it just means that there will be a sale down at the big box store. I come from a family where everyone joined the army. Not because of patriotism or nationalistic fervor. As my dad said, it’s just “what we do.” My service was mostly during the Cold War. My father’s was during Korea. I like the irony that he was in at the start of the Cold War and I was there at the end. I’m much more proud of his service than mine, so I’ve included several photos from his album here for you to see.

The way I look at it, every time a “great man” did something that they teach you about in public school, there was a little guy making it happen, or enduring the consequences depending on the outcome. Please use Veterans Day to do two things. First, take the time to listen to veterans in your family or those you know. Ask them what they did, where they were, and what was it like. Record, write it down, and remember it. There are many programs going on now to record and archive veteran’s oral histories. I have a bias for the U.S. Army Heritage Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Visit their website and participate if you can. There are of course other programs like the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.

Second, use this day to think about, and talk with your family, about our military and how we use it. Because we employ it. The people decide how it is used. I will not use this blog to promulgate a political debate. I want to only promote the study, appreciation, and enjoyment of history. But please be aware that you can and must have an opinion on how we use our military to advance our agenda around the world as well as provide for our nation’s security. And know that there are young people out there right now who are the instrument of our policies. Only a precious few choose to join the military these days. We need to use them wisely.

To honor the veterans in my family and those that I’ve known in my life, I’m including the text of a speech I’ll be giving at my local Toastmasters Club tomorrow. I hope you enjoy it. And please, sometime tomorrow go up to a veteran, shake his or her hand, and say, “Thank you for your service.” That honor was given to me by a World War II veteran one day a few years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. I couldn’t believe that this man who had seen and done more than I could ever dream of would thank me for my service. It meant the world to me.

Getting To Know Clyde
I was a cavalryman. And on Veterans Day it is my duty to impart to you a little bit of cavalry wisdom. Do you know the difference between a fairy tale and a war story? A fairy tale starts out “Once upon a time…”, and a war story starts out “Well, there I was…” But other than that, they’re just about same thing. That being said, let me tell you one of my war stories, of which I assure you, every word is true.

I come from what you might call an army family. It seems that every male member of my family had served in the army. My great uncles chased Poncho Villa and fought in World War I. My dad’s brother Clyde left home to join the cavalry when they still had horses. He later fought in World War II, and Korea. My father was in Korea with the 187 Airborne Regimental Combat Team. Cousin Ivy Charles was there with him and he went on to serve in Vietnam as a Special Forces medic.

As you might imagine, I heard a few war stories growing up. My father told me once that he joined the army because he figured that everything that could be explored or discovered had been explored or discovered and the only adventure left for a poor kid from Texas was going to war. So of course I joined the army. How could I not? Not for patriotism or love of country, but because I had to live up to the standards set by these men. And the fact that I needed a job had a little something to do with it too. I went looking for adventure…and I found it. But those stories will have to wait for another day. Today, I want to tell you how I got to know my uncle Clyde.

I had seen pictures of Clyde when I visited his widow, Georgia Ann. I saw that picture of him. Khaki tie and campaign hat. Riding boots that laced up to the knee. Holding the reigns of his horse. His story fascinated me.

Years later I was in the Aviation Officers Advanced Course at Fort Rucker, Alabama. In this school, one of our exercises was to travel up to the Civil War Battlefield at Chickamauga, Georgia and conduct a terrain walk. Study the tactics. Conduct a “staff ride” if you’re from the cavalry. If you’d been there you’d have seen about 80 captains walking all over the battlefield stopping at key points to conduct a class. You would have stood on the exact spot where Longstreet saw the gap in the Union line. He sent thousands of troops under John Bell Hood through the opening, turning the battle into a route and a victory for the Confederate forces. If I’d been there, would I have seen the opportunity and acted on it?

For this multi-day event, we swung a deal with the local National Guard that we could stay in their barracks at a training site called Fort Oglethorpe. In return we’d take the time to tour a museum that some folks had started for the 6th Cavalry Brigade. The 6th Cavalry had been stationed at Fort Oglethorpe back when they had horses before World War II. No problem, so off we go to the museum. Someone had donated an old G-model Cobra from the Vietnam days and they had it parked out in front of a rather plain looking building about the size of a Seven-Eleven. Inside they had a couple of uniforms, an old McClellan saddle, you know, the usual stuff. Lots of pictures on the wall. No kidding, it really was interesting there just wasn’t that much of it. Most of the guys did their duty and moved through pretty quick. But waiting for us in the corner were our three tour guides.

Now, to say these guys were old would be an understatement. They had to have been in the cavalry back when Christ was a corporal, or at the very least rode into Mexico with Black Jack Pershing. I didn’t really have any questions for them and quite frankly I was about to cut out to the parking lot for a cigarette when I heard one of the gentlemen say he had been in the Cavalry in 1941 and had been on the Texarkana maneuvers, which we all remember was the last mounted cavalry maneuvers that the United States Army conducted. Well, my dad had told me many times that his brother Clyde had been on the Texarkana maneuvers.

So of course I had to ask, “Did you know a Clyde Broumley?” The old guy scratched his chin and said, “Yes, I think I did.” Wow. John MacArthur said “Small world.” Rick Rowzee said, “Small army.” The man leads me over to a picture on the wall and points out a couple of the soldiers in the old sepia tone picture. He said, “I think Broumley was one of these youngsters in the recruit troop.” You see, back then, there wasn’t basic training for cavalrymen. They were assigned to the recruit troop until they had “won their spurs” and then assigned to one of the line troops. The old gentleman went on to tell me that as he remembered, private Broumley was a good trooper. Then he proceeded to tell me all about life at Fort Oglethorpe in the 1930s. He told me about how the officers were on the base polo team and played the officer teams from other posts. Enlisted weren’t allowed on the team, so they’d made up their own. The officers played them for practice but never could beat the enlisted team. I listened to that old man’s stories until my friends got tired of waiting and came and got me.

As soon as I got the chance I called my dad to tell him about the man who knew Clyde. My dad had quite a chuckle. He said that Clyde wasn’t in the 6th Cavalry, ever. He was in the 3rd of the 7th out of Fort Bliss at the time of the Texarkana maneuvers. So the man was mistaken. I thought about that encounter for years. I finally decided that in this case the facts are so important. I’m sure that life at that time wasn’t so different at Fort Bliss than it was at Fort Oglethorpe. The old man knew that he knew Clyde Broumley. And as a result, I got to know him too.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

All History Is Local

Paul, my friend from the Masters in Applied History program at Shippensburg University, posted on his blog an essay about the challenges in finding archival records for a project involving a local church. His post served as a reminder that all history is found locally. You might live where something big happened, for example Paul lives just a few miles from the Gettysburg Battlefield. Or, you might be where the history is not so evident. Every town and county in America has its own story to tell. Whether you live near the “big stuff” or not, history can be found all around you. Maybe you’ll find an interesting story in the local cemetery, or in the history behind a plaque on a building or bridge, or in Paul’s case study, the story behind a not-so-old church in a very old town.

My wife and I recently moved to the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. A short walk from my home is the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, known by the more common name of “The Ballard Locks.” I thought I’d share this with you because and my local NPR station did a segment on the Locks today. Take a listen to the show and soak up some local Seattle history. Also, Arcadia Publishing recently released one of their local history books about it, The Ballard Locks by Adam Woog. I own the book and it is quite good. However, the work is like all of the Arcadia Publishing books in their “Images of America” series in that it is picture rich, but textually it is only a summary history.

There is no museum or archive at the Ballard Locks and that’s a shame. There is nice little gift shop that shows a short film and a lot of great volunteers. The history is in the site itself. The Ballard Locks was dedicated in 1917 and has been in operation ever since. The site, managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, connects the Puget Sound to lakes Washington and Union. I stop by there with my cattle dog Sydney nearly every day to watch boats move through. It’s relaxing. However, looking at the 100-year old concrete structures makes me wonder what else they have to tell me in addition to what can be found in Mr. Woog’s book. So I started yet another quest. In a search of the National Archives online, I found some record groups pertaining to incidents at the Locks. And what do you know, they are housed right here at the National Archives Pacific Region Facility in Seattle. I’m planning my visit. I’ll let you know what I find out.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The History Behind the Patches

My primary profession since 1997 is in information technology. My wife and I are self-employed ( I’m the geek who works with spreadsheets and databases, consulting and instruction. My wife Sheila on the other hand is a graphic artist and website designer. Together we create t-shirts and gift items for veterans on another site called Military Vet Shop (

The reason I tell you all this is not in a gratuitous attempt to sell you IT consulting or a veteran’s sweatshirt. The designs we make almost all have a unit patch on them. The patch we’re talking about is the shoulder insignia worn on the uniform. A soldier wears the patch of the unit they are assigned to on their left shoulder, and the unit they have been in combat with on their right. The reason that the patch that a veteran had on his shoulder is so important is because each of those colorful patches has a story behind it. When you become a part of a military unit, you become part of its history, part of the story behind the patch. The unit’s reputation is your reputation. Today, since I wore the Blackhorse patch of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, it is like I made the last cavalry charge in 1916 with them. I had gone into Cambodia with them. Those who wear it today patrolled the East German border with me. The future soldiers of the 11th ACR will have gone to Iraq with the troopers of today.
To honor those veterans, I enjoy posting a summary history (usually between 1000 and 1800 words) for some of the unit patches found on the site. I’ve created 22 so far with many more to follow. Today is significant because I just put up the first history of a marine unit (the other 21 are for army units). If you are interested, and I hope you are, take a look at the history of the 1st Marine Division, From that page there are links to others. I’d like to hear what you think. I hope you’ll share them with others.

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