The story of a morphine-addicted Civil War veteran and his redemption begins . . .
John Weldon’s head throbbed as he focused on the strange man standing above him.
“Sergeant Weldon, one day soon you will be free of all pain and medication,” the doctor said as he gave his patient more morphine through a new British syringe in the bright, garland-trimmed soldiers’ hospital in Washington on the first warm day of late spring. Weldon remembered little past the sun and fire of the Wilderness. The room smelled of coffee and dried blood. Flies buzzed at unreachable parts of his stiff body. Weldon’s head boiled and his body resisted the lightest duty between doses. He had heard himself beg one of the pretty nurses, Penny Garner, for more morphine only once. Catching a look in her eye—the same look he had seen people give his mother, a drunken Delaware, so many times in his childhood—he never asked again.
The doctor lifted Weldon’s bandages and shook his head. As he walked away he said to Penny, “Dear girl, I know that you have a soft spot for that one, but he has no hope.” He put an arm around her as she cried. “Can’t believe he’s hung on this long. We can just keep him comfortable. It’s a shame, I know.”
Weldon stayed awake at night, worrying the doctors would send him to the dying room again or cut his medication so he stole it when he could and even found three syringes, shoving them under his bedding. He had watched the sorry lines of soldiers on sick call, hoping for tiny dose of opium or brandy, with contempt when he was whole and well. Weldon had control. He would stop this when the pain retreated.
The rush of warmth the doses provided took Weldon deep inside himself where an infinitesimal hum of satisfaction lived if only briefly. The loneliness and hunger, the black something he’d never escaped, disappeared.
A trim officer sauntered by and spoke with one of the medical staff. Weldon’s military career would be over if anyone caught him stealing, but no one understood his pain. Weldon vowed to hold this closer to himself than any person could ever come and he would stop–someday. The army was his home.
That night Penny caught Weldon holding his guts in and knocking things about the dispensary and brought him back to his bed. She wrapped a new bandage around his middle tightly before helping Weldon lower his swollen leg into the itchy trousers she found for him and laced a brand new pair of expensive boots, just his size, for him to slip into.
Penny flashed Weldon a look and kissed him before helping him to the door. He smiled, feeling a small, ridiculous thrill as he adjusted his old haversack filled with morphine and limped with the help of a cane into the fragrant, leaf-filtered moonlight of late June. Penny handed him five dollars in change.
“Good luck, sir,” she whispered heroically naïve before disappearing behind the closed door.
Weldon’s head still throbbed as he licked his rough, parched lips. He took cautious breaths of clean, moist air, stepping out tentatively in one direction and then in the other. He had felt this way once before—that last day in the Wilderness with Simon. No. Simon McCullough had deserted. He pulled at the hair behind his ear. The moon sank away and a tender breeze chilled Weldon as he stood in this spot for hours under an ancient tree like the ones his father had been crushed under in the Western Reserve of his youth. Weldon slid down and into a deep sleep beneath the tree until a gentle hand tapped his shoulder.
“Sergeant Weldon, by golly, it is you!” a ruddy-faced private stood above him.
Weldon pulled himself up on his elbows as the dried pus at his side cracked beneath his shirt. The morning sun hurt his eyes.
“I’m Private Patrick Hazelton, sir. Do you remember me?”
Weldon held his side with one hand and used other to grab the man’s hand. The surprised private helped Weldon to his feet and readjusted his hat.
“Sir, you look a caution. Better head back in,” Hazelton suggested with a nod toward the Washington hospital. He took Weldon by the arm, but Weldon stood still.
“Who are you?” Weldon asked.
“A few years back, sir, Lieutenant McCullough convinced you not to report me to my unit for leaving my camp to go looking for girls. You and the lieutenant saved me much grief with my company commander—that incompetent ass. He’s been mustered out since, thank the Lord.”
“Simon McCullough is a bastard,” Weldon said from a faraway surface of himself. “He d-deserted and left me dead.”
“No, sergeant, you and him were best friends,” Hazelton said with hesitation. “I don’t believe a word. McCullough’s a captain now, I hear. After the Grand Parade he took leave but never deserted.”
“The war’s over…sergeant, you need to go back inside. You’re not yourself and you’re shaking.”
“No. I’m lost. They can’t help me, you idiot!”
“Now, sergeant, I don’t blame you for being sore. Times are tough. Washington’s a rough place to wander with money hanging out your trousers. Where will you go?”
Weldon stood with the oak, paralyzed again. “I don’t know.”
Hazelton reached forward and grabbed Weldon’s leather money pouch. “Someone will swipe this if you ain’t careful.”
“It’s mostly empty,” Weldon said, taking it back and opening it to drop in the loose change in his trouser pocket. A green wrinkled sheet of thick card caught his eye, and he pulled it out between his two long fingers. Hand-drawn timorous trees in black ink dressed the card’s message from the only care package he had ever received. That first Christmas of the war . . . Christmas . . . the most dismal time of year for a soldier without family. Weldon found ways to avoid mail call, but one day someone shouted his name. He thought he heard it, but wasn’t sure so hung back. The call came again more impatiently and Weldon slunk up, with his sunken, dark eyes lowered and his crow-black hair shorn short since the summer of lice. The heavy, battered box had his name on it. His face burned. He cut the top with his knife and reached in to find soft mittens and socks—hand-knit and familiar in a way—they were like McCullough’s and for a horrible moment he thought there had been an embarrassing mistake. He fumbled to close the box but noticed a tiny, hand-drawn card with funny little trees around the edge. “A friend of Simon’s is a friend of ours! Merry Christmas! Warm Regards—Scott, Sarah and Katherine McCullough.”
Hazelton sidled up and read the card. On the back in the same small script was an address in Englewood, New Jersey Simon McCullough had talked about endlessly—almost like a fairytale, being too perfect to be real—as if they had expected Weldon to write. He had never done so, but had run his fingers over the little tree drawings many times.
“Sir, you need help and if it ain’t the hospital you’re going to then I’m putting you on the train.”
“I don’t know them…I can’t face Simon…I…”
“Any place is better than here and Simon is your friend.”
Weldon had done everything he could think of to repulse this invasion, this toppling of his defenses but Simon McCullough wore him down. The whole world loved him—no Simon pretended to love the whole world—he even played with the darkies’ children.
Weldon remembered squeezing into his first army boots at Carlisle Barracks and then going off to the war with a commander who convinced him to volunteer for a Jersey regiment on a lark. There he met Simon and for a sparkling few years Weldon pretended at being someone else. But now fevers came on strong. He held the pus filled flap of skin at his side tighter. How had he been so damned stupid? How had he ever let Simon McCullough in?—that piece of shit. What a terrible, stupid blunder. Weldon would bring it all to him. Just shove it in the lieutenant’s face—all the suffering he caused. Weldon had always expected a life of aching and scratching and he could die doing it, but not before presenting it to the one person who duped him just long enough to give him hope.
READ PART TWO HERE
Wednesdays at the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm where I worked were packing days when no matter the weather or the raspberries left rotting on the bush, we met in the cool, dark room to sort and pack pesticide-free, non-migrant labor harvested produce to be delivered to starry-eyed customers in the morning.
Our Harvard-educated, Russian-Lit major boss told us not to worry too much about dirty garlic as the customers were customers because they wanted to feel part of the farm-to-table process.
Some customers visited the 200-year-old farm to see up close the dirty business of nutrition. They gazed in wonder at the strawberry fields alive with jewel-toned fruit only a day or two away from collapse and decay. They enjoyed getting pricked by the thistles as they reached for a berry and tossed the juicy, warm fruit into their mouths. Misshaped berries delighted the customers as much as the perfect ones (they were rare) for it was taken for granted that despite their imperfections the berries were more nutritious straight from the garden.
And so we might see our independent authors. Have you ever seen organic apples? Sometimes they’re not perfect. In a chain store they’d be thrown in a dumpster–edited out by committee and the corporate shopping experience. Until recently most of us were unaware of the difference (remember the red delicious apple in the brown bag lunch?).
Most of us have spent lives buying books and peanut butter manufactured by a marketing team. Everything tastes the same and we’ve grown fat, dumb and bored, always surprised when the Cheetos and vampire novels leave us empty.
When a book doesn’t have a committee of consultants, editors and proofreaders it may be rougher around the edges (like life). There may be some dirt left on it and the snide corporate-led critics and public may remark on the blemishes and miss the nutrition.
But why do we organic writers listen? Most CSAs don’t eventually want to be Monsanto. Why are we cowed by one bad review pointing out too many commas? Would we spend our time in a redwood forest looking for crooked limbs?
Let’s face it, most writers aren’t going to be celebrities and quit our day jobs. Most writers throughout history had day jobs. Even corporate, committee books don’t make authors big bucks, in general.
A farmer worries about the weather. His story, his life is a force of nature, dependent on nature. Most things are out of his control. Yet the satisfaction for the farmer who snubs Monsanto is in his integrity. It’s in his deciding how to write his rows in the earth. Every day IS the satisfaction. His fruit, his friendships, his nourishment–these things only a small segment of society will taste. So be it.
My farmer boss took 15 years just to reach the point where he could be semi-confident his eggplants would grow. He had back surgery from lifting ripe squash. Being independent can feel back-breaking. Maybe we don’t have the editorial staff as writers to cut the heart out of our rugged individualism. Maybe that’s a great thing.
Lots of us sell something sweeter (with a few too many commas). We give our stories our soul. There may be blemishes that bitter critics will harp on, but like people drunk on cheap wine, they miss the nuances, the many voices, the good years and the independent thoughts that make life and art worth living for.
So to all of you independent writers and farmers, the harvest is in the doing. Blemishes come with freedom.
Under the Lilacs book illustration. I’d never heard the term domestic genre stories but I LOVE it. These are the great stories of the late 19th century that spoke to the trials and travails of ordinary life and often with beautiful illustrations. I assume they’re the works that some people deem “of no literary merit” […]
Can we all agree that men polish up quite nicely in uniform? Why else would we have cop groupies? My father had a charming charisma, but the uniform brought the groupies. Anyway, men look good in uniform–especially late 19th century military uniform–I happened to notice this at all the Civil war re-enactments–when the weekend was over and some of the men came into camp dressed in modern jeans and dorky t-shirts commemorating a Gettysburg anniversary and white sneakers.
So here’s the sort of book/eye-candy I feast upon when I’m too damned tired to figure out what’s happening in Saratoga 1888 and in finance in my latest rough draft. If you like cute guys, or like uniforms or like military history or like illustration–okay, you know what I like.
I’d probably have to steal the trousers with the yellow stripe down the side. I don’t want to be a soldier but the tailoring of the clothes–to die for. Many women felt the same way and so even though women loved their skirts the fashion world, then as now, always threw out a few military-style garments for the ladies–no camo please.
We like the bad-boys with the good hearts hidden beneath the uniform–though when Richard Gere started sobbing like a baby in An Officer and a Gentleman I got kinda repulsed–but then I’m no Richard fan so . . .
Just because you’re nice doesn’t mean you’re going to be popular. This is what General Ben Grierson must have said to console himself. A hero of the Civil War, Grierson commanded the Buffalo Soldiers out West against Victorio and his Apache warriors after the war, but do you think that would have gotten him some respect and a few honors? No.
His wife Alice was pretty pissed about it and said so in letters. She said a lot in letters that might make a Victorian pretend to blush. At one point she left poor Ben to spend time in Chicago admitting after he begged her to come back to him that she knew they would have sex again (which she greatly enjoyed), and didn’t want to have any more children (I think they had 7 at that point). She felt contraception was a sin against God, loved her husband, but was afraid with her depressive tendencies that she’d end like her mother did–a used up mental case.
General Ben was such a decent guy and openly affectionate, devoted and supportive when Alice spoke about women’s rights and the stuff she’d read in The Revolution (I must admit, though I’d hate to be judged by my private letters and emails, that I found Alice’s constant complaining a bit annoying–I don’t think Ben deserved that. He just wanted her by his side. Sigh).
Ben was no slouch in the warrior department, but . . . and this is my opinion–one shared by General Sherman at the time–he was a bit too lenient with the Indians who used his kindness to screw him over (we don’t like to admit that being a doormat you get walked on but it’s true). He had kind words for his black soldiers though most people thought black recruits were less capable of the mental tasks of military life at the time, but again he may have in his easy-going way not pushed them quite hard enough–so says one of my characters in The House on Tenafly Road.
Anyway there’s much to think about–sex, war, mental health, relationships, Indians, military politics in these two companion volumes. You get the historian’s version and then the wife’s version and that’s fun.
Okay, don’t be disturbed by the man’s weird stare and ugly hat. While On the Border with Crook is about the Indian fighter General Crook it’s more about the erudite and humorous John Gregory Bourke— the dashing military man and entertaining writer. Invariably the military men of the late 19th century had such enthusiasm, intellectual curiosity and good humor under sometimes very harsh conditions you’d have to admire them–but Bourke and Crook were unique in their sincere respect for the Indian.
My heart beats a little quicker for this extremely fun and informative gem, The Look of the Old West
Lieutenant John Weldon in The House on Tenafly Road took his family to a western military outpost after the Civil War and this book helped make that possible. Scholarly research is a great thing but Foster Harris (whose writing style is so familiar you feel like you know him personally) brings the post-Civil War period alive with its mix of old and new, Confederate and Yankee, weapons and women.
I love the idea that this book was written in 1955 and that Foster-Harris interviewed Civil War veterans and old cowboys. I imagine the wistful look the old men got in their eyes after such a fast paced and changing bunch of years.
I loved this book so much I made William Weldon in my upcoming novel travel back west as a young man to do what young men did in the Wild West. Stay tuned.
Hey, would you like a old western shirt? Check this out: http://vintrowear.wordpress.com/2011/05/30/get-your-old-west-on-real-cowboys-and-the-shirts-they-wore/
When you write about post-Civil War America it’s impossible not to bump up against war wounds. John Weldon in The House on Tenafly Road is addicted to morphine, given his first dose in a Civil War hospital by well-meaning doctors trying to keep him comfortable before his eventual death–which never happens. He escapes in his […]
The problem is happy people are alienating. They’re annoyingly complimentary to their spouses. They remember birthdays and endlessly talk about fond memories from high school where they met and instantly fell in love. They find charm in their spouses maddeningly gross habits. Their children settle nearby and come over for dinner on Sundays.
But happy is a stupid word. Get happy. Okay . . . but here’s what I’ve found. They may be a struggle to write about at first because we assume happiness is some sort of lucky, kinda boring gift that some people get–damn them! But it’s a lie. Here’s the truth–there’s a lot of interesting things going on under the surface with happy couples. Things are more subtle. The crappy mood that kills a night and maybe a relationship in a novel is apologized for in a real marriage. How do we write about that complex mix of pride and humiliation that comes with knowing you’re wrong, admitting it and then making up for it? It seems boring on the surface when a good brawl or morphine spree will do the trick. And I LOVE a good morphine spree as much as the rest of you.
Have you noticed that people hate the word work? Strange. Work suggests to me that you actually care how something will turn out. Some people wait to be inspired–what a crazy way to waste life. If you’re a good husband or wife when you feel like it, have fun at the divorce court! John and Katherine Weldon probably still wouldn’t have gotten a divorce in The House on Tenafly Road even if it was acceptable because they’re workers. Screwed up workers, but still. Thank God, happiness comes and goes. It’s a shame that most movies and books stop at the kiss or the wedding. Crushes are like cheap candy, but marriage is an acquired taste–worth the effort in the end. For more on marriage visit :http://ladyinthehouse.net/2014/02/11/somehow-in-love/
This week is John and Katherine’s week–a week about screwed up love. If doing it right was easy we’d have short novels and no war. In honor of imperfect relationships I’m having a $.99 Kindle eBook sale on The House on Tenafly Road this upcoming weekend Feb 15-16 (the day after Valentine’s Day makes you begin to wish you had a morphine-addicted spouse–or maybe realize, damn, you have it good).
So gather up your pennies (c’mon it won’t break the bank) and buy the book. Tell your friends, too–you know, the ones who like really falling in love with screwed up characters who redeem themselves. Or the ones who like page-turners with military heroes. Or the ones who like big books with maps. Love, death, maps and redemption–who could ask for anything more?