Watch out for the quiet ones.They often take you places you didn’t think you’d go. After Buck Crenshaw and his twin threw William Weldon from a hayloft and broke his arm in THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD I thought I’d never see Buck again.
But there was Buck in his quietly scheming yet tentative way tapping my shoulder. I’m going to West Point, he kept saying so when an actual human friend wanted me to tag along on a trip up to the academy to see her son I was game. I’d been going to football there for a while, but this time we walked the grounds on a perfect late spring day.
Buck came along, of course, in my mind. What’s the story, Buck?I asked myself or Buck or my muse. No one answered, but weeks later after I promised Buck I’d write something about him (I’d already imagined him now in cadet uniform, with violet eyes like his mother’s and sandy colored straight hair sitting at his desk and being far more studious than I would have guessed) I stumbled upon the controversy surrounding admittance of the first black cadets to West Point.
I shook my head, no. I’m not going to write about evil white boys hazing perfect black boys. I knew life was more complex than “this color is good; this color is bad” and I didn’t want to touch the subject.AND THERE IT WAS. Buck sat a little smugly at his desk now (polished uniform buttons and all). Yes, he seemed to say, I want no part of this messy race stuff. I want to be an officer and beat my twin brother in all things and win Rose Turner’s hand in marriage and THAT’S IT.
But what about this Milford Streeter (who is as seriously flawed as everyone else) arriving as one of the first (but not the first) black young men to give the Academy a go?
Buck looked me in the eye. So? What of it? I’m at the top of my class and going for colors. I have nothing against Streeter and I’ll be the gentleman I’m supposed to be.
But what will your brother Fred and his friends a year ahead of you at West Point think when you befriend Streeter?
Buck got a little ruffled at this question and replied: I SAID I’D BE A GENTLEMAN TO STREETER. I NEVER SAID I’D BE HIS FRIEND.
I noticed something in the way he said it though–a crack in his aloof and confident demeanor. Buck Crenshaw wasn’t hard like his brother. He’d allow a sort of friendship and there’s where Buck’s troubles began.
Perfection is a myth. Flawed humanity is the reality. Compassion is the only hope.
And for those of you who haven’t read the other story about the people of Tenafly Road, my first novel THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD will be on sale (KINDLE COUNTDOWN) in ebook form beginning Friday, June 5th-12th.
What a fun challenge from Jane Dougherty: “I’m posting a painting that I’ve used before to illustrate a poem, Odilon Redon’s Flower-Clouds, and I’m throwing it open to anyone who wants to have a go at writing a one or two sentence story to go with it.”
I thought of my character BUCK CRENSHAW when I saw this so here’s my story:
None of the comfortable cousins with secure fortunes Buck Crenshaw worked with at the quiet bank off Wall Street knew that Buck dreaded being on the water. Life was rudderless enough, but money needed to be made and so Buck sailed with the fortune hunters while keeping a wary eye on the changeable clouds.
When you write historical fiction people ask these types of questions: Did the Apache men really cut the noses off of women suspected of cheating? Did some people really get addicted to morphine after the Civil War? Did some people really have wounds that wouldn’t heal? Did people really know about homosexuality?
The other day I mentioned stuff I didn’t feel like writing about. I have strong opinions, but like a quiet life. A few years back when I started writing Weary of Running about straight- as- an- arrow West Point Cadet Buck Crenshaw I had no idea that the US would be embroiled in sexual politics on such a grand scale so when a celibate, gay-leaning missionary wrote himself into my story I found it mildly curious. How would Buck and the other characters deal with him? As anyone who’s readmy first book knows, I pride myself on creating flawed characters. I wouldn’t be able to relate to anyone else.
Now before someone gets all excited when I say the gay character is flawed, let me ask: is he human? Let me answer: yes, he’s human so he’s flawed. I hate witch-hunts against gay people. I hate witch-hunts against Christians. I hate false narratives that keep us at each others’ throats. I don’t want a Christian, a Muslim, an atheist, a feminist or a gay activist forcing anything upon me. Having said that I’ve lived a pretty cosmopolitan life and have friends who would define themselves as at least one of the things I just listed. We all agree to disagree on certain points.
Once I mentioned this celibate gay character to an artsy straight woman who thought she knew everything about gay people because she worked in the theater. I wasn’t going to get into a gay trivia contest with her, but it alerted me to the fact that I better start researching how 19th century people handled gay-ness. We all love to go on about prudish Victorians, but even when researching straight sexuality back then you’re immediately struck by the sexually transmitted diseases, divorce and prostitution. Flaws, flaws, flaws.
So here’s what I discovered:
Washington Roebling, one of my very favorite engineers (built the Brooklyn Bridge) felt awful when a classmate of his fell in love with him (and who wouldn’t fall in love with Washy?). The love-sick student killed himself when Washy explained to him that he preferred women. The whole thing was handled discreetly. Washy didn’t express the least bit of hatred toward his friend–just a sad sympathy.
Homosexual behavior was alive and well in the 19th century.Walt Whitman had no trouble finding young, working class men to carry on affairs with. No one ran him out of town either–but then he handled things discreetly.
In England in one town they considered closing the parks at night so gay men wouldn’t have sex there, yet in general anti-sodomy laws were hardly ever enforced.
Why would that be? I think last night I discovered the answer in a stodgy academic journal:Victorians were about discretion. Is this just another word for hypocrisy? I’m not sure but I get it. Here’s their reasoning: Sodomy goes against God’s laws (as does adultery, theft, lying etc). We all struggle with sin, but to expose it (sodomy) gives it a force, a power to contaminate young people and weak-minded women (same goes for dime-store trash novels and modern video games?). Best to ignore it, unless someone makes us deal with it.
Enter Oscar Wilde. Everyone KNEW he was not heterosexual (even when he married). He dressed and behaved in what the Victorians believed was a very stereotypically gay way. Victorians weren’t stupid. They knew what Oscar got up to. They whispered about and laughed. They may have judged him, but they loved his wit. He knew all the best people and everyone wanted him at a party.
Enter disgruntled aristocratic father of one of the young men Oscar slept with.This man wasn’t happy. He warned his son to stay away from Oscar. He warned Oscar.
Back in the day, a male prostitute’s word was seen as suspect. No court would convict a man of sodomy based on a prostitute’s words. In fact a court would prefer not to mention the word sodomy. Oscar thought to nip the whole thing in the bud. Bad move.
The Victorians could handle his “deviant” behavior as background noise, but once the papers turned it into a scandal the nails were hammered. The sin was the contamination. the widespread, open discussion of Oscar’s sexual encounters–and the off-the-cuff, defiant way in which Oscar made fun of social norms in court. The tide turned against him then.
In my upcoming novel there is no grand call for gay rights. There is no gay-bashing either. The character’s sexuality is background noise. He is more than his desires. He is more than a stereotype used to illicit some political agenda–left or right. He’s a struggling human who trusts God more than I do and that’s why I find him interesting.
“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. This is the motive of every action of man, even those who hang themselves.” Blaise Pascal, Pensees
The history of me is one of procrastination and perfectionism. It kept me from writing until well into my thirties. That black and white checkerboard floor in my Brooklyn apartment had to be just so before I’d pick up a pen. I also had to sew homemade toys for the children, take long walks to stay in shape and be up on the latest environmental news–before writing.
But that’s history, for the most part. I get enough exercise carrying 40 pound buckets of maple sap over slushy, uneven paths through the woods. The kids can make their own toys if they want to and for 15 years I’ve managed to write most days. My writing doesn’t pay bills or land me on talk shows. I still have to do most of my own editing and designing (with mixed results) but it sure is been fun.
This morning I felt put upon and antsy. The dogs splashed through every puddle on their morning walk (after I just bathed them), my daughter’s car broke down (so I have to drive her to work) and a friend in need called wanting a lunch date at a trendy coffee shop (and I have this foster kid meeting this evening that I just don’t feel excited about).
DOESN’T EVERYONE KNOW I’M A SPOILED WRITER? When my husband went on the road for his high-stress job I felt sorry for him, but also figured before gardening this spring I’d easily edit all 4 books I’ve written, design the 4 covers and possibly start a new series. That didn’t happen of course. Occasionally I had to actually speak to family members and bond with them. I had to wash dogs and shovel snow. I secretly wished for no house guests and no sleep.
All of this set me up for trouble this morning as I nudged the dog (almost kicked) out of a muddy patch. Didn’t the dog know I was busy? I came in the house. I thought about the idol of performance. I read Charles Spurgeon and remembered how I got here; how I finally took up the pen in the first place. I didn’t set aside months in a cave as a hermit. I didn’t throw away relationships. I didn’t complain that if only I had a laptop . . . I just dipped my metal nib into the blue/black ink a little each day. After three pages I stopped. And I lived.
For Northerners in Antebellum America the shouts of commerce rang out everywhere in their big cities; police whistles, horse hooves over cobblestone, workers yelling after hours at taverns and children–hoards of them hawking papers while calling out the latest headlines. Progress and wealth had a booming noise to it and with it a sense that things were getting done.
Southerners had their bells and their quietude.* When the slaves ran away the owners stayed in bed waiting for the morning bells that never came. But before that they heard the cicadas and the quiet (though not silent) sounds of servitude. Silence was stark and worrisome–were the dark-eyed fieldworkers readying themselves for rebellion? Quietude was different–a hum of rural bliss, a fairytale of peace and plenty.
When the noisy Union forces tramped into this fairytale of quietude the slaves listened hard. The sounds of big guns and wagon-wheels thrilled their hearts to bursting though they must remain in waiting, lips tightly closed around their excitement, for the right moment to escape to enemy lines.
Church bells were some of the first things to go. Some were melted down into cannons and some were hidden from the locust-like Union men. Bells held memories; the celebrations and mourning services of the Southern people were called out with bells. The heady air of early war was crowded with the ringing. And then came the mournful bells of death before the bells went away.
No declaring, no owning of sounds any longer. Silence, waiting and defeat. Crass Northern noise moving in jolted Southern sensibilities. Many planters and slaves remembered the intonation of the words spoken from the front yards of lush plantations: “You are free to leave us now.”
And some went and some stayed and all wondered at the changing sounds of life.
As a child I remember the freight trains at 3 am rumbling through the next town. I’d lie awake wondering about cargo and places I’d never been. On sunny afternoons in late summer I’d be carried away by the sound of small plane engines overhead as I swung high on my swing. My father’s laughter and the screen door banging endlessly–these are some of my first aural memories. I live in a quiet place now and sometimes miss those screen doors.
What are some of your aural memories and how have they changed over the years?
Once a military trail, now a lovers’ lane, Flirtation Walk or Flirtie Walk was opened to West Point Military Academy Cadets and their guests in the 1840’s as one of the few places they could flirt and kiss in private. Part of the path is smooth sailing on firm ground, but there’s bumpy parts, too–perfect for falling into your guy’s arms.
In my upcoming novel, Buck Crenshaw’s romantic dreams are thwarted on one balmy evening along Flirtation Walk as the military band practices in the open air. We all know Rose Turner’s no good for Buck, but he doesn’t. A much better girl waits right under his nose, but you know young cadets. They’re silly.
Do people sneak off into the woods to make out anymore? In our town we had “The Pond” and “The Woods.” Is everyone afraid of ticks? Where did you go for secret romance?
Think while listening to Dick Powell sing about Flirtation Walk.