Buck and Boots

It should come as no surprise to my long-time readers that the only historical figure to appear in The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy is a baseball player. Cletus Elwood “Boots” Poffenberger was the most colorful character in professional baseball during his career which lasted from 1934—1948, excepting 1943-1945 when Boots played for the United States Marine Corps.

Readers will remember that Buck Marsh was a well-regarded baseball player himself in and around Marsh Point. He enlisted in the Marines and, after fighting on Guadalcanal and elsewhere, he was assigned to the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) in Hawaii. Boots was assigned to this same branch of the Marines, although Boots main (only) job was to play baseball, for the Parris Island team initially, and then for FMF. From the chapter, “May 7, 1945” of I’ll Remember You All:

Buck looked around Furlong Field and at the players playing catch. The Fleet Marine Force team was taking on the Aeia Barracks team and while this might officially be a 14th Naval District Baseball League game, the only way that Buck would ever see this much major league talent again was to go to a major league ballpark. Sure, Bob Feller was on a battleship—at his own insistence—but most big leaguers had been assigned to service teams. Their contribution to the war effort was to keep the fighting men entertained by playing ballgames. In fairness, it would be awfully bad for morale if Pee Wee Reese, who was playing for Aeia was killed in battle or half the St. Louis Cardinals were lost at sea.

All the details in the above paragraph are historically accurate. The only item that isn’t is the game itself, but I have a poetic license, and I used it! Boots starts for FMF and pitches a complete game victory. After the game, Buck meets Boots in a bar—no surprise to anyone who knows anything about Boots—and the two discuss Buck’s potential as a baseball player.

As you know, I wrote Boots Poffenberger: Hurler, Hero, Hell-Raiser, and, therefore, did not have to do any additional research when looking for details for a service baseball game in Hawaii, but there is another reason that I included Boots in the trilogy’s final installment: It was researching Boots’ life that inspired The Secret of Their Midnight Tears in the first place.

Boots was from Williamsport, MD, where we used to live, and the town was the first in the United States to publish and distribute a newsletter, the Dug-Out for its men and women in the armed services during World War II. The town museum houses a complete collection of the Dug-Out, and Jerry Knode, Boots’ step-son who was the museum’s caretaker, was only too happy to lend me the collection. I read about the Army Aircraft Warning Service, which had placed an observation post in Williamsport, on a hill overlooking the Potomac; I read about rationing, and who was stationed where, and what service men and women did on leave, and abuot news and gossip. I knew facts about the home front, but I had no idea up to that time how people (i.e. my parents among others) felt about events, what they laughed at, what they hoped for, and how they all coped.

An entire way of life sprang up on December 7, 1941 and essentially disappeared on August 14, 1945. Given the loss and the sacrifice that occurred during this time, it is no wonder that folks were far more interested in moving forward then they were in preserving the war-time way of life. Having that way of life revealed to me is really what The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy is all about, and if you have enjoyed the series, you can thank Boots Poffenberger.

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We Can’t Reenact the Uncertainty

Several members of my dance family and I will be attending a USO Dance in Edinburg, Virginia this coming Saturday (October 12). Most of us have a real affinity for the music of World War II, and we can enjoy it so much more than those for whom it was contemporary music, for we know how—and when—the war ended. Had this dance been held 75 years ago, on October 12, 1944 (a Thursday night, by the way) uncertainty would have hung over the dance floor like the cigarette smoke from a couple dozen soldiers and sailors.

Sure, the Nazis were retreating. Paris had been liberated some six weeks before at the end of August, and the Japanese were on the defensive. There was talk that the boys in Europe would be home by Christmas; but Christmas Day would find Allied troops fighting the Germans and the cold in the Ardennes Forest in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. In the Pacific, the 1st Marine Division, and later, the Army’s 81st Infantry Division were slugging it out with the Japanese on the island of Peleliu. Casualties were high, and the fighting was hard. Eight Marines would win the Medal of Honor during this fight; five posthumously. No one had yet heard of Iwo Jima or Okinawa.

Reenactments and USO Dances can give us the flavor of the times, but there is one key ingredient that will always be missing: the uncertainty. Would we win? Would my son/brother/father/husband come home? And, what then? Everyone knows the answer to the first question, and in I’ll Remember You All, the other two questions will be answered for Buck, Johnny, Jimmy, Elizabeth, Veronica, and the other characters in The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy. I hope that you will enjoy the conclusion to the story that began in 1941 and will end later than you might expect.

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The Secret of Their Midnight Tears Trilogy is About to Be Completed!

It is heartwarming to know that many readers of this blog are also fans of my books, and, therefore, I am pleased to say that I’ll Remember You All, the final book in The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy, is almost ready for publication. It is about to be copy-edited, and once that task is complete (thank you, Martha!) I will format both the electronic and paperback editions, and publish both versions. Formatting probably takes 10 hours or so, which means a couple of hours to format 95% of the book, and 8 hours trying to remember how to format the other 5%, especially those page numbers!

As the publication date draws near, I’ll sample certain sections and provide some background on some of the novel’s characters and plot twists.

 

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What is the Saddest Song?

Living life to the fullest isn’t just about maximizing the happiness in it, it is also about embracing the sadness and the pain. I use the word embrace very deliberately. After all, one can’t know happiness without knowing its opposite and all that one may feel in between. If you want one side of the coin, you have to put the whole thing in your pocket. Embrace the sad, the grief, the frustration, the disappointment. Trying to ignore or suppress it only makes it worse anyway.

All of which brings me to the idea that when the sadness falls, a really sad song might be very helpful. It is reassuring to know that someone else out there is hurting, but more than that, and at the bottom of that well of tears, there is this gift: Someone has put words to your sadness, a melody to your grief, and when that gift is delivered by the perfect voice, then you have a tool by which to embrace the sadness—to face it, talk to it, understand it, and begin heading towards the next happy wave in the ups and downs of life.

I got to thinking about this while watching the PBS documentary, Country, which is really a biography of country music. No one writes or sings sad songs like the old-time country musicians, and I expect it’s because they were people who happened to sing, and not singers trying to be real people. An example from Country is the fact that Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins became immediate friends when they discovered that both had scars on their fingers from picking cotton as kids.

Most sad songs are about love that is no more, but not “Blue Bayou.” Written by Roy Orbison, who also recorded it, the most haunting version is by Linda Rondstadt. The song captures the longing for home: “I’m going back some day, come what may to Blue Bayou,” and images of that beautiful place drift by in the lyrics that follow. The sadness lies between the lines, however, for we all know that quite often “some day” never comes, and if it does, home won’t be the way we remember it.

Another “between the lines” sad song is “I’ll Be Seeing You.” The most popular version was by Bing Crosby. Released in 1944,  it’s the historical context that gives the song its sad flavor. Many families no doubt sent their boys and girls off to fight with the words, “I’ll be seeing you,” but they were said with false courage, for everyone knew that they might be parting for the last time. Another Crosby song, released the year before, contains the same theme, waiting until the last line before facing the reality: “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

Roy Orbison’s “Crying” should be on everyone’s list. “I was all right for a while, I could smile for a while . . .” And right there, after the first line everyone starts nodding. Orbison’s delivery is perfect. He just stands there, straight as can be, his voice strong and steady, but he makes you feel that at any moment, he might drop to his knees and start sobbing. But he doesn’t, and we think, Well, if he can stand there and sing that song, then I can go to work, or do whatever it is we need to do to carry on.

Many Patsy Cline songs are like that. “I Fall to Pieces,” and “Crazy” wouldn’t be so sad were it not for her strong delivery. She seems to shake her head and say between the line, “I’m doing this to myself,” and we shake our heads and say, “Yep! Me, too.” Perhaps, her saddest song is “Faded Love,” the very title of which is haunting. As Patsy sings the final line, her voice catches before the last word—“I’ll remember our faded . . . love.” Some in the studio thought this ruined the take, but producer Owen Bradley left it in much to his credit. (To add another level of poignancy, “Faded Love” was recorded in Cline’s final studio session, a month before the plane crash that took her life.)

As much as I love Patsy Cline, I’d have to say that “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams is the saddest song I know. It’s not until the penultimate line that we learn what caused the emptiness about which Hank sings, but by that time, it doesn’t matter. We say we’re down when we’re sad, but this song shows just how far down down can get.

There’s no sense in me talking about it, anymore: Just listen. Then tell me the saddest song you know in the comments below.

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Winchester’s Own, Spottswood Poles

Spottswood Poles was one of the greatest Negro League players, and he was born just a few miles from where I write this, in Winchester, Virginia.

Please enjoy the twelth installment of Off the Beaten Basepaths:

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The Spirit of the Man

One week ago this evening (August 12, 2019) I attended “Mo’s 10th Inning,” which was the posthumous party Mo Weber threw for his friends, complete with endless trays of shrimp and an open bar. Laughter erupted constantly in various corners of the room. Photos and mementoes of Mo’s seven-decade coaching career evoked smiles and memories.

The only thing Mo loved more than baseball was his family. The thing is, if you ever met Mo, you were immediately part of his family. He had this great ability to not only connect with people, but to connect those he met to each other.

That night, Martha and I sat with Tom and Tina Carr, down from upstate New York, specifically to attend this 10th Inning. Mo had hired Tom 30 years ago to coach the New Market Rebels who play in Virginia’s Valley Baseball League. As Tom explained, Mo became something of a father to him—and clearly something of a father-in-law to Tina. Tom had read Safe at Home: A Season in the Valley, and he and I had exchanged e-mails, but this was our first in-person encounter. Had you dropped in on the conversation, you might have thought that the four of us had known one another for all of those 30 years. Later in the evening, Tom introduced me to Will Gangwer of New Market. The Gangwers were Tom’s host family when he was coaching and Will was about nine years old. Will is now a second-generation host family. Will had read Safe at Home, too, and enjoyed it so much that he was moved to present to me a print of Rebel Park that his wife, Keisha, had drawn. I had seen the same print prominently displayed in Mo’s home. Tom was clutching one, too.

All evening, I had the sensation that I would look up and see Mo at the bar or at the other end of the buffet line or telling someone the story behind one of those photos. Then it struck me: Maynard G. “Mo” Weber may have died, but he didn’t leave us. That would be impossible, because he was there, within us. The love and respect that he had for his fellow passengers on this Journey was so great that Mo was still connecting people even after he had reached his Destination.

***

I often stop by Rebel Park on my way through New Market to walk the warning track and listen to the silence. I see in my mind’s eye boys I wrote about and boys who played there; and in this sacred space they remain boys forever. And next time I’m there, and I pass that part of the outfield fence on which Mo Weber’s retired jersey is painted, I’m sure that the emotion will be strong. It won’t be sadness, however, but rather profound gratitude that through Fate or Fortune, I can say that Mo Weber was my friend.

Mo and McKinnon Langston, 2009

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Why Are There Ohio Road Signs in Virginia?

We have all had those moments when we’re driving, in which we forget where we’re going; or our minds are wandering, and we merrily motor along on our way to work; only it’s Saturday and we meant to head to the grocery store, which, of course, is in the opposite direction. I thought I was having one of those moments when I passed the sign that appears in the photo. Clearly, I had not been daydreaming for so long that I drove right past the grocery store all the way to Ohio, had I? Couldn’t be because the entrance to our community of Snowden Bridge is clearly visible in the background. In fact, I noticed four or five of these signs in the area, and indeed, our local SR 661, a.k.a. “Red Bud Road” will be closed for repairs until early August. All of which begs the question as to why Virginia is using Ohio road signs.

Did Ohio order 10 SR 661 signs only to have the Acme Company read the order as 100? I say the “Acme Company” because Amazon doesn’t carry them (I checked), and if dynamite and anvils and such supplies can be ordered from Acme, then it stands to reason that they would have road signs, too. In fact, I’m pretty sure the Road Runner has a number of Acme road signs in storage for any “need-to-detour-Wile E. Coyote” emergencies.

For the record, Ohio does have an SR 661, a 22.22 mile stretch of road that begins just south of Granville, and runs due north until it dead ends at SR 13 just south of Mt. Vernon. Generally, speaking this is between Columbus and Cleveland. Maybe 10 was the minimum order—one sign every 2.2 miles seems excessive to me in the first place, so it’s possible that Ohio got on a group chat, and let all her buddy states know that if anyone had a State Road 661, and needed a few signs, they had some extras that they could sell at a clearance price:

“That’s right, Virginia, they’re on clearance. . . . Oh, you know some are dinged, some are scratched. . . . All of ‘em have the outline of Ohio painted on them. . . .”

“We’ll take five!”

Could anyone in VDOT verify this conversation or otherwise explain why we have Ohio road signs in Virginia? I’d just like to know.

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