This is the second edition of the revised website. Thanks to all who commented on the inaugural version last month. We appreciated the kind words and suggestions and will try hard to keep the site fresh and entertaining.
As the email note mentioned, there is some REALLY BIG news on the writing front. Fire in the North: The Minnesota Uprising and the Sioux War in Dakota Territory, the book I have been writing with a university colleague, was recently released by Hellgate Press.
The book tells a story of an important, but little known, event in American history. Until exceeded by the tragic occurrences of September 11, 2001, the Minnesota Uprising – as it came to be known—would result in the highest number of civilians ever killed by hostile action on American soil. Fire in the North traces the circumstances that led to the conflict and tells the story of the major Indian war that exploded suddenly in southern Minnesota and over the months that followed extended into the far reaches of the Great Plains. Eventually, almost all of Minnesota would be engulfed.as would present-day North and South Dakota and a sizable portion of eastern Montana. Major campaigns crisscrossed Dakota Territory which, among several other notable encounters, was the scene of the largest battle fought during any of the Indian wars. Portions of Iowa and Wisconsin were touched as well. In northeast Nebraska Territory, farms and settlements were abandoned as the fighting spread westward. The 2nd Nebraska Cavalry participated in a major campaign and was lauded for its actions in the major battle at Whitestone Hill in present-day North Dakota. Winnebago and Sioux tribesmen, those who were exiled as well as those who fled the Minnesota fighting, eventually wound up in Nebraska – the Winnebago with Omaha allies on the Omaha Reservation and the Sioux with kinsmen and fellow tribesmen at the Santee Reservation near the mouth of the Niobrara River.
My co-author, Reuben Rieke, grew up in Fairfax, Minnesota, and as a young man developed an abiding interest in his family’s involvement in the Sioux uprising. His family’s story, compiled from detailed family records, photographs and correspondence, is woven into the saga of the wider conflict.
In the midst of the maelstrom, a remarkable set of circumstances brought Reuben’s family and two other settler families together in a connection that continues to the present day. Their true stories read like a Hollywood thriller. The Rieke family made a perilous journey to safety at the nearest military post where three brothers fought in the fort’s defense, one made a wagon dash under fire to bring desperately needed water to the fort, another died during the action and a younger sister fluent in the Sioux tongue foiled a plot to inform Indian leaders of the tenuous conditions inside the fort.
It is a story made more poignant by the fact that the Riekes were known for their friendship with Sioux tribesmen and for their fair treatment of Dakota neighbors, often providing shelter for them during winter months. Indeed, the beautiful peace pipe that is pictured on the cover of the book was given to the Rieke family by a Sioux tribal leader as a sign of friendship. The sacred pipe, carved from a quarry near Pipestone, Minnesota, remains in the family’s possession as a treasured memento.
The book is fairly slender, 209 narrative pages, 225 overall with references, index, etc. It is available in paperback, hardcover, and e-book editions. For those who may be interested, Fire in the North can be ordered through bookstores, amazon, or directly from the publisher at firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope those who do choose to pick it up will find it to be an enjoyable read.
With the release of this book, I suppose it is time to begin more seriously considering what comes next. (Although I may first take a day or two just to savor the moment.) For a considerable time my inclination has been to close the In the Shadows of Victory: America’s Forgotten Military Leaders series with a third, and final, volume that brings us from the Cold War up to the present day. I suspect I will pursue that notion although some publishers have indicated that World War II material is a special audience favorite at the moment and for whatever reason there is presently less popular enthusiasm for modern-day stuff. So, we’ll see. The first two chapters of a prospective third volume – Cold War and Korean War – have been written in rough draft form and I’ve done some beginning research on Vietnam (painful reading). The Gulf War and Iraq-Afghanistan would follow and possibly some short sections on Panama and Grenada as well.
Now for a few words on an activity that clearly makes the world a better place: it is that time of year again and at long last the baseball playoffs are upon us. October brings us into the month-long series of playoff games. The playoff atmosphere and the adrenalin rush that builds as the World Series draws near make it a hoot to open the sports page in the morning. Even the coffee has a special taste.
The excitement and the emotional investment of the fan base – particularly among the followers of the teams competing in the playoffs – recall for me a brief but remarkable piece of writing by Roger Angell, a sprightly 98-year old who I think is one of America’s truly great writers. Angell is not primarily a sports writer. He contributes regularly to The New Yorker and for many years was the magazine’s fiction editor. Still, a Sports Illustrated writer called Angell “the curator of our baseball souls.” Some time ago I ran across a snippet of his writing that I shared with a group of Air Force friends. I was taken by the elegance with which he wrote about an emotional connection to the game. Later, I included his words in the January 2016 monthly newsletter. It seemed appropriate to repeat them here. Perhaps they will touch you as well.
It is foolish and childish on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know the look – I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring – caring deeply and passionately, really caring – which is a capacity of an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naivete – the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball – seems a small price to pay for such a gift.
The playoffs and the Series do seem to reenergize the baseball world. Several years ago, I wrote a small article about an individual “of a certain age” who looked back to distant memories in an attempt to transfer his affection for the game to a youngster of a different generation. “Renewal” was published in the July, 2011, edition of Spitball: The Baseball Literary Magazine. (Spitball is a pristine, tiny little gem of a sports magazine, by the way.) The time seemed right to present the story to the website audience. It follows below in lieu of the usual WHO SAYS THEY DON’T WRITE GREAT POETRY ANYMORE feature. I hope you will enjoy it.
Mac hadn’t been to a game for quite a long time.
Years ago, Ellie used to come with him. He wasn’t sure if she really liked the games that much. Sometimes he thought she just wanted to be with him, or more precisely, just for them to be together. She would sit beside him, watching the games with varying degrees of interest, sometimes keeping score if there was a favorite player like Brooks Robinson or if the game had playoff implications. Sometimes she just read one of the romance novel paperbacks that she always had with her.
That was one of the things he liked about the game: those un-timed quiet moments for reflection, conversation, or – in his case, analysis and conjecture – between pitches. It was free time: you could, if you wished, just bask in the sun, savor the crowd, the grass, the background buzz of venders and fans.
Or you could read a book. Like Ellie. Gone now for so long. How many years was it? It embarrassed him that he could not immediately recall, that he had to do some mental arithmetic to compute the exact number. It would have been nice to have her here today, to see the boy beside him. She would know how to make it special. She could always do that.
Anyway, it had been the boy’s question that had brought them to the ball park. The boy had asked him why he liked the game. In his quiet way, Mac had mumbled a few inadequate words in reply. That was one of the times he wished he was more of a talker; perhaps then he could better explain his enchantment with the game. But of course there was no way to really explain … or at least to do it quickly.
Besides, even he wasn’t sure what caused the fascination or how it had started. He remembered himself as a very small boy grumbling about “nothing to do, no one to play with” after chores were done on his parents’ farm. His mother got tired of it, found a used ball and glove, and showed him how to throw the ball on the roof of a small granary and catch it as it rolled off. Soon the shed did not present enough of a challenge so he moved to the barn, a much taller building with a steep gable. The ball came off the roof much faster – except for the times he threw it too hard and it rolled clear over the top. Then he had to waste precious minutes trying to find it in the wood pile on the other side.
So many things intrigued him. What kind of a game was it where the defense puts the ball in play … and how did they decide the distance between the bases? However they did it, it turned out right: any longer and almost everyone would be out; any shorter and too many would be safe – just right. And then there were those one on one competitions: pitcher against hitter, catcher against runner, fielder against batted ball, all inside a team context. The game teased him, insinuated itself first into his thoughts, and then into his reading, and finally – soon – it became a part of his life. For him, at least, it was mostly unexplainable.
His daughter-in-law had overheard the dinner table conversation and suggested that maybe Mac should take the boy to a game so he could see for himself. She said with a smile that the boy’s dad would never do it. He smiled too, but he knew that what she said was true. That had always been a disappointment to him, although he would never admit it. Everyone had their own thing, and his son had never caught the magic.
He cautioned the boy about the turnstile, bought peanuts and soft drinks, and found their seats. They were early – Mac always was – because he liked this part, also: seeing the stadium fill up, watching infield practice.
It had always been that way.
One year growing up his midget league team played on a field across the street from a city park. He and two teammates always went early and played catch while they waited for earlier games to finish and for the rest of the team to show up. The three of them had half a city block of green space all to themselves and threw the ball back and forth, long and short, high and low, for a long time. His friends always teased him about having on his “game face” because he said so little, but in reality he was simply immersed in the activity. After a few minutes the coils of the day would unloosen and the game of catch would work its spell, absorbing him completely in the process of catching and throwing the ball, listening to the mitts pop in the coolness of the evening.
He heard the boy ask him if he had ever been to big stadium like this when he was a boy. Mac had answered no he had not. Not really.
He said nothing further. The boy would scoff at the story; there was no way for the child to understand that the barn, the yard, the cinder driveway, had been for him a major league ball park. The pasture fence and a long Quonset hut were the stadium walls, which he tried to clear by hitting rocks with a wooden stick. … No, there was really no way for the boy to know. So he remained silent.
He didn’t know much about the boy who sat beside him brushing back a strand of the dark hair that fell to his forehead as he carefully broke open a peanut shell. Mac smiled at the gesture. Ellie had told him any number of times – always with that mischievous grin – that she had spent half her adult life brushing hair out of his eyes. That was almost true, he guessed. Jostled by the slightest provocation, that unruly shock of hair still tumbled down over his eyebrows. Of course, he acknowledged, it was much thinner now.
They made the requisite restroom stop before the game started and got back to their seats just as the team ran onto the field. They sat through two quiet innings and Mac was beginning to worry that the game was going to be one of the hum-drum affairs – not at all what he was hoping for. Finally, in the third inning the second batter hit a low line drive that picked up chalk down the right field line and ricocheted off the wall deep in the corner. As the fielder chased down the ball, the runner rounded second and beat the throw to third with a fade-away slide to the outfield side of the base.
That’s called a hook slide – or at least it used to be – Mac heard himself saying when he saw the boy looking at the replay screen. He said that learning how to do a hook slide had gotten him in trouble once when he was nine or ten years old. The boy’s look invited the rest of the story about how Mac’s mother had installed slick new linoleum on the living room floor and he had used it to practice sliding. He had developed a nifty hook slide, but his mother had not been pleased – at all -- by the scuff marks. The boy listened respectfully and asked what “linoleum” was.
Mac kept score – always did. When the boy asked him about it, he explained the position numbers and the codes. The boy remarked that the same information was on the big screen in center field … and it had pictures. He acknowledged that it did; said that he probably kept the book out of force of habit. Doing it tied him to the game, he explained. And years from now if the game was discussed for any reason, he could check the book and find out what really happened. He asked the boy if he would like to try it for an inning, but the youngster said no.
In the fifth inning, they had hot dogs and shared another bag of peanuts. By then, the game had settled into a pitcher’s duel and Mac found his thoughts shifting back and forth between action on the field and events from other times and places. That was a sure sign, he supposed, that he was really getting old.
When his skills had progressed to the point where catching the ball when it came off the roof became routine, he outlined a strike zone of on the side of the barn and spent countless hours pitching imaginary games with an old tennis ball. Eventually, he borrowed a roll of black tape from his dad and marked the strike zone into quadrants: high inside, high outside, low inside, low outside. A distant miss from the square he was throwing at constituted a hit for the other team – the further the miss, the longer the hit.
When he was twelve he pitched a perfect game against that barn. He was determined not to fudge or let up, even though in the ninth inning he fell behind 3-0 in the count to the leadoff batter. Fortunately, his next three pitches were all in the low outside box, just where they were intended to be. For the next week, much to his mother’s bemusement, he had walked around the house smiling and cocky.
Mac couldn’t tell if the boy was enjoying the game. He watched it mostly in silence. His daughter-in-law had said the little guy was pretty quiet. After they finished the second bag of peanuts, he asked if the boy would like a souvenir – a cap, one of those small bats, or a pen, perhaps. The child had said no, but maybe his mom would like one of those stuffed animals or bobble-head dolls.
The two of them sat side by side, not speaking much as the game unfolded. He found himself mesmerized, as he always did, speculating on what might come next, what pitch to use, whether to send the runner, recalling similar scenes from other times and places. He watched, his mind only half in the present, as the pitcher prepared for his next delivery, tamping down some loose dirt in front of the rubber, sweeping the mound smooth with that back and forth arc of his foot that seemed genetic to everyone who ever played the position.
He had smoothed the soil like that one night long ago when a pitcher’s mound had seemed the loneliest place in the world – and the most exciting. The summer he graduated from high school he had pitched a “real” no-hitter in an Elks League game. He remembered it still, could recall it almost pitch by pitch. As the innings went by and the opposing team went down out after out after out, the small stadium became silent between pitches. It was as if all sound, all motion outside the dimensions of the park had ceased, and the sole focus of the universe was on that clump of raised dirt in the center of a manicured sea of green. There was no place else he would rather be. He had never experienced a feeling like that, before or since.
After the game a pretty classmate ran onto the field and gave him a kiss. He had never mentioned that to Ellie.
In the top of the seventh the visitors changed pitchers, bringing in a reliever whose odd delivery carried him off the mound to the third base side. The boy looked at him quizzically and Mac agreed that it was indeed an awful-looking release. He mentioned advice that his first coach had given him. The coach said the pitcher should pretend there is a straight line from where he lets go of the ball to home plate. Then as he throws, he just needs to swivel his fanny so that his lead foot crosses over the line and lands about six inches outside it. Rotating his hips like that adds speed to the pitch but more importantly it helps the pitcher’s follow-through: his back leg plants in a more balanced position and he finishes centered on the batter, ready to field. He had always thought that was good advice.
The words just popped out; for Mac it was almost an outburst. He thought he probably should have kept quiet -- even if the boy understood what he said, he probably hadn’t welcomed the coaching homily. He shrugged as he discarded the empty peanut bag and, somewhat apologetically, told the youngster that maybe they didn’t teach that anymore.
There was a runner on now, in the eighth inning. The boy seemed comfortable enough being with him, but gave no signal that he cared particularly for the game.
They probably should leave early, Mac thought. They could beat the rush to the gate, get out ahead of the traffic, and get the boy home and back to his parents at a reasonable hour.
He didn’t think he would come again. My gosh, all that foolishness day-dreaming about high school games fifty years in the past. Ellie would have teased him no end.
Mac leaned forward, focused again on the game, decided that he would wait to see what happened with the runner. Then they would go. He was immediately absorbed, as he always was – watching the runner take his lead, the pitcher work from the stretch, the first baseman hold close to the bag, then break away.
After a few moments, just outside his conscious, he was aware of some words being spoken to him, perhaps accompanied by a touch on the arm.
Why -- why -- yes, Mac heard himself say to the boy. I thought they should pitchout, too.
Enjoy the fall season, everyone. Best wishes, always