Loreta’s Civil War: No apologies to offer

In this final excerpt, Velazquez ends her journey in Texas, where she reflects on her life of war and peace, and where she looks optimistically to the future. She is satisfied and proud that she fulfilled her dream to live a rich and adventurous life.

Throughout 2016 and 2017, Stillness of Heart shared edited excerpts from the extraordinary memoir of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who chronicled her adventures throughout the Civil War — either as herself, as a Confederate spy, or in disguise as Confederate Lt. Harry T. Buford. She fought and led men in terrible battles, fell in love, bore and lost children, and traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe, ultimately fulfilling her childhood dream of a rich and adventurous life.

You can read the entire 1876 memoir online here. Learn more about Velazquez (and the incredible documentary film Maria Agui Carter made about her) here.

Read previous chapters of her incredible story here.

Part 70: In this final excerpt, Velazquez ends her journey in Texas, where she reflects on her life of war and peace, and where she looks optimistically to the future. She is satisfied and proud that she fulfilled her dream to live a rich and adventurous life.

******

Once on the road again, we followed the valley southward, stopping the next day for our dinner at an Indian village, which was situated at the foot of a lofty mountain and which overlooked the Rio Grande. After having dined, we struck across a stretch of high, dry table land, covered with sagebushes, of which we gathered a quantity as we went along to be used as fuel in cooking our supper. We reached the Rio Grande again about nightfall and had a grand supper, some of the gentlemen having succeeded in killing half a dozen wild ducks and one rabbit, and in catching one fish.

From this point, we pursued our way down the valley, passing a number of old Mexican towns and plantations of cotton and sycamore, which indicated that the land had once been thickly settled with people of no mean civilization, until we reached Fort McRae.

This valley of the Rio Grande is a magnificent route for a railroad, and I doubt not that in a few years it will be found worthwhile to build one. There is plenty of water and timber, and the country offers many inducements to industrious settlers. The principal towns are Albuquerque, Valencia, Socarro, Dona Ana, and Mesilla. The Pueblo Indians have a number of settlements, and the portions of country inhabited by them are generally in a high state of cultivation. These Indians own a great many cattle, sheep, and horses, and they support a number of churches and schools.

Near Fort McRae is the famous hot spring. It is situated on a high mound, and its depth has never been sounded. This spring is in a state of constant ebullition, is very clear, very hot, and is possessed of valuable medicinal properties. Consumptives are especially benefited by the use of its waters. Around the edge is a rough crust of lime, which takes all imaginable shapes. The water of the spring will cook eggs quicker than ordinary boiling water, and when cool it is very pleasant to the taste. A short distance off is a cold spring, near which is a famous Indian camping ground.

Striking south-westward from Fort McRae, we came to Rio de los Mimtres, near the head of which is Mowry City, founded by Lt. Mowry, who could not have had any very clear ideas as to what he was about when he attempted to make a settlement in such a place. Mowry City has a hotel, one or two stores, and more drinking-saloons than do it any good. That it will ever be much of a place I do not believe. There is not water enough in the river the greater part of the time to float two logs together, and in very dry weather one can step across it without wetting the feet. A sudden shower will, however, convert this puny creek in a short time into a raging river, which carries everything before it, and then it will subside as suddenly as it arose.

From Mowry City, which I regarded as a fraud of the worst kind, we went to Pachalalo, where we found a very beautiful ranch, owned by a Canadian who had taken a great deal of pains in improving and beautifying his place. He had made a pretty artificial lake, which, like the rest of the ranch, was supplied with water brought down from the mountains.

A visit was now made to Silver City, a new settlement in the mountains, containing probably about fifteen hundred inhabitants. There were three quartz mills, but nothing worth talking about appeared to be doing in the way of getting out metal. None of the mines were paying expenses, chiefly, I thought, through a lack of competent persons to treat the ore, which seemed to be rich enough. Another and very great difficulty in working these mines, however, was the absence of transportation facilities and the presence of hostile Indians. A railroad will aid immensely in developing this country, which is one of the richest in the world in minerals. On the San Domingo, San Francisco, and Gila Rivers are admirable grazing lands, which will be very valuable to somebody in the course of time. The attractions of this country are very great, and it will doubtless be rapidly settled in a few years.

This country, however, did not hold out any great inducement for me at the time of my visit, and, after taking a look at it, I turned back, and passing through Mesilla, went to El Paso, in Texas, where I remained two days, preparatory to taking the overland stage for a journey across the Lone Star State.

El Paso is the terminus of the overland stage route, the mails being conveyed from there to the interior on horseback. This town is one of the prettiest on the Rio Grande, and there is more business done there than in any place in that whole region outside of Santa Fe. El Paso contains a number of really fine buildings, which would do credit to some Eastern cities. The country in the vicinity produces corn, wheat, and all kinds of vegetables in great abundance. Excellent grapes grow without cultivation, from which the best wine I ever drank, outside of France, is made. The climate is very healthy, the soil fertile, being capable of producing anything that will grow in Louisiana, and the water abundant for all purposes.

The overland stage from El Paso passes through a number of small villages, along the banks of the Rio Grande, until Fort Bliss is reached. This country contains some of the finest grazing lands for sheep in the world. The next place is Fort Quitman, where a large garrison is stationed, and leaving this, the road passes through a well-timbered country, abounding in live-oak, cedar, and taskata — a species of pine which makes a very intense heat when used for fuel. Eagle Spring, a short distance from Fort Quitman, takes its name from the immense number of eagles that build their nests and rear their young in the rocky cliffs. The scenery here is very beautiful but it is considered one of the most dangerous spots on the route, on account of the opportunities which it offers to the Indians for an effective attack.

Leaving the river and making the interior, we were not long in arriving at about as rough and unpleasant a piece of ground as I ever traveled over. In this strip of territory, of about thirty miles in width, rattlesnakes and horned toads are more abundant than the scorpions on Scorpion Rock at St. Thomas.

The Leon Holes, which our stage next reached, are three in number, and the water is very brackish. No bottom has ever been found to them. They say that a freighter who wished to tighten the tire of a wheel, threw it into one of these holes, but when he was ready to start it was not to be seen, having passed completely out of sight.

About seven miles from the Leon Holes is Fort Stockton, and beyond that is a station-house kept by a man who had the reputation of dishing up for his guest pretty near everything and anything that could be eaten. The place, however, was neat and clean, and as the cooking looked inviting, I, being too hungry to be over-fastidious, ate what was before me and asked no questions.

We next traveled through a number of beautiful valleys and over rolling prairies, abounding in buffaloes, antelopes, and deer until the Rio Pecos was reached. This is a bold and muddy stream, and when, as the stagemen say, it gets on a rampage, it rushes on in a perfect torrent. The station-keeper at this point was a small man who blasphemed enough for six large ones. In spite of his foul language, however, he was a good housekeeper, and everything about his place looked nice and in good order.

Our stage now rolled through one of the richest stock-raising countries in America — a country which, when the Texas and Pacific Railroad is built, will certainly be rapidly settled.

The farther we now proceeded the more frequent became the signs of civilization, and, as with this journey, through a most interesting but little-known section of the country, was the last of my adventures that is likely to be of interest to the majority of readers, this seems to be a proper place to bring this narrative to a close.

Perhaps my story was worth the telling, perhaps not — the great public, to whom I have ventured to confide a plain and unpretentious account of my adventuresome career, will be a better judge of that than I am. All I claim is that my conduct, under the many trying and peculiar circumstances in which I have been placed, shall be judged with impartiality and candor, and that due credit shall be given me for integrity of purpose and a desire to do my whole duty as I understand it.

For the part I took in the great contest between the South and the North I have no apologies to offer. I did what I thought to be right, and, while anxious for the good opinion of all honorable and right-thinking people, a consciousness of the purity of my motives will be an ample protection against the censure of those who may be disposed to be censorious.

THE END

My grand strategy

Today I turned 43. In these later years, I perceive a small but steadily growing pool of wisdom fueling a clear philosophical perspective on the increasingly complex calculus of my life.

IMG_1445

Today I turned 43.

The number doesn’t bother me. When I look back on my past accomplishments, both professional and academic, both modest and respectable, I’m comfortably reminded that I’ve always been a late bloomer. The great triumphs — comparatively great — always came right the end of each chapter of my life, just when the time came for me to move on and start over somewhere else. Perhaps for someone like me, with my ambitions, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Every day begins with two thoughts: “There’s still a little time left. Relax.” and “Pretend this is your last day on earth because one day it will be. Work faster.” I stagger through the days wavering between those two sentiments.

At the end of 2014, I completed a master’s degree in U.S. history at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), topped off with a 190-page thesis — the cherry on the sundae. I never had so much fun — ask the people who know me … “fun” is not a word they ever expect me to use. During that last half of 2014, I attracted the attention of UTSA’s Communications office, which sent a reporter to profile me, perhaps to hold me up as an example to others, perhaps to highlight the interesting and intelligent people enriching and enriched by the UTSA’s wonderful History Department. Perhaps it was just my turn. Nevertheless, I was flattered and honored. I shamelessly shared it throughout social media, as I am now. “We are all very proud of you,” one of my beloved professors wrote me. My heart burst with teary pride — the rarest of my few expressed emotions.

The best part of the article came right at the beginning. The first paragraph captured the grand strategy I set out for my life: “At an early age, [Ortiz] charted the life he wanted to lead: journalist, academic scholar and author.” At some point in my twenties — not sure when, exactly, but probably as I began to seriously study history and biography — I determined to approach life with a larger consideration: “How will I be remembered?” I knew enough to know that a great legacy was constructed with small pieces, carried one small step at a time, and sometimes at first only imperfectly constructed. I held close to my heart a few simple rules. Never turn away from a challenge. Never shrink away from leaping out of your comfort zone into unknown terrain. Never decline the opportunity to fail. Never fail to learn from those failures. All are easy to say and painfully difficult to follow.

In early 2015, I was honored when Dr. Catherine Clinton, a leading Civil War scholar, asked me to assist her with some special research for a few months. Just as that ended, I was honored yet again with an offer to actually teach U.S. history to college undergraduates at Northwest Vista College and then again at UTSA in 2016. Solitary research and writing — annotated bibliographies, briefing memos, etc. — is ideal for someone as shy as me. Teaching and discussing U.S. history with 70 to 80 young men and women is not. I stood in those classrooms and wondered how I could teach these young men and women. My comfort zone was nowhere in sight. Nevertheless, I knew when I accepted the challenge that I was undertaking the most difficult and the most important job of my life. Perhaps someday I might actually be good at it (though student applause is always reassuring). These are a few of those crucial pieces of the larger something I am trying to build, just as the men and women who came before me struggled to build their own lives, faced down their challenges and fears, and took one more step forward.

My Peruvian great-grandfather was prosperous fisherman who owned a fishing fleet. His son, my grandfather, was an Army general and special forces commander. His son, my father, is a physician. My father’s son — me — is … what? I was blessed with generous, loving, and supportive parents, who always pushed my brother and me to succeed. They trusted us to find our own way within their explicit expectations. It was assumed that we would become productive and honorable men as we kept in mind who built the comfortable world we inhabited. My interests guided me toward history, literature, and psychology. My mind naturally blossomed as historical concepts, literary theory, psychopathology, and the hourly drama of news cycles all caressed, molded, and ignited my growing intellect and imagination. But I realized that some kind of structure was needed. Simply wandering through my interests was not enough — it all had to amount to something in the end, something my descendants would look back on and admire … and perhaps emulate.

In some small way, this blog is an expression of that grand strategy. I’ve written about and shared with my readers my love of podcasts and photography, of the Civil War and fiction writing. I’ve shared with them a plethora of strange stories and documentaries, thoughts about Hemingway, rum cakes, books, and TR. They’ve experienced my passion for “Miami Vice”, Elvis, a Louisiana woman fleeing Union invasion during the Civil War, and a Cuban woman who disguised herself as a man and savored every moment of that same brutal war. Each piece fits into the larger plan.

In these later years, I perceive a small but steadily growing pool of wisdom fueling a clear philosophical perspective on the increasingly complex calculus of my life. Every failure becomes simply the moment when a fresh opportunity is revealed to me. Every hard-earned success merely offers a better vantage point on the harsh terrain ahead. As I move into this new year, from my new vantage point I can take in a horridly-jagged landscape stretching out before my eyes, seemingly endless, on into the horizon. But that far-off horizon is gleaming. The shimmering edges are only now in sight, the barely-perceptible glitter drawing me forward, igniting the ambition filling my heart, and steeling my spirit for the disappointments, setbacks, wrong turns, and frustrations darkening the journey.

My grand strategy, glowing in my soul, burned into my mind, never leaves me. The sweet promise of a final victory — a life well-lived — is my last thought as sleep and dreams wrap their arms around me and carry me away into the silent night.

Dec. 31, 1999: The last day of the past

IMG_0290

On Dec. 31, 1999, I was a junior news editor at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, the newest member of a team of about a dozen editors and page designers. Reporters mostly worked during the day writing the stories. Editors like me worked at night editing the stories and assembling and designing the newspaper. So I was shocked and elated when my supervisor told me in late December that I wouldn’t have to work on New Year’s Eve. I was smart enough not to ask why. My then-girlfriend was coming to Corpus Christi to celebrate with me, and I was looking forward to a long, romantic night in a downtown hotel.

But on the morning of the 31st, my supervisor called and apologetically asked me to come in for a few hours that night to help edit the extra-big pile of stories for the first edition of the new year. He assured me that I could leave by 7 or 8 p.m. I agreed, trying to sound gracious and appreciative of his promise of an early release. The promise of extra overtime pay further softened the news. I informed my girlfriend of the minor change in plans, which wouldn’t drastically affect our evening.

I dutifully returned to my desk in the newsroom, and I explained to my puzzled (and relieved) colleagues why I was there. As I settled in, I gradually realized there was nowhere else I wanted to be that night (if only for a few hours).

There were great advantages to sitting in a newsroom that night, if only because of the tremendous access I had to countless news services from around the world. Every news service offers special packages every year that examine, analyze, celebrate, or condemn developments in politics, technology, science, sports, film, and music over the past twelve months, but this year was different. The millennial angle brought rich historical and cultural flavors to the coverage. That year, there were fascinating and thoughtful reflections on the evolution of democracy throughout human history, the torments and treasures technology brought to human civilization, and the great and terrible conflicts and comforts religion brought to every society.

That year’s year-end gaze focused as far on the future as it did on the past, predicting peace for most of the world, except for the inevitable tensions between a resurgent China and the post-Cold War United States. Analysts predicted that an economically healthy world would strengthen even the weakest societies in Africa and the Middle East. Terrorism was mentioned, but only in passing as one of a series of minor dangers the U.S. of the future might have to confront and snuff out. Foreign affairs experts predicted the imminent liberation of (and possible civil war in) Cuba once the Castro brothers died. Some political analysts wondered what an Al Gore presidency would look like.

That night I watched live news coverage of the (symbolic) new millennium dawning on the other side of the world. I cheerily chatted with my new co-workers. I munched on the growing buffet of sandwiches, fruits, and vegetables the newspaper ordered for the staff. I noticed a strange new sensation growing in my body, a warm happiness enveloping my heart and mind. Later I realized that warmth I felt was a deepening love for my new job, specifically for the particular intellectual role I played in the newsroom. There was an energy in the air that night, something I never felt before, and something I would feel for the next ten years, every time the newsroom mobilized to absorb and understand a big news event. I was part of something noble, challenging, and fulfilling. I was part of something that mattered.

There was another important reason why I wanted to be in the newsroom on that night, another important explanation for that tense excitement in the air. For months, the news wires were filled with stories about Y2K, the looming technological disaster everyone feared might take place at midnight. Technology experts, military officials, and others fretted about what might happen when the calendars in software programs and defense systems turned from 12-31-99 to 01-01-00, or some other variation of a date dominated by so many zeroes. Would there be power failures? Would computers everywhere melt down? Would planes fall out of the sky, hospital life-support machines shut down, or satellites spin out of control? Would defense systems accidentally launch missiles at Russia or at the U.S.? Would the symbolic end of the millennium inaugurate an actual Armageddon?

Despite these concerns, no one in the general populace seemed to be seriously concerned about Y2K. Government officials, scientists, and engineers were well aware of the potential problems, and the general consensus was that most of the spots in software, where there might be glitches over those zeros, were fixed. Russian and American military officials teamed up to monitor defense systems in an admirable display of transparency and professionalism. No one really knew what might happen. One of my favorite podcasts, “Witness” from the BBC World Service, recently examined the worries over the “Millennium Bug.”

Nevertheless, Times Square in New York City filled up with its usual crowds of bundled-up revelers with their strange eyeglasses, hats, and signs. Peter Jennings anchored ABC News coverage from New York, smiling to himself as he tried to speak to increasingly inebriated correspondents from Asian and European capitals, where the skies exploded with fireworks, church bells pealed, and the streets filled with millions of people, all dancing, kissing, and cheering. I imagined myself in Paris with my girlfriend, holding hands on the riverbank, sharing a deep kiss, the Eiffel Tower’s searchlight sweeping across the cloudy sky above us, the twinkle of distant fireworks sparkling in her dark eyes. Someday, I told myself, I’ll take her there.

Eventually, the newsroom’s clock struck 8 p.m., and my supervisor thanked me for helping edit the extra-big pile of stories for tomorrow’s edition. I smiled, shook his hand, and wished him and and my envious co-workers a happy New Year. I strolled out of the newsroom, glancing one last time at the TV. Peter Jennings smiled as he reviewed the growing crowd in Times Square. It was a smile I never forgot. I spent the rest of the night as I hoped I would. My girlfriend and I had a romantic and relaxing evening — the perfect end to the year, the century, and the millennium.

In the morning, we learned the world did not end. Instead, the first day of the new millennium was bright, breezy, and warm. We had breakfast and then drove to Padre Island. Amazingly, the beach was empty. She and I walked together through the frothy waves hissing across the yellow sand. I stared out across the water, shielding my tired eyes from the sunshine. A new year, I thought to myself. I felt a greater sense of hope, determination, and ambition at that moment than ever before. I felt fortunate, safe, and content. I asked myself, would I ever feel like this again?

I glanced at my girlfriend, radiant in the morning light, slowly dancing her way down the beach, watching the water flow around her legs, her gleaming black hair streaming down her shoulders, her arms outstretched to catch the breeze. She smiled at me. I took her hand in mine. It was time to move on. The future awaited.

Loreta’s Civil War: The bitter struggle yet to come

Velazquez contends with her New Orleans interrogators, works her way back to the Confederate army, and takes a moment to reflect on romantic life, particularly hers.

KS34

Throughout 2016 and 2017, Stillness of Heart will share edited excerpts from the extraordinary memoir of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who chronicled her adventures throughout the Civil War — either as herself, as a Confederate spy, or in disguise as Confederate Lt. Harry T. Buford. She fought and led men in terrible battles, fell in love, bore and lost children, and traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe, ultimately fulfilling her childhood dream of a rich and adventurous life.

You can read the entire 1876 memoir online here. Learn more about Velazquez (and the incredible documentary film Maria Agui Carter made about her) here.

Part 18: Velazquez contends with her New Orleans interrogators, works her way back to the Confederate army, and takes a moment to reflect on romantic life, particularly hers.

******

In spite of my bravado, however, this incident gave me a great deal of uneasiness, for I saw that I was in a dangerous predicament, and was liable at any moment to get into further trouble. I was not much surprised, therefore, although greatly disgusted, when the next evening I was again arrested, this time on suspicion of being a woman. Now what I had so long dreaded was come to pass, and there was nothing to do but to get out of the difficulties which environed me the best way I could.

Being taken before Mayor Monroe, I was interrogated by that individual in a style that I did not at all admire. It seemed to me that he was assuming a certain lordliness of manner that did not sit gracefully upon him, and that was entirely uncalled for by the exigencies of the occasion.

My replies to the queries of the mayor were not satisfactory to him, for his very imperious and pompous bearing made me angry, and rather put me on my mettle. He consequently chose to assume that I was a woman, and ordered me to change my apparel.

I, however, was resolved not to give up without a severe contest, having made up my mind, on assuming male attire, not to acknowledge my sex except in the last extremity, and for the sake of securing ends that could not otherwise be accomplished. So, turning to Mr. Monroe, I said, with a dignified severity quite equal to his own, “Sir, prove that I am a woman; it will be quite time, when you do that, for you to give me an order to change my dress.”

This rather disconcerted the mayor and his satellites, and, watching their countenances closely, I saw that they were nonplussed, and were doubtful how to proceed, being uncertain whether or not they had made a mistake. My hopes of a prompt discharge, however, were doomed to disappointment, for the mayor, after a brief consultation, decided to remand me to the calaboose, until it should be settled to his satisfaction who I was, and whether I was a man or a woman. To the calaboose I accordingly went, horrified at being subjected to such an indignity, and with anything but pleasant or friendly feelings towards the mayor, and the meddlesome, prying busybodies who had been instrumental in getting me into this trouble. …

I was visited the next morning by a local reporter, who showed a very eager desire to find out all he could about me, for the purpose of writing a sensational article for the paper with which he was connected. As may be imagined, this sort of thing did not increase my amiability, or tend to make me bear my misfortunes in a philosophical spirit. I gave Mr. Reporter very little satisfaction, shaping my conversation with him with a view of inducing him to believe that a great mistake had been committed, and that I was the victim of a very unjust persecution.

The reporter was troublesome, but I was not alarmed at him, as I was at my next visitor — Dr. Root, of the Charity Hospital. This gentleman, I knew, would be much more difficult to deal with; and before he got through with questioning me, I was convinced, from his manner, that his mind was made up with regard to me. I felt sure that the easiest and best method, indeed, the only method I could safely adopt, was to confess frankly to the mayor that I was really a woman, trusting that this fact being settled in a manner satisfying to his magisterial dignity, he would have no further pretext for keeping me in confinement, and would order my release.

I therefore wrote a note to his honor, requesting a private interview. This request he granted, and without any more equivocation I told him who I was and gave him what I hoped would be satisfactory reasons for assuming the garb I wore. My confession having been made, I next endeavored to treat with the mayor for an immediate release, promising to leave the city as soon as liberated, my idea being to return to military life forthwith, as I had had quite enough of New Orleans for the present.

Mr. Monroe, however, having gotten me in his clutches, was not disposed to let me go so easily, and he said that he would be compelled to fine me ten dollars, and to sentence me to ten days’ imprisonment — a decision that did not increase my good opinion of him. …

I thought that this was pretty rough treatment, considering all that I had done to serve the Confederacy. … I was resolved not to give the thing up. So I concluded that the best plan was to suffer in silence, and to allow the mayor to have what satisfaction he could get out of my ten dollars — I wonder if any of it went into the city treasury? — and out of keeping me incarcerated for ten days. …

I felt sure that once more with the army I would be safe, but, with so many suspicious people watching me, it would be, I knew, extremely difficult to get away as I had come, and to enter upon my old career as an independent, without questioning or hindrance. It was therefore necessary for me to smuggle myself, so to speak, among the soldiers again. … As soon as possible, therefore, after obtaining my release, I proceeded to the recruiting office at the corner of Jefferson and Chatham Streets, and enlisted in Captain B. Moses’ company, of the 21st Louisiana Regiment. The next day we started for Fort Pillow to join the balance of the regiment.

In this manner I contrived to get clear of New Orleans [and] my next thought was to resume my independent footing at the earliest moment. I therefore went privately to Gen. Villipigue, and, showing my commission, told a plausible story to account for my enlistment, and asked him to give me employment as an officer. … Gen. Villipigue was not able to do anything for me, as there were no vacancies, and I therefore applied for a transfer to the Army of East Tennessee and was very cheerfully granted it. … This was the first time I had ever been regularly mustered into the service, and the step was taken, not from choice, but for the purpose of escaping from the surveillance of Mayor Monroe. … I felt that my interests demanded a removal to another locality. Consequently, so soon as I received my papers, I said adieu to my new friends and was off with all possible speed. …

Having secured my transportation and transfer papers, I went to Memphis by the first boat, and was erelong once again at my original starting-point. … My confidence in the sacredness of the cause, in the ability of the Southern armies to sustain it, and its ultimate triumph, were, however, unbroken, notwithstanding that I believed precious time was being wasted, and that, through a mistaken policy, the Confederates were compelled to stand upon the defensive, when they ought to have assumed the aggressive and attacked the enemy on his own ground.

Now, however, things had changed. The terrible disaster at Fort Donelson had been a rude blow to my ideas of Southern invincibility in the field, and if it did not induce me to despair, it certainly opened my eyes to the magnitude of the task we had on hand, and compelled me to recognize the fact, that we were contending with a resolute and powerful enemy whose resources were enormously superior to ours and who was evidently bent upon crushing us to the earth and compelling us to submit to his dictation. All the fine dreams of the previous summer were dissipated into thin air, but there still remained the consolation, that during the bitter struggle yet to come, there would doubtless be plenty of opportunities for me to serve the cause with efficiency, and to win personal glory by my performances. …

So soon as I arrived at Memphis, I telegraphed to Grand Junction for my baggage and my servant, and then went to the tailor, and giving him an order for an officer’s uniform suit, with instructions to have it ready at the earliest possible moment, borrowed from him a coat to wear until my new clothing should be ready. I discarded my soldier’s jacket with quite as much satisfaction as had inspired me on assuming it, and prepared myself to wait, with what equanimity I could command, the moment when I might be able to figure once more in the eyes of both sexes as the dashing young independent, Lt. Harry T. Buford. … I was really not sorry for an opportunity to shut myself up for a day or two, so that I could take a thorough rest, and think, without being interrupted, what was the best plan of action for the immediate future. …

The next day I received two letters, one of which was from my future husband. for, gentle reader, all these months that, in a guise of a man, I had been breaking young ladies’ hearts by my fascinating figure and manner, my own woman’s heart had an object upon which its affections were bestowed, and I was engaged to be married to a truly noble officer of the Confederate army, who knew me, both as a man and as a woman, but who little suspected that Lt. Harry T. Buford, and his intended wife, were one and the same person. By this letter, I learned that my lover was then at Corinth, where I expected to meet him in a few days, and my heart jumped for joy at the idea of being able to fight by his side in the battle that was coming off. This I was determined to do, if the thing could be managed. …

In the relations of the sexes, there are many points which society insists upon for the sake of the proprieties, which are absolutely absurd when tested by any common-sense standard, While permitting a laxity of manners in others that is far from being conducive to good morals or to the general happiness. Many a woman has lost a good husband through a false modesty, which would not permit her to even give him a hint with regard to her real feelings, for some of the best and most whole-souled men are frequently as timid and bashful as the most timid and bashful women, and require some encouragement before they can be induced to speak, while others are strangely obtuse, and do not even think of being anything more than commonly polite to particular ladies, unless something is done to stimulate them. Such backward and thick- witted men are often the most ardent lovers and the fondest and best of husbands when they are once aroused. Many a woman, too, is fond of one man while she is being persistently courted by another; and if, as is apt to be the case, the object of her regards refuses to notice her in the manner she wishes — perhaps simply because he does not like to interfere with another man’s love affair — she has no resource, if she hopes for a happy future, but to declare herself. …

Step by step

One step at a time. That’s all I have to believe in.

KS59

Slowly but surely, I’m building a full and rich life.

I have to believe that. Maybe happiness comes later.

Happy New Year

May 2014 be one of the best years of our lives.

Happy New Year, my old and new friends. I wish you all well. May 2014 be one of the best years of our lives.

Write me and tell me more about yourselves.

Nixon lurking in the shadows

Some people fear death. Others fear failure. My fear is not as dire as those two, but it’s related to both.

Richard Nixon was in my dream last night. The post-presidency Nixon. The bitter, self-pitying, damned Nixon, coiled in the shadows of La Casa Pacifica in San Clemente, dark eyes glaring at the world as it spun on without him. In my dream, I was informed that he had selected me to help him with a new book on foreign policy, his biggest work yet, looking a century ahead, in which he would make 20 predictions of what awaited the United States in terms of economics, foreign policy, war, health and technology.

He also quietly admitted to me that he was going to run for president again, “to save America from itself.” Evidently, my dream was set at some point before his death in April 1994 and in a nation governed by a constitution without the Twenty-Second Amendment. I told him that my political and social beliefs mostly leaned toward the Democrats. “That’s fine, fine,” he said. “All the better.” He gruffly insisted that he wanted to be challenged at every point. “That’s the best kind of White House chief of staff,” he growled with a smile. “Gonna need a bastard like that.” At that point, thankfully, I woke up.

Throughout much of my life, Nixon has fascinated me. Nixon the scarred politician. Nixon the global strategist. Nixon the cold-blooded survivor. Nixon the abused vice president. Nixon the elder statesman. Nixon the social reject. I was born during the last months of the Nixon presidency. My mother recalled cradling her new wrinkly, sleepy baby as she watched the Watergate investigations burn down the Nixon presidency. She thinks that’s why I love political history and political scandal so much.

My bookshelves are filled with books on Nixon. On my office wall I’ve hung framed historic newspapers, including the Friday, Aug. 9, 1974, edition of the New York Times, blaring the fully capitalized words, “Nixon Resigns.” Nixon’s angry, bleary eyes are like scarred volcanic coals staring at me from the yellowed newsprint, as if they’re demanding something from me, something unspoken and unknowable. In Nixon’s case, I think it’s better that it remains unspoken and unknowable.

In recent weeks, Nixon has been on my mind more than usual. Nixon-related news seemed to be everywhere.

Writer Ann Beattie recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about her new book on Pat Nixon, which was later reviewed in the Book Review.

The New York Times recently ran a fascinating story on the release of the transcript of Nixon’s combative and acidly sarcastic grand jury testimony to Watergate prosecutors. The story contained a great quote from historian Stanley Kutler: “If you know the voice of Richard Nixon, it’s a virtuoso performance, from the awkward attempts at humor to the moments of self-pity.”

Timothy Naftali, the historian and Nixon Library director, recently announced that he was leaving the presidential center. Two weeks later, the library unveiled audio recordings of Nixon recalling his bizarre meeting with anti-war protestors at the Lincoln Memorial.

Journalist Tom Wicker, who wrote a beautiful essay about Nixon for the Character Above All series, died several days ago. China recently agreed to stage — on its own terms — the play “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers,” an exploration of the clash between government power and a free press.

And, finally, the website for the PBS series “American Experience” recently redesigned the page devoted to its powerful presidential documentaries, including a brilliant, bitter one devoted to Nixon.

That 20-year-old PBS documentary, which is sorely in need of an update, ended its introductory segment with a quote that has stayed with me since I first saw it 15 years ago. It was from then-Attorney General Eliot Richardson, who said: “It struck me from time to time that Nixon, as a character, would have been so easy to fix, in the sense of removing these rather petty flaws. And yet, I think it’s also true that if you did this, you would probably have removed that very inner core of insecurity that led to his drive. A secure Nixon, almost surely, in my view, would never have been President of the United States at all.”

For years, as I systematically built a life as an editor, writer and historian, Richardson’s grim observation of Nixon somehow intensified the raging fires fueling my own ambitions. It also challenged me as a presidential historian to understand the intricate mechanisms of a genuinely great and terrible president, along with the diplomatic triumphs and political wastelands he left in his wake.

When I considered Richardson’s observation from the perspective of a novelist, his characterization of Nixon stood as a supreme example of how to design and engineer complex, unforgettable, and tragically-doomed characters for my own fictional illustrations of an equally doomed America. With Nixon in mind, I assembled various aspects of brilliant and frightened men and women, each character crippled by contradictions and insecurities, their virtuous ambitions eventually mutating into bitterness and anger, like the coils of an anaconda strangling their moral centers. Each character is stunning in their own unique way, each one an absolute genius at one thing, magnificently talented, each one contributing to the greater story and the greater society. Some are geniuses yet they don’t know it. Some realize their talents all too late as they look back at a wasted existence, lost love and betrayed principles. For others, their genius is too heavy a burden, or too sharp of a weapon, and they use it to destroy the lives all around them. They are the perfect liars, manipulators, and killers, naturally evil or self-centered people whose true darkness is fully appreciated only when they are thrust into terrible tragedies or failures. A few of my characters — too few — are lucky. They are discovered and guided by the right mentors, and they live rich lives of fulfillment and success, not entirely sure why so many others lead aimless lives destitute of happiness and self-worth.

Lurking not too far behind my musings on Nixon as a president and as a man are my own fears and uncertainties. Some people fear death. Others fear failure. My fear is not as dire as those two, but it’s related to both. I’m haunted every moment of every day by a fear of mediocrity. To me, death is fine as long as I’ve accomplished something notable, as long as I’m celebrated after I’m gone, as long as I’m remembered and appreciated and emulated. Failure is fine as long as I have faith that there are substantive triumphs to eclipse them. I don’t need my face carved onto a mountain or an aircraft carrier named after me, of course. It’s not about ego. Perhaps it’s more about how much I’ve demanded of myself and about how I’ve met those demands, regardless of how ridiculously unrealistic they may have been.

Isn’t this everyone’s personal struggle? Wasn’t it Nixon’s struggle? Shouldn’t I be comforted by the sense that I’m intelligent and perceptive enough to perceive how inconsequential I still am? Shouldn’t that give me some kind of hope, some kind of fresh drive to push harder, write better, think deeper and dream bigger?

Do I have “rather petty flaws” that are driving me to some kind of Pyrrhic doom? Will my hard work in academics and writing build a body of work that I can look back upon with pride? Or am I simply a serene, comfortable, middle class, 21st century American, slowly and sensibly living out his days, not overly flawed and not admirably ambitious, doomed to accomplish nothing? Am I just someone cruising along the suburbs of American existence, blind to the opportunities all around him, a serene man adrift, watched over by his “patron saint,” a forgettable face lost in a forgettable life?

I can’t believe that. I’m a good man who will someday be a great man. That’s all there is to it. This life will improve every life it touches, and it will leave behind a better world. Those are the ambitions I’m achieving and will continue to achieve. That is the greatness I will be remembered for. Hardly mediocre. Hardly petty.

I’ll mention that to Nixon the next time he offers me a job.