Memento Mori Revisited

On this Memorial Day weekend, I decided to look back at some of the things I’ve written in the past. This brings me to a favored veteran of mine: Captain Henry Metcalf. When looking up the post I wrote about him, I came upon something that caught me completely off guard. Something, in fact, I never thought I would see: Henry’s face.

I’ve known about Capt. Metcalf for many years now, but the only image I’ve had of him is one I’ve made up in my mind’s eye and that of his head stone. Today however, I found this…

It’s great to see you at last, Henry. Very, very good indeed.

And now… Here’s the post from May, 2008 where I introduced him to the rest of you. I hope you’ll help me remember him on this Memorial Day weekend.

Nothing fun or or humorous today, I’m afraid. Just a post about a day and a man, very important to me.

Memorial day, in my mind is second only to Armistice day. What ever your feeling are on the topic of war and regardless of what ever war you are thinking about, this is a day to remember those who, as Mr. Lincoln put it, “Gave the last full measure of devotion.”

What ever your thoughts are about the conflicts this nation has seen, this is the time to remember them and their passing.

And so, I will tell you the briefest story of a man whom I never met and know only a little about.

His name is Henry Metcalf and he was born in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1833. At the out break of the Civil War, he signed up with a volunteer outfit that was assembled in Cheshire County and left his trade as a printer to fight for the North. He rose to the rank of Captain and was one of the thousands who found him self on the fateful battle field at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On the second day of the battle, he was ordered down into the Peach Orchard with his men, far from the union lines. It was a foolish order from a glory grabbing general that got them there. It was an exposed position with little cover, but those were the orders and so that’s where he was.

As Captain Metcalf and his men came under heavy fire from the Confederates, the battle line became disjointed and broken. A lower ranking General than the one who sent them down there, ordered Captain Metcalf to straighten up his line. Henry moved along and through his men and repositioned them to better hold their ground. Once the men were where he wanted them, he turned to his commander and spoke these words: “How’s that, General?”

It was the last thing he said. A moment later, a bullet struck him in the head, killing him instantly. Soon after, the Peach Orchard position was abandoned as unholdable and the remaining men retreated back to the Union lines.

Captain Metcalf’s body was returned to Keene and he was buried in the Washington Street Cemetery. His resting place is marked with a stone made of white marble. If you go there looking for it, you could easily miss it. Time and acid rain has scrubbed at his name and most markings on its surface. Many are blurred into total obscurity. Some are still just legible.

I know what it says though. When I was younger, it was easily readable and my father and I found it one day. My Dad spent a lot of time researching Henry, and found out everything I just told you. Later, we went to the Peach Orchard in Gettysburg and stood near the spot where he spoke his last words.

He was a soldier, doing his duty. He never came home to live a happy life. His work went on with out him, as did his family. He wasn’t anyone of real historic note. Just a man doing what he felt was his duty.

I feel that it’s my duty to remember him. So today, I’ll talk about you, Henry. I never knew you. You are not kin to me, but you are not forgotten. I’ll visit your resting place and make sure that you have a flag on your marker this Monday. We owe you that much.

A Bedtime Story for a Five Year Old Space Nut

This evening, my little boy, Short Stack asked me for something different after we had read our books and switched out the light. He’s the master of all bedtime delay tactics and so, over the years, I’ve grown pretty much invulnerable to his attempts to stay up an hour past lights out. It’s been a struggle which can best be summed up as irresistible force meets immovable father. On some evenings, it can make for some serious opera. Tonight though, he hit below the belt.

“Dad, will you tell me a story before you go?”

“Oh… Um… A real one or one I make up?” He doesn’t ask me for spoken stories much. Just reading from books, really.

“One you make up. Tell me a story about anything you want to. Just make it all up.” That request has never happened before. Not even once.

I crumbled.

I thought a moment as I sat on the rug by his bed in the darkness of his happy little room. “Okay. Here it goes…”

Once there was a little boy, who wanted nothing more in the world than to go to space.
He loved the idea of riding a rocket and floating along above the earth.

One day, he decided to do something about it.

He called NASA.

“Hello.” He said. “I am a little boy who loves rockets. I want to go to outer space. Can I ride there on one of your rockets?”

“We think that’s a great goal for your future!” said the man from NASA. “But you’re too young to ride on one of our rockets just yet. First you need to grow up and work very hard and study to become an astronaut. Then, you could ride on our rockets.”

But the little boy didn’t want to wait until he had grown up. Every day that passed seemed to him a day he could have been in space, so he thanked the man and hung up the phone.

He had another plan. He called Russia.

“Hello” said the little boy. “Is this the Russian Space Agency?”

“Da.” said the voice on the other end of the phone, which means, “Yes” in Russian.

“I love rockets and space,” said the boy. “And though I might be young, I would like very much to ride on one of your Soyuz rockets to get there. May I fly to space with you?”

“Ah…” said the hesitant voice. “Nyet.” which means “No” in Russian. “First, you must be older and study vith all your might. Den, eef you haf vorked hard enough, you might become a cosmonaut and ride into space on a Soyuz rocket.”

But the little boy didn’t want to wait until he had grown up. Every day that passed seemed to him a day he could have been in space, so he thanked the man and hung up the phone again

He had another plan. He went to the basement.

In the basement, he started to rummage and search. He found metal and screws. He found wood and paint. Piles of pipes, knobs, valves, wires and lights. He dusted off tanks and straps, nuts, bolts and glass, and started to build. He wasn’t old, that was true, but he did know how to work hard and smart and after some time, he stood back to look at his work.

Any astronaut from NASA or cosmonaut from Russia would have been far too big to fit inside, but that was okay, because it hadn’t been built for them. It was made just to fit one small boy.

Upstairs he went to pack himself up a sandwich, some peanuts and a juice box or two, and brought them all back to his space ship. He opened the bulked doors, pointed his ship at the sky and then carefully climbed in.

10, 9, 8, 7, 6 “ignition sequence start” 5, 4, 3, 2…

He never got to 1. He was too busy yelling, “Wooooooooo HOOOOOOOO!”

Up into the sky he raced! Clouds flashed past like blurs and the power of the tiny rocket pushed him deep into his seat. The roar was thunderous and the whole ship shook as he flashed along toward the edge of the sky. And then… silence. Outside the window turned black except for the bright and brilliant stars. Below him, the earth slowly turned.

He was in space!

The boy took out his lunch and ate it carefully. He took extra care not to make crumbs with his sandwich and though his peanuts tended to float everywhere, he ate most of them too, even the one that got stuck for a moment in his left ear. The juice boxes he slurped dry so as not to let any droplets of apple juice float free. As he enjoyed his meal, he gazed out at the most amazing view few ever get to see, and he smiled broadly at the joy of it all.

After eating, even with his amazing view, he was starting to feel sleepy. What he really wanted, he realized, was a nap. His problem was that his spaceship was too small to stretch out in. What he needed, was some room. He began to look around. Out in the far off distance, just above the horizon, he saw something. At first, he thought it was a satellite, but it looked too big. As it got closer, it grew bigger, and bigger, and BIGGER! It was huge! “That,” thought the boy “would be the perfect place!”

As carefully as he could, the little boy nudged his ship up to the Space Station. Ever so gently, he brought it up to an airlock door and with perfect precision, docked. He pumped air into the airlock, turned the handle and opened the door. Inside the space station, cosmonauts and astronauts looked up with amazement as the little boy floated in and said, “Hello! I always wanted to go to space, but everyone told me that I had to grow up first and work very hard. Well… I know how to work hard and study. I just didn’t really want to wait. So here I am. Could I stay a while and perhaps stretch out to have a rest?”

The crew on the space station was so impressed with what the little boy had done, that they happily let him in and gave him a sleeping bag to nap in. They tucked him in, Velcroed him to a wall, just like they did, and left him to dream as he floated in happiness.

After waking up a few hours later, he eagerly joined the crew doing experiments around the station. He chatted with them all and looked out the windows and reveled in the joy of being in space. Finally, after sharing their dinner, he realized that he really should be getting back home. By now, his parents would be getting worried. And so, his new friends helped him back to his ship, re-supplied him with juice boxes and snacks, closed the airlock door and bid him a safe return home.

Aiming his ship back toward his house, the boy streaked across the sky like a shooting star. Hotter and hotter his ship grew as it fell through the atmosphere and the wind roared past the windows with the sound of a jet engine. Finally, when the moment was right, POP! Out came the parachute and lower and slower he went until softly and with a slight bounce, he landed… right in the old elm tree in his very own front yard. It took him some time to climb down safely.

When the boy opened the front door to his house, there stood his parents, arms crossed and brows furrowed.

“Where have you BEEN? We’ve been looking for you everywhere! We were so worried!”

“I’m sorry, Mom and Dad. I’ve been to space and it took longer than I expected. I even visited the Space station!” His parents didn’t look pleased.

“You shouldn’t tell stories, you know. We need to know we can trust you. Don’t make things up like that, please. Just tell us the truth.”

So, without a word, the boy took them each by the hand and led them out the door and simply pointed to the top of the tree. There, cradled in the upper branches, sat the spaceship, too small for a grown-up, but just right for a little boy who loved space and knew how to work hard. And they knew in that second, that he had told the truth.

“How was that?” I could see, even in the grey dim light, that he was smiling right up to his ears.

“That was great, Dad.”

“Good night, Buddy. I love you.”

Chopping Block

Standing in my front yard at the foot of the colossal pile of what was until very recently, a good sized maple tree, I reviewed things to see just where my convictions wandered off to. This was going to be tons of work. Literally.

Being a child of the 70’s I had the honor of living through the now largely forgotten Opec oil embargo, though as a wee kiddo, I naturally noticed it hardly at all at the time. My only real memories of it are some footage I remember on the nightly news showing lines at gas stations and the fact that my Father’s cars seemed to get smaller with each passing trade in. And then, there was the big, hulking beast that moved into our basement whom needed feeding every few hours. This was our wood stove. Calling it a stove is actually a bit of a misnomer because just by looking at it, you could see that it had far more in common with the oil gobbling furnace a few feet away than anything you’d try to make pancakes on. From the outside, the two were pretty indistinguishable actually. Both were beige, seeming made from sheet metal and connected to the chimney by big pipes. Oh, and it was nothing a kid was allowed to mess with. The wood, in short, stove was nothing to look at and definitely nothing that you’d want in the living room, but that was sort of the idea. It was a workhorse, plane and simple, not an objet d’art; and work it did. Having an unusually deep firebox, it could take very large logs and happily convert them into heat and ash in abundance. The only drawback to this was that someone (first Dad and then later, Dad and I) had to get the logs from the back yard into the basement where it cooked away and heated our house. This doesn’t sound too bad until you start to picture deep snowdrifts, fifteen pound logs frozen together with thick ice and a path that you’d trudge back and forth on with mind numbing frequency. Or perhaps it was the New England winter that was the numbing factor.

Either way, the effect was much the same.

Then there was dealing with the wood long before you ever had the chance to convert it into carbon. One summer day, just as the blackfly and mosquitoes really got their blood lust on, a huge rack sided truck would arrive and back over the lawn, wheels biting deep into the soft turf of the otherwise unmolested green. As soon as the load was dumped, the stacking and chopping could begin. As a small child, my only real job was to stay away from the entire project while my Dad smashed away log after log with the splitting maul.

For those of you who don’t muck about with wood splitting, you might be unfamiliar with the maul and assumed that what you’d use is an ax, and really, you could. It comes down to a matter of chopping style and preference. To split large, full logs with an ax, you need to find the grain direction, line up carefully, take a slice off the edge with a well aimed blow and then start working your way in to the center. It’s slower than with a maul, to be sure, but it’s somehow elegant and I enjoy thinking it through and honing my blade placement. A maul is a very different animal and splitting with one changes the strategy: You pummel it into submission.

Simplicity its self.

To get a maul, just get a sledgehammer and an axe into a breeding program and after a while, voila! You get this beefy offspring, as wide as dad, but sharp like mom. The only down side is that the young are sterile.

Still, with its cutting edge, squared off back and substantial heft, it would tame just about anything you smacked it with. The only issue is that you have to swing it over your head a few thousand times.

Enter, my teen-age years.

As they say, “With great puberty, comes great responsibility” and the splitting and stacking of firewood soon became one of the duties I shared with Dad as the years went on. I began to dread the day of dead tree delivery. In all honesty, it was sort of fun in a back crippling, blood blister forming, mosquito devoured sort of way, but the shine wore off the apple after the tenth or twentieth log. This fact was only heightened by the indisputable fact that I was a bit of a cream puff in my younger years; a mantle I have been proudly able to shake off with the application of age, determination and muscle strain. Regardless, as I moved on in life to the point where I too owned a house in need of heating, I swore that as much as I enjoyed a crackling fire, I would not, ever-never-ever have a wood stove. As nice and even as the heat is that’s thrown by one, I remembered the mess, the splitting, the stacking and the schlepping from the woodpile to the mouth of the ravenous fire.

Then three things happened. The first was that last winter seemed colder and windier than usual. It might have been my age or possibly the fact that we live in what is essentially a century old wooden colander, the likes of which entreats every passing blast of frozen arctic air in for a full tour of the place. The second was more universal. The cost of home heating fuel went bonkers. A few years ago, a leaky house didn’t cost you your children’s college fund to heat, but now… hoooo boy! That was a pricy winter just to keep from freezing to death under a pile of down comforters. Lastly, and most importantly: Free trees.

A good friend of ours had simply had it with the bunch of hooliganish trees in his back yard. They had been dropping club sized branches on breakable things for some time now and doing considerable damage, including to a fence once and the power lines for the neighborhood twice, Their latest adventures in regional blackout making was the final straw. They were coming down. AND they were maple trees.

Maple burns wonderfully; slow and hot

People who know me understand that my ability to say “No” to free stuff, especially free stuff that would otherwise go into a landfill, is pretty much nonexistent. This is doubly hard for me if it’s something immediately useful, like wood to heat my home. Never mind that I don’t have a chimney yet. I’ll work that out this summer…

…sometime.

Hopefully…

In the mean time, I have had several shipments of giant tree carcass delivered to my front yard via the same friend’s backhoe. Now, in addition to splitting and stacking, I get to use a chain saw to zip the battering ram sized chunks into easier, splitting sized chunks, which though a lot of work to be sure, is also a HELL of a lot of fun. I try very hard to remember (and am often reminded by my mother and wife, lest I forget) that it’s all fun and games until someone commits chainsaw seppuku on the front lawn. So, I’m as careful as possible as well as enjoying every drop of testosterone that waving around a two cycle engine attached to a chain with fangs brings out in the average male. That is to say: a lot. It’s tiring, but in a wholesome, satisfyingly noisy way. The added benefit being that I can more easily justify that third brownie after lunch.

With much of the cutting to length now done, I’m mostly confronted with the chopping, or “axing” as my adorable and literal son has put it, and that’s what has led me to my most starting discovery.

Axes are, apparently, specialty items now.

It’s discoveries like this that make me feel old.

The ancient axe that came from the post-passing yard sale of my neighbor served me for about the first cord of wood, (a cord being four feet by four feet by eight to the power of your lower back muscles giving out) but all too soon, the already abused handle gave way and I was reduced to trying to split thirty pound logs with the only thing I had left: my hatchet and I can imagine that this is most comical to watch. What I needed was a new axe handle. No problem, right?

Wrong.

My trouble began when I started noticing that axe handles, when requested by me to the clerk of whatever home or hardware store I was in, met with a confused and befuddled reaction.

“You mean, just the handle? Not a whole axe?”

“Right. I just need a new handle. That’s it”

“Woah. Why not just get a new axe?”

This goes directly against my grain. I had a perfectly good axe head. It’s perfectly serviceable as long as it has a pole to swing it on.

“Um. No. I really just want the handle. I have an axe.”

“Gee. I’m not sure if we have those. I’ll have to check.”

And so it went. As things turned out, I did find some, and, they were… haw shall I say this… Utter CRAP. All that was available anywhere I actually found ax handles were the same garbage. Rough, bad grain and, just for some icing on the cake, the wrong size. They were either too long, the wrong shape or simply horrible. Even the new axes that they were selling had these same worthless handles or even *shudder* fiberglass ones, which is patently unholy and an abomination of nature. It was back to work with the hatchet for me. It was while lamenting this predicament to my father that he pointed out that I could always borrow… the Maul. Ugh.

As so, here I find myself, wailing away with a brutal, pointy free-weight on a stick at some persistent chunks of tree, which are mocking, yes MOCKING me with their stubborn refusal to split. Off to my side at a safe distance, my children cheer me on with positive words and enthusiasm at each failed attempt.

Lulu Belle: “Hit it harder, Dad!”

Short Stack: “You’ll crack it open this time! I’m sure!”

WHACK!

“Yaaaaaaay! You got it! Do that one next, Dad!”

The blister forming on my thumb is right where I expected it to appear, gloves or no gloves and I’ve been depleting the ibuprofen bottle pretty rapidly, but still, it’s a good kind of ache. It means that I’m doing something hard and the pile of split logs is growing to the point where it needs to be stacked soon. I’ll get Short Stack and Lulu Belle to help me with that part, even if they can only carry the small pieces one at a time. It will be good family work. Builds character… or some such nonsense. I know it builds blisters anyway.

This winter, as the frosty winds move the curtains in our drafty house, we can sit by our fire until we’re rosy red and smile at the payoff of all the hard work. It will be wonderful, I’m sure. Then, as the flames die down, I can turn to my children and say, “Hey. Fire’s getting low. Go out side and grab us some more wood, okay?”

…At which time, my wife will point out that they are three and five and getting the wood in is my job, and as I walk out into the dark, cold air, I’ll think back to thins spring and marvel how this tree has managed to warm me three times: Once splitting, once stacking and then finally, burning.

Pity that two out of those tree times I didn’t need the heat.

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