I tell you, unless the little horse is returned we shall all suffer the curse of hell

Oscar Wilde once said, "Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life." Oscar Wilde never knew my life. I’ve mentioned my desire to bring to life the art that is Mary Poppins, but that’s only one of a handful of books that made me wish what I read was real. Rifles for Watie was another.

Rifles for Watie is a Newbery Medal book (1958) that I discovered in the school library when I was in junior high. It happened like this:

There was this creepy girl at church who got mad at something I said (probably I called her a creep, but I don’t remember), and so she shoved me really hard. I fell backward and landed on my right wrist, spraining it pretty badly. A couple of days later, I reinjured my wrist when I slipped and fell in the kitchen while doing the dishes – this was before we had a dishwasher, and probably even before we had a color tv, which has nothing to do with my story but gives you an idea of how long ago in the olden days this was, which was why our parents were making us wash dishes by hand. We each had to take a week, and it got so dull standing there at the sink, putting off the inevitable, that many times I would make up stories, like for example about naval battles between the knives and the forks, and the plates were their armadas, and that probably explains the water on the floor and why I slipped.

My mom took me to the doctor, who said my wrist wasn’t broken. He gave me a splint thing and an Ace bandage to keep it immobilized and told me to wear them for two weeks.

So for the next month I cut PE, staying in the library after lunch ended instead of going to class. The library was one of my preferred places to be while at school (the others were Miss Quade’s choir room and Mrs Robinson’s English class). And our librarian, Miss Nelson, was kind and patient and she never kicked me out. Anyway, during that time I read lots and lots of books, and Rifles for Watie was one of them.

After a month, I knew I had to start going back to PE. I was a little nervous, but I just showed up one day and, when the teacher asked where I’d been, I explained about my arm (I had put the splint and the Ace bandage on again that morning, anticipating the need for some convincing special effects). The teacher then explained with equal parts clarity and exasperation that I should’ve let her know beforehand what was going on, but she let me back in class and there were no negative consequences. I think that’s the only time I ever got away with long-term class cutting. Somehow the same tactic didn’t work in my college biology class.

So, yeah, that’s how I came to discover Rifles for Watie. I liked it so much I read it a couple of more times over the ensuing years. It got me really interested in the Civil War and I did a lot of extra reading in the Encyclopedia Americana and other books, trying to learn as much as I could about it. Naturally, then, I wanted to make it part of my life. Or my life part of it. But who fights a Civil War on one’s own? I decided to enlist the aid of my two younger brothers. I suppose they thought we were just going to play army again, but with a little twist – Civil War instead of World War II, which is what we usually played. But I was going for the full effect, including all the attendant discomforts of army life that I’d read about in Rifles for Watie. So one morning I snuck quietly into their bedroom at four o'clock and shook them awake so that they could forage for food and make ready for the day’s battle. It was cold. It was disorienting. It was a sense of opportunity lying just ahead. It was just the feeling I expected someone might feel early in the morning of an unknown experience. My brothers did not feel it.

“Are you crazy?” the older one said. “It’s still dark!”

“But this is the time to make ready,” I insisted.

“Go away,” he said, pulling the covers over his head. The younger one turned over and muttered something. I'm not sure he was really awake to begin with.

So they deserted the Union army and went back to sleep. I retreated to the front yard, where I sat on the dewy lawn, staring up at the stars and wishing with all my heart that I could go to Gettysburg and find a Minie ball lying in the grass.

My life definitely did not imitate art...at least not on that occasion.

Last week was our family’s bi-annual reunion. It’s always the same time of year, and there are always three or four people having their birthdays (or half-birthdays) around that time, so there’s always a group birthday party with a piñata for the kids. I think now’s as good a time as any to say that I don’t really like piñatas. They are creepy-looking. And I think they bring out the worst in children. But, it’s not my birthday, so I don’t interfere. Anyway, this year, the party had a horse theme because one of my nieces loves horses. Well, who doesn’t? So they had a little piñata of a horse, and they beat it to a pulp and went scrambling after the candy, and then we had cake.

I always stay up really late during reunion time, because that way I get so tired that I no longer wish to avoid sleeping on the ground. (My desire to be a soldier in the Union army, with all its attendant discomforts, had long ago passed away.) So that night, after staying up till after midnight playing Rummikub with one of my sisters, I finally staggered into our tent and, with the aid of a feeble flashlight, found my sleeping bag without tripping over the air mattress or Gary. I put my hand on the sleeping bag in preparation for sitting down to take off my shoes, and then I felt it – there was something under the covers, something roundish that made a slight rustling noise when I touched it. I pulled back the top of the bag....

I did not imitate art by screaming in revulsion. I just laughed a lot.


jared & megan said...

oh wow. that is funny. but I have so many questions. who put that in your sleeping bag?? who were the two brothers you tried to wake at 4 in the morning?? which sister were you playing rummikub with? I think I can guess, but I thought I'd ask anyway. Anyway... I think it's also kind of funny that you didn't even tell your p.e. teacher in advance about your arm. And that you were so bent on being part of the civil war. But I guess kids will be kids or something like that. I remember squatting on our lawn as a kid behind a big pile of fertilizer bags (yes, I know that fertilizer = poop) as a barricade of some kind so I could avoid the confederates' balls. I, too, was alone. But, unlike you, this was in the afternoon. I did not wake up at 4 in the morning. Of course, I was also younger, I think, and had not read Rifles for Watie to give me the extra incentive.

Janeite42 said...

As I understand it, Ian was enlisted by Jon and/or someone else to place the horse head in my bag. I'm not sure who had the original idea. Well, Darryl and Doug are the only two younger brothers I have, so that part's easy. And you're right, it was Leah I played Rummikub with.

At least the fertilizer was in the bags. I don't think you would've used it as a barricade if it wasn't. But I love that story about you and can relate completely.