Travel for University of Arkansas Press in the late 1990s took me to an unforgettable Missouri town, Arrow Rock, and the whole environ along the banks of the Missouri River. As a sidetrip to a day of events at the Missouri Folklore Society meeting, I drove over to the National Military Park at the battlefield at Lexington. That’s where the Confederate Missouri State Guard won yet another 1861 victory all on its own, rolling giant hemp bales up toward a well-defended garrison, very reminiscent of one of General George Washington’s tricks with corn ricks. Some revere it as a high-water mark for Missouri’s rebellion.
Right about that time, I had published two excerpts from Morkan’s Quarry in good literary magazines, the Missouri Review and the Ontario Review, and I was beginning (foolishly; brazenly; precociously; presumptively; vainly) to utter aloud in mixed company—meaning one that included historians as well as citizens and friends—that I was researching a literary novel about the Civil War in the Ozarks.
Talking with the park ranger and the bookstore manager at Lexington, we were humming along and I was soaking in all I could about Lexington, which even then I knew was not going to be in the novel. But park rangers at National Military Parks hold a special place to me. As a tad, I was out at Wilson’s Creek every chance I could get, and in the bookstore, back when it was an air-conditioned trailer, longer than would be natural for any kid. The park rangers were super tolerant, incredibly encouraging, always instructing. They came to represent a place in the holy orders of my universe not unlike deacons or Jesuit brothers.
This park ranger at Lexington was especially enthralling, because SHE was fast-witted and sharp-tongued, extremely knowledgeable about all the operations at Lexington, and she was freckled and sun-wizzened, fit with sparkling blue eyes; she seemed rightly in command of her Missouri terrain. I fell into that old spell of youth sponging history at the source.
And then my mouth opened. Somehow I felt comfortable enough to share that I was writing and researching a literary novel about the Civil War in Springfield. Stone silence. With trepidation, the bookstore manager looked at the park ranger as if the ranger’s doughboy hat would soon rise and screech like the stopper on a tea kettle.
The ranger frowned deeply and cleared her throat. “Why are you writing about Springfield? Nothing ever happened there. It was all peace and quiet.”
When the high and vaunted figures of youth tumble, there is a kind of dismay and numbness that descends, especially later in life when one has had time to sentimentalize and venerate thoroughly. In the wake of her words, nonplussed, I could hear handsome curtains and bedazzling valances tearing from their rods, and behind the curtain, just a person where a wizard was to be. I knew she was wrong, terribly wrong, but because the position of park ranger held such importance to me, I left Lexington more crushed than the Federal commander who had yielded his sword and garrison. My project was naught; it was all foolishness; what was I thinking? And how could she say that?!
Looking back now, with all the “new problematics” and Ricoeur’s admonitions in mind, I’m quite sure she wasn’t really condemning my project, my crazy dream. She was overstating a case to express her disappointment, even her sadness. To translate, she was saying, “Why would you write about that, about Springfield, when what happened right here is so much more worthy?”
There. I think I have recovered her and cleansed that memory. And we’ll leave her in command of a sweeping terrain by a mighty river atop a long hillside where men clashed and now much time has passed. She’ll tell someone her history, and it will be spark to the heart.