last man standing in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) post
in my hometown of Saugus, MA was Doctor George W. Gale. The post
was Gen. E. W. Hinks Post 95, Grand Army of the Republic. Dr.
Gale died in 1936 at the age of 99. He had 7 years of military
service. The charter of the post was surrendered on June 8, 1936.
Over the years I had seen pictures of him at Memorial Day parades
and other civic ceremonies. Older citizens around our local ball
parks, prodding their own bits of legend, often told stories of
his love and interest in baseball. Also, it was said, he told
many stories of the war to patients and friends alike, and on
many occasions took himself and others to see major league baseball
games in Boston, about a dozen miles away. So it was, years after
his death, amongst his papers were found the skeletal elements
of this story, which I have scratched together from those papers
gifted to me, and for the first time in 140 years replay it here
as if it were a throwback piece of television, history with attendant
drama; our country, our war, our game.
Corporal Durvin Broadmoor of the 28th Massachusetts of the Irish
Brigade woke with a start from a dream on a hill in far off Virginia.
War had come again with the false dawn of a June day in 1864.
His mouth felt muddy, constrictive, and someplace as yet untouched
a bone ached. The narrow red scar on his face reared its thin
but ugly edge, as if the initial wounds cause for a moment
was known again. An itch was at his neck without stop. The imprint
of the wagon wheel, against which he had slept fitfully, was surely
etched on his back, but the dream, as always, was elusive. Crowd
noise had sounded there in the dream, he remembered piecemeal,
hawkers and criers loose among massed people each time, but all
other elements of the phantasm faded as quickly as clarity came
to him. And just as quickly, the crowd dissipated and fled ethereally.
Only the diamond shape of the grass surface stayed with him, and
a ball in flight, a ragged, not quite round ball working its way
in the air, gyrating, pulsating. At length, the sky gray, shadows
starting, the ball disappeared, but there was a magic in the disappearance.
And that magic lay under his skin.
state of mind, he knew, had been created, had character to it
if not a body of its own. Days, events, life itself, often begin
at opposite ends of a wide spectrum. But there comes at times
to such beginnings the strangest connection. Some call it fate
or karma or chance. Some call it odds. In war, in battle, it doesnt
need a name. It does its own thing, as it does in baseball.
he had been a striker in front of 4,000 people, and some part
of that day had found its way under his skin as sure as a tic
had done its dowser work. A love had burrowed deeply; baseball
has such a shovel, he believed. But New York, where he had played
his last game, as well as his home in Massachusetts, was months
and miles in the past.
all related to the ball, to the flight of a ball, struggled for
windows or doors at the back of his mind, looking for a way in
or a way out. When he was hit this way, caught up in a feverish
wash, he was never sure of the route or the portico. Everything
round or nearly round leaped through him in a hardware of imagery,
of like correspondence
at once came the end of the hand-crafted
bat sitting on the mantel at home, then the driven orb of another
ball his swing had powered over the head of Shannon, that center
outfielder in the New York game, and, blue and untamed like late
night small campfires, Beths eyes watching him as the chief
striker in the last game he had played. He could feel the continuity
of her stare.
that same moment of Durvins reverie, a replica intensity
of watchfulness was being exerted down across the field from a
gathering of cottonwoods and a few straggly birch trees on the
far reaches of the now-peaceful meadow. There, the lead scout
of a southern infantry group, a Georgian named Sgt. Elwood Plunker,
crawled a few feet closer from his lookout position in the copse.
The Yankee defense line, ragged he was sure, was somewhere off
at the other edge of the wide meadow, under cover of any sort,
masqueraded, camouflaged, counting their wounds. Plunker, head
down, prone as tight to the ground as he could get in an attempt
at cover, laid his weapon against a blow-down. The rifle musket,
of which he was extremely proud, had been made in Richmond from
equipment confiscated from the armory at Harpers Ferry under the
very nose of the enemy. And he was a dead shot with it, as deadly
as one could get.
Plunker saw a Yankee soldier, a tall lanky fellow alone at the
edge of the meadow, turn and urinate directly onto southern ground.
From a mere two hundred yards he noted the mans corporal
stripes. Plunker was infuriated by the urination. He had been
three years from home in Georgia, with the prospects of getting
back there being lessened every day now. The taste of his grandmothers
peanut spread was alive at the back of his throat, and thick and
sticky. His throat was dry and felt as if it would crack or open
up on him. Breathing came with some difficulty, as if moving past
sharp edges. At the back of his head he could see fields of peas
and corn waving in a late morning breeze. The fields crawled and
undulated, waving crop tops like the thousand hands of a huge
gathering. And he could taste the well water taken from the deep
throat of rocks with a bucket he had made himself. Inwardly a
groan mounted and was silenced. He had much earlier learned to
control many bodily functions. He was a soldier, bred for rigors,
but his mind held onto a longing and a hatred he could neither
dislodge nor forget. And here was a bluecoat pissing on good southern
soil. The hackles rose again with their decided edges and he wondered
what the enemys day would bring. He would surmise while
at rest. He would watch, he would signal back any information
that came to him visually, and he would bide his time. Time being
the only thing he had plenty of.
the same moment of Plunkers recollection, atop a nearby
hill, in the announced meshing of fateful lives, Nancy Petticot
of Nanticoke, Virginia had planned her day. She had risen from
an irregular sleep also filled with dreams. Nancy was a listener,
it was easily said. When she spun about and swept a dangling spider
out the window, she might well have heard it descending on that
silvery thread. Chickens spoke early to her, guinea hens roosted
in the trees chattered like backyard gossips and could have been
telling her of their night, and the one last piglet made its own
noisy contribution. At seventeen she was the lady of the house,
her mother Anstrice dead from a runaway wagon only six months
past, her father Desmond off three years now with the Army of
the South; and not a word from him in more than a year. Her three
younger brothers lived by her hand and off her wits. Threats to
their existence had bounced around them for a few years, but she
held the reins firmly.
was a dark-haired beauty of a girl, with deep eyes of an unknown
color as if caught up in the rotation of emotions. Perhaps she
oscillated, but she never flagged in her push. She wore a complexion
worthy of any good habit, and was graced with a startling carriage.
Like temptresses her lashes floated, full of messages, full of
promise, and yet she appeared ragged with a kind of despair few
might notice while she was about her work. Men had noticed her
at least three years earlier, and that included most of the soldiers
that had passed by their rough house, passing on to their savage
destinies, and taking some of the chickens and all but the last
character floated about that house of hers. Three of its walls
were made of logs. The fourth wall was constructed of old barn
boards that Desmond had reclaimed from a barn that had burned
at the end of the valley. She remembered the day he had come home
all sweated up, the wagon piled high with wide boards. Two days
later, hammer and saw irrepressible, the house was completed.
Now, cozy inside its walls, old coffee talked to her almost as
loud as the guinea hens. The smoldering late fire, holding its
breath in the fireplace, showed the comfort of many embers gone
gray and white. Shadows in the house were subtle and cool and
the bare breath of a breeze rustled the flour-sack curtains at
the end of the room. The faint rustling of fabric gave the room
a sense of depth and the cool quality of a tossed mantle. Wide
boards of the floor were rugged but noiseless spans, and did not
echo an ounce of her weight on them. She thought an army could
walk on them and not give that army away. And she harbored no
thoughts of ghosts or specters.
the darkness not yet fully letting go she yelled down the hallway
to Daniel, the young voice fading with her short measure at authority.
hitched up to the day, Danl. Today we will picnic under
the high trees and watch the war. We can count cannon volley or
count horses, whatever. You can have your choice today.
She paused, took a breath, measured the oncoming dawn still at
a distance down the Chawkenauga Valley, saw gray holding back
in all the corners. Remnant mule smells, tired barn and old leather
odors and the dust of chickens crept through the house. A stale
pickle in some corner of the house gave evidence of itself. Today
will be a solemn day. Shake the others from dreams.
14, blond, just beginning to broaden at his shoulders and through
his chest, a bit surprised at the morning call, leaped from bed,
tore off his night shirt, pulled the covers off Micah and Judah
clustered like the last two bananas in the bunch. He admired their
blond heads, and the sleep rolling out of their blue eyes suddenly
wide. He knew where they had been in their run at sleep. It was
not the war that would excite them this day; it was the game they
hoped to see.
rather than death had visited their dreams. A week earlier, down
on the valley floor, they had watched a slim Yankee soldier drive
the ball high over the head of a far fielder. They had whooped
it up even for the Yankee running the square circle of the bases.
That night they had spoken deep into the darkness about the games
exploits, wondered what the strikers name was, where he
came from before the war grabbed him in its lethal grasp. Micah
had dubbed him Hammer.
the name dropper sat up and rubbed his eyes. Think theyll
play today, Danl? No game yesterday. Think Pa plays it wherever
he is? How could he do that? He shrugged his shoulders and
shook his head. He never did see a game that I know of.
What kind of a striker could he be, never swung a bat afore?
From his dropped head, almost talking into his own lap, he said,
Think Pas awright, Danl? Think hes coming
leveled a finger at him. You ask more questions than a suitor,
Micah. Always looking to see what roads been traveled, I
the depth of the kitchen they could hear the new mother at pots
and pans. The sizzle of bacon crept to their ears. Then the smell
of bacon, toes turning up in the skillet, sauntered into the room.
On a nearby hill, perhaps a mile distant, Capt Miles Murtaugh
slapped Cpl. Durvin Broadmoor on the back.
old Knickerbocker hisself, think we have a game at hand today,
Johnny Reb dont make a perfect mess of this day?
Captain, Broadmoor offered, they need a break much
as we do. Certainly makes war look damn foolish when we play baseball.
Id love to play a game against them, and knock the skin
off that tater, as they might say. Play their artillery, the big
gun boys and teach them a lesson. Joy of joys thatd be.
good was that team of yours, Durv? Murtaugh wore a warm
smile on his face as he looked down the sweep of the valley and
across the low spread of scrub and meadow between their position
and Johnny Rebs. Three mad charges in three days he had
been in and his army time measured but in weeks.
rippled and showed itself in the young corporals face. He
too passed his gaze across the open land that drew warriors in
desperate turns. Trees, those that were left, were stripped of
limbs, leaves, lives. Brush and bush in the rough turmoil of battle
had been uprooted and tossed together. In the morning light they
looked like breakwaters at some wide harbor, ready to hold off
the waves of men poised on either side.
could have been a dynasty, sir, I swear. We had capability at
every position, had players not always in the game could have
played for all the other teams we played against. Yes, sir, we
were that good. Makes a commanding prospect walking up to your
turn as striker, like the whole park knows what youre at.
Thats a kind of excitement I never had in anything else
I ever did try. Makes the neck stiff with joy, ripples your arms.
its so blasted good, as you say, there must be a bad side
to it. A counterbalance. A twist of the blade, if you must. What
might that be?
if called for, down the Chawkenauga Valley came the single report
of a canon, then a tearing, rending sound at another distance,
and utter silence as if Time itself was at attention, waiting
to see what had happened.
looked over his shoulder at the canons sound. His shoulders
flinched once, his eyes blinked. Oh, its not the losing,
sir, but being the ultimate out for the other sides win.
That can stick in the craw at least until the next game.
His snicker told another story. Teammates usually dont
come back to it. They let it go. Theres always another day,
another game, when the wars not in the way, when you can
make it up to them
strike one for the total bases.
The echo of the artillery round came up the valley as if it had
shot off a stone wall. As Alexander Cartwright himself said,
'Take the game seriously, but not yourself in it.'
them, on a high hill, Nancy Petticot and her brothers had come
out to watch either the war or a baseball game. All of them hoped
for the ball game. The ground they chose was somewhat level though
interspersed with tree roots that appeared to have crawled into
place. Nancy put down a piece of canvas and placed their days
rations on it. Thin slices of pork and thick slabs of bread were
the main course. A few dill pickles sat in a container, and another
tin contained a drink their father had called berrywash. It was
close to sweet but not quite there. They had heard a single and
distant cannon shot, but the echo died quickly. A bird-broken
silence came into place, catching them at attention.
said, Look, over there in that field. Theres room
for a game there. Looks like it drops off on the far side only
a little, towards those cottonwoods. Oh, I hope they play. I hope
the striker bangs it out like a shot and races all around. I hope
they play today. His voice had climbed up a rung or two
on the ladder.
Nancy and Daniel saw the excitement in Micahs eyes, and
nodded at each other. Judah, sitting on a log, pointed across
the broad width of Chawkenauga Valley, his finger stiff and arrow-straight.
Johnny Rebs over there, at that end, hundreds of them.
If Pas there, Id bet hed be here. Theyre
having breakfast or lunch I bet. See the smoke coming out of that
deep spot in the woods way way off.
said, The Blues eating too, a picnic like we have.
They ought to make their minds up to play a game today. Itd
be better than that other stuff, taking our chickens, the piglets
like they belonged to them.
in against the hill they were on, Union troops, some cavalry and
some artillery, had seized the moment. The Petticot family saw
the start of a baseball game in the shadow of the hill, in the
shadow of the war. Three men trotted out to the far side of the
meadow and spaced themselves equally apart, as if a fan was spread
saw the blond boy in the middle as he raced out to his position.
said, Hes a center outfielder, sis, the middle one.
Hes the one we saw the other day, the one who ran the whole
circuit of bases so fast.
remember him, Nancy said, her eyes on the slim sprinter
bouncing lightly on his feet in the distant part of the field.
Nathan Brewers was chiding teammate Durvin Broadmoor from his
position in left field. Durvy, you mess up out here that
old captain gonna get you sent up to infantry quick as a wink.
No sense bringing your glove you go up there. He pounded
his fist into his own glove, a small, sewn collection of fingered
canvas, worn to the thinness of comfort. Like Broadmoor, he was
tall and lean and quick of hand and foot. The pair could have
passed for twins.
all the outs out here and make none at the strikers box.
Durvin Broadmoor announced his game plan. If you make the
final out, do it here with the glove. He held up a triple
sheath of canvas, also cut in the shape of the hand. Out of use,
it would fold easily and fit in his pocket.
and forth the game went, beneath quiet skies, in the middle of
a war, and at a clearly visible point from the picnicking family
of siblings on the top of a Virginia hill.
Petticot could not take her eyes off the loping center outfielder
who had caught five high fly balls, one of them on the dead run
the way her father once chased a runaway horse and wagon. Micah
and Judah and Daniel marveled at the play of some ballplayers,
in the field and at the batting box.
theres that big fellow again, Daniel, Micah said,
pointing out an opponent of Durvin Broadmoors team. Hes
the one whacked it like the fire bell and that other fellow, the
one sis remembers, caught it on the run. Hes at striker
again. Whats the score now, Daniel?
figure it is 11 to 9 for siss team, her favoring that lanky
guy so much. Well see what the big guy can do. But it looks
like were getting close to the end of it. May be decided
strikers from one artillery team had earned their way onto the
bases while two others had failed. The big batter, announced by
Micah, was advancing to the plate, his bat ominously large, like
a blunderbuss among weapons.
Plunker, in the distance, studied the game from the blow-down,
mesmerized at first. The lanky corporal had smashed the ball twice
deeply to the other team. Justice seemed distant, a complete stranger.
was a game they were playing out in front of him! Deep down inside,
where all kinds of engines make themselves known to a man in turmoil
of any kind, Sgt. Elwood Plunker suddenly knew he was never going
to get home. At the back of his head he saw old Joseph Kava Kava,
the old black man who had been nothing but kindness in his life
and he shuddered inward when he remembered the ankle and wrist
scars the old man wore for most of his grown life. Now the deadly
sharpshooter Elwood Plunker knew truthfully that old Joseph Kava
Kava should never have been a slave to any man.
awful engines moaned in the universe, as the big striker swung
at a thrown ball and drove it outward, toward the man who had
urinated, with incredible speed in its flight. Plunker saw the
outfielder turn and race toward his own spot in the copse, his
legs pumping swift as a runaway horses, arms matching his
enormous stride. Like some god truly in flight, the player raced
across the meadow, for the moment as totally free as an arrow
from its quiver, and from its bow. The ball seemed unreachable,
the players speed incomprehensible, the war an abomination
to all and for all.
eternally sad songs that Joseph Kava Kava had sung all his life
were heard again. Then, as the awful engines sounded down
inside him, homebody Elwood Plunker, dead shot and marksman of
the first order from Georgia, laid his rifle across the soft moss
on the blow down, knowing the distance was in his favor, took
aim and fired at the sprinter coming at him, just as the sprinter
leaped in the air and caught the ball over his head.
that small piece of heaven in the middle of the Chawkenauga Valley
in far off Virginia, all the pertinent entities collided, as called
for since the beginning of time.
Petticots sudden but short dream fell into the defilade
portion of the meadow when ball and player came together. To her
eyes the puff of smoke from the edge of the copse was merely a
quick piece of punctuation. The baseball and the player were together
for eternity. Not Nancy Petticot or her brothers or Durvin Broadmoor
or Nathan Brewers or Captain Miles Murtaugh or Sgt. Elwood Plunker
knew at that moment of collision that a half inch, .58 caliber
Minie Ball was also in a place of rest, in the last game of baseball
Durvin Broadmoor would ever play, the line drive still in his
glove for the final out.
would be 140 years or so before this replay is seen, as I present
it here. All of it strives to include the graceful therapeutic
panacea that baseball is, to player and fan alike, oh the diamonds
elixir, the catholicon of it all! I bring it here from the edge
of the battlefield, to what it has become, as indeed Alexander
Pope might have said of it when he wrote, the physic of
the field. And it all comes along with a further fitting
salute from new Commander Abraham Lincolns words about the
fallen, including the rangy striker and center outfielder Durvin
Broadmoor, as they were often heard during the span of those years
after his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861: When again
touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Sheehan has published 7 books in the last 6 years: mysteries,
poetry, memoirs, short story collections. They include Epic
Cures, short stories in 2005, from Press 53 in Winston-Salem,
NC; A Collection of Friends, memoirs, in 2004, from Pocol
Press in Clifton, VA; and This Rare Earth & Other Flights,
poetry, in 2003. He has six Pushcart nominations, a Martha Albrend
memoir nomination, a Silver Rose Award from ART for short story,
and many Internet appearances.