Success, Freedom, and Castles in the Air

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

I’ve lived with this quote, the first sentence of a paragraph from Thoreau’s Walden, the past several months. It’s written on the inside cover of my pocket notebook. Yesterday, I read the passage again from the book. It goes on and ends with another familiar citation. Between, the text is more complicated and less quotable, though it is, in my experience so far, equally true.

“He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

View from a castle in the airView from the parapet of a castle-in-the-air, foundation under construction

Photo from the ruins of a Turkish fort atop a hill above Kounoupitsa, looking over Kissamos and the Gramvousa and Rodopou Peninsulas on either side of Kissamos Bay, Crete


AVMP in the Library at The Friends of Vauquois

I had a message from Alain Jeannesson, president of Les Amis de Vauquois et de sa région, to whom I sent a copy of A Very Muddy Place. Mr. Jeannesson informs me that the book takes its place in the association’s library and is to be accompanied by a summary in French.

Association of the Friends of Vauquois and its Region. “Mound of Vauquois.” http://butte-vauquois.fr/en/.
The website of the Association of the Friends of Vauquois and its Region has photos and information on visiting the site. The guided tour of the underground galleries, where the mine war took place, is enlightening, educational, and horrific.

—from the bibliography of A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

 


 

A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

Available on Amazon

 

An intimate account of a soldier’s experience in World War I, A VERY MUDDY PLACE takes us on a journey from a young man’s rural American hometown onto one of the great battlefields of France. We follow Private B. F. Potts with the 137th US Infantry Regiment through the first days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. We discover a personal story—touching, emotional, unforgettable.

In 1918, twenty-three-year-old Bennie Potts was drafted into the US Army to fight in the World War. He served with the American Expeditionary Force in France. At home after the war, he married and raised a family, and the war for his children and grandchildren became the anecdotes he told them.

A century later, a great grandson brings together his ancestor’s war stories and the historical record to follow Private Benjamin Franklin Potts from Tennessee to the Great War in France and back home again.

 

A Very Muddy Place
WAR STORIES

Available on Amazon

 


Another Stretch of Road

Slanting afternoon light showed me a field of rocks. Erosion on the crystalline limestone that covers the peninsula makes formations of standing stones, legions of trolls caught in sunshine marching across the landscape. But these rocks looked different. Curious, I stopped the car to have a look.

Crystalline limestone, yes, but these were hewn into rough rectangular shapes, laid in a mosaic pattern, and bordered by straight rows of same. Nineteen hundred years of wind and winter rain set them in jagged profile. Two paces (about three meters) from edge row to edge row confirms another stretch, this one 150 meters long, of the Roman road on Rodopou.

Tell me when I’ve had enough. I love it out here!

150 meters of the Roman road on Rodopou


Five Map Sheets from La carte de l’état-major

I love maps—especially pretty ones and especially old ones. These are both.

The 273 rectangular sheets that constitute La carte de l’état-major cover all of France at 1:40,000 scale. Elevation (in meters) is marked on hilltops and mountain peaks. Steepness is indicated by hatch marks, lines like rays from a peak. The closer together these lines, the steeper the slope. This elevation hatching and the Garamond typeface make the maps distinctive.

In use from the mid-nineteenth to well into the twentieth century, these maps were used by the French army during the war to generate larger scale maps of the western front.

—from A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

If you love maps too, you can follow Private Potts from the Haye Forest (see Chapter 8, “In Reserve at Saint-Mihiel”) to Auzéville (12, “A Potts Family Day of Thanks”) on map sheets Commercy SE and Bar-le-Duc NE, then to the Hesse Forest and Vauquois to Exermont (Part Two, “The Argonne Battle”) on Verdun SE and Verdun NE, and back to Sampigny (29, “Cruel Days”) on Commercy SO. On this last, General Pershing inspected the troops (30, “Godspeed”) just north of Commercy on the field between the villages Vignot and Boncourt.

VERDUN NE Verdun NE
Exermont (top left)
 
VERDUN SE Verdun SE
Vauquois (middle left)
 
BAR-LE-DUC NE Bar-le-Duc NE
Auzéville (top left-of-center)
 
Commercy SO
Commercy (bottom center)
Commercy SE
Forêt de Haie (bottom right)
  COMMERCY SO COMMERCY SE

Five map sheets from La carte de l’état-major arranged in geographic order

Explore elsewhere in the country on the French government’s Géoportail.

 


 

A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

Available on Amazon

 

An intimate account of a soldier’s experience in World War I, A VERY MUDDY PLACE takes us on a journey from a young man’s rural American hometown onto one of the great battlefields of France. We follow Private B. F. Potts with the 137th US Infantry Regiment through the first days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. We discover a personal story—touching, emotional, unforgettable.

In 1918, twenty-three-year-old Bennie Potts was drafted into the US Army to fight in the World War. He served with the American Expeditionary Force in France. At home after the war, he married and raised a family, and the war for his children and grandchildren became the anecdotes he told them.

A century later, a great grandson brings together his ancestor’s war stories and the historical record to follow Private Benjamin Franklin Potts from Tennessee to the Great War in France and back home again.

 

A Very Muddy Place
WAR STORIES

Available on Amazon

 


The Strange Case of Monsieur Bertin

I subscribe to writers’ newsletters to see how they do it, to incorporate aspects I like into my own. One of my favorites is Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Pendergast File. It’s informative, concise, and infrequent. Each issue also contains an extra something for the reader.

In June, current subscribers receive a short story that delves into the past of one of Preston and Child’s most loved characters: A. X. L. Pendergast, FBI Special Agent and main character of the Pendergast novels. “The Strange Case of Monsieur Bertin,” which Douglas Preston describes as “not so ‘short’ at all,” goes out to The Pendergast File subscribers in June.

If you enjoy a good thriller and haven’t yet encountered Agent Pendergast, this is an opportunity to meet him. And if you like him, as I do, a growing series of page-turning novels is in your future.

To get the story, subscribe to The Pendergast File before June 1.

Relic - Preston and ChildCover of Relic, the first novel in which Pendergast appears.

 


Homecoming

There were parades in that glorious spring of 1919. In New York and Washington, D.C., in small towns and state capitals, ranks of soldiers, formed in companies and led by the army band, marched down Main Streets across the United States. In Topeka, the officers and men of the 137th Infantry “All-Kansas” Regiment stepped with heads high, through cheering crowds, flags waving.

But Private Potts was not among his comrades of Company M. After disembarking the Manchuria at Hoboken, April 23, the Thirty-Fifth Division entrained to Camp Upton, New York. In the last week of April, all replacement soldiers, of which B. F. Potts was one, were detached from the division.

Continue reading "Homecoming" »


Soldier Entitled to Travel Pay

While transcribing B. F. Potts’s discharge paper, I was curious about the dollar amount noted in pencil on the back: “89.05.” Potts got remaining pay and a $60 bonus, plus train fare for home. The army paid five cents a mile.

A private earned $30 per month. Prorated for the first twelve days of the month (discharged May 12), his pay was $12. Less that and the bonus leaves $17.05 in travel pay—or 341 miles.

But driving distance from Chattanooga (near Fort Oglethorpe) to Erin is only 200 miles. Either he didn’t get paid from the 1st of the month, or the rail distance to home was much farther.

I found a Louisville & Nashville Railroad map in the 1920 edition of Poor’s Manual of Railroads. The map also shows the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway, which by then was a L&N dependency.

While you might not get a passenger train today, you could take the highway from Chattanooga through Stevenson, AL, and Nashville, TN, to McKenzie (on the NC&St.L) and from McKenzie to Erin (on the L&N). The trip would take almost seven hours to drive the 337 miles.

Which is close enough for curiosity’s sake.

Poor 1920 L-N map facing 82“Map of the Louisville & Nashville R. R. and Dependencies”
Henry V. Poor, Poor’s Manual of Railroads: Fifty-Third Annual Number, New York: Poor’s, 1920, facing 82.

 


 

A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

Available on Amazon

 


Farnese Hercules

Heracles is resting. He leans on a club. The end of which is adorned by a lion’s head, hooked by its jaws. The beast’s hide drapes the shoulders. Behind the back, an over-large hand holds two apples. The other hand and the penis are broken off. Even at rest, the hero’s muscles ripple with the strength to lift Heaven from Earth.

The statue was carved in marble by Italian artist Giovanni Comino in the years 1670-1672. It’s a copy of a copy. The original work, long lost, is attributed to the Greek bronze sculptor Lysippos, who worked in the fourth century BCE. We know of its existence from the numerous copies made of it. One copy from the third century CE is signed by Glykon of Athens.

Glykon’s reproduction was lost for a time as well. Uncovered in 1546 at the Roman Baths of Caracalla, the statue of Hercules (the hero’s Latin name) was acquired by Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589), who assembled one of the great sculpture collections of the Renaissance. The hero’s resting pose then became known as the Farnese Hercules.

Born to the mortal woman Alcmene, which means “wrathful,” fathered by Zeus wearing her husband’s guise, Heracles was given to fits of rage. In one such fit, he slaughtered his wife and children. In remorse, he sought penance and gave himself into the servitude of Eurystheus, who assigned him a series of labors.

The first labor was to slay the Nemean Lion, which terrorized the countryside. Its teeth could cut armor, and its hide could not be pierced. Heracles whacked it with his club, and skinned the beast with one of its own fangs.

More labors followed, twelve in all. The eleventh was to steal the apples of the Hesperides. Growing from a tree in the goddess Hera’s garden, these apples were of pure gold, tended by the nymph daughters of Atlas, and guarded by a hundred-headed dragon.

Heracles went to the end of the earth, where Atlas, a titan, held the world on his shoulders. Heracles asked where his daughters kept the apples. Atlas agreed to tell him only if Heracles would take his burden for a spell, so he could catch his breath. Heracles sensed a trick, so he lifted the sky, thus giving Atlas some respite without accepting the object of the titan’s condemnation. Information gained, the hero hurried on to the garden, slew the dragon, and purloined the apples.

Glykon’s Farnese Hercules was moved, with much of the Farnese collection, in 1787 to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. Comino’s rendition was installed in the gardens at the Chateaux de Sceaux, south of Paris, in 1686. It was moved in 1793 to the Tuileries Garden, where it lived its still life for over two hundred years. In 2010, the statue returned to Sceaux, protected from weather in the Orangerie. Two more copies were made, both from a mold of Glykon’s work. One occupies the place at Tuileries; the other the flower garden outside the Orangerie at Sceaux.

Farnese Hercules  Comino 1670-1672

Heracles pauses to contemplate his twelfth and final labor: to capture Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the gates of Hades. A task Eurystheus believes impossible…


Cairos, Forgotten God of Favorable Opportunity

There is a moment, that instant when you must choose to do or not to do. Instinct makes you aware of its importance: Act now, and everything hereafter is different. Act not, and things remain the same.

In her History of Ancient Sculpture (1883), Lucy M. Mitchell describes a Greek deity, long out of fashion, represented in sculpture by Lysippos, who worked in fourth-century-BC Peloponnese:

“Cairos was to the people of Lysippos’ day … an actual god, believed to influence men at critical moments, when sudden decision was required, and leading them to the proper improvement of every fleeting opportunity” (511).

Choose.


Easter Aboard the Manchuria

With orders for home, the 137th Regiment boarded trains at Sampigny on March 7. They arrived in the Le Mans area three days later. The companies were dispersed to surrounding towns and villages, Company M to Monfort-les-Gesnois. Far from the desolate battlefields, the men enjoyed a couple weeks of “the best accommodations since [their] arrival in France,” whether in billets or private homes (Haterius, 197).

Following this respite, they moved to what was known as “the Belgian Camp,” where they slept in tents and were subjected to medical examinations, inoculations, and “cootie baths” to make them presentable to their mothers.

Continue reading "Easter Aboard the Manchuria" »


ABMC Maps

To accompany their series of books summarizing the operations of each US Army division in World War I, the American Battle Monuments Commission produced maps showing each division’s position during the battles in which it participated.

High-resolution digital versions of the two ABMC maps referenced in A Very Muddy Place are given here. Click on a map to view or download the larger image.

On the maps, straight red lines mark division sector boundaries. The ragged red lines show the division’s limit of advance at midnight on the date indicated. Each map is divided into one-kilometer (0.62 miles) squares. Contour lines show elevation in five-meter (16.4 feet) intervals.

 

Grange-le-Comte Sector  September 21-25  1918  Meuse-Argonne Offensive  September 26-October 3  1918Grange-le-Comte Sector, September 21-25, 1918,
Meuse-Argonne Offensive, September 26-October 3, 1918
(ABMC, 1937)

 

30th Division  Somme Offensive  October 3-22  191830th Division, Somme Offensive, October 3-22, 1918
(ABMC, 1938)

 


 

A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

Available on Amazon