YOU REALLY CAN GO HOME AGAIN

 

Summer in Michigan — just the thought of it brings a smile to my face. Both my husband and I hail from a small town in southeastern Michigan, and this summer we returned for a whirlwind of a trip that examined our past and our ancestry. Day after day brought new discoveries and old places into focus. By the last days of the journey, my mind swirled, and I yearned for the quiet necessary to examine and absorb all I saw and learned.

The sojourn to our home state contained many elements of serendipity when the Tecumseh District Library in Michigan contacted me about making a presentation on my great grandfather’s Civil War Journal. He enlisted in Adrian, Michigan, on April 20, 1861, just down the road from Tecumseh. I agreed and decided to approach other organizations and ask if they’d be interested in my presentation. Within weeks, I’d booked three over a ten-day period in June.

A month later, a friend of my husband’s contacted us and asked us to save the date for a weekend in June for his fiftieth high school reunion. The weekend fell right in the middle of my presentations. I then made a Facebook page for my classmates asking if anyone would like to get together during my visit home. Twenty-plus people said, “Yes.” I did the same thing with cousins and yet another reunion came together.

Class of 1973

Stockbridge High School – Class of 1973 Forty-four Years Later

My memory was very much put to the test. Many of the folks we saw remained in the area or had parents still in the area. I left Stockbridge when I was eighteen. My husband moved away about the same time. Both of our mothers moved from the area in the 1980s. Except for Facebook, I’ve had very little contact with any of these folks in four decades. I brought name tags, but even then I made mistakes with names.

The kids I’d gone to school with had all gotten older! Of course, I wasn’t looking in the mirror when I made my discovery. Once I identified my former playmates–some of whom I knew from my first memories–I could see those former faces in the eyes and gestures of their current conditions. The years floated away as stories spilled from the fountains of our memories. We still carried a bond born of drinking the same water and attending the same schools. While growing up in a village of 1,200 people always seemed boring to me as a kid, I can see now how our childhoods were really very blessed with simplicity, discipline, and love.

The stories of their lives poured forth. Some brought smiles, and yet others brought tears. The divorces, diseases, and death mark us and bring forth a solid and courageous character that few could have imagined back in Mr. Johnston’s history class the day we drove him to distraction, and he lit a cigarette right in front of us in the classroom. When he’d realized what he’d done, he tossed the offending fag out the window.  We all remembered that day, and amazingly, we all had the same exact memory of it.

One of my former classmates lost a son in the line of duty as a police officer several years ago. Just starting his career, the young man had been in a high-speed chase when he lost control of the vehicle. The pain on my friend’s face when he spoke of the horrific accident while in the line of duty moved me to tears, and we shared a moment of grief for what we both had lost.

We flipped through the pages of our senior yearbook, and I heard one of the women in our class had been murdered by her husband. Another had died from complications with diabetes. And yet another, sat alone in his apartment miles away, afraid to come out and join us because of what he deemed a life of failure.

It might have seemed that the evening was full of tears. Yet, it was not. We shared our stories, we sympathized, and then we laughed about the pranks, the teachers, the silliness, and the fashion of 1973. We parted with promises to meet again next year for our forty-fifth. It had been nineteen years since our last reunion, and I think we all felt the passage of time. When warmth remains after so many years, it’s worth embracing and repeating.

But the reunioning wasn’t yet over. We still had my husband Bob’s fiftieth to attend. And for me, this would be bittersweet. My brother Don, who committed suicide in 2008, was also a member of this class. These were the guys and gals I grew up admiring. They all remembered me as Don’s kid sister, Patti, a little tow-headed nuisance who followed them around whenever they came to our house. Here I was married to one of their own and one of Don’s best friends to boot. I was more emotional during this reunion than my own because it brought back the pain of losing my brother–long before his suicide.

Two of my cousins also graduated that year, and when I saw them standing together, I felt the first inkling of tears. Linda and Judy and Don–they were the family trio the year of their graduation. Their open house was combined and held at our house. During the banquet, roses were placed in a vase for all those who had departed. I teared up again when they read the name, “Don Camburn.” Then the final event was the singing “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” from Finian’s Rainbow, the musical the class put on their senior year. It was the first musical ever performed at our high school, and Don had a starring role. When the class members stood to sing the song, I saw Don on the stage–all six-foot-six-inch of him–singing, and my eyes began to fill once again. But the rendition was slightly off beat and key. What a relief. It’s hard to cry when you are trying not to laugh.

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Donald Camburn – Top 2nd from left

Two weeks of memories of places and people I haven’t thought about in years. Now they are bombarding my brain. And the more I remember, the more I wonder about those who weren’t there.

Visits to grave sites and former homes, chats with family members and old friends, and rides on the backroads of Michigan showed me that I had nothing to fear from the past that sometimes has appeared as a monstrous apparition over the years. Time and distance have allowed me to soften the dark memories and embellish the good into myths that warm my heart.

We ended the trip with a birthday party for Bob’s mother. She turned ninety-five on Friday, and six of her seven children gathered at her nursing home to pay her tribute. She didn’t say much, but she smiled and gobbled down her cake with gusto.

She deserves it, as we all do. May I still enjoy my cake and eat it, too, at ninety-five.

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THE MEANING OF #MEMORIAL DAY

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Decoration Day, which we’ve come to call Memorial Day, began in 1866 as a way to honor those who fought and died in the Civil War (1861-1865). Until 1971, it was celebrated on May 30. Now we celebrate it on the last Monday of May, usually as a way to start the summer season rather than a way of honoring our fallen soldiers. This year the official Memorial Day falls on the original date of May 30.

When I was young, growing up in a small Michigan town, the day began solemnly with the high school band leading a parade from the high school to the cemetery where a 21-gun salute honored all of our fellow citizens who fought in all the wars since the Civil War. The veterans handed out paper poppies which symbolized the original Decoration Days when women would decorate the graves of soldiers with flowers. Then we marched back to the high school where another civic group handed out ice cream bars, and that’s when the official partying began with backyard barbecues and frisbee tossing. By starting the day at the cemetery, we all knew what we were celebrating.

This weekend, I’m celebrating the holiday with a remembrance of my great grandfather who fought in the war as a Union soldier and rendered his account of the horrors of fighting against fellow countrymen in his journal that I published in 2013. The book is available in paperback and audible formats, as well as Kindle. This week, May 28-June 4, the book may be downloaded for only $0.99 on Amazon.

Here’s an excerpt from the journal of Harmon Camburn who I’m proud to call my great grandfather. In this particular section, he details his company’s actions during the Battle of Fair Oaks.

The Battle of Fair Oaks (AKA Seven Pines – May 31-June 1, 1862

May 31 – Orders came for us to report to General Kearney at Seven Pines Tavern. Without delay, we were on the move. Before we reached the stage road, one of those sudden storms peculiar to the south burst upon us without warning. The sky grew dark. Then quickly came sheets of livid flame, followed by deafening crashes of thunder. In another moment, sluices of water began to pour. Darkness became so intense that nothing could be seen except by the blinding, hissing, crackling flashes of lightning. The scene was one of terrific grandeur, but exposed to its fury as we were, it was not pleasant. Some gained the partial shelter of the trees. Others could not make head against the flood and were forced to stand and take it where they were. In half an hour, this cloudburst was a thing of the past. The only evidence that it had been was the distant detonation of thunder and the lake of muddy water in which we stood over our shoe tops.

As soon as the storm swept by, we marched away in pursuit of orders. Then there broke upon our ears rapid explosions of thunder that we knew too well were not from heaven, followed by an unsteady roll that we knew was not the reverberation of thunder along the clouds. To our experienced ears, it was the sound of deadly strife.

Then came fugitives from the front, saying that Casey’s division which was in the advance had been surprised at Fair Oaks station and “All cut to pieces.” As with increased pace and quickened pulse we pushed forward, the number of fugitives increased and all had the same cry. “We’re all cut to pieces.” To say that our little band felt no misgivings in the face of this wild rout would not be true. Thoughts of Bull Run forced themselves upon us, but when did the 2nd Michigan fail to report wherever they were ordered. Straining toward the front, we met the lion-hearted, firm and true General Heintzelman at a point where the swamp and creek came close together within forty rods. This hair-lipped old general demanded, “What are these and where are you going?” Being told that we were two companies of the 2nd Michigan going to report to General Kearney, he ordered, “Deploy across this muck and stop these stragglers or kill them.” Instantly, the movement was begun at double quick and in another moment, we were facing the mob of excited, terrified men, some hatless, from they knew not what, while the spent balls from the enemy was stimulating their speed.

To stay this tide was to us a harder task than to fight the enemy. They were our friends, and we did not want to hurt them. By the sounds from the front, we knew that our men who had not been stampeded were bravely holding the rebels in check. These men must be made to turn and help them. At first, it required rough treatment and some received wounds here that had escaped unscathed at the front, but when the tide was once stayed, a peremptory order to “Fall in,” enforced by the point of the bayonet, backed by a loaded musket was obeyed without resistance. Each had his story to tell, to which we would not listen. Officers and men alike insisted that “We’re all cut to pieces” and “I am the only man left of my regiment.”

Officers and men resorted to various subterfuges and tricks to get past our line. Two men carrying their brave and esteemed captain, with both legs tied up with handkerchiefs, were stopped to examine the captain’s wounds. When the bandages were removed, no wounds were to be found. Men with heads, bodies, legs, and arms tied up were detected in the cheat and put into the ranks. A colonel of a New York regiment with two men carrying him desired to push through. We sent the men to the ranks, but passed the colonel. He was dead-drunk. We dumped his carcass on the ground in the swamp as of no use. One by one, seven color bearers drifted back to us with their colors and the declaration that they alone had escaped with the colors, the others were “all cut to pieces.” The phrase “cut to pieces” became a joke and many an officer in splendid uniform was asked to take off his clothes and show where he was cut. Some officers were indignant that their rank was not respected, and that private soldiers dared to prevent their passing, but a look into the muzzle of a loaded musket with a resolute eye behind it inclined them to waive their rights for this once. By stationing the various regimental colors in different parts of the field, and directing the men to assemble around their own colors, we rallied seven good-sized regiments of live men that were not “cut to pieces.” We kept our line all night, part of the men sleeping at a time. Our duty had been a very unpleasant one, but we were assured that it was very important.

June 1 – Early in the morning we joined our regiment on the battlefield. Seven companies of the regiment were in the thickest of the fight and lost heavily in killed and wounded, and Colonel Poe had his horse shot under him. Richardson’s division was already pushing the enemy, and long before noon, the lost ground was regained. This two-day battle was called by both names – Fair Oaks and Seven Pines, the fighting being done between a railroad station of the former name and a country tavern of the latter. (The aggregate loss to Union and Confederate – killed 3,690, wounded 7,524, prisoners 2,322.)

[Fair Oaks or Seven Pines, May 31-June 1, 1862, with the total killed, wounded, or captured now recorded as 13,736.]

Purchase Links for Civil War Journal of a Union Soldier

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#Civil War Begins

Click on cover for Amazon page

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It’s been 153 years since the first shot of the Civil War was fired on April 12, 1861. Here’s the take of the weeks leading up to it and the aftermath from the viewpoint of a Union soldier, my great grandfather, Harmon Camburn. This is an excerpt from his memoir, Civil War Journal of a Union Soldier.

Spring 1861
It had been my intention to continue working summers and teaching winters, and with the money so earned to work my way through college. But the political ferment that had been so long brewing between the North and South began to assume proportions that boded trouble to the nation. The threat of the Southerners to dissolve the Union was being discussed all over the country.
Rumors of troops being raised to resist the government began to reach us.
The excitement was growing so intense that little else was talked of in the family circle, on the streets, or in public gatherings. Resistance to southern outrages was even preached from the pulpit.
While watching the course of events with absorbing interest, I had made up my mind to embrace the first opportunity, should there be any call, to enlist to help put down the coming rebellion, which no one thought would be more than a summer campaign.
Notwithstanding the boasts and threats of the South, the firing on Fort Sumter fell like a thunderbolt on the people.
[On April 12, 1861, Confederate warships fired on Union soldiers at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, to begin the Civil War.]
Immediately, the whole North began to organize military companies; and war meetings were held everywhere.
Then came the call of President Lincoln for seventy-five thousand men for three months. Michigan was asked for one regiment of ten companies under this call. Two companies were started in Adrian: the Hardee Cadets and the Adrian Guards.
The Guards being the oldest company, I thought they would be the first accepted; and consequently chose that company, thinking that perhaps that would be the last chance I would ever have to serve my country as a soldier.
On the morning of April 20, 1861, my father said to me at breakfast, “If you will harness the horse, we will go to Adrian and hear the latest news from Washington.”
On our arrival at Adrian, Father left me at liberty while he transacted some necessary business, and I made my way directly to the recruiting office of the Adrian Guards where I signed a pledge to enlist in the company for three months. I soon met Father and told him what I had done. After presenting all the arguments at his command to dissuade me from going into the army, and finding me still resolute, he said, “Go and do your duty, and if I was as young and strong as you, I would go, too.” When my father had gone home, I returned to the recruiting officer and signified my readiness to begin the life of a soldier at once.
Being required to write my age upon the enlistment paper, I wrote “nineteen years.” The recruiting officer sarcastically remarked, “Yes, three years ago.” And when I assured him of the truthfulness of my statement, he laughed immoderately.

My great grandfather served for the next three years until he was shot and captured in the Battle of Knoxville in late 1863.