Hillbilly Yentas, Robert E. Lee, and Me

I wrote the following brief description of William Hanlin observing Lee at Appomattox, a short but key scene in the last book of the trilogy, The Rough Beast, at Ft. Dix.  It came out of nowhere in particular – as do whole chunks of scenes and dialogue – while I was writing something in the flow of a more lineal narrative.  I was at a picnic table, warm night for late November (read: ‘only a little cold’), was distracted by a few friends, got caught unaware by the ‘Recall” bell (i.e., back to dorms or else) and left the folder.  I didn’t realize it until I was in my room, no way to get out to look for it.

Needless to say, I did not sleep that night, sprinted out at 6:30 with the few up for breakfast, was stopped before I got halfway there – a friend of a friend of a student of mine had grabbed it, was coming to give it to me . . . .
                   . . . . with about six friends, all of them Hillbilly Yentas (my coinage).   Hillbilly yentas: there is one group of Federal inmates that are unmistakable – the meth cookers of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Appalachians.  As wildly bearded as John Brown, somehow similarly dressed although they had to wear the same uniforms as the rest of us, unruly hair, missing teeth, funny as hell.  They always seemed to hang in a group, always seemed to be talking about everybody else, hence Hillbilly yentas.

So six or seven hillbilly yentas handed me my folder, I thanked them profusely.  I got along great with these guys, so I was a bit put off by the less than effervescent ‘your welcome’.  Their leader, a guy I was friendly with, looked down at the grass, the sky, waited for a jet tanker from McGuire Air Force base to clear the rooftops, then muttered, “The boys ain’t too pleased with your description of Mr. Lee.”

The folder they handed back to me was at least two inches thick, they had either read the entire thing overnight or just happened to flip it open to the few lines about ‘Mr. Lee’.  Either way, I was stunned.  Somehow I had the presence of mind to say, quite calmly, “Read it again,” fumbled through, pulled out the handwritten page, handed it to the leader, everyone huddled around him, I did not take the moment to effect an escape with the real manuscript.  This is what they read, corrected for grammar (yeah, not all that easy to be creative and grammatical on a bench, at night, in the cold, in the middle of a prison):

. . I watched the distinguished, gray-haired, impeccably uniformed man ride, eyes fixed on some far away point, backbone ram rod stiff as he sat bolt upright on the equally legendary Traveler. His was a face at once alien – the face of the thousands who had just wasted the last four years trying to kill me – and familiar – the face of the ‘old army’ the face, if not the epitome, of ‘Before.’  

I studied that perfectly bearded face, a face I had admired and respected since Mexico (the last four years admittedly included) full on, in profile, from behind, as Lieutenant General Robert E. Lee rode by, moving down the dirt lane – left alone even by the dust.

By the time I had a clear view of the back of his head I realized, suddenly and disconcertingly with a surge of pure emotion that made my hands shake and my empty stomach nauseated, that I hated the man. I despised him beyond words – my own or any I could possibly hope to recall and quote. That genius had extended the fucking war years, caused the deaths of friends, acquaintances, enemies, and total strangers who, had they lived, might have become one or more of the above.

Death and more death while he befuddled, confused, terrified, controlled, and unmasked as frauds men such as my once great friend McClellan, poor Ambrose. All because honor dictated state before country – a dilemma this particular war had now rendered moot . . . after loping off a chunk of his beloved state and desolating the rest.

He had tried to kill me, forced me to confront horrors I would have been richer to have missed, hurt me physically in ways I would never fully recover from, insured I would not sleep well for a generation, forced me, time and again, to confront the inequities of my friends and myself . . . so his conscience and sense of honor would be assuaged.

All that raced through my head, made me physically ill. I have, to date, never reconciled the feelings I had that day for my former comrade-in-arms as I watched that living anachronism ride away.

They read it again, had a brief discussion (brief = rarity), the leader patted me on the shoulder, said, “You’re alright for a Northern boy – rest a the book is good, too.”  That was it, taking the time to read it in the way it was meant to be read rather than from their preconceived notion of what I, a guy with ‘014’ in his number (Fed code for Connecticut) would write about Lee in a Civil War novel written in the first person from the viewpoint of, well, a man from New England.

I suppose there’s a lesson in there somewhere as well . . . .


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