Friday, November 22, 2013

Michael Shaara Prize Acceptance Speech

I was recently honored to recieve the Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction.  Here is the acceptance speech I gave: 
It is my great privilege to accept this award, named in honor of his father Michael, from Mr. Jeff Shaara.  My love of history was instilled in me by my own father.  We were both high school history teachers, students of the Civil War, and great fans of Killer Angels as well as Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure.  We read them all, discussed them all at length, sometimes quoted them in random every day conversations…often to the befuddlement of those around us.  When the movie Gettysburg came out, we went to see it on the first Saturday afternoon.  The young man selling the tickets issued a warning to us before collecting the money.
“Just so you know,” he said, “the movie’s like four and a half hours long and has an intermission.”   We just smiled and nodded.  Told him it would be fine.  “Kid’s obviously not a history buff,” my father said as we walked inside.

Now the next Saturday we went back to see it again, and there was the same young man at the ticket booth. 
“Just so you know, “ he began, “the movie’s like four and a…wait…weren’t you guys here last week?”

The rest of the transaction was conducted with eyebrows raised as he handed us our tickets with a look of disbelief.  Now the THIRD Saturday…there was no effort to deliver the warning, he just stood there, mouth agape, offering a bewildered sort of, “Ahhh, enjoy the show?” as he handed us our tickets.  Different strokes, for different folks, we figured. 
We decided not to go back on the fourth Saturday, lest there be a stroke of a different kind. 

My father passed away in 2010.  But he lived to see my book sold at least, if not published.  He would have loved to have been here today, for so many reasons.  He was one of the very few people who didn’t think it was a completely absurd idea for me to leave teaching, if only temporarily, in order to write that novel I’d been meaning to get around to since I was in college.  Or at least if he did, he never said it out loud. 
I made that leap in 2007, living off my 401K savings as I wrote full time.  I had two characters, the first a Civil War photographer who would take a picture of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, but rather than develop it, in his war-weariness, he would preserve the negative and store it away, not telling a soul about it.  Some 160 years later it would be discovered in an attic by the second main character, who would share it with the world.  For a year and a half, or so, I worked on filling in the story over that century and a half, developing the characters and broader themes, until, 700 single-spaced pages later, I realized I had a trilogy on my hands.  Only then did the first part of it, May the Road Rise Up to Meet You, truly take form.

To be honest, I think it was only then that I discovered that each of the now four principle characters in this first book had one main thing in common.  There was Ethan, a poor immigrant who comes to America to escape the Irish Potato Famine; Marcella, a society girl from Spain who emigrates with her family, and Micah and Mary, two slaves separated from their families early in life.  Each of them faced, in varying degrees, the oppression of a society that defined them only by the simplest of terms, as mere functionaries of the larger, far more important economic system around them.  That could have been, should have been, their prison cell.  And yet each of them, endowed with great talent and most importantly, ASPIRATION, somehow went beyond those constrictions.  All of them thus became heroic in their own right, in their own small lives, even amidst the conflagration of world events all around them.  I would like to say that I created them that way from the start, but I didn’t.  I think instead they were the reflection of an attitude, an aspiration that had been instilled in me from childhood. 
These characters are fictional – as I sometimes have to be reminded - but I would hope they are inspirational, particularly in today’s society.  As a teacher for fourteen years, I can say that at times it felt like swimming against the seemingly unstoppable tide of our modern society, the tide that would reduce learning to its simplest terms, valuing functionality alone.  The liberal arts, the creative arts are too readily cast aside in favor of greater focus on technology and economic expediency.  And the cost is a society that increasingly worships fame for fame’s sake alone, while devaluing knowledge for knowledge’s sake alone. 

I think the greatest influence my father had on me was his love for learning, a love which only grew with age rather than fading away.  In my teaching days I tried to inspire that same love of learning in my students.  “Will that be on the test?” was the only question not permitted in my class.  And so, I suppose it would be inevitable that I would write characters like these.  For them, knowledge was hope.  Knowledge was joy.  For them, as for us, Knowledge was and is, LIBERATION.
My mother and father were each the first ones in their extended families to graduate from high school.  That was an accomplishment in and of itself, but not enough to quench their aspiration, and so, well into their forties after their children had already begun college or even graduated, they went back to school themselves.  On the brink of fifty, they emerged as newly certified teachers and spent the next twenty three years inspiring their students as they had done their children.  I dedicate this award, I OWE this award, to that example of courage, commitment, and most importantly, the love of learning.

Thank you. 


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A scene from May the Road Rise Up to Meet You that didn't make the final cut - The 1863 Draft Riots

This is a scene from May the Road Rise Up to Meet You that was part of the original story but was excluded from the final draft.  It is an important part of the history of this period, so I share it here.  Ethan has returned to New York (without Marcella) after having the confrontation with Harry at Gettysburg (rather than Fredericksburg as I later made it).  He is bruised and dazed from a barroom fight he got into with two gravediggers in Gettysburg...a sort of flashback to Aislinn's funeral triggering his rage.  And when he returns to New York, this:

July 13th, 1863

New York

Your head still throbs from eight hours on the train and all you want is to get to Seanny’s house to get some rest and let the bruises go down a bit, now that the bleeding’s stopped, so you don’t have to see Marcella this way.  But soon as you tell the taxi driver to take you to Fahrteenth an’ Broadway it’s like he’s identified you as his long lost cousin from th’Old Country and he starts in right away about th’mischief goin’ on down in the Points.   Mischief, you think, when’s there ever not mischief goin’ on down in the Points?  But this is different he says, th’Mob’s already torched a few shanties on Baxter Street, chasin' the darkies outta their homes.  He seems particularly pleased about that, sayin’ th’crowd turned on th’darkies right off, once dey got a snootful an’ decided it was toime t’do somethin’ about this goddamned Draft.  He tells you he’s a few years off the boat himself, did his ninety day bit early on, asks if you was fool enough as him t’serve…an’ when you just say The Sixty-Ninth…it’s like he figures you know all about it, all about the war and the mischief goin’ on in the Points. 

Did my nointy day bit early on too, not wit’ th’Sixty Noint’, but did my bit all th’same.  Didn’t see much action, but still…so you an’ me bowt’ know about dis Rich Man’s war. An’ the’lads down in th’Points’re all fired up ‘bout dat t’ree hunnerd dollar exemption.  Rich Man’s war, wit’ th’poor men doin’ th’foightin’, an’ all fer th’darkies.  And when you don’t say anything in response, he assumes you feel the same way he does about it all. If ya ask me, dis here’s been brewin’ a long toime.  Dropped a fella down along Eight’ Street not an hour ago an’ ya could hear th’Mob stirrin’ from that far away.  If ya ask me, won’t be a darkie left anywhere near th’Points when th’Mob gets t’rough wit’ ‘em. 

And you know there’ll be no resting at Seanny’s.  You know he’s down there in the Points, tryin’ to do what he can to put an end to the foolishness.  But he’d always said that th’Points were a powder keg waitin’ on a spark, Tammany doin’ what it could to keep the sparks away.  Seanny’d be down there now for sure, so you tell the driver to take you there, to the Points.  And Irish camaraderie doesn’t do a damn thing to get you there, but a twenty does.

There’s more smoke than usual, and you can hear the clamoring of th’Mob down near Pell Street, so you continue south on Bowery, feeling your head throbbing more than ever from the exertion, not willing to stop, feelin’ somehow that you have a place here, that there’s something you can do along with Seanny….to help end the foolishness.  But its foggier now, your thinking is, so that when you  turn right on Pell street, and see th’Mob gathered at the far end of the block, stones and bricks flyin’ from their midst towards the buildings, you wonder just what you thought you might do.  A few dozen policemen come running towards th’Mob, brandishing billy clubs and blowin’ whistles, the sound like pins jabbing at your temples.   They hurl themselves into the crowd with the sort of ruthless fury reserved for the battlefields, but th’Mob will not be moved so easily, needing a few minutes of hand to hand, before they’re on their way and the street is cleared.

It’s instinctive in you now, this walking towards the scene of the next clash, past several policemen who yell at you to be on your way.  There’s an old Negro woman being carried from the building by the policemen, and you can see her head is bloodied from a brick or stone that struck her.  The next several buildings in a row have not a single window intact, and there’s smoke coming from one of them, a Negro man swatting at the flames with a blanket.  And you don’t see the point of attacking these people who have nothing to do with the draft boards or the rich men getting their three hundred dollar exemptions.  You want to help the man try and put out the fire, but then he gives up, surrendering to the inevitable, grabbing a few things before running out of the building, joinin’ several others watching their homes go up in flames.

The noise of th’Mob draws you down Mott Street, to Park, and then up Baxter where they’ve joined another Mob attacking more buildings.  There’re dozens of police already there and the ones you just left on Pell Street come runnin’ breathlessly past you.  One of them bumps your shoulder and the jerk of your head makes you weak on your feet, so you stop walking and lean against a streetlamp, watching as the police pour into th’Mob just as they had before, only now th’Mob giving as good as they get.  It’s maybe half an hour before the scene is finally cleared, the remnants of the clash in the form of battered men, both police and civilians, lying prone on the street, cursing each other with what energy they can muster.  The Negro tenants look out of their windows with the fear that comes from knowing they’re completely surrounded within the Points, outnumbered at least ten or fifteen to one, trapped inside their homes until th’Mob passes far enough away so they can maybe slip out to Brooklyn and something like safety.

The senselessness of it staggers you.  Go uptown, you want to tell them.  Go to Wall Street.  Go to City Hall.  They’re the enemy.  But you say nothing of course, remembering instead how your Da had described the Points to you the first time you saw it.  All th’most desperate people, th’ones at da bottom, grabbin’ an’ kickin’ at one anudder t’keep from going under demselves, was what he’d said, and you always remembered it just that way.  And as it comes back to you now, you realize that it’s a force far greater than anything you can hope to stop.  Disgusted, you stand up and begin to walk, dazed, thinking you’re goin’ back uptown but walking south instead.  You don’t realize your mistake until you reach the corner of Park Street, where another Mob has assembled, larger than the previous two, reinforced by people from outside the Points and lubricated with whiskey and rum and beer.  When the police arrive, they don’t budge th’Mob at first and are forced to retreat, then regroup, and enter the fray again.  Once more unto the breach, you think, bitterly.  

Not far from the edge of the battle you see a Negro man slip out a side window of one of the buildings under attack and make a dash up Park Street away from the crowd and towards you.  Then two men coming from the opposite direction block his path and knock him hard to the ground, as several others catch up with him from behind and begin to kick and punch him.  The police don’t see any of this, too involved with the main mob, so you begin to run up the street to help.  It’s only a dash of thirty or forty yards, but it takes all the coherence from you.  When you reach them, you shout something even you don’t comprehend, then strike one of them a glancing blow across the temple, your elbow striking another man’s shoulder and spinnin’ you just enough to send you tumbling to the ground beside the Negro man.

Everything freezes for a moment, and you brace yourself for a beating far worse than the one you took yesterday. But then the men who’d been kicking and stomping begin to laugh hysterically at you, believing that you meant to join them, of course, since you’re one of them, but were just too drunk to do much good.  Even the man you hit seems to believe this, and he’s laughin’ hardest of all.  Then a roar comes from down the street and you can see flames bursting forth from one of the buildings, and they turn and run back towards th’Mob again.  The man lying on the ground next to you has cuts along his face and a terrified expression to match them.  He forces himself to his feet and looks at you confused, as if wondering whether maybe you had come to help him, but he doesn’t deliberate for long before takin’ off up Park Street and away from th’Mob.  And you’re left there, in the fog, but none the worse for a beating.  Still, you close your eyes for just a while, giving in to the fog, resting, garnering what strength you can before trying anything so ambitious as finding your way back to Seanny’s house, deciding right them that you’ve had enough of the Points, and enough of the desperate people grabbing and clawing at each other for….for what?  This place makes less sense to you now than it did to that twelve year old boy who saw it with his Da all those years ago.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A tribute to my Father, on what would have been his 76th birthday

This is the eulogy I delivered for my father, a great and humble man...

Peter James Troy

To begin with, my father was not a man for many tears or lamentations and if anyone needs reassurance that this is a joyful moment just think of the man you knew, whether as Peter, Mr. Troy, Dad, Uncle Pete or Papa, and imagine him hovering somewhere above us, as he most surely is.  Here we are, this whole congregation, gathered to celebrate his life, and talk about him, with him right at the center of such a thing, and if you knew my father even just a little, you know that he’s LOVING every minute of this. 
So yes, this is a joyful moment.

This is when we place the frame around the great picture that is his life.  We all weave together unique and seemingly disconnected threads to form our own life’s picture, but my father, with more than just a little of the eccentric in him, placed particular emphasis on the unique part of that formula.  He was one of a kind, to be sure.  An old family friend, Fr. Kohli, once described him as a man who would be “equally comfortable amidst kings and paupers”.  What a wonderful thing that must have been to be like, and who amongst us would not wish the same to be said of ourselves?

But I don’t think my father was born with this trait, or even came about it easily.  I believe instead that it was the product of a conscious effort.  And not the “Forty Days to a Better You,” approach to self-improvement, but instead a life-long journey, to delve evermore deeply into this gift, that is life.  A man on such a journey, if he is true, can be best understood by the simplest, and most seemingly uneventful moments of his life, better even than his triumphs.  And that was my father.
A driving force in his journey was his thirst for knowledge, wherever it might be found, and whatever the source.  And for me, that was never more evident than on a family ski trip to Pennsylvania, when I was just twelve years old.  My father and I were both complete novices to skiing, and were licking our wounds after a disastrous first attempt at the bunny slope, when a little boy, maybe six or seven at most, came zipping down towards us.  He had no ski poles, wore goggles that wrapped halfway around the back of his head since they were so big on him, and his skis looked like somebody had sawed the last two feet off the end of them.  Still, he stopped himself on a dime just a few feet from my father and me and had the audacity to tell me that I was doing the snowplow all wrong.  Now, I was practically an adult, being twelve and well on my way to thirteen, and I wasn’t about to listen to some kid half my age tell me how to ski. 

But my father was more than willing to listen.
For the next twenty minutes or so, he picked that kid’s brain for all it was worth, not a patronizing sort of thing, but really intent on learning, you see.  I wish I’d been smart enough to stick around and listen, but I took the more manly and dignified approach, tumbling, literally, down the bunny slope a few more times....while in the meantime my father actually learned how to ski.  From a seven year old.  And why not, since every voice was given equal bearing with him. 

Now, lucky for me, he saw knowledge as a thing to be spread even to the stubborn or just plain stupid, so I eventually learned to snowplow as well, from him...with what he’d learned from that annoying little seven year old.  And I look at that moment I have always remembered, as my first lesson that the distance between our starting point in life, and our finishing point in life, is mostly defined by our willingness to be humble, so that we may be lifted up. 
Now, inquisitiveness may have driven my father on his journey, but it was integrity that did the steering.  And again, the simplest of moments in his life tell volumes about what a man he was. 

I was perhaps nine or ten for this one, and walked outside on an early summer morning to see if my friend Johnny from across the street was ready to play wiffleball.  Johnny was already outside, helping his father collect the trash cans from the street in front of their house.  These were the days when trash cans were made of tin and aluminum and registered every bruise like they were over-ripe bananas being knocked against the edges of sanitation trucks and then tossed back to the curb. 
And Johnny’s father was quite a frugal man, so their trash cans, though still mostly functional, resembled something that had fallen off an orbiting satellite and crashed to earth, then been dragged behind a sanitation truck for a few days, before finding a home across the street from us.  And as Johnny took the last of them to the side of their house, his father began to walk back to their front door.  That’s when my father pulled up.

I was surprised to see him, since he had left for work about half an hour earlier.  He said nothing to me or Johnny, just called after Johnny’s father, then got out of the car and walked to the back of our green Plymouth station wagon, and took out a brand new trash can, the likes of which did not exist anywhere on our block.  It was silver and perfectly ruffled, reflecting the brilliant sun in a dozen directions all at once.  This can had its lid intact, not like the ones we used as shields during winter snowball fights, or as bases on the street during the summer.  It was among the most beautiful things I’d seen to that point in my life, and I was excited at the idea that we were moving up in the world, to own such a trash can. 
But then my father carried that can right up to Johnny’s father and handed it to him, explaining that he had bumped into one of their cans as he backed out of the driveway on his way to work.  Johnny’s father told him that it wasn’t necessary, that he hadn’t even noticed the fresh dent and so on, but in the end he accepted it like the trophy that it was.  And after the dust had cleared and my father was back on his way to work, Johnny asked me why my father had done such a thing, especially since his father hadn’t even noticed that there was more damage to the can.  I was nine, or maybe ten, and more than a little jealous of the brilliant new trash can Johnny would now get to carry back and forth from the curb, so I simply shrugged my shoulders and left it at that.  But if I had the chance to answer Johnny’s question today I could do it with a single word...a word to most assuredly describe my father.....integrity.

Now, my father, having driven the family station wagon halfway up and down the East Coast on many a family vacation, knew that the most essential ingredient to any successful journey was without a doubt, a sense of humor.  Greater than the joy he found in his own laughter was the joy he found in seeing other people laugh, and never more so than when he had provided the reason for it. 
For his students it might take the form of the now-famous Karl Marx song, performed to the melody of the theme song from the Beverly Hillbillies, and passed on from year to year...because learning is supposed to be joyful, he’d say. 

Friends and colleagues knew him as a man quick to offer a song or an offbeat saying at any random moment.  He was never too busy for a song, or especially a laugh.
And his family knew his humor daily, in all the same ways his students and colleagues did, only manifest in Christmas Eve’s and ordinary Thursday mornings and Sunday afternoon drives to nowhere in particular, so long as there was ice cream somewhere along the way.  And oh, how we treasured his very presence among us...always, you see.

Now, throughout these recollections, some of you have nodded your heads, smiling, perhaps nudging each other as if to say, ‘Mmmm-hmmm, that was him’.  But these are mostly the small moments, the little bits left over after the weddings and births and graduations all get talked about.  So why is my father so easily recognizable in these small moments, told to people who knew him in so many different capacities?  I don’t think it is because he wore his heart on his sleeve, but rather, because he wore his soul on his sleeve.  Every voice heard with equal resonance, every person treated with dignity and respect.  And that’s a thing to make a man at home with kings and paupers alike, a great and dangerous thing to be sure, for what a bar it is to set for oneself.  And yet, that’s what he did.  Day to day, along the course of this beautiful life.  And surely that would make a man great in even the smallest of moments.
So we do the work of framing his life, hoping we can summon together all those unique threads into one image.  But it is for our purposes only, you know – for the image of him we will hang on the walls of our memory is but a speck of who he was in the eyes of our Lord.  Still, we do what we can, limited as we are in all the ways my father no longer longer limited by the minuteness of our frames, or powerless to see the threads being sewn together.   

And then, finally, there is only to firmly establish the joyous nature of this occasion, and to do so, I must relay one more story from his life. 
It occurred when he and my mother had returned to school well into their forties, and found themselves full-time undergraduate college students with classmates younger than some of their own children.  It was a philosophy final they were taking at the end of the semester, and the test consisted of ten possible essay topics, of which they were supposed to answer any three of their choosing.  The first nine were of the standard fare....what did Descartes have to say about this.....and describe Plato’s ideas on that....and so on....all nine of them, just what you’d expect on any Philosophy 201 final in any college, anywhere in the country.  But then there was that tenth question, written by their professor who had, perhaps, just a little bit of the eccentric in him too, the way my father had.  That tenth essay topic was simply.....“What is?” 

Guess who was the only one in the entire class to choose essay topic number ten?
My mother told us this story with fatigued humor...after all she was the one who had waited for my father for more than an hour in the hallway outside the classroom, and this after the rest of the class had finished the exam and gone on their way.  One hour.  Beyond the two and a half hours already allotted for the entire test, until finally, even the Professor grew tired and had my father wrap up, pleased as punch that someone would take the bait, but, come on...enough already.

I don’t recall what my father said in his answer to that essay question.  But we talked about it.  He talked about that question all the time, not the experience of answering the question on that test, as much as in his very manner.  Of seeking the answer to it...daily...since it was the essence of every other question he ever asked of another...his colleagues...his family...his students...God. 
What is? 

With him aaall the while thirsting for the answer.  And so now there is only this to tell us the joy that is this moment. 
For now....he knows.