F.U.K.K., Dead-Ringers and Wilmer McLean
People often ask what I do for a living. Generally, I tell them I kill people–or else I’m thinking of killing people. Once, I even slaughtered an entire team of draft horses! That was colorful. But again, it’s a generality. Specifically, I am an untimid, unapologetic, wise-assed author of historical fiction adventures. Why this genre? I have found an enduring literary expression to be an absolute truth: life is stranger than fiction. If that “strangeness of life” becomes well-written fiction, and is bound and infused with actual history, real persons and accurate settings, the reader won’t be able to tell for certain what is fiction and what is actual history.
Best. Job. Ever.
I caught the history bug honestly; my dad was a history teacher since I was knee-high to a fly. One day I visited his summer school class. I slipped in through a door in back and stood against the wall. My eyes immediately went to the chalk board. In my dad’s hand were four large capital letters: F.U.K.K. Lucky me! I had arrived just in time to hear why he’d written those letters on his chalk board… and so did the school’s Principal. The first thing “Coach Sweazy” did was call out a student who had apparently used the verbal profanity in his classroom. “Do you know what it means?” Dad asked the student. With a knowing wink, the young man assured his classmates he did.
“I doubt it,” Coach told him. He pointed to the letters and read: “Fornicated. Under. Kareless. Konditions. It is an anagram in the King’s Old English. But what does it mean, and where would someone find it?” he asked. The student was clearly growing uncomfortable. He mumbled he didn’t know.
My father turned that profanity into a history lesson on Shakespeare, Elizabethan times, how the style of dress deigned to hide the sores from tell-tale venereal disease, and finally to 15th century headstones emblazoned with the F.U.K.K. legend. “So,” my dad told the red-faced teen, “you were telling your friend to fornicate, catch a venereal disease and die. Maybe I can’t stop you from saying it in my classroom, but I can teach you to know what you’re saying, so you’re not a dumbshit.”
I can pretty much guarantee his students never forgot that lesson… unless I just made all of this up.
While we are on the subject of graveyards, do you know how the traditional Irish Wake came to be? A small town needed to relocate a centuries-old graveyard to make way for a new road. While transporting a sorely decomposed casket, the interred fell out the bottom. When they tried to return the remains by flipping the casket upside down, they found scratches, gouges, and even pieces of fingernails imbedded in the interior of the lid. Horrors! Officials decided it prudent to check out the other caskets and several more were found, suggesting the interred may have been buried alive. An investigation determined the cause to be poisoning; the culprit, beer steins that had been lined with lead to keep the grog cold. Apparently, the afflicted sometimes sank into comas that mimicked death. Officials decided the town’s presumed-dead would no longer be interred post-haste, but instead would lay-in-wait at the family home for a few days. Meanwhile, friends would drink and make toasts, hold banquets and generally whoop it up, all in an effort to “wake” the deceased. Now, you may have already heard this historical scrap before, but the history lesson does not endeth here. Still concerned their celebrations may not be loud enough, or go on for long enough to “wake the dead,” a person was employed to watch over the grave yard while the rest of the town slept. This became known as the “graveyard shift.” But listen for what? The bodies were planted under six feet of dirt! The town decided future burials would include a string tied to a finger of the deceased. The string would pass through a tiny hole in the coffin lid, through the six feet of dirt, to a bell up above. And do you know what they called a person who was “saved by the bell”? Why, that would be a “dead ringer”… unless I just made all of this up.
And then there’s Wilmer McLean, who thought his claim to fame was that the First Battle of Bull Run was fought on the McLean family farm. The American Civil War literally started in his front yard! But his story doesn’t end there. The Union Army learned Brigadier General Beauregard was using McLean’s home as a headquarters and fired artillery at the house. A lucky shot dropped a cannonball right down the kitchen fireplace, destroying far more than the General’s dinner.
McLean, a sugar-broker for the Confederate States Army, was getting older and feeling his age. Perhaps he was motivated to protect his family from further dangers of war. Maybe it was getting too difficult to supply Confederates with the Union Army all about the place. No matter his reasons, McLean decided to move his family away from the farm. In fact, he took them more than one hundred twenty miles south… to Appomattox County, Virginia.
In April, 1865, General Robert E. Lee arrived at a dusty little crossroads community to surrender to Grant. He needed a suitable place to meet, so he sent a messenger to the local court house to make inquiries. Shortly thereafter, Wilmer McLean received a knock on his door. General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant in the parlor of McLean’s home. It was the end of the Civil War! It was also the end of Wilmer McLean’s quiet life in Virginia. At the close of the ceremony, Army staff began grabbing McLean’s furnishings—nearly anything that wasn’t nailed down—as souvenirs. Some offered payment, but most did not. McLean could no longer meet his mortgage payments. He died bankrupt.
…Or did I just make this up? Don’t you love historical fiction?