Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Shelby Foote --- Gone with the Wind

He cut such a courtly figure.

When I first saw Shelby Foote on the Ken Burns PBS documentary "The Civil War," I immediately liked him. The white beard. The voice ripped right out of Margaret Mitchell's South. The folksy charm.

Foote became something of a celebrity after the program became a hit. And it was then that his mask fell off.

He was by reputation testy and downright rude. My pal Dewayne Lawson attended a lecture Foote gave at Transylvania University in the late 1990s. He said Foote refused to sign copies of his epic three volume work on the war. Lawson characterized his speech as "bizarre."

Foote told writer Tony Horwitz in the excellent "Confederates in the Attic" that he simply didn't want to be a celebrity.

"He also seemed more aloof than the grandfatherly figure on television," Horwitz wrote. "Without so much as a handshake or a hello, Foote led me into a study with a throw rug at the door that said, 'Go Away.' "

And yet he wrote like a poet. What I've read of his "The Civil War: A Narrative" reads more like a novel than a work of history. His piece of historical fiction, "Shiloh," is a must read for anyone in love with this wonderful, horrible chapter of our nation's story.

It took him 20 years to write his Civil War epoch --- all of it in longhand. His specialty was making characters come alive, a gift most trained historians never seem to possess, to the detriment of their work.

He was apparently a man of contradictions. He hated racism, but loved the Confederacy. He spent his life in the Bible Belt, but had little use for organized religion. He was a Democrat in an area that became GOP Country.

But nobody, not Bruce Catton, not James McPherson, not even Michael Shaara, wrote as well as the Master.

Shelby Foote died Monday. He was 88.

I never met the man, but I feel in a way like I have lost a friend. Or, perhaps more appropriately, lost a link to a past that is gone with the wind.

One suspects he is talking somewhere today with Stuart and Lee, Lincoln and Davis, and Forrest and Jackson. I hope his spirit took a walk around Shiloh one last time before heading off into eternity.

So long, Mr. Foote. Old times here are not forgotten...

Monday, June 20, 2005

They've only just begun (but I feel too darn old)

What do you say when your baby sister gets married?

I guess you say "Congrats." "Best of luck." "Wish you the best." And then --- "God, I feel old."

Watching my little sister walk down the aisle last Saturday night brought back a flood of memories. Of weekday afternoons watching cartoons and "The Dukes of Hazzard" after elementary school. Of fighting like cats and dogs over (sometimes literally) spilled milk. Of watching her mature into a beautiful young woman with her own life and career.

Her hubby is a pretty good fella. Course, he would just about have to have been for us to allow him into the clan. We're a little like the FBI in that regard. (Although with the recent news about Mark Felt, maybe that's a bad example.)

I knew I was going to like my future brother-in-law when I heard he bought my sister "Deliverance" on DVD for Christmas! Heck, yeah! Welcome to the family, pal!

I try not to get emotional much these days. Keep it in. Be solid. Act like a man. What 'Would John Wayne Do?' kind of stuff.

But watching Dad bring her down to meet her husband-to-be, it was hard not to get a little teary eyed.

After the reception, left to my own thoughts, it was difficult not to think about the passing years. I'm not even 30 yet, but still feel like time has slipped by like houses on the side of the road.

"And the white lines getting longer and the saddle's getting cold," or so the tune goes. "And I'm much too young to feel this damn old."

Where's my worn out tape of Chris Ledoux?