Monday, December 13, 2010

Excerpt from a sequel to A Thirst for War. The book is called In the Hands of the Wolf

Chapter 1

The Beginning of the Terror

That fateful afternoon of 17 February 1865, Professor John Ulysses Martin led his horse, Murder, into the barn. A shaft of light streaming down from the loft illuminated the stall and a half dozen cackling chickens as they scratched and pecked at the dirt floor. The malodorous smells of their droppings mixed with the stench of horse manure and dried hay.
            The professor unbuckled his saddle, slung it over a railing and hung the blanket, bridle and harness on wall pegs. Grabbing an old gray towel he rubbed the buckskin down, and then used a pitchfork to throw a load of fresh hay into the stall. The stallion, John’s reward for valor at the Battle of Sharpsburg, snorted and stamped a hoof.
           Gunfire sounded on the dirt road outside. A rider on a black horse galloped past. John recognized the young man as a ne’er-do-well who gambled and cavorted with the young ladies in Clarksville, Tennessee’s taverns. Pursued by a column of Yankee cavalry, the rider hunched low in the saddle. A shot winged him in the shoulder, another one caught him low in the back, and a third knocked him from the saddle. He tumbled from his horse and landed by the side of a bridge spanning a narrow creek.
            Laughing in high pitched cackles like young schoolboys, the Yankees fired more rounds into his lifeless body, threw his corpse onto the back of a horse, and rode off toward town.
Professor Martin shook his head. Damn fool shouldn’t have tried to outrun the cavalry, he mumbled to himself. And they ought not to have shot an unarmed man!
            He leaned his six-foot frame against the stall gate and ran a large, callused hand through his wavy brown hair. His serious looking face was clean-shaven and finely chiseled with a smattering of freckles dotting his cheeks as if they’d been splashed there at birth by a novice angel. The taut muscles in his arms came from unloading heavy cases of liquor on delivery wagons parked behind his uncle’s bar after the Yankee occupation closed Stewart College in Clarksville. That was in February 1862, and he remembered with nostalgia the pleasant days he’d spent teaching his young students about the ancients, helping them understand those peoples’ feats, accomplishments and all too often cheerless tragedies.
            In the period following February 1862, however, things had not gone well. Both foolish and idealistic, he’d enlisted in General Lee’s fine army, losing his right leg at the Battle of Sharpsburg. After his long convalescence, General John B. Hood ordered him to destroy the Cumberland River Railroad Bridge in Clarksville. With Lydia Robertson’s help, he completed the mission and they married shortly thereafter. She was now twenty-one and he twenty-five. They were poor, but happy, and they had the farm that had been acquired by paying the tax lien on it. Other than that, they had nothing except some old sticks of furniture, their love for each other, and their sixteen-month-old son, Jonathan, who brightened their lives.
            John adjusted his prosthesis and then walked to the barn’s open door where a mass of elephant-shaped clouds drifted south. Framed by the door, their cottony shadows trekked across the reddish-brown earth of the cornfield. Next month he would turn the soil there and plant a garden because food was scarce now that the Yankee occupation of Clarksville was entering its third year. The military’s excesses, consisting of pillaging and the illegal appropriation of farm crops, forced him to plant an overabundance of tomatoes, corn, green beans, and sweet potatoes, all to be canned or put away in the root cellar to keep his family from starving next winter. A deer or two would add the luxury of meat, as would the supplies brought by Lydia’s father, Mayor Willard Robertson. 
Loud barking at the front of the two-story farmhouse caught John’s attention, and he jerked his head around as Jefferson, his brown Chesapeake Bay retriever, raced in circles around a horse and buggy belonging to Lydia’s father. Delighted to see his father-in-law arrive early for dinner, John waved and Willard returned the greeting.
“Jefferson, you damn Yankee!” John’s voice resonated with authority. “Stop teasing that horse!”
        Continuing to bark, the dog darted right and left causing the mare, which was skittish by nature, to rear up. The buggy tilted, spilling a whip and crimson cushion onto the ground.
“You’ve got a very rambunctious dog there!” Willard called out as he retrieved the lost items. Looking much older than his fifty-six years, he was a tall, rotund man whose voice was punctuated with wheezes when he spoke. He’d acquired the coarse whistling sound after taking a large chunk of shrapnel to the chest in the 1848 War with Texas and Mexico. Despite his nearly fatal wound, he’d returned to active duty and risen to the rank of colonel.
 “Yes, sir.” John set his hands on his hips. “I do apologize, Willard. Go on in and make yourself at home while I clean up.”
“Will do.”
“Jefferson!” John called. “Come!” 
The dog bounded over, jumped up, and put his paws on John’s chest. John gave him a hug and the dog licked his face.
“Home!” John ordered after washing his hands in a trough and splashing water on his and Jefferson’s faces. The dog bounded up the dirt path leading to the farmhouse’s back porch.
As John walked, the sun came out from behind the clouds, warming the back of his neck. The breeze died down and the air grew still, punctuated by an eerie silence that enveloped the nearby fields and woods. The moment reminded him of the pre-battle quiet at Sharpsburg when the cicada’s loud buzzing reached a climax and then suddenly broke off. Back then it was so peaceful and calm you could almost hear the wind caressing the tassels on the ears of corn. An instant later artillery shells burst everywhere, followed by the harsh rattle of musket fire and the cries of death.
Plant soon, he reminded himself as he reached the porch steps. A child’s wails and the savory aroma of food cooking greeted him as he turned the doorknob and pushed open the unpainted door.
Lydia Martin, gripping a spoon in one hand and a bowl of porridge in the other, stood with her jaw clenched and her back rigid, looking as if she were about to burst into a tirade of expletives. Little Jonathan, usually a charming miniature of his mother, sat in a high chair, his moon-mouth clamped shut and a frown searing his chubby face. Tears of rage filled his hazel eyes and ran down his cheeks.
“Hi,” John said as he went to his wife. Her forehead was covered with a fine sheen of perspiration although the only heat in the room came from the coal stove.
“Hi,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” he asked looking into her fiery green eyes.
“What were those gunshots about?” She used the back of her hand and brushed a lock of brown hair away from her eyes.
John told her about the young boy the Yankees had shot.
“That’s terrible,” she said, holding a hand to her mouth. “Is he all right?”
John shook his head as Jonathan screeched. He glanced at his son and smiled. “Been having a rough time with him?”
“He just won’t eat!” Lydia slammed the bowl down on the sink and wiped her hands on her soiled apron. Jefferson ran to the sink and stood sniffing at the dish.
“Maybe he doesn’t like what you’re giving him,” John said. He patted the boy’s head. The hair was brown and wavy like his own. “Hey, Jonathan. Daddy’s home!”
The toddler banged a toy soldier on the high chair. “Da-da.”
At a series of loud, jerking snores from the front bedroom, John chuckled. “Willard’s taking his afternoon nap?”
“Daddy looked exhausted from his trip so I made him lie down,” she explained. “I worry about him now that he’s getting older.”
           “Know what you mean.” He slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her up close. She wore no perfume, smelled only of strong soap and the crisp clean scent of line-dried linen. He ran his hand down the slope of her neck, parted her long brown hair, and nibbled her flesh. She jerked and twisted her head about while he continued kissing her, licking the soft skin while his hand wandered down her back and squeezed her buttocks.
“How was your day?” he whispered.
“Lonely without you.” Her lips parted as he kissed them. Their tongues lingered until interrupted by Jonathan’s screechy “Brown!”
“That’s it, he wants his brown sugar!” John laughed and took a seat on a ladderback chair at the table. Lydia sat down next to him.
“Ever since he saw me put some on my cereal,” she said, “he has to have it. Demands it!” She opened a cut-glass jar and sprinkled a spoonful of dark cane sugar on the cereal. Lydia thrust the spoon into his mouth which was propped open like a baby bird. He swallowed the entire amount.
“It was easier when I breast-fed him,” she said, half smiling.
John remembered the first time he’d seen her do that. Seated at the kitchen table, she undid the top four buttons of her gingham dress, slid the material off one shoulder and exposed the milky white flesh of her swollen breast and nipple. A maternal glow of pride on her face, she held the infant to her nipple, and he suckled, making little slurpy noises while his tiny fingers worked back and forth in pleasure.
Now, the loud snoring from the front bedroom brought John back from his reverie.
“If you want, your father can come and stay with us,” he said. “It’s not like we’re cramped for space.”
 “You know he would never give up his house in Clarksville,” she said. She looked up at John. “He still wants us to live with him.”
“Um,” John said, remembering how the old man had come up to them after their marriage ceremony in the Presbyterian Church. With tears blurring his bloodshot brown eyes, he explained how lonely he was now that Lydia’s mother was gone, and his younger daughter, Marianne, was married off to a Yankee officer. 
Willard’s offer had been tempting. His house in Clarksville was a mansion, and they would have lacked for nothing, but they wanted their privacy, even if it meant living in this dilapidated farmhouse. More importantly, they wanted to remain as far away as possible from the Yankees’ prying eyes. Even the weekly cavalry patrols on the dusty road out front were far too frequent.
Now, John went to the cupboard and pulled out a bottle of bourbon, a gift from his uncle, Elias Montgomery, who was also expected for dinner today. John poured some whiskey in a glass, added spring water from a cut-glass pitcher, and returned to his seat at the table.
“What’s for dinner?” he asked as he sipped the bourbon.
“Chicken and dumplings.” She removed the lid from an iron pot and stirred the contents, its savory aroma wafting over to John. Lydia touched the spoon to her lips, reached for salt and pepper standing in clay shakers on a shelf above the stove, and sprinkled a little on the food. She repeated the process until her face radiated satisfaction. “Fresh bread, too.”
“Smells delicious,” John said. Today’s hen was payment for tutoring a farm boy yesterday. Some families paid in cash, which was rare, or fresh meat:  a whole chicken or a cut of beef; once, a string of trout. Only last week he’d turned down a possum and two squirrels.
“The chicken’s been simmering all morning.”
“I’m starved.” John licked his lips. His stomach growled and he was reminded he’d eaten little for breakfast and nothing for lunch.
“Dinner will be ready soon,” she said. “How did your day go?”
“I tutored the McPherson boy again this morning and two sisters by the name of Brantley this afternoon.” He sipped more bourbon, its smooth taste exactly the way he liked it. Elias, who ran a hotel and bar in Clarksville, never gave inexpensive gifts. “I ran into Elias and had a drink with him before giving a history lesson to Lieutenant Holmes’ son.”
“I thought you didn’t want anything to do with those foreign invaders.” She turned from the stove and stood facing him, her hands on her hips and her teeth clenched. Sometimes, he thought, she hated the Yankees more than he did.
“We need the money,” he said, waving her into silence. The tutoring was a comedown from his former position as Professor of History at Stewart College, not only prestige wise, but socially and economically. Before the war, people had greeted him on the street and called out, “Hello, Professor Martin,” which always warmed his heart. He was invited to parties where he was the guest of honor and, much to the delight of the ladies, would inject a history lesson to help them understand the complex political situation brewing between the South and North. Now that he was a poor dirt farmer who eked out a living growing vegetables and doing tutoring, he felt the townspeople viewed him as beneath their social class. It dawned on him, suddenly, that he was not unlike Jefferson:  reduced to the lowly position of begging for table scraps.
“I didn’t say we needed the money,” Lydia said, an edge to her voice. She picked up a lace tablecloth, shook it out, and set the table for four, using some silver and fine china her father had insisted they take from the house. “You worry too much about starvation, John.”
“I saw enough of it in the Army,” he said, drifting back to September of 1862. He was wont to do that at times because his war memories plagued him. “At Sharpsburg some of Hood’s men had only green apples and corn to eat. That kind of memory makes a lasting impression, one that sticks with you for the rest of your life.”
“Daddy brought us supplies.” She smiled and pointed to sacks of rice, cornmeal, and flour stacked in the corner.
“I’m both thankful and relieved,” John said. “I’ll put them away later. I wonder why Elias is late. I told him to come around four o’clock.”
“I don’t know,” Lydia said. “What time is it?”
He leaned sideways in his chair and glanced down the hall at the tall case clock standing by the front door. “Close to five.”
“We’ll wait another half hour and then eat,” she said, returning to her food preparations. “Maybe he’s delayed because of business.”
           “Or his drinking.” John frowned. In his opinion, Elias drank far too much for his own good, using the flimsy excuse he needed to mingle with his customers to keep them happy. Then, John wondered about his own bouts with the bottle, whether they would eventually consume him like they did other war veterans. There were battlefield memories of mutilated men chewing on the lead of a bullet to ease their pain…too many of them it seemed to be dismissed or forgotten like some love affair gone sour.
 A warm, pleasant aroma filled the room as Lydia opened the oven door and pulled out a large, oval-shaped loaf of bread.
“Mm,” John said, drawing in the succulent smell of the bread.
After the bread cooled, Lydia used a long kitchen knife and cut the bread into even slices, set them on her mother’s china serving dish, and arranged them so they overlapped like wood shingles.

When heavy footsteps crunched the floorboards in the front bedroom, Lydia wiped her hands on her apron and said, “Daddy’s awake. A quick kiss?”
John leaned across the table. The kiss was brief, with only time for a nibbling of tongues before Willard Robertson strode down the hallway and stumbled into the kitchen.
“Hello, John,” Willard wheezed. He rubbed his eyes and started to yawn, but suddenly remembered his manners and covered his mouth. “Must have dozed off for a spell.”
“It’s good to see you again, sir,” John said, standing up and shaking hands with his father-in-law. “Thanks for all those supplies.”
            “My pleasure,” Willard said. After running a big hand through his graying hair, he took a seat at the kitchen table and watched his daughter stir the chicken and dumplings. He coughed a deep wheezing cough, and then brought up some sputum into a large handkerchief. That act told John his father-in-law had never fully recovered from his war wound.
“Heard a bunch of gunfire on the way over,” Willard said.
John told him about the young boy the soldiers had shot.
“That’s awful,” Willard said. “It’s one thing to kill a man, and another to pump him full of lead because it’s fun!”
“Agreed,” John said, remembering the scene at the foot of the bridge. Damn Yankees!
After Lydia finished feeding Jonathan, she pulled him from his high chair and set him on a gray woolen blanket in a corner. She handed him a toy bear and watched, a smile on her lips, as Jefferson walked over, yawned, and lay down next to the toddler. The child amused himself tugging at the dog’s ears.
“Would you care for a drink?” John asked his father-in-law.
“Please.” Willard yawned, opening his mouth wide. A wheeze poured from his lungs.
John poured bourbon into a glass and handed it to the old man.
“Thank you, John.” Willard lifted his glass in a toast. “To our cause, sir, even though it’s lost.”
John clinked his glass against the mayor’s. “I only hope our defeat will be honorable.”
At the sound of a horse’s whinnying out front, the hairs on Jefferson’s back bristled and he growled and stood up.
“Easy, boy!” John excused himself and left the table, but Jefferson brushed past him and was barking incessantly when John reached the front door. He parted the curtain and peered through the glass. Elias Montgomery had already tied his mount to one of the house pillars and was swinging his heavy frame onto the porch.
John opened the door. “Hello, Uncle!”
“Greetings,” Elias said. A burly man with a pug nose and brown hair, he was a year younger than Willard’s fifty-six, and obviously in better health. His bloodshot brown eyes and the rosy glow on his ruddy face explained his lateness. After hawking a plug of tobacco into Lydia’s flowerbed, he pressed a bottle of Bourbon into John’s hand. “A gift for my favorite nephew.”
“Thanks.” John shook his hand, tucked the bottle under his arm, and escorted Elias to the kitchen. He opened the new bottle, poured some in a glass, handed it to Elias, and topped off his and Willard’s glasses. John waited until the usual rounds of “Hello’s” and “How are you’s?” were over.
“Have a seat.” John motioned Elias to join them at the table.
“Thanks. And how’s my great little nephew?” Elias swallowed half his drink and then picked Jonathan up, set the toddler on his knee, and tickled his ribs. The child squealed with laughter.
“Daddy,” Lydia said after she ladled the chicken and dumplings onto four plates and passed them around the table. “Would you give the blessing?”
“I certainly would.” Willard reached for his napkin, unfolded it, and waited for his daughter to take her seat next to him. Then, he mumbled a few short sentences thanking the Lord for good health, a warm hearth, and a bountiful harvest of home-cooked food. When he finished, they set upon the food.
“Saw a strange man at the courthouse,” Elias said as he ate.
“Who was it?” John asked, and wondered why he hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary when he was in town. Bluecoats standing idly on street corners didn’t count.
“John, a big fella dressed in black stepped off the west-bound train after you left,” Elias said. “He had a funny looking oval badge pinned to his coat. The writing on it said, ‘Death to Traitors.’”
“Oh, good Christ!” John exclaimed as the blood rushed from his head. He dropped his fork.
“What’s wrong?” Lydia asked. “Your face is ashen.”
            “That’s one of Colonel Baker’s men,” John explained. He remembered how he’d recorded Yankee troop movements in his pocket Bible at Armory Square Hospital in Washington City. Baker’s men stormed the ward late one night and hauled him off to the Old Capitol Prison. He’d grabbed his pocket Bible at the last moment.
“Who in tarnation is this Colonel Baker’s man?” Willard asked.
“He’s the head of the Secret Service,” John explained, “and runs the Old Capitol Prison in Washington City where I was held.”
“And where you escaped from,” Elias added, gulping some bourbon. “Do you think they’ve come to arrest you, John?”
“Over something that happened three years ago?” John frowned. “I hardly think so.”
“They would have arrested him right after we destroyed the Cumberland River Railroad Bridge,” Lydia said. “But they didn’t.”
“Let’s not worry about it,” John said. He forced a smile, picked up his fork, and ate in silence. The news about the arrival of one of Colonel Baker’s men, however, worried him, and he drank more than usual.
After they finished the meal, Elias leaned back in his chair and swilled the last of his bourbon. “I’m so full I feel like a stuffed toad. Makes a man mighty thirsty, too.”
“Excuse my rudeness, uncle,” John jumped up and refilled Elias’ and Willard’s glasses.
After some peach cobbler for dessert, they sat around the kitchen table while Lydia put the food in the pantry and washed the dishes.
“Lydia, dear, that was a mighty fine dinner,” Elias said. He swooped down and picked up Jonathan, reeled in his chair, and almost dropped the toddler on the floor. “Oh Lord!”
“You could have hurt him!” Lydia shrieked. She snatched the boy from Elias and hugged him to her breast. She cooed to the crying toddler.
“I…I’m terribly sorry,” Elias stammered.
“Why do you all drink so much?” Lydia asked. Taking a seat at the table, she set Jonathan on her lap and kissed his head.
“I suppose it’s to kill the war memories,” Elias said.
“What war memories?” she demanded.
“From Texas and Mexico in 1848,” her father explained.
“To blunt them each time they raise their ugly heads,” Elias said to no one in particular. He stared out the window, as if formulating his thoughts about a long forgotten battle.
“Don’t get him started,” Willard said. He pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose. “I’ve heard this blasted story a thousand times.”
“Ah, let him talk,” John said. “It’ll do him good to get it off his chest.”
“I don’t think I want to hear any of this,” Lydia said. With both hands clasped around Jonathan’s waist, she bounced the child on her knee. “But maybe it will explain some of John’s moods.”
“Well,” Elias said, “when Willard took that round of shrapnel to his chest in 1848, it nearly devastated me. My God! My best friend was covered in blood and he was screaming—screaming for his mother, for me, for anyone to help him. I tore a strip off an Army blanket and plugged his chest wound, but there was nothing more I could do…I mean, Santa Anna’s army charged and I was scared to death what would happen if them damn Mexicans breached our line.”
“Your language,” Lydia chided. She hugged Jonathan and kissed him on his cheek.
“I apologize,” Elias said. He took a sip of bourbon and looked slowly at each of the people at the table. “So I went back to...sorry, lost my place…anyway, there was a lot of lead flying along with the hand-to-hand fighting when the enemy breached our lines…Finally, the battle ended and a doctor came along and tended Willard.” Elias stared out the window at a crow winging its way above the shredded stalks in the cornfield. “So you ask why I drink, Lydia. It’s because of back those terrible battlefield dreams that wake me in the middle of the night, and the crazy jumpiness that grabs ahold of me each time someone slams a door or a drunk breaks a beer bottle.”
“An interesting story,” John said as he sipped his bourbon and searched for Elias’ crow. The bird was gone, leaving only an unobstructed view of the shredded cornstalks and the same elephant-shaped clouds he’d seen before. A long silence hung over the room.
“I was very lucky the doctor came along when he did,” Willard said. He twisted his cloth napkin, his hands working it first one way and then another as if trying to rip it to shreds. “Often I wake up in a horrific sweat after dreaming about that shrapnel ripping into me. I mean I jump in bed, as if that hunk of iron is actually coming straight at me. It hit so hard it literally knocked me flat.”
“There were so many dead bodies lying around it was pitiful,” Elias said as tears formed in his eyes. “Good boys all jumbled up in heaps right where they fell. Severed arms and legs, splattered brains—“
“Stop!” Lydia cried.
John refilled his drink and swallowed the liquid in one long gulp because Elias’s story had triggered the rise of Sharpsburg’s ghosts. The unshakeable memory of his student, Curley, with his legs blown off at the hips, wailing to the heavens, flashed before his eyes; along with Wilson the budding artist with the back of his head gone…He wished he could forget those memories, but he knew that wasn’t possible.
“Is that why you drink?” Lydia asked, turning to John. She tilted her head to one side and waited, wondering if he would unearth some secret part of his past.
His hands shaking as he refilled his glass, John nodded. But he was unable to say anything more because there were other battlefield atrocities so horrible the mere telling of them would evoke paroxysms of shrieks from her. In the ferocious hand-to-hand fighting, men had their faces caved in from rifle butts and shovels, or their intestines spewn on the ground from vicious bayonet thrusts. Dozens of others, like Curley, had died screaming in agony from limbs ripped off by artillery shells.
John sipped his bourbon until he emptied the glass. Staring at the brownish-red residue, he swirled it around and around, his thoughts blurring for an instant before he returned to the present.
Glancing out the window, he saw soldiers on horseback standing at a corner of the cornfield where it met the road. A big man dressed in black, his face obscured by a slouch hat, sat astride a black stallion. Something glittered on the stranger’s chest. At his command, half the soldiers galloped down the road while the rest jumped the fence and cut across the field. They were surrounding the house!
“I believe we have visitors,” John said, starting for the front door.
“Who?” Lydia asked in a fear-tinged voice.
“Yankees!” With Jefferson at his heels, John hurried down the hallway. At a sharp rapping on the front door, the dog began barking.
“Afternoon, Lieutenant Holmes,” John said after he opened the door. He grabbed the dog and held him by the collar. “What brings you out this way?”
            “Sorry to disturb you, John.” The Yankee officer ran a hand through his blond hair. “But this man says he’s got a warrant for your arrest.” The lieutenant jerked a thumb over his shoulder and pointed at the stranger dressed in black. An oval shaped badge pinned to his chest read, “Death to Traitors.” His name tag said “Vince McCormick.”
“Oh Lord!” John said. “What’s the warrant for?”
“For murdering a guard when you escaped from the Old Capitol Prison.” McCormick stepped around the lieutenant. Up close, he was a brute of a man with a pug nose and mean slits for eyes. He was also taller and stockier than John, and outweighed him by at least fifty pounds.
“The hell I did!” John cried.
“Says here,” Lieutenant Holmes read from the warrant, “that his name was Private Grant Gilbertson.”
“I knew him and he helped me escape,” John snapped. “But I sure didn’t kill him!”
“Enough of this crap!” McCormick shoved the officer aside, ripped the screen door open, and grabbed John by the shirt collar. “Step right out here, son.”  He dragged John onto the porch.
“Let me see the warrant!” John demanded.
“Shut up!” McCormick snapped. He spun John around and threw him up against the wall so his cheek was pressed into the cold, dirty clapboard. The Secret Service agent frisked him up and down, and then slapped a set of handcuffs on him.
Voicing loud complaints, Lydia, Elias, and Willard crowded onto the porch, but the soldiers held them back. Jefferson whined and pawed the screen door. In the distant kitchen, little Jonathan wailed.
“The warrant, you fool!” John shouted as he spun around. “Let me see the goddamned warrant!”
“How many times do I have to tell you to shut up?” McCormick backhanded John so hard he was knocked down. Blood spurted from a gash on his cheek.
“John!” Lydia broke through the soldiers and rushed to John’s side. She knelt and used a corner of her apron to wipe blood from his face.
"Get out of the way!" McCormick shoved her aside with his boot, grabbed John by the hair, and dragged him off toward the horses. "You're going to Washington to stand trial, boy!" 

copyright © 2011 Raymond Gustavson

Thursday, November 25, 2010

John Ulysses Martin Diary for November 1862

On Saturday, 11-22-62, a massive explosion awakened me while I was asleep in the Montgomery Hotel. My first thought was for Lydia Robertson’s safety. Had anything happened to her? But then I looked out my window and saw the red glare in the eastern sky, and heard the Yankee soldiers in the street shouting that a troop train had derailed on the new Red River Bridge. 

After dressing I met Elias Montgomery out behind the hotel and we rode to the Red River Bridge where we found a locomotive lying on its side, gasping like a prehistoric monster.  In the gorge below Doc Webber waited as soldiers worked to free a young private whose legs were pinned beneath the coaches. When the soldiers failed to free him quickly enough, Doc began a leg amputation without chloroform.

During the surgery I had a traumatic flashback to the ambulance ride that took me from the Sharpsburg Battlefield to Armory Square Hospital in Washington City. My right leg had been amputated, and I was in tremendous pain. At some point I slipped into a trance whereupon I had a vision of what my new assignment, the destruction of the Clarksville Railroad Bridge, meant:  the bodies of soldiers, women, and children flung screaming into the cold, dark water. The dream terrified me and I awoke covered in a heavy sweat.

Yet I knew I had no choice in the matter. Either I destroy the bridge or, as General Hood informed me, I’d spend the rest of the war in a military prison. Some reward for a war hero who was given a battlefield promotion!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

If you feel the VA denied your claim unfairly, what can you do?


If you feel the VA denied your claim unfairly, you should file what is called a Notice of Disagreement (NOD).  This is the first stage of the Appeals Process.  From here you can go it alone, or ask a service representative (American Legion, DAV, etc) to assist you with the paperwork. 

First of all, how do you start the appeal’s process?  Simply write a letter to the VA stating that you disagree with the decision you received.  You don’t need to go into a lot of detail.  Just say that you disagree. 

The VA is then obligated to furnish you a Statement of the Case (SOC).  This document summarizes your claim and provides you with an Appeal to Board of Veterans’ Appeals (VA Form 9).  If you still believe the VA decision is wrong, the VA Form 9 must be returned in order to perfect your appeal.  And it must be received by the VA either within 60 days of the date the Statement of the Case was sent to you, or within one year of the original letter denying your claim, whichever is later.  This last is very important.  Do not ignore it.

Construction of the SOC is complicated because it contains precise, almost stilted, terminology.  This can be intimidating for anyone to read, much less understand.  Basically, the SOC is divided into six sections:  (1) Issue; (2) Evidence; (3) Adjudicative Actions; (4) Pertinent Laws, Regulations, Rating Schedule Provisions; (5) Decision; and (6) Reasons and Bases.

(1) Issue – This section states the issue (s) involved in your denial.  For example, you made a claim for service connection for diabetes or a right knee condition.

(2) Evidence – This lists all the evidence the VA used in processing (or adjudicating) your claim.  For example, Service Medical Records, hospital reports, family doctor’s reports, etc.

(3) Adjudicative Actions:  This is a chronological listing of events related to your claim.  For example:  date claim received, date claim was considered (i.e., date of your Rating), date of denial letter, and date Notice of Disagreement was received by the VA, etc.

(4) Pertinent Laws, Regulations, Rating Schedule Provisions – This is one of the longest sections you will encounter in your Statement of the Case.  Do not stress yourself out trying to understand this section.  All Statements of the Case must contain a set of eight basic laws.  There are also additional laws specific to certain types of claims, such as increased benefits, Aid and Attendance, non-service connected pension, etc.  But all SOC’s will, at a minimum, contain these eight basic laws.

(5) Decision:  This tells you what the VA decided and why.  Example:  Service connection for diabetes or a right knee condition was denied. 

(6) Reasons and Bases – This section tells why the VA denied your claim. You will notice that much of the language is similar to that used in your original Rating Decision.  Most rating specialists simply use the cut and paste command to transfer text from the Rating Decision to the SOC.  Of course, if you have submitted new evidence this will be considered.

Once the Statement of the Case is mailed to you, read it carefully, or take it to your service representative for interpretive help.  Again, pay careful attention to the time requirements for submitting the Form 9.  As stated above, this document must be received by the VA either within 60 days of the date the Statement of the Case was sent to you, or within one year of the original denial letter, whichever is later.

As an aside I have seen several instances where the Form 9 was not timely returned to the VA.  The VA promptly closed out the appeal, despite the fact that they took a year or more to send out the SOC.  The last thing you want is to have your appeal closed out.  This means you will have to start over with a reopened claim.  Any chance of receiving retroactive benefits is lost.

Bear in mind, too, that it is your responsibility to make sure your appeal is timely filed at all stages.  An easy way to do this is to make a simple chart showing the following:

  • date of VARO decision
  • date you mailed the Notice of Disagreement back to the VA
  • date Statement of the Case was received
  • date you submitted your VA Form 9

You may add additional items as needed, as when you submitted new medical evidence, date Supplemental Statement of the Case was received, and the like.

Once you have returned the VA Form 9, your case is logged into the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) docket.  Of course, at any time you may continue to submit new medical evidence to strengthen your claim.  If you do so, and the VA determines that your claim remains denied, they will issue you a Supplemental Statement of the Case (SSOC).  This is like the Statement of the Case, only it is used to cover medical evidence you submitted after receiving your SOC.

Keep in mind that it is best not to submit medical evidence which has already been considered by the VA.  Submitting duplicate evidence means the VA must furnish you with yet another SSOC.  This lengthens your wait for the BVA to hear your case, and detracts from the VA’s ability to reduce the appeals backlog for all veterans. 

If you want a hearing with the VA you may ask for one of the following:  a hearing in person in Washington, DC; a video conference hearing with a Board member in Washington, DC; a hearing with the VA travel board; or a hearing with a Decision Review Officer (DRO).  Due to the backlog of pending appeals, keep in mind that it may be a year or more before the VA Travel Board can get to your case.  The quickest way to get a hearing is with a video conference or a Regional Office DRO.  The DRO is an employee of the regional office where your claims file is kept, and I would suggest that you ask for a hearing with this person.  The process is speedier.

Hearings are conducted in informal fashion so that you may feel at ease and can present your case.  You may have a service representative or private attorney accompany you to the hearing.  After the hearing is conducted, a copy of your transcript will be sent to the BVA along with your VA claims file.

When the VARO transfers your claims file to the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) in Washington, D.C., you will receive a letter stating you have 90 days from the date of their letter to submit additional evidence, request a hearing, or select (or change) your service representative.  If you submit evidence after the 90 day period BVA will issue a decision either accepting or rejecting the evidence.

Occasionally, BVA will “Remand” a decision back to the Regional Office for further development or to ensure that the appeal complies with new procedures.  Also, there may be a new take on your claim and BVA wants to explore this issue before making a final decision on your claim.  Of course, this procedure extends the appeals process, and you will most certainly be asked to furnish some type of new evidence or appear for yet another VA examination.  Afterward, you will receive an SSOC.  You need do nothing at this point because your claim will be automatically returned to BVA.

If you receive a decision from the BVA on your disability claim, and you still disagree, you can file an appeal with the US Court of Veterans Appeals (COVA).  COVA’s task is to review decisions made by the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA). 

To appeal to the US Court of Veterans Appeals (COVA), I would suggest that you carefully read and then re-read the instructions that came with your decision.  Basically, you must file the appeal within 120 days after the date the BVA mailed a copy of its final decision to you and/or your representative.  The 120 days starts from the date stamped on the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) decision. That is, the appeal must be received within 120 days of the Board’s decision  There is a $50 fee for filing an appeal.  You should send your Notice of Appeal form to the following address:

Clerk of the Court
U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
625 Indiana Avenue, NW, Suite 900
Washington, D.C. 20004-2950

You may also fax the appeal, but do not e-mail it.  The US Court of Veterans Appeals (COVA) does not accept e-mails.

Incidentally, COVA also has a list of approved practitioners (attorneys and non-attorneys) who can help you with your claim.  The list is on the COVA Internet website:  Once your appeal is docketed you may check its status on the COVA website.  However, you must know your docket number.

A rarely used appeals procedure is to ask for reconsideration of your BVA decision if you believe a clear and unmistakable error (CUE) was made.  This is called a “Motion to Reconsider,” and it must be filed within 120 days from the denial date of the BVA decision.  BVA will then issue a decision.  If the decision to deny your motion to reconsider is negative, you then have an additional 120 days, from the date of postmark of the BVA decision, to appeal to the US Court of Veterans Appeals (COVA).

In summary, do not become discouraged if your claim for VA benefits is denied.  File a Notice of Disagreement, and ask your service representative to help you keep track of your appeal.  The VA Appeals Process is difficult to understand, but it is set up to be fair to the veteran.  Just follow the tips listed above, and you will do fine.

copyright © 2010 Raymond Gustavson

Friday, November 19, 2010

What was I thinking?

When I saw John Ulysses Martin asleep on that stone bench in the Clarksville cemetery last February, my heart jumped in my chest. He’d not changed one iota since he left for the University of Virginia four years ago. Four very long years!

Oh how my heart reined sorrow as I stood on the station’s platform with my parents and watched his train pull away. Puffs of black smoke, the forlorn blast of a whistle, and his smiling face hanging from the window were all the memories I had to cling to. Was he waving at me? I couldn’t tell, but judging by his exuberant grin I doubt he even knew I existed.

Think of it:  to be going away to the University of Virginia! A dream fulfilled at last; a chance to go and learn, and then come back, triumphant, as a Professor of Ancient History at Stewart College right here in Clarksville.

But when he returned he neither inquired about me, nor came to my parent’s house on the pretext of a social call to see how I was, how I’d fared during this long, wrenching absence.

So, it wasn’t until today, some five months after his return, that I saw him when I was taking a walk through the cemetery. I was lost in my reverie, looking at the ancient tombstones and wondering what these long forgotten residents were like. Farmers and doctors, lawyers and two murderers, wives and still born children – all laid out in disarrayed grief, placed (or tossed) there by bereaved families.

Like a forgotten body awaiting burial, John Ulysses Martin lay very still. Was he frozen with death? He moved nary a muscle, not even an eyelid twitched. But when I peered, I noticed the slow rise and fall of his chest. His old woolen jacket was unbuttoned, exposing his starched white shirt and colorful cravat. At the pretentious semblance of a breeze, his wavy brown hair billowed like a cobweb stirred by an impish spirit.

Oh, how I wanted to go to him, grasp his angelic face in my hands, and kiss his lips. And when his intelligent blue eyes opened, tell him I loved him. Had loved him ever since I was a thirteen-year-old girl standing and waving from a cold, forgotten train station.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What was John Martin thinking when he enlisted?

The following is what my main character, John Ulysses Martin, was thinking at a certain time and place.

I've had this burning desire ever since I was child in Clarksville, TN to become a military officer. At the University of Virginia, where I graduated in 1861, I sold all my books and furniture, and bought a good horse with saddle. Readied myself for the unknown of becoming an officer in General Lee's fine army. But the Army turned me down because of a bad leg, and I was left in distress about what to do next.

Then, I had this dream about Thermopylae, and I was transported back to the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. In my dream I met a young maiden driving errant lambs on a mountain path above.  Her name was Arete, and she had intelligent blue eyes and long brown hair. Her voice sounded like the wind sighing through the tops of the tall trees.  

At the approach of the Persian troops under Xerxes, I told her to leave because her life was in danger.