Monday, November 9, 2009

Perryville, Part II

I think Americans sometimes forget that we have suffered actual physical damage during wars. We forget that the cities of Vicksburg, Atlanta and Richmond were burned and bombed out. We forget that ports were blockaded, that people starved, that they fled from their homes. There are very few photographs to remind us of these events and very often, when we see the site of a three-day battle in the middle of what is now suburban sprawl, we can't quite picture it. Of course we preserve these battlefields, but they are overgrown now, and function much as oases of peace amid modern life. And the towns that do still bear scars, like Gettysburg and Perryville, get stuck in a time warp and are not allowed to really be part of our century. Wandering through them is very disconcerting.
On Thanksgiving visits I used to go with my mother to the town of Perryville to take afternoon tea in a bed-and-breakfast/tearoom there. We never went to the battlefield. We believed (wrongly, I think) that it was closed in the winter, and in any case my mother says she finds battlefields depressing. The bed-and-breakfast was in a large house which had been used as a hospital for the wounded. We would eat petit fours and drink tea and then drive back, in the fading light, to Lexington.
I have always been good with directions and so more than ten years later I was able to find my way by myself, slowing down as I passed through the same Victorian houses of downtown Harrodsburg (and the Baatan memorial -- another reminder of another war) and turning onto the Perryville road. After a few miles I saw an interesting-looking graveyard behind a church and I got out to look. It proved to be very cold, and I got back in the car within a minute. I drove into Perryville, turned as directed by a battlefield sign, blinked, found myself outside of Perryville, and had to turn around and go back to the turnoff I had missed. Perryville has a river, a couple of churches, some old houses and an intersection with one of the blinking yellow lights that scare the heck out of city drivers. The battlefield was just a couple of minutes down the turnoff, past houses with signs for "Antiques - Bullets - Shells." Even after I parked I still wasn't sure it was open. There were only two small buildings, both deserted. Just beyond the parking area were two monuments, one Confederate, one Union, side by side. The Confederate monument had one of those big standing wreaths in front, while the Union monument was undecorated, and I must confess I minded. I let it go, thinking that the wreath might have been placed in honor of a recent Confederate Memorial Day (which is sometimes celebrated in January), but I still minded.
After this I walked onto the battlefield itself. It was hilly -- long gentle hills -- and there were clumps of trees, often on the ridgelines. Where the grass had eroded the muddy areas were covered by straw. Except for my walking everything was silent. It was very cold. I went up a long slow hill, hoping the exercise would keep me warm. In the next few minutes I did several sentimental things, but I did them and I suppose I ought to confess them. First I took two pieces of straw and looped them into a cross like on Palm Sunday. Then I found a pebble and picked it up. When I got to the top of the hill I looked at the green and brown landscape and the bare trees. There was still no one in sight. My feet were going numb. I went down into a little copse of trees because in my Perryville scene Thetis finds wounded men in such a copse. I remember trying to judge from the size of the trees if they would have been there at the time of the battle. I don't know much about the size/age relationship of trees, unfortunately. In the copse I sat for awhile and then I found a snail shell. At first I couldn't imagine how that could get there and then I remembered land snails. I've lived too long in the desert, I guess. I put that in my pocket with the pebble. I really wanted to find something from the battle, something that would be an actual connection, but there was nothing. I had come to Perryville to "pick up" details for the battle scene, of course, but I was thinking not so much about the shape of the hills and the bare trees (I had this in my memory a million times over just from growing up in Kentucky) but something more. I guess as a writer you're always looking for a kind of "aha!" (Perhaps secretly you want something that will make it easier for you, something that just falls into your lap.) There was no aha. There was just what you would expect standing on a hill in Boyle County in January -- serious cold, and silence.
I went back down the hill and I put the straw cross and the pebble and the snail shell on a step at the lower edge of the Union monument. Then I crossed the road and went in the museum and said hello to the woman behind the gift-shop counter. She was kind of bubbly. I didn't like her. She suggested I go into the museum and watch the movie but I had to be a rebel so I started the movie but walked around and looked at the exhibits while it was on. I looked at old medical implements and items that had been dug up out of the ground and I read accounts of the battle. Then I signed the name "Robert Southey" in the visitor book. Southey wrote a poem "After Blenheim," which recounts two children finding a skull on a long-deserted battlefield and wondering what all the fighting was about. It repeats the line "it was a famous victory" in every stanza. I wrote that in the visitor book, too. It seemed very clever at the time. Then I hovered in the gift shop, had one of those sudden pangs that lead you not to buy anything after all, and went back out to the car and drove away.
My mother had warned me that I would find nothing to eat this side of...Louisville, perhaps, but in fact Harrodsburg had quite a respectable selection of fast food restaurants. I chose Pizza Hut. Everyone was so polite I thought something was wrong until I remembered that this is normal in Kentucky. While I was eating I eavesdropped on the waitresses, who were talking about their kids. On the way back to Lexington I drove by the big liquor store that I remembered from eons ago as a landmark signalling the border of a dry county.
I went home thinking that nothing had changed in my conception of Perryville and that I had found no new details for my chapter. But not long afterward I began to see how the ending of the book might be brought around to Perryville again, with Thetis and Sheba visiting the battlefield two years after the fighting, and considering the place where their war began. This tightened the narrative focus and made visible certain things I hadn't seen before. It turned out to be a huge leap forward. I have often written scenes, credibly, I hope, in places I have never been. But I'm glad I went to Perryville. Sometimes you need to sit there and absorb the place with all your senses to understand its importance and to convey that to your readers.

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