Lessons from the Civil War still need to be learned

Memorial markers commemorating the Battle of Cedar Creek.

My wife and I moved to the Shenandoah Valley more than three years ago to be closer to our three grandchildren. We also drew closer to the Civil War.

I remember studying about the Civil War in school, of course. But places and battles like Antietam, Gettysburg, Manassas, Petersburg, and Appomattox overshadowed any Civil War engagements that occurred in the breadbasket of the Confederacy.

That agricultural label was apt. The Shenandoah Valley, especially the area where we live near Harrisonburg, played a vital role in keeping the Confederate States Army fed. The valley is still one of the prime agricultural regions of the Commonwealth.

Agriculture continues to be an economic priority in the Shenandoah Valley.

Many of the citizens of the valley joined in fighting for the south. Others from the Rockingham County area remained neutral, however, preferring to tend their farms. When troops from both south and north moved through the valley, they often bought or helped themselves to foodstuffs, produce, corn, and even livestock.

I recently completed an online university course on the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley. I saw the class as an opportunity to learn more about what some locals still call “The War of Northern Aggression.”

Indeed, the class taught me much about the war, local mores and history, and just how much military action occurred on and along roads we regularly travel. At times, it felt eerie to know the exact number of casualties on both sides in settings we frequent.

I sat up straighter in my chair when the instructor shared a map that showed troop encampments around Harrisonburg, the central city in Rockingham County. When he pointed to where one of George A. Custer’s cavalry divisions camped, I took notice. It was the area where we live. A friend who grew up here told me that he only remembered our housing development as a pasture with lots of limestone outcroppings. He said it had never been plowed.

The most significant battles in the valley took place in the northern section near Winchester, where the photos above were taken. Lesser skirmishes happened in and around Rockingham County.

One such engagement happened near Cootes Store along the north branch of the famed Shenandoah River. I have a new reverence for the place that we occasionally drive by now that I know Confederates chased Custer and his cavalry across the river as Union soldiers forded absconded livestock. For the record, Confederate flags still fly all around that location.

The small historical town of Dayton, five minutes south of where we live, played a defining part in one of the valley’s darkest events of the Civil War. General Phillip Sheridan, commander of the Union Army in the valley campaign, learned that one of his top aides, John Rodgers Meigs, had been murdered near Dayton.

In retaliation, Sheridan ordered the burning of barns, mills, homes, and crops in a five-mile radius around the town. Most of the residents there were Mennonite farmers who had remained neutral during the war. Nor did they own slaves.

Another aide to Sheridan, Lt. Col. Thomas E. Wildes, begged the general to rescind the order because the residents had treated Union troops well. Sheridan relented, but only for the Dayton area. In appreciation, a plague was placed in Dayton honoring Wildes. Elsewhere in the valley, the Union Army implemented the burning. This action devastated the residents and crippled the Confederate food supply.

Those events are known as “The Burning.” Not surprisingly, hard feelings remain today. That attitude mirrors the current political animosity in the U.S.

As I viewed some of the local battlefields where thousands of casualties on both sides occurred, I couldn’t help but compare that violence to today’s heated rancor and divisiveness.

So how long should we hang on to hate? Isn’t it time to intentionally be more peaceable with one another?      

Union cannons at the Battle of Third Winchester.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

   

Autumn Splendor

The Glade Creek Grist Mill in West Virginia’s Babcock State Park is on most photographer’s “must do” list. I was no exception, especially since moving to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley more than three years ago.

The old mill is most often photographed in fall and winter. I missed the peak of the leaf color by just a few days. Still, I was pleased with the residual colors that framed the mill along its namesake stream.

“Autumn Splendor” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Halloween pranks then and now

We don’t need a calendar to remind us that Halloween is just around the corner, quickly followed by the U.S. presidential election. Do we get doubly spooked this year?

I can’t decide which is worse, all of the Halloween related commercials or the political campaign ads on television. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the two.

Halloween has had a history of inspiring misbehavior, reference Ichabod Crane. Unfortunately, ghoulish nonsense gradually replaced good-natured orneriness over time.

When I was a youngster, a hooligan once stole a pumpkin right off of our front porch. My younger siblings and I happened to see the teenage culprit dashing down Winton Ave. with our jack-o-lantern still flickering with each stride the young man took.

Once we arrived back home after a two-hour trick or treat raid of the neighborhood, we forgot about the lowly pumpkin. Our childish attention turned to comparing who got the most and the best candy.

Our family dentist declared the winner at our next checkups. The one with the fewest cavities won.

Growing up in suburbia in the 1950s and 60s was mild compared to today, however. Usual Halloween tricks included throwing shelled field corn against people’s windows to scare them. Soaping windows was also a common prank. Those who traded soap for paraffin were considered mean.

I found out what real Halloween tomfooleries were when we moved to Holmes County, Ohio, in the heart of Amish country. Torching corn stalks in the middle of the night and burning tires on highways were major annoyances, not to mention illegal and dangerous. The county sheriff added extra patrols to try to quell the orneriness.

I remember one story, vividly. A sheriff’s deputy that I knew was driving his cruiser through dense fog late one night. An egg thrown from a passing Amish buggy hit his vehicle, and a short pursuit ensued. The black buggy with no lights quickly disappeared into the thick fog.

Teens took turns tormenting different towns. It would be Berlin one night, Mt. Hope the next. Then it was Benton, followed by Farmerstown, and on and on it went.

There never seemed to be any rhyme or reason to the order of towns adorned. Toilet paper streaming from trees and utility lines decorated each village. I hope that doesn’t occur during the pandemic, or they’ll be another shortage of toilet paper.

Pranksters would hoist farm equipment atop buildings and corral “borrowed” livestock in town squares. At least they provided hay and straw for the animals. The critters and buggies usually found their way back to the rightful owners.

Trick or treating was more controlled in the rural areas. Community organizations and volunteer fire departments hosted gatherings for children and handed out candy in pre-stuffed bags. Hundreds of costumed kids paraded before judges, who then awarded cash prizes for the funniest, the most creative, and the scariest costumes.

This year community-based parties like those that our children attended will replace trick or treating. With the pandemic still raging, many communities around the country are rightly canceling traipsing door-to-door.

But don’t worry. This year Halloween night has some extra special celestial treats for everyone. The night sky will scare up a Blue Moon. The October 1 Harvest Moon was the month’s first full moon.

There’s more. Mars won’t be this close to Earth again for a long time. The red planet will cozy up to the full Blue Moon on Halloween night.

Let’s hope for a clear sky so that we can enjoy the heavenly show. Just don’t gaze skyward too long. Someone might steal your pumpkin.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

What a view!

My wife and I had heard of Blackwater Falls State Park near Davis, West Virginia. But we had never been there. When our neighbors told us that the leaves were at peak color, we did a day trip to check it out. We weren’t disappointed.

It had rained the previous day, so some of the trees had dropped a few leaves. Still, the Blackwater River valley was gorgeous from every angle. This was the view from our lunch table outside the lodge. The scalloped designs and curves of the pair of love seats and the end table in front of us created an intriguing foreground for the lovely leaves beyond.

“What a view!” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

How the pandemic has strengthened relationships

The old saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” has never been more apt than in the pandemic. It’s one of the realities of following governmental and health restrictions.

The ancient origin of this aphorism referred to lovers. Today’s version also applies to friends and family. My wife and I have missed the gracious person-to-person hospitality and warm congeniality of close friends and family members.

Since early March, Neva and I have taken great pains to follow the recommended health guidelines to avoid passing or contracting the lethal virus. Those precautions include avoiding entering buildings, including homes.

Following those procedures naturally means limitations. Regularly seeing friends and family has undoubtedly been one of the casualties. Relationships mean the world to us, so we have found coping alternatives.

We are fortunate to live nearby our daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren. We occasionally commune with them, mostly outdoors.

Physical distancing with our family early in pandemic.

We have visited and hosted friends, but again, always on patios or well-ventilated venues. With the weather growing colder by the day, that option may soon end.

We are unfortunate in not being able to visit in-person with our son and his wife, who live seven hours north of us in upstate New York. We haven’t physically seen them for a year and a half.

Our siblings, cousins, and close friends fit the same scenario. Virtual connectivity has replaced the real thing.

We so appreciate when folks make special efforts to connect. Unexpected cards, emails, texts, and phone calls from friends and family are great gifts.

Even better is when folks go out of their way to see us face to face. We’ll drive an hour or more to meet long-time friends who are passing through Virginia. We’ll gather at a coffee shop, sit around a table outdoors, and chat for hours about everything from baseball to the weather. We do the same with some local acquaintances monthly.

Though we want to, we don’t shake hands or hug. Elbow bumps and invisible embraces have respectfully replaced the more intimate contact, only for the sake of being safe for all concerned.

For now and the foreseeable future, that’s how we will continue to maintain friendships. Virtual and careful in-person contact will have to suffice until a proven vaccine is available to all. I wish we could do better than that, but that is the way it has to be.

Consequently, my wife and I have spent much more time together than if there were no pandemic. Yes, we still give each other space to breathe and do our own thing. But we also have settled into enjoyable daily routines of just being together quietly.

Am I saying that after nearly 50 years of marriage, I have a newfound and more profound appreciation for my spouse? Yes, I am, and yes, I have. It has taken me a long time to arrive at this station in our marriage. I especially appreciate Neva’s gifts of hospitality and creativity.

If the cautious semi-isolation of the past seven months has taught me anything, let it be this. I love my wife, my children, my grandchildren, my devoted friends more and more each day.

Enjoying quiet time together.

I do so because the pandemic has forced me to finally and fully be aware of each moment as it occurs. I try to minimize idiosyncrasies that I formally found irritating, and instead express my appreciation for those that make my life happier.

Committed and loving relationships with family and friends are critical to everyone’s quality of life. That’s especially true in a pandemic.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Pure Gold

This was our view every fall when we lived in Ohio’s Amish country. I took this shot from our backyard. The sun had just risen above the hills to our east, bathing everything, including the already colorful leaves, in pure gold.

“Pure Gold” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Letting Creation find you

Looking west from a point in Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park.

Even though the morning’s southeast breeze was gentle, the leaves rained down like ticker-tape parade confetti. I was in my favorite outdoor space, Shenandoah National Park’s Big Meadows.

Big Meadows is an anomaly. No logical or scientific reasons can explain why the expansive meadow sits in the middle of this popular national gem.

Scientists have determined that there is nothing unique about the soil’s geologic makeup or bedrocks below that would create a meadow in the middle of a forest. In a matter of yards, the foliage changes from plants of a kettle-like marsh to wooded hillsides. I imagined Big Meadows as God’s thumb stamp of approval on these ancient mountains.

In the short time we have lived in Virginia, I’ve found fall is my favorite time to visit this gorgeous spot. From our valley home, the weather appeared to be perfect. But when you visit the mountains, conditions can be changeable at any time of year. I packed for the unexpected, and that’s what I got. With every step, creation’s glory unfolded.

You could hardly call my creeping along as hiking. I followed the parameter of the southern part of Big Meadows. In three hours, I covered only a mile and a half. A wooly worm would have made more progress, but likely not shared my joy.

I wasn’t out to break any endurance records. I went to see whatever came to me as I strolled along and through the area’s various topography. In the mountains, just a change in altitude of a few feet makes a big difference in the kinds of vegetation that grow.

This gently sloping mead is home to flowers, grasses, reeds, trees, and assorted creatures great and small. As an invader of their varied habitat, I tried to remain obscure.

With fall’s migration, I knew plenty of bird species might be passing through on their way south. I expected year-round residents, too, along with a few lingering butterflies.

Resident eastern bluebirds and handsome field and song sparrows greeted me. Eastern phoebes, magnolia warblers, blue-headed vireos, Carolina chickadees, and dark-eyed juncos darted about, too.

Dressed in their duller non-breeding feathers, some birds, especially the warblers, went unidentified by this average birder. Chirps near and far came from other species that I couldn’t locate.

I crept along the raggedy edge that separated fields from woods, exhilarated. I lingered in a high place beneath a sweeping white oak at the meadow’s southernmost border, where I could see near and far.

Contentment filled me as I sensed all the life around me. Instead of hiker, birder, or photographer, I was an uninvited but appreciative guest. Every moment bore existential meaning.

The first frosts of the season created a festive carpet of fall’s primary colors that spread across the landscape. The leafy trees and evergreens looked on in envy. Red-tinted green leaves, spent wildflowers, delicate ferns frosted golden, ruby-colored blueberry leaves, and russet grasses decorated the earth like it was Christmas.

Overhead, the sky also joined nature’s artistry. One minute, it was pure cerulean, the next white fluffy clouds.

Suddenly, a fog rolled in from the eastern piedmont. The steady breeze soon carried it to the western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I breathed an appreciative silent prayer of gratitude for all these sights and sounds. The old withered away, yet the promise of rebirth remained.           

At every step that I took, I was delighted to have observed all that found me.

The fog that hung over Shenandoah National Park even after I left.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Mars and the Harvest Moon

The skies were clear in the Shenandoah Valley for the rise of Mars and October’s Harvest Moon. Mars was first to appear over the Massanutten Mountains that end east of Harrisonburg, Virginia. A few minutes later, the full moon also appeared. As the moon rose higher, Mars drew closer to the moon. Mars is the small dot in the upper left-hand corner of the photo.

I took this photo handheld from my front yard just outside the city. “Mars and the Harvest Moon” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Entering the October of my life

October in Ohio’s Amish country.

October offers up some of the year’s best weather. It often claims ownership of the year’s first killing frost, too, and the first snow. Sometimes it’s both.

October and I have a lot in common.

Weather is one of my favorite hobbies. I have satisfied that itch as a volunteer severe weather spotter for half a century for the National Weather Service. However, October is usually one of the quieter weather months unless a tropical storm plays havoc across the eastern U.S. Evidence 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.

The western edge of Superstorm Sandy exits Holmes Co., Ohio.

October tends to be the calendar’s buffer between fairer weather and the more barren, colder months that follow. In other words, the tenth month foretells the winding down of every year. There can be no better year than the present to draw to a close. I doubt that I need to elaborate or provide the gory details.

Enough of the quixotic shenanigans. October and I have much more in common than climatological conditions.

I’ve entered the October of my life. I stay as active as I can, but it’s pitiful to watch me throw a tennis ball for our granddog to fetch. Millie is so unimpressed that she often refuses to give up the retrieved ball I’ve thrown.

Millie.

Millie knows that my toss can’t compare to that of our oldest grandchild, the 16-year-old with a pitcher’s arm. Millie gets to run far beyond one of my feeble efforts.

Before and since my knee replacement a year ago, I have maintained a regular exercise routine. I also do yoga twice a week. I try to walk a mile every day. I ride my bike around and up and down our inclined neighborhood. To look at me, you wouldn’t know that I do any of that.

I have never been a muscular guy. But I usually could hold my own in most physical activities. Not anymore.

I am not ashamed to admit it. I’ve accepted where I am in life. I also kindly relent to any assistance from passersby when I’m toting multiple bags of mulch or birdseed, or anything heavier than a gallon of milk. I’m old, and I want to get older. So I quash my male ego and accept offers to help.

A few years ago, Walter C. Wright wrote a book, “The Third Third of Life: Preparing for Your Future.” It’s a workbook to help you ready for retirement and beyond. It’s an easy, practical read. The hardest part is accepting the fact that you are in that senior citizen-stage of life. For some, it comes sooner than it does for others.

When I was young, I’d spouted off that I would live until I was 100. I have longevity on both sides of the family to back that up. But I also have ancestors who never reached retirement age.

Like leaves on deciduous trees, I want to keep on hanging on as long as I can. However, the leaves, of course, eventually color, fade, and fall.

I also understand that that is where October and I differ. After the foliage tumbles, buds protrude for next year’s crop to unfurl, and once again nurture the growing tree with a thriving canopy.

Humans don’t have that option. We get one shot at life unless you believe in reincarnation. For the record, I don’t. But if I did, I would return either as a chiropractor or a meteorologist.

October is a fine month of the year. I have fond memories of her from childhood to the present. Here’s to many more nostalgic Octobers for everyone.

October on the line.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020