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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Foreign Desk

Confederate Amerigo:
Civil War Reenactment

by Alex Sydorenko

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Its "Red River Campaign" day, and Boyle's in his pick-up truck, driving all the way into Poison Springs, Arkansas for a Civil War reenactment. It's a once-a-year occasion where everyone dresses as soldiers and traipses around the battlefield carrying fake wooden muskets. Boyle's dressed as a Confederate soldier. There's even a Confederate flag in the back of his pick-up.
      Boyle's a native Arkansan, born and raised in Camden, who's farmed most of his life, who's a decorated veteran of the Korean War, who's in retirement, and reading his Gideon Bible. Boyle's in his golden years, 86 years old, and even though his old bones are just about maimed, he ain't about to put a foot in the grave. Boyle plans on being around for the next census in year 2000. He's even outlived his wife. She done gone and left him alone in the world with nothing to remember her by except all those crazy quilts she sewed over the decades.
      Since he came back from Korea, Boyle's had a battle streak in him that just won't go away. Call it post-war fever. Some mornings right after breakfast Boyle goes out to his truck while chewing his first plug of tobacco and he just feels on top of the world, like opening up a six pack of whoop-ass and stirring up a storm. When he gets like this, Boyle wants someone to talk to. The CB radio's fine, but sometimes Boyle actually wants to be with the person he's talking to. Most of Boyle's friends are just about dead or their brains are slow as molasses and they ain't talking much. Sure Boyle's got family: a son and daughter but they're grown up and live in Kentucky and Tennessee respectively, and Boyle doesn't get to see them all that often. The closest relative that Boyle can talk to is six feet under in the Civil War Cemetary. Boyle's great grandfather, a Confederate soldier killed at Poison Creek, lays there.
      Many a times, Boyle's driven to the Civil War Cemetary and parked and gone walking through the white headstones over to where his great grandaddy lay by the pines and oak trees and old rusty gates. Boyle's sits beside his great grandaddy and has a heart-to-heart pow-wow.
      That's where he's going to this morning on "Red River Campaign" day, to stop by and give the good word. Usually the cemetary's empty, so imagine Boyle's suprise when he sees two kids, a black boy and girl, poking around headstones by the big oak tree and equestrian statue.
      Boyle pulls up and rolls down the window.
      "Hey, y'all waiting on somebody?"
      The two kids come up to the truck. They're a little shy.
      "We're looking for our great-great-great grandaddy," they said.
      Boyle's suffering some hearing loss- but he's sure he heard them right.
      "Who told y'all that your grandaddy's buried here?" he asks them.
      The kids tell him as plain as day: "Our mama told us"
      "Is that right"
      "Yes sir"
      "And where's your mama at now?"
      "She's working."
      "Where youall from?"
      "You walked all that way here from there?"
      "Yes sir"
      "That's mighty far"
      "Yes sir"
      "What's your names?"
      "Zane and Flossie"
      "How did your great great great granddaddy die?"
      "He died at Posion Springs."
      "Thats where my great grandaddy died," Boyle said. "How long you've been looking for your grandaddy's grave?"
      "All morning."
      Boyle gets out of the truck to help the kids poke around for their granddaddy. The kids do a doubletake when they see how he's dressed Confederate.
      "Why are you dressed like that?" little Flossie bravely asks.
      Boyle explains to them that he's on his way to Poison Springs for the reenactment.
      "Tell me about your grandaddy" Boyle says.
      "Mama told us he was in the First Kansas Regiment," says Zane.
      Boyle, who's read all the Civil War and Foxfire books, knows something about the First Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment, comprising mostly of fugitive slaves from Arkansas and Missouri who crossed into Union lines. They were the first blacks to engage in Civil War battle, first at Island Mound, Missouri, then a few more skirmishes later they were in South Central Arkansas traveling with a caravan of supplies outside Camden when the Confederates ambushed them. The blacks, outnumbered, fired until their ammunition was spent then fought with bayonets and clubbed muskets. It was a bloodbath where Zane and Flossie's great-great-great granddaddy and Boyle's great grandaddy died, a quite possibly the two faced each other off in battle. It's been said that afterwards the nearby Ouachita River was bloody like something out of the Bible, thus lending the name of the skirmish as the "Red River Campaign."
      Boyle and the kids find the grave and the kids pry back the grass and read their relative's name. They're proud. Then Boyle shows the kids his own relative's grave nearby.
      Boyle looks at his watch. He sees he's running late. "Kids, I gotta go to the reenactment. I tell you what, why don't you come along and see where your grandaddy died and afterwards I can drive you all back to Monticello."
      It was a deal.
      They got in the truck and drove out of Camden down the highway. Boyle stops at the Whisper Away Lounge so he can fill up the tank and they kids go inside to use the washrooms. When Boyle goes inside to pay, he sees Ricketts and Jenkins, two of his fishing buddies are watching TV. There's a live broadcast of the L.A. Riots after the Rodney King trial, where the policemen charged with the beating are acquited and LA explodes as a result. There's burning, looting, vandalizing, and all this mayhem doesn't sit too well with Ricketts and Jenkins, who just this year renewed their Klan memberships. They do a doubletake when they see the two kids come out of the washrooms and wait on Boyle. Boyle comes over and says "Howdy" to them.
      They look Boyle over, dressed as he is, and with the two kids.
      "Hey Boyle, who are you, the Niggadier General?"
      "What do you mean, Jenkins?"
      "What he means, Boyle," says Ricketts, "is what's with the colored kids?"
      "They're my friends. We're going to Poison Springs."
      "Is that right?"
      "Now look boys, there's no reason to get all mean on me."
      "Well, have you seen what's on TV?"
      Boyle looks and sees that L.A. is all afire, but he goes back over to the kids, Zane and Flossie and they leave. Ricketts and Jenkins watch them leave, then go back to watching the conflagration ablaze on the blue tv screen.
On Red River Campaign day there's big blue clouds over Poision Springs national park. Quite a crowd's gathered. About three or four hundred folks. And whenever folks gather, there's tourism. Scattered throughout the park are souvenir tables of Union and Confederate memorabilia; there's judges for contests for best costume, and keepers of old historical records ready to recite the battle's tale to whoever wants to listen. There's also lots of concession stands. Boyle buys Zane and Flossie some sour apple cider and the kids stand on the sidelines watching while Boyle go over to the Confederate side. The kids are watching the reenactment, but whichever side they're rooting for is a mystery.
      The Confederate soldiers are all standing around joking and smoking cigarettes. They're eyeing the black soldiers over on the Union side. Despite the Confederacy's losing streak, Poison Creek's a battle they actually won.
      The reenactment's all rehearsed and choreographed, put together by the Historical Preservation Committee. Drums roll and the bugle blasted and both sides shoot off their cannons...Dixie! goes the Confederate side, Boyle's charging, holding the Confederate flag but the cannon smoke stings his eyes and his foot gets caught a hole in the field and he tumbles forward, his Confederate cap askew on his head and the polyurethane flag pole turns downwards, digging into the battlefield like a Boyle's pole-vaulting or jousting. Dixie! goes the Rebel Yell again and Boyle's picking himself up off the ground and cussing up a streak and taking hold of the flag and charging again but he goes a tumbling again and gets beamed in the head by the polyurethene flagpole, zonked out, and this time he aint getting up. Its a funny sight, seeing Boyle's Confederate flag stuck in the middle of the battlefield like he was some knight sticking his spear into the belly of the dragon.
      The kids, Zane and Flossie, rush out into the field in mid battle, as do paramedics from an ambulance parked over by the concession stands. Boyle's a casulty. They bring him off the battlefield on a stretcher to ambulance.
      All battle broken and rheumy-eyed, Boyle sighs and looks up at the sky and blue clouds and considers it an opportune time to give up the ghost and go into the afterlife. When he sees the caduceus emblem of two entwined snakes on the side of the ambulence and the flashing lights, Boyle thinks he's done gone to Hades. That scares him a little into thinking about the welfare and whereabouts of the kids.
      "Where's Zane and Flossie?" he asks aloud.
      The kids reassure Boyle that they're right there beside him. Boyle's fading away now, death doesn't seem so bad, he's joining all the others who died at Posion Springs.
      Somewhere yonder over on the battelfield the Rebel Yell is called and Boyle's imagining he's going to heaven, the great Beulahland in the sky, guided by two black angels.
When Zane and Flossie's Mama told them about their great-great-great grandaddy, she never expected they'd go walking all the way to Camden to find him. After she gets their telephone call, explaining how they're in Camden at the hospital, the kids' Mama says to Dubois, her husband and the kids' stepdaddy, "You'll never guess what"
      Dubois doesn't hear her, he's too busy watching the L.A. Riots broadcasted live on tv. Smoking a cigarette, Dubois's remembering how when he was growing up in Arkansas the white folks rioted in Little Rock because some black kids wanted to go to school with white kids and the President had to bring in the 101st Airborne Division to dispense the mob at Central High. Now its decades later and its L.A. . The Man's been outdoing the brothers and sisters and now its their turn to get even and outdo him. Dubois's had problems in the past with The Man just because of his color and Dubois figures he knows what goes on inside the white man's head as well as he knows the clouds in the sky, or the fact that even the white insides of an apple will brown if left out in the open air. Dubois's looking at the L.A. riots as something like manifest destiny.
      The kids' Mama has to turn off the television to get Dubois's attention.
      "Go start up the car cos' we're going to go and pick up our kids."
      "Huh? Where they at?"
      "Camden? What are they doing in Camden?"
      "Lookin for their grandaddy"
      "Why the heck did they go and do something like that?"
      "I guess they're just interested in their roots, c'mon, lets go."
      "I'm watching the riots."
      But the kids' Mama is pulling Dubois by the arm until he finally relents and goes with her. They drive to Camden, straight to the hospital where Zane and Flossie are waiting.
      At the hospital, Boyle's laying on the recovery bed and awakens to find not the pearly gates, but Ricketts and Jenkins sitting there looking at him. They'd heard about Boyle on CB radio, how he collapsed at Posion Springs.
      "Son-of-a-gun," they said and drove out to the hospital to see him. Zane and Flossie are already there and later the kids' Mama and Dubois show up.
      Boyle was nearly a goner and that scares him, but he ain't so afraid with everyone here by his bedside. Zane and Flossie are happy he's alive and they hug him and their Mama's smiling and watching. Old Boyle already loves the kids like their his own and he's asking them "Kids, whatcha want for Christmas?"
      Ricketts and Jenkins are planning to drive Boyle home after he gets out of the hospital today. They go outside to wait with Dubois. The three of them are sitting in the waiting watching the riots on tv. Nobody's saying much, but when the live coverage goes to a commercial, the silence is awkward and somebody's got to say something so Jenkins asks Dubois "Do you smoke?" and he offers Dubois a cigarette. Ricketts takes one also and all three of them are sitting and smoking and talking about the weather. Without even thinking about it, they're lapsing into Niceguymanship. They discover they've got a lot in common: all three of them were serving in Vietnam as soldiers when Saigon fell. All three of them fought for their Nation.
      Their talk draws their attention away from the tv where there's a civil war dividing the U.S. L.A.'s fire, ignited by arsonists, is spreading in all directions. The Nation watches, knowing that it's come to this, and things must change. The gray smoke obstructs one's sight and stings the Nation's eyes. That gray is the sum of black and white.

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