What I Think About While I’m On Quarantine Part

Having nothing better to do, I went through some old files and found this nostalgia piece I wrote in the early 1970s, about 50 years:

It was the world back then. A garden to be tilled, a home for rabbits and chickens and dogs. Oh yes, cats too.
That backyard was long and wider than I had the breath to run along its edges. But, of course, I was always a puny kid.
Half of it for many years was a garden—corn in the back, then okra, many rows of green beans, potatoes and tomatoes, then radishes, cabbage and onions. Sometimes a few petunias if my mother was in the mood. They made adequate trumpets, I recall.
To keep the garden alive during those scorching, drought-tinged Texas summers of the mid-fifties, my father and mother put the garden house at the end of a row and let it run.
Much to their chagrin, I often decided to dam up the works and create a lake, with branches seeping from one row to another. This also provided plenty of mud for various products like mud pies. It also substituted for blood for my re-enactment of the Saturday war movie.
Then my mother turned the hose on me before she allowed me in the house.
But the garden isn’t there anymore. Not since my mother died.
The other half of the yard was for play—with my dogs. I always had a couple; then when one was run over and killed—which seemed altogether too common an occurrence—I still had one.
They would chase me, nipping at my heels, until I would fall down and cover my head. They would lick at my neck and I would squeal with delight.
I learned the facts of life from the cats. Kittens were as common as the rain wasn’t in those days. I can think of no better education than the excitement of gingerly crawling under the house, softly calling out the mother cat’s name and have her return with a pleasant meow. As I crawled closer, she would proudly roll over to show me her babies, their eyes still closed. If I dared pick them up too much they would not be there the next day. The mother would move them.
My father built a hutch in the back and tried raising rabbits once. But that was a futile venture because he wanted to eat them, and I wanted them as pets. Bantam chickens were safer, we both agreed only to eat the eggs. One day, however, I came home to find dead chickens over all the yard. One of the dogs acted sheepishly. I cried and then decided to grant amnesty. The law of the backyard was based on mercy.
And the playhouse. I could never forget that. It began as one small room with tin Royal Crown Cola signs for sides and roof. That didn’t seem large enough so I added another room and a wooden roof and a second floor.
To celebrate the expansion I invited a friend over to spend the night in the house with my brother and me. We watched “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” and drank a concoction of mine made of Nehi orange, grape and strawberry and Upper Ten.
Then we ventured out for the night. The sky was clear and the moon full. It was joyous. We danced and frolicked in our underwear at midnight. My friend’s shorts and monkeys on them. I teased him, but secretly I was envious.
Somehow two rooms and a second floor didn’t seem enough. I doubled the bottom, had more lumber for roofing and even had a perch on top of the second floor.
A few years later my interest waned, and my father wanted me to tear it down, but I didn’t have the heart. He relented and tore it down himself. At one point he pushed apart two main posts and bore a strange resemblance to Sampson, I thought.
Now I come home occasionally and the yard has changed. As I said, there is no garden. It is now an expanse of grass. I only vaguely spot where the rabbit hutch and the wonderful playhouse sat.
The only things that are the same are the honeysuckle vines and mimosa trees I planted for my mother many years ago. The trees are quite stout now.
It makes me feel old.
The smell of the honeysuckle is still sweet and brings back the memories, though. I have honeysuckle growing outside the door of the home I share with my wife and son. It makes me feel good.
I want a large yard for my son to have adventures in, to learn responsibility in, a nice place to grow up.
But this yard, for all the world events that transpired within its reaches, seems so small now.

Fifty years later, I have to admit the yard was not always that wonderful. In fact, some memories are best kept where they belong—in the past. And as for the yard seeming so small, to this old man the world has grown much too large.

Booth’s Revenge Chapter Sixty-One

Previously: Booth shoots Lincoln and breaks leg in escape. Baker saves Booth’s life at Garrett’s farm. Anna Surratt pleads for her mother’s life. Johnson grants a reprieve, but it arrives too late. Lamon and Baker join forces to bring down Stanton.Johnson reluctantly joins in.
Boston Corbett stood before a congregation of Methodist Episcopalians in a rural church set among a stand of cottonwood trees outside of Camden, New Jersey. He in fine voice and form, ready to give his testimony of a life lived as a “Glory to God” man.
“Brothers and sisters, I stand before you tonight not as a proud man, but a man who walked the streets of hell before seeing the light and moving into the sweet arms of Jesus.”
Corbett paused because he knew a chorus of “Amen!” and “Preach on, Brother!” was about to shake the rafters. And he was right.
“God had blessed me with a righteous wife, valued more than pearls and rubies, and, in His own wisdom which we do not understand, he took her away from me as she gave birth to our precious daughter who only spent a moment on this Earth before going home to be with Jesus and all the saints and archangels.”
“Poor baby girl!” erupted among the womenfolk worshipers.
“Faced with such sorrow, I believed the false promise of Satan himself that I could find comfort in the demon liquors. My life sank. My soul shrank. And I drank and drank. All for naught. All in obedience to the devil himself.”
“No, no, no.” This was more of a mere whisper wafting through the pews.
“But God did not allow it!” Corbett bellowed. The crowd cowered in apprehension. “God grabbed me by my collar and said, “Boy, you will not waste this life I gave you! You will not dismay your wife and child who are by My side at this very moment! You will repent and spread the Gospel throughout this land. Yes, this land is on the verge of war, but you must let the people know that I will prevail!”
The folks sprang from their seats, shouting hallelujah and clapping. Their usual pastor, a man of small stature and graying hair, motioned for them to sit and be quiet.
“And from that moment on, I became a soldier in the army of the Lord. Preaching on every street corner, singing in every choir and glorifying God in every church. When my country sent me to war to end the evil that was slavery, I continued to fight for Jehovah too. Even when I was captured at Culpepper Court House in Virginia and was sent to that horrible plot of land called Andersonville Prison in Georgia, I continued to shout, I continued to pray, I continued to praise until the devil’s legions themselves could not take it any longer, and they traded me back north to home.”
Another round of hallelujahs and amens interrupted his preaching.
“After I returned the Army of Righteousness, I continued my crusade for my Heavenly Father. Then came that moment which has brought me to the attention of all you God-fearing American saints. That evil practitioner of the devil’s art of theater killed our Father Abraham.”
Corbett was thrown off his timing as he heard a man turn to the fellow next to him and say, “I don’t know if I don’t enjoy going to a good show, every now and again.”
“We trapped him at that barn in Virginia. I was ordered not to shoot and kill him but I obeyed a Higher Authority. I did shoot! And I killed him!”
More amens and hallelujahs.
Staring at the congregation for a long moment, Corbett lowered his voice and continued, “But evil did not die that night. Evil never dies! Evil will lurk in our hearts forever! Be ever vigilant against evil!”
The general mood of the people was to jump up and applaud, but the hand of the good, gray-haired pastor kept them in their seats.
“For, you see, God came to me that night. He told me John Wilkes Booth must not die at that time. He came to me in the form of a powerfully built short man with red hair and divine inspiration in his eyes.”
A murmur rose among the people. Women fluttered their fans wildly in the August heat, and the men shifted uneasily in the pews.
“He offered a substitute sacrifice for the nation, the corpse of a young man who looked like Booth but who was not Booth. Perhaps he was Jesus Christ come down to atone for our sins once again—“
Almost in unison, a moan rolled through the room as each man, woman and child stood and without further hesitation left the church, hurriedly returning to their homes.
Corbett had seen this before. For some reason, the sheep of this Earth were not ready for the kindly shepherd to herd them on the path of righteousness. He would not be discouraged though.
“Brother Corbett,” the elderly minister said to him in uncertain tones, “I don’t understand the meaning of your parable there at the end, and neither, evidently, did my parishioners. The saddest aspect of this, it seems, is that we had not taken the offering yet so I have nothing to pay you for your—for the most part—excellent testimony.”
Corbett smiled and patted him on the back. “Don’t worry, brother, the Lord will pay me much more richly than you ever could.”
As he had learned in previous encounters with retreating admirers, it was best that he leave town that night and find lodgings a few miles down the road. The cool night air felt good against his warm face as he rode his handsome little horse, the very mount that took him to the Virginia farm three years ago. A small inn appeared on the road side as he expected. Rapping at the door and rousing the keeper from his sleep, Corbett asked for lodging for the night, and the owner yawned, scratched his head and showed him to a small room in the back. The next morning at breakfast, he read the Camden newspaper.
On the front page was a story from Washington City. President Andrew Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, calling him a “fountain of mischief.” The president requested Stanton’s resignation and, when the letter was not forthcoming, dismissed him a week later. The story quoted Johnson as saying he conformed to the letter of the law as laid out in the new Tenure of Office Act. The newspaper also reported that the president had selected Gen. Ulysses S. Grant as Stanton’s replacement. The article ended with the statement that Stanton relented, leaving his job under protest.
As he sipped his coffee, Corbett looked out the inn’s dining room window to see dogs seek shade beneath a stand of oak trees. Something was awry, he told himself. God was on the verge of calling him again to save the soul of the United States of America. In his saddlebag, he had several letters from churches in faraway Kansas, beseeching him to share his testimony. Corbett shook his head. He must delay his trip out west because the Lord would be calling him to Washington City soon.

Booth’s Revenge Chapter Sixty

Previously: Booth shoots Lincoln and breaks leg in escape. Baker saves Booth’s life at Garrett’s farm. Anna Surratt pleads for her mother’s life. Johnson grants a reprieve, but it arrives too late. Lamon goes home to his family in Illinois. Baker arrives on his doorstep offering his help to bring down Stanton. They go to Washington to tell Johnson.
Lamon told Cleotis and Phebe to go upstairs right now to tell President Johnson their entire story. When the president’s secretary Massey came up the stairs, he turned to go into his private bedroom across the hall from the presidential offices. Lamon had to convince Johnson that Baker could be trusted, which was no mean feat. Lamon tapped on the office door and then opened it, leading the group in.
At first, Johnson beamed from his desk when he saw Lamon. “Why, Mr. Lamon, I thought you had gone home to Illinois.” When he caught sight of Baker, he stood and wagged a finger at him. “What the hell is he doing here? I fired his ass for spying on me!” When he looked beyond Baker to see Phebe with her little boy in tow, he added, “Oh, I’m sorry for the language, Missy Phebe, but this is a very bad man.”
“You’re not telling me nothing I don’t already know.” She picked up her son and wedged him on her hip. “But my old man Cleotis, though, says Mr. Baker here has found Jesus and that you should listen to him.”
Johnson wrinkled his brow and looked at Lamon. “What’s this all about?”
“Remember the story I told you the day of the executions? Well, Baker can confirm every bit of it and more.”
As the president sat at his desk, he motioned to Lamon and Baker. “Gentlemen, have a seat.” As they sat, Johnson viewed Cleotis and Phebe with askance. “Now what can these two add to the conversation?”
“They can corroborate the story. They were here in the basement during the whole thing,” Lamon said.
“Not the whole thing, sir,” Cleotis interrupted. “There was another butler before me when all this mess started.”
“His name was Neal,” Phebe added. “That soldier boy done killed him that night, and this man—“ she paused to point at Baker “—took the body out. Told me if I said anything I’d end up dead too. Cleotis showed up the next morning, and nothing’s been the same ever since. The soldier boy killed himself the night they said the president died. And that man took his body away.” Her large black eyes focused on Johnson. “You better watch out, Mr. President. You could be the next person they kill.”
“Don’t worry about that, Mr. President,” Baker interjected. “Mr. Stanton knows he pushed too far in killing Mr. Lincoln. He doesn’t want to risk killing you, but he does want you removed from office and sent back to Tennessee so no one ever finds out.”
Johnson leaned back in his chair and exhaled in exasperation. “And what can I do about it? What do we know now that you didn’t tell me two years when the conspirators were hanged?”
Baker waved his hand. “We have them now, ready to testify about what happened.”
“Testify before who?” Johnson nodded toward Cleotis and Phebe. “Are you sure they would own up in court of law?”
“We are brave people, Mr. President,” Cleotis whispered. “We will do what’s right.”
“And him.” Johnson sneered at Baker. “Everybody knows what a jackass he is. Nobody likes him. They won’t believe him.”
“You don’t have to get everyone to believe me.” Baker leaned forward in earnest. “I only have to convince a handful in Congress to allow you to fire Mr. Stanton. Then he can be the one to go home and rot. We can’t punish him, but we can keep him from doing any more harm.”
Johnson paused before asking, “So you expect me to believe that you got religion, and you’re now willing to put your life on the line to get Stanton out of office?”
Baker opened his mouth but nothing came out.
“You have to believe him. I know I believe him,” Lamon stressed. “We can’t let Stanton feel he can try to overthrow the government again.”
Johnson put his hand to his head. “Dammit, you’re right. I’ll get rid of him. And I hope Jesus will save all of us.”

What I Think About When I’m on Quarantine Part Four

My mind wanders back to Texas in the early fifties while on quarantine, and this story keeps rising to the surface. It’s been so long ago I don’t know how much of it is true, how much made up and how much true only in my heart. You’ll have to decide for me.

Holding a dozen red roses, I stepped inside the flapping, torn screen door and I saw that the roof was half gone, long vines growing through it. I hesitated a moment as I remembered the last time I stood there, sixty-five or more years ago.
This house sat at the bottom of a sloped pasture from our home. My little legs only took moments to scramble through the tall grasses and to mount the creaking wooden steps. I heard her voice.
“Baby boy! Git on in this house right now! I got some ice cold wallermelon for ya!”
Mary’s voice made me feel happy. Ma and pa were pleasant, but they were miserable like the weight of the world was about to weaken their knees, forcing them to the ground. Ma tried to find a smile and a gentle caress from time to time, but Pa never rose above a scowl and a menacing leer. I kinda felt sorry for Ma. She carried her sorrow around like a rough old wool blanket, but Pa scared me to death, like he was gonna pull back his fist and knock me from here to kingdom come. My brothers were on Pa’s side. They told me the only reason Mary liked me was because she just wanted to touch my white skin. Those mixed emotions made going to Mary’s little cabin across the way so exciting: her comforting manner and my fear that Pa would find out. For the longest spell I never understood why Pa and my brothers hated Mary.
“Now you come over here and sit on Mary’s lap so she can give you a big hug.”
When I walked across the room she noticed the dandelions I had picked along the way through the pasture.
“Why, is those for me, Baby Boy? Mary’s gonna have to give you a extra big slice of melon for those purty flowers.” She put her big brown arms around me and hugged. Mary smelled like fresh-baked cornbread.
Just then the screen door flew open. My father’s hulking frame blocked the sunlight trying to flood into the tiny dark room.
“JerDan! Didn’t I tell you never to come to Mary’s place again?”
Actually, he used another word in front of her name, but ever since that day I never felt right about using it. He grabbed me up under my armpit and jerked me toward the door. The dandelions fell from my hand. As he dragged me out the screen door and across the porch, I heard Mary calling.
“Baby Boy, ain’t ya gonna say good-bye to Mary? Baby Boy?”
And for the first time I heard her cry.
The next morning Ma told me Mary died over night and the ambulance had come for her body. I looked through our back door and across the pasture to see the men carry Mary’s body out on a stretcher. A bunch of black folks stood in the yard crying. I supposed they were her family.
All these years I thought Mary died because I had broken her heart, and the memories caused hot tears to run down my pale wrinkled cheeks. I didn’t bother to wipe them away. I just walked over to the spot where I had dropped the dandelions and placed a dozen red roses, putting on top of them a card that said:
“I’m sorry, Mary.”

Booth’s Revenge Chapter Fifty-Nine

Previously: Booth shoots Lincoln and breaks leg in escape. Baker saves Booth’s life at Garrett’s farm. Anna Surratt pleads for her mother’s life. Johnson grants a reprieve, but it arrives too late. Stanton plots Johnson’s impeachment. Lamon goes home to his family in Illinois. Baker arrives on his doorstep offering his help to bring down Stanton.
For the next several days, Baker moved into a boarding house down the street. The two men took long walks along the tree-lined streets of Danville. When townsfolk stopped to talk with them, they asked Lamon to introduce his friend. He described Baker as a friendly acquaintance from his years in Washington City. Sometimes he added that Baker was the man who started the federal Secret Service. The neighbors smiled, nodded with respect and left the men to their intense conversations. At times, they stepped into wooded areas so Baker could break down in tears. As time passed, the bouts of crying actually moved Lamon to put his large arm around the shorter man to comfort him.
Everything was as Lamon expected. The entire operation was an expression of Stanton’s vaunted ego. Now Stanton was intent on avoiding exposure as a traitor. If caught he would be hanged in the same prison yard as Mrs. Surratt. After a while, Baker became the voice of reason as Lamon vowed to break into Stanton’s War Department office and shoot him between the eyes with his revolver.
“To hell with conventional justice,” Lamon fumed. “The bastard deserves to die.”
“Then you’ll take the same path to hell that I took.” Baker’s voice was soft but firm. “I don’t recommend it. The personal hell you create is much worse than the hell Stanton created. No, we must make sure he is separated from the power that he abused without letting the nation know its republic disappeared during the war.”
“We must present valid, compelling evidence to President Johnson to endure the firestorm which will most certainly be unleashed if he tried to fire Stanton,” Lamon said. “I’ve already shared my suspicions with him, and he issued a postponement to Mrs. Surratt’s execution, though Stanton’s henchmen blocked it.. No, we need more than your word.”
“My word isn’t worth a damn with the president,” Baker spat. “But I know two people right in the Executive Mansion whom he might believe.”
They spent the entire summer writing and rewriting their statement to Johnson, which included names to verify their allegations. The two people in the Executive Mansion were butler Cleotis and his wife, the cook Phebe. Lamon then added Gabby Zook’s name to the list because he lived a captive’s life in the basement along with the Lincolns.
Baker shook his head. “The last time I saw Zook was the night Lincoln was assassinated. He was wandering down the street in the rain. I don’t know where to find him now.”
“I do,” Lamon replied. “He’s living with the family of Walt Whitman in Brooklyn.”
“I don’t know if I approve of that.” Baker wrinkled his brow. “Have you read any of that man’s poetry? He’s a crackpot. Linking him to this will discredit our efforts.”
“We’ll have a hard enough time convincing Johnson that Gabby is a viable witness, but we still have to try.”
“I’ve someone too who could confirm our allegations, but he’s mad also.” Baker paused before he said the name. “Boston Corbett.”
“The man who shot Booth?”
“He didn’t kill Booth. The body that came out of the burning barn was Adam Christy. I convinced Corbett to lie for the good of the nation. Booth escaped.”
Lamon shook his head in disbelief. “You allowed the man who killed Abraham Lincoln go free?”
“I—I wanted the killing to stop,” Baker tried to explain. “No more killing, not even John Wilkes Booth.”
Lamon came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the street. “Go back to the boarding house. I have to deal with this slowly, at my own speed. I’ll contact you in a few days.” He paused. “This is another reason why the details of this plot can never be revealed to the public. Hell, I don’t even know how I’m going to come to grips with it.”
A week passed before Lamon knocked on Baker’s door at the boarding house. They resumed their walks around town. Neither man said anything about the case. Finally, Lamon asked, “Where did you tell Booth to go? Out of the country?”
“I told him to take the horse I had provided him and ride away in the middle of the night. The military posse concentrated on the burning barn. They didn’t notice a lone horseman riding away in the darkness. My cousin knew the man pulled out of the flames and placed on the farmhouse porch was not Booth, but he pretended it was the assassin, leaning over and hearing last words which were never spoken.”
“Where’s Booth now?”
“I have no idea.” Baker sighed and shook his head. “Hopefully he went out west, disguised himself and blended in with all the other men who ran away from the war to start a new life.”
By the time August presented its oppressive, stultifying heat to the Illinois countryside, Lamon and Baker had their statement ready for President Johnson to read. Their first stop when they reached the Executive Mansion in Washington City was the basement where Cleotis and his wife Phebe lived and worked. When they entered the musty kitchen through the service entrance on the ground floor, the two men noticed Phebe stiffen and swoop up into her arms a toddler playing on the floor. Cleotis, on the other hand, smiled with a butler’s professional grace. If he had recognized them, he showed no signs of apprehension.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he said. “What can we do for you today?”
“Do you remember who we are?” Baker asked, with all undertones of intimidation erased from his voice.
“Of course, we do,” Phebe replied. Each word dripped with resentment. “We’re not stupid, you know.”
“Good.” Lamon smiled. “We were counting on your intelligence.” He stepped forward. “You must know you’re both living on borrowed time. You know if you don’t help us remove Stanton from power, it’ll only be a matter of time before he sends someone else to this basement in the middle of the night to kill you.”
Phebe pointed at Baker. “If anyone’s coming to kill us, it’s that man right there.”
“I don’t think so, dear.” Cleotis walked to Phebe and put his arm around her. “The way that man cried that night, he’s never going to hurt anyone again.” His big black eyes were soft and sympathetic. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he’s found Jesus.”
She grunted and pulled away from her husband. “Not even Jesus would want to save his dark soul from the devil.”
“This is a waste of time, Lamon,” Baker whispered. “I can’t ever expect them to trust me, not after what I’ve done.”
“You must believe that working with us will save your little family from being murdered,” Lamon pressed his case. “If you can’t trust us, then trust in Jesus for sending us here today.”
“Go away.” Her voice was a forbidding growl, like a tigress protecting her young.
Cleotis studied Baker’s face and then Lamon’s. “I trust you, gentlemen. What is it you want us to do?”

Booth’s Revenge Chapter Fifty-Eight

Previously: Booth shoots Lincoln and breaks leg in escape. Baker saves Booth’s life at Garrett’s farm. Anna Surratt pleads for her mother’s life. Johnson grants a reprieve, but it arrives too late. Stanton plots Johnson’s impeachment. Lamon goes home to his family in Illinois.
Lamon lounged back on the sofa and began to read the Springfield newspaper when he heard a knock at the front door. When he looked up to see who it was, Lamon’s face flushed with anger. Lafayette Baker stood on his porch. This was Gabby’s mean man with the red hair. Lamon stood and marched to the door.
“What the hell are you doing here?” He growled in low tones so his wife and child couldn’t hear.
“May I come in?” Baker asked. “I’ve brought an autographed copy of my book.”
“Hell no,” Lamon spat as he opened the screen door, stepped out on the porch and threw a punch which landed on Baker’s jaw.
Baker tumbled backwards and clattered down the front porch steps; his book flew from his hand, landing on the ground by his side. Lamon threw his large body onto him and continued to pummel his face, neck and chest. He vaguely became aware that Baker wasn’t fighting back, but Lamon didn’t care. He continued his assault, even though he could see Baker’s face began to swell and blood dribbled from his mouth. In a few seconds, Baker tried to roll away.
“No, stop, please. I have to tell you something. Please, don’t kill me yet.”
Disregarding Baker’s pleas, Lamon continued his thrashing as they both tumbled down a slight grade toward Sally’s flower garden. Lamon didn’t notice they were hurling themselves downhill. All he knew was that the man who had been responsible for misery in the last two and a half years of Abraham Lincoln’s life was under his control and he was exacting revenge.
“No, please! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Baker screamed.
Lamon bellowed like an enraged bull. The noise drew Sally and Dorothy out on the porch. Sally picked up the book and threw it at the two men.
“Don’t you dare ruin my flower bed! Stop it! Stop it right this moment!” Sally howled louder than either of the two men, which caused Lamon to stop his fist in mid-air. “For heaven’s sake, Ward! You’ve got the neighbors peeking out of their windows!”
When Lamon looked behind him he saw Sally with her hands on Dorothy’s shaking shoulders. He glanced around at the surrounding houses where he saw curtains close in quick succession. Lamon returned his gaze to Baker, who had pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket and was wiping blood from his swollen nose.
“Please give me a chance to explain what happened,” Baker whispered. “Yes, I’ve been a monster. I’ve done terrible things because Edwin Stanton told me to. But I repent of all that.”
Lamon noticed Baker wince as tears rolled down his battered cheeks.
Please help a sinner repent,” Baker pleaded
Lamon still couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Was it possible all the pieces of the conspiracy puzzle were coming together right there in his front yard? Could it be that the man whom he had always held in the highest contempt was about to become his most trusted ally? His eyes fluttered in bewilderment.
Sally smiled in bemusement. “I presume this gentleman will not be joining us for supper.”
“I don’t see why not.” Lamon stood and helped Baker to his feet. “Do you have other plans for this evening?”
Baker swallowed hard as he found his voice. “I might need to see a doctor first, but I’d love to have a home-cooked meal.”
“Good.” A smile found its way across Lamon’s lips. “Our family doctor lives just down the street. I’ll take you there myself.” He surveyed his handiwork on Baker’s face. “You’ll need to wash up first.”

What I Think About When I’m on Quarantine Part Three

I missed telling stories at Sweetfields Farm this spring because of the quarantine. I think they had a limited admission policy and required social distancing while going through the maze. When the earth stops trying to kill us all, I highly recommend taking the family out to the farm. It’s lots of fun. Sitting at home trying not to get sick, I recall all the interesting people I’ve told stories through the years. One particular group sticks in my mind.
There I was under my tent canopy telling stories at the farm as visitors went through the five-acre sunflower maze. A group of young adults came up and sat down.
They were in that delightful age between twenty and early thirties when no one could accurately tell how old they were. All of them were about the same height, had straight brown hair and wide friendly brown eyes. Their faces were a pleasant olive color with no blemishes. They could have been of Hispanic background, Italian or from the Middle East. They had pleasant smiles and impeccably clean white shirts and pants.
One young man, who acted as the leader, took out his smart phone.
“Do you tell your own stories or something else?” he asked, revealing perfectly straight white teeth.
“I tell stories I make up and sometimes I steal stories from people who have been dead for a long time. Right now I’m telling Native American legends.”
“I like to ask questions,” the leader said, holding up his phone, ready to punch the record button.
“Oh sure.” I was hoping they would notice I had a basket with a sign “Storytelling Fund.”
“How old are you?” he asked in an even, very respectful tone.
“I’m sixty-nine years old. I’ll be seventy in October.” I didn’t mind telling my age. I was proud to have made it to be an old man. Besides, if I were agreeable enough, maybe they’ll leave a dollar tip. I remembered when a dollar was still a lot of money.
“Where did you grow up?”
“In Gainesville, Texas, north of Dallas and Fort Worth. It was a small town.”
“What was it like growing up?”
For some reason, I decided to talk about legal discrimination in the South of the 1950s and 1960s. I described segregated schools, whites-only restrooms and colored water fountains.
“I was so young I thought black people were getting free Kool-Aid and we weren’t.”
All the lovely young people gently laughed. This was odd because when I had told that joke before, people acted like they didn’t get it or if they did get it they didn’t think it was funny.
I told them I was called a N-word lover because I didn’t understand why black kids had to go to separate schools.
The lovely ladies in the group wrinkled their brows and murmured in sympathy.
At that point I said I didn’t know why I decided to talk about the cultural situation back at that time. I usually tried not to say anything that could be interpreted as being political. If I upset anyone, they wouldn’t leave a tip and I needed the gas money to get home.
“That’s all right.” The leader nodded and smiled. “We like to learn things.”
I became aware of an awkward pause in the conversation. Since they enjoyed asking me questions, I thought I’d ask them a few things. “So, are you visiting from another country?”
“No, we live here,” he replied.
“Then you must be from Tampa Bay?”
“Yes.” He nodded. “Orlando.”
Okay, I told myself. Nobody from Orlando, which was in the middle of the state of Florida, would ever think of themselves as being a part of Tampa Bay any more than they would say they were from Cape Canaveral. It was at this time I officially became uncomfortable.
“Are you doing a college research project or something?”
“No, we just like to ask questions.”
“How nice.” I smiled, thinking of the many Twilight Zone episodes where strange new people in town just liked to ask questions.
How the hell do I get rid of these weirdos?
Maybe there was something wrong with me instead of them. Maybe I’ve watched too many Twilight Zone reruns. In either case, I felt it best to go into my usual spiel to prod visitors politely to move on.
“Thank you very much for dropping by and visiting with me. I hope you’ve enjoyed your day at Sweetfields Farm. Be sure to ride our tractor tricycles, shoot the potato cannon, play the water pump game and watch the pig races. You might also want to come back next October when we have the cornfield maze and pumpkin patch. I’ll be telling a new batch of stories then.”
The leader put away his cell phone. They stood and shook hands with me. Nice, firm, friendly handshakes from attractive young people with nice friendly smiles. They each put a dollar in my tip basket.
That night I told my son about my close encounter of the third kind as he was dressing for his night shift job. I asked him if I awoke in the middle of the night and found these young people dressed in white standing in an iridescent glow in the middle of my bedroom should I go with them to their spaceship.
“Sure,” he replied, “why not? But leave your credit card with me.”

Booth’s Revenge Chapter Fifty-Seven

Previously: Booth shoots Lincoln and breaks leg in escape. Baker saves Booth’s life at Garrett’s farm. Anna Surratt pleads for her mother’s life. Johnson grants a reprieve, but it arrives too late. Stanton plots Johnson’s impeachment. Lamon goes home to his family in Illinois.
After a few moments of recollecting their common dear friend Abraham Lincoln, Lamon and Herndon both paused to lean forward in their chairs, their eyes turning serious with ominous intent.
“Well, Billy, what can I do for you?”
“It’s more like what I can do for you.” Herndon’s pinched lips almost formed a smile but not quite. His voice lowered to a whisper. “I’m planning to write a biography of our dear departed friend that will shock the world.”
Lamon’s mouth fell open. Could Herndon, during his many visits to Washington City, have determined that the man in the Executive Mansion was not Abraham Lincoln? Could Herndon have been more astute than Lamon first imagined? “So you knew?”
“Of course, I knew.” Herndon raised his chin with pride. “Abe never loved Mary. He knew her family’s money and political connections would thrust him into contention for the presidency. And he paid dearly for his ambition. She made his life miserable with her insane outbursts and her wild spending habits.”
Leaning back, Lamon sighed with relief. This was the Billy Herndon he knew and tolerated. He acknowledged that sometimes times Mary Lincoln was vain, hysterical and unreasonable, but at heart she was a good person, and Lincoln loved her very much. “What an interesting premise. I’m sure your book will be very successful. Women across America will want to read it.”
Herndon emitted what Lamon considered a harrumph. “I expect it to be more than a romance story, Hill. This is where you come in.”
Lamon only allowed his inner circle of intimate friends, which included Lincoln, to address him by his middle name of Hill, but he decided not to be make an issue of it. Herndon might well have possession of information to prove Lamon’s own theories. He still wanted to present all the facts to President Johnson so that Edwin Stanton and Lafayette Baker would be punished for their attempts to subvert the Constitution and the future of the United States. “How intriguing. And how could I help you out?”
“The war, dammit.” Herndon shifted in his seat. “You were privy to much of his decision-making about the war. You must have heard a certain amount of information that has not been disclosed to the public.”
“What would you say if I told you there was a conspiracy involving our friend that went beyond a mere actor and his band of fools?”
“I knew it.” Herndon’s voice fulminated with self-righteous indignation. “That devil Jefferson Davis was behind it all, wasn’t he?”
“You might be on the right track,” Lamon lied. “Did you visit the President much in the last two years of the war?”
“Yes, a few times. Not as often as I wanted. The war made travel risky business.”
“How did he seem to you? Was he unusually nervous, distracted?”
Herndon shrugged. “Hell, he was always socially awkward. I don’t think anyone, including you, actually knew what was going in his skull. He was my best friend, but he always thought of himself above all others, if you know what I mean. He was always pushing, pushing, a quality to be admired in a president overseeing a war. But on a personal level, he made everyone feel like a true friend until that person was no longer useful to him and then they were strangers.”
Lamon suppressed a desire to throw the fat little weasel out of his office. One day even Herndon might supply a missing link in the chain of conspiracy that surrounded Lincoln’s captivity in the Executive Mansion basement. “Nothing would please me more than to participate in your project, but right at this moment I want to reconnect with my wife and child. I was gone so much during the war that I’m afraid I’m guilty of neglecting them.”
Herndon stood and extended his hand. “If any recollection bobs to the top of your memory, please let me know. What may seem insignificant to you may be of great importance to me.”
“I’m sure.” Lamon shook his hand and escorted him to the door.
When he arrived home that evening, he told Sally about Herndon’s strange visit. She was setting the table in the dining area of their parlor. On the other end of the room was a sofa, two padded winged-back chairs facing the fireplace.
She removed the dishtowel tucked in her apron to wipe smudges from a sturdy thick crystal vase.
“I, for one, never liked that man.” She carefully put the vase down. “Please make yourself comfortable on the sofa, dear, and I’ll have supper ready soon. As for Mr. Herndon’s book, I would never read his gossip.”
Dorothy ran through the front screen door holding a small bouquet of flowers from their garden. “See what I picked, papa? Aren’t they pretty?”
“Almost as pretty as you, my child.” He pulled her close and hugged her. Leaning over he smelled the bouquet. “And they smell so sweet.”
“They shall be the centerpiece of our table tonight,” Sally announced. “Now scurry to the kitchen, Dorothy, to make sure nothing is burning on the stove. I’ll take the flowers and vase.”

Booth’s Revenge Chapter Fifty-Six

Previously: Booth shoots Lincoln and breaks leg in escape. Baker saves Booth’s life at Garrett’s farm. Anna Surratt pleads for her mother’s life. Johnson grants a reprieve, but it arrives too late. Stanton plots Johnson’s impeachment. Lamon meets Walt Whitman.
His conversation with Walt Whitman gave Lamon a measure of hope to sustain him into the New Year when Johnson vetoed the black suffrage act. How could Lamon help this man and through him bring the assassination conspirators to justice? Johnson, on the one hand, was a man of strong personal integrity who defied his own state to remain loyal to the union. On the other, however, he was an unrepentant racist, intent on restricting the freedoms of the people he fought to liberate. Lamon always considered himself a simple, straightforward man. Lincoln was complicated yet understandable; Johnson was complicated and frustrating. Lamon’s instinct was to go over to the Executive Mansion and lecture the President about compromising on some issues to win the important battle.
Johnson followed his veto of the black suffrage bill with another veto, this time the infamous Tenure of Office bill. Within days, Missouri Rep. Benjamin Logan called for Johnson’s impeachment. By March Congress clarified the bill by adding if President Lincoln had appointed the secretary, then Johnson could not remove the appointee without approval from the Senate. Johnson could fire anyone he had personally hired. The changes did not impress the president, and he vetoed it again. The House immediately overrode it.
In the middle of all this insanity, Lamon read in the newspapers about another sideshow. Lafayette Baker, the short, red-haired mean man that intimidated Gabby Zook, published his biography in which he claimed to have established the Secret Service all by himself. “Braggadoccio and nonsense,” Lamon thought. “It takes a man of unbounded ego to make such a preposterous claim.”
Baker also wrote in extensive detail about his role in the search, capture and death of John Wilkes Booth. The most controversial detail of his book, however, was the claim that he received a diary retrieved from the dying Booth detailing the assassin’s days from the time he shot the president to his own death. Baker alleged someone had torn eighteen pages from the diary.
This information prompted a congressional hearing on April 2, 1867. Lamon followed the proceedings in the newspapers. He bought several, pulling together facts found in one account but not another. News articles quoted Benjamin Butler at length during a hearing at which Baker testified.
“That diary, as now produced, had eighteen pages cut out, the pages prior to the time when Abraham Lincoln was massacred, although the margins show they had all been written over. Now, what I want to know, was that diary whole? Who spoliated that book?”
The newspaper accounts reported that Baker swore no pages were missing from the diary when he turned it over to Edwin Stanton.
“Do you mean to say at the time you gave the book to the Secretary of War there were no leaves gone?” Butler asked.
“I do,” Baker responded.
“Did you examine it pretty carefully?”
“I examined the book quite thoroughly, and I am very sure that if any leaves had been gone I should have noticed it.”
In the following days, Lamon reached for his newspaper in anticipation of reading new revelations about the diary, but none were forthcoming. He became sick at heart of the conflicts on Capitol Hill and unable to see any appropriate resolution. More and more, his mind wandered back to his home in Danville, Illinois, and to his dear family who waited for his return. He acknowledged how fine a woman his second wife, Sally, was. She didn’t hesitate to open her arms to his daughter Dorothy and loved her as her own. His first wife Angelina had died of natural causes only a few years earlier. He remembered the letter from Sally that described her joy when his ten-year-old child without any prompting hugged her and called her “Mommy.” How many more warm family moments would he miss because of his vaunted conviction that the nation needed him to save it? He didn’t know the answer, but he knew it was a cost that he was increasingly unwilling and unable to pay.
So when summer arrived in Washington City and Congress continued to butt heads with Johnson over reconstruction legislation, Lamon left the battle to the politicians. A sense of relief overcame him as he boarded the train to Danville in early June, and every mile closer to home convinced him that he had made the right decision. Sally and Dorothy welcomed him with hugs and kisses. He reopened his law practice and focused on civil suits about property disputes and contract negotiations.
Barely a week had passed when he received a letter from Lincoln’s former law partner William Herndon who requested permission to visit his office as soon as was convenient. Herndon had always appeared to be an affable man, though not possessed of the highest intellect, so Lamon agreed to the visit. When the Springfield attorney arrived, Lamon noticed he had gained quite a bit of weight. Coffee and food stained his wrinkled clothing.

What I Think About While on Quarantine Part Two

Like many people on quarantine I think about how I’m not getting to work. My job is a storyteller.
Upon reflection, it’s a poor career choice. Storytellers were probably one of the first professions. Everyone enjoyed traveling minstrels who could make you laugh, cry, be scared or pluck any other emotional string of your heart. They put their hats on the ground, and you dropped in any coin you wished.
We haven’t had a pay raise in five thousand years.
I’m seventy-two, so I’m too old to change jobs. Besides I was really incompetent at everything else I tried. And I have to admit I think I’ve gotten better at storytelling. On what criteria I based that is unscientific at best.
Over the years I have been told I haven’t grown up yet. Another said they hadn’t seen anyone go from sixty to six in six seconds before. I’ve been cut off in mid-sentence by good church people because I used terrible words like Halloween or witch. Some people think it’s funny to interrupt to ask questions about a phrase I used which doesn’t really influence the story. Or a few like to blurt out the end of the story early to let everyone else know how smart they are to figure it out.
Then there are the people who sit there and smile. Some parents like to take pictures of their children smiling at my stories. One lady said she had just left her husband in the hospital and came to the event where I was performing because she had promised a friend she would attend. Then she heard my stories and they made her feel better. I’ve had parents tell me they’ve never had their children sit still that long before.
The truth is these stories jump into my head and they won’t leave unless I share them with someone. If I don’t tell them I think I get emotionally constipated (Can I say that? I already did so it doesn’t matter.)
I’ve seen a lot of entertainers on television in the last few years who claim in interviews that they are storytellers, whether they be actors, musicians, film editors, directors, whatever. I don’t know if I like them claiming my profession. Why can’t they just be happy with all the fame and fortune?
That reminds me. Do you know the difference between a storyteller and a politician? A politician makes a lot more money. Besides when I tell a bad story people can just walk away, buy some kettle corn and forget the whole unfortunate incident. When a politician tells a bad story it becomes law and everyone is stuck with it for years.
Genuine storytellers know they won’t change the world. They won’t make it a better place, but they won’t make it a worse one either. I do know many people who are high-minded crusaders who want to make the planet a better place. I admire their courage, determination and tenacity. More power to them.
But I must settle for what I do. For a brief moment in time I can look into someone’s eyes, smile, tell a little story that doesn’t mean anything in particular and help make the cares of the world go away.