Waging War

Inside my body, an epic battle raged. A bacterial infection had invaded, and for the past three weeks, it had threatened to take over. And it had been a very near thing.

This had been the weirdest cold I’d ever experienced. I had a sore throat for only 20 minutes. I never had a stuffy head or nose. Every time I took my temperature, I never had a fever. The congestion settled into my upper chest for the duration, which caused me to cough, sometimes so hard that it triggered vomiting. When I talked, I sounded like Brenda Vaccaro.

But the absolute worst part was the battle that was waged in my head. Vertigo. The ground was like a storm-tossed sea. When I’d move, everything around me seemed to lag about a second behind. And I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t remember things. I couldn’t concentrate. It exhausted me. It scared me. All I wanted to do was sleep.

I started to worry that I had a brain tumor, but didn’t have the energy to do anything about it. If only I could sleep, I’d throw up a white flag and let the invading hoards take over. Whatever.

In my muzzy-headed dreams, I watched from a distance, looking down over the chaotic battlefield. They had orcs and goblins, and ringwraiths and trolls. My brave little hobbits were hard pressed to keep up. There was much growling, much bloodshed. It seemed that all was lost.

But then, at the eleventh hour, Gandalf appeared, shouting, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” and cast a z-pack upon the shoulders of the balrog.

The invading hoard screamed in agony. The hobbits cheered. The tide had turned and everyone knew the good guys would win. The music swelled. All hail modern medicine.

It took another long week to clear the battlefield of bodies. Even now, vultures still peck at the scattered remains. But, oh, the sunrise in the distance is a beautiful, beautiful thing to behold.

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Flags Scare Me

The first flags were battle standards used during conflict. In times like those, especially when battles were bloody and fought face to face and you were usually slaughtering your neighbors who looked just like you, it was rather important to indicate whose side you were on.

Think about that for a minute. We have to be able to tell each other apart in order to kill the right people. Because if we were all running around naked and flagless, we would all essentially be the same. In which case, what the hell are we fighting for?

Good freakin’ question. What are we fighting for? I think the last war that was waged even tangentially for moral purposes (rather than purely for greed or racism or religious zealotry or the quest for the control of oil) was World War II. So, yeah, we need those flags, man, or we can’t separate ourselves. Us vs. Them.

Flags are the ultimate symbol of polarization. Either you’re on our team or you’re not. And if you aren’t willing to play by the flag flyers’ rules, then get the hell out. Love it or leave it.

It’s very comforting to be a member of a group. You’re accepted. You’re part of the norm. You’re just like us.

But in order to form a group, you have to be willing to believe that all of your members feel the same way about things. And, hey, you’re a good person, right? So if everyone in your group is just like you, then you must be the good guys.

What does that say about those who are excluded from that group? They must be bad. That only makes sense.

And we (“we”) wonder why we can’t all just get along.

On the anniversary of 9/11, I saw a Facebook post that waxed nostalgic for 9/12. It talked about stores running out of flags to sell because they were being flown everywhere. It talked about us all being Americans before anything else. It talked about us being united.

I remember it quite differently. I remember fear and paranoia and confusion and anger. Yes, I remember flags everywhere. Flags defiantly flown. I remember people getting beat up if they looked the slightest bit Muslim. I remember my employer trying to force me to wear a flag pin, and feeling as though my livelihood would be threatened if I didn’t jump on the bandwagon. I remember not knowing what this angry, enormous mass of “we” was going to do.

That scared the hell out of me. It still does.

I don’t even like rooting for sports teams. I don’t like turning anyone into a them. The only “thems” in my life at the moment are Trump supporters. I don’t understand them. The level of hate they demonstrate terrifies me, because I know that to them, I’m the them.

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So many thems.

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Reliving the Battle of Olustee

On February 20th, 1864 the battle of Olustee was fought here in Florida. It was the largest Civil War Battle in the state, and the second bloodiest battle for the Union. 296 soldiers died that day, only 93 of whom were Confederates. In the end the Union soldiers retreated 40 desolate miles back to Jacksonville, their collective tail between their legs.

One weekend a year each February, thousands descend on the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park to observe a reenactment of this battle, and in 2005 I bore witness to this event myself. The irony is that I live in Jacksonville, so heading out there I sort of experienced a reverse retreat. And I’m here to tell you that that section of Florida is still pretty darned desolate. I could only imagine the hellish journey amongst the snakes and swampland and sharp-leafed underbrush.

And the thing about that part of Florida is that the deeper you get into, well, absolutely the middle of nowhere, the more you can’t shake the feeling that you’re traveling back in time, and not in a good way. There’s this feeling of free floating anxiety that you can’t quite put your finger on. I wouldn’t want to be there after dark during that weekend. And I wouldn’t want to be there even in broad daylight if I were black. And indeed, amongst the throngs of people and reenactors I only saw one minority face, that of a black union soldier. This just isn’t an event you want to attend if you’re not a WASP, because for this one weekend a year, people who are proud of the south and its history, in all its ugly and misguided glory, get to celebrate. There are confederate flags everywhere, and there’s beer. Lots and lots of beer. That’s never a good combination, if you ask me.

I must say, though, they really pull out all the stops. While you’re there, you can visit the confederate and union camps, and check out a lot of the historic armaments and medical tools, which is kind of interesting. There’s also an arts and crafts fair, a fun run, and even a square dance.

I’m glad I experienced this once, but have to say I’ll never go back. Not only because I came down with the worst case of sun poisoning in the history of mankind, complete with turning a dark purple and vomiting for 48 hours, but also because, more than anything, I got the feeling that here was a crowd of people that were longing for those days, wishing they could have back what so many feel that the south lost when they lost the civil war. Instead of witnessing a battle and thinking, “Never again”, they were thinking, “Yeah Buddy! The South will RISE AGAIN!!!!” And that sort of made me sick. You’re supposed to learn about history so as not to repeat it, not revel in its darkness and long for it to return.

So would I recommend that you go to the Battle of Olustee? Yes, with caution and a rather large companion. But that’s a decision you’ll have to make on your own. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some of the pictures I took while I was getting sun poisoned.

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Washington Slept Here and Other Informational Tidbits

The Clara Barton House Marker

Unless you’re the most unobservant American on the planet, chances are you’ve seen at least one of these historical markers in your lifetime. They’ll usually sneak up on you while you’re playing tourist. Often they’ll be on a street corner or in front of a house in some historic neighborhood, telling you that someone famous did something or other that was special, right here on this very spot, or that some battle was fought or some disaster occurred. Sometimes they’re quite interesting. Just as often they’re deadly dull. I’ve noticed that for some reason the interest factor seems to be in inverse proportion to the length of the text.

It’s fun to spot the spelling or grammatical errors in these signs. There almost always is at least one. I suppose that if a government has gone to the expense of creating and erecting one of these markers, they’re hesitant to start over. But it always makes me wonder if some fact is incorrect as well. Was it really 1863, or was it, perhaps, 1868? I’d never take one of these markers as a source of fact without a second opinion.

But markers that fascinate me the most are the poorly placed ones. Some are on lonely stretches of highway, often half covered by vines, in a location where it’s impossible to park your car. The text is so small you can’t read it from a moving vehicle, and if you come to a stop you’re likely to be rear ended by a semi truck. I once saw one in the median of a particularly busy stretch of a state highway. Seriously? How many people are willing to die for historical knowledge?

These badly positioned markers are historical teases. Driving past them on a daily basis and never knowing what they say is an odd form of torture. I mean, for all I know, I’m driving over the spot where the Ark of the Covenant was last seen, and I’m being deprived of this insight! Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad people are taking the time to preserve history. But for the love of Mike, can’t you put some thought into our ability to bear witness without causing a 10 car pileup?

I want to see the historical marker that says, “On this spot, the very first historical marker was made” because without a doubt, they have been the source of many an unexpected travel detour since their inception, and that, after all, is what makes the acquisition of knowledge the adventure that it is.