A Fight in the Bloody Angle While I Do Dishes
Chris Allen Clark
My parents had 3rd great uncles in the Civil War who fought at
places like Antietam, Gettysburg, and Spotsylvania. While I do
the laundry, dishes, or bag up garbage, I find myself in a
Forty Acre Cornfield with Maxcy Gregg's Brigade at the battle
of Antietam, or I cross the Emmitsburg Road at Gettysburg with
some grisly looking mountain man named Lafayette McLaws, or I
might lead my Brigade into the Mule Shoe, or the Bloody Angle
as it was known, at Spotsylvania just as General Lee had done
for Nathaniel Harris' Brigade.
I carry clothes to wash in a garbage bag
because I have trouble walking. I use a walker which can be a
nuisance in public. A big bag of clothes is placed on top of
the walker basket and I am off to the washroom ready to start
my day. Ready, set, GO! I wonder if Lafayette McLaws had so
much trouble. I literally have to fling my full bag across the
floor at times to move forward.
I wonder if Lafayette McLaws had so much
trouble as he made his way across the Emmitsburg Road. He did,
according to Longstreet's Report of the ensuing battle which
came to be known as Gettysburg. He told how McLaws had spotted
Union troops along his right flank, and how he delayed in
order to attempt a surprise attack. There was no surprise. My
surprise is found amidst the wet towels still in the dryer. I
sometimes see Union troops hide behind the washing machine.
A garbage bag full of clean clothes is
slung across the garage floor as I come into the house. Our
washroom is almost two garages away. It is the sling motion of
a Samurai warrior or, perhaps, an Angola prisoner on the chain
gang. Heave Ho! Heave Ho! I sling my bag full of clothes
across the garage floor with Sam Cooke's song in my head. It
keeps me going.
"That's the sound of the men
working on the chain gang."
I am endlessly haunted by garbage. Our
black and white Shih Tzu Stormy barks at something, or
someone, lurching down 4th Avenue. It is a ghost. I try to
imagine it as it carries a bag of garbage, our garbage, down
If the garbage becomes too full, I find
myself seated on my rump in the middle of our granite floor in
an attempt to tie it up. Maxcy Gregg found himself in the
middle of a field picking daisies at the Civil War Battle of
2nd Bull Run. He was not worried as his ammunition and men ran
out. He hollered out to survivors: "Let us die here like
men!" Often, I find myself on the granite floor with a
bag of garbage as I say: "Let us die here like men!"
With a severe attack of hypoglycemia on
the way, I quickly measure my English peas out and start to
season them as my mother asks me what Roman emperor fiddled
while Rome burned.
"Why did he play fiddle while Rome
burned?" My mother curiously asks as she chops an onion.
I open the jar of Cayenne pepper and
pour it by the teaspoon. I answer: "Because he was
It is obvious. He used too much cayenne
pepper. Stonewall Jackson was a deeply religious man who never
seasoned his food with pepper because it made his left leg
ache. My left leg aches profoundly after I drink rum. It
swells from a disease Civil War soldiers called Dropsy. If a
soldier was diagnosed with Dropsy, he was sent home, incapable
of active duty, unable to wash his own clothes.
My mother made flour gravy before my
father dumped a can of stewed tomatoes in it. Often one will
pour ketchup on eggs to make them taste better. Daddy pours
ketchup on everything he eats. Even when away from home, he
looks for a ketchup bottle. A nice meal can program one to do
certain things. I wonder why.
When you pour a can of stewed tomatoes
over flour gravy, the gravy becomes hard to remove once it
dries and cakes on in the fry pan. Imagine tomato paste
coagulating blood. It bleeds for air outside the flour. Some
nights, my mother will blend together ground beef with tomato
sauce and make a spaghetti sauce pate. Imagine spaghetti sauce
pate as it coagulates into something that looks like blood. It
bleeds for air outside the blender. I think of Gettysburg and
blood. Lafayette McLaws and blood. Let's talk.
Lafayette McLaws was obviously not a
vegetarian as I view a picture of him taken around the time of
Gettysburg. He was a large man. I would not say obese. It
sounds as though he could not get around. He could. He made
his way through Gettysburg and later retired to a quiet life
as postmaster general in the state of Georgia. He wrote about
the war just as my ancestor John Crawford had done.
John Crawford, my paternal 3rd great
uncle, served in the 16th Mississippi Infantry. I can almost
recite bits and pieces from his letters written back home the
way my psychiatrist would recite passages from the Koran. He,
a Confederate soldier, fishes on one side of the Rappahannock,
while a Yankee fishes the other side, always with one eye on
the pole and the other on him. In his letter, Uncle John says:
"We fish together." Somewhere amidst the spilt blood
of Chancellorsville and Spotsylvania, there's always time to
I got the food put up, but I still do
not know how to clean the stove top. It is one of those
$10,000 Wolf stoves, too complex to clean with simple water.
That will wait for mother. I don't want to be blamed if some
intrinsic part turns green.
A storm howls outside. I can hear it
from the kitchen window while I wash dishes and place them in
one of our two dish washers. My father rides the John Deere
mower after the storm. Earlier, as a strong rainstorm
approached, the siren from the top of the police station
screamed out a tornado warning. Here, tornadoes rip tin roofs
off of Fred's Dollar Store and spin the Sonic sign
topsy-turvy. Where do they come from in their darkened fury
Three of my mother's Bloody Marys will
bring tornadoes and my father's John Deere mower. You are not
supposed to cut grass after a storm, but after three Bloody
Marys, who cares? Let's ride. I'll play my Wilbert Harrison CD
and do dishes. I will go to Kansas City, but I don't want a
tornado to take me there.
Five years ago, I sat with my
psychiatrist, a short bald man fascinated with reciting
passages from the Koran. He immediately diagnosed me as
paranoid schizophrenic after I compared washing clothes with
being lost in the Mule Shoe Salient at Spotsylvania. When our
session ended, he rubbed his bald head dry of oil and worry. I
looked for a basket of clothes to wash and asked: "Where
is my underwear?"
We fight our "Bloody Angles"
here between the kitchen and the washroom. Somehow, the vortex
of all this chaos is always found when my mother cooks.
Perhaps Stonewall Jackson, Maxcy Gregg, Lafayette McLaws, or
even General Lee himself will come to dinner one night. I will
pray for them all.
The Mule Shoe Salient, also called the
Bloody Angle, was one of the bloodiest battles fought in the
Civil War on May 12, 1864. I had five great great great uncles
there. Twenty hours of ferocious combat between Confederate
and Union soldiers proved to be inconclusive for Grant. He
moved on to Cold Harbor.
Somewhere trapped in the Salient, a
thought of home hits a lost soldier like lightning. Did you
know lightning struck an oak tree the day after the battle was
fought May 12, 1864? Jeb Stuart had been killed the day
before, pursuing General Phil Sheridan's men at a place called
At the end of the day, I want to go to
bed the way you do. Don't I have a right? I want to sleep and
smell deep rich Maxwell House in the morning. What I want is a
pillow against my head and not the sink. Nor do I want the
toilet. I'm tired of holding on to counters in order to
pre-make coffee. I'm tired of you and I'm tired of me. I
washed your clothes and your dishes, threw out the garbage for
the 7:00 a.m. truck, provided the cats don't look for chicken
bones hidden inside the garbage. I will pull a wish bone with
the cats and wish for them to go away. Go away!
Tomorrow, I will follow Jeb Stuart and
his cavalry into Spotsylvania in pursuit of Phil Sheridan at
Yellow Tavern. I may find time to go into the tavern and have
a drink. I may die of some rare disease caused by too much
clothes detergent or I may be shot and killed by some of
Sheridan's men. In either case, I itch constantly. Tonight, I
do dishes. Tomorrow, I will meet you for drinks at the Yellow
Postscript from the Salient or the
Kitchen. I don't know which.
We will follow A.P. Hill out of Harper's
Ferry, rushing through the South Mountains to the battle of
Antietam. Along the Mountains we may stop awhile. There, I
will hire a teamster to haul to the battlefield the hundreds
of cans of bologna I have fed to you throughout this story.