Category Archives: Memoirs

Dolan to Doubleday to Chance

It’s October, and I’m feeling a resurgence of baseball interest with the major league playoffs about to begin. I played baseball as a kid,  and, after overcoming fear of failure,  managed to gain confidence, if not athletic competence,  on the Little League fields of Snohomish, Wash., home of Baseball Hall of Famer Earl Averill and a half-dozen other big-league players. Farther from home, my wife’s paternal grandfather and two other relatives played pro baseball in the  early 1900s, and I’ve uncovered evidence linking her Irish immigrant great-great grandfather John Dolan to the national pastime as far back as 1861.

Records confirm that Pvt. John Dolan did two tours in the Union Army during the American Civil War, the first a three-month stretch in Company H of the 10th Pennsylvania Volunteers, which was mustered less than two weeks after the war’s opening shots at Fort Sumter on April 12. 1861. That’s about the same time of year that baseball season traditionally begins.

John Dolan

Known as the Allegheny Guards, the 10th became part of a 16,000-man force under Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson, ordered to occupy a force of Gen. Joe Johnston’s Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry and Winchester, Va., while the main part of the Union Army under Maj. Gen. Irwin McDowell attacked the main Confederate forces under Gen. P.G.T.  Beauregard at Bull Run outside Washington.  The idea was to keep Johnston from reinforcing Beauregard, but we all know that didn’t happen and Johnston’s arrival at Bull Run saved the day for the rebels and sparked a rout of the federals.

A regimental history of the 10th from Samuel P. Bates’ “History of Pennsylvania Volunteers” suggests the Allegheny Guards went through spring training with the Yankees but saw little live pitching until confronted by an occupied toll house near the Potomac River.

According to Bates:  “On Monday, the 24thof June, Capt. Doubleday, having completed an earth work, placed in the battery one smooth-bore 24-pounder and one 8-inch howitzer, and opened on the toll house, a stone building situated about 1 mile from the river on the Martinsburg Pike and occupied by rebel

Abner Doubleday

scouts. The first shot struck the corner of the building, driving out a party of about 20 of the enemy, who were just then preparing to partake of a bountiful supper. Unwilling to leave the savory dishes, prepared with much care, the party halted some distance from the house to consider the situation. But a well-timed shell from the howitzer brought the conference to a sudden conclusion, scattering the party in all directions, amidst the cheers of thousands of Union soldiers who witnessed the scene from the Maryland shore. On entering the house on the following day, the supper was found undisturbed.”

I love this story, because Capt. Doubleday was Abner Doubleday,  mythically portrayed as the inventor of baseball in 1832 but more accurately perceived as the man who fired the first shots for the Union at Fort Sumter, where he was second in command to Maj. Robert Anderson.

After an “0-fer” day batting leadoff at Sumter, these might’ve been Doubleday’s first hits of the war.

Imagine the rebel scouting report from the toll house: “Watch yourselves, they’ve got a cannon out there in center.”

Or consider the lingering banter from the Union side, perhaps by Pvt. Dolan himself:

“Ah, Cap’n, those were a fine couple o’ balls ya pitched at ’em the other day. The first one might’ve been a wee high, but ya sure knocked dem buggers off da plate.”

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Squeamish Scouts

How many boy scouts does it take to kill a chicken?

Just one if he has anything but sand in his scrotum. Trouble was, my buddy Gale and I both showed a squeamish side at our first Caveman Cookout as members of Troop 50 in the woods of Camp Sevenitch.

We were town boys, 12 or 13 at the time, and we came fully prepared with the limited gear allowed to each two-man team: our sleeping bags and rain ponchos, one shovel, a compass, three matches, our pocket knives and the clothes we wore. Oh, and they gave us each a raw potato to go with our live poultry.

We had no trouble hunting down our hen by following the compass directions given to us. The bird was right where it was supposed to be, tethered to a tree, where there was no escape unless cut free by an imbecilic scout who failed to hold on.

We left our hen tied as we built a fire and fashioned a lean-to from our joined ponchos. Some scouts would wrap their chicken in leaves and cook it by burying it under coals, along with the potatoes. We weren’t into that. We thought roasting on a spit was the way to go, once the chicken was dead.

“You do it,” I said.

“Naw, go ahead,” Gale replied.

Older scouts had told us the best way to kill a chicken was to simply hold the head, spin the bird a couple times and then snap the head off with a quick jerk. But that didn’t fly with us, as jerking  the head off seemed about as civil as biting it off.

“Tell you what,” Gale said after protracted deliberations. “I”ll cut the damn head off if you’ll just hold him.”

“Fine,” I said. “You kill it and I’ll clean it.”

The act should’ve been routine. But when the chicken began flapping and squawking as Gale started to saw through the neck, I lost my nerve, and grip, and the bound bird flopped to the ground, still very much alive.

“Geez, couldn’t you just hold on for a few more seconds,” Gale said.

“No,” I said. “I have this thing about live chickens. It’s all I can do to even touch one.”

The second assault involved the shovel, swinging it ax-like. But the chicken refused to lie still and play Marie Antoinette. The result was a badly beaten, but still breathing bird.

Cutting to the chase, we then used the tethering cord to hang the hen like a horse thief, before Gale finally did what was necessary, using gravity to maintain stretch while sawing though the neck.

Plans to roast her on a spit fell through when we had trouble pulling all the feathers. An attempt to burn off the feathers begat both a bad smell and a blackened bird, which was only partially consumed – with raw potatoes – before all leftovers were cremated.

(Note: This was written as a WritersKickstart prompt on the topic of Roles.)

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Unsupported Amusement

It took her years to get the joke, but that only made it more amusing.

My wife saw a recent Facebook posting from a childhood friend, who was a buddy of her younger brother, and it reminded her of a long-ago summer at the New Jersey seashore where she picked up on a verbal chiding that the boys often would holler when a cyclist rode past: “Hey, why ride a bike, when you can wear one?”

She didn’t get it, but it sounded good at the time, and she whole-heartedly joined in the fun. All summer. And from time to time from then on.  Never really gave it much thought.

Wasn’t until 12-13 years later, while working in newspaper advertising and retrieving an ad proof from a sporting goods store in Fairbanks, Alaska, that she noticed BIKE athletic supporters in the display case. Suddenly, she was 13 again, and seeing bikes on the boardwalk.

Red-faced,  she phoned her brother in Philadelphia to share the revelation and got the horse laugh along with the admonition, “I thought you knew!”

Silly girl. Product of Catholic grade-schooling. Probably never heard a limerick with “Nantucket” in it, either.

Her brother is now gone, but the memories remain sweet and precious. No word yet on the friend’s recollection.

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Hand-Me-Downs

An old doll holding a crucifix in hazy green light forms a ghost-like image that calls me back to a time before my birth, but strangely familiar in a déjà vu sense. The doll in her long dress and bonnet sits at a desk, perhaps like the ones that filled the old North Dakota school house where my dear Aunt Esther taught in the 1920s and early ‘30s in the village of Fort Ransom, which sprang up when the old army post closed its gates in the 1870s. Esther was my mom’s eldest sister, and her salary paid the grocery bill to help the Highness family meet ends every

This image served as the prompt for Hand-Me-Downs in a Writers Kickstart exercise.

six months or so. Esther never had any children of her own, but she had nine siblings, seven of which during her time as a teacher still lived at home, where my Grandma Emma kept house and my Grandpa Butch did whatever he could to clothe the bunch and put food on the table. Butch never finished school but the old Norwegian was a prolific hunter and fisherman who could read well enough to educate himself in the ways of animal husbandry and serve local farmers as an uncertified country veterinarian, for which he generally received bartered goods in lieu of money because most of the local farmers in those days were as cash-poor as he was. Emma, the eldest daughter from a big Swedish family as large as her own, was an avid worshiper at Stiklestad Lutheran Church and kept her own brood bonded together with unconditional love and a soap-and-water attitude that cleansed hearts as well as bodies, and inspired the work ethic that made Esther a godsend for those lean and dry years on the prairie that made up the Dirty Thirties.  Mom said her family never had a Christmas tree until Esther was finally able to bring one home from the schoolhouse after classes were let out for the holidays. If my mom ever had a doll, it was probably a hand-me-down from Esther or from second big sister Helen, another woman who would never have a child of her own but would later take in nieces and nephews for whole summers at a time and would also care for her bedridden father in the last years of his life. Yes, the crucifix in the doll’s hand says much to me in another sense of hand-me-downs. A handful of love and right-minded spirit held out for all to see and grasp, even in the hardest of times. I cherish the homespun love and faith that my mother inherited and in turn passed down from the black-and-white world that she kept alive in her photo albums – where only good memories survived.

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Ransom Roots

I chose Ransom Man as the name of my blog because my family is rooted in the prairie lands of Ransom County, N.D., where I was born and where both of my parents grew up and where their families of Norwegian and Swedish stock were among the early pioneers.

Home base was Fort Ransom, a village that sprang up on the Sheyenne River near the site of a former army post (18671-72) named for Civil War Union Major Gen. Thomas Edward Greenfield Ransom, who died of dysentery (that’s the shits) in 1864 while chasing Gen. John Bell Hood’s rebel forces near Rome, Ga.

My dad moved us to the Puget Sound area of  Washington state when I was a twerp, but I feel tied to Fort Ransom through visits and extensive genealogy research.

Ten Things to Know About Fort Ransom

  • Scorching summers.
  • Sub-zero winters.
  • Mosquitoes the size of humming birds.  (When the University of North Dakota gets around to changing its Fighting Sioux nickname,  it might well consider Herc’n Bloodsuckers in recognition of the  insect.)
  • My uncle told me you could put a canoe in the Sheyenne and paddle all the way to Hudson’s Bay.
  • Great place to shoot gophers.  (Buffalo are gone, but deer and antelope still play there.)
  • My cousin Virgil’s place on Bear’s Den Hill near the ruins of the old fort  includes a spring-fed natural amphitheater steeped in antiquity as a probable vision quest site for Native American people, and a nearby “Writing Rock” features cup marks in an astrological arrangement similar to the oldest cup marks found anywhere in North America.
  • Mooring stones like those used by the Vikings were found in the vicinity, proving absolutely that Norse might’ve made it there (no doubt fighting the current all the from Hudson’s Bay).
  • Lefse, lutefisk and my mother’s ring cakes were all perfected there; also home of the Internet venture Youbetchatube.
  • There’s still a tavern in town, but the venerable Fort Ransom Cafe is no more. (So, if you go, you might want to pack your own lunch. But don’t worry about coffee; there’ll be a pot anywhere you go, and the Writing Rock contains the oldest cup marks . . . )
  • If you’re from there, too, we’re almost certainly related.

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