Thursday, May 22, 2008

Grandpa's Sword

Grandpa's Sword
8.5" x 11"
I cannot remember what the handle or part that the soldier held it with looks like, exactly. I just remember that my mother described it as rather plain, nothing fancy. I do remember the blade well, where each tiny scratch was, what it felt like when I held it in my small hands, what it smelled like as took it from its hiding place from between Mama's quilts in the bottom part of the couch that made into a bed.
I remember it was silver, and cold , and heavy. Very smooth. It had that pungent metallic smell, combined with silver polish. And I wondered if it had been used to draw blood during battle, or if it had killed anyone. I wanted to know if this was the sword that had crippled Grandpa, or if he had used it to defend himself. Or maybe it was just used for show, as part of his uniform, and his fighting had been done with a rifle.
"Mama, was Grandpa in the Civil War?" I asked.
"Umhmm," Mama answered as she was on her knees, scrubbing the floor.
"Mama, what happened to Grandpa's knees?" I asked, daring to ask something personal, something that I thought was to be discussed only between grownups.
"Umhmm," Mama went on scrubbing the hardwood floor in the living room.
"Mama, did Grandpa get hit behind the knees with that sword while he was in the Civil War, and that's why he walks with his knees bent?" I asked.
"Umhmmm," Mama went on with her scrubbing and turned to scrub another spot. She still had to put paste wax on the floor, on her hands and knees, then buff it with a rag to polish, after she completed the cleaning process.
I don't think she ever heard me. I think that her thoughts were far away, or she was engrossed in the task at hand, or, maybe, she really didn't want to be bothered with a bunch of questions. She just gave me a "yes" to satisfy me so I would go somewhere else.
So, as I grew up, and until only recently, I was sure that Grandpa Miles, her father, had been in the Civil War and that "the sword" at our house, was the one that he was hit behind the knees with, or that he used to defend himself with during the War.
In History class in school, Mrs. Pietsch talked about the Civil War and her trip to visit battlefields during the summer. So, I piped up, telling Mrs. Pietsch, who was also a relative, that my grandfather had been in the Civil War, and that he had been wounded when he was struck behind the knees with a sword.
"Did not!" the girl sitting in front of me said and turned around to sneer at me. We had a history of argueing since we were very small. Even had spitting matches across the barbed wire fence that divided my back yard from the back yard of the house where her grandfather was renting a room.
"Did so!" I said and put my hands on my hips and sneered back at her.
"Did not!" she said.
"Did so!" I answered.
Several other students joined in, siding with her.
Mrs. Pietsch adjusted the ring in her nose (It was actually a filter type of device she wore due to sinus trouble), and told us to stop argueing and sit down. She went on with the lesson.
"Prove it!" several girls laughed as we left the classroom.
Grandpa Miles would come to visit for weeks at a time from his farm in Navarro county, until the time of WWII. Then he went to work as part of the war effort in Ft. Worth at an aircraft plant. The first thing he did with each visit, would be to get the sword out from the couch and polish it for a few days.
He also took the pendulum clock off the wall and put it on the couch beside him. He would take the clock apart, clean, oil, and adjust it and have it running just fine. But, as soon as he left town, the clock would stop. Eventually, my mother just gave it a fresh coat of paint, and painted roses with oil paint on the glass that covered the pendulum. There is a piece of paper inside the clock with a date of 1853 on it. That is when my grandfather's parents were married, so we assume that it is a clock that could have been my great-grandparent's wedding present, or something that they bought after they married and moved from Alabama to Texas.
After he finished with the sword and the clock, Grandpa sharpened the hoe, the scissors, and all the knives. Then he went outside and used the hoe to trim all around the curb in front of the house.
Cooking was also something that he did while he visited, but that's another story.
His visits were all too short. I don't remember that he talked a lot, except to the grownups, but he did sing while he worked. All those old songs like "Billy Boy", "The Midnight Special", "Froggy Went a Courtin'", and that sort of thing.
Now, I wish he would have told me about the clock and the sword, and what really happened to his legs, who was in the Civil War, and about his first wife and two daughters who died. Even my mother never could find out about them.
I always felt like Grandpa came to visit for so long when my parents were not getting along very well. I don't know that, but I got the feeling that he came to protect his little girl. There wouldn't be much argueing when he was there.
Of course, I loved for him to be there. It was nice just to sit at the table with Grandpa there, sipping his coffee from the saucer and wondering why he put his teeth in his pocket when he ate.
I loved sitting on his lap or riding his foot, when I was smaller, playing "Ride The Horsey". And he always baked something really good to eat.
I had told my classmates and teacher about the sword and I felt that they didn't believe me. I wanted them to know that I had ancestors who actually did things, too.
So, the next morning, after I had been challenged, I put my coat on to go to school, went to the couch and got the sword out from between the blankets, put it against my chest and wrapped it in my coat, carried my books in front of me, and went to school. I kept that sword against me all day until history class.
It wasn't unusual to keep my coat on. For one thing, our section of the study hall, away from the radiators, was often cold. And, I was embarrassed about my developing body, so I hid behind long hair that draped in my face, at times, and under a coat. It also came in handy the time that I had the 3 day measles and hid them under my coat, so I could go on about my business.
When we took our seats in history class, before Mrs. Pietsch came in the room, I opened my coat and took out the sword. The kids were impressed and were much nicer to me. They oooohed and aaahhhd and gathered around my desk.
Mrs. Pietsch walked in the room, and Kathryn said, "Mrs. Pietsch! Look what Cecelia brought! Her grandfather really was in the Civil War!"
Mrs. Pietsch joined the group.
"That's very nice, Cecelia. But, you really shouldn't bring such valuable things to school. You should take it home and take good care of it."
She directed me to take it to my house then, before school was out. Which was great for me! Mama wasn't at home so I put the sword back.
Mama never said a thing to me, but, soon, we made a trip to Ft. Worth to take the sword to her sister's house. She insisted that it wasn't because I took the sword to school, but, instead, said that it was because my little sister was getting into things and she was afraid that she would find it and hurt herself.
Actually, this wasn't too unusual, either, because my mother and her sister did often trade things around. One would keep something for a while, then the other would keep it.
But, this time, I never saw the sword again.
Grandpa, then Grandma died. Then my aunt, then her husband died. Their things were divided up and a son got the sword. He no longer is in contact with the family. But someone told me that the sword is in the posession of a sutler who goes to Civil War reenactments. Maybe there was more than one sword, or maybe it was sold. I don't know, but I would love to have at least a picture of the sword.
In the past few years, I have been working on family history, and trying to put down what I know from pictures to stories and fact, before it is all lost. Things like most names, dates-anything to do with numbers, did not stick with me very well. And I always thought that history was so boring! All those names and dates, of people and places that I couldn't relate to.
But, before my mother died, she was working on some family history with thoughts of getting into the DAR. At that time, she corresponded with a woman from North Carolina who was writing a book that included my mother's family, the Miles side. Mrs. Ross sent my mother a copy of her grandmother's journal kept just before, during, and shortly after the Civil War until the author died at age 29. My mother made me read it! And then I read it twice more. My mother said it sounded just like me writing. And, as I read, I could just see the places, the people, and their activities. The journal, kept by Margaret Josephine Miles Gillis, is now in the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Josephine was a sister to my great-grandfather, James DeGraffenreid Miles. And James D. Miles was the father of my grandfather, James DeGraffenreid Miles Jr. The one who limped and who lovingly polished the sword.
After my mother died, I realized that there was a lot that had not been done. I decided to label the old family pictures, and the project has grown into an effort to preserve, gather, and write our family history.
With some research, I realized that it was my great-grandfather who had been a Captain in the 7th Texas Infantry during the Civil War, not his son who came to visit us. My grandfather was much too young to have been in the Civil War! And, due to his knees, he was not able to serve in the military.
As to his knees, my younger cousin, Linda, told me a couple of years ago, that she understood that he limped because of a boyhood accident while cutting wood with an axe. And that is all we know about that.
My mother didn't seem to know, or maybe I just asked her on another day when she was thinking about something else, or just wanted to get rid of a whiney little girl.
I still wish that I had at least a picture of "the sword". I thought I could draw it or paint it, but I just cannot remember the handle. It didn't have a scabbard when we had it. But one was added later, probably by my uncle. The one he found didn't fit right, as I understand it, since it was not made for the sword.
In my drawing above, Grandpa Miles is polishing his father's Civil War sword while sitting on our couch. Beside him on the couch, I have shown the side of the pendulum clock that he is going to work on next. A can of polish and a can of oil for the clock are on the floor.
You know, I never dreamed that it would not be a good idea to take a sword to school. Sure, I thought that my mother would not want me to take it, just because she would worry that it might get lost or damaged. Not that anyone could be hurt. I only thought that grown men, possibly on horses, would be strong enough to do any damage with a sword. It didn't even seem to be very sharp to me. I guess it didn't have to be really sharp, but I didn't know that as a child.
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