Roger Zelazny had a series of books based on the idea that there were two realities in the Universe, Amber and Chaos. Everything else that stretched between Amber and Chaos was a shadow of one or the other.
Amber is meant to be that one reality, a reality where thought, study and rational discussion help us understand our lives…because without the study of the past and the Universe, we are left with Chaos, where anything goes….
So welcome to Amber…and I hope you contribute your own thoughts to what is written here…and enjoy the lives I present of those who came before!
Billy and Me
In 2001, I found it necessary to go with my wife to visit a Shaman for a soul retrieval. The theory behind soul retrieval is that when a person undergoes a trauma, their soul is split, and often does not come back together. The Shaman attempts to contact the shattered pieces of ones soul and bring them back, to form a whole.
Certainly, I felt I had undergone more than one trauma. Over the past ten years, I had lost three jobs, been out of work for a year and a half, descended into a grand funk, culminating in the divorce of the woman with whom I had been with for close to 22 years. She was my best friend, the woman who I considered to be the person who was closest to me than anyone else, and did not deserve the divorce, but my life was in a tailspin, and I felt that I needed to change my life, somehow…to go into another direction. So I divorced my wife, and sought something new.
I found a job in Illinois, a change of place, and a new start…I had a woman friend, who was also willing to seek a new life, so I invited her to come along. She was eager. I did not love her, but maybe a relationship would develop, and at least I would know someone in Illinois for the few months it took me to get settled. Maybe in six months, she would get a job and move on, or not. It did not matter to me.
Six months later she was diagnosed with cancer. She had no medical insurance, and I was not uncaring of her, so I married her. I thought she would either get better, or die…I did not think that it would take her ten years to die, ten horrible, painful, mind-numbing years with trips to the hospital in the middle of the night, changing her bandages twice a day to stop the bleeding, etc. etc.
So, it did not seem untoward to seek Shamanistic help. Both of us felt that it might give us some insight into why both our lives were tending so far downwards.
The soul retrieval was interesting, and I think it did some good. However, with respect to this account, there was one feature that stood out. The Shaman, a young woman named Jaes, a very well-known Shamen from Wisconsin, told me that there was someone watching over my life, a 19th century gentleman, with a beard, who had taken an interest with me, and was guiding my life, as well as he could. I knew immediate who this gentleman was…because I had been involved with his life for close to ten years up until that point, and still am.
Billy Merritt was a Civil War soldier, a poet, having written over 100 poems. He raised ponies, was known locally as the Bard of Pony Hill and was one of those in our nation who first made their fortunes in oil, working himself up in the Pennsylvania oil fields to the point where he owned many wells, and was worth a hundred thousand dollars or so.
Billy’s time-line ended in 1926, and that should have been it for Billy Merritt, as the memory of his life faded from the memories of those who knew him. Yet, that was not the end of the story. If you believe the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that energy ever dies, but only changes form, whatever remnants of Billy’s life that was floating around in the Universe somehow connected with my time line in 1983, on a very hot July 4th day on the Battlefield of Gettysburg. Why or how this occurred, I can’t begin to imagine. Whatever the reason, Billy has been a strong part of my life since that date. This is both of our stories, and the reason for this blog…somehow, I have a need to tell the stories of these people from the past. I hope it is something that all you can appreciate.
My obsession with this man’s life, and Jaes’ revelation that someone who might be this man might have some sort of spiritual interest in me, raises many questions in my mind relating to the nature of the Universe and our soul. A rational person might suggest that there is no evidence of a connection between my interest in this man’s life, and Jaes’ revelation; that it is mere coincidence, fueled by an emotional obsession, and has no relationship to reality.
My problem with that point of view is the notion that rationality describes reality, and emotion does not. To me, that is a prejudice, one that cannot be proven, and thus is an article of faith by those who worship the God of rational thought.
To me, it is just as possible that our spirit speaks to the world and the Universe. I don’t ‘know’ this, in the sense that I have direct cognition of this fact. I ‘know’ it in the sense of having experience with it, though my experience is limited. I cannot say, for sure, that I have seen ghosts, but I have slept on many Civil War battlefields, and have had a sense of other presences. I can walk in the woods in my native Catskill Mountains, and ‘feel’ the presence of those who lived there before…while I can take the same walk in other places and not have the same feeling. There is something I am sensing that I cannot describe. Whether it is ‘real’ or not I do not know, but to reject it because I do not understand it would be against my nature.
This account is the story of this gentleman’s life, of my journey to discover his presence, and it begins at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on a very hot day on July 2, 1981.
My meeting with Bill Merritt occurred, appropriately, near the spot where he participated in his greatest feat of arms, near Devil’s Den, at the Battlefield of Gettysburg. I was visiting the battlefield as part of a family reunion; my wife, Carrie, and I had driven up from Pennsylvania, where I was working, my sister, Sue, had driven up from Washington, D.C. with her husband, Tom, and my other sister, Judy, had driven with her husband, Gary, and two children, Georgia and Max. Few of these family members really were that interested in the battlefield, but it was a good central place to meet, with things.
For me, however, this was one of those experiences that one remembers for a lifetime. Imagine spending your life reading about fantastic events, and then, suddenly, realizing that those events were, in fact, real…to walk in the places where I had enjoyed only in my imagination, as if suddenly I had been transported to Alice’s Wonderland. In many ways, it was unreal.
Part of the lore of the original battle of Gettysburg was the heat, and it was hot this day of July 2, 1981. It was easy to imagine the suffering of the men on that hot day, having to march and fight in woolen uniforms with temperatures in the high 80’s and low 90’s. Not a breeze was stirring, and the sound was muted by the heat, despite the many tourists, cars and buses that flowed around the battlefield.
I was standing on the hill called Little Round Top, the scene of much of the legend that this battle generated. It was from here that General Warren was supposed to have looked South, and saw movement that was not supposed to be there. He asked an officer in charge of the cannon placed on that hill, the only combat unit that was there, to send a shell to the South and, from that, noticed the shining of the sun off of bayonets, as the enemy looked to the sound of the shot, and realized that the Union line was flanked. It was from Little Round Top that Joshua, in charge of the 20th Maine regiment, posted on the far left of the Union Line, withstood attack after attack by the enemy, attempting to turn the flank of the line at this point, and repelled them. The blood shed on this hill was supposed to have been so thick that it flowed down the hill in streams.
This hill flows down into a small valley, at the bottom of which is, during the Spring, a small stream called Plum Run, then rises again to a ridge called Houck’s Ridge. This ridge runs Northwest to Southeast, and at the Southeast end is a rocky outcrop called Devil’s Den…and it was from this hill that I saw a small group of blue-clad men marching down the side of the ridge into the Plum Run Valley, a scene that was to change my life.
Imagine how surreal this felt to me, standing on this hill of legend, on this day that mirrored the conditions one hundred and eighteen years before at almost the same time as thousands were trying to kill each other…and to see a line of Union soldiers marching down that ridge. I am not so foolish as to have believed that the two events were, in fact, coincident, but there was a moment of unreality associated with the event that I shall never forget. I asked the guard who they were, and he told me that they were Civil War reenactors, visiting on this weekend that commemorated the days of the Battle. I had never heard of Civil War reenactors, and I was intrigued.
My next shock occurred within the next half-hour, as we got into the car and rode down the hill towards Devil’s Den. The road goes down the hill from Little Round Top, past the monument to the stand of the 20th Maine, and comes to a T, the point where the Confederate 15th Arkansas regiment formed to attack the position of the 20th Maine on that fatal day. Turning left exits the park, and turning right crosses between Big Round Top and Little Round Top towards Plum Run. Turning left heads towards a winding road that heads up the Southeast edge of Houck’s Ridge, Devil’s Den.
Devil’s Den was the site of some of the most vicious fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg. Here, elements of Ward’s Brigade of the Union III Corps fought off an entire Confederate Corps for an hour and a half. It is composed of huge blocks of stone, that served little for concealment, but were hard to climb and thus made it difficult to assault. At the peak of the Ridge, as it fell into the Southern end of the Plum Run Valley, the hill slopes down in a small pasture, walled off by triangular stone walls, called ‘The Triangular Field.” It was across this field, up the hill towards the top of Devil’s Den, that the Confederate 1st Texas charged three times into the face of cannon and infantry fire, to finally take the position. Today, at the top of the hill, is a monument to the regiment which faced the 1st Texas, the 124th New York Volunteers, from Orange County, New York.
That was my shock. I grew up in the area of Orange County, New York. These were my men…it had never occurred to me, in my years of interest in the Civil War, in my voluminous reading of the Civil War, that there was a connection between where I lived and Gettysburg…that the ancestors of my neighbors and friends had fought and died here, and that I, in the course of that, had a connection to Gettysburg. I remember little about the rest of the day, except the ferment in my mind, and the need to find out some way of discovering more about the role of Orange County in the Battle of Gettysburg. I had to know what happened there, and had no idea how to find out.
My third shock came that night. I was sitting in a diner, in the town of Gettysburg, talking with my sisters. My sisters are as different as night and day; Judy is very refined, very controlled, one of the best mothers I have ever seen, sharp and efficient. My sister Sue is spontaneous; one never knows what she is going to do. She is the rebel of the two, and has forged her own, unique, life out of her skills and acquaintances.
Thus, it was not unexpected that I was talking to Judy about my thoughts about getting into reenacting, when Sue saw, out of the window, three reenactors walking down the sidewalk. Sue immediately jumped up, ran out, and grabbed one of them, dragging him into the diner so he could talk to me about reenacting. The shock came when he identified himself as belonging to the 124th New York reenacting group.
Imagine the string of coincidences that had led me to that point. I saw this same group of guys walking while I was standing on that hill, I then discovered the 124th monument, and then my sister grabs three of them, of all the reenactment groups in Gettysburg at the time, to talk to me. I obviously had little choice in this matter. I got the information necessary and told them I would be back in touch with them as soon as I got my uniform and gun.
There are many who will suggest that this is just that, coincidence, a random collection of events artificially collected to prove a particular point. I couldn’t argue, rationally, with this point of view. It could, in fact, be true.
On the other hand, it is hard for me not to accept that something was moving me in a direction. The Universe has this habit of nudging you, nudging you again and, if you don’t listen, the Universe will hit you over the head. In this case, the Universe was providing me a path of least resistance, a means of accomplishing something I had had very much wanted to do, even though the thought had not entered my mind that I could. Reenacting was to be a focus of my life for fifteen years.
In search of billy merritt
Why the Civil War? Why have I spent close to 50 years in fascination with that period of American History? To begin to answer that, I give you a quote from Bruce Catton, the most readable historian of that war, because he was able to bring out the nobility and glory of that war:
“. . .the Civil War is not a closed chapter in our dusty past. It is one of the great datum points in American history; a place from which we can properly measure the dimensions of almost everything that has happened to us since. With its lights and its shadows, its rights and its wrongs, its heroic highlights and its tragic overtones — it was not an ending but a beginning. . . .It opened an era instead of closing one; and it left us, finally, not with something completed, but with a bit of unfinished business which is of very lively concern today and which will continue to be of lively concern after all of us have been gathered to our fathers. Forget the swords-and-roses aspect, the deep sentimental implications, the gloss of romance; here was something to be studied, to be prayed over, and at last to be lived up to.”
– from Bruce Catton, “America Goes To War.”
And then I give you a quote from Grace Slick, leader singer of the 1960’s Acid Rock group, the Jefferson Airplane, from her autobiography:
My childhood desire to wear costumes and travel back in time lied nothing to do with being unloved. It wasn’t about having a dysfunctional family or abandonment issues or domestic violence or obsessive/compulsive disorder or “de Nile” or “adickshun” or . . . yawn. It had to do with aesthetics. The way things looked to me, the way they sounded, the way they felt.
I don’t think I ever really self-identified as being part of the 20th century. To my mind, the 19th century’s values and goals were more meaningful to me than what I could possibly strive for in today’s world. The book I remembered most from my childhood was Ernest Thomas Seton’s “Two Little Savages, about Two boys build a teepee in the woods and learn how to make a fire without matches, navigate by the stars, blaze trails, read animal tracks, and perform other practical skills. As a child, I spent a good part of my time with my friend, Tommy, in the woods, learning (without much guidance or skill) to track, build traps, sleeping out and hunting each other in mock battles where the winner went “Bang” indicating he had found the other before the other found him.