Beowulf Means Bear

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Bayeaux Tapestry

In an ancient incarnation I taught english composition to college freshmen and sophomores at Lassen College.  I had all kinds of theories about how to deliver the information, how to haze these kids into communicating information by means of pen and paper, and the mere thoughts in their head–and how to do it well.  I started each semester by trying to explain to them that languages are living things, that they evolve, like the course of rivers in flood or drouth, or the shape of a mountain, and that how we understand things is pinioned to the language we use when describing them.

I gave a short course on history and the movements of people, and the effects of migration and war and politics on the fluidity of languages.  A very short course indeed.  And I would wrap this up, praying to the almighty hoevens that I was getting their attention, by asking how many of them had read Beowulf.  Most had, which was a rare victory for public schooling and western civilization, even if they couldn’t remember what it was about or had actually taken much from it.

So I would write Beowulf on the chalkboard and ask them to tell me what it meant.  The guesses were wild and fun where they weren’t just bored and compelled, but since I had learned early to teach to the middle of the class, holding desperately onto the edges and outliers, I’d write the guesses up on the wall and use the word to illustrate, I hoped, how languages change.

And in case you didn’t know, I’ll do it here:

Beo=bee

Wulf=wolf

And what is a bee wolf?  It’s a bear, every fan of Winnie the Pooh knows this.

I could do this all day, largely because I am a language nerd but also because it is revealing and interesting and maybe parts the curtains slightly for a look out into the ancient past and where we have come from.  And when you get in the habit of doing that, parting those curtains, the temptation is always to jump through the window entirely.  So.

Occasionally something comes along that is so good, so fresh, so evolutionary it punches right through the hard bars of institutional inertia, that aery and invisible cage that settles softly around our collective body, so softly we may not even notice it except where we try to squeeze through and just don’t fit.  That’s a flowery way to get to my point, which is that Paul Kingsnorth has written a book, The Wake, which breaks every conceivable rule of writing and publishing and shatters the cage entirely, and magnificently, and perhaps without peer.

He has created his own language in this book, a rough conglomeration of Old English reckonings and patois and spelling, of historical accuracy and speculation, and brought it together in a story of Buccmaster of holland, a farmer on the edge of the holt in the aftermath of 1066, and the Norman invasion.

It is a difficult book, not for sissies.  In other words, it takes some work to earn its magic, to learn and to feel the language, but the magic is real and intense and the payoff is experiential in a way that books seldom are.  It is also cinematic.  The book is so good, so powerful, it is likely to ruin my sleep pattern for a while, as I sit up late into the night occupying the mind and visions of a man from our ancient past who is struggling with the loss of everything he has known.  Here is Mark Rylance, whose turn as Cromwell in the PBS series Wolf Hall was an epic of perfection in itself, reading from the opening lines:

And all of this put me in the mind of the 13th Warrior, which contains a scene where the exiled Arab ambassador, who has encountered and joined with the Northmen, learns to speak their language.

So that’s it.  The languages are out there for us to learn, and Kingsnorth’s novel is so good, its demands so fair and the payoff so large, in my humble estimation, it is very much a “Wrecker of Mead Benches,” as Seamus Heaney translates the ancient description of the dragon in Beowulf.  And I mean that in the best possible connotation, because the book shows us what is still possible with our language if we tear it apart and rebuild it, or if we are willing to do just a very little work and learn something new about it.  And so the question for us:  where do we take it from here?

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The End of Baseball

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All That is Wrong in the World

Here I go again, down the road of melodrama and romantic subjects no one should write about, but I can’t help myself.  I’m in a rage.  I’m so damn mad I can’t even work up a spit.  See, friends, the suited, perfumed, airy, pencil-necks who rule the game of baseball from their ivory towers, that weird crowd of bankers and lawyers and track-suited derelicts who sell the television contracts and wear heaps of body jewelry, in public, have decided to ruin baseball.

They are putting the game on the clock.

The beauty of baseball, for this fan, has always been its defiance of time.  No clocks.  Play until somebody wins.  No ties.  Game too long?  Don’t care.  4 pitching changes in one half of an inning?  Good, that’s the heart of the game.  The batter takes forty seven minutes between each pitch to adjust his batting gloves?  He’s a jerk-off and a narcissist, but I can live with it.  Baseball exists–should exist–in a parallel universe where the concerns of psychotic clock chasers and time crunchers can go to hell.

At least it is supposed too.

This season MLB is continuing their incremental destruction of the game by putting managers on the clock.  No more long, dramatic walks out to the mound to pat a pitcher on the butt and take his ball, no more group hugs on the rubber because the closer just loaded the bases and Billy Bob isn’t quite warmed up in the pen.  Nope, that’s over.  Now the manager has to run out there, say everything that is important really fast, and sprint back to the dugout.  He will be timed.  And that’s just the beginning.  Down in AAA they have been experimenting with the idea of putting pitchers on a clock too, a big NASA style countdown clock hanging behind home plate and, no doubt, somewhere out in the power alleys.  No more scratching, spitting, digging a fighting hole on the mound, shaking off signs, having a conference with the catcher, looking over your shoulder to make certain the shortstop isn’t asleep.  Over.  Just wind up and fire, because it will give the titheads at ESPN something else to grind up three hours of television in meaningless debate.

First, they stuck us with inter-league play, a tragedy, then instant replay, and now these geniuses have completely capitulated to the idea of timing the game.  They are going to the clock, and they are going to hell.

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The Abomination of Desolation

I shouldn’t be surprised.  Nothing is sacred anymore, and baseball purists like me are dinosaurs staring up at that weird, blooming light in the sky.  We just can’t understand what is hurling toward us through space.

But I do know why they keep doing this stuff.  I just don’t have to like it.

Television.

First, it trained a few generations of people to have no attention span, and then it went to work on the last game that actually demands an attention span, and an embrace of those things particularly human that don’t require the artificial pressure of time.  All of this portends pure evil and ties in, somehow, to the popularity of Donald Trump and the “You are a poopyhead” debates we now enjoy for the right to lead the free world.  A clock in baseball?  The world is upside down and inside out.

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A few years ago I had the privilege of playing adult league hardball, down in Santa Barbara.  I played for the Santa Barbara Whalers, and it was the most fun I have had as an adult.  Grown men begging for ice in the dugout (which my wife, attentive as always, would fetch from the nearest store), eating geedunk and Spitz and chewing tobacco and hollering from the benches for the opposing pitcher to quit on his lame curveball.

The league was solid, if old.  We had geezers who blew their hamstrings running out an infield ground ball, guys who couldn’t pitch, strikeout artists and home run hitters who fixed your plumbing by day, and folks whose warmups lasted longer than a Yankees-Red Sox game in September.  What brought us together was a love of pure hardball, real baseball, 9 on 9, and we played hard, and we played to win.  The Whalers were mostly cops, a couple of start-up computer cats from Goleta, plumbers, construction guys, or lawyers.  Our manager was a cop and a baseball fanatic to the very end.  He will play baseball anywhere, from San Quentin to Cuba, and that is the definition of a fanatic.

I don’t hit for power.  I’m a singles hitter all the way.  But my brother played on this team too, and if you have never understood the power of baseball to inform and enrich the rights of brotherhood, then you have never understood the genius of George Carlin.

I had precious few games in that season, recovering from a car wreck and any number of personal tragedies, precious little time to play baseball with my younger brother–we were separated by too many years to ever play on the same teams as kids–but nothing can replace playing with him, not anything, not the honor of warming up with my kid brother who imitated batting stances with me on the lawn of our parents’ ranch in the high desert.  Nothing can replace that chance.  And he had become a good player, a grown man who hits for power, and could launch a ball 450 feet against shaky pitching without blinking an eye.

The important part is this:  he was my brother, and nothing will ever be better in my life than getting a bloop single into left field, taking second on an error, and seeing my younger brother come up to bat.  I knew what he could do, knew it in my bones.  I’d known it for years.  With a lead off second, I had nothing but confidence.  And he had such insouciance.  I’m a hack, a singles hitter who keeps making it to second base, but he is an athlete.  And so watching him step into the box was a gospel moment for me, and it didn’t let me down.

Because in baseball, you just know.

And we had the baseball blessing, once, for him to drive a solid double against the fence, despite playing the game with a bum shoulder and bad knees, to drive that ball into the wall and send me, his older, hamstrung and difficult, brother, home.  There is nothing as pure as that kind of baseball moment:  hundreds of miles from your natural home town, playing ball on the same team against strangers, to get on base and to get sent home safely by your brother.  Because in baseball, you can live that dream.

And so the chance to play on the same field, to share the diamond in a pastoral game without clocks, just brothers taking swings without the contrivances of the screeching world around us, as grown men, when his own children were just starting little league, drives straight into my marrow, like an iron bolt, and I will go to my death cherishing those precious few innings we shared on the field, bound by blood and something more, something our parents gave us:  appreciation for a game that transcends the meaningless howls and jarring ticks of the hour and second hands of a meaningless, bothersome, and entirely bankrupt, clock.

 

Where Are You Newberry, Where Have You Gone?

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Bravo Company Raiders, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines.  “Big Wave, Little Boat”

*This piece originally appeared in The Nugget News, February 24, 2016

Next month I have the distinct privilege of traveling to Arizona with Sisters-based Warfighter Outfitters, and the occasion has caused me to think deeply about my service, and some of the larger characters who inhabited that world.

I was a Marine, with Bravo Company 1/1, deployed twice to the Persian Gulf, and those men are among the greatest friends I will ever know. I am in touch with many of them, but it is some of the others I am thinking about now, those characters who have faded as the world turned and we rotated out, but who left an imprint forever stamped in my mind.

I think instantly of Newberry.

Lance Corporal Newberry was a liberty risk. Everyone knew this. In a world of rigid discipline, where young Marines were routinely made to bear-crawl up the steep hills of Camp Pendleton, or run repeatedly up even steeper hills to sit under “The Tree of Knowledge,” or to cover and align woodchips in front of the barracks, or to stand barefooted in the commode, wearing a gas mask and a flak jacket while singing the Marines’ Hymn under a fusillade of darts, Newberry’s tireless and smiling accumulation of derelictions found him most often confined to quarters, doing thousands of pushups in “incentive training” sessions, or pulling an endless series of 24-hour guard mounts around Camp Horno.

In an environment where conformity is demanded, and “instant and willing obedience to orders” is both expected and enforced, it was precisely Newberry’s good-natured refusal to take anything seriously that made him beloved by all, even those whose unfortunate job it was to discipline him for yet another smiling rebuke or insouciant refusal in the face of Company Punishment or the UCMJ.

Newberry was anything but stupid. He was incredibly intelligent. He wasn’t lazy, either. He worked as hard as anyone, and given his extra duties one might argue he worked much harder. He wasn’t smug, or openly defiant, he wasn’t a malcontent sewing disorder, and he wasn’t a criminal masquerading in uniform. He was, simply, Newberry.

Newberrys are never made. They are simply born.

Newberry hailed from the deep South. Alabama, or Mississippi, or perhaps it was Georgia. I can’t remember. I do remember his bright smile and his constantly sunny disposition, the eternal glow on his shoulders even in the course of a disciplinary moment. He was simply full of “Yes, Sergeants,” and “Yes, Sirs,” and would salute crisply before moving on to ignore or egregiously violate every order thrown his way.

Dateline: Singapore. On our second forward deployment to the Gulf, we made a liberty call in Singapore. We were given the obligatory speeches and warnings and orders to avoid the off-limits areas.

Naturally, Newberry disappeared immediately. He returned to the ship only at the last possible moment, his foot in a cast, and his head stapled from eyebrow to earlobe. He was immediately hauled to the Company Office, somewhere in the superstructure of the USS Peleliu, for office hours.

The reports are largely unreliable, but the word that filtered down to us – Newberry-lovers all – was that Newberry had responded, when asked what had happened to him, and where he had been, with a simple answer: “I was off-limits, and I was attacked by Ninjas,” he said.

Whether or not Newberry was attacked by Ninjas we will never know for certain, but that answer, which could only be true, elevated him instantly to legendary status.

In the Marine Corps, a Sergeant Major sits somewhere close to God Almighty. And he has earned that post. And I was there when the MEU Sergeant Major toured our berthing space, sometime after the Ninja attack, chatting with the young Marines, and happened by the disaster of Newberry’s rack. Newberry had taken the occasion of his convalescence to forget he was even a Marine. The Sgt. Major passed Newberry’s rack as though he hadn’t seen it, then stopped, took three steps backward, and loudly demanded that Newberry present himself.

Newberry crawled out of his rack, bearded, casted, stapled, and wearing a Navy Engineer’s jumpsuit. He stood front and center, solid as Gibralter.

“Marine!” the Sergeant Major demanded loudly, freezing the entire port side of a gigantic warship. “Just who do you think you are?”

And then, in the arctic silence that had fallen over the tight confines of our berthing space, an echoing, terrible, demanding silence that coated all of us with hoarfrost, Newberry said quietly, securely, with a southern accent and without pause: “Johnny Cash.”

And so next month I will travel to Arizona with my fellow veterans. I look forward to this trip with something much beyond eagerness, because we all knew our own Newberrys, maybe some part of us, sometimes, wished we were him, and maybe some part of us still does. But wherever we assemble from, we took an oath once, for the Newberrys of this world, and for something bigger than just ourselves.

**Update:  within hours of this column’s original publication, Newberry was actually located.  He is back in his home state of Tennessee–the one state I left out of my guesswork.  This magic was accomplished via The Book of Face, and serves as proof that the “Lance Corporal Network” is still in high gear.  It also says something terrific about the Marine Corps brotherhood.  He even wrote to The Nugget thanking us for this column about him.  I have received a personal message from his girlfriend, as well, who assures me that Johnny Cash is doing fantastic, and hasn’t changed a bit.  What a strange, small world it is.  And that, my friends, is a truly happy ending.

Early Bird

This morning I have received my first “Dry Gulch Project” submission, and I can tell you that it is fabulous.  It’s funny, it’s short, and it introduces a fabulous new player to the ensemble.  Get after it, Chroniclers, the competition will be stiff.  And fun.  Wouldn’t it be something if we could make a thing out of this?  Jim Cornelius suggests, and I think rightly, that we should pull an illustrator on board.  He has one in mind, and if we do our part, why couldn’t we make a book that resonates?

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In other news, I spent two hours this afternoon with the horses, attending their various complaints, and working in a warm sunlight in the corrals.  I don’t care who you are, if you haven’t curried a shedding horse in the bleak heat in the afternoon, and talked sweet nothings into their ears, you haven’t lived.  And I don’t care if you’ve climbed Everest.

Things are shaping up to be busy, folks, and I promise nothing, but I will share this with you, because you need to see it, and perhaps better, to close your eyes and simply feel it.  Enjoy, and I will be back tomorrow:

The Dry Gulch Project

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The real-life Black Bart

When I was kid, and we were visiting my grandparents in Hollywood, my grandfather told bedtime stories.  These weren’t your run-of-the-mill, get the kids to sleep, halfhearted stabs at storytelling.  They were, in fact, an interconnected serial of considerable complexity, and interest, full of plot twists and jokes and three dimensional characters.  The series was named after the stories’  mythical setting:  the town of “Dry  Gulch.”  As good stories do, the Dry Gulch stories, and the cast of characters, have stayed with me through the decades since I last heard one, and spawned an inside-baseball kind of humor between me and my sister in our adult life.

My grandfather was in advertising, meaning he started in that business with the Caples Company, and ultimately started his own firm, with a partner, in Los Angeles after the war.  Rullman & Munger was a going concern for many decades, and they counted plenty of heavy-hitters in their portfolio.  I doubt sincerely that it resembled Mad Men, that grand television epic, my grandfather being far too much of the midwestern sensibility, but I’m certain they had their share of fun, and I can remember running amok in their offices, on the top floor of the Lincoln Savings building in LA, when I was very young.

It was on these visits, when my sister and I stayed with Russ and Jean–by some strange family convention we always called our grandparents by their first names–that Russ would put us to bed with a Dry Gulch rendition.  I don’t know where he got all of this, if he was borrowing from some other place, or if it was all his own creation, but whatever the origin, they were terrific stories, brilliantly told.

Every story, eagerly anticipated, even demanded well before bedtime, started the same way, delivered in character, with the bedroom lights off, and my grandfather’s voice carrying us instantly away.  When we were quiet and still, Russ would begin slowly, deliberately:  “Once upon a time, a long time ago, in the town of Dry Gulch, everybody was sitting around in the saloon, when all of a sudden, guess who walked in?”  And then Russ would pause, giving us the chance to offer up a name, for we knew the characters as well as we knew our schoolmates.  And we were inevitably wrong.  But whoever walked into the saloon came with an announcement, a declaration, a complaint, or a question, and we were off on a story that never failed to please.

The principle inhabitants of Dry Gulch were as follows:

Sheriff Milquetoast–it was understood that the Sheriff was a tremendous guy, but generally too soft for the position, and in the habit of letting the bad guy go free, in order to sneak back to the saloon for another sarsaparilla.

Deputy Blister–an overweight bungler who frequently left the jail door unlocked and danced with his mop.

Mrs. McGillicuddy–a temperance woman, severely dressed, disinclined to humor, who frequently blew into the saloon with an axe and chopped up the bar.  Generally reviled.

Black Bart–my personal favorite, he was a well dressed bandit who serially robbed the stagecoach and was forever pursued by Sheriff Milquetoast.  Occasionally, in better times, he could be found in the saloon.

Tiger Teagarten–young gunfighter, he only used his pistolas when it was just, and his showdowns with Black Bart at high noon were continually thwarted by a kind of bedtime story deus ex machina, which was Russ putting an ellipses on the story and saying go to sleep.

Iron Fist Ike–brawler, handyman, jovial malcontent.

The Rubber Man–a strange, superhero type figure who had the ability to stretch himself into bizarre contortions, or to elongate, or become a bouncing ball in the dusty streets of Dry Gulch.

The Silver Man–a shadowy figure who lived on a mining claim in the hills outside of Dry Gulch.

Bartender Bob–ran the saloon, naturally, and was mortally afraid of McGillicuddy.  He was famous for pouring a generous sarsaparilla, and his enormous mustache.  He was frequently in the act of repairing some portion of the saloon.

Indian Joe–lived in town and was often employed in tracking Black Bart, when he wasn’t under suspicion for having robbed the bank or the stage himself.  Was unsurpassed in his use of the bow and arrow, and was generally well-liked.

Banker Bob–no relation to the bartender, was unfortunately married to McGillicuddy.  A nervous, sweaty, fidgety sort who was always overdressed for the perpetual heat of Dry Gulch.

There were other, walk-on parts, but this is the cast as I remember it, and with such an ensemble Russ was able to string together many nights of madcap adventure, of stage robberies and bank heists, of missing silver hordes and temperance parades, indian raids, town fires, jail escapes, thwarted hangings, the entire gamut of western noire told with a sense of humor and in a perfect radio theater voice that never failed to send me off into a sleep where my dreams ran wild.

In many ways they still do, in no small part due to this early inculcation in Dry Gulch mythology, a town which never grows, or shrinks, or is discovered by modernity.

And so, dear readers, I would like to offer you an opportunity to become a part of The Dry Gulch Project.  I’m encouraging each of you, who finds yourself interested, to submit a Dry Gulch story to the Bunkhouse Chronicle.  Send them to my email on the contact page.  I will publish the best that I get in this prestigious forum.  These stories should seek to ride that line between a child’s impressionable mind and an adult’s sense of humor.  It’s a challenge.

Here are the rules:  each story must start with the obligatory, and aforementioned, opening line.  You must use the characters above, as suits the story, or invent a compelling new resident who fits the general mold.  Keep the story short.  Be funny.  Solve a crime, commit a crime, solve a mystery, or tell a long joke.  Whatever works.

That’s it.  Give it a shot.  Let’s see if we can’t bring something round to preserve the heritage of that magnificent town, it’s even better inhabitants, and perhaps find a way to send the legacy forward a few more generations.

A Dying Man, Afraid of the Dark

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Wayne, as J.B. Books

Last night we had the pleasure of rewatching “The Shootist”.  Most of you probably know that this film, released in 1976, was John Wayne’s last picture, filmed at a time when he had already lost several ribs and his entire left lung to cancer.  At the time, doctors thought that Wayne might have been cured, but three years later the disease returned with a vengeance, and took his life.

On the scale of things, The Shootist is not that old of a movie, but today it watches that way, which I don’t suggest as a condemnation.  I like it that way.  Maybe it feels aged simply because the top half of my hourglass is running lighter, or maybe it’s because the writing and dialogue and the acting still carry a particular kind of dignity, a sense of humor and tailored wit that seems largely absent from modern films.

If you are not familiar, the movie is about the final days of an aging frontiersman, lawman, and gunfighter, John Bernard Books, played by The Duke.  He is dying from terminal cancer, and takes a room at Bond Rogers’ (Lauren Bacall) boarding house in Carson City.  Bond has a son, young Gillom, played by a young Ron Howard.  It is 1901, well past the wild and woolly days of the frontier, and because of this Books’ presence in town is resented by many, including the Sheriff, where it isn’t celebrated by others who can see a profit in his death amongst them.

Those are the broad strokes, and I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it.

I think it’s the Duke’s finest performance.  There is danger in that, but there is also no way to separate his life outside the role from the role itself.  Wayne simply is the aging frontiersman, lawman, and gunfighter, a dying man who finds himself at a turn in history, where his caste and type are fading into memory.  There is an interesting moment in this behind the scenes interview with Wayne where he comes very close to acknowledging it.  He is speaking about how violence is portrayed in film.  “It’s not that there’s more violence in today’s pictures,” he says wistfully, “It’s that it’s done with such bad taste.”

And I think that is one of the great takeaways from this movie.  Books’ relationship with young Gillom Rogers is a reflection of that view, and Books is at great pains to make young Gillom learn the difference between gratuitous stupidity and violence as a last resort.

One of the other great takeaways, at least for this writer, is a moment between Books and Bond Rogers.  It comes about midway through the movie, when Books is sitting down for breakfast and Bond tries once again to herd him into church, and to see what she considers the evil and error of his unrepentant ways.  Books pushes back, and Rogers drives even harder, damning him, until Books, in full retreat, finally tells her that his past, however full of violence and things abhorrent to her nature, is unimportant now, that he is “Just a dying man, afraid of the dark.”  It is one of the finest moments I have ever seen in a movie.  And I think it resonates so well because it carries with it undertones of their own lives outside of film, a sense that they are confronting certain realities of their personal lives.  Wayne, who lobbied hard for the role, likely knowing it was his last film, and caring greatly about his legacy, is making a loud statement, and Bacall, perhaps railing in grief at Bogart, who had also died of cancer.  The scene is simply mesmerizing.

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Bacall and Wayne, on set

As an actor, it is hard to believe that John Wayne could have conceived of a better role to inhabit for the capstone of his career, and selfishly, for so many of us who followed him around that imaginary frontier in movie after movie.  The final scenes of the film are extremely moving, when one considers that it was, simply, The Duke’s last gunfight, and a brief reappearance of Jimmy Stewart, who plays Doc Hostetler, at the batwing doors of the saloon, is simply moviemaking rapture.

They don’t make movies like this anymore, where a man can say without irony, without being mocked or buried under a baggage train of cultural gobbledygook, Books’ classic takeaway line:  “I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a-hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”

From Khartoum to Khiva

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A Young Frederick Burnaby

Over the last few weeks I have fallen down the rabbit hole of The Great Game era, that monumental struggle for empire in Central Asia, which has left for us a record of scheming, fighting, adventuring, spying, and personal heroics perhaps without parallel.  This gigantic contest, principally between Russia and the British Empire, which I knew precious little about, has sucked me in like a jet engine.

Enter:  Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, of the Royal Horse Guards, son of a country parson, writer, hot air balloon adventurer–he was the first to cross the English Channel that way–and strong man.  At 6’4, 210, it was said that Burnaby was strong enough to hold a billiard cue between his middle and index fingers, horizontally, “his arm fully extended and the butt end steady.”  He was fluent in seven languages including Russian, Turkish, and Arabic, and he had a mind for adventure.

As an officer of the Horse Guards, Burnaby enjoyed nearly half the year on leave, and in his spare time he served as a special correspondent for The Times of London, which afforded him the opportunity to sail up the Nile and interview Gordon in Khartoum, in better times, before Gordon became embroiled in his last desperate fight against the Mahdi and his Dervishes.  And it would be on a relief mission to Khartoum, to rescue the besieged General Gordon, some years later, that Burnaby would also meet his end.

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But my interest in Burnaby is for the trip that made his famous, an unauthorized trip from St. Petersburg to the Khanate of Khiva, east of the Caspian Sea.  At the time of this epic adventure, Mother Russia was closed to British Officers who, it was feared, could only be acting to stir up trouble in the Khanates.

Burnaby went anyway, and in St. Petersburg was somehow granted approval to travel through Russia, so long as he stayed in Russian territory and did not attempt to stray into the tempestuous Khanate.  Despite repeated warnings, and the certain knowledge that other Englishmen had been imprisoned, and in some cases executed, for similar escapades in the greater region, he pressed on, traveling by rail and by troika until he reached Orenburg.  In Orenburg he hired a Muslim servant and horses, and in the terrible winter of 1876 travelled 600 miles–by sleigh–to the Russian fortress town of Kazala.  On this leg of his journey he nearly lost both hands to frostbite after falling asleep ungloved, and was only able to save them with the help of some friendly Cossacks, who massaged his arms with naphtha to restore circulation.  It was still 400 miles to Khiva.

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Lt. Col Burnaby, at ease

From Kazala, and despite numerous warnings about marauding Turcomens and others who would like to gouge out his eyes, Burnaby was able to slip his Russian minders and with the help of his hired guides, and camels, and march two weeks across a frozen desert toward Khiva itself.  It was so cold on this leg of the journey that his glasses froze to his face, and cold enough that Cossacks, traveling separately, had frozen to death on the trail.

What follows is a fantastic tale of horse-trading subterfuge, camel markets, the spectre of the Khan’s gallows, and lavish meetings with the Khan himself, where lush fruits were served on trays.  Burnaby found himself escorted by guards carrying scimitars and wearing silk coats, and greeted by crowds who lined the streets to see this mysterious man of England, a nation whose wealth, they had been told, surpassed all others.

Eventually the Russians became aware of Burnaby’s escapade, and ordered him out.  He was able to ride from Petro-Alexandrovsk for Kazala with a party of Cossacks, “The going was extremely hard, with even the Cossacks complaining, its rigors made a little less unbearable by recourse to the four-gallon cask of vodka they carried.”  On this return trip, Burnaby rode a single Cossack horse for over 900 miles, in appalling conditions, without the horse ever going lame.

His eventual return to England, and the book he wrote about this adventure, A Ride to Khiva, made Burnaby famous, and earned him an audience with the heavyweights of his time, including Queen Victoria.  But he was not finished.  Trouble in eastern Turkey between the Russians and the Ottomans drew him off again, to Turkey, where he completed a second epic adventure and authored another book, On Horseback Through Asia Minor.

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Burnaby’s Obelisk, defaced

Colonel Burnaby was killed at the Battle of Abu Klea, in 1885, while riding with Sir Herbert Stewart, and the Desert Column, in the overland attempt to relieve the garrison at Khartoum.  The relief also included a Nile contingent, but lacking information from the cut-off garrison, Stewart’s column was sent overland in a more direct route.  In this fight, 1100 Englishmen were ambushed by 12000 Sudanese.  In the face of overwhelming opposition and accurate sniper fire, Stewart organized his men into a square.  In a fight that lasted only fifteen minutes, the Gardener gun they were using broke down in the desert sand, and Burnaby ordered the camel regiment to wheel out of the square to support it.  In a rarity for English tactics, the square broke down and the Dervishes broke through.  Men at the rear of the square were forced to about face, and drive the Dervishes out.  Ultimately, Burnaby was speared in the throat and succumbed to his wounds.

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Battlefield Map, Showing breakdown of the Square’s Left Flank, and consolidated position after the fight (r)

The Great Game epoch, which informs and foreshadows the horrors of World War I, and serves as a distant mirror for our own country’s current floundering in the central Asian morass, has long slipped past me.  No more.  The stories of men like Burnaby–not entirely soldier, not entirely poet, but entirely mic-dropping adventurer–is one of thousands now calling my name from the Caspian to the Hindu Kush, and I am all in.