This has been an oddly humbling experience, to have my work selected by writers I have read and admired, and to have my name listed among many others whose work I know and admire. Two years ago, December 2005, I had just returned to my home in New Orleans, and walking through our sparsely re-populated neighborhood, came upon a house across which someone had spray-painted the words Take Nothing for Granted. Those words still echo in my mind. Though the misfortunes my family and I have faced over the past couple years pale in comparison to those of many of our friends and neighbors, it has nonetheless been a difficult time. The phone call from the NEA, at the end of a second quiet hurricane season, is an incredible and unexpected gift. I have only recently been able to return to my own writing, and this award could not have come at a better time. This gives acknowledgment and encouragement at a time when I need it, and is something that I will not take for granted. My heartfelt thanks to the NEA, and to everyone who has supported me over the years: family, friends, teachers, students, colleagues.
From the novel Burning Tuscaloosa
April Fool's Day, 1999. Professor Bill Gasper lit a contraband Cuban with his daddy's 101st Airborne Ranger Zippo, and slipped the battered lighter into the pocket of his authentic Civil War reproduction Union officer's coat. It was a fine day for a reenactment. Across the parking lot, a ragtag bunch of Confederate soldiers milled around a four-wheel-drive Ford sporting forty-four-inch mudders, its sound system blaring Eminem. A stars and bars battle flag decal in the window with the motto Forget, Hell. The boys drank ice-cold Lite beer, and waited. The sun had barely crawled over the tree line and already it was hot, too hot to be standing out in its glare in ill-fitting wool uniforms and knee-length leather boots.
"Let's get on with it, Jeffrey," Gasper hollered out to a Confederate officer, half-reclined in the front seat of a new Lexus and chatting into a cell phone. Jeff Madden, third generation in a thriving local law firm, specialized in DUI and the occasional wrongful death suit. He shared with Gasper a keen interest in the War Between the States, in particular, the siege of Tuscaloosa in the last days before the signing of the treaty at Appomattox Courthouse. Gasper taught American history at the University, and had for twenty some years. He was from Montana, a Yankee, Madden never ceased to remind him. No matter that the big big sky state had not existed at the time of the late unpleasantness. It was still the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon, he would say with a sad, congenial grin. All was more or less forgiven, though not yet forgotten in Tuscaloosa. Which made it a place of continual interest and intrigue for the historian.
The combatants finished their beer and tossed the empty cans into the ditch between the parking lot and an open field where on April 1, 1865, Major General John Croxton's Union raiders on their way to Tuscaloosa, were confronted by a small, battle-hardened unit of Confederate regulars led by General W. H. Jackson. A skirmish ensued, destined to recur on an annual basis. The uniformed men meandered out to their places in the clearing, smoking cigarettes, talking about fishing and baseball while they primed the charges on their black powder replica rifles and sidearms in preparation for the one hundred thirty fourth anniversary of the Battle of Trion, near what is now Vance, Alabama, and home to a gleaming Mercedes Benz plant producing sport utility vehicles for the nation. Bill nodded to Randy Dyer, lead guitar, third baseman, and employee of the country coroner's office, red-eyed beneath his woolen cap. And Harper Foote, sweating already, stretching his artilleryman's uniform he blows a great pink bubble of gum and winks.
Every year, Bill Gasper asked himself why he was here once again sweating in this field outside Vance, leading a contingent of blue-clad plumbers, architects, accountants, and assembly-line workers from the Mercedes plant against a group of their neighbors and colleagues dressed in gray. But once the first shots rang out, once the first hoarse yells and the acrid clouds of black smoke hung thick in the humid air, he was caught up in it. The adrenaline surged, and for the next twenty minutes his work became real to him in a way it never did in the classroom or the library, or even walking the beautiful, groomed fields of the National Park at Gettysburg.
Bill Gasper had missed the war of his generation, a half-hearted protester at a small midwestern college. He played an acoustic guitar and wrote songs of great abstraction. He defended his thesis on the role of espionage in the Civil War six months after the end of the draft. He became obsessed with American wars, and immersed himself in the study of them. He published articles here and there in obscure journals of American history, applied for positions, and was offered one in the heart of Dixie. It seemed like destiny, and he embraced it. And so here he was all these years later. Married, tenured, divorced, dressed in a military uniform from another century, packing an archaic but functional firearm. Two actually-in addition to the cap and ball rifle, a Remington pistol in a leather holster. He had a special fondness for the Remington, long barreled and of a massive caliber. He attended to it in private moments in his study, handling it with awe and admiration, slightly self-conscious, having read some Freud as an undergrad in the common curriculum.