Tuesday, December 1, 2015

So Bohemian Like You

Thanks to Charlie, I now know what the back of my train looks like.

First of all, in all my years of taking trains, I can't recall a time when a single one was running on time. They're always behind, sometimes 10 minutes, sometimes an hour. All Charlie had to do was get me to the station, a simple 25 minute drive, and, just to be sure, we left 45 minutes before my train was due in.

You learn a lot about a man when you unexpectedly spend a couple of hours with him.

Besides taking the wrong exit twice - once in Maryland and again in Virginia - Charlie was great company. He waited for me at two different Amtrack stations. He suggested I learn some martial arts so I could protect myself if a man ever tried to do me wrong. He explained grappling to me. He was amazed that I wasn't married. He described having a barium enema instead of a colonoscopy.

You can see why I had to take the conversation in hand myself.

I knew that Charlie - exceedingly fit and with a head of the thickest gray hair - was the result of a Chinese mother and Irish father. He drew a direct line from the combination of his Irish nature ("Those Irish prize fighters never retreat, they're always combative") and Chinese DNA ("We're masters of all those Oriental styles of fighting") to who he was today.

When I asked how his parents had met, he had no idea. What he did remember was that they'd met in Washington, but couldn't get married there because of the laws against inter-racial marriage. This was the '40s, mind you.

Charlie was so busy telling me a story about his career path that we sailed past the exit and had to backtrack, meaning that I arrived at the station platform to catch the 1:45 train, just in time to see the back of my intended carrier chugging off into the mist. It was 1:46.

Damn you, Amtrack! You're never that reliable.

But Charlie, ever the gentleman, had waited to ensure I caught my ride and when I didn't, offered to drive me to Richmond. The thought of getting on I-95 at mid-afternoon on a pouring down rainy day was too much to bear. so I countered by asking him to drive me to the Alexandria station.

Only once he saw me safely on the train did he return to Annapolis. I owe Charlie for a wild ride.

Once home, I had only the briefest of windows before meeting the photographer for a Civil War happy hour and dinner.

He'd taken his time agreeing to the plan  - something about Capital Alehouse being the venue that he found off-putting - but, like me, had been intrigued by the topic. And while neither of us is a beer drinker, I could make do with a root beer, having serendipitously read a piece on the history of root beer while waiting for him to arrive.

When he asked for a coffee, he inquired if he could have a half-caff. Our young server giggled like he'd made a joke. Seems she'd never heard of such a thing, but obligingly delivered a half-caff French press. "What do you want? She's 19!" my friend said.

Not so the crowd, which was an eclectic bunch. Sure, there were plenty of older Civil War history buff types, but also plenty of younger professional types out for a pint, a burger and an interesting talk. Things got plenty lively during the Q & A afterwards given the diversity of the crowd.

"The Bohemian Brigade: Combat Artists of the Civil War" dovetailed with an exhibit I'd seen that the Virginia Historical Society had done on the same subject three years ago. Apparently tonight's speaker, Sean Kane, had been just as interested, assembling a terrific collection of images and factoids to share.

First off, it was the 30 or so "special artists," as they were called, who'd dubbed themselves the "bohemian brigade." Leave it to a bunch of artsy types to choose a dashing name for themselves.

And for those unsure of the meaning of the word, Sean explained that they meant eccentric and artistic. Like the artist Alfred Waud, who substituted the feather in his hat with a plume of newspaper to announce his calling and membership in the Bohemian Brigade

These men - because of course they were all men - were adrenaline junkies who were willing to slog along with the troops, suffering hardships, eating little or poorly, willing to sit up all night and with a total disregard for personal safety for the opportunity to sketch a pivotal moment of the action.

For this they were paid the princely sum of $5-$25 for risking their lives. For proof, look no further than artist Theodore Davis, who had his sketchbook shot right out of his hands and go flying. I fail to see the thrill there.

Because these sketches weren't seen as art with a capital "A," they were signed, folded and mailed back to New York to the publishers and editors who then had engravings made of them for replication in their newspapers a week or two later.

Sometimes the bohemians didn't even take the time to fully finish the drawing, instead sending along instructions to the artists at the paper to flesh them out. There, artists who were particularly good at drawing trees were nicknamed "pruners," while those adept at drawing uniforms were called "tailors" and artists proficient at the human figure rated the "butcher" tag.

Sean walked us through the work of three especially fascinating "special artists," one of whom was Winslow Homer. Showing us a sketch (and later painting) of a sharpshooter, Sean cracked wise saying, "Now, I don't want to offend any sharpshooters in the audience, but Winslow Homer said that sharpshooters were the closest thing to murderers in the military."

I'm pretty sure I saw a couple of buffs bristle at that comment. Simmer down, guys, it's just one artist's opinion.

Waud, the Brit with the dapper hat, was the only artist who was at every important moment of the Army of the Potomac, including going to Ford's Theater after Lincoln was shot and being in Jefferson Davis' cell once he was imprisoned.

I'm not sure if he was brilliant or just glib, but after being captured by the Confederates, he offered to sketch a group portrait and as a reward, they let him go. Brilliant, Waud, absolutely brilliant.

But the ultimate adrenaline junkie had to be another Brit, Henry Vizetelly, who had been an artist for the Italian Civil War before coming to document ours. I bet they called him a war-chaser.

Mainly, he chronicled the Confederate army, convenient since the Confederate government didn't have the funds to underwrite their own newspaper artists.

We saw a fabulous sketch of his of Jeb Stuart's camp at night, notable for ole Jeb's personal banjo player as the focal point of the drawing. Why? Because apparently Jeb always made sure his camp enjoyed a good time after a hard day's war when they weren't slaughtering/being slaughtered.

His story had a crazy ending when he went off to cover some unrest in Egypt and was either killed or enslaved, nobody's sure which. But you know what, I bet that's how Vizetelly would have wanted his illustrious career to end.

Foto Boy and I stayed for most of the Q & A, listening to history buffs spouting battle details like baseball stats, before heading out to dinner. Some of us were as famished as Winslow Homer fresh out of hardtack.

It was a long day chasing trains and riding the Beltway with Charlie. Bohemian types gotta eat, too.

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