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Friday, January 9, 2015

The SAR Contest...

was arranged in a rather unusual way. The 15 contestants were broken up into three groups of five, and judged according to the other contestants in that group as opposed to everyone. I had no idea what number in what group I would be in when I was first roused from our hotel room early in the morning. After dressing, make-up-ing, lip-sticking, and plastering a grin on my face, I went down to the lobby for an early breakfast (last meal?) with the other members of the convention before the contest. And the meal was kind of hard on the stomach…really sugary tarts. Then our M.C .gave us a little pep talk about the importance of the contest, and via the wild results of hat-drawings, I wound up being the first orator in the first set. Yes, panic set in.  

     My father and I rushed to the hotel library and went over one more last-minute rehearsal session. In the flurry of it all, I temporarily forget the end of my speech! But thankfully, when my turn as one-of-one finally came, I managed to make it through with no errors. It was a surreal thing, to actually be doing the thing I had practiced so many times, to be telling to stories of men and women I felt as if I had grown to personally know. There was Thomas Gage, the mild-manner British general, and his beautiful and rebellious American wife, Margaret Kemble; there was John Pitcairn, the tough yet sociable British marine major, and his one-time neighbor in Boston, the fiery Paul Revere. There was Israel Putnam, rugged frontier scout and former friend of Gage of steadied the American defense at Bunker Hill, and of course, there was Washington, one time soldier of the king, turned Chief among Rebels, chosen by “a free people in the cause of liberty.”  

    Even as I felt myself absorbed by the stories and the completion of my own task, I have to admit that the contest itself felt a bit ill-organized. The “stage” was really nothing more than a platform with creaky boards, and the sound system was none-too-encouraging with a clip-on treble mic in a sound-dead room. Plus, despite the emphasis on how this contest was the crux of the convention since it dealt with young people and their future, the audience that turned out for the primary contest was pathetically small. Why they had a primary contest at all (there weren’t that many of us!), and not just one full length contest like the talent shows I participated in, is a question in and of itself.  

   Another odd thing was that in between each of our presentations, the M.C. would stand up to read yet another snippet about the revolution and how it affects us today. My first thought was that this would only serve to confuse the judges and bore the audience with the same subject matter over and over again. My second thought was that, just like many of the participant’s speeches, these readings were trying too hard to make something of past events in a modern context. I know it’s natural for people want to connect events in a neat pattern and deduct absolute conclusions, and it’s certainly good to learn lessons and admire heroism from the past. But we have to at least try to be fair to our historical subjects by not allowing our modern perceptions and emotions run wild and box in their own stories. 

    After picking these things up about the general the mood and intent of the contest, the verdict of the preliminaries seemed to coincide with it. I was not chosen to proceed to the finals because it was said I did not make a strong enough connection between the past and the present. Several things crossed my mind at this point: this should never have been called an historical orations contest. It was not judged upon the way the stories from the past were brought to life, nor upon the timeless lessons of courage, honor, sacrifice, and mercy that could be drawn from it; instead, it rested upon a very political point that the orator was supposed to make, connecting the initiative of the Founding Fathers with the pioneering spirit of the organic vegetable business or the right to wear tee-shirts with writing on college campuses.

    Such was the case; but then it seems that many of the contestants were not particularly keen on history in particular but academic achievement in general. They were talented, every one of them…but perhaps the contest itself was suffering from a confusion of goals. Is it history that we are trying to preserve, in the flesh-and-blood of it, the kind of thing that tugs the heart and stirs the soul, the thing that teaches us about the complexity of humanity and the mysterious workings of providence…? Or are we trying to merely bolster the present by appealing to some famous personage or event, like name-dropping, and putting people in boxes that defy the appeal for both realism and originality? Perhaps that is a question that should be asked, and answered honestly.

   After the contest, there was a procession of the SARs through the streets of Greenville to attend a service of remembrance for deceased members of the society. It was pretty wild being a part of it, with all the reenactors dressed in period clothing, banners flying. Visiting an old-fashioned Anglican church was a unique experience, especially because they had a Cross of St. George hanging outside, a Book of Common Prayer in vestibule, and they played Handel’s ‘Ala Hornpipe’ on the marvelously grand pipe organ. It was like going to England. I have to admit, after just having watched A Man for All Seasons back home, it was sort of an irony…almost as if I had just crossed back in time, and was ready to have it out with the vicar about Henry’s six wives! ;-)

    Later that night, we returned to the contest room and watched as the final judging was made. The contestant from Virginia won first prize; the contestant from Ohio won second; the contestant from Delaware won third. Prior to that, we had all been called up on stage to give an overview about ourselves to the larger audience, and were presented with certificates of participation as well as $200 a piece. I would later use it to record the song “Our Lady of Britannia”. I will admit that initially, I felt pretty bad about not taking Maryland to the finals, but my sponsor, Mr. Engler, was a true pal and encourager, standing in my corner and acknowledging that I had done my best for my native state and fairly represented the county society. Also, I had the pleasure of making a friend: Mary Frances, the contestant from Louisiana, also a Catholic who had been partly homeschooled. We continue our correspondence through email, etc.
     Our last day in Greenville was spent perusing the shops that lined main street. In one store, we picked up two unique souvenirs: a plastic Robin Hood figure and a stuffed pink owl to add to my ever-growing collection of odds and ends. In another store, we picked up some lovely rainbow stone earrings for mom, as well as a few postcards, and some special stain remover substance. Then we packed everything into the car, and headed off to see what else South Carolina had to offer. On such thing was a peach store we spied while driving down the rural back roads.  
     For all those under the false impression that George produces the most peaches, the record actually belong to South Carolina, as the locals earnestly informed us! There is a giant peach on a pedestal on the state border, and things just got peachier from there on out. There were peach stores, peach farms, peach restaurants, peach BBQ pits, peach parks, etc. Inside the store, we sampled some peach bread and peach jam (scrumptious!), bought a small peach pie and peanut butter pretzels for ourselves, and some peach salsa to present to friends on the home front.  Then we took a few snapshot inside and outside the little gem of southern living!

     Then we headed off the visit The Battlefield of Cowpens, where the infamous British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton (fondly referred to as “Bloody Ban”) got his comeuppance and was drummed out of town by American Colonel Daniel Morgan, a redoubtable rebel and leader of men. At the Visitor’s Center, I got to see a beautiful Scottish broadsword taken from a British officer who fought at the battle. The blade itself was elaborately engraved with images of thistle and even St. Andrew, standing next to his X-shaped cross. I also got to have a picture taken of me standing next to a cannon, dressed in a revolutionary uniform and tri-corn hat. There were a slew of interesting books I could have spent all day going through, but we were informed by the information desk that the Visitor’s Center in King’s Mountain would be closing within the hour! So we rushed off to our main destination.

        At the Visitor’s Center in Cowpens, I got to see a beautiful Scottish broadsword taken from a British officer who fought at the battle. The blade itself was elaborately engraved with images of thistle and even St. Andrew, standing next to his X-shaped cross. I also got to have a picture taken of me standing next to a cannon, dressed in a revolutionary uniform and tri-corn hat. There were a slew of interesting books I could have spent all day going through, but we were informed by the information desk that the Visitor’s Center in King’s Mountain would be closing within the hour! So we rushed off to our main destination. 

    I had read about King’s Mountain so many times, and told the story so many times. I knew that the bold and colorful British Major Patrick Ferguson had been shot up there, and was buried there. I never thought I would get to see it myself for many years to come. But now I was there. The gift shop/visitors center would be closing in 10 minutes. I asked desperately, “Where’s Ferguson?” The lady behind the desk smiled and gestured outside. “He’s still there,” she said, “but you’ll have to hurry if you want to see him.” It was just starting to rain outside as my father and I rushed outside and up the path meandering through the woods. We were hurried, looking along the path for the marker. And then I spied it. It was the headstone I had read so much about, with the lion and unicorn carved into it. I stopped short. Whoa.  

    What is that inscrutable thing that takes hold of a person when viewing the resting place of a famous person? To think that those bones lying their once were part of a man, with good and bad attributes, larger than life according to all who knew him, is astounding. I read about Ferguson; I felt, at times, as if I knew him. He was a musician and a poet as well as a soldier; he carried on prolific correspondences through letter. He never allowed obstacles to cow him; a tumor in his leg encouraged him to become a horseman, while paralysis in his arm made him learn to do everything with his left hand. He was also an expert marksman, inventing the Ferguson Rifle for use in the British army. He even had the opportunity of shooting George Washington during a skirmish, but due to his huntsman’s code, refused to shoot a fellow officer in the back.

      I gazed at the grave, and the stones piled high behind the headstone. I had been informed of the reason – Ferguson was said to have made a rash challenge on the hill before the battle, that God Almighty could not get him off that mountain. He was like a hero out of ancient Rome, with his fatal flaw: Pride. Well, needless to say, the Patriots did take that mountain, and practically wiped out his Tories, including his mistress, Virginia Sal, shot down while trying to help some of the wounded, said to have been mistaken for Ferguson, who shared her flaming red hair. Ferguson would be shot down on horseback, dressed in his plaid jacket, blowing his silver whistle, and the two of them were buried together here. To make his own words come back to bite him, his enemies piled rocks on the grave to force him to stay here forever…yes, and even unto judgment day.
    My eyes drifted back to the headstone. The words were in a tone of reconciliation, marking this out to be a gift from the American people to the British people, as a sign of friendship and respect for a gallant warrior. The Lion and Unicorn stood out boldly, like sentinels over their fallen son. How times have changed since the ferocity of battle. And yet perhaps the fiercest fights take place within families…and yet what world could do without the powerful network of the family? I suddenly felt a lump rise in my throat. Perhaps that’s what I had been trying to say throughout the whole contest. I had always felt the deepest kinship with the British people, heightened by the threat of division that came with the Scottish Independence Referendum. I knew we would squabble and misunderstand, fight bitterly and make up. But we were still family, to this very day, and that tie would never be undone.
    Just then, two men came walking down the path from, after having visiting the top of the mountain. “What happened to the Tories?” one asked the other. “Many were massacred,” commented the other, and they walked on by. I looked about me, and was suddenly struck by the eeriness of the surrounding woods. I looked back at Ferguson, wondering if he knew I was there from where he was. And where was he now? He could tell? I picked up a small stone and rolled it onto the pile, not as an insult to remind him of his own profane bluster, but almost to let him know I was there. Then I muttered a prayer under my breath for him, that in the hour of his death, he might have been lent grace. This not just for him, but for Sal, and all the dead soldiers on both sides. Then I sang. It was a Scottish lament, in Gaelic, a song from his homeland. I wonder had anything thought to do that in his honor, and the honor of all the others slain here, until now?
To Be Continued...
The Death of Maj. Patrick Ferguson on King's Mountain



  1. Dear Pearl,

    While I am unsure of the context, the milieu sounds much like the in-service / staff development required of nurses and teachers (I have been both, and, hey, I wear boots and own a revolver, okay?). Were there "HELLO MY NAME IS..." tags? Pizza (because our employers don't trust us with knives and forks)? The usual instruction to "Shake hands with someone you don't know and introduce yourself"?

    Life is indeed good, and often mildly amusing!

  2. Indeed, Mack! I think you summed up the aura of the event pretty accurately! Originality was not a major means of gaining points in this contest, which was quite a pity. The more I find out about the general format of the contest, the more I realize my own story-oriented speech pretty stood alone among a sea of politically-driven manifestos! So much for a historical society....*sigh*