Dear readers, tonight with us is a Special Forces soldier — together with his distant ancestor. They are here to talk about combat and the bonds of men, and how the Army changed in over a century.
Tell us a little about where you grew up. What was it like there?
CHARLES DAWSON: I was born in Platteville, Wisconsin, in 1876. My father, Jeremiah, became an attorney after his service for the Union Army in the Rebellion. As a center of lead mining activity in that part of the state, Platteville is a bustling town with much to offer a young man, including a Normal School and a Mining School. Much of my childhood was spent with Father, hiking and riding among the ridges and coulees, hunting rabbit and deer and fishing the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers.
JAKE DAWSON: Man, I can’t believe I’m in the same room with my ancestor, the guy who wrote the journal that I’ve been reading. You really fought for Teddy Roosevelt in Cuba?
CHARLES: I believe this mysterious gentleman addressing us asked you a question. Are all 21st century young men so impertinent?
JAKE: Well, hell, are all 19th century young men wearing starched collars like that one? No wonder you’re sitting there, stiff as a board. Relax, Gramps! This is about the coolest thing ever, us being together like this. (To the interviewer.) Okay, I was born in 1990, and grew up in Minocqua, up in northern Wisconsin, where my mom and I moved after she and my dad divorced. He was a congressman, then a college professor. We didn’t get along for a long time, way different political views, but things have been turning around, I think. But anyway, in Minocqua we lived on a lake, so I did my share of fishing and hunting, too. You grow up in small-town Wisconsin, or out in the country, that’s what you do. My Uncle John—he’s my great-uncle, actually, Grampa Dennis’ brother—taught me to hunt and fish. When I was fourteen, we were out on the lake and I got a musky, a big one, about forty pounds.
CHARLES: Indeed? I’ve heard of the musky. On the Mississippi, it was catfish for us, and bluegills. Perhaps trout in some of the streams. My father and I brought in a thirty-pound cat one day.
JAKE: Hey, that’s a nice fish. Got a picture of it?
CHARLES: A what?
Did you have any favorite toys as a child? Any cherished memories?
CHARLES: My sister Margaret and I often played jacks, and at school it was hopscotch, and of course we played baseball. My favorite player was Hoss Radbourn, the great pitcher for the Beaneaters.
JAKE: Beaneaters? That’s a minor-league team, right?
CHARLES (indignantly): Of course not. They played in the National League, and at the time of my service in Cuba, they were in the midst of a strong season.
JAKE: Well, baseball’s fun, but I don’t know about this Beaneaters outfit. My team’s the Milwaukee Brewers. Growing up, my sport was wrestling. State champion my junior year at Lakeland Union High, then repeated my senior year, then off to Madison, All-American there before I left for the Army. My best memory? I’d have to say it’s a tie, between winning my second state title and getting a gift from Angie Egan a couple nights after I got back from State in Madison. (He gives Charles a wink.)
CHARLES: A gift? (He frowns, then smiles.) Oh, yes. I, uh, received such a gift myself, upon my return from Cuba. Her name was Leona. Would you like to see a carte de vesite of her?
JAKE: What’s that? (He is handed a sepia-toned piece of cardboard.) Oh, you mean “a picture.” Hey, she’s pretty good-looking, although that dress doesn’t do much for her. (He produces a cell phone, taps three buttons, and shows it to Charles.) This isn’t Angie, but it’s Sam, my wife, who’s even better-looking than Angie, and that’s saying something.
CHARLES: What a remarkable device. How does it—good Lord, she has hardly a stitch of clothing on!
JAKE (laughing): It’s called a bikini, Gramps!
Gentlemen, please! What do you do now?
JAKE: First Lieutenant, United States Army, 5th Special Forces Group.
CHARLES: My service was in the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry. After my discharge, I returned to my studies at the University of Wisconsin. Upon graduation, I shall enter the School of Law, and then join my father’s firm in Platteville.
JAKE (yawning): That sounds exciting.
What can you tell us about your latest adventure?
CHARLES (sitting up proudly): With my father’s blessing, and his assistance, I joined the Rough Riders, and served under Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt in Cuba, helping to free the people from their Spanish oppressors.
JAKE: Hey, I always wanted to ask you something. You guys deployed into a combat zone with what, three weeks of training? Just three weeks?
CHARLES: That was all the time we had, yes.
JAKE (shaking his head): Hell, it’s a miracle any of you made it home alive.
CHARLES: Indeed? What kind of training did you receive, might I ask?
JAKE: Hey, in our Army, you don’t get close to a deployment till you’ve been in for about a year. There’s a lot to learn. And if you’re in SF, like I am, or the 75th Rangers, like I was before SF, well, we’re talking six more months to a year before you go downrange.
CHARLES: My word…
JAKE (shrugging): Well, tell you what, Gramps, in my time we aren’t exactly going up against a bunch of Spanish draftees, that’s for damn sure.
What did you first think when you first came under fire in combat?
CHARLES (thinking, then sighing): It was our first action after we landed, at Las Guasimas. The Spaniards were entrenched, with machine-guns. I was frightened. Badly. But I trusted my officers, and my comrades, to support me.
JAKE (nodding): We call that “having our back.” And yeah, when I was in Iraq, and that patrol went to shit—sorry, when it went to hell, we walked right into that ambush and the hajis opened up on us, I felt a little fear, sure, but I’ll tell you, the training kicks in and you just react, you keep moving and you get out of it. Except for my buddy Chet…
What was the scariest thing in your adventures?
JAKE: Up in Kurdistan, when I took over the ODA—that’s what we called my unit, Gramps, an Operational Detachment Alpha—and right after that the militia came up the valley and took the hill overlooking our village…well, I was praying that night, let me tell you. Praying pretty damn hard.
CHARLES: I suppose for me, it was the day we assaulted the Heights. There was heavy fire from the Spaniards on top of Kettle Hill. Colonel Roosevelt was impatient for us to charge, but he had to await his orders. And finally, the order came, and he led the way. He dismounted his horse and led us on foot. Although I saw comrades fall around me, I can’t say I was scared, not at that point, not with the Colonel out there in front of us. I suppose I was most concerned about him, frankly. I considered him to be a great leader, a man whom the country would need in the future, and I feared that he would meet his fate on that hill. Fortunately, he did not. He led us up Kettle Hill, then up the next one, San Juan, and we were victorious.
JAKE: I have to tell you, nothing I ever faced on the battlefield was as tough as the training we had. There was Ranger School, which was the toughest thing I’d ever done in my life, then getting into the 75th, and then finally Special Forces itself. Every step of the way, I was…(he pauses, bows his head, then takes a deep breath)…I was afraid of failure. Serving out my time and then going home without achieving my goals. All my ancestors had done great things in uniform, all the way back to Gramps here, and his dad, with the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg, and I…I didn’t want to let them down. And damn, it was tough, so tough…
CHARLES (placing a hand on Jake’s shoulder): It’s all right, son. You did well, I’m sure. You’ve done our family proud.
What is the worst thing about life in the military?
JAKE: The worst thing? Being away from Sam, my wife. But she’s tough, she’s a Wisconsin girl, and with her waiting for me back home, I know that I’ll be making it back, for her. I won’t let her down. The people in my hometown, I won’t let them down.
CHARLES: I would have to say, the campaign to take Cuba was the worst-organized operation I’ve ever witnessed. You would not believe the logistical problems we encountered.
JAKE: Yeah? Try me.
CHARLES: How about not having enough ships to take all of us to Cuba from Florida? Many of my comrades were left behind. The artillery was left on the beach, and not brought to the Heights until it was almost too late to be effective against the enemy. And the food…we barely had enough to eat. Entire cases of provisions, off-loaded from the ships and left there to sit on the beach.
JAKE: No shit? Who was in charge of that goat-fu—excuse me, situation?
CHARLES: It was said the War Department back in Washington was a bunch of muckety-mucks. Very disorganized.
JAKE: Well, not much has changed in a hundred and fifteen years. We say, “They can’t find their ass with both hands and a flashlight.”
CHARLES (laughs): I like that one!
What is the best thing about it?
CHARLES: The comradeship. I served with the finest group of men I’ve ever known. I made some very close friends. Lee from Texas, my tent-mate, and there was McGee, from Colorado, with whom I didn’t get along at first, but thanks to Col. Roosevelt, we became friends. The foot-ball players from Harvard who befriended me on the train to San Antonio. We trained together, we fought together, we went up the Heights together. Most of us made it home. Some, we…we had to leave there…(breaks down with a sob).
JAKE (places a hand on his ancestor’s shoulder): I know. It was exactly the same for me. It’s the brotherhood. It’s like the greatest team you’ve ever been on, times a hundred. Every day you’re out there, preparing for the Super Bowl, or the NCAA championships, and then you’re in it, and you go in knowing that you’re fighting for the guy on your left and the guy on your right. You’re fighting for each other.
Tell us a little about your friends.
JAKE (shaking his head): I’d…really rather not talk about Chet. I’ll tell you this, he was from Montana, and he was the brother I never had. He died…I couldn’t get there fast enough to save him…(Composes himself.) Yeah, you make some pretty damn close friends in the service. Of course, after I became an officer, it was a little different. But I had a sergeant in Kurdistan, and he was like an older brother to me.
CHARLES: I have mentioned Lee Burdwell, and McGee. I have some friends among the foot-ballers at Madison, including the great Pat O’Dea. They are fine fellows, but since I am not among the eleven who take the gridiron, our friendship has its limits. Not so with the Rough Riders. Nothing one experiences as a civilian can come close.
Any romantic involvement?
CHARLES (fidgeting, pulls at his collar): Well, Leona and I, we are…
JAKE: You’re blushing, Gramps! Come on, tell us.
CHARLES: I met her shortly before I entrained for Camp. But, um, it was not until I returned, some months later, that we…
JAKE: Hey, as my great-uncle would say—and remember, Gramps, my Uncle John is your grandson—“Got honey on your stinger yet?”
CHARLES: A gentleman does not kiss and tell, you know.
JAKE (laughs): Well, I’ve mentioned Angie, in high school, but Sam and I, well, she’s definitely the one for me. I didn’t really think of her that way back in school, but when I came home on leave, and my mom threw that party for me, she was there, and man, the outfit she wore that day. Hey, I have a picture of her in it, Gramps, want to see?
CHARLES: Certainly. (Examines the photo on Jake’s phone.) Yes, I can see why you married her. What I mean is, I’m sure she’s a very nice girl, and, uh…
JAKE: It’s okay, Gramps, you can say it, she has great legs, right? Hey, in your day, they didn’t show any leg, did they?
CHARLES: No, they did not. But a well-turned ankle, now…(He winks at Jake.)
JAKE: Whoa. Hubba-hubba and twenty-three skiddoo! Wait a minute, that came later, I think.
Whom (or what) do you really hate?
CHARLES: Father did not raise us to hold hate in our hearts. He fought in the Rebellion, and he said he saw things there that convinced him there was evil in the world. So, he had ill will toward the men who were slaveholders, and those in the Confederacy who supported them. I suppose that I should have been equally motivated to fight the Spaniards, who had held those poor Cubans in bondage for centuries, but honestly, once we got to Cuba, our motivation was very simple: to survive and go home.
JAKE: There was this officer, Iranian Quds Force, who was advising the haji unit that ambushed us in Iraq, and killed Chet…I didn’t know about that guy for a couple years, but when I heard he was still hanging around Iraq, I wanted him. Yeah, he was fighting for a regime that wanted to turn Iraq into a client state, make their women all wear burqas, no rights, and the Iraqis and Kurds I knew sure didn’t want that. But for me, it was more personal. I know, the preacher says in church that we should love our enemies, but I wanted to get him, take him off the board permanently.
What’s your favorite drink, color, and relaxing pastime?
JAKE: I never really developed a taste for alcohol, to be honest. In high school and then in college, I was in training all the time for wrestling. I just sort of continued that when I went into the Army. I’ll have a beer every now and then. Hey, if you’re from Wisconsin, you have to like a beer now and then, am I right? Color? I’d have to say green, Sam has hazel-green eyes. As for relaxing, well, I have to tell you, I’m not real good at relaxing. Maybe at a ballgame, or watching the Packers on TV.
CHARLES: What is a TV, and who are the Packers? Oh, the question you asked, sir, let me see, there is a brewery near Platteville, in a little town called Potosi, which makes very good beer. I like to play cards. Father taught me five-card stud, which he learned in the Army. As a child I often played beggar-my-neighbor with my sister.
JAKE: I’m not even gonna ask what that is. With your sister?
CHARLES: Yes, and she would beat me consistently. My Harvard mates with the Rough Riders favored poker, or hearts.
JAKE (shakes his head): Give me World of Warcraft on the big-screen TV, and I’ll come up for air in an hour or so. But when we were downrange, it was cards, yeah. Texas hold ‘em.
CHARLES: There’s that word again, “TV.” You must show me when we’re done here.
JAKE: I’m not sure you’re ready for that, yet, Gramps. You don’t even know what radio is.
What does the future hold for you?
CHARLES: Law school, and then joining Father in the family firm in Platteville. It doesn’t sound very exciting, Grandson, I know, but there are good people in Grant County, and they need good legal help now and then. It is an honorable profession. I shall be following Col. Roosevelt’s career. When we broke camp on Long Island to go home, he was preparing to run for Governor of New York. Tell me, did he win?
JAKE: Oh, yeah. And he didn’t stop there. As for me, the Army is my career. I’ll get to my twenty, maybe go for twenty-five, and when I get out, I won’t even be fifty years old. Then, we’ll see what happens.
Can you share a secret with us, which you’ve never told anyone else?
JAKE: Well, this is one Sam just shared with me: I’m going to be a father!
CHARLES: Really? Well done, Grandson! (He offers a hand. Jake offers a fist).
JAKE: Here, let me show you how that works. (He and his ancestor fist-bump.) Hey, you’re getting it! How about you, Gramps? Maybe you and Leona have a bun in the oven?
CHARLES: Of course not! We’re not married.
JAKE: Trust me, that doesn’t mean jack in my time. But you’ve got something for us, don’t you? Come on!
CHARLES: Well, if you insist…I am considering a run for Congress someday.
JAKE: You’re kidding.
CHARLES: Not at all. I had some conversations about that with Col. Roosevelt at camp on Long Island. He urged me to continue a life of service, once I have established myself in the law. The new century, he said, will be challenging for our country, and men of honor will be needed to lead the way.
JAKE: You’ll need a lot of them, but if you have any to spare, we could sure as hell use some in my century. Women, too. Hey, mister, can you help us out with that? You seem to have this time-travel thing figured out.
I’m sorry, but that would be beyond my capabilities. You’re on your own.
JAKE: Gee, thanks.
CHARLES: Courage, Grandson. How bad could it get, really?
JAKE: (looks at his ancestor in silence for a few seconds): You’ll find out.
Born in Germany and raised in southern Wisconsin, David Tindell embarked on a 20-year career in broadcasting before transitioning to the U.S. government and resuming the writing career he’d started in college at UW-Platteville. Today he lives up in the northwestern corner of the state, in a log home on a lake with his wife Sue, a Morkie and a Siamese. After retiring from federal service, Tindell returned to radio and can be heard weekday mornings on http://www.wjmcradio.com. His study of the martial arts has already earned him black belts in taekwondo and Okinawan weaponry, and he hopes to add one soon in the Filipino stick-fighting art of arnis. And he somehow has time to write. With his globe-trotting wife, he travels the world, seeking out new adventures for his next novel.
You can find Charles and Jake Dawson on the pages of The Heights of Valor.
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