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On Fire for Research: An Homage to Larry Brown
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I love getting in my car in the pre-dawn darkness, watching the dashboard glow green and silver and red as I turn the ignition, feel the neighborhood stillness all around me. They’re all asleep, my neighbors, and I’m awake and stealing away on an adventure. I back out of the driveway slowly and roll up the street, the GPS beaming on the dashboard, toward a destination two hundred miles away, where I will talk to a stranger, an old moonshiner who, in his wild youth, drove fast cars down midnight roads on the adventure of his life, and hope that he will tell me what he knows and I need to know that will help me make sense of the history of half a million restless people and their descendants—and I don’t even know what that is.

It’s the not knowing that always gets me, the surprise waiting at the end of the road. And the wanting to find out. It’s not just curiosity—that tame word. It’s sharper, hotter, gets hold of you and makes you a little crazy, like one of those hard-boiled pulp detectives who just can’t let go of a case until he gets to the tangled bottom of it.

I love the feeling of excitement tinged with anxiety, the anticipation of a new encounter, of knowing that by day’s end I will be rocketing back home along country roads with the goods in my notebook, in my tape recorder, in my camera, to be unpacked and mulled over and formed into words that will create an experience in the imaginations of strangers, sometime in the indeterminate future.

Maybe. With a little luck. If I am good enough to make it happen. And I love it that sometimes I am good enough to make it happen.

I love the moment when someone tells me something he or she never intended to say, the look of wonder and discovery in their eyes, the smiling tears of memory, the clutch in the throat that carries all the story you’ll ever need to hear. The pang of goodbye, leaving a stranger who has just confided his most precious secret, hoping you will honor it—I don’t love that, I never get used to that.

Yet afterward, how I do cherish the memory of it.

Every conversation is a story, and every story is an adventure, and every adventure takes me out of my small life into a larger one, and I love that. I love that it catapults me out into the world, outdoors, in all seasons, to places I have only dreamed of going—or maybe never dreamed of going—places where they speak in different accents, different languages even. Where the air smells different, and the skyline is unfamiliar, and the landscape is a brand new map.

I love finding historical markers on remote country lanes, pulling to the side and stepping into weeds brushed by an October wind. Then walking up a long winding path to a clearing where something has been fought over, decided, the struggle mapped into the ground: earthworks, entrenchments, graves. I love the hush of those deserted places, those old battlefields, always so breathtaking, as if we, as a species, have decided to fight only in beautiful places. And listening to the ghosts moan among the last leaves of autumn, seeing their shapes rise up in uniforms: Union blue, Confederate gray, British red and scarlet, the motley of Revolutionary militias, the painted flesh of Iroquois.

There is treasure in the ground—the body of General Braddock, haughty and dismissive, cut down by ambush in the Pennsylvania woods, buried secretly and the grave tracked over by his surviving troops so it could never be found and desecrated. The things that men dropped in their frenzy to retreat—they’re in the ground, too: bullets and swords and muskets and haversacks. It is all there still, and their voices rise on the wind, an eternal chorus. Just as at Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse, Antietam and Gettysburg, Manassas and the little village of Averasboro, where the unknown Confederate dead are fenced into...


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