Kelby Ouchley on the Gift of the Written Word

OUCHLEY AND PAGANS RETIREMENTOne day in late November 1864 just before the battle at Franklin, Tennessee a hungry lieutenant of the 1st Florida Volunteers crawled around on his hands and knees in a dark, recently captured blockhouse searching for something to eat. He felt a promising object and took it out into the light for a better look. In recalling the event he said, “It was a big flat ear but I had no appetite.” Henry W. Reddick could not have imagined that his Civil War memoir recounting this incident and many other trials would shape a great great grandson’s life 150 years later.

As a precocious reader I have long been enthralled with the written word. When I was about nine years old I began to hear family rumors that one of my distant grandfathers had actually written a book, an amazing thing to contemplate. This instigated my persistent inquiries until an aunt presented me with a mimeographed copy of Seventy-Seven Years in Dixie. She duplicated it from the family’s only remaining original edition, a tattered softback with a red paper cover. I still have it. An enchanted document, it induces new questions every time I read it. Without a doubt, the book with its provenance fertilized my nascent interest in history.

So, after retiring from a career as a biologist during which most of my writing was “governmentese,” I came back to Grandpa Reddick’s work along with thousands of other Civil War diaries, journals and letters. I gleaned them for natural history anecdotes and compiled a manuscript that became Flora and Fauna of the Civil War: An Environmental Reference Guide. Broader research even resulted in a novel: Iron Branch: A Civil War Tale of a Woman In-Between.

I have a young grandson. Should one of his future grandchildren discover my books someday, I hope that he or she is moved, even if in a small way, to burrow deeper into the joys of the written word and to consider the possible inspiration of their own creations.