By Tim Bean
When Buckley Homestead’s manager Chris Orange told me he had a story on the Civil War being closer than we think, I waffled. Uncovering and banning white supremacists and closeted Klan members on social media always drains me. I was happy to discover he had a different story in mind.
“Her name is Irene Triplett,” Chris Orange said, nudging aside a curious chicken with the side of his boot. The homestead’s menagerie of animals always attracted visitors, but they were constantly underfoot. “And since 1938, she has received exactly $73.13 per month for her father’s service during the Civil War, 159 years ago.”
Before I could whip out my smartphone’s calculator to do the math, Chris added, “About $73,000.”
I thought about it. That wasn’t pocket change. It was two used BMWs. Two first-year teachers’ salaries. Good money, but it wasn’t exactly a life-changing amount.
“That’s…that’s not a ton of money,” I said. “One heck of a trip to Vegas though.”
Chris laughed. “Maybe. If you don’t add in interest. I did the math, or rather I went online and had the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Interest Calculator figure it out. Great site if you’re interested in making money, by the way. Take a monthly investment of $73.13 since 1938, add $73.13 a month until 2020, and use the average U.S. annual inflation rate of 3.24%, click click, and you get almost $344,000. The beauty of compound interest.”
“That’s a well-heeled house in a posh suburb. Or a small fleet of cars,” he said. “23 pounds of gold. 90,000 pounds of ground beef.”
“Or one heck of a trip to Las Vegas,” I said.
Chris laughed and grabbed a handful of feed and tossed at the two giant, dueling geese that dominated the Buckley house’s chicken yard. Our website purchased the two geese—one named Orange and one named Bean—from the Lake County Fair 4H auction that summer as a donation to the county park. They’re alive but very ill-mannered. Damn mean, actually.
“Irene Triplett is still alive as of last Thanksgiving. Over 90, a little cantankerous, but alive and kicking,” Chris said. “I can’t stand when people complain about the elderly being mean. If you make it to 70 or 80 years old, you have earned the right to be mean. And to have everyone get out of your way.”
“I bet she’s got some stories,” I said. Like Chris, I always appreciated the stories people had to tell, and the elderly were walking encyclopedias of history.
Chris tossed another handful of feed at the geese. They hissed and honked before shoveling up the dry feed. A half-dozen mottled chickens joined them. “She does. She told some of them. For one, there’s a part of the U.S. Veterans’ Benefits codes that applies to her and only her. It’s part of Title 38. Can you imagine an entire law made for you and you alone?”
Chris continued, “Her dad Mose Triplett fought originally for the South, then changed his mind. Just before his regiment marched into Gettysburg, he disappeared. Went AWOL. He joined a Union cavalry regiment a year later and helped raid supplies and destroy the Southern infrastructure for the rest of the war. Not the most popular task for a solider.”
“That’s still a sore spot in the South,” I said. “War by attrition and Sherman and all that.” Indeed, some Southern history books refer to 1861-1865 as the War Between the States rather than the Civil War, a case of semantics reflecting vastly different perspectives. But we’ll leave that alone.
Chris nodded. “Remember, Mose still had a home in the South. Raiders like that weren’t exactly accepted with open arms when things ended. And Mose more so. He switched to the Union. Even his family thinks he only signed up with the Union because he wanted a pension.”
“Saw how things were turning out?” I asked.
“Yeah. And, pardon my French, but he was an asshole, too. Almost all his family and friends agreed on that. He liked to sit on his porch and shoot the dangling walnuts off trees when people came by, just to scare them. He kept fangless rattlesnakes as pets as well. Ripped the fangs out himself,” Chris said. “They said he was a ‘hard man’. That’s not a term of endearment, especially in the late 1800s. Today we’d probably call him a psycho. Or crazy as a shithouse rat. I like that one.”
Chris plucked his iPhone out of his pocket and quickly poked and prodded at it. Manager of a historic park or not, the man loved his smartphone and assorted gadgets. After a moment he held up the phone’s screen. Five people and at one end, a slim, humorless man with a wide mustache stared back. The fuzzy photo held hardly any detail, but it was clear enough to see everyone in the photo looked downright miserable.
“That’s his first wife Mary on the left,” Chris said. “No one knows who the other people are. She died in the 1920s, when Mose was in his 70s. He then married Elida Hall, a 28-year-old woman fifty years younger than himself. He died in 1938.”
I nodded and shuddered. “Yikes.” I tried hard not to imagine their wedding night.
“Yikes is about right, but not unheard of, even today,” Chris said. “She gave him five kids, two of whom made it adulthood.”
“Oooh, nice whom there. I’ll make sure I put it in,” I said.
“Shut up,” Chris said. “Elida died in the 1960s. One of her kids, Irene is still alive. Or at least she was in 2017. Somewhere in Florida at a secret nursing home. Staff is pretty protective of her. Apparently, about once a year, some reporter comes sniffing around, wanting an interview.”
Chris stared at the chicken coop and crunched his eyebrows. I could hear him counting under his breath. When he got to eight, he paused, then cursed. “Eight. That’s two more.” He was angry and went stalking off into the park barn. “End of story for today,” he said. “I’ve got problems.”
I looked back the coop. Chicken and geese doing chicken and geese things. All seemed well. “What’s the matter?”
“I started the week with a dozen chickens. Then had ten yesterday morning. Now I’ve got eight,” Chris said. He pulled out a heavy leather satchel and plucked a well-worn pair of black binoculars, heavy as lead with red-tinted lenses. He scanned the edges of nearby trees slowly, not speaking and barely breathing. Then he slowly pulled the binoculars from his eyes, the skin pressed red around them.
“There,” he said. “That white oak about fifty yards off. With the broken branch. Look about ten feet up.” He handed me the binoculars. I adjusted them and put them over my glasses as best I could. After a moment I saw it. A red-tailed hawk, its cream-colored chest puffed out and thick claws jammed into the wood.
“Story time’s over,” he said. “Going to war with a hawk now.”
And sure enough, Chris did.