My first meeting with William Fitzroy Raglan Battles was on a warm June afternoon in 1958. We sat on the veranda of a red-brick dormitory building on the grounds of the Wadsworth old soldiers home in Leavenworth, Kansas. Battles was really old, and the truth be known, he kind of frightened me, though I didn't let on that he did. I was only twelve at the time, and I didn't even want to be there.
Chances are you have never heard of William Fitzroy Raglan Battles, and there is no reason why you should have. I know I hadn't—until that humid afternoon in the waning days of the Eisenhower era. Today, I often wonder how I could not have known about Battles, how a life as full and audacious as his could have gone unnoticed for so many generations. God, how I wish I could have known him better. But his life—as was no doubt the case with that of millions of other anonymous participants in history—was simply lost, crushed underfoot in the unrelenting stride of time.
Of course, there was no way I could know at the time that this meeting would trigger a series of events that would lead me on an extraordinary journey into the past and change my life in ways I could never imagine. When I look back on that first meeting, I wonder why I was so fearful. William Fitzroy Raglan Battles was not a particularly menacing man. But there was a definite hardness to him—the kind of stern, leathery countenance that you get from taking, and perhaps giving, too much punishment over a lifetime. I particularly recall his eyes. They were the color of pale slate, and almost as hard.
Maybe that was what frightened me—those eyes and the way they cut into you.
It was my grandmother who had insisted that I meet the man with those flinty gray eyes and that gristly exterior. One day she simply announced that we were going to drive to Leavenworth, to meet her father—my great-grandfather. That winter, my father had suffered a fatal heart attack, and my mother thought it would be a good idea if I spent the summer with my cousins on their farm near Troy, Kansas. Most of the time, I roamed the hills by myself, riding horses and occasionally helping out with the chores. I wasn't thrilled about spending an hour in the car with my grandmother driving the forty-five miles to Leavenworth. First, she drove really slowly; and second, I didn't even know I had a great-grandfather.
Nobody, including my grandmother, had ever really spoken about him—at least not in my presence. Why this was the case I was to learn much later when I was older and could "understand such things," as my grandmother put it.
The only explanation for this visit that I was able to extract at the time from my grandmother was that she wanted me to go with her because the home was commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, and my great-grandfather and several thousand other Kansans had played a significant role in it.
Big deal. The Spanish-American War. Who cares? I thought as my grandmother maneuvered her pastel-blue 1957 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham south down State Highway 7 through the undulating farmland of northeast Kansas and into Leavenworth. The Spanish-American War was ancient history. And besides, being around so many old people made me nervous. Death had taken on a new meaning for me. It was no longer some abstract event that happened to others. I had seen and felt its uncompromising manifestation when the emergency crew carried my father from our home several months before. And now I would be in the presence of someone who could die at any time.
Those were the kinds of self-indulgent thoughts that pranced through my adolescent brain that day. Today I know a lot more about my great-grandfather. The biggest regret of my life is that I was too young and too obtuse to understand what kind of human history database my great-grandfather was. I would only learn that many years later when, as a journalism student at the University of Kansas, I began to appreciate the value of personal narratives from people who could speak firsthand about events I could only read about.
That's the way it is when we become absorbed with history. We discover that the events and people of antiquity are not ghosts, or simply lifeless words on a page, or fading sepia images. They have an essence we can touch and hear and even speak to if only we have the right medium—someone who has experienced the past with passion and perceptiveness and has the keen senses with which to make it come alive to those who, until that moment, could only fantasize about it.
In this case, that medium was a rare individual who lived during what might have been the most tumultuous years in American history. Luckily, my grandmother, intractable and single-minded as she was, made sure that I would not forget this event or my great-grandfather.
When we arrived at the Wadsworth Old Soldiers Home that summer day in 1958, we were met by a Mrs. Lenora Crow from the home's resident information office. Wadsworth, which was originally built in 1885 as a home for aging Civil War veterans on Leavenworth's south side, was a collection of classic Georgian and Romanesque Revival buildings that sprawled over some 640 acres of well-manicured, tree-covered grounds. A few years later, Wadsworth was renamed the Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center.
Mrs. Crow, a bespectacled woman in her midfifties with gray hair pushed into a tight bun, ushered us onto the broad veranda of one of the buildings and arranged some wooden chairs into a small semicircle.
"I will bring Captain Battles out," Mrs. Crow said. She motioned for me to sit.
A few minutes later, Mrs. Crow emerged, followed by a man carrying a wooden cane. He wore a gray slouch hat, neatly creased light-blue gabardine pants, a white long-sleeved cotton shirt buttoned at the neck, and highly polished brown army boots. He towered over Mrs. Crow. When he was about ten feet from where we were sitting, he stopped and looked at my grandmother.
"Well, I'll be damned," he said. "Anna Marie. This is a surprise."
Later I learned that my grandmother had lost contact with her father for almost thirty years and didn't learn of his whereabouts until someone from Wadsworth had tracked down his next of kin barely a year before our visit. Great-Grandfather Battles simply had shown up one day and asked to be admitted. He presented his military discharge papers, and in he went.
Grandmother had made a couple of visits to Wadsworth before this one with me. Those visits had been awkward and difficult for both. I learned why years later.
Great-Grandfather Battles' stride was long and sure. At ninety-eight years, he was the oldest of the veterans at the home.
"Captain Battles is our pride and joy," announced Mrs. Crow. "Our oldest Spanish-American War veteran."
My great-grandfather gave Mrs. Crow a look that seemed to freeze her in midsentence. Then he sat in a rattan settee opposite us. My grandmother cracked a tight, reluctant smile.
"Well, I'll just leave you folks alone, then," Mrs. Crow said and then headed off across the lawn to the administration building. There was a moment of clumsy silence. My great-grandfather finally cleared his throat to speak, but before he could, my grandmother spoke up.
"Papa, this is your great-grandson, Theodore Remington Sayles."
I was mortified. I hated it when my grandmother pronounced my full name. I especially hated Remington. At least I could make Ted out of Theodore, but what do you do with Remington? And then there was my grandmother calling somebody Papa, and someone referring to her as Anna Marie when all I had ever known her by was Grandma. It was just all too much. In my eyes, my grandmother was already ancient. She was seventy, and here she was, calling somebody Papa.
My great-grandfather looked me over the way a rancher might examine a cutting horse.
"You're a tall drink of water, that's for sure," he said in a voice that was surprisingly strong and even for someone his age. I was sure he would sound feeble and dry. "How tall are you?"
"Five feet seven, or so I guess," I said. "But my mom says I am still growing." "Hell, I bet you'll be damn near as tall as me someday," he said. "Come on over here and let's see how far you have to go."
I looked at my grandmother. She had winced at the word hell. Grandmother, a member of the First Christian Church Ladies Auxiliary, was not one to abide cursing—even from her own father. But she nodded, and a minute later, my great-grandfather and I stood back to back. He was still a good six to seven inches taller than me.
"I bet you'll make six feet four in a couple of years."
He was almost right. I would make six feet three—actually, six feet three and one-quarter of an inch by the time I stopped growing about seven years later.
"Well, Anna Marie, how have you been?" Great-Grandfather Battles had turned his attention to his daughter for the time being. The two engaged in some small talk about various relatives who had recently passed away or were about to.
"Damn," I heard Great-Grandfather Battles say, a little too loudly at one point. "Old Charley Higgins gone. Seems like I only saw him a few months ago."
"It must have been eight years ago, because he passed away in 1950," my grandmother said.
"Must have been. I lose track of time these days, but no matter… I thought for sure he would outlive me, that old son of a bitch!"
"Papa!" My grandmother's face was flushed, and her fingers were digging holes in her black leather handbag. "Please!"
"Oh hell, I bet the boy's heard a lot worse—right, boy?" I nodded. "Who is Charley Higgins?"
"Why, Charley Higgins was one of the meanest SOBs in Kansas," Great-Grandfather Battles said.
I looked at my grandmother. She squirmed in her seat. Charley Higgins must not have been one of her favorite people.
"What would he be to the boy here, Anna Marie? Some kind of a cousin?"
My grandmother nodded. "Yes, some kind of a cousin, because he was your uncle Vernon's boy."
The fact that this Higgins person had been described as a mean SOB had gotten my attention. "What did he do?" I asked eagerly.
"You name it, and Charley Higgins probably did it—and probably more than once too. Why, I remember one time in Ellsworth—"
"Papa!" my grandmother practically yelled. It was like someone pouring water on a small fire. "We don't need any history lessons today, please—not about the likes of Charley Higgins anyway."
Great-Grandfather Battles looked over at me. He could see my eyes had grown twice their normal size and I was leaning forward in my chair.
"'Well, Theodore," he began. Then seeing how I winced at being called Theodore, he stopped. "I mean, Ted. Look, we will save that story for another time, eh?"
I nodded. "Sure, I guess so."
My grandmother was relieved. "How about going over to the canteen for some refreshments?" she asked.
My eyes wandered over the vast grounds of Wadsworth. There were old cannons and other military paraphernalia everywhere. Perhaps two dozen men in various uniforms or parts of military uniforms sat on benches or strolled slowly across the lush grounds.
The three of us got up and walked to another red-brick building called the Dugout, where a couple of dozen wooden tables were scattered across a wooden floor. On the way, I was surprised at how briskly my great-grandfather walked. There was the hint of a limp, which explained the cane; but for someone ninety-eight, he moved well.
The real name for the Dugout was actually the Amusement Hall. It offered alcohol, pool, and card games. The place had an interesting history. Carrie Nation, the famous Kansas prohibitionist, had visited Wadsworth in 1901 to protest the sale of alcohol. She got an earful from the old veterans—many of them dressed in their Civil War and Indian war uniforms—who hooted and whistled their disapproval of her mission.
"This here's about as close to an old-time saloon as I can get to these days," Great-Grandfather Battles declared. "Damned shame too. There used to be grand saloons in Kansas."
We sat at a table near a window, and eventually, I was sent to get coffee for my grandmother and her father. I bought myself an orange Nehi soda.
"Well, I'll be go to hell!" Great-Grandfather Battles blurted as he sipped his coffee. "If that isn't Tom Barkley over there! Why, I thought that mean old bastard was dead."
"Papa!" my grandmother hissed. "Stop it!"
"Who is Tom Barkley?" I asked a bit too loudly. Once again, my interest was piqued. Before Great-Grandfather could launch into what I was sure was going to be a juicy biography, my grandmother interjected.
"Never you mind. He's just another old good-for-nothing who helped give Kansas a bad name a long time ago."
Now I really was intrigued. I looked eagerly at my great-grandfather. He shot me a quick wink. "Sorry, Ted. Maybe another time."
We sat there for another thirty minutes or so while my grandmother and her father engaged in more small talk about family members I had never heard about. My eyes combed the room trying to figure out which of the old men was Tom Barkley. I finally decided he must have been one of four men engaged in a loud card game. We then strolled back to Great-Grandfather Battles's building. As we walked across the green campus, stopping for a few minutes at a bluff high above the Missouri River, I was struck again by how well he walked—erect and with a confident gait, even with the cane. For someone ninety-eight, he was sure in great shape, I remember thinking.
"You know, Ted, Lewis and Clark camped just up the river from here when they were on their journey of discovery," Great-Grandfather Battles said. "Just follow the river up past that bend there, and that's where they camped."
I nodded in acknowledgment, not really caring at the time about Lewis and Clark. I was more interested in Charley Higgins and Tom Barkley.
When we returned to the veranda, Mrs. Crow was waiting for us. "Getting on to suppertime, Captain Battles," she said. It was her way of signaling an end to our visit.
My great-grandfather extended his hand. It seemed as large as a catcher's mitt, and my hand was engulfed by it.
"Now you take care of yourself, Ted. And come back to see me soon!"
I looked at my grandmother. "Yes, we'll be back soon, Papa. But Ted has got to go back to Kansas City to school. We'll come back in a few months after Ted is out of school."
My great-grandfather eyed me closely. "School is real important. After you get out and you're a bit older, come back, and I'll tell you some real good stories about Kansas City." He flashed another wink at me.
Grandmother cleared her throat and looked uncomfortably at Mrs. Crow. "Yes, I am sure you will. Well, Theodore, we best be on our way."
My face was flushed again. She said it again. "Ted, Grandma. Ted!" I insisted.
"OK, then, Ted," my grandmother said, throwing a patronizing look at Mrs. Crow and Great-Grandfather Battles.
As we drove off, I looked back at the broad veranda where we had just left Great-Grandfather Battles and Mrs. Crow. He stood erect and waved with one hand. With the other, he patted Mrs. Crow's behind. Grandmother Sayles didn't see that.
About a month later, my grandmother and I would make the drive to Wadsworth again.
When we got to the home, my grandmother announced that she had some cousins she wanted to visit and suggested that I spend some time talking to Great-Grandfather Battles. I was about to protest when I saw Mrs. Crow and my great-grandfather standing on the veranda.
"Papa requested that it be this way… don't ask me why," my grandmother said. "I will be back in about two hours."
I wasn't sure what to make of that, but I saw no way out of the situation and decided to make the best of it. I climbed out of the car and watched it drive away. Then I turned and walked to the veranda.
"I imagine you are wondering what is going on," Great-Grandfather Battles said. Before I could answer, Mrs. Crow excused herself and headed for her office.
"Let's go over to the Dugout for some refreshments," Great-Grandfather Battles said. "I'm as dry as a covered bridge."
Even though he stood erect and walked pretty well, the pace to the Dugout was slower than I was used to.
"Sorry to be such a slowpoke," he said. "My pins don't work as well as they once did."
"That's OK," I assured him. "We have two hours."
"Well, I reckon we'll get there before then," he laughed. Then he grabbed my shoulder and gave it a short squeeze. When we reached the Dugout and settled at a table, Great-Grandfather ordered two lemonades.
"You must be wondering why I wanted to see you again." I nodded. "I guess so…"
"Well, let's not beat about the bush, then. I asked to see you alone for a couple of reasons. First, you are my only living male relative since the death of your father. I never had any sons, just daughters."
Great-Grandfather Battles saw my surprise at that remark.
"Most folks think Anna Marie is my only daughter… but I have two more. They live in Kansas City. You'll learn more about them a bit later."
Great-Grandfather Battles stopped talking and took a swig of lemonade. "Damned fine stuff, but it could do with a shot of whiskey." Then he winked and pulled out a small flask from his pocket and poured a few ounces into his glass. "I would offer you some, Ted, but I am sure Anna Marie would jump down my throat if I did," he said.
"I don't drink that stuff anyway," I said. "I tried it once when my father wasn't looking. It made me sick."
"Good! Don't ever get started. It could be the death of you. Look at me!" He laughed at that. "Truth be known, I never did care much for the stuff either, but now that I am so damned old and my bones and joints hurt, it kinda helps with the aches and pains."
He took another swig of lemonade-whiskey. "That's better."
I found myself looking around the amusement hall. There were a few other old men sitting around some card tables. A couple were shooting pool, and a few more were napping in brown leather lounge chairs.
"OK, let's get to it," Great-Grandfather Battles said.
I wasn't sure what to expect. I shifted nervously in my chair and then took a sip of lemonade.
"It is no secret that I don't have a lot of time left on this earth," he began. He was looking me straight in the eye, and I quickly shifted my gaze to the floor. "It's OK, Ted. At some point, the grass will be waving over all of us. It's the natural way of things."
"I guess so."
He could see that such a matter-of-fact explanation of death did little to salve the pain I still felt about losing my father.
"I'm sorry about your Pa. I never met him, and that's a damned shame. I expect you miss him a lot."
I nodded, looked away, and took a swig of lemonade. I did miss him, terribly. He was an editor at the Kansas City Star, and barely forty-five when he suffered his first and last heart attack while building a shed in our backyard. "That's awfully young to pass away," Great-Grandfather Battles said. "But we never know when we are going to be walking that final path. And that's why I wanted to have this talk with you today. I have lived a long and eventful life, Ted. In doing so, I have had a lot of experiences, and I have stockpiled lots of memories to go with them. I never got rich, but I was never impoverished either. Nevertheless, most of what I own is right here in Wadsworth, packed in a couple of trunks."
Great-Grandfather stopped to take another swig from his lemonade-whiskey.
I followed suit with my unadulterated lemonade.
"The fact is, Ted, as I said, you are my only living male heir. All my children were girls. I have no brothers, no uncles or male cousins, no grandsons, now that your father is gone. So you are it. And what I have I want to give to a male heir."
I wasn't sure what he was getting at. Was he giving me those trunks? "This may seem like an odd request of a boy your age—twelve right?" I nodded.
"Well, here it is. I would like you to have all of my possessions. It's not much, but I want you to have it all."
"Thank you," I said, though for the life of me, I don't know why. He didn't know me, and I didn't know him. I recall squirming in my chair and thinking that I wanted to leave. Great-Grandfather Battles was a perceptive old geezer, however, and he seemed to know what I was thinking.
"You must think I am a strange old grissel-heel, eh?"
I didn't say anything. Instead, I stared at my feet, which were encased in a pair of blue-and-white Keds tennis shoes.
"I made it a point during my life to keep a record of my comings and goings, events that I experienced, people I met—both good and bad—and places I traveled to," he continued. "I have written something like twelve journals. About a dozen years back, I began writing my memoirs based on those journals. Never finished it. I don't expect you to understand what I am about to tell you right now. You are still a boy. But later, when you are grown and you have finished your education, you will better understand things. It is just as well, because I prefer that a lot of what I am writing not be available to others until after your grandmother and I are gone."
He could see confusion in my face. What was he talking about?
"Ted, I want you to take my journals, my memoirs, all my belongings, and someday, perhaps twenty years from now, you can help me set the record straight about some things I did, people I met, and some events I witnessed." "Do you want me to take everything now?" I asked. I wondered if my mother would let me have a lot of old junk in my room at home.
"No, no. I am going to give everything to your grandmother with instructions on when she is to give it all to you."
He looked at me and saw that I was still confused by this odd meeting.
"I know this may seem like a lot to take in right now," he said. "Hell, you don't even know me. But you can believe me when I say later on, when you are older, it will all make sense to you."
"OK," I said. I was eager to get out of Wadsworth and away from this eccentric old man whom I had only seen twice in my life.
Great-Grandfather Battles and I walked slowly back to his dormitory. On the way, we stopped for a moment, and he looked down at me.
"One final thing," he said. "Everything I have told you today and everything I will tell you in the future is only between you and me. That OK?"
"You mean, I shouldn't even tell Grandma?" "That's right. Nobody. It has to be our secret."
Now I was intrigued. There is nothing like telling a twelve-year-old something is a secret to get the old mind's eye working overtime.
I met with Great-Grandfather Battles three more times over the next two years, and at each of these meetings, he told me stories about places and events I had never heard of. I think it was his way of priming my intellectual pump, of igniting my curiosity. The stories were not filled with great detail. I think he knew the attention span of an adolescent was a limited thing and didn't want to fill my head with too much information. Nevertheless, the stories created little spurs in my mind that many years later would help me unravel some of the mysteries of my great-grandfather's life.
My last meeting with Great-Grandfather Battles was a few months before he passed away. I had just turned fourteen. It was late August in 1959, and I had made the drive to Leavenworth with my grandmother. Once again, she dropped me off. The visit was much the same as the earlier ones a year before, but I could tell Great-Grandfather was not feeling well. He seemed less energetic then, and even declined the walk over to the Dugout for refreshments. Grandmother returned after only about forty-five minutes.
"You know, I was only about four years older than you when my life got real complicated," he said. "At the time, I wished I could start over again. But as things worked out, I am kind of glad about the way things went."
I recall that I asked why at the time he wanted to start over.
"That's a long story, Ted. You'll learn all about that later on. But for now, just be content to know that I don't have many regrets about any of the paths I took during my time on this earth."
Great-Grandfather Battles died in 1960—not long after his one hundredth birthday. At the funeral were several of Great-Grandfather Battles's old cronies—most younger than him but all filled with anecdotes and yarns about the man they were laying to rest. At fourteen, I was still too young to comprehend the meaning or significance of the stories they told. But I remembered something that Tom Barkley said—the man we saw back in 1958 in the Dugout that my grandmother didn't want my great-grandfather to talk about.
"Your great-grandpappy was one hell of man," he told me. "Most folks have no idea what he did in his life. I can tell you one thing—he had hell in his neck, but he always measured a full sixteen hands high, and he had more guts than you could hang on a fence."
I had no idea what Barkley was talking about at the time. Later, I learned those words were high praise—meaning my great-grandfather was a determined, courageous, and honest man who had considerable ability at whatever he did.
Barkley was one of the men who had spent a lot of time with my great-grandfather after the turn of the century. He and one or two others were much younger than my great-grandfather, and I was able to talk to them many years later when they were in their eighties.
I never understood exactly why Great-Grandfather Battles was in the Wadsworth home. When I asked my grandmother, she said it was his choice, but I always felt there must have been some other reasons. Had I been a bit older, I might have understood why families tend to conceal certain events, and even people, from public view. I might also have appreciated the wealth of knowledge and experiences Great-Grandfather Battles had amassed during his long life.
I went through my teenage years hardly thinking of Great-Grandfather Battles—the stories he told me and the trunks filled with his possessions. At my great-grandfather's behest, my grandmother had stowed the trunks in the attic of her house in Troy, and everybody pretty much forgot about them. There they remained until my grandmother passed away in her mid-nineties in 1983. The trunks were specifically mentioned in my grandmother's will. They were to go to me, but at the time, I was working in Asia as a foreign correspondent, so I asked the family to keep them where they were. The house stayed in the family, and the trunks remained in the attic, tightly sealed and forgotten.
A widowed aunt moved into the house, and it wasn't until she passed away that the trunks were remembered. In the meantime, I had returned to the United States and taken an editing job at a magazine in Kansas City. About a year after my aunt's death in 1998, I got a call from my cousin Janet in Troy. She said she had been going through my grandmother's attic and had found the trunks.
A few weeks later, they arrived at my house via UPS. What I discovered in those old chests was a historian's treasure—firsthand accounts of some of the most significant events and people in nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century history. There were dozens of black-and-white photos inside a shoebox, a rare .44 caliber Colt Navy Revolver and a .45 caliber Colt Peacemaker, three disassembled rifles (a Winchester model 1876 centerfire .44-40 caliber, a Krag-Jorgensen .30-40 caliber rifle, and a model 1866 Henry caliber 44-100 repeating rifle), an old slouch hat, a bundle of maps, a neatly folded khaki U.S. Army uniform with yellow captain's bars sewn on the shoulders and two lines of gold braid on its sleeves, some old reel-to-reel tapes that contained interviews with Great-Grandfather Battles conducted at the Wadsworth home and a large string-bound packet of letters written by an assortment of people over a sixty-year period, twelve journals, and a shoebox with my name on it.
The journals were bound together with twine into two bundles the size of large phonebooks, each about two inches thick. The yellowing pages were contained between heavy, stiff, cloth-covered jackets. Each cover had a large black number. The first entry in journal #1 was made September 6, 1878:
Mother has succeeded. She has seen to it that I am a student at the University of Kansas—much against my wishes. I want to go west, to see the world, to get away from Lawrence. That is not to be—at least not for the time being. But I will bide my time because I refuse to remain in this place while the world passes me by.
Subsequent entries talked about life at the university, which at the time was about twelve years old and still largely treeless, though a beautification project in spring 1878 resulted in the planting of some three hundred trees. The hill upon which the university would eventually be built was still known to most people as "Hogback Ridge."
Great-Grandfather Battles wrote:
But the faculty and town elders have renamed it "Mt Oread," which folks say sounds more fitting for a college. What a hoot that is! It will always be Hogback Ridge to me.
It took me almost a week to get through all the journals. They were handwritten, and some of the ink and lead pencil used had faded over the years. Nevertheless, they were in remarkably good shape. At first, I thought I might have trouble reading them. Great-Grandfather Battles had a beautiful penmanship, but it was of a different era, and more ornate than I was used to. The journals were an extensive record of Great-Grandfather's life and the various adventures he lived—and he lived many. Some, as I was soon to find out, bordered on the ignominious; and a few were undeniably what today we would consider "outside the law."
I had assumed the journals would have dealt with my great-grandfather's life in Kansas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and California. And many did. However, many mentioned places I would never have imagined he had been: the Philippines, French Indochina, Siam, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Mexico, and Central America, to name but a few.
By the time I finished, I felt as if I had been transported back in time; so vivid were my great-grandfather's descriptions. He definitely had a way with words—and for a good reason. Among his myriad occupations, Great-Grandfather Battles spent much of his life as an itinerant journalist working at assorted newspapers. It was his work for perhaps half a dozen or so newspapers that helped him develop impressive powers of observation and an effortless, crisp writing style.
It was about then that I began to feel a powerful connection to this man—a man I had met and talked with forty years ago, but who I didn't really know. Now, through the journals, I was beginning to discover just who William Battles was. If nothing else, I felt a professional kinship—we were both journalists, though he was much more of a participant in the events he wrote about than I had ever been.
Next, I opened a brown envelope addressed to "Ted Sayles." In it was a note saying that my great-grandfather had produced a 750-page manuscript. I looked through the trunk, but there was no manuscript anywhere. I checked the note again and found that I had not read far enough. The manuscript had been given to "some trusted individuals for safekeeping."
The note explained that the unpublished manuscript was provisionally entitled Hell to Pay: A True Account of My Life and Adventures, and that I would learn of its whereabouts after listening to a recording my great-grandfather had made specifically for me.
When I opened the shoebox, I found three six-inch reel-to-reel tapes. Each was fixed with a label. One read, "Wadsworth Oral History Project, Winter 1958," and another read "Anna Marie Sayles & W. F. R. Battles interviews, summer 1959." But it was the last one that grabbed my attention. The label on it read "For Theodore Sayles. Instructions and Remarks from W. F. R. Battles."
A small envelope addressed to me was lodged between the reels. Inside was a note in my grandmother's distinctive handwriting:
These are the only recorded interviews Papa ever gave. If you are reading this note, then you have Papa's trunk, and I am dead and buried. He asked me to make sure it was you and nobody else who got his belongings, and he wanted me to promise to hold on to them until you were at least 25.
The trunk contains Papa's journals and some tape recordings that are meant to fill in some of the gaps in the journals. Papa called these "splinters of truth." They were accounts that he declined to put into his journals. I hope you will listen to them and use them as you write our family history.
As you will see, there are things in the journals and in the taped interviews that some people might find sensitive, and perhaps even libelous, but I know my father, and if he said these things happened, then they did. He was a stickler for the truth, and I know he wanted these things disclosed. I hope you will follow through with Papa's wishes.
You will notice that there are supposed to be nine journals, but there are only eight in the trunk. Papa left one journal with someone he trusted because it contained some very unflattering information about some very important people, and he was afraid someone might come after it. I have no idea what that journal contains or where it is.
One tape was made expressly for you by Papa. He made me promise on his deathbed to give it to you without listening to it. Against my better judgment, I am doing that. I hope you will find it useful.
Your loving Grandmother Sayles
I sat back in my chair, my grandmother's note in my hand. What had I done? Or better yet, what had I not done? The trunks sat in attics, basements, who knows where else for much of my life—forgotten, gathering dust—while an astounding window to a rich past remained closed, as well as the story of the person who had opened it.
I knew at once what my task was. It would be a challenge, but I had to blend my great-grandfather's journals; an unfinished autobiography he was apparently working on; and the stack of letters, photos, recordings, as well as the other materials concealed long ago in that old trunk into a compelling narrative.
In attempting to do that, I have allowed Great-Grandfather Battles to speak in his own voice, the way he intended when he penned his story so many decades ago. Where necessary, I have filled in the gaps using his journals, the tapes, and a few of the conversations I recall having with him and his contemporaries. What follows is a remarkable saga that I hope will do Great-Grandfather Battles and the often-astonishing and sometimes-inscrutable life he led justice.
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