May 3, 2020: “The Wars of Heaven” by Richard Currey

Happy Sunday, Story366!

One of my missions during this coronavirus time is to get into better shape, to be thinner and stronger than I was before it started. That won’t be hard, if I do any sort of anything at all—I was a pretty big mess when all this began. So far, I’ve done a good job of staying active, working around the yard and around the house, and taking walks five or so times a week. That’s catapulted into me taking longer walks with my older son, and now it’s morphed into taking extra-long walks, or “hikes,” in an attempt to earn him his Hiking merit badge.

Hiking all the time as we do, this should be pretty easy, right? Wrong. While we are absolute pros at the short hike and the slightly longer hike—one to four miles—we found out how hard it is to add distance; and when I say “we,” I mean me. My oldest son is 13 and can run around all day like a fool and never get tired. He played football and ran cross country. And he’s 13. What we’re really talking about is 46-year-old me, who is falling apart as he’s moving along.

The main requirements for this badge—aside from talking about hiking, prepping for hikes, and discussing the possible dangers of a hike—involve taking long hikes. There’s a five-miler, which we did last week, and pretty easily. After that are three ten-milers, a fifteen-miler, and a twenty-miler, done in that order. Each hike has to be completed in one day, with a meal break allowed for the twenty-miler.

Today we ventured out on a ten-miler, a there-and-back course that cuts through the southeast corner of Springfield. We’d been on this trail before, have walked part of it several times, but we’ve never done the whole thing, beginning to end.

What I found out today is the first five miles, like last week’s hike, were a piece of cake. The far point of the hike is what’s called the iron bridge, a structure spanning one part of the James River. Affixed to the top of the bridge is a sign that says “DO NOT JUMP FROM BRIDGE.” Looking down into the river—after a lot of rain—I didn’t understand why they had to put that sign up. Had to be twenty if not thirty feet down. Who’s jumping from this bridge?

Of course, we immediately passed a trio of 15 year olds, stripping down to their bathing suits, and one by one, jumping from the bridge. Yikes.

We turned around at that point to head back, feeling good (and again, by this, I mean me). It was about a mile later, the six-mile mark, that I started to feel the twinge in my thigh, right where it meets my hip. Maybe I was getting tired? By the time we finished seven miles, it was more pronounced. My feet also began to hurt. When we got to the two-mile mark—squarely on trail we’d walked before, a dozen times—I was really aching. To boot, my AllTrails tracker had turned off for some reason, so I wasn’t even recording this to share. Luckily, we’d taken pictures at every mile marker on the way, just to show the merit badge counselor, prove we’d done the hike.

The last mile was pretty tough, near excruciating, as my momentum was the only thing keeping me going. We got to the car and piled in. I called the Karen, made arrangements for dinner, and drove home. By the time I got here, fifteen minutes later, I’d stiffened so bad, my boys had to pull me out of the car.

Victory! Sweet, sweet victory!

Today, after a sound nap, I read from Richard Currey‘s collection, The Wars of Heaven, out in 2012—as an “anniversary edition” from a 1990 original—from Santa Fe Writers Project. I’d not read Currey’s work before today, though I should have, as he’s had great success. Currey’s a Vietnam vet and wrote some books about it, including Crossing Over: The Vietnam Stories, which was a notable book in its day. In any case, here we go.

This particular collection is set in West Virginia, covering many eras, from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The opening story, “Tyler’s Ballad,” is about a train engineer recounting a tragedy, while also reminiscing of the glories of the railroad. The next story, “Old Fires,” is about James Heard, an old cole miner who similarly recounts several tragedies in his life, from his father’s death, to the dissemenation of his siblings, to the tragic, awful death of his brother, Benjamin, in a mine fire.

These stories set the tone and the stage for the title story, “The Wars of Heaven.” This story is an outlaw’s recount of the things he’s done, told to his mother, sort of like an epistolary story, only without the Dear Mom, tag or end salutation. The outlaw, Rocky, Lee, Jr., works through his life, little by little, until he gets to the point he’s telling the story.

Like a lot of hardened criminals, Rocky had a rough childhood. He grew up in a small West Virginia town, and most notably, his father was killed on a bridge in a robbery when Rocky was a boy. One thing led to another and Rocky was knocking off a local grocery store with a local gang of hoodlums. This gives him a taste for the life of a crime, leading to banks and other big targets, and eventually, being wanted.

One particular job, robbing a private residence, goes horribly awry when Rocky fires a warning shot, hitting and killing a young girl he didn’t know was sitting in a rocking chair on the porch. This transgression brings a whole lot of heat down on Rocky in the form of a posse—this is 1913, mind you—and leads to Rocky’s life on the run.

Rocky eventually holes up in a church, just five miles from where he was born, trying to hide from the posse. And guess what? That doesn’t work. I won’t go any further into the plot of “The Wars of Heaven,” but I do want to make sure it’s clear that this story is told, from one man’s perspective, to his old, heart-broken mother, using some pretty gorgeous, poetic prose.

In fact, that’s how I’d categorize Richard Currey’s work in The Wars of Heaven, beautiful writing outling some pretty grim, stark realities set in the writer’s home state. These are good stories, time well spent finally getting to them.