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  • My work in the University of Iowa's "How Fiction Writer's Write Fiction" has me rethinking what kind of story I might want to weave, involving my great grandfather, a drummer in the Civil War, whom I have written a great deal about, already. He's such a compelling figure in my life, it's hard not to want to write about him. It's occurred to me that 3 men who have had a really profound impact on my life, on who I am, are my father, naturally, and then two men I've never met, his father and his grandfather. So, as I sort out what angle I might want to take in a story involving these three men, I will do the only thing I know how to do, when faced with such a dilemma - write my way through it. This is the beginning of that journey.
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    In the beginning, he was nothing more than a small picture in one of those double-frame deals that open up and stand atop a dresser. His stood atop my Dad’s dresser for as long as I could remember, right up until the day he died, when I was 41 years old.

    There he was, an older man with a very wisened look, a pocket watch chain dangling from a vest pocket, and I believe smoking a cigar, looking very content with the world as he posed for that picture. He was my great grandfather on my father’s side, his maternal grandfather, Martin Hager. He died 15 years before I was born.

    Opposite Martin in that double-picture-frame was my paternal grandfather, James G. Bridgeman, Sr., a bald man with a big round head and a hearty smile that filled the picture. He died 3 weeks before I was born.

    I never met either of them, but through the stories told to me by Dad, who was a fine storyteller. Dad had that gift of weaving a story so thoroughly that you eventually thought you were actually there when it happened. I have many fond memories of stories Dad told that brought many events to vivid life, and in my memories, I always feel like I was actually there. He was that good of a storyteller.

    These two men who played such a significant role in his life they always sat front and center on his dresser, wherever he lived, would wind up having a significant role in my life, as well, though I never met either of them.
  • For Dad, they were his two father figures. James, Senior, his actual father, was apparently a very gregarious man, a man given to the highs and lows of life, always with a ready laugh, a glad-handing salesman with a marvelous singing voice, into sports of all kinds, a man of a strong liberal bent. Dad loved him dearly - but they never got along, never saw eye to eye. Dad was his only son, to go along with eight daughters, and from Dad’s stories, it sounds like James really wanted to fashion Dad to follow in his own footsteps - but Dad marched to the beat of a much different drummer.

    You see, they all lived in Martin’s house. When he was in the prime of his working life, Martin ran a successful business in the Lawrenceville district of Pittsburgh, a wallpaper hanging business and a general store, which he lived above, in a small apartment. As the business thrived, and his family grew, he bought and moved into a large, 3 story dwelling in the Morningside section of town.

    When his youngest daughter Eulalie, my Dad’s mother, got married, he insisted on having her and her husband move into the large house as they began their family. They could live there until they got on their feet and could afford a place of their own. They never moved out. They had all nine children right there in that house, which was large enough to accommodate them all, plus Martin and his wife, and Margaret, Martin’s other daughter, who never married.

    It always bothered Dad’s father that he couldn’t even be the man of his own house – he had a huge inferiority complex, as living in the shadow of a man such as Martin Hager must have really played to his insecurities.

    Dad was enthralled by Martin, his grandfather, and from an early age, chose him as his preferred father figure, the man he looked up to as a role model and a guide to how to live life, his model of what a real man was.
  • Martin and James, Senior, were about as different, in terms of personality type, as two men could get. Martin was very conservative, very steady, not given to outbursts of emotion, a man who believed in a certain way to live, and rarely deviated from his beliefs and morals. His was a character that had been forged early on, from ages 13 to 17, as a drummer for a Union company in the Civil War.

    As a boy, Martin was very attached to his step-father, Joseph Gerard, and his two older brothers, Louis and Augustus (Gust). When hostilities broke out between the North and the South in the spring of 1861, Gerard, a successful businessman himself in the Pittsburgh area, formed and outfitted a Zouave company, becoming Captain of the company himself. His two older step-sons became the First and Second Lieutenants of the company.

    After three months of drilling and preparations, the company signed on with the Union Army, becoming Company K of the 61st Volunteer Regiment of the Army of the Potomac, and set off to join the rest of the regiment in Philadelphia, before marching south to help guard the nation’s capital, and to quell the southern rebellion.

    Martin, just 13 at the time, begged his mother and step-father to let him join the company. He did not want to be left behind when they marched off to war. Of course, they couldn’t let a 13 year old join the army! You had to be at least 16, and besides, mother would never allow it. But, Martin was a determined lad, and when the company boarded the train to take them across the state of Pennsylvania, Martin snuck on the train and stowed away.

    He was not detected until the train had reached Harrisburg, well over halfway across the long state. It was too late to send him back, so Gerard did the only thing he could think of doing with his youngest step-son. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, he had Martin to lie about his age, to say he was 16, and had him enlist in the army as a musician - a drummer - so he could keep a close eye on him, and protect him from the fighting that was eventually to occur.
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    - To be continued -
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