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Johnny of Haunting Song - Part 2

Updated on May 13, 2012

His name was Augustus, not Augie or Johnny and he’d gone south to fight the Rebellion and came marching home again, the Johnny of haunting song. He’d gone a boy enraptured by the flags and the rolling drumbeats and returned home chastened. He’d survived, barely, wounded 6 times and kicked in the head by a spooked artillery horse.

The local men went as a single regiment, led by the most influential citizens who didn’t always make the best soldiers but sometimes did. Augustus’s folks were farmers, not businessmen and it was a businessman’s world, never mind most men were farmers.

Augustus came home as tall as any man and years later, when the governor was in town to dedicate something or other, white-haired Augustus was 1 of the local dignitaries up on the flag-draped bandstand and it was to Augustus that the governor, no dummy politician, showed the most deference.

Augustus’s family owned property on both sides of the lake road and right after he got home from his war, Augustus struck a deal with his father and brothers. He’d take a lesser inheritance if he could have it right away and what he wanted was a block of land on the lake. The farms went right down to the lake in those days, and his father put in some cash and with the cash and his military pension, all wisely invested by a fellow soldier-businessman, Augustus lived comfortably.

He built the house himself, no help, not even from his brothers and not even with the heavy lifting. He dug out the cellar with pick and shovel, wheelbarrow and stoneboat. Augustus hunted and fished, bullhead were his favorite, roasted over coals, and he kept a large garden. He was a loner, not a scary or hair-trigger loner. His was a bittersweet loneliness, the loneliness of a man who’d seen too much too soon, a man resigned to not ever being truly happy again and grateful for the compensation that was in the loneliness – Augustus, more than most men, found pleasure in the simpler things.


Once a week he’d put on his suit and with a sack over his shoulder and a few dollars in his pocket, he’d walk to town, to buy what he needed and to borrow books from the subscription library, and for companionship. Loners needed people too, sometimes more than regular folks. He’d conclude his business and stroll along the streets. Say hello to Augustus and he’d smile and touch the brim of his battered old forage cap. Ask him about the war and he’d touch the brim of the cap, smile and walk away. He’d finish off his day with dinner, sometimes at the hotel, sometimes at 1 of the big houses on Row Street and he was just as comfortable eating at 1 of the dilapidated houseboats along the quay or in a stick-house shack with a dirt floor.

Augustus attended the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the old bluecoats mingling with the grays. Augustus was wary but without animosity for the past and nobody could believe he was still alive, with all the ripping his guts and bones had taken, all that southern lead inside of him.

The major joked:

"Augie, you’ll live forever. If the war couldn’t kill you, nothing could."

Every year on Decoration Day, Augustus put on his uniform and marched with his fellows and as time passed and their numbers dwindled, the status of old Billy Yank, always venerated, became even more heartfelt, more desperate. The younger folks couldn’t bear to say goodbye to their own greatest generation.

3 years before he died, they photographed Augustus and 2 other men, marching. They were the last 3 surviving local Civil War veterans, and although no 1 realized it, on the day they were photographed, they were marching for the last time. A year later, the other 2 fellows would be dead and Augustus would never march again.

Walking home following that final parade and with a storm approaching and too proud to seek shelter in any of the farmhouses along the road, in all of which he’d have been welcomed, Augustus walked through the storm and was struck by lightening. They found him in a ditch.

"The lightening," and this was the only thing he ever said afterward, "jumped into my mouth."

His niece came to live with him. He spent the rest of his life in a rocking chair, by the fire in winter, on the porch, in the sun, the rest of the year, his legs wrapped in blankets. He was always cold. He died in the springtime and with the birds singing around him.


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