Sunday, January 01, 2012

‘Woh-who-ey! who-ey! who-eeeeeeeeeey!

My two oldest grand kids, Frank and Ed (twins) are in high school  in Warrenton, VA.....birthplace of Confederate hero John S. Mosby.

The boys are studying the Civil War in their history class this semester and
one of them happened to bring up the subject of the “Rebel Yell.”

 He said his teacher told the class that it was a powerful tool of the Confederates in battle, as well as at other times of overwhelming excitement, but no one knows exactly what it sounded like.

(I had the feeling that, without doing the math, he was wondering if perhaps I had been around back then and had heard it....)

I had to bite my tongue.

I didn't say anything, because with many of my stories, my grand kids have a tendency to hear the “headline”.....roll their eyes....and not hang around for the “fine print.”

But the fact is, I did hear it once.

It was about 1946 or so and all I knew about my Cousin Henry was that he was a relative on my mother's side of the family and he was very old, having fought in the Civil War.

And he was coming up from South Carolina to visit with us.

For a week.

Typical "tintype" from 1850's

He was a very nice, but quiet old man who, as I recall, sat around our house and “whittled” all day. He seemed perfectly happy doing this and needless to say I was fascinated watching a small piece of wood morph into.....something..... other than a small scrap of wood. To this day, whittling is known as "the soldier's art."

But my Mom felt that we had to do something special to entertain Cousin Henry. She was sure her prayers had been answered when she saw in the Observer that the ICE CAPADES were in town that week!

Just the thing to make his visit memorable.

It probably did. It was certainly something that my family...and, I venture to say, most of the people in Memorial Stadium that night never forgot.

Now, the show was good, but the memorable part of the evening was Cousin Henry.

Picture the scene:

The stadium lights dimmed........the orchestra began the overture......a few skaters dressed in Tuxedos slid gently onto the ice.........and the spotlight began to shine brightly and focused on about 30 gorgeous young girls in tights sailing in time with the music.............

When suddenly......there erupted the most blood-curdling, animalistic sound that some historians have described as “originating in the depths of Hell” (but which that night actually came from about midway up the stands around the 30 yard line.)

Everyone turned and stared.

It was Cousin Henry.

Sample of "Soldier's Art"
Not everyone appreciated the historical event that had just occurred. My Mom was mortified. Many in the audience thought that it was part of the show.....much like the radio comedy shows of the day that hired professional “laughers” to sit in the audience. In fact, I've often thought that if Cousin Henry hadn't been so busy whittling, he could have picked up some side money by being a professional “Rebel Yell er.”

But that might not have worked, because in addition to probably annihilating every crystal glass within a half mile of Memorial scared me, and about 10,000 others in the audience that night...half to death.

Which is why I have no doubt that what I heard that night was authentic.

Historian Shelby Foote quotes a number of Yankee soldiers as saying,

..."a peculiar corkscrew sensation would go up your spine when you heard it" along with a claim that
"if you think you heard it and weren't scared ...that means you never heard it".