A Poet, a Piper, a Pawn and a King
By Ken Rossignol
THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY
HOLLYWOOD, MD. – A dusty lane leads back between several modern homes built on lots that Steve Uhler spun off from his farm. The lane passes past his livestock barn and his flock of sheep in his pasture and winds around the hillside, down a dip past his stable where he keeps his racehorse, back around to the left past a shed he smokes his hams and to the top of the hill where he lives in his worn trailer, guarded by a dog who appears to know how to guard the sanctity and earthly belongings of one of God’s favorite writers.
Most weeks when Steve called and said his column was finished and ready to be picked up, the lane was passable, sometimes, my trusty GMC Suburban plunged ahead through mud or snow to make the trek, as there was no way that the readers of my weekly newspaper would have tolerated any lame excuse as to why their favorite writer’s newest article was not available for them to savor and enjoy.
Steve Uhler wrote the Country Philosopher for about twelve years after he inherited the column space from Jack Rue when the famous innkeeper and Naval Aviator kicked the bucket and was buried with great ceremony at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Md. Steve was informed of his new responsibility as one of Rue’s dying wishes to have him take over his column – actually, Jack wanted Steve to join him on the same page but then Jack would have had to bother to continue to live for that to happen, yet, here we were at the graveyard. Rue loved my son’s dog, so, Nike, the elongated lab/basset, was part of the funeral party but was unable to howl along with Jack’s violin as she did so often in the newspaper office or our crabfeasts.
Steve knew that Jack was hounding him to pick up pen to paper for quite a while, thus he accepted the graveyard commission to continue the quest to inform and illuminate the readers of ST. MARY’S TODAY on and about the affairs of the world, the nation, and the goings-on of those bums in Leonardtown.
Steve Uhler only quit in disgust one time from his post as the Country Philosopher. The exodus lasted about three days; thus he never missed a week or disappointed any of his legions of fans. The endorsement of Parris Glendening by me on the editorial page of the paper in 1998 was the last straw. Then he called me and told me to pick up his new column where he wrote that since I didn’t tell him what to write, it was only fair that I could write any damn fool thing I wanted to such as recommending that people vote for that nitwit Glendening. Steve was right, Gov. Glendening turned out to be real doozy.
Steve Uhler put pen to paper. Sometimes a pencil. But when his legal pad felt the first jab of the pen, the ink flowed. There was only one draft, nothing was ever misspelled, not a word needed to be corrected, or scratched out. With perfect grammar – after all, he was a graduate of Miss Hope Swann’s classes – he spun his tales about pickle barrel politics, the awful Bama Gal Julie Randall, the Jersey Princess Shelby Guazzo, the pointy-headed liberal Joe Anderson, and the antics of newly arrived enviro whackos who wanted to ruin his treasured home of St. Mary’s County.
Steve told the country treasurer to come to pick up his lovely farm as the pinheads and denizens of the bureaucracy of Leonard Hall were ruining the county with their rules and flooding it with all the newcomers arriving. Steve didn’t mind new arrivals; he just minded their liberal politics and draconian rule-making desires.
The Clintons in particular bugged Steve as he held Hillary in minimum high regard and had equal disdain for any Rino Republicans as being even worse than the scandalous and thieving Democrats.
Steve told the story of discovering John Wilkes Booth’s pocketknife when clearing some land near the Zekiah Swamp at Bryantown. Another tale told of how to handle a wild bull in a pasture and still make it to school on time. The correct pronunciation of the place names in the county as sung by a Greyhound bus driver put such names as Oakville, Thompsons Corner, Busy Corner, Laurel Grove, Oraville, and Morganza. These place names mean nothing to today’s bureaucrats who lump them together under one larger name such as Mechanicsville – which stretches over to include Wicomico Shores.
Why have we allowed these outsiders to completely change the place names in this fair county?
Isn’t it bad enough that they have built their ticky tacky houses all over the best hunting grounds and crop fields in the county, that they have overrun our beaches and waterways, that they have crowded our county roads with their helter-skelter dashing back and forth to God knows what destination?
They have taken our fair county, must they erase every vestige of our heritage.
Back in the ‘good ole days’ every bump in the road had a name, every creek, crossing, and hollow.
If someone asked where you had been, you only had to respond, “I had to run over to Dynard.” or, “I been hunting all day over to Cremona.”
That’s all, you didn’t have to give route numbers, or recite any of these stupid lot numbers you see on every residence in the county except mine.
These yahoos speed up and down the road and don’t even know where they are.
For example: I was driving down Rt 235 past my grandfather’s old farm with yahoos passing on my left and right, blowing their horns at everything and everybody. (I don’t know what it is about these come lately city slicker’s cars, their brakes never seem to work, but their horns never fail.)
Well, as I was saying, I was coming down the road already ticked off at the traffic when I noticed a sign, “Hollywood Worship Center.” Then I really got hot.
I’ve passed that sign thousands of times without caring, but on this particular trip, it was the last straw.
What on Earth would possess a preacher to open a place of business obviously in Oakville and name it the Hollywood Worship Center?
I got to thinking.
Suppose some outland hillbilly moved to Hollywood.
And suppose that hillbilly had been doing a lot of sinning, you know, thieving, whoring, gambling, and such as that.
Suppose further that the hillbilly realized that it was time for atonement, that he needed to seek out a worship center and be shriven of his sins.
He would go to the yellow pages and find the ‘Hollywood Worship Center’.
If that poor hillbilly decided to walk around the little village of Hollywood until he found the ‘Hollywood Worship Center” he would wear his shoes out and never find salvation.
These developers who have come here to get rich quick haven’t helped any. They give their developments the same stupid names you find in other parts of the country.
Uhler’s education of the populace in need of his helping words was best served with his Booth story. There is no better way for a writer to leave this earth and prepare to make his best case with St. Peter than to have one of his best column’s republished and to let him have THE LAST WORD. Thus, here, in his own words, HERE’S STEVE!
JOHN WILKES BOOTH’S POCKETKNIFE
I recently did a land-clearing job in Charles County’s Zekiah Valley. We had to take out several big white oaks, and they presented me with a problem. What to do with the felled trees?
Not worth hauling to a sawmill, stump dumps would charge a fortune for the privilege of dumping them. I couldn’t burn them where they were.
They would make some fine firewood, but I already have enough firewood piled in my yard to last the next three generations.
Finally, I realized that I would just have to saw them into firewood and haul them to my yard and add to the glut of firewood already there.
I decided I would go get the wood on the first available Saturday, but first I would need to find a partner in the enterprise. I am reluctant to work in the woods alone, I have been injured too many times. I figured if I sawed my leg off and bled to death it would be nice to have someone to call the coroner.
“Peanut, do you want to go with me Saturday and get some free wood? You bring your truck and saw, and I’ll bring my truck and saw, and we’ll work together.”
“Yes suh, ‘deed I do need some wood.”
We were making a nice day of it. The saws were in tune, the air was pleasantly brisk. We were going to have two big loads of wood before the sun went down.
Then, “sking!” My saw hit a piece of metal in the log. That’s some bad luck hitting a piece of metal with a chain saw. It just about ruins your chain.
Oh sure, I can file away at a bent tooth and make it saw pretty well, but you can never get it to cut perfectly after hitting a metal object like that.
The cut that I was making in the log would have been six or seven feet from the ground while the tree was still standing. It couldn’t be a fence staple; nobody would have had a fence that tall.
I decided to chip away with my axe to find out just what I had struck.
I chipped away carefully until I had exposed enough of the object to discover that it was a penknife. A penknife with a fancy silver handle. The two steel blades had rusted away to dust, but the slightly tarnished case was still in just about perfect condition.
From the diameter of the log, I knew that the knife had been left there a long time ago.
As I exposed a little more of the beautifully engraved silver handle, I saw what looked to be initials.
With a little spit and rubbing the initials were brought to view.
Holy mackerel, I have found John Wilkes Booth’s pocketknife, the same knife he used to cut away the bunting that fouled his broken leg, the same knife he brandished while exiting Ford’s Theatre.
Wow! This relic is worth a fortune. I didn’t let ‘Peanut’ notice what I had found. It was bad enough having to share all this firewood with him, I didn’t’ want him to claim a share of my valuable trophy.
I decided to confirm the date of my find by counting the annual rings surrounding the knife.
Yep. 137 rings. The knife was left in the fork of a young white oak in the year 1865. In fact, the knife’s position in the first quarter of the 137th ring would date it to April 1865.
Now, for the sake of argument, you could say the knife belonged to J. W. Bowling or perhaps Joe Willie Bassford who resided in these environs circa 1865.
But, let me rebut, both of those men were subsistence tobacco farmers. They surely carried pocketknives, but the knife of a poor farmer would have a handle of bone or horn and not finely engraved sterling silver.
The knife I had found belonged to a gentleman of wealth and fame.
I stopped chipping at the knife, thinking that if I presented it to the experts still buried within the log, with the stump still in the ground, that the experts would immediately authenticate it as John Wilkes Booth’s knife.
It was known that Booth left Dr. Mudd’s house five or six miles from here and that this trail I was on would be a direct line to his rendezvous with his co-conspirator at Faulkner.
This tree was just at the distance a wounded, fast fleeing rider would stop to rest his bones and give his horse a blow.
He probably would have needed to tighten the saddle on his sweaty horse and used the knife to cut away knotted rawhide in his cinch strap.
The logical thing for a man to do while cutting away sweaty girth ties and re-lacing them would be to free his hands by laying his knife on the nearest shelf (or, in this case, tree crotch).
Even if the professors at the Smithsonian did not validate my find, I would always know that I owned the knife that was carried by the man who killed Lincoln.
I didn’t want to draw the attention of that greedy ‘Peanut’ to my million-dollar find, and casually threw my precious block in our pile of firewood. I could pick it out later at home.
But when I unloaded my blocks the one with the knife was nowhere to be found.
I burnt rubber to ‘Peanut’s’ house.
“Where’s my block?”
“Come on man, you ain’t gonna fight about dividing up the wood. You got a bigger load than I did.”
“I don’t care how much wood you got or didn’t get. There was one particular ford grained block that I wanted for…uh…uh ‘Furniture wood’.”
“Man, you couldn’t use that piece for any furniture, it had a piece of ‘arn’ in it. I seen it and didn’t want it to get to my saw so I split it out, took it straight in the house and throwed it in the fire.”
“Dammit Peanut, that wasn’t just a piece of iron, that was John Wilkes Booth’s Knife.”
“Man, you losing your mind. Bootsie Wilkinson wasn’t even with us. There was just me and you.”
“I didn’t say Bootsie Wilkinson, you dyslexic little bastard, I said John Wilkes Booth.”
“He wasn’t with us neither.”
‘Peanut’ led me to his stove it was still hot. I began raking the coals out on his floor. I was so mad at that point I didn’t care if his shack burned to the ground.
There it is, at the bottom of the stove. Not the beautifully engraved knife that I had left in the log but a non-descript puddle of sterling silver, a Rorschach blob of melted silver worth about $2.00 down at the junkyard.
Why did I have to team up with that miserable bastard? Why didn’t I just grab my million-dollar find and leave him in the woods? Why? Why? My last chance at fame and fortune gone up in smoke.
I carried that little chunk of silver around in my pocket, refusing to part with, no one else will ever know its value.
But, I knew that little blob of metal was once held in the hand that held the gun that assassinated a president.
Then one night in a bar I was fishing in my pocket for some coins and absent-mindedly laid the blob of silver on the bar.
“What you carrying that around for?”, some wise-ass asked.
“That sir, was once the knife of John Wilkes Booth.”
“Oh yeah, sure, do you see this ring on my finger? It was once worn in the belly-button of Princess Diana. She gave it to me while we were carrying on our torrid affair.”
The bar broke out with jeers and laughter. I stumbled out into the night determined never to be so humiliated again.
Maybe I should put it in a safe, or maybe just give it to my grandsons for a curio.
But no, it would only resurface years from now to embarrass them!
I drove down to Clarkes Landing and hurled that piece of s— as far into the Patuxent as my arm could throw it.
What is the sense of keeping a priceless relic if you can’t prove it is a priceless relic?
The visitation, prayers, Mass of Christian Burial and all with Full Military Honors details are found HERE.