Everyone has someone in their life they can point to as a positive inspiration. Maybe it was a teacher or professor who encouraged you to follow your talents to a fulfilling career. Maybe it was a parent whose nurturing taught you how in turn to be a better parent for your own children. Maybe it was a religious leader who provided you with a spiritual base that carries you through difficult times. Maybe it was a political figure who inspired you into a life of public service.
My inspiration to become a writer came not from an English teacher (though I had some good ones) but instead from a man who died in 1876 at a famous battle many Americans are at least vaguely familiar with: the battle of the Little Bighorn. When people today hear of that battle, if they know anything about it, the first historical figure who comes to mind is George Armstrong Custer. After all, it was also known as Custer’s Last Stand. But people closer to the history of that battle will also be very familiar with the name of an Irish soldier of fortune who commanded the 7th Cavalry’s I Troop–Myles Walter Keogh. It was through this battle in which Myles perished along with the rest of Custer’s command that I first came to know him. I was only ten years old at the time and not particularly interested in history then. Like many young girls, I was more interested in horses. But one day at a book fair at my elementary school, the two came together.
Being raised an avid reader, I always looked forward to the school book fairs. Invariably I would find a story about horses (Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley were my two favorite writers back then.) But at that particular book fair I ran across a horse story by an author who was new to me: Margaret Leighton. The cover of the book showed a black and white photo of a veteran cavalry charger. The name of the book was Comanche of the Seventh. (Some of you older folks like me might remember the Disney film “Tonka”, which was also about Comanche.)
I bought the book and read it multiple times (and I still have the copy). Through its pages I was introduced to Myles Keogh, a rather dashing, romantic figure, of course. I so enjoyed the book that when the school held a “novel-writing” contest, I entered a horse story that I had written. No Pulitzer-prize winner, of course, but good enough to earn me a trip to a young writers conference at a Detroit-area university. And, as they say, the rest is history. I’ve been writing ever since.
Thirty-seven years later, Myles still inspires me to write. Reading so much history surrounding his life fed my early love of history, particularly the American Civil War, a conflict that very much dominated Myles’s life and defined him. During the war, he served as a member of the staffs of such famous Union generals as George McClellan, John Buford, and George Stoneman. I direct anyone interested in learning more about Myles to a wonderful website devoted to him: www.myleskeogh.org
On June 25, of this year–the 135th anniversary of Myles’s death–I traveled to Auburn, New York, where Myles is buried in Fort Hill Cemetery. I’ve visited his grave a couple of times before but never in summer. The cemetery itself is a beautiful setting–rolling green hills amid ancient trees. Myles’s grave sits atop a hill in a section of the cemetery called Mount Hope. The weather that day had been gray and rainy, but when I was at his grave, the sun came out just long enough to flash across the monument at the head of his grave, and I took this picture.
I spent some time there on the anniversary of his death as well as the next day before driving back home to Michigan. It was the least I could do for a man responsible for the most important aspect of my life–writing. And for those who don’t believe that the dead can find ways of inspiring the living and communicating with those still here, I’ll close with a story from my childhood:
When I was a little girl, my dad often whistled various tunes, and there was one rollicking song in particular that always perked up my ears. At the time I had no idea why the song seemed intimately familiar to me. My father, however, did not know the name of it, an oversight that frustrated me whenever I heard him whistle the song because I felt that I should somehow know its name. Several years later I learned the title of the song: Garryowen. Garryowen…which just happened to be the regimental song of Myles Keogh’s 7th Cavalry, a song Margaret Leighton’s book Comanche of the Seventh credited Myles with introducing to the 7th’s commander, George Armstrong Custer, who reportedly so liked the song that he adopted it for the regiment.