Thursday, May 26, 2011

Thomas McNeill Bulla on Memorial Day weekend

I'm a newspaper editor by day, and most of the hundred or so e-mails I get every day are from somebody trying to sell a story or get what amounts to free advertising.
The one I got Tuesday morning was different. The name popped out at me: Thomas McNeill Bulla. It isn't that common a name.  The only Thomas McNeill Bulla I knew of was a distant cousin. We had the same great-great grandfather.  He grew up on the same patch of land where I was reared, in Vander, North Carolina, but he was long gone by then.  I knew he was a chaplain in the Army, and he was killed in World War I. Whatever old stories my parents or grandparents told about him have long been forgotten. I thought, if I thought of him at all, that he probably died of pneumonia or something equally ridiculous.
Turns out, he was something of a hero. The e-mail press release was from Fort Pickett, an Army post down in Southside Virginia best known to National Guard weekend warriors. The news: They were dedicating a chapel there to Chaplain (1st Lt.) Thomas McNeill Bulla, who died from combat wounds in World War I.
Thomas McNeill Bulla was born on Jan. 4, 1881.  He was graduated from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, then took a job as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Emporia, Va., in 1911. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, The Rev. Bulla volunteered for the 4th Virginia Infantry and was appointed in the rank of first lieutenant. Along with the 116th Infantry of the 29th "Blue and Gray" Division, he sailed to France in June of 1918. His unit suffered only light casualties.  Then, on Oct. 8, the division became part of the massive Allied operation known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. In the early days, Chaplain Bulla was said to have repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire by moving across “no man’s land” helping wounded soldiers to safety, something not required or expected of an Army chaplain.
Then, on the morning of Oct. 15, the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry was the lead element for yet another attack in the area known as the Molleville Farm. During the attack, Chaplain Bulla, again helping wounded soldiers, was struck by enemy fire and mortally wounded. He was evacuated to an Army hospital at Petite Mejoy where he died of his wounds on October 17, 25 days before they stopped shooting.      
From the press release, I learned that there's a stained glass window in the First Presbyterian Church in Emporia dedicated to him; that the American Legion Post 46 in Emporia adopted the name “Bulla Post” in 1924; that he is cited among the 23 Army chaplains who died during World War I on a monument at Arlington National Cemetery; and that in 1999 the Commonwealth of Virginia erected a roadside historical marker on the grounds of his church in Emporia.
I never knew any of that. I've driven within a couple of miles of that church probably 200 times over the years, going back and forth from Virginia to visit my parents. 

We were mostly a family of farmers and farmers' wives.  Only as the Great Depression was ending did college and sit-down jobs become possibilities for most of us. Thomas McNeill Bulla came from that quiet world, where work and church filled the week so full there was little room for dreaming, and then he somehow took himself to seminary and the ministry, and then to death and heroism in a forgotten field in France. It makes me believe there are wonders in the world about which I have no clue.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Welcome to my blog

I'm a writer and a newspaper editor.  I've been writing fiction since 1988 and have seen nine novels published since 1992. Every writer has a different story and a different style.  Some major in English and go straight into the world of Capital-W Writing, maybe getting an MFA along the way, maybe making a few bucks as a graduate assistant or adjunct at some college.
Not a bad way to do it.  Maybe I should have gone that route.  But I  didn't.  I majored in journalism because I believe that old saw that says find something you love doing and you'll never have to work again.  I love journalism.  Sometimes, these days, it doesn't always love us back, but it's honest, rewarding, creative work, and I laugh a lot most days. And if you screw up, there's always the next edition in which to get it right.
But there came a point, when I was about 40, when I wanted something else.  A lot of people tell themselves that someday they're going to write a novel.  At 40, I thought it was time to find out if that was possible.  It took me a couple of months to put together the characters and setting and the outline of a plot for my first novel, and the first draft took 100 days.  Recently, when I gave my papers to Virginia Commonwealth University and was going through early drafts, I realized that the first novel, Littlejohn, was rewritten a lot more than I'd remembered. I found six different versions, with three different titles. As with childbirth, you forget the pain, I guess.
Anyhow, I got an agent, the agent sold the book to The Permanent Press, which sold it to Random House after it got some good reviews, and I was off and running. 
My 10th novel will be out in June of 2012 ("Oregon Hill"), and I'm working on No. 11.  I don't take sabatticals, and I've worked for newspapers non-stop except for vacations and weekends through the whole time.  My 'secret' is one hour a day, every day. You can do practically anything in 365 hours a year.  The key is writing every day, though.  When I don't do that, things turn to crap.
Karen and I have been married 37 years, and we have a very active social life.  You can write and have a life, too. All it takes is a lot of consistency and a good imagination.
More later.