Since there is progress, I thought I’d offer up a status report on “Warriors of the Wild Lands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” The book is essentially complete and my beta readers have given it a strong thumbs-up, which is gratifying. I decided just in the past couple of days that I need to add a final chapter or an epilogue to tie some thematic threads together and to extend that theme into the present day — you’ll see why below. That won’t cause any delay; I’ll write that last piece concurrent with the multitude of other tasks this project entails.
Lynn Woodward and I are wrapping up shooting for the Kickstarter video, which will also serve as an EPK (electronic press kit) to market the book. That’s a big pickle out of the jar. It’ll take a while to edit and complete, but this is a big step.
I’m pulling together the price quotes for design, printing, marketing, etc. — all the stuff a publisher would handle. It’s a daunting bit of work when you have other responsibilities, but I am absolutely committed to this self-pub model. I have complete control. After hearing some friends’ tales of dissatisfaction with publishers, I’m glad I’m the only one I can be pissed off at. If I don’t like my work, I can kick my own ass.
As this process moves forward, several folks have asked me where this project “came from.” So, I herewith give you The Frontier Partisans Origin Story:
I guess you could say I’ve been working on this project all my life, since I was just a pup fascinated with Apaches, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. The first time I ever saw a movie in a theater was when my brother took me to see “Jeremiah Johnson.”
Though I was born and raised in the suburbs of L.A., my family had a little cabin in a small community called Wrightwood in the Angeles National Forest — so I grew up roaming the woods and mountains with a pellet gun and a head full of stories. Stories put there by books that were supposedly beyond my reading level and “too intense” for a young reader — but I had to know more, more, more about frontiersmen, Indians and Mountain Men. Again, my brother was a major contributor: He gave me Allen W. Eckert’s “The Frontiersmen” when I was 13 or 14 years old and I discovered the story of the 18th Century Ohio Valley scout and ranger Simon Kenton. I was a goner.
Eventually, my scope widened to include African hunters-turned-scouts and Mexican bandits-turned-revolutionaries and all the other assorted characters you find here.
I’ve never been able to articulate this to my own satisfaction, but for me this past was alive. As Faulkner had it, the past wasn’t dead, it wasn’t even past. I’ve been accused (and that’s the right word) of wanting to “live in the past,” but that was never true: I wanted to make the past present. A “palaver with a community of ghosts.” I’ve been engaged in that palaver for nigh on 50 years.
The seeds of the actual Frontier Partisans project go back to my honors thesis in college. To write what I wanted to write, I had to find some sort of historical way to “justify” these old stories of men of the wilderness, fighting small actions that determined the fates of peoples and nations.
Y’know, make them relevant.
My thesis drew a historical and cultural line from the frontiersmen of old (Simon Kenton in particular) to the American Special Forces “Green Berets” of Vietnam, the then-young elite anti-terrorist Delta Force, and the storied British SAS (in the ’80s, the SAS was THE hot special forces unit — as hot-n-sexy as SEALs are now). Just as I do here, I explored history, literature and film in drawing that line of resonance and relevance.
The line is not hard to track. U.S. Army Rangers explicitly trace their lineage to the Rangers of the eastern North American frontier — “a ranging way of war.” Boer soldier Deneys Reitz’s memoir “Commando” exerted a powerful influence on the men who established British Special Operations Forces during the Second World War. Frederick Courteney Selous gave his name to the elite Selous Scouts of the Rhodesian Bush War of the 1970s. American Special Forces would feel right at home with Al Sieber in the 1870s and 80s, turning indigenous warriors into a hunter-killer force to go after “renegade” Apaches. Our own John Maddox Roberts can testify to the lineage: He is a part of it (and hats off to ye, JMR!).
At the time I was working on that thesis — the mid-’80s — I thought that the line was fading out. It’s hard to remember now, but at that time it looked like the U.S. and the USSR would continue to glower at each other forever in an interminable Cold War. I figured that the scope for frontier partisan-style action was narrowing down to isolated incidents like taking down hijackers and the London Iranian Embassy Siege. Amped-up SWAT actions. Turns out that wasn’t an entirely accurate perception, but it was a reasonable one.
Several friends who had entered Cold War/peacetime military service left it as quickly as they could because for them it was a corporate/careerist bureaucratic nightmare that had very little to do with what they thought they were signing on for. They felt constrained and bored shitless. Despite some interesting SAS/Delta action chasing SCUDs in the First Gulf War, it looked like the time of the Frontier Partisans and their heirs was well and truly done. Some efforts, like the attempted rescue of the American hostages in Iran and the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Mogadishu were disasters. The Frontier Partisan heritage seemed to have become vestigial. Overtaken by a modern, hi-tech world — like keelboats being pushed off the rivers by the steamship.
The historical line has only been more sharply drawn — hell, it’s been carved with a laser — with the post-9/11 deployment of highly-trained and motivated Special Operations Forces who, like their forebears, are small in number and big in impact. The men who killed Osama bin Laden would damn well recognize the characteristics and qualities that marked out exceptional scouts like Frederick Russell Burnham and P.J. Pretorius.
That “ranging way of war” tradition is more durable than even I gave it credit for.
Sometimes I look back and I wonder, did I blow it by not chasing whatever I could attain of that experience?
Sure, there’s a little “what if…” there, but I have no regrets or complaints. The path I chose has worked out fine — I make my living with my pen, which is not so easy to do, and I’ve found useful ways to serve the community in which I live. I get in plenty of woods ranging and trigger time and abide in an unexpectedly rich environment in which to pursue music and storytelling. I have succeeded in “making the past present” in my life, so it’s all good. I suppose it’s natural to ponder paths not taken, but what’s the point?
Know this: I sure as hell tip my hat to those who are out there at the sharp end, upholding and enhancing the legacy their forefathers handed them.
In any case, at the time (at this point we’re talking mid/late ’80s) I had a specific idea of how to make a living while making the past present. I figured to get a PhD in history. Ever the Romantic, I saw myself as a university professor splitting my time between scholarly work and “field work” in frontier studies. If that conjures the image of a some sorta buckskin version of Indiana Jones, you’re not far from the mark.
Seemed like a really cool idea.
Well… that didn’t work out. What was I thinking? Graduate-level academia and I didn’t get along at all. My interests were regarded as quaint at best, certainly reactionary and probably “fascist.” And the guns and woods running? Are you kidding?
So, I ditched graduate school, moved to Berkeley (yeah, I know, WTF? Some people claim there’s a woman to blame…) A serious romantic relationship blew up, and I returned to my “roots” in SoCal to regroup. And sell fine firearms. Now we’re talkin’! I worked for the famed firearms accessories outfit Pachmayr in their glorious retail store on Lake Avenue in Pasadena, California, before it tragically closed down. One of the perks of the job was a huge library of Africana, mostly hunters’ bios and memoirs, that I could dip into with an employee discount. Dangerous to the paycheck.
I carried on my “studies” independently — which entailed reading lots of cool books, shooting historic firearms, and working on outdoor skills (tough gig, I know). Got married to a fantastic woman, and moved to a small town on the edge of a Big Wilderness. Started working in the newspaper biz. Wrote songs; started a band. Raised a daughter. Ran the woods; practiced martial arts. Continued to “study” and write.
Over many years, I’ve started and stopped historical fiction projects related to this history. Nothing “took.” Much as I love good historical fiction, I’ve never felt comfortable writing it. As soon as I start tweaking the history to fit the story, it stops working for me. I get inhibited. As a journalist by trade, I’m used to reporting a story, not creating one (go ahead and make the joke…).
One day, while hiking in the woods, I recalled how much I loved Win Blevins’ non-fiction Mountain Man tribute “Give Your Heart To the Hawks.” It was a genuine epiphany — that moment when everything becomes crystal clear. I was not succeeding with historical fiction because I should be writing history. I wanted to do what “Hawks” had done, but on an international stage and across a wider swath of time. And I could use that old thesis, tracing the line from Simon Kenton to Frederick Russell Burnham and P.J. Pretorius to Delta Force.
The first step was to start this blog. Why “Frontier Partisans”? Well, “Frontier” is obvious. The term “Partisan” evokes small, irregular bands of men fighting in woods, mountains and deserts. While it’s most often associated with World War II resistance movements (the Soviet Partisans and the Yugoslav Partisans gave the German Wehrmacht fits) when you attach “frontier” to it, it accurately evokes that “ranging way of war.” Carved down to its most fundamental level, frontier partisan warfare amounts contending gangs of armed men, each representing their “tribe” and fighting it out for control of the land — from North America to Africa and beyond.
A key aspect of the men I profile is that they were warriors, but not soldiers. Simon Kenton formed his own, unsanctioned Ranger band. Jack Hays’ and Ben McCulloch’s Texas Rangers were volunteers, even in the Mexican War (and U.S. Army General Zachary Taylor despised their indiscipline and murderous tendencies and would never have considered them soldiers). Al Sieber of Apache Wars fame was a professional scout — but always as a civilian contractor. Frederick Russell Burnham may have been “the greatest scout America ever produced,” but his day job was prospecting. Frederick Courteney Selous and P.J. Pretorius both held rank in the British Army during World War I, but they were really professional hunters bringing their skills to bear in a military setting. Thus… “partisans.”
I have used the blog both to test an approach to writing and to test the level of interest out there in the world for these kinds of stories. The book was always in the cards — though it is by no means an end point. I knew I was going to self-publish, so that I could create exactly the book I wanted to create — and hang on to all the proceeds. The publishing world being what it is (and isn’t) I believe it’s the right choice.
Frontier Partisans is up past 400 posts and some 1,400 comments. You all have shown me that there is plenty of interest in the kinds of stories I love to tell, which gratifies me beyond words. So, thank you.
The journey continues…