Stephanie Vanderslice

History Lessons

Just days before it is due, during an enforced backpack purge, my ten-year-old son hands me his social studies term assignment:  Write a newspaper set during the Civil War era.  Your newspaper must be at least two pages long and reflect the events of the time period.

As a fifth grader, he is relatively new to such projects and, at least in my opinion, needs a little coaching.  Suddenly I remember reading that very morning in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette about the recent reenactment of the hanging of David O. Dodd, 17 year old martyr of the Confederacy, who was hanged by the Union army in Little Rock on January 8, 1864 on the dubious suspicion of being a spy.  Espionage, a young protagonist—what could be more engaging for a tween enthralled with Artemis Fowl, Spy Kids and Codename:  Kids Next Door.  A child who once asked us, in all seriousness, to take him to the CIA headquarters so he could offer his services as a gadget designer.


But then I read more closely.   Read about how the seventeen-year-old took more than five minutes to die.  Apparently, Dodd was hung with a new rope.   According to the article, Union members responsible didn’t realize that “a new rope would stretch. . .so when he was dropped from the tailboard of the prison wagon, which was too low, his feet touched the ground.  The soldiers pulled on the top of the rope and on his boots to try to quicken his death” as Dodd twisted in agony, but despite their efforts, “Dodd didn’t die of a broken neck, as in most hangings,” but rather of a “disrupted spine.” 

By the end of the article, I am no longer in January 2007 or January 1864 but January 1983.  I was a sophomore in high school when another David, who sat in front of me in Spanish, hung himself.  One minute, it seemed, he was joking during Spanish and entertaining whoever would listen with pop culture fill in the blanks (Hungry Like a__________) and the next he was hanging in the garage, where his parents found him.  For most of us that year, it was our first death, and it was an image that haunted my dreams for weeks, and, intermittently, for years after.  Sometimes I thought I saw him in a crowd.  Or, at odd moments during the next several years--at a college basketball game or on a marble bench at the Louvre or in the stands at a Sting concert—I’d wonder what would have become of David if he hadn’t decided, as troubled, rash adolescents sometimes do, to become his parent’s worst nightmare. 

David was a skinny, bright, underachiever with short, pencil-straight hair and disarmingly blue eyes who ran track because it was family tradition, something at which his many older brothers and sisters had excelled.  There was talk that he was in some minor trouble at school, something to do with his low grades.  In short, he was the kind of kid who today would just as soon watch Ed, Edd ‘n Eddy than do his Algebra homework.  Probably he would have grown out of his scrawniness—he was a sophomore, after all, a late blooming boy, the class clown who was more comfortable teasing a girl than chatting her up.  Probably, he’d have eventually found a passion that went beyond the Cartoon Network.  Who knows, maybe he’d even be a Cartoon Network executive.  But that’s just it.  We’ll never know.

So.  My son is a bright, skinny ten-year-old late bloomer (with an August birthday, one of the “Boys of Summer” so well documented in parenting tomes) who is also sometimes physically attached to his Gameboy and who has been known to go into a kind of manic reverie at the news that there’s a Fairly Oddparents marathon coming up.  Who has been famous in certain circles for his “high” energy since he was a toddler, which was when, truth be told, we took away his beloved pacifier and discovered that the device had been the sole link to his premature and entirely illusory reputation as a “mellow” baby.  Ever since he reluctantly surrendered that vice, the search for a substitute has included pens, pencils, lego pieces, his shirttail, and his middle finger, ensconsced in the cast required when he shut it in the car door (apparently, the smell of a weeks-old finger cast is irresistible).  These days it presents itself in an oddly disconcerting twirl of a certain lock of hair on his forehead,  nerdy yes but I’d hate to take away his one remaining form of what child rearing guru T. Berry Brazelton would call “self-comfort.”

It’s enough to make you wish there existed some kind of socially acceptable adult pacifier, especially with cigarettes, illicit drugs and alcohol looming menacingly in the middle distance and a family history of addictive behavior on both sides—typical, really, of any good shake of the ancestral tree.  Enough to remind you that the hardest parts lie ahead, in a minefield that brooks no false moves and even if you think you’ve got all your bases covered, bad things still happen, nightmares happen and sometimes all you have left is the prayer that they won’t happen to you. 

Thousands of miles away and over a century later, in another country torn by civil war, the government-sanctioned hangings continue and the copycat tragedies begin.  The little boys too young to comprehend anything of death but old enough to be fascinated by its instruments.  The older ones, steeped in tragedies of their own perhaps, or navigating alone the early flickers of mental illness—still too young to perceive the finality of death but old enough to be mesmerized by the spectacle. 

And what about David O. Dodd, by all accounts handsome but of “slight build,” not so much a late bloomer but instead something of a ladies man who enjoyed his popularity among the teenage female society of Little Rock, long deprived by the war of companions their age.  Despite repeated attempts to persuade him to name his co-conspirators, Union “traitors” who had burdened him with illicit troop information, Dodd remained steadfastly stoic and silent.  Brave perhaps, but also, in the eyes of any wild-eyed, hand-wringing parent, a poster child for the folly of youth. 

So. The newspaper clipping gets crumpled, a bit too aggressively, into a ball and buried in the trash, would in fact, be fed into a shredder if we had one.  My son surfs the web for information about the Gettysburg Address, idly twirling his hair as he stares intently at the screen, ignorant of this piece of regional history, for now.  David O. Dodd’s story may be a fascinating footnote in Arkansas’ Civil War past but I know enough to know that no ten-year-old boy needs to learn what can go wrong during a hanging, much less what even goes on in one.  For this knowledge, I suppose I will always be grateful to David.  The other David.



She Speaks To Me Still
by Nancy Dunaway