Saturday, April 19, 2014

Tommy by Eric Lanke

A little while ago, I made my novel, Columbia, available for download from this blog.

Columbia is the story of Theodore Lomax, a nineteen-year-old Union solider in the American Civil War, and as committed as any to the ideal of human freedom. After being assigned to the army of William Tecumseh Sherman, shortly after the general’s infamous March to the Sea, he willingly participates in the destruction of civilian property in Columbia, South Carolina, believing his acts are justified by Southern resistance to the Northern cause of emancipation. But when the destruction escalates into violence against the civilians themselves, he becomes disillusioned, and feels compelled to strike out in opposition to his own countrymen.

The novel is told from Lomax's point of view, but there are ten other supporting characters, each with a story of his or her own. "Tommy" is one of these stories, centering on the character of ten-year-old Tommy Pepper, and describing his adventures when playing hooky from school on the day that the Federal Army arrives in Columbia.

There was a time when I thought these stories should alternate with the chapters in Columbia, presenting a richer but perhaps more tangled tapestry of the lives that painfully converge in the novel's climactic scenes. But Columbia is clearly a more coherent narrative without them. Still, they were valuable to me as an author, and I hope you find them useful and enjoyable as a reader.

Tommy by Eric Lanke - $3

Clicking the "Add to Cart" button will take you through a short payment process and provide you with a PDF download of the story that you can read on your computer or tablet, or which you can print at your convenience. The story is about 14,500 words and the document is 47 pages long. Given its theme and historical setting, the work reflects the racism of the time, and includes episodes of violence and strong language.

Want a sample? Here's are the first thousand or so words.

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Playing hooky from school was getting so easy, Tommy Pepper thought that morning as he and his best friend Jackie Watson ran down the gully between the schoolhouse and the railroad tracks. It hardly seemed like they spent any time there at all anymore. There was a time when he would have caught hell for being marked absent from school—caught hell from his Pa—but his Pa had been off in the war for three years now, and his Ma was not able to control him. Never had been. She would read the notes they sent home—not the ones they gave him to deliver; no, not those. Those he would simply tear up and burn in the wood stove. But the ones they mailed or delivered in person, those she would read and then she would sigh heavily, and say, “Tommy, what am I do to with you? You simply must go to school. You must!” And Tommy would dutifully say, “Yes, Ma,” and that would be the end of it until the next note arrived and the cycle was repeated. If his Ma thought that was going to be enough to keep him in school while half the other kids were spending their days running around the city and getting into mischief, she had another thing coming. The war had brought all kinds of interesting things to Columbia for enterprising boys like Tommy and his friends to see and get tangled up with, things much more interesting than the dusty slates and rote memorization that pervaded the schoolhouse. It was downright stupid to think they would not take advantage of these opportunities when they presented themselves.

And this morning had been no exception. Tommy and his friends had been on hand to witness all sorts of events and spectacles that had come to the streets of Columbia. Early in the war there had been numerous regiments mustered in the town square, thousands of men from all over the county converging on the city to be counted, sorted, and put into orderly rows, while gray-uniformed officers walked among them, issuing orders and seeing to the dispersal of sacks and blankets. Tommy’s own father and older brother had been part of one of these musterings and they, like so many of their countrymen, had brought their own rifles and ammunition to help build the necessary firepower against the aggressors from the North. These events were more like holidays than anything else, with businesses closing, politicians making speeches, and whole families turning out to wish the young men well, cry, and cheer them as they marched in motley ranks out of the city. No one really expected Tommy and his friends to be in school on these festival-like days, but after the men had been made soldiers and the soldiers had gone to war, much of the heady fever that had gripped the city went with them, and the expectation that boys should be in school returned, like so many others associated with daily life.

But once given the taste of adventure, Tommy and his friends found its lure difficult to resist. They kept their ears to the ground as much as possible, thirsty for any rumor which would give them reason to skip school. A regiment from further south marching through town on its way to the front. A general or government official staying over in one of the downtown hotels. They would gladly wait for hours on a street corner if it meant getting out of school for the day, even if the rumored regiment failed to appear or the sequestered dignitary never left his hotel room. As time passed and they got more and more comfortable with the idea of thwarting the wishes of the elders and more and more adept at getting away with it, their reasons for cutting class got flimsier and flimsier, and eventually they dispensed with the need for a reason altogether. The simple glory of being free and available for the next unknown adventure, they eventually understood, was all the inducement they would ever need.

In this spirit they had gotten themselves into a fair amount of trouble, most of it never reported to their schoolteachers or their parents. There were so many children like them, so many who should have been in school and weren’t, that most of the adults who ran afoul of their wanderings simply gave them a cursory chase. If they scattered as they all invariably did, the adult usually considered that a victory and went back to their business. There weren’t enough truant officers left in the city to effectively deal with the situation anyway, so as long as the children kept out their sight, each individual merchant, laborer, or newspaperman considered the situation someone else’s problem.

But compared to all the adventures they previously had, all the interesting things they had seen and games they had played, this morning had promised to be something special. The granddaddy of all rumors had been circulating in the streets of Columbia for a month now, that Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, who had marched his army of 60,000 combat veterans through the heartland of Georgia—burning Atlanta, capturing Savannah, and destroying everything of value in between—had turned his column north into South Carolina, and was bearing down inexorably on their fair capitol city. It had started as speculative whispers in the barber shops and sitting rooms, and had grown steadily in proponents and general acceptance until it had reached a near fever pitch, an absolute certainty that had some people hiding their valuables and others leaving the city. And yesterday came news that men in blue uniforms—the Enemy—had been spotted on the roads south of town, and would almost certainly be within Columbia the next day or the day following.

Tommy clearly remembered the conversation he had had with his friends about it the previous day.

“The bluebellies are coming for sure,” he had told them, reporting the news as he understood it. “Mister Jacobson saw them coming back from Gaston last night. They chased him and shot at him. If he hadn’t had his best team pulling the wagon, he wouldn’t have escaped with his life!”

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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