Frank Laumer - author, developer, family man, jolly grandpa - has obsessed for almost five decades about a fellow named Ransom Clark, who lived in 19th century Florida, got attacked by Seminole Indians, was left for dead with horrific wounds and survived to tell the tale.
Laumer has read tattered diaries, examined microfilm, looked at old weather reports, studied lost Indian traditions and pored over military records until his blue eyes wanted to cross. He has walked where Ransom Clark once walked, swum where Ransom Clark once swam, slept in the same kind of palmetto thickets, ate the same variety of berries and asked himself many questions:
What was Ransom Clark thinking as the bullets flew and his comrades fell? What went through his mind during those long moments when he had to play dead or be massacred? Why do some people with mortal wounds perish while some with the same wounds summon the will to keep on going?
For Laumer, a white-haired man of artistic sensibilities, the interest in Clark is more than idle curiosity. Although he is in good health, at 81 he is closer to the end than he is the beginning. What does it mean to be alive? What happens next?
Such questions gnaw at an obsessive, philosophic man who once felt the need to hold the bones of Ransom Clark in his hands. This was after he exhumed his grave.
Over four decades he has written two prize-winning histories about Florida's Indian wars. But he never felt his factual approach got at the heart of Ransom Clark.
Finally he has found a way to return flesh to his hero's bones. Nobody's Hero, his first novel, came out this month.
Raise your hand if you have heard of Ransom Clark.
If Florida were perfect, folks would already be lining up to buy Laumer's prose attempt at The Odyssey. Elementary and middle school students would throw aside their Harry Potters and read all about a real hero.
In an ideal Florida, we would name our kids after Ransom Clark, and if not our children, at least our dogs.
Frank Laumer believes he is the only person in Florida so far to have named his dog after Ransom Clark.
Ransom the dog is a majestic German shepherd with perfect bone structure and a lust for life. The other day the canine Ransom bolted across the lawn and leapt into the Withlacoochee River without a single worry about alligators.
The other Ransom Clark was a private in Company C, Second Regiment of Artillery, under the command of Maj. Francis Langhorne Dade. On Dec. 28, 1835, as Dade marched 107 men through Central Florida, they were ambushed by hundreds of Seminoles. The Indians were enraged that the Florida territories wanted them to give up their land and move to Oklahoma. The Union troops also expected the Seminoles to surrender any escaped slaves who had joined the tribe.
It was the opening skirmish in a seven-year campaign - the longest and costliest Indian war in American history.
The soldiers, on their way from Tampa to Ocala, were set upon by warriors hiding among the pines and palmetto thickets. Many soldiers, mostly illiterate young American men and recent immigrants from Germany and Ireland, were killed outright. As the Seminoles retreated, surviving soldiers felled pines, arranged the trunks into a barrier and set up a small cannon. The returning Seminoles overwhelmed them anyway.
As the victorious warriors stabbed or beat injured soldiers to death, Clark, who had been born in New York and longed for home, lay perfectly still despite terrible wounds. He had suffered a shot to the head. Another bullet had shattered his right hip, another his right shoulder. A final bullet pierced his lungs.
The Seminoles, like the ancient Greeks in Homer's epic, moved through the stilled bodies looking for spoils. As someone frisked him roughly for valuables, Clark pretended to be dead.
For hours he lay unmoving, waiting for dark.
- - -
Like his dog Ransom, Laumer swims in the river every morning, no matter the weather, with no concern about alligators. He feels utterly alive in the wild, cool water. Swimming gives him the jolt he needs to begin his writing.
As a boy, he wanted to be Tarzan; in fact, he still has the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels from his childhood among his library of thousands of books, lined along the walls of a huge house he built out of pine and granite with his own hands.
He has lived in Florida since 1937, in Dade City since 1957. His brilliant brothers, March and Keith, were overachievers who excelled in college. Frank's grades were so poor "I was asked to drop out.'' March learned 13 languages, including Chinese, and had a career as a military translator and college professor. Keith became a prominent novelist: science fiction mainly, though Deadfall was made into a movie, and Fat Chancestarred Michael Caine.
Frank worked in a soap factory in Chicago before returning to Florida to build homes for his father's company.
In 1962, Laumer heard about an important Indian war battle that had been fought only 10 miles from his home. Laumer visited the Dade Battlefield Historic State Park in Bushnell to learn more. The gift shop had a three-page pamphlet about the battle, but no book. Nobody had written one.
Six years later, Laumer published Massacre!, which won the D.B. McKay Award from the Tampa Historical Society. But as time went by, as he amassed more facts, the book no longer seemed definitive. So he started over again. Dade's Last Command, published by the University Press of Florida in 1995, remains in print.
- - -
Sometimes historical facts miss the poetry of a life.
"Night. Silence. Cold. His tongue felt like a big gopher in a small hole,'' Laumer writes in his Ransom Clark novel. "Taste of blood. Water. Got to have water. He tried to reach for his canteen. Pain made him cry out.''
The whip-poor-wills calling. A wolf howling. But Clark is alive.
A human hill of bodies. He crawls out of the pile.
Another soldier, an Englishman named DeCourcy, is wounded but alive nearby.
In fear and pain they band together. Their task: Get through Seminole territory and walk 50 miles back to Tampa.
"Son of a bitch,'' Clark says. "I'm not dying here. Lucy's waiting.''
Odysseus had to outwit wily gods, seductive sirens and one-eyed cannibals during his 10-year trek to return to his wife, Penelope. Clark hopes to marry Eunice Luceba French.
"Lucy gave me the world,'' Clark says in the novel. He considered himself an unsophisticated bumpkin before they met. If she loves him, he must be worthy.
An uneasy sleep. Dawn. He and DeCourcy share a biscuit. Start moving again.
They see color moving through the trees.
The Seminole whoops, scaring the crows, charges on horseback. Clark scurries into the thick palmettos and burrows deep. DeCourcy hesitates, so the Seminole singles him out for death. The warrior hunts for Clark, but gives up and rides away.
Long hours pass. Starving. A thirst made worse from the loss of blood. A useless right arm, just hanging there. Useless hip. Finds an orange on the ground, probably dropped by a soldier days ago. Discovers another orange. Even the rind is a gift from heaven.
Hallucinations. Thoughts about Lucy. What are they going to do when he gets back? What of their lives together? Eats berries. Eats weeds. Wades across a river, all the while watching for cottonmouths and alligators. On the other side, he hears a snake rattling. Wolves smell his blood. He hears them in the scrub, following.
Near death after almost three days and 45 miles.
Staggers carelessly into an opening in the trees.
A black-haired woman on a horse stares him down. A Seminole. He threatens impotently with his knife. She only stares in pity. He puts away the knife, gestures hand to mouth. I'm hungry! She slides off her horse, lays down her gun, feeds him jerked venison. She treats his wounds with a plant poultice. She eases him onto her horse and rides with him in the direction of Fort Brooke. She helps him off the horse, gestures goodbye. Rides away.
He staggers onward toward the gate. Sees a soldier. Hears a voice.
"By God, it's Ransom Clark!''
- - -
In Tampa, an Army doctor patched him. Clark started home on horseback, stopping at a military hospital in Savannah, where another physician wrote in his discharge papers: "All we can do is ease his descent into the grave.''
Ransom Clark fooled the doctor. He returned to New York, to his love, to Lucy, to their new life together. They married and had a daughter. He wrote down an account of what had happened to him - the only reliable account of the Dade Massacre - and sold the pamphlets for 12 cents apiece. In the next century, Frank Laumer would study the short narrative and use it in his novel.
A cripple, Clark was unable to make a living with his hands. He traveled on the Chautauqua circuit, going from town to town to tell his story as an Indian war survivor.
In 1840, he took a turn for the worse. His arm hurt. His old shoulder wound, infected again, finally killed him.
He was only 28.
- - -
After years of looking, Frank Laumer learns the location of Ransom Clark's final resting place. Laumer spends the next two years, and thousands of dollars, convincing a court that history would be served by an exhumation. Laumer hopes to compare the written record of Clark's injuries to the damaged bones in the ground.
On a crisp winter morning in 1977, he starts digging in a small-town New York cemetery. Ice at first. Then the shovel strikes bone. He carries the bones to a nearby garage.
Laumer, who tries to think of everything, has hired a pathologist to assist him. Yes, the pathologist reports, a ball did shatter the hip. Yes, a ball did shatter the shoulder. You can tell it never healed. This was the man you want.
They return Ransom Clark's bones to the frozen grave.
- - -
Frank Laumer is looking forward to seeing his novel on a bookstore shelf. Maybe it will be a hit. Maybe one day Leonardo DiCaprio will play Ransom in the movies.
"I can't quite leave Ransom Clark behind,'' Laumer says. On the weekend of Jan. 3, as always, he will portray Clark at the 28th annual re-enactment of the Dade Massacre at the historic site.
Despite the white hair, the arthritis and a certain lack of flexibility, he will portray a 23-year-old man fighting for his life. He will lie in a pile of bodies. He will scramble through the palmettos.
"Why do we go on?'' Laumer likes to ask friends. "Why do we get up in the morning when we all know we're headed for that great darkness? There is something that makes us go on. Life is a wonderful gift.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.
By Frank Laumer
Pineapple Press, $19.95
Frank Laumer will be a featured author at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 25 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg (www.festivalofreading.com).
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For more information about the Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, call (352) 793-4781 or go to www.floridastateparks.org/dadebattlefield.