Being in the right place is important: mind, body, soul, and location.
It’s not a guarantee of fame and fortune or riches–but doors will open, good and bad. For some, like the homeless man in LIFE IN TWO HOURS AND FIFTEEN MINUTES, he was at the right “place.” Near perfect in one sense, and in another, needing to be perfected(this will not be touched upon in this post).
His name is Max Beckley. His story is legend.
It has thousands of layers, all tucked away in the belly of the beast whom some would say is the living, breathing soul of New York.
(Cigar Store Indian)
An old, “cigar store Indian” told me Max’s story. I didn’t believe him. Not a word he said. He was a crazy bastard who was feeding the pigeons in Central Park. He invaded my space and started a conversation that I didn’t want started.
I’m the friendliest guy in the world—if I know you. If not, I’ll ignore you at first, but if I turn to you, it’ll be with my are-you-talking-to-me glare. You think I have a bad attitude, come to NYC, and you’ll see for yourself that strangers who start conversations with strangers are usually missing primary nuts and bolts.
(Photo by Bald Punk, Sunny City Picture/South Street)
It was a sunny day, and I was sitting by a ball field in Central Park waiting for my friends to come so we could play soccer. (I’m early for everything. I have superior time management skills. Avoiding useless banter helps.)
Nearby an old man was feeding the pigeons. After a few direct glances as he tried to get my attention, he blurts out that once he was a cigar store Indian. I laughed in his face. He laughed too, then his large, brown eyes held steady as he began to tell me about Max. The old man had a long, rugged face and high brows, and a wistful gaze that said he’d seen good and bad in his lifetime. His skin was tanned though sunburned on the cheeks, and he had straight black hair with bold streaks of gray.
When he was done I still didn’t believe him, but it was a good story. An interesting story. Who knew that a few months later I’d actually have a meeting–more like a vision of Max Beckley on the promenade by the Brooklyn Bridge.
(Photo by Bald Punk, South Street Promenade)
The night that I had had the vision on the promenade, afterwards I met my friends at Jeremy’s Ale House. I drank a couple super-sized beers, trying to get the whole encounter out of my head. Then it hit me . . .
The homeless man whom I had met on the promenade was Max Beckley. He was the guy the cigar store Indian had told me about. He was one of The Immortals.
Now part of what I’m about to tell you about Max, the cigar store Indian told me, other bits I researched.*
(Plan of the City of New York – Bernard Ratzer, c. 1776 – click to expand)
Let’s step back 233 years to learn about Max. Any date in August is fine. The Ides of August is perfect, though he arrived here in late July, I think.
August that year was extremely hot and humid, same as it has been so far this summer, today being 8/16/09. Men from all parts of the country, and across the seas, had been funneling into NYC. Most that came by land, came on foot, and were armed with muskets, fowling pieces, blunderbusses, or just pikes.
British warships arrived daily in the harbor until the number swelled to over three hundred. They stirred up mayhem and terror by firing cannons, some turning broadside to the land and shelling onlookers.
A war was brewing, so was a country. It was set to explode.
(H.M.S. the Phoenix and the Rose – Fire Ships on the Hudson by Geoff Hunt)
From the black and gray smoke that hung ceaselessly over NYC that August, a great metropolis was set to rise.
All eyes were on New York City, including those hiding away in the belly of the beast.
Up from Maryland came a fine bunch of bright souls. Light oozed through their skin, and shined onto eternity. It caught the eye, even there.
Max Beckley was one of them, born and raised just outside of Baltimore.
Many in his Maryland Regiment wore fashionably cut, scarlet coats, buff-colored hunting shirts, macaroni hats, and fine socks. Their weapons were outfitted with bayonets that were new to American warfare. The blades glinted in the sun.
(Smallwood’s Maryland Regiment, 1776)
The battle that erupted late that summer was the first the Army of the United States ever fought, and they did not fare well.
The incipient, mostly ragtag forces had rushed into war and were ill-prepared. Making matters worse, in the middle of the night on August 27th, they were ambushed. The fighting started in a watermelon patch in South Brooklyn.
Superior trained and better outfitted British, Hessian, and Scottish Highlanders carved out a victory before the sun reached its midday perch.
From the highlands of South Brooklyn, General Washington ordered an all-out retreat, while selecting Max’s regiment–one of his finest units–to hold up the rear of his retreating army. He hoped they would provide precious time for an escape.
It was all but a death sentence for these southern soldiers, who were far outnumbered.
But in the marshlands of the Gowanus Creek, the Maryland Regiment fought long and hard, regrouping and attacking time after time.
Two-thirds were killed, wounded, or captured. From the highlands Washington saw first hand how courageously they had battled, and lamented, “My God, What Brave Fellows I Must This Day Lose!”
(Battle of Brooklyn, Old Stone House, Noon, 8-27-1776)
The war and country might have taken a different turn if not for the Maryland soldiers’ gallant effort. Especially if the British had broken their line and caught the rebel leader, George Washington. As we all know, he went on to become President and shape America unlike any other in history.
For their heroism, the Maryland 400 as they are called, were posthumously honored with the name The Immortals.
(Maryland 400 Monument, Prospect Park, Brooklyn)
Max Beckley was one of those who had perished that fateful day.
Body broken and near death, in his last few moments of life he lay in a ditch in the marshland, when a Scottish Highlander reamed him again and again with his bayonet. Death was beyond question. Though the afterlife would have to wait . . .
(Close up of inscription, Maryland 400 (The Immortals) Monument)
Don’t know if this counts as an epilogue or not — though I thought having one would be cool. I just wanted to let you know that I will tell you a whole lot more about Max Beckley another time.
Update: I went to The Old Stone House pictured above and took some pictures for you. Then a few weeks later I went to the Maryland 400 Monument in Prospect Park.
*Two great books for further reading:
Battle of Brooklyn 1776 by John J. Gallagher
The Battle for New York by Barnet Schecter
Here are all the posts in this series: Episode Fourteen – August 2009