Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Custer's Last Penis
The topic of General George Armstrong Custer’s penis has been on my mind for several months now. Please don’t take that literally and get that awful image out of your head this instant.
I’ll not change my profile picture to accommodate your lurid imagination.
It’s been there since about March when I finished Nathaniel Philbrick’s “The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull & The Battle of Little Big Horn.”
I’ve been reluctant to address it -- the topic, not the penis -- for several reasons. First, it’s just so unseemly, as patient readers are about to learn.
Second, I know the instant I type “general custer’s penis” into a subject line it may awaken a sleeping automatonic army of Custer devotees who stir when the computer pings over that very subject.
They’re probably all very pleasant and informed people. Certainly, they’re history buffs like myself and we’d no doubt find much agreeable ground to discuss.
But the mutilated penis of a historically inept general is an unsound basis for lasting friendship. I’d much rather engage someone over, say, a shared fondness of Mark Knopfler music.
I tackle the topic now because a part of me that is very dear made what very well could be its last stand three weeks ago.
I am, of course, talking about my hair.
I’ve had long, luscious hair several times in my adult days and it’s always controversial. My many redneck friends, several of them former servicemen, stereotypically tease I’m some sort of sissy.
One joked it looked like I’d enlisted. Really, I asked? What century?
Because the second most enduring memory of the Custer era has to do with military hair. It was everywhere.
It cascaded down their shoulders. It spilled over their lips, cheeks and chins.
It was mostly that way with the mustachioed Custer, too, in 1876, the year he met his doom. Yes, one of America’s most famous and beloved generals could have time traveled a century hence and fit right in on stage with the Village People.
So when did short hair become so synonymous with our servicemen?
The most obvious answer is when the military became more mechanized. Perhaps some long-locked solider got his curls twisted in a Gatling gun. Or maybe it was for sanitary purposes, short hair giving crafty head lice fewer places to hide.
Either way, it’s a pity. Some of the greatest fighting men in literature and history -- Zeus, Samson, Robert the Bruce -- had long hair.
In fact, all the braves who slew Custer at Little Big Horn had what could be called Cher hair.
Yet, these long hairs were often virile and lady-loving men. Take Custer nemesis, Capt. Frederick Benteen, not to be confused with Capt. Benteen from the outstanding 1963 “Twilight Zone” episode, “On Thursday We Leave for Home.”
This Capt. Benteen was a warrior with an artistic bent. From Philbrick’s book: “He loved his wife, Frabbie, intensely and passionately (he sometimes decorated his letters to her with anatomically precise drawings of his erect penis).”
So primitive sexting pre-dated the smart phone by nearly 130 years.
Philbrick is even more emphatic when detailing Custer’s lusts. It turns out the man whose name is most synonymous with American military catastrophe was a serial rapist who repeatedly violated Indian women as the spoils of war.
One of the last quotes attributed to him in the book deals not with military strategy, but of sexual violence: “When we get to the village I’m going to find the Sioux girl with the most elk teeth on her dress and take her along with me!”
The reference goes unexplained, but I’ll bet elk teeth dresses aren’t synonymous with a squaw’s ability prepare a tasty meal.
His reputation for wanton massacre, treaty violation and rape was so renown that two Cheyenne women pierced the ear drums of his lifeless body with long sewing awls in the hopes he’d hear better in the afterlife. How thoughtful.
What I’d never heard before -- and can now never forget -- is those same women jammed an arrow up the general’s penis. The afterlife lesson they were trying to impart there eludes me.
So what are we to make of this man once so beloved by his contemporaries and today reviled by those of us who abhor war crimes and injustice? What would we say to his spirit?
I do not know. All I know is we’ll have plenty of time to decide.
We’re bound to see Custer coming from a mile away.
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