family


19
Aug 19

Perfect timing

Last night I was sent on a mission to dig up two photographs from 19 years ago. I found one of them. But I also found others, from 18 years ago. One of them is now here, because two weeks ago, I spun together a tale of a book I’m reading and my great-grandmother. It’s a pretty fantastic post, and I think you should read it. Anyway, this is that great-grandmother, Flavil:

While searching an old hard drive for other old pictures, I re-re-re-discovered this rich vein of photos I took just before moving out of the state for work in 2001. I’d taken the time to go see all of the family and visit and laugh and eat and take pictures, and such.

A few weeks later I was in Little Rock for a new reporting job. I’d been there about three days on September 11th. No one in the newsroom knew me or trusted me yet (Indeed, the news director at that station had a stunned look on his face a few days prior when I filed my first report. Maybe I was wrong, but I interpreted it as “He’s literate?”) and I saw the first cut-ins and had to tell the morning anchors.

The lead story that day had previously been the local zoo re-gaining its accreditation, and one of the anchors had spent part of the morning making animal noises on air. (My literacy was not the problem in that shop.) I imagine my great-grandmother probably watched her local stations go to the network feed right there in that chair, but all of that was still almost a month later.

It was gray the day we took that picture, you can see it in that south-facing window in the background, and I remember the rain was coming in later in the evening. When it gets gray there, the ceiling moves in for sure, but it never seems too low, and the sky always seems full of … possibility, I suppose. This storm could be a gentle shower, a toad strangler, a gully washer, the wind could really blow, lighting could strike. It could move on without an explanation. It probably wouldn’t get very bad, not in August, not like the spring and late-autumn storms I spent several years covering, but every cloud looks familiar if you’ve been through some of the bad storms. There’s a sense of energy there in watching a storm roll in, and I don’t just mean the perceptible feeling of the barometric shift. Plenty of places have that sort of experience, but not every place, and somehow even under perfect cloud cover the sky can still seem somehow bright.

Usually there would be a small group of us going to visit her. We’d sit in her tidy little house and exchange pleasantries and speak up, and ask and answer a few questions. It might have just been me that day. I always enjoyed visiting with her, she had candy after all, and I know she appreciated when her family came over, but, in retrospect, I was usually young and loud and in a hurry. By then I was smart enough to finally slow down a bit and listen a little. I was somehow brighter for it, too.

The young person’s lament: I wish I’d caught on to that earlier.

Do you know what I just caught on to, just now? Look at the date stamp on that photo.


13
Aug 19

They specifically said they wouldn’t play Freebird

When we started making our plans for last weekend my wife asked her parents what they would like to do during our visit. It was their weekend. Big birthdays, so we thought they should make the plans. We went to a wonderful little Italian restaurant on Friday night. On Saturday night, we went to a rock ‘n’ roll show.

This is a band called Long River Jam. The guitarist and lead singer works with my mother-in-law on a church program she runs. He’s a musical therapist, among other things, and he has this bband. Turns out the in-laws go see them fairly often at this apple orchard farm where they played this weekend. Did I mention we were celebrating two of those big, round number birthdays, and we were doing it at a rock ‘n’ roll show?

Sure, they played the Violent Femmes. The farm was selling their cider and baking you pizzas. They’d brought in a food truck that was selling not-bad downstate New York barbecue. There was a petting zoo, and the kids were running around having a great time. It was a great family atmosphere. And the band was putting out some great atmosphere. Here’s the more-or-less full set list:

Xs and Os – Elle King
Isn’t She Lovely – Stevie Wonder
Dancing in the dark – Bruce Springsteen
Harder to Breathe – Maroon 5
Hard to Handle – Otis Redding (But in the style of Black Crowes)
Hand in My Pocket – Alanis Morisette
Hurts so good – John Mellencamp
Santeria – Sublime
She Moves in Mysterious Way – U2
Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2
In the Name of Love – U2
It’s Beautiful Day – U2
Semi Charmed Life – Third Eye Blind
With a Little Help From My Friends – Beatles
Locked Out of My Heaven – Bruno Mars
Sweet Child o’ Mine – Guns ‘n’ Roses
Lookin’ Out My Back Door – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Oye Como Va – Santana

Because nothing says family like cults, massacres, political assassinations and crystal meth, he laughed, in his distinctly Gen X way, during the first set. To be perfectly honest, though, the band was doing a great job turning an oversized patio into a party.

And can I just tell you? The little kids, who danced most of the night away, really liked Hard to Handle.

Here are the in-laws, enjoying the show as the band plays just in the background:

During the break, my father-in-law said the second set wasn’t as strong. They come to see their friend in the band so much they know the setlist. But he changed his mind because of some new material and improving play. Here’s the second set:

Love Shack – B-52s
I Wanna Dance with Somebody – Whitney Houston
Let’s Hear it For the Boy – Deniece Williams
I Will Survive – Gloria Gaynor
I Will Walk 500 Miles – The Proclaimers
Valerie – Amy Winehouse
Good Lovin – The Rascals
Authority Song – John Mellencamp
I Want You Back – Jackson 5
Summer of 69 – Bryan Adams
Time of my Life – Jennifer Warnes/Bill Medley
Another One Bites the Dust – Queen
Magic Carpet Ride – Steppenwolf
Blister in the Sun – Violent Femmes
The Joker – Steve Miller Band
Last Dance with Mary Jane – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Country Roads – John Denver
Proud Mary – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Brown Eyed Girl – Van Morrison

It was right around Jackson 5 that we started giving him a hard time about his second set pronouncement. And then, of course, they had to put in Dirty Dancing, and so we did all the Dirty Dancing bits. All of them. Most of them successfully.

They did Country Roads with this cool Caribbean island swagger, and then on the last chorus really sped things up. That would have been enough, but they actually played an encore. Cover band encores are always good.

Of course by then it was late into the evening, and the guitarist we know had to go take his girlfriend to the airport for a 3:30 a.m. flight, so I didn’t get to ask, but I’m guessing the CCR and Van Morrison were some of the first songs someone in the band played.

Two other quick videos from the weekend. Here are some beautiful flowers I saw Sunday morning:

And this is a Purdue ad at the airport. “We’re a terrific university in a wide range of area, but did you know we’ve been to the moon?” Honestly, they probably have to resist the temptation to use this in all of their promotional material:

Anyway, it was another great weekend, which is why I’ve dragged it into Tuesday. If there’s a lesson to be learned it is to get yourself some in-laws who are kids at heart. They’ll always be ready to have a good time with you.


9
Aug 19

Travel day

Well we made it. Despite the rescheduling of yesterday — apparently several days of storms had thrown off the air traffic patterns of the eastern seaboard and they only needed the one more night, and the passage of one line of storms last evening, to reset the process — and a lot of choppy, bouncy turbulence today, we made it to New York City.

Meaning Laguardia Airport, which is precisely the same amount of mess we left it in our last visit. They say it will be completed in 2022. I say when have you ever known a massive project to hit its target. And, Laguardia is a massive project. The signage also says uplifting things about a better tomorrow, but you’re smarter than all of that. We’re all just hoping it isn’t as bad as today out there.

From a design standpoint this is a fascinating puzzle. How do you rebuild one of the nation’s busiest airports (20th, it turns out) while keeping it one of the nation’s busiest airports? It’s a dreadful experience today, but make it better. You can’t example implode the buildings and start over. You can’t add extra land (it covers 680 acres). You can’t move those 30 million annual passengers someplace else.

So across the Throgg’s Neck Bridge and up the coast of the Long Island Sound. Throgg’s Neck is named after an early 17th century settler, John Throckmorton. It was a Dutch to English name thing, as best I can tell. Anyway, the Bronx and New York grew up around it. And we were on our way out of New York to summer on the Gold Coast, or at least have a weekend with the in-laws.

We used to summer on the Gold Coast here in beautiful Connecticut, but now we are busier, I guess. This year we are having a long weekend and celebrating two important birthdays. So tonight we had a delicious Italian dinner at a local favorite.

I had the chicken marsala, which was great because so far today I’ve had … the bag of Cheez-Its they gave me on the plane. I don’t know why eating and traveling is such a difficult proposition, but this is the way it goes. I had a late lunch at Chipotle yesterday, some fries for an early dinner and a snack last night. I’m sure the little cup of apple juice I also had on the plane kept me at an appropriate caloric level until dinner tonight. It’s a curious thing, that’s all.

The important thing is the birthdays, and that I ate a lot chicken marsala. And it was delicious.


6
Aug 19

The Twenties, Thirties and the turn of the century

I’m reading Frederick Lewis Allen’s Since Yesterday, which covers the span of the 1930s.

It is a popular history, which is to say that it was both a bestseller and written immediately at the conclusion of that most tumultuous time. History has its way of revealing itself in its own time, and Allen nods at that often. The Harper’s Magazine editor and historian just didn’t know yet how some of the things churning up to speed in the late 30s were going to work out yet. How could he? But this was what Allen did, he wrote recent and popular history. It is well thought out, grounded in contemporaneous research and commentary and is easily digestible.

The fun part is, that while his previous book on the Roaring Twenties was a smash success and he sat down to figure out his next effort, it had to be about the Great Depression. And while he was living it as he wrote it, you and I can still hear the echoes. This part sounds familiar to me, for example:

Back in 1880, only 25 percent of American farms had been run by tenants. Slowly the percentage had increased; now, during the Depression, it reached 42. The growth of tenantry caused many misgivings, for not only did it shame the fine old Jeffersonian ideal of individual landholding — an ideal in which most Americans firmly believed — but it had other disadvantages. Tenants were not likely to put down roots, did not feel a full sense of responsibility for the land and equipment they used, were likely to let it deteriorate, and in general were less substantial citizens than those farmers who had a permanent share in the community. In 1935, less than two-thirds of the tenant farmers in the United States had occupied their present land for more than one year! In the words of Charles and Mary Beard, “Tenants wandered from farm to farm, from landlord to landlord, from region to region, on foot, in battered wagons, or in dilapidated automobiles, commonly dragging families with them, usually to conditions lower in the scale of living than those from which they had fled.

The Beards were historians who, among other things, wrote The Rise of American Civilization and a seven-volume History of the United States. Allen uses their quote so he can dribble down into how things got to be that way. Why be attached to anything? And how could you be, if this was what life offered you?

In certain parts of the South and Southwest this trend toward making a mechanized business of farming took a form even more sinister in the eyes of those who believed in the Jeffersonian tradition. In these districts farm tenancy was becoming merely a way station on the road to farm industrialism. The tenants themselves were being eliminated.

[…]

How easy for an owner of farm property, when the government offered him a check for reducing his acreage in production, to throw out some of his tenants or sharecroppers, buy a tractor with the check, and run his farm mechanically with the aid of hired labor — not the sort of year-round hired labor which the old-time “hired man” had represented, but labor engaged only by the day when there happened to be work to be done! During the nineteen-thirties large numbers of renters and sharecroppers, both black and white, were being displaced in the South … In the areas where large-scale cotton farming with the aid of machinery was practicable, tenants were expelled right and left.

Large-scale tractor operations were reshaping farming that was a step or two about subsistence growth into the business and industry of Agriculture, a sort of sequel to 19th century industrialism. But then what?

Where did the displaced tenants go? Into the towns, some of them. In many rural areas, census figures showed an increased town population and simultaneously a depopulated countryside. Said the man at a gas station in a Texas town, “This relief is ruining the town. They come in from the country to get on relief.” Some of them got jobs running tractors on other farms at $1.25 a day. Some went on to California: out of farming as a settled way of life into farming as big business dependent on a large, mobile supply of labor.

He wondered how far the trend would go. Would there be giant farm corporations, controlled from cities, putting smaller farms out of business? He wasn’t far off.

This was the reality for a lot of people. In my family there was some of this, but they also lived and worked and farmed under the ever-growing shadow of the TVA. It brought electricity. It brought jobs. It brought the government into private business in a way not yet seen. Ultimately it brought a degree of prosperity heretofore unknown to an economically depressed region.

This was where my family called home. Some parts of my family tree go back to when it was a territory, not a state. Some of the earliest ones were trading with the Native Americans, before they were imprisoned and shipped west. Recently we found the ferry crossing where my mom’s dad’s dad’s ancestral line came into the state.

Reading this made me think of my mom’s dad’s mom. I have written here about my great-grandmother, Flavil, before. She was in a rural one-room school as a student one year, and the next year she was the teacher in that same school. Her new students were her former classmates. Some of them were older than her. And when it was time for the crops to come in, they all went home and took care of it. She talks about being a sharecropper in her memoir.

She was apparently named after a prolific hymn-writer, and preacher, Flavil Hall. It’s an Irish name: golden haired youth. Near the end of his own life Hall gather a collection of essays and columns he’d written in various magazines and journals and sermons he’d delivered and published them in a book he called Pearls of Grace and Glory. It’s not one of those books you can easily have shipped over from Amazon, today, but someone had a copy or found a copy and gave it to my mother, and she loaned it to me. Among the collection of published pieces there is a section on people who are named after him. Quite a few people were inspired enough by him to borrow his name, it seems. Somehow he came into possession of, and published, a letter my great-grandmother wrote to her parents just before she moved out.

To Mother and Father:

There are so many things I’ve wanted to tell you both, but tears always prevented my talking. First, let me thank both of you for the many, many things you have done for me, which I know I can never re-pay. I feel I have probably repaid the expenses of my rearing, but I know I can never repay the suffering and trouble I have caused. Only God knows how much I appreciate the many things that I can’t repay.

I have come to many cross-road difficulties before, when I knew not which way to go, but this is the greatest I have ever experienced — one that I have worried more over than anything that has ever crossed my life. There is a period in the life of every one when he really wants to begin a home of his own. It is only natural. God so intended it. I suppose every one has to make this decision some time in life, but I really don’t believe it has ever caused any one so much worry and so many tears as it has me. I have lain awake many hours when the rest of you were asleep, podering and crying over the matter. … I have always loved you both and home so much that it seems almost impossible for me to part with you. The nearer the time comes the worse it hurts me. I really don’t believe there has ever been any one who loved his mother and father any more, if as much, as I do you. I fear when I am gone your love will gradually diminish. Do you think it possible to still always love me as you do now, as as you do the other children?

I wanted so bad, and tried so hard to help get the house completed, so you could have a peaceful, happy, comfortable home in which to spend the evening of life, after your hard battle of work and toil, caused by us children …

Again let me express my gratitude and appreciation to you for the many kind deeds you have done for me, for home, clothing, and food. And most of all for your love, for that was what prompted you to “bring me up in the way I should go, and when I am old I shall not depart from it.” What I am, or ever hope to be, I owe to you.

Remember and love me just as the same little girl, and let me have your prayers, for I am just the same.

There’s also a photo of her as a 15-year-old in that preacher’s book. The photo might be blurry and the transfer wasn’t especially clean. It’s that same little girl, but it’s hard to discern much more than that.

It’s difficult to think of your great-grandparents at these ages, or writing letters to their parents, or causing so much grief for them. Maybe it’s just a failure of my imagination. I knew the quiet, old woman and she’ll always be that person to me. But there’s always more, my imagination or not. There’s no imagining this: the roaring part of the Roaring Twenties were just about to end, even in the dirt poor South, when she wrote that letter. My great-grandmother had been courted by two young men. One she liked, but her father didn’t approve. The other, she said, really liked her but it wasn’t an especially mutual feeling.

She decided to write them each a loving letter and mail them in the wrong envelopes to see which one of the boys quit visiting first.

Her conscience though, she wrote in her memoir, got the better of her.

“I could never endure seeing Kelsie with some other girl.”

So my great-grandparents got married in 1927. She was attending college and teaching. My great-grandfather was also a teacher, or would at least become one by the time of the 1930 Census. In 1940 he operated a mercantile. But in that first year of their marriage, she once told me, she was laid low with tuberculosis. Right after that came The Great Depression. Sounds like a rough way to start your family. She said she never found out why her father disproved of the man who would become her husband, but they had three kids and eight grandkids. Somewhere around becoming a mother and a grandmother she was a sales manager, ran an electronics store and became a secretary. In her memoir, which she wrote in 1980 at around age 75, she says that was work she always wanted to do.

Really, she should have written that book later, or at least included an addendum. She still had a few fantastic stories to tell.

I just found one of those “Remember Our Town When” groups on Facebook. It seems that my great-grandmother, in the year 2000 took part in a re-dedication of a World War I memorial at the local high school. She read In Flanders Fields. And, according to that post, she had read the same poem 75 years before at the original dedication. (She loved poetry.)

UPDATE: A few days after writing all of this, I dug up this picture and wanted to include it here.

She lived to 98, a full life in the 20th century in the Deep South. Imagine all that she had seen in those years.

I’m reading about it in Allen’s book, from a comfortable chair in an air-conditioned room. Maybe she knew anecdotes like this one herself:


24
Jul 19

On the anniversary of the completion of Apollo 11, and other things

Today is the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Apollo 11 mission. And somewhere in the comments of this NASA stream of the capsule recovery someone writes “Is this happening now?” And that’s what you’re going up against in the world. Maybe Buzz Aldrin is right, about this too.

Anyway. I put this picture on Instagram over the weekend, while I was watching the CBS special marking the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

I took that photo Thanksgiving weekend in 2006 at the Space and Rocket Center. A whole bunch of family decided we’d all go look at all the sites in between turkey and barbecue and it was a great day. I’m not related to the people in that photograph, but I did listen in to the conversation enough to figure out what was going on.

There’s three generations of a family in that photograph. The younger man brought his son and father to see the museum to show his son what Grandpa did.

Grandpa worked on the Apollo missions, as an engineer. This was a trip down memory lane for him and he played the moment very cool. The grandson was too young to really appreciate this yet, but the father that middle generation man, was very proud of this moment.

The little boy, he probably just wants to go flip and toggle things in the museum’s displays. It might not have mattered to the old man, who, along with a lot of other people were taking part in A Great Thing.

It mattered, though, to his son, who carries this sense of pride about it.

Attitudes are curious. They can attach, morph and bind themselves to a single moment or ideal or action and carry us through a generation. That older gentleman had the war, and then space and the moon. His son has the memory of the moon, the echoes of the 1970s and the information age.

What’s that little boy going to have? Of course, he’s not so little anymore. That photo is almost 13 years old now. But this was the part of their conversation that I recorded at these displays.

“Ask Granddad about which one he worked on.”

“Which one did you work on?” the six-year-old asked.

“Apollo 17,” the grandfather replied, a little quiet and sheepish that others might hear.

What’s an Apollo 17 to a 21st century babe? Maybe dad, or grandpa, was teaching him how to throw a football. He surely was showing him his gramps was a big man. “Grandad helped send people to the moon … ”

Yes he did young man, yes he did. Your grandfather helped do that. Tell everyone you meet.

We watched an IMAX about the lunar landings and, afterward, my mother asked me if that was something that is impressive to my generation. She was in middle school when NASA first kicked moon dust around. She probably remembers what dress she had on the day those crackling little words made it back into the atmosphere.

The moon landings had come and gone before I was born, a historical inevitability. I have the sense of wonder of the achievement, but not the drama of the attempt. It has always been a magical thing to think Someone’s been there, but I’ve never had the notion that it couldn’t be done, only only the question of why we haven’t gone back. Budgets, interests, war, different rhetoric and other causes dragged us away, and but for robotic exploration the interim has been full of wasted moments in that respect. We had moonmen on MTV and conspiracy theorists.

To think it was only a few years before I was born that we reached up and grasped at something we’ve feared and marveled at for all of time … that carries a weight.

That we’re on Mars, that’s impressive. That we have tourists in space, that’s already become passe. That I shared a room for a brief moment with a man — and in a NASA facility the number might still be “several” — who helped put us there, that people a generation younger than I am will remember him, that’s special in a very important way.

Haha. I’d forgotten about this. That same day, at the Space and Rocket Center, someone suggested we ride something they now call the Moon Shot. Through the magic of science, you are flung 140-feet straight up in 2.5 seconds, achieving 4Gs on launch, and a few seconds of weightlessness in the descent. I started talking smack. My grandmother, who delighted in showing me up, agreed to a ride. Again, the conversation as I recorded it:

The Yankee: Arrrrrgh!

Mom: Arrrrrgh!

GrandBonnie: When does the ride start?

Seriously.

When we were doing this in 2006 NASA was still working on the hardware and software for the Mars Science Laboratory. Launched in 2011, of course, it landed on Mars in August of 2012. I have a dim recollection of watching live footage of the control room when it landed, and I wondered how that felt next to the moon.

Robots! On Mars! (And still operational, years after the initial goals!)

It is never happening now, as grandparents always know. The ride always started a long time ago.