Thursday, November 26, 2009

Pre-Thanksgiving Leftovers

I want one of these shirts.  Of all the Kirk McCurrays in the world, I am the Kirk McCurrayist

A few jots and tittles for ya, before you commence to consume mass quantities...

A reader asks why we've experienced Walter Siedlecki interruptus.  It's a great story, and at the eleventh hour, I found some data that adds a lot of information.  I want to do justice to the story, so I'm holding off.  The data includes, I think, his complete military record, so that should be something worth waiting for!

The same reader wonders why the Poles did not readily assimilate into American society.  It's a great question, and I will address it in a future posting.  Suffice to say there are three strains of immigrants: those who came here expressly to establish a new home; those who came here as political or religious exiles; and those who came here as economic refugees.  Assimilation, particularly for group two, takes generations for some groups.

I was at the bank yesterday.  I've gone to the same bank for nearly twenty-four years.  Our personal accounts are there.  My corporate account is there.  They know me.  So I'm making a deposit in the drive-through lane, and the lady sends back the deposit bag with a cherry, "Have a happy Thanksgiving, Mr. McCurry."

McCurry.  How I hate you, McCurry.

I tracked down another distant relative this week.  Rick Heenan, of Lockport.  Rick is the youngest child of Charlotte McMurray Heenan, who was my grandfather's sister.  Rick is a singer-songwriter, who performs all over upstate New York.  He plays something he calls "Canal Blues" -- it's good stuff!

Have a happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Monday, November 23, 2009


                This shouldn't make me laugh, but it does.                     

My office is a long way from home, even by Houston standards.  I face a round trip of roughly seventy miles, every single day.  Each year, just in the simple, joyless task of commuting, I am driving 15,400 miles.

That's a ridiculous amount of driving.  How ridiculous?  Well, intrepid reader, if I were to drive from Houston to Los Angeles, and from there to San Francisco, and from there to Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, and then take the Trans-Canada Highway through Calgary, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City, afterward heading south through Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Miami, then cut west across Florida, turn north, and take I-10 through New Orleans back to Houston, I would have driven only 8,900 miles.  That leaves enough miles left over for two round trips from Houston to Buffalo.  Take a minute.  Look at a map.  It's a ridiculous amount of driving.  And all I see for all my driving is an endless string of fast food joints and the fifteen-story illuminated white cross the Southern Baptists built down near the I-45 cloverleaf.  It's depressing.

So thank goodness for audio books.  

I'm listening to one right now, The Men Who Stare At Goats, Jon Ronson's investigation of the US Army's forays into the paranormal.  It's a bizarre and gripping story.  

One of Ronson's interviewees claims that the Army had established a hierarchy of stealth skills for its paranormal forces.  Level One is to subsist for a month on a diet of nuts and  grains.  Level Two is to master invisibility.  Level Three is harnessing sufficient mind power to kill goats, simply by staring at them.  These so-called "Black Operations" have been lavishly funded by the US government, which is clearly beside itself over the prospect of fielding an army of invisible vegan warriors who can kill small livestock at will.

Invisibility, Ronson's source explains, doesn't necessarily mean the ability to dematerialize.  It simply means that the subject can "hide in plain sight;" that he (or she, although there is a remarkable dearth of women pursuing these things) can move in public without detection, like a boat that inexplicably leaves no wake, no ripple in the water.

I have concluded, intrepid readers, that I am close to achieving invisibility.  I am on the cusp of becoming a Ninja.

Two weeks ago, one of the local news programs interviewed me, in connection to a local school board election.  I wasn't running, but had been active in the campaign.  Despite the reporter having written down my name, despite her having called me to double check the spelling of my name, when my large middle-aged head appeared on the 6:00 news, the graphic underneath it said, "Cort McCurry, Concerned Parent."

Yesterday, a lady at Church, a delightful, kind, friendly woman, someone who has known me for two decades, introduced me to a group of Primary children as "Brother McMurtry."  And she said it three times: McMurtry, McMurtry, McMurtry.

I've written previously about the remarkable variety of sobriquets with which I've been saddled by friends and neighbors.  It is a rich pageant: Kurt Corky Corey Coit Colt Curry Carey Carl Cole Horton (don't ask) Stephen (really don't ask) Peter (seriously, it's a long story) and my personal favorite, courtesy of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball club, Kirk McGurkle.  Now McCurry and McMurtry enter the panoply.  People named Bob Smith don't have this problem.

What explains it?  It's four lousy syllables, after all, all blessedly free of long runs of grouped consonants and disconcerting graphemes, like umlauts and tildes.  I can understand honest spelling errors, adding a "u" to "Cort" or dropping the "a" from my last name, but "Kirk McGurkle"?  "Mister McCurry"?  "Horton"?  I mean, come on!

Mr. Ronson has helped me to see the light.  There's some serious mojo at work here, folks.  Somehow, using powers far beyond those of mortal men, I am becoming invisible (a feat rarely accomplished by anyone wearing size 42 pants).  Today, I am Coit McMurtry.  Tomorrow, I am just a shadow.  The day after that, it's on to Level Three.

Goats everywhere are terrified.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Let's grab some ridiculously overpriced popcorn and a couple of leathery hot dogs!

You may have noticed that I haven't written this week.

It's not for lack of thinking, or lack of desire.  It's a lack of time.

A long time ago, when I was maybe late teens, maybe early twenties, I attended a wake for some distant relative who might have been my great-aunt.  (This underscores one of the strange and distressing things about family:  until my generation, no one moved very far away from the Avenues.  That was Home Base, the place where your went to make sense of things.  There were hundreds of us, Litwins and Siedleckis and Klimeks and others, all within a three or four mile radius of one another.  The same was true on the other side of the family, even if the center point was more First Ward than Third Ward.  And for all of that, I knew very few of my relatives beyond my brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents.  There was this amazing collection of second cousins and great aunts and uncles, great-grandparents even, who were like ground echoes on a weatherman's Super Doppler 3000 radar screen: they showed up, but were immediately dismissed as shadow images, nothing to bother with at all.)

This wake was held at the Saber-Skomski funeral home, on Oliver Street.  There were three funeral homes on Oliver Street: Wattengel's, which serviced the folks south of Wheatfield Street, the Italians and the Irish and the intermarried Germans and the people who had been around since before the lumber mills died; Saber's, which by my time had been sold by the Saber family, and had been renamed Saber-Skomski's; and Pawenski's, which was next door to OLC Church.  Saber's and Pawenski's battled for the Polish business.  Pawenski eventually sold out, to a really kind man named Larango.  This was an earth-shattering event in the Avenues, an Italian running a business, a business that handled OUR KINDRED DEAD, no less, operating in the shadow of the OLC spire.  I remember hearing my grandfather speculate on double coffins and Secret Mafia Burials and all sorts of things worthy of a Mario Puzo novel.  It wasn't like that, not at all.  Mr. Larango was a professional, through and through, and his funerals were conducted with grace and class and sensitivity to the needs of the bereaved.  He even kept the Pawenski name on his business for years, "Pawenski-Larango Funeral Home", a sort of vestigial Polonia.  My grandmother's funeral was done by the Larangos (knowing what I know about my grandmother's early career as a bootlegger and putative moll for the infamous Dutch Schultz, she might have gotten a kick out of waiting for the Judgment Day with some Mob hit as a coffinmate, but no such luck).

I digress.

So I'm at this funeral, and I'm young, maybe late teens, maybe early twenties.  And it is raucous, as raucous as such an occasion can be.  There is a haze of cigarette smoke.  I may be imagining it, but I swear there was an open bar.  Kids were running around, adults were laughing and talking too loudly.  It was a party.

Off in the corner, ignored, was the coffin, its lid propped open, its occupant a tiny, impossibly old woman, dressed in something that looked as old as she was, delicate and white and trimmed with lace.  As far as the rest of us were concerned, the laughing, smoking, sweating folks who for one reason or another were tied to her, were part of her legacy, she may as well have been an umbrella rack, or one of those hedgehog things you use to scour mud from the soles of your work boots, something in the room, but not worthy of notice.

Except for one little couple, a man and a woman, as tiny and old and unnoticed as she was.  They held fast to her casket, peered into it, the man's head bowed, the woman's lip moving, but barely, and whether in prayer or conversation I cannot say.  

These people were related to me.  And if they weren't, they surely knew my people, surely experienced the things they experienced.  Maybe the old man had crossed the Atlantic on the same ship as my great-grandfather, Piotr.  Maybe the women worked together on the ladies' auxiliary at OLC Church, or attended dances at Dom Polski or the Polish Falcons.  Maybe they all did shift work down at "The Bolt", and ended the week with a beer that had been brewed down in the basement of Litwin's Barber Shop.  And now it's all lost, all dust, all shadows and suppositions.  Ghosts.

This can't happen anymore.  We have extraordinary technology at our disposal.  Everybody can be Ken Burns.  Everybody SHOULD be Ken Burns, provided they don't all grow wispy beards and Beatle bangs and move to New Hampshire and turn every documentary into a White Guy From New Hampshire's Commentary On Black Oppression in America.  I mean, sheesh, Ken, you're talented, but you live in the whitest place this side of a jar of mayonnaise.  Spare us the moral outrage, already.  

Anyway, I digress.  Again.  

My point is that everyone should be taking family histories from their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and kindly old neighbors and anyone who's willing to talk.  We need this information.  We need to remember it, to cherish it.

Another one of the many things I love about Mormonism is that its most sacred text, the Book of Mormon, is really nothing more than a family history.  It's one family's story, told over dozens of generations.  And the record was kept for the benefit of their children and children's children and on and on.

Why is my family's story, or any family's story, any less valuable?

So I've been busy, and honestly, a little discouraged: part of that discouragement comes in accepting the truly depressing limits of my ability.  I just finished reading a book by Lawrence Weschler, Everything That Rises, and it was illuminating and brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable, and I will never write anything like it.  It's like listening to The River in its entirety, or having your iPod on shuffle and hearing "For No One" for the first time in months and realizing that Paul McCartney was twenty-five or twenty-six when he wrote it and you could write until you were one hundred and six and never come close to creating anything as perfect or as beautiful.  You realize that Szymborska's poetry just isn't in you, that you will never craft something as exquisite as an Olmstead park or as clever as a Dylan lyric, never accomplish the modern art genius of Dominik Hasek flailing between the pipes, arms and legs, stick and trapper flying like paint from Pollock's brush, that it is all beyond you, so why even bother?

You wallow in that a while, feeling sorry for yourself, wondering why a cruel God would make you Felix Unger at the Met, surrounded by great voices, your own a sad dissonant screech.

Then you get over it.  And you start writing again. 

It may be junk, intrepid readers.  But like those leathery hot dogs in the theater concession stand, it's here.  

Thank you, Lynda, for your encouragement.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Walter Siedlecki and the Liberation of Poland

One of Haller's recruitment posters, circa 1918
We'll talk about Haller next time.

Nothing is new.  In a nation that is built as much on the doctrine of collective amnesia as it is the concept of individual liberty, we convince ourselves that every event is fresh, our flag perennially planted in virgin soil, every crisis unique, every battle and every discovery something the world has never seen before.  It isn't, not a bit of it.

Our naiveté isn't bad, not always.  Sometimes, it's almost endearing, like watching a toddler working one of those wodden jigsaw puzzles, who discovers, to his surprise and delight, that if you put the pieces together in just the right way, they make a horse, or a dolphin:

Sometimes, it's creepier, more like Madonna, who appears to have based her entire career upon an unassailable conviction that she is the first person on earth to discover the genitals.  And other times, like when we step over the ruins of the British Army and the Soviet Army to fight a war in Afghanistan, it's just plain stupid.

Let's send her to the Khyber Pass...she 
could gyrate those pesky Taliban into submission.

All of the things we struggle with today -- economic woes, unpopular wars, caring for the needy, protecting our borders, education,  advances in technology, environmental concerns, you name it -- has been faced by generations before us.  We ignore lessons that could help us, lessons that could bring much needed perspective, because we are so certain that our situation is unique, our moment in history unparalleled and unimagined by who went before.

There are uncanny echos of the past in our current debate over immigration reform.  Between 1880 and 1914, 2.2 million Poles immigrated to the United States, representing 2.9 percent of the nation's total population.  Most estimates put the total number of Mexican immigrants currently living in the the United States, both legal and illegal, at around 11.5 million, roughly 3.8 percent of the national population.  Like the Mexicans today, the Polish immigrants tended to live in ethnically homogeneous communities, work as unskilled laborers, have little formal schooling, and possess a low proficiency in English.

And they were hated.  Princeton professor Woodrow Wilson, soon to become President of the United States, writes in his 1902 volume History of the American People:

... but now there came multitudes of men of lowest class from the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence; and they came in numbers which increased from year to year, as if the countries of the south and Europe were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population, the men whose standard of life and work were such as American workmen had never dreamed hitherto. (boldface added)

Compare these comments to those of erstwhile presidential candidate Senator Tom Tancredo,  who in 2008 described Mexican immigrants as "pushing drugs, raping kids, destroying lives..." and, because of their continued use of the Spanish language, contributing to "the further Balkanization of American political life."

We were -- we Italians, we Hungarians, we Poles -- the Mexicans of one hundred years ago, derided, despised, and distrusted by mainstream America.  

It was worst for the Poles.  Poland had not existed as a nation for decades, partitioned in the late 18th century between Prussia, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian empire.  In the Germanic portion of the divided nation, the Polish language was outlawed, city and place names were changed from their traditional Polish to German equivalents (Gdansk, for example, became Danzig), and the practice of Catholicism was severely curtailed.  By the late 19th century, the Germans had instituted programs of Kulturkampf (an effort to excise all vestiges of Polish culture from the Germanic section of the partition that included jailing Catholic clerics and closing schools that taught Polish) and Austrottungspolitk (literally, "policy of extermination," exactly the same term Henrich Himmler used in 1943 to describe the Nazi approach to the Jews).  Polish families were forcibly removed from desirable properties, and replaced with German squatters.  Similar practices were employed by the Russians.  The Austrians did afford the Poles a measure of self-identity, with little curtailment of religious practice, although German replaced Polish as the official language, and an old term, "Galicia", replaced "Poland" as the name of the region.  Buildings that had served as palaces for Polish royalty were refitted to serve as barracks for Austrian soldiers.

The Poles who arrived in America had suffered at least three generations of political and cultural oppression.  They were desperately poor: the average annual salary of a worker in partitioned Poland in the 1890s was $22, or about $450 in today's currency.  (By comparison, immigrants could make as much as $8 a week in American factories; much like Mexican workers today, the Poles found the economic opportunities so compelling, coming to America seemed like the only thing to do.) They had managed to retain a sense of national identity only through sheer force of will: they often worshipped in secret, spoke the language of their fathers in secret, taught their children their heritage while hiding from prying eyes of the state.  

An element of siege mentality had become a part of the culture, and it carried over into their American lives: neighborhoods like the Avenues in North Tonawanda, or Hamtramck in Detroit, or the Fruit Belt in Buffalo were insular, close-knit, and almost entirely Polish.  Staying together and separate was a means of self-preservation; you never knew when the policemen or the soldiers would come pounding on your door.

Couple this siege mentality with America's nativist tendencies and the disregard for immigrants expressed by even learned men like Professor Wilson, and you have the perfect conditions for a culture war.  The immigrant Poles, long denied the right to express their patriotism and their religious faith in public, were given to proud displays of the national colors of red and white, and of Our Lady of Czestochowa, the icon supposedly painted by Saint Luke and revered as the Queen and Protector of the Polish people.  Outsiders interpreted these displays as strange and threatening and somehow un-American, complaints strikingly similar to those leveled against Mexican immigrants today.  

Rochester, New York, 1920 -- Dressed in traditional Polish costumes for the "Homelands Exposition"

 Wichita Falls, Texas, 2009: Dancing in a Fiestas Patiras celebration

Poland's "Queen and Protector", and Mexico's Virgen de Guadalupe, "The Empress of the Americas"

This distrust was deepened in 1901, when a mentally disturbed Polish-American named Leon Czolgosz (who, contrary to myth, was actually born in the United States, albeit to Polish immigrant parents), shot and killed President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. 

Czolgosz's affliliation with anarchist groups led to speculation that the Polish community was a Fifth Column in the body politic, secretly organizing a terroristic overthrow of the American way of life. (Compare this to anti-Islamist sentiment in the weeks after September 11th.  A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that roughly half -- 46 percent -- of America believed that Islam encourages violence, and has an unfavorable view of the religion.  For you Mormons out there who are nodding your heads in agreement with those assessments, be warned: the same survey showed that 49 percent of those surveyed have an unfavorable view of Mormonism, and the worst thing we've ever perpetuated on the American public is Glenn Beck.  Imagine what they'd think of us if some lunatic Mormon blew something up...) 

Leon Czolgosz and September 11th terrorist Mohammed Atta: Crazed extremists, or the voices of their people?     

A homeland bound by a century of government-sanctioned oppression.  A trans-oceanic emigration, for the privilege of working at bone-grinding manual labor.  Distrust and outright mistreatment in your new homeland. This was the life of the the Polish immigrant.

All of that makes this document remarkable:

This is Walter Siedlecki's United States draft registration card.  On 5 June 1918, he presented himself to his local draft board, ready, willing, and able to take up arms in defense of the United States.

There are a few really interesting pieces of information here.  First, it's noteworthy that he uses the Anglicized name Walter, not his native Waclaw, indicating if not a desire to become fully Americanized, at least a recognition of the need to appear American.  Second, he lists his birthplace as "Swoalki, Russia, Poland," which is significant. "Swoalki" is probably a misspelling of Suwalki, a large, surprisingly lovely industrial town in the northeast corner of Poland, close to the Lithuanian border.  This would have been in the Russian-controlled part of divided Poland, which makes his insistence that he was born in "Russia, Poland" a poignant and powerful declaration of identity, a sign that he and his family had not been willing to assimilate into the oppressor's culture.  Prior to partition, Poland had briefly entered into a union with Lithuania, and Suwalki was a major point of commerce within the union.  After partition, Suwalki continued to be a link between the oppressed Poles and the equally oppressed Lithuanians.  The Siedleckis surely had contacts in Lithuania.  He lists his employment as Buffalo Bolt, the company that employed nearly everyone in the Avenues (in another interesting contemporary parallel, my work as a Mormon bishop put me in contact with dozens of African refugees.  An amazing number of them worked at the huge Goodman air conditioner plant in west Houston.  If you own a Goodman, I guarantee that at least part of it was assembled by Liberian or Sierra Leonean or Nigerian workers).

Walter lists his next of kin as his brother, Anthony.  Anthony Siedlecki is my grandfather.  In June 1918, he would have just turned six years old.  Why would Walter list a child as his next of kin?  My guess is that Anthony was the only person in the household who spoke English, or who spoke it well enough to communicate with outsiders.  This is consistent with the immigrant experience today: the parents may not speak English, but their school-age children do.

Walter's number did not come up; he never served in the United States military.  A few months after he registered for the draft, a new opportunity arose, an opportunity to participate in the liberation of his homeland.  By the early part of 1919, Walter was marching across defeated Germany, one of 23,000 American volunteers marching under the crimson and white banner of the Polish republic, marching to unify a partitioned nation.

Sorry to go all Paul Harvey on you, but next time, I'll give you The Rest of the Story....and I'll say nary a word about Bose radios or "ocular nutrition tablets" or the soft, cool comfort of Jerzees cotton tee-shirts.................Good Day!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Honor Roll

This is, to the best of my knowledge, a list of family members who served in the Armed Forces:

Revolutionary War (fighting for the British)
Jacob Anguish
Henry Anguish

War of 1812 (fighting for the United States)
Abram Milliman

Civil War (fighting for the Union)
Philander Eugene Pearce

British Occupation of India
Hugh McMurray

Crimean War, British Occupation of Australia, Fenian War (as a member of the Royal Canadian Rifles)
James McMurray

British Army, late Victorian period
James Ocean McMurray

World War I, War of Polish Independence (1919-1920)
Walter Siedlecki

World War II
Melvin Zuch, Pacific Theater
Ray Litwin, US Army Air Corps, European Theater

Korean War
Alfred McMurray, US Army Reserves

Some of these men fought for causes that were noble; some of them fought for imperialist powers.  Some of them were brave; some were cowards.  Some of them were dedicated men, trusted by their superiors and loved by their compatriots.  Some of them hated military life, and served poorly.  One was involved in the bloodiest 20 minutes in American history, an event of spectacular waste and destruction that haunted its architect all the days of his life.  Another marched in one of the great military victories of the 20th century, a victory that his countrymen still celebrate nearly a century later.  More than a few required their families to trek across oceans and wilderness, following them in their service.  They wore buckskin dyed the color of a summertime forest and red coats with white breeches and blue kepis and bullfrog green tunics and olive drab and khaki, and one wore a uniform the color of the midday sky, a uniform hardly anyone remembers anymore.

They were soldiers.

Remember them today.

Yer Blues

It's "Guess the artist who wrote the song that shares its title with today's post" time.  The answer is The Beatles, of course, "Yer Blues" being a  John Lennon-penned track from the seminal White Album.  Any who deign to argue that the Beatles are not the most influential and important rock band of all time are, frankly, nuts.  Arguing that The Beatles are no more than a footnote in world history is a little like dismissing the Sun as a minor star:  that may be true, but if it didn't exist, than neither would you, so keep quiet about it.  I do not suggest that had those four lads not shaken the world, the entire planet would have collapsed on itself, in some fallen souffle-like horror of cold and darkness.  What I mean is that the whole of what we call contemporary culture -- music, fashion, design, thought, all of it, for good and ill -- has its genesis in the seven year Big Bang of creativity that was the Beatles, 1964 - 1970.  We would be here, but we would not be us.  We would  be some different people.

Maybe I overstate a bit.   But I doubt it.

I am, after yesterday, at what I am calling the official halfway point of my sojourn on Planet Excitement.  I plan on living until the age of 94.  The remainder breaks down like this: twenty more years of work, including seeing all of our children through graduate school; twenty years of travel, gardening, and enjoying our grandkids; five years spent on some bizarre hobby that I inexplicably acquire in retirement, like collecting license plates, or obsessively watching The Weather Channel; two years of Dreamland, where past and present are all mixed together and I think that my retirement home is actually a rather disappointing cruise ship.  Then it's "thanks for playing!"  At my funeral, I want an all-trombone honor ensemble to play "Born To Run" as my coffin is lowered into the south Texas clay.

Well, that's kind of depressing.  I had a nice birthday, except for a truly awful, stomach churning white light sear of a migraine.  I haven't had one in months, and this one was a neck snapper.  It's made me a little muted today.  (I am better, though, something I attribute to the remarkable Blushing Peach Pie my wife made for my birthday).

There is a reason for the title, beyond my feeling a little melancholy at turning FORTY-SEVEN.  Blue is a color associated with a remarkable band of brothers, men who defended their homeland from the invasion of a bloodthirsty army, in the face of open hostility from the rest of the world.  And one of our ancestors was one of those defenders.

Later this week, Walter Siedlecki's military adventure.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Words, Words, Words

Shoot me, but I liked Mel Gibson as Hamlet.
Olivier's Hamlet was creepy and fey, like the Monty Python character
whose father wanted him to marry the girl with huge tracts of land...

Today is Saturday.

In the last seven weeks, I've posted roughly 32,000 words to the blog, which works out to, with illustrations, about 150 pages of manuscript.  That's a lot of words.

Today, I'm going to work on actually organizing some of the names I've compiled.

Next week, pictures!  And a tribute to veterans (some of which may surprise you!)

I don't know if anyone is reading this.  That's really not the point.  There is a little bit of Hamlet's mission in this, the ghost standing at the parapets, pleading with the living, "Remember me!"  Eugene Pearce deserves to have his story known.  Peter Litwin deserves to have his story known (I'm working on a song lyric for Peter, "The King of Oliver Street").  The Interweb is a better place with my grandmother's wedding photo on it.  These are my people, our people (for I cannot imagine that anyone who is reading this on a regular basis is not related to me -- it's sort of like having your nut uncle run for city alderman: the only votes he gets are from concerned family members who don't want to see the old gasbag get shut out; folks who honestly thought that he was the other guy; and fellow nuts and gasbags) and these "voices from the dust" are the voices that gave us our voice.

And so, Adieu, Adieu!

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Mystery of Crooked Sally

Tyringham, Massachusetts: Heaven for painters and poets.
For farmers, not so much.

Western Massachusetts has never been a terribly practical place to live.  Rocky soil, bad weather, and isolation from large population centers make it inhospitable for farming, and in the days before ours, when "sustainable and local" weren't advertising hooks, but necessities of life, bad farmland could mean starvation.  

In the century following the establishment of Plimouth Plantation, Berkshire County drew many young families, attracted by the prospect of seemingly limitless land.  Few of them lasted for more than a generation, their hopes dashed by the rocks and the cold and the promise of better times in New York or the vast Western Reserve.  Towns and villages, many predating the Declaration of Independence, are sprinkled across the Berkshires, tiny and ancient, like so many municipal bonsai trees. Housatonic and Lenox and Adams and Stockbridge: lovely, but arrested, clipped and miniature.  Few of these places are much bigger than when they were incorporated, two centuries ago.

The Berkshires have always been more hospitable for artists than farmers.  Nathaniel Hawthorne lived here, and Herman Melville.  Edith Wharton's estate, The Mount, is one of the main tourist attractions in Lenox.  Pittsfield, the closest thing to a metropolis in the region, is home to an ancient baseball stadium, Waconah Park, and claims to be the true home of the national pastime, dismissing the folks in Cooperstown as upstarts and usurpers.  Summer in the Berkshires means vacationing accountants and middle aged college professors dressed in old timey uniforms, playing Base-Ball, by the 1858 Massachusetts rules. It also means Volvo loads of Bostonians trekking out to Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony, to eat picnic suppers and listen to the lovely music.  It's a Norman Rockwell Museum, weekend antiquing trip kind of place, and has been for decades.

When Lawrence Southcotte Pearce moved his family from East Greenwich, Rhode Island to Tyringham, Massachusetts, he wasn't searching for his muse.  He was undoubtedly drawn by the twin prospects of ready farmland and a measure of separation from the booming population of post-Revoluntionary War coastal towns.  I have not pinned down a precise date for the move, but based on his children's birth records, it happened after 1786.

Pearce and his wife Leticia Austin had at least six children: Langworthy; John; Mary; Elizabeth; Isaac; and Sarah.  Since most legal records, including census lists, didn't start listing women by name until the middle of the nineteenth century, and since women's surnames generally change after marriage, it's a lot easier to track the Pearce family diaspora through the men.  The records are generally sketchy, but this is what they show:

-- Lawrence left Tyringham sometime after 1810.  He died in the Town of Livingston, New York, on 12 August 1832, at the age of 87. 

--Langworthy married a woman named Sabrina in 1787.  They had ten children together, and both died, apparently of disease, in Niagara, New York, in 1831.

-- John M. Pearce married Sarah Sweet in Rhode Island, about 1793.  Thus far, I find no record of their children.  John died in Kalamazoo County, Michigan, in 1858. 

--Isaac appears to have married Thankful Steadman in Berkshire County, sometime around 1804, then moved to Bennington, Wyoming County, New York, where he died in 1868.  He and Thankful had at least eight children.

Were poor soil and bad weather the only factors driving all of these people away from Berkshire County?  Does the story of Sally Pearce offer insight?

Sarah "Sally" Pearce was the youngest of Lawrence and Leticia's children.  She was born in 1786, when her mother was forty-one years old.  In 1805, at age nineteen, she delivered her first son, Benjamin Stanton Pearce.  The Tyringham birth records list Sarah Pearce as Benjamin's mother; his father is listed as "unknown."  The Pearce's Tyringham is only a few generations removed from Puritan times; the Puritan experience was fresh in Hawthorne's mind in 1850, when, while living in the Berkshires, he penned The Scarlet Letter.  Did shame over Sarah's out of wedlock pregnancy prompt the family's move?

Who was Sarah "Sally" Pearce?  Benjamin was not her only bastard son.  She gave birth to another out of wedlock child, Parvis C. Pearce, on 23 May 1817, in Geneseo, New York.  Another fatherless son, William, had been born earlier, in Rhode Island.  His death certificate, issued in Climax Township, Kalamazoo County, Michigan, indicates he died on 7 August 1875, aged 82 years, 29 days.  This puts his birthdate at 9 July, 1793.  If this is accurate, his mother would have been seven at his birth, clearly an impossibility.  The record also indicates that William was mentally handicapped, an "idiot since birth."  

Autobiographical sketches of Parvis and Benjamin only raise more questions.  Benjamin achieved some measure of success in farming, owning a large portion of land in Wheatfield, New York.  He appears to have had nothing to do with his mother after about 1815, and for a time appears to have lived with another family who left western Massachusetts, the Millimans.  His wife, Vashti, was the daughter of Abriam Milliman and the granddaughter of Abram Milliman, the men who seem to have been Benjamin's benefactors.

According to his biographer, Parvis and his mother moved from Geneseo to Niagara in 1830, where twelve years later he married Eliza Kelly.  Looking for "rich and cheap" farm land, he moved to Climax, Michigan, and after some years of struggle (and ten children) he managed to acquire more than three hundred acres in farmland:

There is something uniquely American about this story, two children whose arrival was met with societal disapproval managing to overcome all obstacles and establish themselves as genuine success stories.

That doesn't answer my question: who was Sarah "Sally" Pearce?

She was a known figure in the little town of Tyringham.  Records of the time refer to her as "Crooked Sally", owing to some sort of physical deformity.  She was a single mother in an age a century and a half before that phrase was coined.  She appears to have borne some sort of handicap, in an age where terms like "lunatic" and "idiot" were part of official parlance.  The fact that her nickname is recorded on town records indicates that she was known to town officials.  Did she have run-ins with the law?  Where were her parents?  Was she rebellious, or did they abandon her?  Were her sons' fathers  her lovers, her clients, or her abusers?

Sarah Sally Pearce is my great-great-great grandmother.  I am here because of what happened to her, in that sleepy little town in Berkshires.  Did she hate what had happened, despise the town and resent the baby?  Or was she not aware enough to even understand what was happening?  

I have constructed a reality for her, isolated, alone, victimized.  I've even written a song lyric about her, which I may post someday.  Is any of it anything close to reality, or is it all just dinosaur skin, acceptable because it's plausible?

One of the truly beautiful promises of Mormon theology is that one day, we will know things "as they really are."  In that Great and Final Day, when the lines of folks wanting to talk to Lincoln and Caesar and Amelia Earhart are stretching as far as the eye can see, I'll be searching for Sarah "Sally" Pearce, learning her story.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Stall Tactics

Admit it.  You feel a little embarrassed for this guy.

I don't really want to write this entry.

It's not the subject matter, which examines what seems to be a particularly sad and shameful chapter of my family's history.  Sometimes you have to talk about difficult things.  You don't relish it, but you do it.

Some people get their kicks focusing on sad and shameful.  I knew a guy in Buffalo who gleefully told anyone who cared to listen that one of his ancestors was hanged as a horse thief.  That's like the weird Australian compulsion to remind the world that their nation started as a giant penal colony.  We get it: Great Grandad was a deviant.  Mazel tov, you wacko.  Mike Leach, the Texas Tech football coach, is obsessed with pirates, not the ones who play baseball in southwestern Pennsylvania, but the yo, ho-ho, and a bottle of rum types, to the joyful approbation of the Tech faithful.  This, too, strikes me as crazy:  Pirates were psychotic, bloodthirsty terrorists, who raped and pillaged and tortured and murdered and terrified most of the civilized world (again, I'm talking about the yo, ho-ho types; the Pittsburgh Pirates don't terrify anyone, least of all the other teams in the National League).  If Coach Leach chose to find inspiration in someone with similar proclivities -- Idi Amin, say, or The Son of Sam -- I doubt the folks up in Lubbock would be so sanguine.  This is football in Texas, though, so he could probably prowl the sidelines dressed as Henirich Himmler and people would be OK with it, so long as he was winning ballgames.  A guest on "The Dan Patrick Show" once observed that if Jeffrey Dahmer could run a 4.0 40 yard dash, football scouts would dismiss his cannibalism as "an eating disorder," so anything's possible.

It's not the potential for embarrassment that the story carries, either.  I am pretty easily embarrassed, although being easily embarrassed tends to be a trait that fades with the years.  I have one of those fairly high-pitched voices, the kind that mothers tell their sons is "a ringing tenor" but their best friends assure them is  "really femmy sounding."  My job involves a lot of telephone contact with customers.  Combine a "ringing tenor voice" with a gender ambiguous name, and you are guaranteed to have old men calling you "Sweetie" and flirting with you at least a couple of times a year.  When I was in my Twenties, it mortified me.  Now, I just call them "darlin'" and flirt right back, unconcerned about the randy thoughts pinballing around their decrepit old man brains.  I will never get used to the rampant Oprahfication of our society, where every personal matter, bedroom secrets, bathroom details, and everything in between, becomes a matter for the public record, but  when you get right down to it, there isn't one of us whose presence here is not directly linked to a pair of elevated heart rates and a certain measure of stickiness, so we need to get over ourselves.

What's bothering me is that I'm not sure I know the real story of the person I'm writing about.  I have some clues, but they're just bones and fossils, scraps and implications.  I've sculpted a heaping load of Plasticine around these fragments, to make them into something believable.

I'm not sure I've created the right dinosaur.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


One is as plausible as the other, if you ask me.  Except for the sneakers...

Dinosaurs bother me.

Stop right there.  This isn't going to be one of those "the Devil put dinosaur bones on earth to confuse man" sort of rants.  I'm not that kind of Christian (and by "that kind of Christian," I mean the kind who burns books and attends Tea Parties and really, truly believes that Pat Robertson can leg press 1,600 pounds; you know, the kind working to establish the Independent Republic of Glennbeckistan).  There used to be dinosaurs.  They are dead now.

What bothers me isn't so much dinosaurs: dead things, whether it's giant lizards or the starting lineup of the 1934 Saint Louis Cardinals, don't provoke much agitation.  What bothers me is dinosaur skin, and the way that skin is depicted in the scientific recreations of the beasts.  No one has ever seen a living dinosaur.  No one has really seen a dead one, just some bones and a few fossilized impressions left in ancient mud, which appears to show evidence of scales.  Nobody has any idea how they really looked.  So why is it that most dinosaur illustrations gives them the same desert camouflage paint scheme as Rommel's halftracks in the battle for North Africa, all tan and chocolate and stripey?

I searched for an answer to this burning question, and the best I could come up with was either, "It's our best guess, and besides, it looks cool, so quit bothering us" or "That's the way we've always made them look, and nobody else is complaining.  Besides, it looks cool, so quit bothering us."

Plausibility and tradition, the pulling guards of Team Supposition, are at work here.  That's fine.  It doesn't matter to me one way or another what color dinosaurs really were: so long as there isn't one chewing on me or on one of my loved ones, I have no beef with the dinos, be they tan or grey or purple and green or yellow with strange red spots.

 Prepare to be pancaked.

What I'm learning is that you better be ready if you're lining up opposite Plausibility and Tradition, because they will knock you flat on your back.  And if you're not careful, if you are not as clear-eyed and devoted to Getting To The Bottom Of Things as you can possibly be, you might find yourself signing them to your team.  It's easy to get things done when you have "It could have happened this way" and "This is the way it's always done" running interference for you.

Tomorrow, or possibly Friday, I will share the story of Sarah Sally Pearce, known to the citizens of Tyringham, Massachusetts as Crooked Sally.  It is a story of betrayal, and family dysfunction, of parental rejection and estrangement.  It's a story of poverty and mental illness and misery.  Maybe.  At least that's what the bones and fossils indicate.

We feel so comfortable saying "This is right, this is true," about so many things we know nothing about, whether it's dinosaur skin or our ancestors.  Or even the events of our own lives.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


This is my son's jazz band. I'm a lousy photographer, too...

Mine is a musical family.  My wife is a pianist.  My younger son plays the saxophone.  My daughter is a gifted clarinetist, and pianist, and at fifteen, she's the organist for our Sunday sacrament meetings (she was the Primary pianist at age twelve, which a little tiny bit like Joe Nuxhall pitching for the Cincinnati Reds as a teenager).

"The Ol' Lefthander" in 1944.  He played for the Reds 
until 1966, then spent close to four decades in 
the Cincinnati broadcast booth.

Our eldest son is a trombonist, and he noodles around a bit on the guitar and the keyboard, but he's really a singer.  He's a tenor, with a voice pure and sweet, a voice that makes women weep and strong men eye's glisten.

Music for me is like electricity, mysterious and magical and utterly inscrutable, something to be grateful for, not something to understand.  I sit and listen and go a little slack jawed at it all.

My side of the family has a rather dazzling musical history.  My cousin, Danny, who like my father died far too young, was an accomplished trumpeter.  He was a much-loved band director in the Rochester area; my iPod holds a couple of tunes that were produced by his students.  They're really good.  Danny's funeral music included a selection of Ellington tunes, reason enough to look forward to seeing him again when my turn on the planet is ended.

Grand-Pa, as I've written, played the mandolin and the fiddle, and sang up a storm.  Something I did not know until recently was that Grand-Pa was the musical inspiration for my second cousin, Steve, who spent hours and hours under Grand-Pa's tutelage, learning to play traditional Polish music.  Today, Steve is not only one of the world's foremost authorities on the history and culture of Polish-American music (commonly called polka, but including schottishches and waltzes and even orchestral music), he is also an inductee of The Concertina Hall of Fame.

(Let me say that Eastern European music in general, and Polish music in particular, is maddeningly, unfairly maligned by the popular media, mainly because the accordion is for some reason easy to mock.  Los Lobos whip out their accordions and bajo sextos to play some ranchera, and they're called geniuses.  Do you know who introduced the accordion to Mexico?  Polish immigrants, who settled just south of San Antonio.  No Polish immigrants, and David Hidalgo is just another dude from East LA, pretending to be Carlos Santana (that's a little harsh -- Hidalgo is one of the world's great musicians).  The accordion is not just for playing "Lady of Spain": Arcade Fire; the late, lamented Danny Federici of Bruce Springsteen's E Stret Band; The Dropkick Murphys; The Pogues; Tom Waits; and the incomparable They Might Be Giants all regularly use accordion in their music.  And I haven't even mentioned the frequent use of accordion in the works of my favorite singer-songwriter, Al Stewart.  So lay off the accordion.)

There are others: Uncle Peter sings and plays the guitar.  Aunt Kathy used to play for folk masses; now she's carving out a successful second career as the proprietor of a community theater, producing plays and musicals.  It's a musical family.

My own music career was brief and humiliating.  At the end of fourth grade, the year when everyone is required to play the recorder, New York State music teachers determine which students are candidates for Continued Music Education, and which are better kept away from the brass and woodwinds.  Somehow, I made the cut.  The fix had to be in: I'm pretty sure that the kids who didn't take up an instrument received an extra period of P.E., and the Grant School braintrust agreed that 45 more minutes of Dodge Ball each week would cause me, if not mortal injury, then surely psychic wounds that a lifetime of intense therapy would not heal.  It certainly wasn't because of any aptitude: I squeaked and struggled through a year of "Claire De Lune" and "Frere Jacques" and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" with earnest incompetence, making a sound that resembled a garrotted gander in its death throes.

But our music teacher, Mister Marsh, a bespectacled man with a combover and a walrus moustache, straightened his bow tie and cleared his throat and handed me the "Instrument Request" form.

Pondering the form at home, I had two objectives: choose an instrument that was easy to carry; and avoid anything with a spit valve.  I wasn't sure what a spit valve was, but it sounded disgusting, and I had a weak stomach.

My mother suggested the cello.  "It sounds so beautiful," she said.  "Cello" sounded a lot like "oboe", and I knew that oboes were small, recorder-like things, that sounded like flutes with a nasal obstruction.  The cello must be like that, I reasoned.  So I signed up.

The cello is not anything like the oboe.

On the plus side, the cello has no reeds, spit valves, or holes to blow into, which is a good thing.  On the minus side, the instrument is roughly the size of a fifth grader.  As I dragged the enormous canvas case holding the oversized violin out to the bus area, Mr. Dugay, who carried the twin misfortunes of being an elementary school principal with "gay" in his last name and possessing a compulsion to wear hand-tooled leather lederhosen, with accompanying knee socks and tyrolean hat, to the school's annual Oktoberfest celebration, stopped me.  "If we ever have a flood, you're prepared!" he boomed.  "You can float that thing like a boat!"

My mother was right.  The cello does indeed produce a soothing and mellifluous sound, when properly handled. In less capable hands, it's four cats in a burlap sack, being tossed down a steep embankment.  I squeaked and screeched and scratched my way through two years of "Beginner Book One" before I finally called it a career.

Part of the problem was that I am lefthanded.  Part of the problem is that I have the motor skills of Rocky Balboa in round fourteen of the big fight with Apollo Creed, stumbling and bumbling, draggy and delayed.  Quickly seizing upon the notion that there was no way this kid was ever going to learn to finger with his left hand, bow with his right, my music teacher, the long suffering Mister Grande, decided to pull a Jimi Hendrix, and reverse the strings.  Problem solved -- 'scuze me, while I kiss the sky.

Only it wasn't problem solved, it was problem made far, far worse.  Reversing the strings meant I could process the mechanics of bowing and fingering.  It also meant that everything I was attempting to do was a mirror image of what was printed in the lesson books.  Everything was backwards and incomprehensible.

Every Tuesday, Mister Grande would lean way back in his chair, slide open a desk drawer where he kept a little ash tray, light up a Kool, take a deep, soothing  draw, and sigh, "OK, Mr. McMurray, show me what you have this week."  And every week, I'd squeak and squeak and scratch my way through tunes with names like "A First Song" and "Delightful 'D'!" and "Five Note Fun" and Mister Grande would squeeze his eyelids shut and groan just load enough for me to hear it over the mangled cats I was creating and at the end of the forty-five minutes he'd say, "Good job, son.  I think with a little more practice, you just might be able to join the orchestra."

We both knew he was lying, that I was no more likely to join the orchestra than Pat Paulsen was to be elected president.  But we kept it up, this sad dance of deceit, for months and months.  My playing regressed as time went on.  At the end, I wasn't even pretending to make music.  It was just a whiny metallic drone, like an engine running without oil and about to seize.

The thing is, I love music.  I am in awe of the talent my wife and kids possess.  I love to listen to them sing and play.  My friend Scott is a working musician in New York City, playing gritty, beautiful music that incorporates all of his influences, from Celtic traditional to punk.  He's one of my heroes.  So is Cousin Steve, the concertina player, who breathes new life into our heritage every time he plays.

I've never much minded that I wasn't good at sports.  That's my dad's disappointment, not mine.  To tell the truth, I've always been more interested in sports uniforms than in the actual games.  But music...not being good at music breaks my heart.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Plastic Ono Memories

John Lennon signs an autograph for Mark David Chapman, 8 December 1980.  
At night's end, Lennon would be dead, by Chapman's hand.

I remember the night John Lennon died better than I remember almost anything about my childhood, remember it with clarity that verges on crystalline.  I never much liked John Lennon: he always struck me as a snarky, self-absorbed, egotistical blowhard.  I was always a George guy.  Compare "All Things Must Pass", a song subtle and profound and hopeful and altogether beautiful, to "Imagine", which sounds like a spoiled rotten multimillionaire trying to sound deep.

Before my marriage, I had a little holiday tradition: sometime around Christmas, I'd go off by myself, and rent "Local Hero", the wonderful Bill Forsyth film, and "Let It Be", the documentary about the Beatles' breakup.  If you can find a copy of "Let It Be", get it.  It's long out of print, apparently because Sir Paul thinks it puts him in a bad light.  He should get over it.  It's remarkable, and that impromptu concert on the Apple Records roof puts chills down your back, simply an amazing performance.  And Paul's the one you watch.  He's the one with the charisma, the one trying with everything he has to revive the old magic, to hold it all together.  John is just sort of there, bopping his head and looking disinterested.

Like I said, I'm not a Lennon fan.

But I came home on that Monday night in 1980, and flipped on "Monday Night Football" and heard Howard Cosell announce that John Lennon was dead and I sat in front of the teevee in that freezing, drafty white house on Sweeney Street, all alone in the dark, and I felt my throat tighten and my stomach flip and I cried.

Or maybe I didn't.

That is the way I remember it, nearly thirty years after the fact.  This is the way I want for it to have happened, the cerebral loner who loved music alone in the dark, silently mourning one of the giants of rock.  This is the way I've created that night, the way I've told myself it happened, the way I've told others it happened.  Maybe I didn't really cry.  Maybe I didn't sit in front of the teevee, aching as Cosell made his grim announcement.  Maybe I just felt a ripple of sadness, shrugged my shoulders, and went to bed.

My brother, who was three when our father died, recently wrote a vivid remembrance of my father's death and funeral.  It reads a little like the script for a Jean Cocteau film, shadowy and strange and filled with odd images.   As I read it, I found myself muttering, "That never happened" and "That's all wrong," over and over again.

I missed the point.  He was three.  He's had thirty years to manufacture a memory from whatever raw materials -- tattered recollections, stories he's heard from his mother and siblings, that fertile brain wrinkle where imagination grows -- to create something that's coherent and logical, something real, to him.

If I didn't cry at John Lennon's death, does that make that memory false?  I can still remember the bite of the Buffalo winter that night, remember the blue glow of the television, remember Cosell's voice.  So what if it was the Patriots and the Dolphins, and I've always remembered it as the Eagles and somebody else?  So what if the announcement came at the end of the game, which would have been well after 11:00, and I remember it as happening much earlier than that?  Mention John Lennon, and I am coming in from the cold, standing in that drafty house, and someone who had always been around, someone whose voice I knew as well as I knew my father's voice, was gone.  The rest doesn't matter much.

I started this blog by saying that we need to divide truth from reality, as if constructing history is like a baker separating the yolk from an egg white, something elemental and easily mastered.  It's not like that, not at all.

We still see, no matter how long we polish, through a glass, darkly.  We hold as self-evident truths that make sense only to us.  I still think we need to search for families' real history.  We just need to accept that the train we travel on is manned by plasticine porters with looking glass ties, and the landscape is peppered with cellophane flowers, and tangerine trees, and everything is subject to review.