Friday, July 28, 2006

Hey there, all you long-lost kin!

My wife's genealogy project hit a gold nugget last night when practically my dad's whole side of the family, whom I never knew, all showed up at once on a Mormon search engine.

I grew up thinking my dad was one of several boys and one sister, Aunt Marie, whom I only heard about sometimes because she had moved to South Africa. Now I learn I had also an Aunt Ann, who was a missionary to China. And instead of a couple of brothers, my dad was the youngest of five boys: Ray, Jesse, Harry, Stanly [sic], and John William, my father--"Billy" as they called him. Only Aunt Marie was younger.

And they were all born near Belfontaine, Ohio in the west Ohio farmlands of Logan County, not in eastern Ohio near Mansfield where Dad took me as a boy once and showed me the old homestead. Turns out the old farm, south of Canton, was probably where they moved. John Yoder Kauffman, my grandfather, died in Michigan in 1935 before I was born in 1939, so I never knew him or Ida, my grandmother.

When I grew up, moved to Chicago and went to art school and played piano bar downtown, I was contacted by my cousin Dr. Jim Kauffman, a surgeon who practised in Cleveland, and he took me out for a meal and to get acquainted. That was after my dad had died of a heart attack in 1955, and Jim's dad, I think Harry, had also died of heart failure. Apparently most of the brothers suffered the same coronary problems, so Dr. Jim cautioned me we'd both have to watch our hearts closely as we got older. The only other contacts with the Kauffman side of the family I remember vaguely was that we got together with the descendents of some of them once at a hotel in Cleveland and once at a lake in northern Indiana. There was a woman among them they called Connie and another, I think, called Laddie, but I don't think I ever saw any of them again.

What Barb discovered, though, really made me feel good, like Alex Haley finding his "Roots." What vexed me was that even though I tried the same genealogy sites she did, I couldn't find them. I have to admit that she's a better genealogist than I am, that she has the ability to follow clues and hunches better than I can. Mine got me nowhere. "Well," she reminds me, "I am a media specialist, after all." Grrr.

I learned also that Nelson, my first name, was a family name, not just given me by my brother after meeting Nelson Rockefeller as family legend always held--my mother, like me, was prone to exaggerate to make a good story-- and that there were many family names in the tree, and variant spellings. Barb's traced us from the farming Mennonites of Ohio back to the old German and Swiss farms of our European ancestors. And the further we go, the more surprises we find, folks we never heard of before.

For me, the curiosity ends with what she's already found. But for her and Scott, who gave her the software for this summer quest, it may go on to Eden. It is surely amazing how many of us there are, and were before us, and how difficult and Byzantine a search it can be to try to find them. There are many sites that charge a fortune for their access, and many government sites full of misinformation. Even some public county and state libraries guard their collections like Fort Knox or won't let you search their records online.

But Barb says women tend to be more concerned about genealogy than men, generally, and she's probably right. I don't know what that means, but I tend to agree. The main thing it has taught me is that I now realize that I am one of many, many people who found themselves on this earth and came to think they were one of a kind. I now realize that yes, I am unique in many ways; but more importantly I am only one of many, many others who comprise the rich, wonderfully diverse human fabric.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Brothers of the Brush, Sisters of the Swish

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Barb's working on our geneology now, so I tried to help look up some old names and dates amongst the family albums. I use the term "albums" generically; they're really several big boxes with a few albums of prints, some old cardboard covered unframed portraits, and hundreds of loose photos jammed together without rhyme or reason. But while I rummaged through them, I ran across an old black and white photo that brought back some meaningful memories.

When I was nine, our Indiana hometown celebrated its centenial, and for a small town of only 14,000 or so, they put on quite a show. They hired a New York director to come to our small city for a couple of months and put on a pageant of our history, and the whole community got involved. The centenial celebration actually went on for about three months.

Far ahead of time the menfolk in town were asked not to shave, and contests were organized for the "Brothers of the Brush" who began to sprout everywhere around town to judge the best mustasches, sideburns, and beards. The women in turn were asked to make and wear oldtime costumes and bonnets, judged by others for their creativity and effect as the "Sisters of the Swish." And everyone, nearly, in the city got into the spirit of the thing. And for those few who resisted or tried to ignore the new/old looks, they did so at their peril. Mock trials were set up and conducted on Jefferson street sidewalk by the local circuit court bailiffs, sheriff, and judge, and men were stopped on the street if they were cleanshaven, tried immediately, and asked to serve "time" in mock public ridicule if found guilty (which all were). And if someone wanted to take it to a higher court, a stepladder was produced and the sentence repeated from a higher platform.

Within a few weeks, Huntington began to take on the look of a frontier town. A scripted dramatic history of the city was written. Parts were chosen and assigned to townspeople for the big pageant and parade culminating the celebration at Kriegbaum Field, and my brother, Roger, was excited to be one of the narrators. My dad was chosen to be a canal boat captain, and I was a frontier boy. I still have a picture of Daddy and me in our buckskins Mom made for us. Practises were held for several days beforehand, and it was no mean feat to organize as the cast of hundreds of local folks were put through our paces through the two-hour-plus show.

After a huge parade, in costume of course, the big show was finally produced at night, and it was really spectacular. It went off without a hitch, as I remember, despite the numbers involved and nonprofessional participants. As with school musicals, if you weren't yet "onstage," you were in the audience, and the audience groups were always coming and going to cue up for their scenes. I wish they had today's film and video technology back then, but no visual record of the 1948 pageant exists that I know of. Only newspaper photos and writeups preserve the flavor of those days. It was as if we stepped back in time one hundred years.

But perhaps the shock was greater when the celebration ended, and all the beards came off at one mass shave, and the women shed their 19th century bonnets and long skirts and suddenly began dressing in contemporary fashions. It was as if Brigadoon had disappeared back into the mist for another hundred years. The Brothers of the Brush and the Sisters of the Swish were gone in an instant.

I don't know if such an event would even be possible today. Certainly not in a large city. And it would only happen if people would support it. I'm not sure folks still have that much sense of community now in very many places, and it's kind of a shame I think. We don't know each other's names if we live more than a house or two apart, we interact through third parties of our employers or governments or church groups and clubs, and we have to lock our doors constantly against the rest of the "community" we don't even know. We didn't usually, then.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Welcome Nigel--Love, Jules

When my son Scott (Tall Penguin) took Spanish in high school, he had to make a language arts project. So we blew up a balloon, covered it with papier mache, painted it black, attached a short clothes line "fuse," and labeled it la bomba. That was long before 9/11, so it went over big and he got an A. Today we don't dare call things bombs so casually or we'd have the Homeland Security folks all over us.

Hypersensitive now to theft or political incorrectness when we travel, we try to call our laptops, camcorders, and digital cameras by nicknames so strangers don't know what we're referring to. I'm typing this on Nebs2, for example, and my wife, Barbara's, digital camera was originally called La Bomba. But when we flew to New York last September, we thought we'd better give it a different nickname. It just wouldn't do to shout across the boarding line, "Hey, do you have La Bomba?" or "Now where did I put that Bomb?" So La Bomba became, in a new bright orange foam case for easy visibility, "Orange Julius" or "Jules" for short. Everyone in my family keeps a watch out for Jules, and Barb uses it to take and load all those snappy photos for her blog, Iris Blue.

But Jules, alas, is getting older by digital standards, and has a tendency to blur unless held rock-steady. I messed up my pix of Grandpa Bingham whom we visited in Indiana this June, for example, when I couldn't hold it steady enough even sitting around a table. So my family all chipped in and bought me a fabulous, compact digital camera with excellent anti-shaking settings for my July birthday recently, already pre-nicknamed Nigel (Barb's idea). Nigel got a gray foam case with straps like Jules, and of course gets to be used by everyone who went in on it. I get to keep it, however, in my custody and care.

So welcome, Nigel, to this intrepid photojournalistic blogging family, and may you record and publish many an excellent image on all our posts. Live long and prosper!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Savannah: A Great Finish to a Fun Trip

When you reach a certain age, summer vacation means going to see the folks. And this goes on for many years, if you're lucky. Even if you're headed in the opposite direction for your wished-for destination, you have to make sure you include the hometown visit or your name will be Mud for the following year.

So we made the pilgrimage to Huntington, Indiana, where both Barb and I were born and raised, met and fell in love, married and had our firstborn and secondborn, saw the folks, joined up with the firstborn's family and did Cedar Point, the Sandusky, Ohio amusement park we've visited many times before, and were just about ready to call it a vacation and return to Florida.

But the two to three days it takes us to drive home from Indiana never seems quite fulfilling unless we cram in a little layover in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, another favorite hotspot for us. And we did. Barb got to shop at her Christmas Place store for a few hours before we headed on over the mountains and down to I-95.

Somewhere along the way I realized I really wanted to visit Savannah, Georgia as well, and I calculated that, even starting from Gatlinburg at 1:00 pm, I could make it there last night, the third of July, spend the fourth touring the city, and leave for Scott's new condo in Kissimmee on the fifth, then home to Coral Springs.

Neither Barb nor I had been to Savannah, the Belle of Georgia, with its rich history and vibrant old streets, mansions, and mossy shady squares and streets. We visited Charleston, North Carolina three years ago, but never seemed to make it to Savannah.

Well, we did it. Barb reserved us two nights, last night and this one, at a Hampton nearby, and today we toured on a trolley with on/off priveleges all day and had a ball. By late afternoon--we decided to skip the live fireworks display on the riverfront due to the crowds and watch nationally from our motel room--we felt like Savannahians (honest to goodness, that's what they call themselves here.) and that we'd seen and photographed and videoed plenty of memories.

To me, we beat the system again this year. We didn't get trapped in the obligatory pilgrimage again but launched out into new vistas, and to me that's what vacation means. Now I don't have to spend yet another year wondering what Savannah is like and if I like it as well as Charleston, which I really loved. Savannah isn't Charleston, though they share much in common historically and culturally. Savannah is unique in its layout and squares, its stately ironwrought mansions and beautiful shady live oaks Charleston doesn't have. But Charleston is a city of great mystery, history, and character with a bigger feel and area that I am still very intrigued by. These sister cities are like two beautiful but entirely unique southern belles, each lovely and fascinating but totally incomparable with the other.

The only thing I miscalculated and wished I'd brought along on the trip was my old laptop, so I wouldn't have had to compete with Barb for blogtime. She has done a great job of documenting our vacation day by day, with pix, here. Next trip I'll put it on my packing list.