Fay Vincent, commissioner of Major league Baseball, 1989-92, wrote a Wall Street Journal opinion piece Monday, December 31, 2018, that impressed me.
The premise of Mr. Vincent’s piece was that we should listen more, particularly to older folks, who can vividly project the power of oral history, making it come alive and relevant.
Now in his 80’s, Mr. Vincent says he recalls stories he heard about the Civil War, World War I, baseball great Lou Gehrig, Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and more from older friends, acquaintances and relatives. He tells of hearing his father’s grandmother recalling hearing of Napoleon’s escape from Elba, an event that took place in 1815, just before Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.
After reading his comments I started thinking about stories I heard from family and friends. It made me regret not listening more intently and asking more questions.
In the 1950’s while summering on my maternal grandparents farm in Ontario, Canada, I would rummage through trunks stored in their rambling seven-bedroom brick farm house for old magazines, fascinated with the dates, many that precluded World War I. I managed to find, and still have today, their Farmer’s Almanacs dating from the 1880’s and one from the 1840’s that I pulled from musty trunks. Who owned that one dated 1844? I didn’t ask and will never know.
My grandparents told me their farmhouse was built prior to the American Civil War. But I didn’t ask who built it or the date it was constructed. And there’s no one left to fill in the gaps. I recall my grandmother telling me how shocked she was when she heard about President William McKinley’s assassination on September 6, 1901, in Buffalo, New York, a city not very far from their farm in Sparta, Ontario. She must have read about it in a newspaper or been told by a neighboring farmer because there was no radio then and telephones were luxuries of the wealthy, mostly rich folks in the United States. My grandmother was about five or six years old when James Garfield, the 20th President of the U.S. was shot and killed on a Baltimore train platform in 1881 and in her late 80’s when John Kennedy was killed on a street in Dallas.
I used to listen, mesmerized by the stories that my mother’s youngest brother and my favorite uncle, Norm, told about his World War II service in the Canadian Army. He landed on D-Day with 14,000 other Canadians on the Normandy beach named Juno and told of having a fellow soldier and childhood pal walking next to him in a French apple orchard killed by a German sniper. He related how he and other Canadian troops quickly discovered Calvados and eagerly filled their canteens with the trademark homemade Normandy apple brandy. He fought with his unit to The Netherlands where he celebrated the end of the war in a barroom brawl with a group of American soldiers.
Norm told about manning a machine gun on a bridge in the eastern Netherlands town of Arnhem. He visited me when I lived in Brussels and suggested we drive to Arnhem, just a few hours from the Belgian capital. Uncle Norm hadn’t been there since early 1945 but the minute we entered the town he knew exactly where to go directing me on how to get to that bridge. “It was bitterly cold and dark,” he recalls of his experience there 40 years before we arrived in 1985. “We were told to shoot at anything in the river that moved. Despite our orders we fired that gun to just warm our hands on the barrel after we stopped shooting. We never saw anything in that river.”
My step brother, Bob, who was 20 years my senior, was a childhood chum of my Uncle Norm, they grew up together and then went to war together. Bob was wounded while serving in the Canadian Navy on a mine sweeper and while recuperating in an English hospital, met and eventually married his Welsh nurse, Phyllis. Norm and Bob met up in London prior to D-Day but kept those stories to themselves. When Norm came home after the war he married his Canadian sweetheart, Lenore, also a nurse.
They are both gone now and I regret not asking them more questions about their wartime and childhood activities. But it’s my father, Cecil, whose past intrigues me the most and is the one person I know almost nothing about.
He was born in 1888 and died when I was six. I have few memories of him, but know from my Mother and brothers that he fought in World War I as a member of the Canadian Army and was among the first allied soldiers to be gassed by the Germans in the Belgian town of Ypres. My father and his fellow soldiers faced deadly new weaponry of poison gas, machine guns, airplanes and heavy artillery, weapons never before seen on a battlefield. The chlorine gas he was exposed to caused a variety of ailments leading to his Canadian doctor’s suggestion that he and his family move to a warmer climate. Because he was a keen fresh water fisherman he chose Florida’s humid climate over a drier Arizona one, but didn’t live long enough to enjoy angling on the state’s lakes.
I visited Ypres while living in Belgium and that city has done a magnificent job of preserving the
battlefields, including the actual trenches and recreating realistic battlefield reenactments and inspirational memorials. It gave me a sense of the horrors my father and his fellow soldiers must have experienced there.
My Mother’s stories were of growing up on a farm, riding in her Uncle Wes’s car — the first car in the small town of Aylmer, Ontario — dancing the Charleston, having no telephone, wood and coal fired heating systems, wartime rationing, and playing cards for entertainment. She told me about the times her Uncle Wes would allow her and her sister, Helen, to drive his car, and how they eagerly headed toward frozen lakes where they’d slam on the brakes causing it to spin in circles on the ice. I wish I’d asked her more about those times.
My good friend and Amelia Island resident, Cal Atwood, died last May and I am fortunate to have known him. This dignified and affable Marine, poet and educator was a reservoir of living history, particularly his experiences fighting on Iwo Jima in 1945. He died at 94 with shrapnel from that horrific battle still in him. I miss my monthly lunches with him and our mutual friend, Joe Murphy.
Carol Voorhees — the mother of my chum Pajamadave — passed away in September 2017. Carol had a natural talent for relating humorous stories particularly about her youngest pajama-clad son, regaling me at the Crab Trap bar with tales about the Sugar Hallow Diner she owned and operated in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania and some of Dave’s antics. With a straight face she told me that the pajama-wearing, bearded, pony-tailed character was voted “Best Dressed” in his high school senior class, a tale that had beer shooting out of my nose. Good story tellers are hard to come by and Carol, with her dry wit, was one of the best.
My grandparents, father, mother, uncles and all but one aunt are gone now, so there’s no immediate family left to answer the questions I didn’t ask when I had the chance.
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions but after reading Mr. Vincent’s comments in the WSJ and reflecting back, I’ve decided to make an effort to do more listening and less talking, particularly around those older than me, as they are getting harder and harder for me to find these days.
Speaking Of New Year’s: I believe that Valentine’s Day and Halloween are phony-baloney holidays cooked up by a group of businessmen in dark suits that huddled in the board room of an office building in Hershey, Pennsylvania, aka Big Chocolate. I also believe News Year’s Eve is another concocted holiday created by greedy restaurateurs and clock makers aka Big Eaters and Big Time.
Why would I go to a restaurant to stare at a clock and pay $75-$100 per person for a meal that normally costs $18.75, that includes a glass of sparkling wine labeled Champagne, but isn’t because it doesn’t come from the Champagne region of France? The goofy cardboard hat and silly noise maker aren’t worth the cost either. Standing around with a bunch of people I don’t know and have no interest in talking to, listening to loud music I don’t like, and then trying to get a cab after one too many is not my idea of a good time. There’s no upside to New Year’s Eve events.
Oh, and those folks in New York City’s Times Square! Are they out of their collective minds? There were tens of thousands of them crammed into Times Square to do what? According to the live television reporting I saw there was no alcohol, no food , no toilet facilities, and a massive rain storm. So they stood cheek-to-jowl with total strangers for hours and hours listening to unintelligible lip syncing from musicians nobody has ever heard of in a putrid sea of human sweat, bad breath, BO, and bad manners, while wetting their pants in the rain. What could be more fun than that? Rikers Island? Marine Corps boot camp? The Democrat Party National Convention?
We avoided the midnight ritual this year thanks to my pal Pajamadave Voorhees, who came up with a brilliant solution to “Get ‘er done!” We joined him as he efficiently, and three hours ahead of schedule, rang in the New Year at 9 p.m. December 31, at the PJD Beer & Wine Garden among close friends and family members including Billy and Katy, Cam & Starla, Mel, Bob, Brenda, Robin & Jeff, Mark, Hupp & Lulu, Scott & Meg, PJ Dave & Zan, Robert & Jen, Viv & Leigh, and more. Dave proposed a nice toast to family and friends, we all contributed to the community food table, had a few drinks and laughs together, and went our separate ways. I loved it and hope it becomes an annual tradition.
After leaving PJD’s, Linda and I watched TV at home staring flabbergasted at the dazed, rain-drenched wretches in Times Square as the pathetic announcers on all the TV channels tried desperately to find something interesting to talk about until midnight. One channel interviewed people who admitted they were wearing diapers and another did a lame mock interview of a Nancy Pelosi look-a-like. Not my idea of entertainment. I switched to the History Channel, then went to bed.
Happy New Year!
Thoughts I Wish I’d Had: “We have created a false dichotomy between urban and rural America by cherry-picking places like San Francisco and New York and pitting them against equally specific examples of rural America, like Appalachian Kentucky. We have painted a portrait of an out-of-touch elite vs. an angry populist movement. But both are tiny minorities of the population. Most Americans aren’t in the top 1 percent and don’t attend Pilates classes or read the New Yorker. But neither are the lives of most rural Americans captured in the pages of ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ nor are they angry and resentful of globalization and Manhattanites.” – Source: Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, “The False Stereotype of Two Americas” via the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
A Movie Not Worth Seeing: Part-time Amelia Island resident, entrepreneur, lawyer and friend, Pat Keogh, reports from his second home in Texas that he: “Just saw ‘Vice’ in a downtown ‘arts’ theater in the People’s Socialist Republic of Austin. Never saw such a distortion of history and an example of sheer Hollywood meanness billed as ‘dark comedy’. But it’s worth seeing to understand the extremes to which the left will go to debase folks they disagree with. Here’s the worst part: at $13 we didn’t even get a senior discount. Wouldn’t you think these lefties would be senior sensitive? Incidentally, the author/director, Adam McKay, is a Bernie supporter, an avowed socialist and a former SNL writer. You need to see this but try to find a way not to pay. Got the new Krauthammer book for Christmas. Still miss seeing and reading Charles. Kept thinking ‘what would Charles say about Vice?'”
Drinking, Dining & Dancing: The Boat House in downtown Fernandina Beach at the corner of Ash and South 2nd Street has been selling boats and accessories since 1977 but soon the only thing nautical about it will be its name. It was recently purchased by entrepreneur and developer Spurgeon Richardson who plans to keep the “Boat House” moniker but will convert the property to a casual seafood-steak restaurant with two full indoor and outdoor bars. Spurgeon says full service dining will be offered indoors and also in an outdoor patio area. “Walk up outside dining will be offered as well and a stage that will feature regular live entertainment,” adds the affable new owner. He says that plans will be submitted for permitting to the Historic District Committee (HDC) and the City of Fernandina Beach this month or in February. According to Spurgeon construction will hopefully begin in spring of 2019 and will take about a year with an anticipated opening the spring of 2020. Restaurants aren’t new to the Atlanta native who is an investor in the property and the restaurant, but will not manage it. He is currently negotiating with a seasoned manager/operator from Atlanta to relocate here and do all that. This is not Richardson’s first venture into the restaurant business. For eight years, he owned Encore at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, which, in 1995, was named by Atlanta Magazine as “Best of Atlanta”. Other notable local real estate developments involving Richardson hereabouts include the mixed use projects at Lime & 14th and River City Marketplace in Jacksonville.
Happy 2019 Dave !! I enjoy your articles, and can relate to more of them than I would like to. It’s too bad most of us don’t take an interest in our family history earlier in life though, were just too interested in our “today” lives, than our family history, just too bad !! Take care and have a wonderful 2019 !!
You too my fiend.
Dave, welcome back. An older mentor of mine referred to New Year’s Eve as “amateur night”. He had run a speakeasy for his dad in the 20’s and regaled me with stories from that era including the characters who frequented the bar in Newark NJ. He used the stories as teaching points for what not to do. Besides those stories I got his perspective on the NY Yankees of which he was a big fan. I miss those days and tales.
Dave, I share your thoughts regarding our collective histories and the value of listening to our elders and their stories. I’m currently reading “Sink ‘em All, the story-of submarine warfare in the Pacific”. I can’t describe the thrill of hearing about the exploits of my father’s sub, USS SAILFISH. I only wish I heard these stories from his lips.
Great column. I also agree with your thoughts about New Years Eve. PJ Dave has the right idea. I’d rather enjoy some quiet contemplation than a noisemaker and a paper hat.
My relatives who were in the War unfortunately (for me) never wanted to talk much about. The best chunk of history we have is from my grandmother. My youngest son, as part of a class project, interviewed her. She was born in the late 1800s and gave us a great glimpse of her life and times. But there is so much more I wish I had asked of her, my grandfather and other family members.
Nice column, Dave. Not sure my “smart phone grandchildren” care much about their ancestry. If some of your readers experience what John Fulton reported, they are the lucky ones. Most of today’s young’uns think the world started the year they were born.
No bone spurs in your DNA pool. Nice post until you let your bewildering support of the drumpf cult creep into your musings. Happy New Year and wishing you a great 2019!
Thankfully, Dave, there are fewer and fewer people older than you are, so we can continue to enjoy your diatribes.
Welcome back Dave. Really looking forward with interest and eager anticipation to your implementation of “the listen to those who are older” resolution.
(Incidentally I prefer, with my advanced years – to substitute “older” with “more mature”.)
Happy New Year to both you and Linda.
My 20 something granddaughter has shown a keen interest in genealogy so her parents gave her a subscription to Ancestry.com for Christmas. She sat me down over the holidays and grilled me on my life while taking copious notes. I was thrilled she showed such interest and gives me hope that her generation will have a sense of history and appreciate her ancestry.
Read Vincent’s article in the WSJ. Really liked your follow up. I came away from both with the same resolution; ask and listen more. Welcome back.
Happy and healthy New year
You too my friend.
I enjoyed the history and family stories this morning, Dave.
My dad who is turning 99 in August wrote a book SEARCH IN THE CAROLINES Operation: Grass Skirts. He was on Guam during WWII. But that’s not what the book is about. His unit instead of going directly back to the states, after the war, went through the Caroline Islands informing the indigenous people that the war was over. It is complete with pictures and diary notes.
Welcome back Dave. The very best in 2019.Your into was right on, the now generation knows nada about their family history.
Joe, thanks, and let’s get together for lunch again soon.