Monday, January 24, 2011

Lost and found stories

Elizabeth Arrington Strickland -- the grandmother I never knew

Camp Connell, CA - I've been thinking about family a lot lately.

Not the ones close by, who are always on my mind, nor even the extended family spread across the country.

But about ancestors. You know, those people we Americans generally forget after two generations.

I never met my grandparents. All four were dead before I was born. I know one died of "childbirth fever" in her late 20s, two of heart attacks in their 60s, and one of old age -- in her 80s.

What were they like? How did they live? Did they have some characteristics that were passed down in the gene pool? And does it matter?

A lot of wonderful stories are lost that should be saved. And I believe stories from our history help shape our present, and our future.

Besides, there are so many great-great-great stories out there.

For example:

Robert Lamont was a teenager when he became one of the earliest Scots-Irish immigrants to North America. His brother beat him to it, according to the story passed down, because the older brother was forced onto a British ship by a press gang when he made a mistake and hung out on the Antrim docks on the north coast of Ireland. Next thing you know, the brother jumped ship in New York in 1745, liked it better than starving in Ireland, and sent for his mother and brothers. Robert became a weaver and part of a small group of Scots that moved into the heart of Dutch-controlled Upstate New York. They did not always get along with their rich neighbors, and once broke an uncle out of jail in a dispute over taxes.

Hardy Strickland, a namesake without the "Devil"
Devil Hardy Strickland was born into a farming family in North Carolina in 1776. That was his real name, though the story behind it is unclear. As an adult he made his way to north Georgia before the Cherokee were run off. Married his first cousin Priscilla, they had 12 children and he lived to the ripe old age of 96. Family rumor has it that he was too mean to die. He named a son Devil.

Hiram Barry was board in Tidewater Virginia in 1802, but moved on to Knoxville, Tennessee, where lived out his life as a well know printer. He probably knew President Andrew Jackson, since it was a small town, and Hiram lived into his 80s when his obituary praised his as "a venerable citizen." Think of the stories he would have to tell.

Thomas Pruitt was 20 years old when he landed on the Virgina shore from England in 1636. Ten years later he married and they had only six children. He died before the Revolution, still in Virginia, so we'll probably never know whose side he was on in the war between the upstart colonies and Mother England.

Thanks to my mother, who talked about her family, and my grandmother who wrote down the results of her research in the 1930s, I know some things about my grandparents that I never met.

Grandfather Roswell DeEstra LaMont (his father Frenchified the family names) left his New York birthplace, moved west to Michigan and then south to Alabama. He was a journeyman printer, a stout union man who could work almost anywhere, who wandered to pursue his craft and his taste for adventure. He ended up working with other printers, one named Barry and one named Pruitt, in a small town in Alabama after the Civil War. He met and married my grandmother, Mollie, daughter of a printer and a union member as well, who was a tad older. They had one child, and my grandfather stuck around till my father was grown and then hit the road again, staying in touch through letters. He worked in Florida and then Cuba for a few years, where the fishing was good and the sun warm. He had a heart attack in Cuba and came back to Miami to die. He was buried by the International Typographical Union and their symbol is on his headstone.

Mollie Barry's home at 508 Clayton Street, Montgomery
Grandmother Mary Earnest Barry LaMont, known as Mollie, was a child when the Civil War began, and witnessed missing families, orphaned cousins, troops camped in the front yard, and Yankees stealing the chickens when they swept through. Her younger brother John, 5 years old when the war ended, was terrified when the Yankees came by the gate and called him "Johnny Reb." He wondered how they knew his name. Her father re-appeared safely at the end of the war and they settled down in Montgomery.

Grandfather Fred Strickland was raised on a North Georgia farm, but in a family that believed in education and wanted to help him go to school. As a teenager, he spent some of his his spare time panning for gold in neighboring streams he knew as a boy. By the time he was ready to apply at Georgia Tech, he had a poke of gold that along with a football scholarship was enough to pay his way in 1899. he was an engineer, inventor, and eventually ran mills in the south. He put all of his children through college, or nursing schools. The Depression took away his job, and when his beloved oldest son died in an airplane crash in the 1930s, he had a heart attack and died soon after. He is buried near his son, not far from today's Atlanta International Airport.
Grandmother Elizabeth Arrington Strickland, pictured at the top, was a native of Alabama who moved slightly north. She met her husband when he was running a mill in Anderson, South Carolina, they were married and quickly had five children. She died of a fever after the birth of her youngest child, and is buried in Anderson. No is left alive who really knows anything about her.

And then there was Bina Mickle.
All I know about Bina Mickle is that the photograph was taken in 1931, apparently in or near Haneyville, Alabama, where my grandmother Barry was born.
And, there is letter surviving from the 1930s in which my grandmother wrote a family member to make sure that Bina was "properly taken care of" in her old age. A return letter assured my grandmother that she was, and there is no further correspondence.
Census records do not indicate the family owned slaves in 1860. Craftsmen and people who lived and worked in towns did not often have slaves, and the woman in the photo does not look 90 years old in any case.

But I will always wonder about her, and why my grandmother cared for her well being.
There has to be a story there.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Football culture -- The anthropology of the South

Camp Connell, CA -- A large number of my relatives -- Auburn fans all -- are enjoying post-BCS syndrome this morning.
For some that means sitting around telling each other "we always knew Auburn was a national champion," despite the fact it has been almost 50 years since Alabama Polytechnic Institute (then called "Auburn" and now named "Auburn University") actually won a championship.
But this is no time to quibble with a great success, and what I thought was a great football game even though I personally matriculated (is that a real word?) at the traditional football power in the south -- the University of Alabama aka The Crimson Tide.
(I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan, but only claim that school when they make it to the top ten rankings or discover a cure for disease...)

Auburn's last-second victory over Oregon will be celebrated for weeks, or years, by most of my relatives.

I take some pleasure in it, mostly because 70% of the New York Times readers picked Oregon to win, as did the columnists for the Los Angeles Times.
It is my humble opinion that people from outside the Southern United States have never really understood the SEC and regional pride that fuels these teams and their supporters.
Take THAT you effete western media snobs and you citified New York Yankees. (There, I feel better already. I have re-affirmed my football southern-ness.)

My father always used to cheer for Auburn or any other Southern school doing battle with universities from "up North." We had "schools" and they had "universities."

He used to say, rather politely, that he "attended" Auburn. He never really explained why he left school, but it later occurred to me that when he mentioned being arrested at a college football game for drinking from a flask under the stands, THAT probably was his memory of college.
It was the Prohibition Era, and he got off lightly.
And he always liked Auburn.

My brother-in-law Roy went to Auburn on the GI bill in the 1950s, and was such a fan he would sneak into games wearing a telephone lineman's belt to walk through the "authorized personnel only" gate when he could not afford tickets. He swore that he hung off a telephone pole to cheer Auburn on.
His support never flagged, even joining and leading his alumni association, something I never even considered. He has waited a long time for this recent victory.

His children adopted his fan-hood. Ben, the eldest, still lives in Alabama, and is a staunch Auburn fan, sending out Facebook messages every few minutes during the game and making sure I know of a web site where I can buy Auburn victory paraphernalia.

My niece Beth is an Auburn-trained engineer living in Colorado. I am sure the mountains were echoing late last night with shouts of joy.

Nephew Philip, who lives and works near my old stomping grounds on Mobile Bay, was unusually quiet until after the game, when he sent a short message: "WDE!" Translation: "War-damn-Eagle."
He is a sensitive soul, and was overcome by emotion.

And my late sister Mary would have been there cheering too, even though she went to the University of Miami. She was a convert, and you know how dedicated they are. She was probably cheering from on high.

May the joy in my Auburn family extend for weeks and months to come.

I, on the other hand, have never been an Auburn fan, or even for that matter a big football fan.

I attended the University of Alabama during the years when Joe Namath was quarterback, undefeated seasons were the norm, and we always went to educational places like New Orleans to play in bowl games. Alabama usually lost those bowl games, but we thought it only fair that the team had a chance to relax on Bourbon Street before the big game. And I furthered my education by closely studying the local culture as expressed in fruity drinks, great gumbo, and a variety of exotic dancers.Crowds seek educational opportunities on Bourbon Street

At Alabama's home games we drank a lot and left at halftime to go to parties because the game was usually wrapped up by then.
I once was hired to tend bar for the Law School students sitting together in the stands. Instead of "Roll Tide" I heard a chorus of "More bourbon!"

I even wrote a editorial once in the college paper saying Coach Bear Bryant was not a god and could not walk on water. No one took it seriously.

Nowadays there is too much money involved in college football for such frivolity and wasteful behavior.

Most of the talk is about how many millions the universities will get from the games, and whether the key players will drop out of college to join a professional team where they will earn even more than the university.

But the good old days still exist in my family.

And my relatives know that I cheer for them, and for one brief moment was actually happy that Auburn won a football game.

(I planned to insert a photograph of Auburn's "War Eagle, " or maybe even the "Tiger" mascot, but the University website charges a fee for that.)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Happy (?) New Year!

Camp Connell, CA - The year 2011 has officially begun, and so far so good.
I know. It is only two days old.
Our elected officials are all on vacation so they have done no harm -- so far.

The ski resort up the road has had a booming holiday season, which has spilled over into the local businesses that have been struggling. That's good for my working neighbors.

Everyone in our immediate family is employed -- if they want to be.

All are healthy and seem happy.
Daughter Ruth, granddaughter Delaney, and best in-law Leroy, helped celebrate my 70th birthday at the Camp Connell store in 2010
Son Zack, granddaughter Katie and Pat celebrated Zack's birthday with a cake

It will be another year of transition for me, hopefully all positive.

Some things are required.
My IRA's have "matured" along with me, and I have to do something about them in the next three months. I hate that sort of decision making, but the clock is ticking.
Like many retired couples and families this year we will learn to get along with less, as the last few years have carved down our savings. The last time I ran the numbers our savings lost about 60% of their value in the past three years. Social Security suddenly is a lot more important that it used to be.
My body requires a certain amount of maintenance which seems to entail increasing doctor visits for probes and scans and examinations to make sure I am just aging, not deteriorating at an unnatural pace.
I have never been good at the type of exercise people get by working out in gyms, so I will have to try harder to get out and walk more, whether in the snow or not. I recall vividly the advice a physical therapist once passed along" "Use it or lose it."
Fortunately, there are plenty of trails to hike, mountains to ski, and lots of wood to haul to keep the home fires burning.
We have yet to hike the trails up Mount Whitney, seen here in the Fall, above the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine

I don't make New Year's resolutions anymore, but two things I want to do more of this year are sailing and get back to working on the family history.
The family history project, which my grandmother began in 1935, may move ahead thanks to Pat's gift of a subscription to an on-line genealogy service. It is an amazing tool and saves hours and hours of research. Now I just have to start writing.
"More sailing" has been an unrealized goal for several years. We love our boat, but it sits tied to the expensive dock in Alameda most of the time. Why is it when you retire you do not have time for things you claim you want to do?
So far we have decided to keep the boat and try to use it more. But each year we come closer to the inevitable decision that the cost and effort are not worth the ultimate pleasure. But owning a boat has never been logical, so do not expect a logical move in this area.
The other decision out there in our future is when will we have had enough snow and ice in the winter and need to move down the hill. Travel to warmer spots helps, but that has been limited recently by economic realities.
We will not leave the mountains, but the idea of living somewhere in the winter where we would not have to wait for the snowplow, shovel the deck, or worry about the power failing, well, that seems pretty attractive some days.

But for now the snow is falling prettily, the temperature is not bad, and the fire is going strong in the wood stove.

And whether I am ready or not, the new year is here.