Friday, February 26, 2010

A Voyage Long and Strange

Who was the first European to step foot on what eventually became the United States? Leif Erikson the Viking? Nope, he landed up in Canada. Columbus? Nope, never set foot on our soil. The correct answer would be Ponce de Leon somewhere near present day Daytona Beach on his quest for the fountain of youth. Actually the fountain of youth was never his mission nor was it in his charter but was added by a Spanish writer documenting the trip years after Ponce got back. Ponce de Leon was actually after what all Spanish explorers and those sent on their behalf (Columbus) were looking for, gold. Ponce de Leon excelled at murdering natives on the second Columbus expedition and thus got promoted so that he could get his own fleet to look for the land full of golden rivers said to be north of the Caribbean islands. He didn't find gold but he did become the first European to set foot in the future United States of America. But because he didn't have good PR skills, history writers stuck him with searching for the Fountain of Youth to cure his rumored impotence since he didn't have children until age 39. Amerigo Vespucci, another loyal lieutenant of Columbus got that honor (by naming 25% of the earth's landmass) by stepping foot on present day Venezuela. Columbus actually beat Amerigo to Venezuela by a couple years but like Ponce de Leon, he didn't have good PR skills and his murdering, slave-capturing ways had already eroded his credibility by the time he made the landing.

While researching various branches of my family tree that stretch back to the early days of our country, long before it was a country, I got to wondering how so many people were even here. The Pilgrims landed in the early 1600's on Plymouth Rock (this was actually their second landing site and isn't much of a rock as it turns out) and yet less than a century later, my ancestors were already producing generations of offspring. From my grade school years, I had thought that between the time Columbus "discovered" America to the Pilgrims, our continent just sat empty except for a few Indians crossed over from Asia via a land bridge visible from Sarah Palin's house. This couldn't be right so I decided to fill in this "hole" in my knowledge and read a book on pre-Pilgrim U.S. history. The book I selected was A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America by Tony Horwitz

After reading this book, I have pretty much decided all the "facts" that I learned in grade school history were pretty much fiction/indoctrination/whitewashing, whatever you wish to call it other than fact. It seems as if nothing I learned in school was the truth. The murderous Vikings, the first Europeans to set foot on either continents North or South America, may have actually been pretty peaceful people just looking to have a summer home in a land of timber and grapes. The local Indian population drove out these masters of war with only their catapults and spears. Later on Christopher Columbus, our benevolent founder, would turn out to be a ruthless person who murdered people left and right and single handedly starting the slave trade in the western hemisphere. Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca made a trip almost three times as long as Lewis and Clark from present day Tampa, Florida to the Gulf of California all the way down into Mexico that took eight years and made the Lewis and Clark expedition look more like an overnight Boy Scout outing. Remember the first permanent settlement of Jamestown? Forty years before that and even before the failed Roanoke experiment, French Huguenots and Spain both had settlements going in Florida. In fact before John Smith or Walter Raleigh even set foot on our shores, Spain had nearly a dozen settlements going. Finally, the pure Puritans were more interested in the local sassafras crop over religious freedom because it was a cure for syphilis and thus very marketable to Europe.

This book is now a proud addition to my library once it finishes making its rounds to my circle of friends with whom I trade books. I consider it a must read for anyone wanting to know unvarnished pre-Pilgrim history specifically in the land that would later become the United States of America. Definitely one of the best books I have read in a long time.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lesson Learned

When I blogged about spring fever a couple weeks ago, I should have known that I was asking for trouble. I'm old enough to know better than to tempt Mother Nature. Only a few more weeks until March and then I can make it is along the lines of what I said. Mother Nature has since said, "Oh yeah!? We'll see about that." Now we have over 24" of snow pack on the ground, something I have never experienced before in the southern reaches of eastern Iowa. I have seen the bare ground just once since sometime back in December, another thing that I can't every remember happening. The good part about it is that my three and a half year old daughter just loves all the snow. I've had to accomodate her by shoveling a ramp of sorts just so she can climb out of the driveway. March is still five days away so I'm not going to make anymore comments about how good it will be when we get there. I've learned my lesson well.

One of the advantages of having a steel roof is pretty icicles. One of the disadvantages is that they are hard on keeping gutters attached to the house. I've already patched up this run once this winter.

An icicle fence next to what remains of my daughter's snowman buried under the snow.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Tracing the Wells

Of the eight branches of my family tree that comprise the direct lineage of my great-grandparents, the shortest one was the Wells line. My great-grandmother was a Wells but died before I knew her. In fact, when I was bitten by the genealogy bug, I didn't even know her last name was Wells and only knew her by her married name. Once I obtained that information, I was off and running but could only get as far as her grandfather, my third great grandfather Leander Wells. That is where the trail went cold. I shouldn't say cold but just undecipherable to me.

I could find lots of records of Leander on his migration to Iowa but nothing conclusive on his parents. I had one census record (1850) of Leander (17) living with his two brothers Alexander (18) and Philander (13) and one sister Clarinda (10) with a 23-year-old lady named Mary J. Getty. For the longest time, I didn't have any clues to go on until one day I started looked at neighbor's names and found a Peter (63) & Mary Wells (44) that lived next door in the same census. They were old enough to be the parents and they had the proximity of being right next-door but I needed more proof. I started tracing Peter Wells back through the census records prior to 1850, which only tell you the number of kids within a certain age range and the name of the head of household. From 1850 on, the census records listed every person in the household by name. Peter Wells was very easy to track down as he lived in St. Lawrence county New York for most of his life but his census records didn't jive. In 1810 he was married though Mary would have only been 4 at the time. By 1820, he had 3 boys and 2 girls ranging up to 16 years of age, again Mary would have been only 14 at the time. So I suspected that Mary was actually a second wife, which left the mother of my 3rd great grandfather Leander up in the air assuming Peter was his father.

At this point, census records had given me what I could glean from them as far as Leander was concerned so I started tracing his brother's and sister. I found his sister in another later census living with Peter though she was labeled as a domestic, which at age of 19, she probably was. This gave me a better feeling that Peter was their father but still wasn't conclusive enough for me. Brother Alexander simply disappeared and Philander and Leander both migrated to Minnesota where they fought in the Civil War. Leander I would learn would desert the military and go live in Canada for a time before moving to Iowa where he lived out his years. Worse, I was contacted about this time in my research by a lady who was excited because Leander was the brother of her direct ancestor John Wells, also a civil war deserter. I spent lots of time chasing this lead but got nowhere. I couldn't match up census records nor find any proof that John was actually a brother. With dead ends now with all the children and claimed children except for my 3rd great grandfather Leander, I moved on to other lines and left this branch lay dormant.

With most of my branches now beyond useful help of census records, I have started going back to search historical books and newspapers in the counties that they lived. Brief family biographies of the residents of a county were quite common around the turn of the 20th century along with historical descriptions of the county that can often lead to clues from where people immigrated. When I got to the Wells line, I focused on Peter Wells out in St. Lawrence county New York and I did learn some about him but nothing about his wife/wives or anything tying him to Leander. For example, Peter's house was the place of a Canadian raid where several people were brutally killed. I also learned that he was on the street planning commission for the town of Lisbon and was mentioned in a lot of town meeting minutes. Not finding much more, I turned my focus back to Leander in his former places of residence in New York, Minnesota and Iowa but found little to go on. One brief sentence in a county history book simply stated that in March of 1858, Leander began building a ferryboat in Ninenger, Minnesota. Another sentence in a book of civil war letters between James Madison Bowler his wife Elizabeth Caleff Bowler stated the Leander had left for Canada to join his brother after deserting the military and that his wife was as Sam Truaxes and would be joining him soon. Both snippets were certainly intriguing but didn't give me anything to go on.

Then inspiration struck. I thought that with a name like Philander, surely he would be easy to Google some information and sure enough, I struck pay dirt in a 1902 Boone county history book. It confirmed that Peter and Mary Ann (Shaw) Wells were Philander, Leander, Alexander and Clarinda's parents and that they both had been married one before. Mary Shaw (whose maiden name until I read this account had been a mystery) had been married to a Mr. Getty. The light bulb went off and suddenly the Mary J. Getty who was 23 and listed as the head of household for Leander and his siblings was actually a half-sister. Despite the previous marriages, neither had a son named John meaning that the lady who had contacted me so long ago had some faulty research in her hand and had led me down a wrong path for a length of time.

My 3rd great grandfather Leander had died at the age of 67 which though young for his family, wasn't terribly out of line for me to suspect anything but natural health issues. But Philander's biography mentioned that his brother Leander had burned to death in the wreck of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad at Colorado Springs on January 26, 1901. After some digging, I finally found an article in the January 27th, 1901 issue of the Colorado Springs Gazette with the headline: "A Watchman Cremated." Turns out Leander was the watchman in question and that witnesses had told of an explosion followed by a large fire in a freight building owned by the railroad company. The heat had been hot enough to melt the lantern still in his hand and set off all the cartridges in his revolver. According to the coroner's report, it was theorized that Leander had gone to the passenger depot and lit a fire to warm up the place as he normally did and then gone back to the freight depot, all interconnected, and fell asleep. The fire somehow escaped the fireplace and Leander had raced back toward the passenger depot to deal with the issue but was overcome with smoke before he got there. The paper mentioned that during the investigation later on that very day, a stranger had gotten off another train and inquired as to whose death had occurred in the fire. Upon being told, he learned that it was his father. The author of the article never said the name of the son, but since my 2nd great grandfather William Hix Wells lived just across the Colorado border in Cheyenne, Wyoming, I suspect he was the one.

On a side note of sorts, my 3rd great uncle Philander, I suppose opposite of my civil war deserting 3rd great grandfather, served honorably during the civil war fighting at Harper's Ferry, Shenandoah and the Battle of the Wilderness, Battle of Weldon Railroad in Virginia and finally at North Mountain and Cedar Creek where he was wounded in his left shoulder. He was bandaged up and put on guard duty but was captured when Petersburg fell to the rebels. But he was soon freed at the battle at Clover Hill and acted as an escort to General Grant when Lee surrendered his sword. He continued on with his military career earning the rank of captain and then quartermaster before he was discharged. Perhaps most interesting about Philander was that after he retired he went on to become the director of the Iowa State Fair Association and was responsible for laying out the buildings and the grounds, all of which are still there to this day. He also served as mayor of Boone and was the first one elected to two consecutive terms.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Desert Rat On the TSA... Again

The TSA in a bid to make the airline world a safer place, is now going to implement palm swabbing for explosive to their EXTENSIVE repertoire. Evidently they haven't figured out that no self-respecting terrorist would pack their own explosive or lie about the "has anyone other than you packed or touched your bag" question. Even in the off chance that a terrorist is working by themselves and thus forced to pack their own explosive underwear, I'm guessing donning a cheap pair of rubber gloves is now going to be under the mandatory section in the "how to blow up an airplane" manual.

If that weren't bad enough, they had to reinforce that this method would not be applied in a discriminatory fashion and would be completely random. For example, just because you are a young, single, Muslim man with a I "heart" America t-shirt with a slash symbol super imposed upon it and a bulge in your pants not caused by increased blood flow, you have just as much chance of being selected as the red hair little 4-year-old, in tow with two parents and wearing an I "heart" New York shirt. Jay Stanley, attorney for the ACLU says to selectively target people would be, "just unfair and not the American way." He also said, "it's just also a terrible way to do security." That is why we are always going to be under a terror watch for the foreseeable future because to a terrorist, getting through security just becomes a game of chance and one that they are willing to still play.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Little Abbey: Shorts

L.A.: "Daddy, the sun is chasing us!"

Me: "Oh no! What are we going to do when it catches us?"

L.A.: "Don't worry daddy, the sun doesn't have arms."


Lesson learned recently: Parents of a three and a half year old need to stock up on super glue. I have fished out my bottle three out of the five days last week. An assortment of small clamps really helps too.


Scene: L.A. has said she was done playing after her bath for the third time, I have asked her to pick up all her floating toys and drain the water for the third time and when I enter the bathroom, she has done neither.

Me: "Pick up those toys are I am not coming in here again!"

L.A.: "Yes sir!"

Me: Thinking, wow, where did she learn to address me like that when....

L.A.: "Yes sir, three bags full. One for the master and one for the dame..."


L.A.: "Mama, I love you!"

Wife: "Ah... how sweet of you to say that."

L.A.: "My feet are wet."

Wife: "Did you knock over my glass of water on the floor?"

L.A.: "Mama, I love you!"

Monday, February 15, 2010

Iowaville: The Three Night, All Night Softball Tournament

For a farm kid that rarely got off the farm, it was a real treat when the annual 3-day all night softball tournament came to town and my parents signed up for shifts to sell food and my father also played on a team. That meant that my brother and I were pretty much free to do as we please for much of three days which rarely included watching the softball game in progress.

We spent much of our time at the playground area across the road where we would hang out with other kids our age. I don't remember what we talked about but as a preteen, I'm sure we talked about the normal things. Sometimes we would wad up some scraps of tinfoil and paper cups for a game of handball or perhaps see who could jump the farthest from a swing. Once, before any of us understood physics, one brave kid tried to complete a revolution around the top rail of the swing set onto to hit the dirt hard. Nothing leaves a greater impression on a young lad than to hear the breath of a kid leaving his mouth in one fast squirt.

My parents usually gave us a small amount of money for supper of a hamburger, chips and a pop but when you are a kid with lots of time to kill, nothing helps to kill time like candy and a lot more pop. Since my parents made sure I didn't have enough money for the extra, I had to earn it. The organizers of the event would pay a kid a hamburger and pop for every bag of garbage he brought in which made their jobs easier at the end of three days. Of course with a dozen or more other like minded kids armed with trash bags, meant I had to roam far and wide to collect enough trash for a payoff. I remember once finding a small car tire in a wooden draw probably a quarter mile from the ball field and cramming that into the trash bag and lugging it all the way back. I also learned other tricks such as putting in empty boxes of buckets open in down so they took up the maximum amount of space as possible. If I was full, I would still get paid and down the soda while giving the burger to a lucky dog.

For the candy, I needed cash and the only way to do that was to shag foul balls for a dime each. Any ball, fair or foul that made it over the ball diamond fence was fair game. So when someone yelled, "heads up" to warn people of a foul ball possibly headed towards their noggin, we were off running through people, traffic and whatever obstacle was in our way in a desperate attempt to be the first to get to the ball. Being gifted with long legs and one of the fasted people my age, I did fairly well and would sometimes get a couple bucks worth of dimes in one evening. That was usually good for six or eight candy bars which was more than enough sugar to keep me going.

One evening after a pause to observe a lightening storm, we were sitting on the bleachers with my parents watching a game in progress. (I'm assuming my parents watching the game was why I wasn't off doing my normal thing.) Gradually people started noticing a glow off to the southwest side of town that kept getting brighter. People started hopping into the cars to check out what was burning and eventually word got back to my father that it was on one of the farms he farmed. A few minutes later, we joined half the town to watch what remained of a barn full of hay burn to the ground. The fire had been so hot that a few days later when I was exploring the ashes I found several head sized glass rocks of what had formerly been windows before they had melted.

Again, the demise of the all night softball tournaments can also be pinned on the farm crisis. As the farms went under and people moved off, both in the country and in Iowaville, the teams became fewer and fewer until it wasn't even worth having anymore. However, not all has been lost. A co-worker who still lives in Iowaville informed me that the all night ball tournament has been resurrected along with three or four others during the year. Evidently some soul with memories as vivid as mine has put a great deal of effort into organizing them and has saved them from extinction, at least for now. Perhaps if you visit one of them this summer, there may be a man with his family, daughter still to young to shag foul balls for the going rate, sitting there with a smile on his face and a look as if his mind is thirty years in the past. That would be me.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Signs of Winter

Superbowl Feast

Potential Fire and Snow

Daddy and "Sweety" in Snowman Form

Hello In There?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Iowaville: Loafing Around

When I was brought into this world, Iowaville had seven gas stations including four on every corner of the intersection of the main highway that goes through the county and Main Street. It had the unofficial title of Oil City, a name that now only remains on some chipped and faded signs hidden in old buildings and basements if you know where to look. Although the railroad had stopped coming years earlier, it still had the tracks and the depot station so it gave us the feel of a much larger place. There was a grocery store, a couple restaurants, a roller rink, clothing store, doctors office and much more. As a kid who grew up on the farm, it had more than enough to get me in trouble and to pass the time on a rainy afternoon while my grandfather loafed down at Crooked's hardware store.

Loafing was an activity done by farmers who weren't farming for weather or season reasons and the occasional retired farmer who wasn't really retired but just had kids at home doing the work for him. My grandfather had my father at home doing the work so long as my brother and I were being looked after and so I ended up in more than one loafing session with grandfather. My grandfather would give us each a dime and we would race back to the pop cooler with the lid that you had to lift up and the rows of pop suspended by their necks between aluminum rails. By putting in the dime, you allowed the lock mechanism at the end of the rails to unlock and for someone to slide a bottle out before it relocked, in theory. In Iowaville, I suspect that the pop cooler hadn't worked this way in years. Instead, we just put our dime in a can sitting on the shelf nearby and slid out a bottle. Generally my brother and I would sit in the back with our own big bottle of pop, not the little bottles that my brother and I had to split at home and practiced putting our thumbs over the opening and giving it a shake before spewing the foaming contents into the back of our throats like the grownups did. To this day, I still remember my mortification from the first unsuccessful attempt that ended up with foamy pop all over myself, the counter and the dusty wooden planks on the floor. Once the sixteen ounces of liquid caffeine prevented us from sitting still, we often made our way to the counter where all sorts of gadgets captured our attention. There was the scale model outhouse with the slot in the top and a sign that said to not stick money into it. Of course we did and of course the walls exploded from the top of the mousetrap that the outhouse had been built on top. There were numerous games involving wooden pegs, marbles or interconnected shapes that seemed impossible to get apart. Now you can find many of these same games made of plastic, shrink wrapped in more plastic and sold at brain teasers. Once when I must have been exceptionally fidgety, I somehow ended up in the middle of Main Street with the fishing pole of another loafer in my hands controlling a kit at the end of a lot of string. You still had to play out line and run to get the kite up in the air but once it was aloft, you could release more string or reel it in as easily as while fishing. That man was a genius.

Occasionally an actual customer would walk in the store looking for something or other to finish a project. Back in those days, hardware stores consisted of a few shelves that contained a little of everything and an owner who would greet you at the door and ask you how HE could help YOU. Now a days you have to walk around with a blank stare in the area of a huge warehouse that you think your interests lie in hope of having the section manager stop and ask if he could help you find something. If you don't know what you want, he is of little use and often times since they have more things stocked than any one person could ever learn how to use in a lifetime, he doesn't even know what it is you are looking for with some hardware version of Pictionary. Your only other option is to track down a manager of a neighboring section and have them page the manager of your section only have the previous scenario happen after a long wait. But back in the day, the customer was actually expected to describe his project and the owner would actually come up with the solution, find the hardware you needed to accomplish said solution, ring them up and help you carry them out to your car. The added bonus was that the loafers would give you their opinions from their experiences to help you out, kind of like an early version of Google.

The hardware store wasn't the only place of loafing but it was certainly one of the more comfortable due to the seating capacity. It had a full half dozen chairs with plenty of space for another half dozen more up by the cash register where as one of the many gas stations usually only had a few chairs and the rest of the loafers had to sit on an unmounted tire or stand. You could occasionally find the loafers at Jake the Barber's shop where he was rumored to have snipped off a poor lads ear who wouldn't sit still or at Thomas Grocery store where they made sandwich meat with huge chunks of cured meats and a meat slicer that hummed as the owner slid the handle back and forth. Depending on your perspective, others might consider some of the restaurants as loafing spots but they weren't. If you lived in town, that is where you hung out over cheap cups of coffee which is why they never stayed in business very long. Yes farmers did frequent the restaurants and would talk over their meals but eating was the primary business at hand and where ever the farmers loafed, they supported the business.

Although some say loafing was a generational thing of my grandparents era, it was really killed off by the farm crisis like so many things. Those that survived were forced to get big in order to make a living from the high land costs and cheap grain prices. As a result, my father's generation never really had time for loafing because even between seasons or during rain when you couldn't plant, you were repairing equipment or doing some of the endless farm projects that needed to be done. So when my grandfather died, right about the same time I became of an age where I could truly be of use on the farm helping my father, the loafing stopped. Perhaps if people still stopped a bit from their busy lives and loafed for a bit with their peers of a icy cold bottle of pop, our lives would get a bit easier.

Monday, February 8, 2010

'Tis Almost the Season of Spring Fever

We are now entering the second week of February and spring fever is beginning to set in. Although we can get some of our lousiest weather in February, there is only two more weeks of it after this one and in March, nothing lasts very long. Besides, we've had the second most snow this winter as any in the records, we had a very large ice storm that knocked out a lot of the power and broke down many trees but with the inch of rain that we had during it that didn't freeze, it could have been a lot worse is the understatement of the year. But in March, everything will be better, it will start warming up and the daylight will start sticking around longer... or so we tell ourselves.

If you walk around outside during March, you can see right away while it is called spring fever. Though the temperature is slightly north of freezing for daytime highs, people are walking around in t-shirts and shorts or at the very least, a light jacket. If it had been the flip side of the year during fall, people would have already resigned themselves to their heavy winter jackets. So the people walking with so much skin exposed when the temperatures are so low, must be running a fever.

Soon I will be eyeing the garden knowing it is too early to plant, other than the garlic that I planted last fall, but still thinking of getting those tomatoes in the ground. Two years ago when I couldn't wait any longer, my tomatoes got frost bit hard and I ended up replanting them all in-between the frostbitten ones only to have them all come up. Last year I waited too long and the rains came. By the time I did get them into the ground in horribly muddy conditions, it was too late and I only got a couple tomatoes off of them before the fall frost got them. It is a fine line between secumbing to spring fever, a late frost, or torential rains.

Fortunately for me, spring fever doesn't last too long. It is only four short weeks because when April arrives, it quickly becomes overtaken by another fever that is ten times stronger. Mushroom fever. It builds up over the course of two or three weeks until those illusive fungi start popping and then it is two weeks of madness and mushroom induced eating comas before they disappear for another year. But first it is spring fever and it is only just starting. By March, it will be time to break out the t-shirt and shorts again.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Smitty's Tenderloin Shack

On a recent weekend to the urban jungle, I was looking for some quick, cheaper food and was waffling between Smitty's Tenderloin Shack (ranked in the top 100 restaurants in the urban jungle) and Tasty Tacos (ranked in the top ten, both out of literally a couple thousand to choose from). Both are sit down places but have a limited fare and thus have fast food speed. We drove by the Tenderloin Shack first and the small parking lot was full of cars which is always a good sign. Although Smitty has been dead awhile, a fact I gathered from reading the menu, having a restaurant named after someone is always a good sign. When we walked inside, the booths were the cheap plastic kind which means that the emphasis was on food, another good sign. Although they had menus, it was also shown on a board above the cash register another good sign. In fact, the only bad sign was the fact that there weren't any calenders hanging on the wall and it seems the better the food, the more calenders are hanging around.

But we sat down and soon received our menus. I was a bit disappointed that other than size of your tenderloin, you only had three choices. You had the regular tenderloin, the vegetarian tenderloin, the chili cheese tenderloin and the taco tenderloin. Yes I just said four different things but everyone knows there isn't such a thing as a vegetarian tenderloin. I was tempted to try the taco tenderloin but opted for the chili cheese version with onion rings while my wife got the regular with fries, both of us asked for everything on them not knowing what everything included.

Within about five minutes, our food was served and we dug in. The onion rings were outstanding so I had high hopes when I finally took my first bite of the tenderloin. What I found was a paper thin slice of pork with lots of breading. The breading was good but that was all you could taste. There wasn't any pork taste to it at all and for a tenderloin in Iowa, that is a cardinal sin. We could get better tenderloins at the Thomas the Train weekend street vendor at the bar just down the road from our house. For a place that referred to itself as a Tenderloin Shack, I was very disappointed.

As we savored the onion rings, the fries were generic frozen ones that you can get anywhere, I started paying attention to what everyone else was eating or ordering since after all, the parking lot and small restaurant were crowded. Sure enough, everyone was ordering a burger off the rest of the menu. Which brings me to one of the most important rules for ordering food in a strange restaurant far from home, order what the locals order. They've been there lots of times and know what is the best thing off the menu.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Cultural Observation on Parenting

Having been abandoned at kiddie play land at a mall while the Mrs. did some shopping and got her hair cut, I had plenty of opportunity to observe different types of parents.

Absentee parent - This parent was quite obvious since there were approximately 40 kids playing on the various pieces of kiddie sculpture and three other parents besides myself. Since I had one kid, that meant the other three parents averaged 13 kids each or there were some parents missing. Over the course of the next hour and a half, the parents would come by and pick up the teary eyed kids who were struggling to go from sixty to zero in just a few seconds. More often than not, the absentee parents were the owners of the most unruly kids who ran as fast as they could screaming and knocking the younger kids over who hit things on the way down and began screaming. I blame these parents for my screaming headache that I had by the time we left.

Inattentive parent - This parent sat there and paid absolutely no attention to their child who begged and pleaded for the parent to look their way. The parent only had eyes for the electronic gadget with buttons that they pressed continuously or holes which they talked into non-stop.

Spineless parent - I became really familiar with these parents because one sat right next to me. He had three of the kids (which meant the other two had to average 18 kids each) and they happened to be the older, too big for the equipment type of kids. Obviously bored to the gills, the did the only thing that came natural and raced around the tiny area playing tag while knocking over toddlers and smaller kids. I counted six times that the guy next to me would call them over and tell them not to run. Most of the time the kids would run away when the lecture was over but if they walked away, they were running within thirty seconds. On the fifth time, he said he had warned them and made them sit down beside him for all of five seconds which I'm sure was PLENTY of time for the kids to think about their actions. Another version of the spineless parent who happened to also be an absentee parent came by awhile later and caught her kids racing around karate chopping each other and running a mentally challenged kid into a plastic bridge so hard that I thought he might have split his head open. She literally screamed so loud at her kids to walk and cut it out, that all the kids became silent as church mice for about three seconds. As soon as she disappeared again, he kids took right up where they left off.

Over protective parent - This parent hovered over his granddaughter constantly so that she could barely breath let alone try her skills on the plastic art sculptures. She obviously wanted to play on the small plastic flowers but I think the over protective parent deemed them too dangerous and thus she was steered over to a spinning wheel on the wall which bored her to tears. Over protective parent would follow her around not letting her play on anything and really not pay attention to those around him. More than once as he was trying to keep his charge from playing on the flower only a couple feet from where I sat, his ass would be stuck within inches of my face.

After awhile of scoping out the actions or lack of them from the parents, I started checking out the kids and soon a generalization struck me. If you rule out the little kids who still hadn't learned that actions have consequences, the best behaved group of kids were non-whites. There was couple Asian and a few Mexican children among the bunch and they as a rule, played quietly together or alone and never ran. They came when the parents called them and never made the parents repeat anything twice. The white children with the exception of one or two, pretty much ran around like ill behaved monkeys who didn't understand the same language as their parents. I'm not sure what this says about us parents or our culture but obviously something is seriously lacking with our parenting skills. When my hour and a half of hard time was up, I was anxious to depart and take my well behaved child away before she caught whatever most of the other children/hellions had.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Kinfolk: Falling Off the Family Tree

We I picked out this book using my gift card, I read the inside flap information and thought this would be about one author's genealogy search to locate her ancestors. I thought it would be full of tips that I might use to further my own research while enjoying a story from another genealogist. I thought it might enlighten me on a particular historical population group called the Melungeons whom I knew nothing about. I was wrong on all accounts.

This book was more of a personal reflection on her father's theorized ancestors the Melungeons. There was very little if any definitive research to prove ancestry. Rather, this was mostly a personal voyage to rehash other researchers theories of who the Melungeons were and put it into a book to sell. Intermixed into this rehashing were personal stories of her life some of which had something to do with her ancestry but most just amusing anecdotal stories of her life.
While this sounds kind of harsh, it wasn't a terrible book to read. I did enjoy the stories of her life and her presentation of other scholars theories on the Melungeon family but the book jacket certainly didn't reflect the pages between the covers. As a writer, I give Alther a B minus. Her writing is light and easy to follow though her composition lacks a lot to be desired. The whole book feels as if she took random pictures that had been taken throughout her life and wrote a paragraph or two about the ones she pulled from the pile. Each page contained two or three little stories each with little relation to the other except for being about her life and having a humorous interpretation. The end result was a book with chapters that were full of chapters with stories thrown in chronologically but not really tied together. It was light reading and enjoyable but again, not as advertised.

From her mostly biographical writing on her life, I learned that she has written a handful of other books though this book was her first stab at non-fiction. I also learned that the melungeons were a group of people that lived in a particular region of Virginia that have been theorized to have origins as cast away Portuguese sailors, Turks, Spaniards and Native Americans. Alther ran with this to pretty much lump melungeons into a category where anyone of mixed and unknown ancestry can call theirs. I get the sense that the scholars of melungeon ancestry are for the most part pretty dismissive of this book as anything more than historical fiction.

I do give this book high marks for making me aware of a large gap in my knowledge of early American history. I remember Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and didn't even discover our continent though he did set foot on an island nearby. Then the Pilgrims landed in 1620 to set up the first colony. In-between those two points I for the most part had the impression that our country was a blank map except for a scattered population of Native Americans. In fact, it was full of Europeans on various expeditions who were exploring well over 50% of our continent and leaving behind people who may or may not have helped create the melungeons. With the desire to fill in that gap now burning, I have bought another book, again with another gift card, that is filling it in and so far has been a much better read than Alther's book, Kinfolk.

In conclusion, if you are looking for a biographical book about one person's reflections into a group of people that may or may not be her ancestors and don't mind a choppy book composition, this book is worth reading. If you are looking for a book on genealogical research or a historical look on Melungeons, there are much better books out there to read.