Reflection On Lent, Day 12

Day number 12 of my Lent reflections.  You’d think that I would run out of things to reflect on.  I certainly would think so!  I mean, how complicated are our lives that we can come up with something new of a spiritual nature every day?  Of course pastors and theologians can do such things at the drop of a hat, but that comes as no surprise; that’s their job and they trained for it and get paid to do it (sometimes too much but usually not enough).  I’m not a pastor and I am definitely not a theologian, so it is most unlikely that these reflections come entirely from me.

That leaves us with the conclusion that they come at least in part from somewhere else.  Now, my wife is not feeding me these topics and themes and neither are my son, my daughter, my brother, nor any other living material being on this planet.  That narrows it down even more to a supernatural source for these many thoughts, and there are only two choices which can be made as to which side of the cosmic supernatural war might be feeding me the ideas that I write about which are wrapped up in my own real personal experiences and written out of my own perceptions of reality.  I will let you, reader, decide from whence my inspiration arises.

Today I write about a mixed bag sort of day.  Have you ever had one of those?  Part of the day causes you to walk on air while the other part has you grinding down the street wearing iron boots.  You feel divided; guilty if you are reveling in the joy that one part of your day is giving you and guilty if you are wallowing in your downer when you have so much to feel good about.  I’m not at all certain how to proceed, so I will just let the Holy Spirit guide me if S/He will, and share my struggle a little bit with you all today.

On the downer side, I have an illness in my extended family.  I will be vague about this because that is my nature and training.  I work in the health care business and we live and die by a code of discretion and caution concerning other people’s medical issues, and even though the family members most closely connected to the party in difficulty are not at all reticent to talk about it, I am.  So you’ll have to take my word for it that I’m worried.  This has been a cloud over my head since I woke up this morning, and it’s been hard to not think about it.

And then there is the day that God has given us today!  The sun is out and I am sitting in a chair with my feet propped up on the hood of my truck in the sunshine.  I pulled a gob of weeds today and I love little more than getting my fingers into the dirt.  I’m even wearing shorts, although that’s causing a strain on the relationship with my neighbors.  They’re all wearing shades to prevent blindness from the sunlight reflecting off of my white, knobby legs!  On days like this I can hardly let anything get me down, and all of this is what feeds my problem.  Am I dissing God by allowing myself to be down on such a day?  Am I dissing my family to be sitting comfortable and warm in flood of sunshine that really shouldn’t be here for one, two, or even three more months?

Trying to work my way through this I am reminded of a story that I once read, I remember not where.  A very saintly woman – we’ll call her “Agnes” because that name sounds so very spiritual – who was known for her spirituality and relationship with God, and especially for her prowess as a prayer warrior for the cause of God, was traveling through the countryside one day and stopped at a monastery along the way where she hoped to find a bed and a meal.  The Grand Poobah of the monastery invited her in with a flourish of hospitality, and threw a great feast to welcome her.  The meal consisted of bread, cheeses, beer and partridges, and Sister Agnes wasted no time tearing into the food and drink with unreserved gusto.  As she began to slam down her fourth bird the Grand Poobah became concerned and gently chided her on her appetite.  “Sister Agnes,” he said, “don’t you think that you should slow down for appearances’ sake?  This could tarnish your fine reputation as a moderate woman of God”.  The Sister lowered the bird for a moment and replied:  “Brother Poobah.  When it’s time to pray, pray.  But when it’s time to partridge, partridge.”

Well, I think God’s telling me something like that today.  When it’s time to engage my family and support them in their difficulty, pray and support.  But when it’s time to sit in the sun or run my fingers through the moist, warm dirt, sit and run my fingers and be thankful for the opportunity.

So that’s what I’ll do.  Pray a prayer of petition and also one of thanks.  God can multitask.  He can chew gum and walk.  He can handle it all just fine.  So I’ll quit cluttering up my life trying to find the ‘right’ response to every situation and just enjoy God’s blessing when everything’s fine and lean into Him when the storms hit.  Thanks God.

What’s For Dinner?

I don’t believe that anything tastes better than something cooked in the great outdoors or indoors over wood.  There is some sort of magic that can be found when a wood fire applies heat to a pot, pan or skillet preferably, but not exclusively , in the setting of the great outdoors.  The items being cooked are almost irrelevant.  When the meal is set and ready to be consumed it is one of the most heavenly sensations one can imagine.  In fact, I believe that meals in heaven will be cooked on wood burning stoves in cabins in some celestial woods, but that’s just my opinion.

I began my romance with outdoor cooking when I was a very small boy.  When my father was not somewhere in the world on a Navy ship we would frequently pack up our 1950 Studebaker and drive to a campground in the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in the mountains east of San Diego.  We would leave early in the morning, usually well before the sun would come up, and drive about an hour and a half to the favorite family spot.  Many times we were able to get our very favorite camping space; number 36, I think it was.

Time of year was of no consequence.  My brother Brad and I loved running wild in the rocks and fields and canyons and brush-covered hillsides during the summer, but we equally loved the frozen, ice and snow covered winter landscape as well.  In fact, winter was my favorite as far as food went for a couple of reasons.

First, I loved to make the fire that my mother would use to cook over.  I was a little pyromaniac anyway,  and loved to burn pine needles and dried weeds and junk lumber that my father always seemed to restock in our back yard.  Dad taught me how big a fire ought to be and where it should be placed, and then let me burn all that I wanted.  This scared the crap out of our neurotic neighbor, who once called the fire department on me when I was sitting in front of a small fire one afternoon.  I heard the sirens and thought to myself “Man, that’s close.”  Then I heard the “clump clump clump” of heavy boots on our concrete driveway.  Then, what looked to my twelve year old eyes to be a small army of firemen poured through the gap between our house and garage into the back yard.

“Where’s the fire?”  they demanded.  “This is the only one that I know about” I said, pointing to my little camp-style fire.  The firemen looked at each other with a look that I didn’t recognize then, but as I think back on it I now know all too well that it said “We’ve been punked”.  But there they were.  They were firemen, and I did have a fire going.  So they pulled their big hose with the heavy bronze nozzle into my back yard and blew the hell out of my fire.  I was completely dumbfounded by the whole thing, but my mother put two and two together quickly enough.  I really liked the Mr. who lived next door, but I never had much time for the Mrs. after that.

Anyway, I liked to start fires, so my father would give me one match when we went to the campground and it was my duty to get the fire going so that Mom could get the breakfast started.  During the summer that was a small challenge at best.  In winter however, the pressure was definitely on.  Mom would cook on the big steel and stone camp stoves built by the CCC workers during the Great Depression, and in winter they might be covered three or four inches deep with snow and ice.  Dad would give me wood, a hatchet, a knife, and one paper match and tell me to get the job done.

Challenge accepted!  I would chop away as much ice and snow as I could in order to clear the grill and release the steel door which folded down to give me access to the roughly twelve inch wide by ten inch high by two or three feet deep firebox, where I was tasked with producing a cooking fire thick with glowing hot coals that Mom would use to create a king’s feast.  Using the knife I whittled shavings in increasingly larger size until I had a pile of them.  Next I produced small sticks, again of increasing size, until I had a pile of graded pieces of wood at the foot of the stove.  I carefully arranged my shavings and small sticks in the firebox without the assistance of any paper as a fire starter.  Only wimps used paper to start a fire!

Finally all was prepared and I would strike the one precious match on an emory surface and it would flare with its ignition.  I was patient, allowing that initial flare to settle down into an even flame before I advanced the match into the shavings.  Smoke would curl up through the pile of shavings and chips, and then a tiny flame would be established in the filamentous fuel.

At this point I would drop the match and begin to tend my small and fragile fire.  Bit would be added to bit, slightly larger as the fire gained a foothold in my pile of tinder, and in short order I knew that the fire would be a success.  Sticks were added, and then bigger sticks, until larger chunks of wood were added to make a roaring fire before which numb hands could be warmed, coffee could be brewed, and finally a full breakfast of eggs and bacon, potatoes and ham and grits and whatever one could possibly want could be created by the culinary genius that was my mother.

A glorious outdoor breakfast did not have to be a complicated affair however.  One of my favorite meals ever consumed at that campground was as simple as a meal could possibly be.  When I was very young I tried to win prizes by selling Christmas cards to my neighbors.  A company somewhere produced a catalogue of prizes that could be earned by selling certain amounts of cards, and I signed up and set out to push those little-more-than-average cards on as many neighbors as I could con into buying them.

By hook and by crook I peddled one full shipment of those cards and was given several choices of what prize I could acquire from the catalogue.  I chose a collapsable camp oven.  This thing would fold until it was nearly flat, but when unfolded it formed a metal cube that could be set over a camp fire or a Coleman stove and could be used just like a real oven.  It even had a thermometer on the front that told you the temperature within.

So one early morning my father took me and my best friend Wes to do some fishing on the stream which ran through the campground where we always preferred to go.  The state people stocked trout in that stream and I caught one every now and then, but not on this day.  After freezing our little butts off for an hour or so we returned to the campsite and Dad fired up the Coleman stove.  We were going to have pork and beans for breakfast but Dad had forgotten to bring a can opener, so there we were with a big can of pork and beans and no way to get at them.

My father was nothing if not resourceful.  He knew right away that the beans were a lost cause.  We had canned biscuits however, and so the oven was assembled and the biscuits opened up, lined up in a greased pan, and placed in the oven.  In no time at all the biscuits were withdrawn from the oven and placed on top of that cube in all of their golden brown glory.  Dad then squeezed honey out of a bottle onto the top of the uncooperative bean can and we took turns sopping up honey with our warm biscuits and slamming them down the old hatch.

I believe that our breakfast of biscuits and honey a-la bean can was as good as any meal that I have ever eaten.  I can close my eyes and go right back to that picnic site under the oak trees just off of the parking lot at Green Valley Falls and taste the honeyed sweetness of the soft, warm biscuits that we ate that morning.  My father was a Jekyll and Hyde sort of character; sometimes I hated and feared him and sometimes I loved him. I loved him that morning.  I wish that I could tell him that I love him again.  Perhaps I will sometime.

I will conclude this topic with one more tale of a wood cooked meal, but this one was not cooked out of doors.  One Thanksgiving or Christmas, I’m not sure which one it was, in the year 1974 or 75, again I’m not sure which one, my wife at the time and I drove north from Sonoma County California to Eugene Oregon to share the holiday meal with her friends from high school.  Clarice stayed in touch with her friend Kaye and Kaye’s fiance Carl, and we were invited to do the meal with them that year.

Kaye and Carl lived in a huge victorian house with three or four other couples.  It was a sort of urban commune; a thing rather popular in those days.  Kaye was going to college at the University of Oregon and Carl was a hippy, occasionally working at replanting hillsides where loggers had clear-cut the forest, frequently playing a guitar rather badly, and always ready to roll and share a joint with anybody who was ready to party.  When you are the son of a doctor, life can be easy like that.

Clarice and I left our apartment early in the morning and drove straight through to eugene.  I was raised by me father to drive like an automaton when great distances needed to be covered, so we would have stopped to get gas and pee and buy me another quart of beer and that was about all, so by the time that we arrived at the big victorian house we were both pretty well tied in knots.  We walked the wet and grey streets of Eugene with our friends for a while and then, after a meal of something-or-other and a goodly amount of alcohol and marijuana we turned in for the night.

We slept in quite late the next morning, and when we finally did crawl out of bed the activity in the kitchen was already hot and heavy.  Bert, one of the other residents of the house, was in charge of the stove while his wife Evelyn was in charge of what got cooked on/in the stove.  Evie was cooking a turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, yams, rolls, and an assortment of other items on a huge iron wood burning stove in the kitchen.  Breakfast was long past so Clarice and I ate some sandwiches and snacks that we still had in our cooler while we waited for the main event.

Only slightly less impressive than the meal was the process by which it was cooked.  At one point “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” came on the television and we all got appropriately psychedelic to watch it by.  While Willie Wonka was sailing chocolate rivers and Charlie Bucket and Grandpa Jo were floating dangerously close to the huge ventilator fans, saved from being sliced and diced only by releasing their lighter-than-air gas load by frequent belches, we were all drifting between Mars and the asteroid belt, sharing joints and mushrooms and feeling very much a part of the movie.

But every so often some sort of alarm would go off in Bert’s psychedelicized brain and he would arise and go stuff a measured amount of wood into the fire chamber on the side of the oven which housed the turkey that we would soon be devouring.  It was truly uncanny, the way that Bert just knew when another load of wood was needed.  Too much wood and the oven temperatures would spike, and too little would result in the temperature falling below the proper cooking level.  A nice, constant temperature is what was needed, and that temperature was provided by one of the most impressive of stoned slackers that I have even had the privilege to meet.

At last the movie reached its stirring conclusion with Willy and Charlie and Grandpa flying over the city in some sort of cross between an elevator and a telephone booth (younger readers will at least know what an elevator is), and the dinner bell was rung.  Bert and Evie first brought out the turkey, followed by all of the other awesome delicacies that they had cooked and kept warm on shelves over or adjacent to the stove.

Bert carved the bird and we all ate until just before we got sick.  I have to say that it was one of the finest meals I have ever eaten, and even though it was not cooked outside, well, it has to be among the most special of meals because of the 19th century wood stove manner of it’s cooking.  As long as God grants me the blessing of memory, I will never forget those wonderful meals that I have described in this story.  Heaven, for me, will almost certainly contain meals such as these.

God Has A Special Providence—

I have already written stories about the sumer and fall of 1976.  That was the year that my first marriage disintegrated, beginning in February and extending to the end of the year.  That year was one of considerable transformation for me in some ways, and a bit of regression in others.  I had only just left the wild party-animal phase of my life in the summer of 1973 and had slowly, painfully, been settling down into a slightly more stable role of construction worker, student and then construction worker again, all the while assuming the role of husband and provider, establishing a home and living as a married, working, home owning middle class sort of guy.  I had not approached anything like becoming some sort of rock of the community by any stretch of the imagination, but neither was I spending very much time sitting with a bunch of stoned college students by a swimming pool using the bottom of a saucepan as a bongo drum while croaking out my best version of any given rock tune.

All of that began to unravel in February of ’76’ when my wife announced that she wanted to separate.  We agreed to do so in June, but in May when I learned that she was already involved in a relationship with someone else I left the next morning and then spent the next six months floundering in a sea of pain and self pity, trying to regain my balance but stumbling more than standing and rarely taking two steps forward without taking one or two or three steps back.

My first step in dealing with my situation was to avoid dealing with it.  I moved with four others into an old residence which was upstairs from what had once been a neighborhood grocery store.  Here the party went on day and night.  Once a friend from work came over to our place with a friend of her own.  After a little while her friend apologized for showing up at our place with neither food nor beer nor marijuana.  “If I would have known that you were having a party I would have brought something” he said with a guilty and embarrassed look.  My friend Evelyn laughed.  “They aren’t having a party,” she explained.  “It’s like this here all the time.”

And so it was.  I couldn’t stay loaded all of the time however, and sometimes even when I was the pain and loneliness became oppressive and on those occasions there was nothing better to bring me up than family.  I called my father and spoke with him every day for a month after the split with my wife, and that helped me to survive those awful first days.  Dad went to his grave not knowing the role that he played in keeping me out of my own, or at least if he did know it wasn’t because of my telling him.  He might have known now that I think of it.  Dad always had a way of knowing more than I thought he did.  I wonder if my kids feel that way about me?  Both of them are a good deal more bright than I was, so I doubt it.  And then there was my brother.

Brad is four years my senior and we have always been close.  We spoke on the phone often even before the end of my marriage and continued to do so afterward.  But these were desperate times, and Brad felt that I was in need of a little more assistance than frequent telephone conversation could provide.  Therefore, upon completion of the spring semester at the University of New Mexico where he was both teaching and taking classes, Brad packed some clothes and pointed his Ford pick up north and west and rode into town to help me keep my head above water.

Whenever Brad and I got together however it was frequently a question as to who was going to keep both of our heads above water.  Brad and I had always enjoyed being together and after I returned from the Army and turned twenty one years of age we had great fun, frequently with our father as well, trying to drink all of the beer in California.  All of the Budweiser, at least.  Brad has a very fast wit and Dad was no slouch either.  The three of us might sit around discussing philosophical or literary issues, sending Mom to the kitchen to escape the hot air, or after dinner (and a large number of cans of Bud) Brad and I might go to the soft, green front lawn, roar at each other like developmentally delayed orangutans, and bang into each other in what we called a ‘belly contest’.  I had never had a belly during my childhood but in the year after I exited the Army, after stuffing myself nonstop with pizza and beer and hot dogs from Der Wienerschnitzel, which we called Der Tumorschnitzel due to the dubious quality of it’s product, I had developed my first significant gut.  We would roar and bang into each other belly to belly, back up, and then roar and crash into each other again, all the while laughing maniacally.  At these times Mom would retreat to the deeper recesses of our tiny Southern California cubical of a house to avoid being seen in her humiliation by any of the neighbors whom she knew were peeking at the idiot Durden boys from behind curtains or between blinds.  So when Brad arrived to cheer me up it didn’t take long before we were back at our old tricks with only the faintest evidence of any maturity having occurred in the interim.

One evening when Brad was doing an outstanding job of cheering me up and the party that was my routine existence was in full throat I received a phone call.  The call was from my friend Walt, with whom I had roomed when I first moved to Sonoma County to attend the University there.  We had remained friends ever since.  On this particular evening Walt was calling because his Land Rover was resting comfortably on the side of Highway 12 just west of Santa Rosa.  Walt loved that vehicle, although I could not for the life of me tell you why.  It looked like it could easily carry an intrepid explorer safely from one end of Africa or the Australian Outback to the other, while in fact it frequently had trouble carrying Walt from one end of Sonoma County to the other.  I have previously written of Walt getting his ride stuck in the mud near a house that he was renting.  That was not an infrequent occurrence, four wheel drive and all.  Still, Walt was committed to his vehicle and so he was calling me from a bar at the end of the nearest off ramp, asking me to come and drag the carcass of his Land Rover that was at that moment achieving ambient temperature on the shoulder of Highway 12.

Walt said that it would take him twenty minutes to walk back to his car, so Brad and I downed the rest of our open beers, took a few more hits off of a joint that was circulating through the crowd at my residence, and left to go and retrieve Walt and his dead Land Rover.  In order to give Walt time to return to his car Brad and I stopped at a corner grocery store to pick up another six pack of beer.  It’s not like we needed any more, but that had little to do with anything.  After exchanging pleasantries with the grocer we climbed back into Brad’s truck and roared off down the road to where we could get on the highway and get to Walt.

Along the way we did what we had been doing all night; drinking beer, discussing anything and everything that came to mind, and viewing the world through filters that were uniquely our own.  We might have told stories that we had told a hundred times before and still laughed at as if it was their first hearing.  We still do that, to the considerable amazement of those around us who are not wired in the same way that are we.  We were engaged in this manner when we came upon Walt and his disabled vehicle.  About a half mile further west we found a place to make a U-turn and came back to link the Land Rover to Brad’s truck with a chain.  That being accomplished to everybody’s satisfaction we all regained our mounts and slowly started rolling down the highway towards town.

Along the way, Brad and I began to slip back into the place where we had been only a few minutes before.  New beers were popped open, new (old) stories and jokes were dredged up, and new takes upon the affairs of our lives and the world in general were passed through our fuzzy and thoroughly unique lenses, and soon we were flying down the road without a serious thought in our heads or a care in the world.

In short order we arrived at our turnoff, made a quick left turn and sped through it to avoid being T-boned by a car that was speeding toward us from the opposite direction, and finally came to a halt in front of the building which housed my residence.  Laughing and wobbling a little we exited Brad’s truck and only then remembered that Walt and his Land Rover were still attached.

Walt was as white as a sheet.  He had been riding his brakes and hanging onto the wheel for dear life all the way to our house.  He got out of his car and was visibly shaken.  You could smell the smoking-hot brakes and i thought it looked like they might be glowing a little bit from the heat.  I asked Walt if he would like a ride home but he quickly declined the invitation.  Walt wanted nothing more than to get away from us and Brad’s truck as quickly as decorum permitted.  I offered Walt the keys to my own truck, which he gratefully accepted.  He climbed into the cab and fired the Ford up, waved weakly to us, and rolled off into the dark Santa Rosa night.  Brad and I returned his wave, and then went upstairs to rejoin the party which hadn’t missed a beat since we had left.

There are not enough words to describe how poorly thought out our actions on that night were.  On any of a number of occasions we could have been pulled over by the police or gotten ourselves, Walt, and perhaps others killed.  It is ascribed to the German Prince Otto von Bismarck the quote that “God has a special providence for fools, drunks and the United States of America.”  I’m not entirely sure about the United States part of that quote, but I can testify with complete certainty that on this particular night God was most generous with two drunks and fools.

What’s In A Name?

For most of my life I never really cared all that much about where my family came from. Oh, I knew that my mother grew up in Kentucky and my father in Georgia, but beyond that I neither knew nor cared from whence descended the family line. Maybe one branch on my family tree contained an English duke, who rode with Henry V at the battle of Agincourt and singlehandedly struck down the flower of French chivalry.  Or maybe there was a German philosopher, a Spanish explorer or an Italian theologian hiding in our family woodpile. I would probably have found such knowledge interesting when I was younger, but not interesting enough to tempt me to do the heavy digging that would have been required to uncover those long-mouldering bones.

My extended family, you see, was not big on harmony. My father joined the Navy in 1936 to escape from his father’s farm during the Great Depression. He met my mother near his first duty station in Virginia and after they were married the Navy decided that my Dad’s presence would best serve the Navy’s interests on the West Coast and in the Pacific Ocean area. That is how I came to be born and grow up in San Diego, California, about 2,000 miles from either of my parents’ families. San Diego in the 1950’s and 60’s was as close to being heaven for a kid as it was possible to be, and any trips back to Mom and Dad’s homes and families tore me away from the friends, beaches, and perfect weather, and placed me in the presence of gnats, ticks, chiggers, water moccasins and a few dozen other noisome creatures, and threw me into the company of relatives whom I did not know and could not care less about getting to know. Returning home after a summer month spent between Georgia and Kentucky with parents who constantly bickered about each others’ families was a lot like getting released from prison.

So family origins meant little to me in the early 1980’s when one evening after returning home from work I opened the newspaper (that was one of the primary ways that people got news in those days) and read that a young man bearing my last name had bicycled from Maryland to San Diego. The article stated that this young man had found work at a nursery in Lemon Grove, a suburb of San Diego, not far from where I lived, and I resolved that I would try to make contact with him the next morning.

Accordingly, the next morning I arose and after breakfast and getting the children settled into diversionary activities I searched the Yellow Pages (that was how people found business phone numbers in those days) and located five nurseries in Lemon Grove. On try number four I hit paydirt and spent the next several minutes talking with a young relative whom to this day I still have never laid eyes upon. We compared notes and confirmed that we were indeed related. My last name is very uncommon outside of the South so it would have been  extraordinary if we had not been related. In the course of our conversation this young man, Todd was his name, asked if I knew the story of the origin of my father’s family’s name. I told him that I did not, and Todd proceeded to tell me what he knew.

Durden, he said, was a French name, or began that way at any rate. The original Durden was a product of a relationship between a very minor aristocrat, a man who probably owned a couple of acres of land outside of town, and a young lady who lived with her parents in that town. A boy was produced from that union and immediately became something of a problem, since the details of that relationship did not include marriage.  The boy’s father had no intention of letting little Jacques into the line of inheritance of his postage stamp domain, and would not confer upon his offspring the blessing of his name. The girl’s parents were similarly disinclined, as to the name at least since they had nothing in particular for anyone to inherit, and refused to give him their name as well. The young lady gave up the baby to the local church, which accepted our little cherub and then gave him back to the mother to raise for them. The parents were in no position to argue with the church and so little Jacques had a home, if not a name.

The town in which this drama transpired was in the northeast of France, near the Ardennes Forest on the border with Germany. Jacques began to look for a name as soon as he realized that, unlike everyone around him, he didn’t have one. He considered using his mother’s name anyway, whether her family liked it or not. Grandpa was a very large and very stern man however, and so there appeared to be little to be gained by using that name except for a beating every time he tried it. Next he considered the name of the town itself, but he had never received very much kindness in that town and did not wish to confer dignity upon it by adopting its name.

Finally it occurred to Jacques to adopt the name of the great forest to the east. The forest was a frightening and mysterious place, dark in many thickly wooded areas even in the height of the daytime. It was filled with wild animals which would not hesitate to make a meal of an incautious woodsman alone in its fastness, and bandits and gypsies were rumored to make their camps in there away from the prying eyes of the officials of church and crown. Yes, the forest would do very nicely for a name, and somewhere around his twelfth or thirteenth birthday Jacques D’Ardennes announced his existence to the world.

What the world’s reaction was to that announcement is not known. What is known however is that Jacques had no intention to fulfill any obligations to the church which had assumed a sort of official parent authority over him from birth. In fact, Jacques felt no sense of obligation toward his mother’s family or that town or anyone in it. A short lifetime of putting up with the taunts of the other village children and the blows of an unhappy grandfather, plus the eventual marriage of his mother to the town blacksmith, a hard man many years older than she who was willing to overlook her past for a pretty young woman to cook and clean and keep a warm bed for him, convinced Jacques that it was time to take his leave of everything he had known and try his luck in the world.

It’s at this point where Jacques’ history gets a little fuzzy. Nobody knows where Jacques spent his next five or so years. Some thought that he decided to take his chances in the forest which had provided him with a name. Once there he fell in with a band of gypsies or perhaps bandits; nobody really knows. All that is truly known is that at the stated age of nineteen Jacque D’Ardennes showed up in England, one step ahead of the police in France.

It seems as if Jacques learned the skills of petty thievery wherever he passed those lost years. A pickpocket, a thief of small items which could be sold in the next town down a dusty road, and other acts which would get you thrown into prison for a very long time in France apparently occupied Jacques’ time far more than did gainful employment, but he must have learned somewhere how to be useful on a farm because once in England he drifted from farm to farm, working mostly for room and board but occasionally being paid in hard money, because a couple of times his name appeared on the lists of one local constabulary or another, charged with ‘drunk and disorderly’.

Jacques’ inability or unwillingness to find steady work led to periodic arrests for vagrancy. Petty theft such as he had allegedly engaged in back in France would have gotten him hung in England, so I must assume that he either resisted the urge to fall back on old habits or was successful on such occasions when he plied his craft. There was also written the word “rogue” on some of his court documents, and one gets the sense from the the manner in which that word was employed that Jacques was not afraid to shower attention upon young English ladies, and one also gets the sense that his attentions were not entirely unappreciated by the objects of his interest.

Apparently Jacques finally succeeded in pushing enough of the wrong buttons because in 1731 his name appears on a list of inmates in a debtor’s prison a few miles south of the City of London. Two years later James Oglethorpe was given permission by the Crown to take as many English debtors as wished to go and found a colony between South Carolina and the Spanish territory of Florida. Always a brown noser, Oglethorpe named his new colony ‘Georgia’ after the king, George II. Jacques D’Ardennes, his name now anglicized to ‘Jack Durden’, was among the first to sign up, and later lists and documents show that by 1736 he was the owner of a farm a few miles outside of Savannah. Jack ran a blacksmith operation in one of the rough outbuildings on his property which served the needs of the many surrounding farms.

Jack Durden married a Creek Indian woman and fathered several children by her. Five girls and three boys grew up and the family farm and blacksmith business prospered. Three of the girls married well and began families of their own, one died of a fever at the age of fourteen, and one remained single and was the de facto head of the family business whenever Jack was absent. The eldest boy was the titular head of the business but was essentially useless and drank himself to death before reaching the age of twenty five. The other two boys began farms of their own with generous help from the sister who was soon to be the matriarch of the growing clan.

Of Jack nothing is known after 1753. He and his wife simply disappear.  There is speculation that they decided to return to the tribe from which she had come, but there is no real evidence of that. Others believed that they had been waylaid by bandits, robbed and killed, and their bodies fed to the gators. My thought is that Jack had learned enough in his old wild days to not be caught in that trap.

Ultimately, I don’t know if any of this is true or not. I only know that this is the story that Todd told me in a conversation over the telephone. I’ve seen no documents or had any other opportunity to verify this tale. And why should I bother? A story like that is a thing to be retold and left alone.  Sometimes a too-critical historical bent is definitely not a virtue.

Camping in Wonderland, Part I

     Since the time when I was a young boy I have loved camping, and that is probably because my camping experience got off to a wonderful start.  Summer or winter my father would load up our family car and we would drive the forty six miles to the campground of Green Valley Falls in the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, where he would pay for a space and park where our home would be for a day and a night, or perhaps several days and nights.  The road in those days was U.S. Highway 80, a winding two lane road which climbed into the Laguna Mountains and eventually wound and twisted down the east side of those mountains through canyons and around boulders the size of a house, down to the floor of the desert which stretched all the way to central Texas. 

     After forty miles or so California Route 79 branched off of the highway and led north towards the old mining town of Julian.  This road was more narrow and more serpentine even than was Highway 80, and I was almost certain to get carsick on this stretch of road if I hadn’t already.  We would pass by Descanso Junction, which was only a small country store, and shortly cross over the boundary of the State Park.  By the time we pulled into the parking space next to our camp site it felt like we had been driving for hours, and depending upon the traffic in which it was almost impossible to pass slower vehicles, we might have actually been driving for nearly two hours.

     Unloading the car and setting up the camp was an ordeal for two boys who wanted nothing more than to break away and go create our own fantasy world down by, and in the summer in the middle of, the Sweetwater River, which could hardly be called even a creek by a generous description.  Mom would begin stocking our canned and packaged food into a wooden pantry provided at every campsite.  Brad, my brother, would carry boxes of grocery items to Mom and she would arrange what was to be her kitchen.  Dad would haul out the big, heavy canvas umbrella tent that he ‘requisitioned’ from the Navy.  He and I would lay the tent out in a big square and fasten the corners to the ground with big, steel railroad spikes.  I have no idea where the spikes came from.  After securing the corners I would enter the tent and hold it up as high as I could while Dad brought in a two inch thick wooden pole which was the center support.  Four steel arms radiated from this pole and were slipped into metal-ringed eyelets in the four corners of the roof of the tent.  When fully extended theses arms held the corners taut while the six foot wooden pole held the center of the tent up.  Four more spikes, one in the middle of each side of the tent, were pounded into the ground and our home away from home was ready for occupation.

     The remaining details of setting up our camp were trifling and our father soon cut us boys loose to go play, accompanied by a menacing order to ‘Stay out of that river and don’t get wet.”  Of course he knew that we would make a beeline into that river so straight that it would astound even an ancient Greek geometrician.  We would play in that water and around the beaver dams and on the slippery rocks near the falls which tumbled down a dangerous height over smooth boulders under jagged rock promontories.  Mom was certain that we would get killed playing in that creek.  Dad probably thought that it was a possibility, but that the odds were low enough that the glory of the freedom we enjoyed outweighed the risk.

     Upon returning to our camp, usually after Dad came looking for us, we could smell the dinner which Mom was cooking on the stone camp stove which was part of the campsite, or on the Coleman stove which Dad had surprisingly bought legitimately at a store, or on the contraption which Dad had cobbled together out of bits of scrap metal which he called his ‘charcoal broiler’.  Dad was a welder in the Navy and came up with all manner of wondrous inventions which we used around the house.  Food always tastes better when it is cooked and eaten outside, and these meals were unforgettable.  After dinner we would clean up and frequently walk down to where a ring of logs were secured to the ground in a semicircle which was centered on a fire pit.  We would sit on those logs in the evening as it began to get dark and a ranger would light a large fire and give a nature talk that would address the fauna and flora and geology and history of the State Park.  Afterwards we returned to our campsite to bed down for the night; Mom and Dad in the big brown tent while Brad and I would curl up on wood and canvas cots, also courtesy of the U.S. Navy, and under thick olive drab Navy blankets.  Those were some of the finest nights’ sleep that I can remember.

     Whether we camped in summer or winter, the first hours of the day were my favorites.  I was a controlled pyromaniac as a child, never causing damage but always fascinated with being around fire.  Like a moth I was drawn to flames.  Every summer there would be fires in the brush choked canyons of San Diego and when one would be close to my house I would quickly mount my bicycle and follow the sound of the sirens until I reached the site of the blaze.  In later years I would even descend into the canyons to help drag the firemen’s hoses, but that is a different story.

     Dad recognized my enjoyment of a good blaze and harnessed it constructively.  I was put in charge of getting the fire started in the big stone and iron camp stove upon which Mom would cook most of our meals.  At night before we went to bed Dad would give me one match and tell me to use it wisely.  The next morning I would use that one match and have a good bed of coals over which Mom would cook; that is, if I used that match well as Dad advised.  It was a game between Dad and me but it was also a point of pride.

     Summer presented no obstacle to producing a good breakfast fire, but winter was another matter entirely.  If we cooked our first evening meal on the Coleman stove and/or the charcoal broiler there was a better than even chance that the camp stove was caked in snow and ice.  This would require that I use a hatchet to hack enough ice away from the ten inch square steel door which dropped open to expose the fire chamber of the stove.  After that I would remove as much ice as I could from the steel grate which was set in the stone above the fire chamber so that the melting ice would not extinguish my precious fire.  I could never get it all, but usually I scraped enough away to give my one match a fighting chance.

     Then came the all-important preparation of the fuel.  With increasingly freezing fingers I would use a large knife to shave slivers of wood from assorted sticks and other small bits of lumber which Dad brought to fuel our cooking fires.  First came the tiny slivers which would catch fire quickly and then even larger shavings until I could add small sticks and would then be on my way.  By the time I was ready to strike my one match my fingers would be numb and body shaking from the cold, and with the scratch of that one match across the abrasive surface of a match box or paper match book, depending upon which type of match Dad had given to me, the bright flare of the initial ignition followed by the small, pure flame of the burning match lit my hope for a continued status of master fire starter just as surely as it ignited the layered pile of kindling which I had so carefully arranged in the fire chamber.

     Nearly always the fire caught on quickly, beginning in the very fine shavings and then growing as larger splinters ignited.  I would keep my hands close to the fire, shifting my kindling and adding more and larger pieces while enjoying the warmth which my aching fingers craved.  As the fire grew to a point where the remaining ice on the grill overhead began to melt I would brush it over the side with hatchet and hands, which further froze my frigid digits, but with this last maneuver the fire was free to grow and pour warmth and cheer out of the stove and return my hands to a pain-free state in a very short time.

     All of this scraping and chopping and carrying on produced a good deal of noise and my parents, being light sleepers, would awaken in the tent and wait until the sounds died down, which indicated that I was sitting smugly in front of a roaring fire.  Mom would then arise and emerge from the tent to get the coffee started and begin breakfast.  Dad came out shortly after Mom, inspected the fire, and gave me a pat on the back and an ‘attaboy’.  That meant everything in the world to me.

     One thing which I took for granted in those times was the honesty of the other campers.  We would go on family hikes and leave our stove and icebox and sleeping gear and everything else right where they sat or lay and be gone for hours at a time.  Always, things were exactly where we had left them when we returned.  Brad and I would go straight to the icebox fter a long, hot hike and retrieve a twelve ounce glass bottle of Coca Cola.  The icebox was another metal contraption cobbled together by my father in the repair shop where he worked in the Navy, and we would fill it with ice and bacon and eggs and Cokes and everything else which we wanted to keep cold.  Brad and I got to drink two Cokes per day each and in the warm summertimes it was a treat indeed.  I cannot now imagine expecting such a level of trust in other campers in most public campgrounds.

     Finally the time would come to break camp and return to the city.  Dad would extract the wooden pole from the big tent and after loosening and withdrawing the steel spikes, we would fold up the tent and stuff it into the deep trunk of the car.  Icebox and Coleman stove and lantern and any remaining food and empty Coke bottles, which we could return for three cents each, filled out the trunk and the space between Brad and I in the back seat.  All of the trash went into cans chained to wood posts near the campsite and we left the space as clean as we found it, and sometimes cleaner.

     Many other features of my camping trips I have described elsewhere already; the hiking, the precautions against stumbling onto a rattlesnake, the climbing of trees and sliding on our fannies across wet, slippery rocks near the waterfall area.  When I was a little bit older I would fish for trout which were stocked in the tiny ‘river’ and on one trip met a couple of girls from the Los Angeles area with whom I connected and wrote letters to and visited for several years to come.  That campground will always be a magical place in my memories of childhood.  I don’t know if places as wonderful as that exist in our country anymore, and in truth I don’t really know if that place even then was as wonderful as it remains in my mind.  What I can confidently say is that Green Valley Falls campground in the 1950’s was as close to heaven on earth as this writer has experienced in six decades of life.

Do You Know The Way To Veracruz, Part I

As I have written elsewhere, 1976 was not my best year. In February of that year my first marriage began to unravel and in May it melted down completely. Up until that time I had been working long hours sometimes seven days a week trying to make a success of a construction company which I began with a partner, plus finish my last class in order to earn my bachelor’s degree in history at a nearby college. With the collapse of my marriage came a collapse of my focus. The construction company and college class were abandoned and I secured a small part-time job at which I performed poorly and then devoted the remainder of my time to medicating my pain in whatever ways presented themselves.

For six months I shared a three bedroom apartment with three other people, and that was a time of impressively dissolute living. Every hour of the day when I wasn’t working, which was most of them, I was lounging in the sun drinking beer and reading classic literature or history, and every evening the music was on, beer and rum and tequila were flowing, and marijuana smoke was rolling out of our windows in clouds. One evening a young woman with whom I worked came over to our place with a friend. We had a keg of beer in the bathtub packed in ice and were passing joints like hot potatoes. My friend’s date began to feel bad about partaking of our intoxicants and at length said “If I had known that you were having a party I would have brought something to share.” My friend let out a small, musical laugh and answered him “They’re not having a party. It’s like this here every night.”

Eventually I began to tire of this life however, and the urge to move on began to grow in me. In August my wife and I stood before a judge and said the magic words in proper sequence and he declared us to be legally separated, divorce to be final after a six month waiting period to allow for any possible reconciliation. As we emerged from the courthouse I cried, not the first time and certainly not the last, and returned to my apartment to try to drink and smoke myself into annihilation.

It was a couple of months later as Christmas was approaching that I received a phone call from out of the blue from my oldest friend Wes, who still lived in San Diego where we both grew up. Wes had just broken up with a girlfriend qnd was feeling down in the dumps. We hadn’t spoken to each other in ages so Wes had no idea what my story was. After we hung up I began to take stock of my situation and decided that I couldn’t stay in this rut into which I had fallen much longer.

It was December at this point and Christmas was approaching. Two of my roommates and I had crept commando style onto a high-roller golf course and cut down a tree that would fit nicely in our living room. It was a revolutionary act, you see. We decorated the tree with strings made from the pull tops from our beer cans and crowned it with a piece of cardboard which we painted into a Chinese flag and onto which we glued a picture of Chairman Mao. Our revolutionary credentials were impressive and we were proud of our creativity.

But the thought of spending Christmas of 1976 in Northern California removed from my relationship with my wife but physically residing less than a mile from her was a prospect which I did not relish. Thanksgiving had been bad enough and the hangover from that binge lasted for two days. I had been thinking seriously about leaving for several months and now believed that the time had come.

I called Wes back and said “You want to meet me at my brother’s place?” “Whata you got in mind?” he asked. “I’ve got my passport and I thought about going to Mexico and getting work on a freighter that would take me to Saudi Arabis and work in the oil fields.” Now I had no connection with work in oil fields and in fact had no idea what one actually did in an oil field. I only knew that there was a gob of money being made in oil and I wanted to get as far away from my current life as possible. Wes, being my equal in age, wisdom and capacity for reasoning answered almost immediately and said “Sure. Why not?”

So a week before Christmas I showed up at my brother’s house in Albuquerque. I had at least called to let him know that I was coming, which was very out of character for me, and upon arrival I let him know that Wes would be showing up in a day or two as well. Brad was fine with that, but his wife Ginny was less enthusiastic. I assured them that we would stay a few days only and then be on our way. Brad is four years older than Wes and I and a little more willing to use his head as something more functional than a hatrack. He was therefore tempted to accompany us in our wild scheme but the responsibilities of a family, and the presence of a large wooden rolling pin in a kitchen drawer, persuaded him to sit this one out.

The day after Christmas came and, good as our word, Wes and I were on a Greyhound bus before the crack of dawn rolling south towards El Paso. We arrived there in the early afternoon and walked across the bridge into Ciudad Juarez. A short taxi ride brought us to the train station where we planned to purchase tickets to the port of Veracruz. The ticket seller seemed to be having trouble understanding us even though I spoke a little Spanish. He also seemed to be having trouble figuring out the train timetable, and even the cash register and the book in which the blank ticket stubs were located seemed to be beyond his capabilities. I knew what was going on of course. The ticket seller was waiting for us to pay ‘la mordita’, the ‘little bite’, a bribe to grease the process. I had had a very bad year and was nursing a very bad hangover, and didn’t feel like paying any damned bribe. Consequently, Wes and I were still arguing with the ticket guy when the train to Veracruz pulled out of the station.

So away we went by taxi to the bus station. We had changed our plan and would now take a bus to Veracruz. There were no shenanigans at the bus station, although at this point I would have paid ‘la mordita’ if it had been required. Perhaps they figured that two Gringos taking a long-distance Mexican bus must be so down on their luck that there was nothing to be gotten from us.

The bus meandered south down the Mexican roads, picking up passengers and the occasional chicken or goat along the way, and by evening we arrived at Torreon, deep into northern Mexico. We did not have any Mexican pesos with us, which had never been a problem in Mexico before, but Mexico agt this time was in the midst of an economic crisis. Inflation was out of control and nobody but a bank knew from moment to moment what the exchange rate was, and so no restaurants would take American money because nobody knew what it was worth, and we were hungry! Finally a very nice hotel restaurant took pity on us and took a chance on the value of our money, and we got a meal to hold us over to the next day when a bank would be open. In an hour or so our bus was back on the road leading east into the gloom of the Mexican evening towards Monterrey, the next city on the road to Veracruz.

It was a very long night. Wes and I slept on the bus, of course, and when morning came we were cramped, hungry, sweaty and thoroughly fed up with the bus. Upon our arrival in Monterrey we decided to forget the bus and rent a car. Both Wes and I had driven in Mexico a lot and were perfectly comfortable with the idea of doing so again. We looked in a directory in the bus station and found the name and address of a car rental agency nearby, and a short walk brought us in front of that establishment.

“En que puedo servirle?” asked the agent at the counter. “Por favor” I replied. “Habla usted Ingles?” “Yes, I speak English” she replied, and I told her that we wanted to rent a car and drive to Veracruz. For those of you who are geographically challenged the distance from Monterrey to Veracruz is 529 miles. “You want to drive one of our cars to Veracruz?” she asked, and we affirmed that that was indeed our intention. The agent looked skeptical. “Have you identification? A passport? A credit card?” We had all but the credit card, which I have since learned is critical to renting a car anywhere.

The furrows in her brow deepened as the agent struggled to grasp completely how imbecilic the two Gringos standing in front of her really were. “Do you have an employer with whom we could check?” “No, not currently. I worked for that last six months at such-and-such a business but before that I have been in construction for the last four years.” She looked over at Wes and asked the same questions and got virtually the same answer. The agent thought for a moment longer and then excused herself to go consult with her manager. I could see them on the other side of the office and I am almost certain that I saw them laughing. At length the agent returned. “I’m sorry sir, but we are not going to be able to rent you one of our cars.” We already suspected that that would be the case, and so we exited the building with no further ado and found ourselves out on the sidewalk in Monterrey debating what to do next.

“Aw, the hell with it. Let’s fly” I said. “That would leave me with almost no money there” said Wes. “No worry. I’ll cover you” I said. I had a good bit of cash from splitting our savings when my wife and I divorced, and getting to Veracruz with Wes that very day seemed like a great way to spend it. Wes felt uncomfortable with that plan at first but I convinced him that I thought of it as money well spent.

Within the hour we were at the ticket counter at the Monterrey International Airport buying our passage on the next plane to Veracruz, which was leaving in just under two more hours. Wes and I hurried to a restaurant in the airport where we bought some belated breakfast and washed it down with a couple of beers. At the appointed time we boarded the plane and sat back into the soft seats of the jet airliner. The flight was a quick one, little more than and hour, at the end of which the doors were opened and we descended the portable stairway. We crossed the tarmac, entered the terminal, and exited into the front of the building where the taxis were lined up. Phase one of our mission was accomplished. We were in Veracruz.

The Tale of Captain Henry Kershaw

“You never can tell who’s hiding in the woodpile.” That was my mother’s way of saying that we cannot help who our relations are or who our ancestors were, and you cannot always be sure about who you’re even related to. It was funny to me that Mom would actually have such a saying when for most of the years that I knew her she never showed very much interest in who her own distant family members were or might have been, and none at all about my father’s. That familial and generational ambivalence seemed to change a bit as she grew older and moved back to her home state of Kentucky in her retirement years, and on one visit I found myself one morning in a car headed east on the Bluegrass Parkway towards Lexington and the mountains further east of there.

Most of Mom’s immediate relatives had settled in Louisville Kentucky or across the Ohio River in New Albany, Indiana. She grew up however in the coal mining mountain counties of Eastern Kentucky. To be exact, a large part of her childhood was spent in and just outside of Hazzard, Kentucky. Mom used to laugh when we would watch the television show “The Dukes of Hazzard.” She called that show “The Dukes of Riverside” because the terrain in the television show looked a lot more like Southern California than Eastern Kentucky. I later found out just how right she was about that.

On this clear, warm Kentucky day we took the Parkway through low hills and broad fields of corn and tobacco and in an hour or two arrived on the outskirts of Lexington, where grand farms raising some of the finest horses in the world lined the road which narrowed as it neared the center of town. I don’t care much about horses one way or the other but I have to admit that the sight of a group of three or four of them standing regally under the shade of an oak or elm tree, with the white rail fences and ever-present arena and track, did stir the Kentuckian blood which runs through my veins.

We threaded our way through downtown Lexington, picked up the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, and headed east. The flat farmland continued for about a half hour and then the road began to rise and twist through low hills that bunched together closer and higher until we knew that we were officially in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky. A bit further on we found the turnoff to State Route 30 which led to the town of Jackson, the seat of Breathitt County. After another half hour we pulled into Jackson, a picturesque mountain town with a downtown that seemed to be right out of the late nineteenth and early twentiety centuries. There was a lot of stone and brick, with diagonal parking in the street in front of the hardware store, the drug store, the dress store and so on. Jackson looked like the set of a movie and I would have probably not believed it to be real if it was not so much like Campbellsville, Lebanon, Bardstown and a host of other small Kentucky towns that I had already visited.

I parked our car in one of the diagonal slots in front of a large stone and brick building which housed the Breathitt County Library. My mother had a list of relatives whom she wanted to research and I was mostly along for the ride. We exited the car and walked up a short flight of stairs to the front door, which we found locked and sporting a sign which gave some reason or other why the building would not be opened that day until one in the afternoon. It was now barely ten thirty, and so Mom and I went back to the car to decide what to do next.

“We’ve already eaten breakfast” I said. “Do you want to walk around Jackson?” “No” she replied. “I don’t have any close connections here.” “Oh, really? I thought your family was from around here and that’s why you are using the library to look up some genealogies” “Some of them, yes, but only the more distant ones. I grew up in Hazzard, in the next county east.” I pulled out our Rand McNally atlas and saw that indeed, less than a hour further down the highway was Hazzard, Kentucky. “You want to go there?” Mom’s eyes lit up just a little but she said “I don’t know anyone there anymore.” “So what?” in asked. “We could just go and take a look.” Mom thought about that for just a minute and then nodded her assent. I backed out of the parking slot, nosed the care back onto U.S. Route 30, and we were quickly on our way to Hazzard.

As we drove deeper into the mountains I began to understand why Mom used to laugh at the television show. Breathitt and neighboring Perry County, of which Hazzard is the seat, are very vertical places. Steep, forested hillsides and deep valleys through which tumbled swift creeks and narrow, twisting roads were the order of the day in this broken, irregular landscape. The long, straight country roads that the Dukes piloted their muscle car down bore no resemblance whatsoever to the serpentine roads in this vertical land.

Mom and I pulled into Hazzard and quickly found ourselves in an older part of town. “Park here” said Mom, and I rolled slowly up against the curb. We exited the car and began to walk along the sidewalk in front of a row of usable but sad looking and run down buildings, some of which still contained struggling businesses but many of which were empty. Across the street was an old wooden pedestrian bridge which spanned two hills between which a narrow road came into town. “I used to walk on that bridge when I came into town as a girl” Mom said. “My best friend, Etta Boggs, and I would go to school or I would go to buy some small thing for my mother, and I would cross over that bridge. It came down to town just around the side of that hill”

I instantly became interested in this girl, Etta Boggs. What would she look like today?  What would she be like? Did they play with dolls, even if only paper ones? Did they fix each other’s hair and talk about boys? Could they ever see each other again? I asked Mom if she ever tried to find Etta Boggs. “No. I wouldn’t even know how to start looking for her. Etta married young to a man who worked at the mine office. He had a good job, as those things went back then. One day there was an explosion at the office; gas or coal dust, I don’t know what caused it. The explosion blew the office safe into the air and it landed on Etta’s husband. Squished him good. I left right after that and lived with the Browns in Newport News Virginia and never saw her again.”

This was a time before Google searches and the ancestry web sites, and I knew that Mom was right. It would require a laborious search of genealogy libraries with follow-ups of birth certificates, marriage licenses, birth announcements and perhaps a death record to hunt down the mysterious Etta Boggs. Mom didn’t seem interested enough to do the legwork to find Etta’s trail and so I let the topic drop.

We continued walking the sidewalks of old Hazzard, Mom pointing out where stores and homes and schools used to be when she was a little girl and I felt the mixed emotions of imagining her when she was very young in the 1920’s in a bustling town, and comparing that vision with the old, tired, down-at-the-mouth town through which we were walking. It seemed like Mom wore her years much as the town was wearing its own. We soon felt like we had killed enough time in Hazzard and reentered our car to begin the return trip back to Jackson. Mom was hungry but we decided that the fare in Hazzard did not look too tempting, so we gassed up and made our return to Jackson. To be fair to Hazzard, we did not go into the newer areas to the east of the old downtown. It might be a much more attractive place than what we saw. I also think that there may have been a ghost or two pestering Mom there; the boyfriend who didn’t work out, the cousin who drowned in the creek, poor old Etta’s squished husband and so on. In any case, we were soon heading west, slowly losing elevation as we rolled back down the road to Jackson.

In Jackson we stopped at a drug store which had a lunch counter that offered the usual southern fare. Burgers and fries, bologna and macaroni and cheese, or fried anything. We ate and left a tip which Mom thought was too generous and returned to our parking slot which was still available in front of of the big stone building. We were five minutes early and waited in the car until we saw the sign come out of the window and the doors open up. We slipped out of the car, made our way up the stairs, and then plunged into the cool confines of the library. We found the genealogy section right away and I left Mom to her research while I went throughout the library savoring its look and smell and feel, and daydreaming about the generations who had passed down those aisles and past those stacks of books, sat at the tables and perhaps flirted over by the section housing the history of the Roman Empire.

Mom was having success with her search and called me over to see what she had found. Mom’s maiden name was Cooper and her mother’s name had been Kershaw. She had always heard that a great great uncle, Captain Henry Kershaw, had been a bit of a rogue and had even seen him mentioned in an article in “Kentucky Magazine.” Mom was on a mission to set the record straight about her distant uncle. She had found a wealth of records including microfilm and microfiche which contained photos of news clippings, court entrees, sheriff’s warrants and the like and as we worked together the picture of that distant relative began to come into a sharper focus.

Captain Henry Kershaw, or “Cap’n Hank” as he was called, enlisted in the Army on the Federal side in the Civil War. Through his own skill, luck, and  attrition he rose to the rank of Captain by the end of the war. After Appomattox Cap’n Hank returned to his home near Jackson and began to farm and mine a type of near-surface coal, which gave him the funds to enlarge his land holdings. Kentucky had been a border state however, and the Confederate Army also drew units from that state. After Appomattox those soldiers went home too. This was not a good mix.

Amos Riesen had never liked the Kershaws anyway, and when Cap’n Hank bought the land next door trouble was inevitable. Cap’n Hank had a nice herd of swine and when he noticed that he was missing quite a few shoats, or juvenile pigs, he was certain that he knew who the culprits were so he set a trap. Cap’n Hank was waiting early one morning when the Riesens came to plunder his stock again and put a well-placed bullet through the heart of Cletus Riesen, Amos’ oldest boy. The other Riesens exchanged fire with Cap’n Hank and then fled, leaving the body of Cletus where it lay. Cap’n Hank secured the body to his horse and brought it to the sheriff in Jackson, who declared the homicide to be justified but would not swear out a warrant for Amos. That rascal would only deny that he had been there and in the end it wouldn’t be worth the effort.

As I suggested earlier, there were families and clans which aligned with either Federal or Confederate sympathies. The Federals were known as the Red Strings and the Confederates as – and I am not making this up – the Ku Kluxers. Naturally, Amos Riesen was a Ku Kluxer and Cap’n Hank was a Red String. So Amos gathered a few cousins and his remaining offspring and encircled the cabin of Cap’n Hank one dark night. When dawn came they opened fire on Cap’n Hank, and he and his wife and his young son were pinned down in the cabin.

After three days, his food and ammunition running low, Cap’n Hank crept out at night and put his young son on a horse and sent him for help. The boy got through and soon a dozen or so Red Strings were riding to the rescue. The relief column showed up and took the Riesens completely by surprise, killing three of them while the others took to their heels and fled into the forest. Cap’n Hank then led his men to the Riesen homestead, sent the women and children to walk to Jackson, killed all of the livestock and burned down every building on the farm to the ground. That was enough for the Riesens. Amos took his immediate family and moved to Tennessee, while the remaining family members gave Cap’n Hank a wide berth ever after.

For his remaining years Cap’n Hank was a peaceful man, more or less. His association with the Red String bunch placed him at odds with the Ku Kluxers, and from time to time and there were reports, unsubstantiated of course, of him being involved with assaults and shootings in connection with the feuds which wracked the county. But Cap’n Hank worked hard, increased his holdings and made a large family before one morning, when riding back with his youngest son from an inspection of some of his more distant property, he was ambushed and killed. The boy got away to report the event but nobody was ever charged or arrested. It was just not healthy for a sheriff to take a side in those feuds until well into the early twentieth century.

Mom and I were lost in time for almost three hours in that library, and when we were finished we looked up and saw that it was later than we had planned to stay. Dad was going to be cranky because we would not return home until nearly sundown, and he liked to eat earlier than that. We called him to let him know the situation and then hit the road west towards their home in central Kentucky. We chatted almost non-stop about all of the people and events that we learned about on that trip and made our plans to do it again soon. Those plans didn’t work out, but I at least have that one memory or Mom and her crazy Appalachian, feuding family. It is enough for me.