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.

Movies on the Road, Part Three

After enjoying the bustle and glory of London, the pastoral beauty and awe-inspiring history of Normandy, and the slower and thoroughly French and barely-touristed cities of Bourg en Bresse and Beaune, our trip finally brought us to Paris.  Paris, the city of lights.  The city that, in my opinion, is the most beautiful city in the world.  I admit that I have not seen all of the cities of the world, and if my travels ever bring me to Rome or Vienna, Beijing or Buenos Aires, I may perhaps change my mind.  I have been to Paris, Kentucky and to Paris, Texas, but they just don’t measure up.  For now, the most beautiful city that I have ever seen is Paris France.

As soon as we possibly could we checked in to our hotel on the Rue de Bac, deposited our gear, and hit the streets.  Within an easy walk was the Eiffel Tower, the Invalides where Napoleon lies entombed, the monument where Princess Diana had her tragic accident, and a little further down the Champs Elysees the Arc de Triomphe.  We took in all of these sights and more in the five days that we were in Paris.  A full recitation of those excursions would require a story of its own, and a long one at that.  I will set the table for this story of watching a movie by recounting only a few of the highlights of the week.

The most stunning moments for me happened at the Louvre and at Chartres.  The Louvre is the former palace of the French kings and is now a gigantic art museum.  The building is so enormous that on gray and rainy days, when it was engaged in its kingly duties, there would sometimes be hunts organized, horses and all, in wings which were cleared out for that purpose.  My wife and I walked together for a while, but as our tastes differ and she wanted to see wood cuts by Albrecht Durer while I preferred to see Sumerian and Akkadian artifacts we split up with the agreement that we would meet at the snack bar at a certain hour.  We both knew that I would get there early to enjoy a glass of wine and a crepe.

It took me a good while to find the Mesopotamian room but only a moment to see that for some reason it was closed.  This put me in a somewhat sour mood and I began to wander the halls of that cavernous building, passing here an exhibit of central American masks, baskets and sculpture, and there passing Japanese Samuri figures in full dress.  I was walking through a section of renaissance paintings of David; I was completely blown away to learn that Hebrews in the ninth century BCE, their kings especially, wore little or no clothing, and saw a sign which read “Mona Lisa” and pointed to a stairway.  I determined that the Mona Lisa was something entirely worth seeing and began to mount the broad stairway which led upward to the next floor where the painting was alleged to be waiting.  Halfway to the top I reached a landing where I turned one hundred and eighty degrees and prepared to climb the remaining set of stairs but was stopped dead in my tracks.  I just stood on that landing looking up and struggling to breathe.

There at the top of the stairs, bathed in light which may have come from artificial or natural sources (I could not tell then, was too stunned to think about looking, and wouldn’t have been able to remember such an odd detail anyway), stood the Winged Victory.  For those unfamiliar with that piece of sculpture it is of a winged female humanoid figure.  The head is missing (which prefigures my trip to Chartres Cathedral) but the rest is intact, and it is a marvel in marble; perfection in form.  I am not an aesthete by any measure, and cannot tell you clinically why this sculpture arrested my attention while time stood still.  The beauty of the detail in the feathers on her wings, the ripples of her clothing, the feminine form which projected regal, even divine strength, and the fact that she still possessed the power to awe an admirer over two thousand years after an unknown Greek artist liberated her perfect form from a marble prison, held me captive.

After staring at her for a good long while I continued down the hallway to where the Mona Lisa rested hanging from a wall behind velvet security ropes and with an armed security guard present, presumably instructed to shoot anyone who should try to steal, disfigure, or take a photo of the famous lady with a flash camera.  The Mona Lisa is indeed a phenomenal piece of work, and if I would have seen it first I would surely have been even more impressed than I was at the time.  The afterglow of my introduction to the Winged Victory was strong however, and even the Mona Lisa played second fiddle to that magnificent lady.

the next day we went to Chartres Cathedral, which is about 50 miles southwest of Paris.  It was a gray day and we arrived a bit early for the tour.  Chartres Cathedral is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the world and one of a select number that remain standing after the insane wars of the twentieth century.  We walked slowly around the cathedral while sipping coffee and hot chocolate, inspecting the exterior of the building and the landscaping, the labyrinth in the garden behind the cathedral, and the statues which surrounded it and which were, like the Winged Victory, missing their heads, or most of them anyway.  At 10 o’clock the doors opened and a guide bade us enter and showed us around the inside of the building.

There was much to see and much history to learn, but the gloom of the interior was an impediment to seeing the pictures, the wood and stonework, and the historical objects that filled the place.  The gray, overcast sky did not permit very much light to penetrate the unrivaled stained glass windows.  Usually, when the sun is full, the play of light and color within the cathedral is breathtaking to say the least.  On this day we were forced to enjoy the cathedral as a work of art rather than as a place of living beauty dedicated to reflecting glory to the God who was the inspiration for this place.  At the conclusion of the tour and on the way out I remembered the headless statues and asked what was the story behind them.  It turned out that in the days of the French Revolution the removing of the king’s head was an event much approved of by the common folk of Chartres.  These good folk, having never received much of an education and having probably slept through many a long and boring sermon in the cathedral, believed these statues to be of the kings of France, while in fact they were of the kings of Judah.  Filled with ardor for the revolution and being sadly bereft of real kings to send to the guillotine, they gleefully decapitated the statues of the kings of Judah.  Ah, well.  From what I know about most of the kings of Judah, they probably had it coming too.

On the evening before our departure from France we took a barge trip up the Seine and ate at a restaurant who’s name I have forgotten but who’s food I will never forget.  It was beef bordelaise with caramelized carrots and a wine that was like drinking warm velvet.  My wife and I returned to our quarters exhausted from five days of walking all over Paris and twenty days of walking all over southern England, western Switzerland, and northern France.  We decided to retire to our room where we took our showers, packed our luggage, opened one last bottle of French wine and turned on the television.

Just as it was in Bourg en Bresse, we saw mostly the same slime which oozed out of our American television sets (shout out here to Frank Zappa and the Mothers).  There was one movie which attracted my attention however.  It was “The Eiger Sanction”, a thriller staring Cling Eastwood in which he climbs mountains, kills bad guys, and generally does all of that Clint Eastwood stuff.  My wife was as interested in this as she would have been in examining stool samples in a medical laboratory, so once again she was quickly curled up by my right side and snoring peacefully.

I watched that movie to the end and drank that bottle of wine to the end too.  Clint and George Kennedy climbed a volcanic chimney which I had seen in Monument Valley in Utah and so the movie had a little personal interest for me, but by far the most interesting part of the movie was the fact that it was in French.  Try to think about that; a Clint Eastwood movie in French.  The fluid, melodic, slightly nasal quality of the French language simply does not lend itself to a Clint Eastwood movie.  German maybe, Arabic is a possibility too, Klingon absolutely!  But French?  Imagine if you will Clint with his face hard as stone, his eyes squinting with malevolent intent, his teeth gritting like two boulders grinding living bone between them, and then:  “Je bleh bleh bleh.  Sui le Bleh du bleh, etc., etc., etc.”  Really?  I almost laughed loudly enough to awaken my wife.

Turning out the lights I reflected on the wonderful things we had seen and tasted and learned on this trip.  Perhaps I will write of them some day.  Many things filled my soul with awe, and many filled my head with new facts and understandings.  My stomach had been filled with some of the most amazing food on the planet and my heart filled with affection for wonderful people whom we met in three countries on a different continent than our own.  But as I drifted off to sleep on that last night in beloved Paris I couldn’t empty my head of the image of Old Clint growling at his enemies with a voice meant for poetry, not mayhem.