Category Archives: History

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.

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Boom Goes London, Boom Paree (with respect to Randy Newman)

     Recent news from Eastern Europe is very worrisome to say the least.  Russia is openly intervening in the rebellion in eastern Ukraine and is seeking to add to the Crimean land grab that in engineered not too many months before.  Eastern European countries which were formerly occupied by the Soviet Union and it’s puppets now fear that Russia wishes to reestablish that occupation.  Under the guise of defending the Russian speaking populations in neighboring countries, a move reminiscent of a certain German leader who claimed that his aggression against countries to the east of him was to protect ethnic Germans in those unfortunate countries, Russia is snatching away Ukrainian territory while threatening many other nations as well.  The West is reacting, imposing economic sanctions which at this point are not having any obvious effect on Russia’s behavior, and stirring the NATO apparatus to begin demonstrating a possible military response if Russia follows through on the even more aggressive actions that some in the Russian government are advocating.  We seem to be witnessing a resumption of the cold war between the old Soviet Union and the West with unpredictable new Russian rulers with their fingers on a lot of very nasty buttons.

     I lived through most of the cold war and can remember many points at which that war could have gone very hot indeed.  The Hungarian revolution, the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis were moments when it could have erupted into a nuclear nightmare whose destructive capability we can scarcely calculate.  Those events played out in front of us in the newspapers, on the evening news and in special radio and television broadcasts of presidential addresses, and in the case of the missile crisis we could watch as the Soviet ships bearing missiles for Cuba steamed towards the point at which we had said “this far and no further”.  Everyone in the world watched to see if the two giants were going to go at each other with nuclear teeth, and most of the world heaved a sigh of relief when the superpowers were eyeball to eyeball and somebody, thankfully, blinked.

     There was another close call however that few people know about.  If it has been mentioned in a book I am unaware of it.  In fact, the story is so wild that I did not entirely believe it the first time I heard it, but hearing it a second time certainly made me a believer.  It is widely known that this event damaged Soviet/U.S. relations for a number of years but few seem to know what a close call it really was.  The story is as follows.

     In October of 1973 Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel that was initially very successful.  Both Arab countries were heavily backed by the Soviet Union and flush with military hardware provided in abundance by the Soviets.  Caught by surprise, the Israelis were pushed back and seriously threatened with defeat and annihilation until a massive influx of advanced American weapons and the direction of Israel’s defense by extremely competent leadership turned the tide and pushed both of Israel’s adversaries back.  The two Arab armies were now threatened with total and humiliating defeat.  The Soviets intended to prevent this from happening and prepared to intervene on the Arab armies’ side.

     At this particular moment Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States, was in a heap of political trouble.  The Watergate scandal had been brewing for over a year and had shortly before October of 1973 been picking up steam.  It seemed as if every day some new piece of testimony or some new revelation was turning up the fire that was slowly cooking the political career and legacy of President Nixon.  His presidency was dying daily a death by a thousand cuts, and an opportunity to step up as leader of a nation under attack would seem to him like a political godsend.  I was therefore completely unconvinced when on October 25, 1973, President Nixon put the armed forces of the United States, including our nuclear forces, on full alert.

     Sure, I thought, rally around the flag.  Circle the wagons.  Suppress the investigation of presidential wrongdoing in order to focus on the threat of the Hun at the gate.  The problem was that there was no visible Hun.  The gate looked pretty clear and safe.  To our skeptical eyes the Israelis appeared to have things comfortably in hand and were chasing the Arab armies back across the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights.  Most of us didn’t give the alert a second thought, and continued to call for the Presidential scalp without missing a beat.

     That is how things stood with me for ten years.  Nixon was gone less than a year after the alert was called; a victim of his own paranoia and his attempt to cover up for his loyalists.  I had almost forgotten about the incident and had to plumb the depths of my memory when my friend Jeff Blaine brought it up while we were grilling burgers in my back yard one day.  Jeff had been one of my closest friends for many years but I had not seem him for quite a while.  Jeff was in the Army Security Agency and frequently was posted far from San Diego.  He was on leave and visiting family when we made contact, and after several years of separation we were once again standing together nursing a couple of beers and grilling our dinner.

     How the conversation arrived at the 1973 event I cannot remember, but my comments on the issue I remember well.  “That crook Nixon was just trying to get a little sympathy.  I never bought his phony alert for one minute.  He was Tricky Dick from the beginning and Tricky Dick until the end.  He must’ve thought that we were all idiots to try to feed us that line.”  Jeff stood next to the grill, picking at the label on his Budweiser while slowly turning the bottle in his hands.  Finally he took a pull on the squat brown bottle and cleared his throat.  “Well” he began, “there was more to it than that.  We nearly got into a nuclear war at that time.”  “You’re shittin’ me” I replied.  How do you know a thing like that?”

     Jeff proceeded to tell me how he was in Germany in October of 1973 and in addition to coordinating signals for U.S. forces there the agency of which he was part was also privy to a great deal of Soviet signals information as well.  The Soviets, according to Jeff, were more deeply committed to their Arab clients than we first believed and were dismayed at seeing their friends’ armies routed and the Egyptian army in particular cut off from its support bases and in danger of collapse.  To prevent this the Soviet leaders decided to insert Red Army soldiers into the fight.

     Israel was an ally of the U.S. in the same manner as Egypt and Syria were of the U.S.S.R.  Nixon was not inlined to allow Soviet soldiers enter the fight, and Nixon let the Soviets know this through the usual back channels.  Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his military leaders did not care what Richard Nixon thought at that moment and orders were issued to proceed with the operation.  Pursuant to those orders, soldiers of the Red Army were gathered and taken to military airfields from where they would be flown to the war zone.

     As news of this reached Nixon he acted by putting the American military on full alert.  In Germany that meant that the totality of America’s, and presumably NATO’s, military was given orders to prepare to deflect an imminent Russian attack, by offensive tactics if necessary.  Tanks were lined up, engines idling, barrels pointed east.  In the U.S.S.R. the soldiers boarded their planes and engines were turning; pilots awaiting awaiting orders to taxi and take off.  Nixon sent one last message:  “Don’t do it.  You know I mean what I say.”  

     The Soviets did indeed know that Richard Nixon meant what he said.  There had been dealings between the Soviets and Richard Nixon for many years and they knew well Nixon’s mettle as a cold warrior.  The earlier Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev at one point said that he had hoped for a Kennedy victory in the 1960 election because he preferred not to have to deal with Richard Nixon.  After sober reflection, the Soviets decided to cut their losses and stand down.

     I found Jeff’s story hard to believe.  Why wasn’t a story this big featured prominently in the newspapers and television news, in a book or a movie?  I followed the news media of the day avidly but had heard nothing of this story.  Still, Jeff had no reason to make this story up, so I filed it away in my mind as something mildly interesting and never thought of it again.

     Until one day in 1994.  It was after the collapse of the Soviet Union and I was chatting with a colleague about some of the memorable events of our cold war face-off with the vanquished adversary.  I thought that I would surprise Rod with my knowledge of this little-covered confrontation but it turned out that I didn’t surprise him at all; he knew all about this event.  Rod, it turned out, had once been in the Navy and in fact had intended to make it a career.  That plan was altered irrevocably by the events of October 1973.

     Rod was a submariner.  He was stationed on a nuclear missile submarine, called a “boomer”, and as the crisis broke out his submarine was ordered to proceed to the Barents Sea, a shallow sea to the north of Russia.  It was not uncommon for a boomer to be stationed in that area in a readiness status just in case anything bad ever happened, so Rod thought nothing of it.  After spending a couple of days on the bottom, all hands were called to battle stations, which was also not uncommon.  This time however the gyroscopes in the nuclear-armed missiles were spinning, indicating that they had active targets, and the hatches to the missile bays were opened.

     This was definitely not routine, and although Rod never told me what position he held on that sub, he was a department manager who spoke multiple languages and moved on to a higher position at another hospital shortly after we had our conversation, so I suspect that he wasn’t turning wrenches in the engineering spaces.  I am certain that he occupied a position high enough to know exactly what was going on.  “I was never so scared in my life” he told me.  “I was certain that the order to fire would come and when we returned to the surface there would be nothing there but glowing rubble.  I intended to make the Navy a career” Rod continued, “but after that I couldn’t take being a part of it any more.  If we were going to blow each other into glowing molecules I wanted it to come as a surprise.”

     I was completely stunned by Rod’s revelation  I had not any good reason to doubt Jeff’s story, but it was so fantastic that I just filed it away without analyzing it all that much.  Now, having heard a guy from a different branch of the American military, ten years later, telling me the same tale, my mind boggled at how close the world had come to the unthinkable.  Now, with an expansionist Russia pursuing what appears to be the reestablishment of the old Soviet Empire, it gives me and uncomfortable chill that we might, just might, have to do this thing all over again.

Disturbing News from Europe

The news which is lately coming out of Eastern Europe is anything but encouraging.  Old nationalisms and hatreds which more properly belong to past centuries are popping up as if the blood soaked tragedy that was the twentieth century never happened.  A person with no sense of history will find the events occurring in Ukraine unfortunate and confusing but will most likely decide that it is none of the West’s, and especially none of America’s, business.  We should keep our focus on domestic problems and leave Ukraine for somebody else to worry about.  Such a position would be understandable, and regrettable.

A person who is more familiar with the history of that region will instantly recognize patterns which played a prominent part in the horrors of the previous century.  Adolph Hitler claimed that his aggression in Czechoslovakia and Poland was aimed at protecting the rights of ethnic Germans.  The claim by Vladimir Putin that Russia just gobbled up the Crimean peninsula, which was sovereign Ukrainian territory, for the purpose of protecting the rights of ethnic Russians is virtually identical to the tactics of Der Fuehrer which unleashed the dogs of war in Europe and around the world seventy five years ago.  Five years before the war began Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland with no response from the Allies.  Three years later the ‘rights’ of the Austrians and Sudeten Germans provided the pretext for German annexation of Austria and western Czechoslovakia with only impotent acquiescence from the British and French.  A year and a half after that the war was unleashed on humanity with all of its hideous cruelty.

Equally disturbing is the recent distribution of pamphlets in eastern Ukraine demanding that Jews register their names and property with the rebel ethnic Russian “government” there.  Somebody may know who it really was that distributed these pamphlets, but the general public is not being told who that might be, nor the reason why.  The import of the event is not lost on the Jewish population in Ukraine and everywhere else in central and eastern Europe however, as the intimidation and murder of Jews and the theft of their property is a European tradition that dates back to the ninth century, and there are Jews yet alive who remember the orgy of anti-Semitism that occurred in Europe just seventy five years ago.  This pamphlet, which seems crass and perhaps a little silly to a modern American who is ignorant of history, is loaded with centuries of meaning to a Ukrainian Jew.

The saddest part of this to me is that the pamphlet could have come from either side, Russian or Ukrainian.  Both countries have a sordid history of violence against their Jewish citizens, and in one essay in the book “Shatterzone of Empires” the author relates the story of a captain in the retreating German Army in WW II rescuing a group of Ukrainian Jews from an imminent and cruel death at the hands of a mob of “Christian” Ukrainians.  The adjective merits quotation marks because these actions speak nothing of Christ and, in fact, are quite the work of Christ’s opposite.  The point of this is that the anti-Semitism which drove Jews out of England and France in the thirteenth century and Spain in the fifteenth, which murdered and robbed Jews throughout Europe for a thousand years, and sought to exterminate them in the twentieth century is still alive and well in Russia, Ukraine, and anywhere else where such an event as the pamphlets is met with silence and inaction.  Does anyone wonder why Jews in Israel will not budge one inch in defending the only place on the planet where a Jew need not feel threatened because of his or her ethnicity?

In summary, the actions in russia and Ukraine of the last month or two are carbon copies of the events which led to total destructive war and mass murder less than a hundred years ago.  People with a sense of history and a determination to not let it happen again could stop it now if forceful measures were taken.  Forceful measures, however, are not popular on college campuses, in hipster coffee shops, and wherever fun-worshiping Westerners gather.  Nor are they popular with politicians who deny their own resemblance to English Prime Minister Chamberlain and his French counterpart Daladier, who gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler, while in fact their actions are identical.  Bullies and dictators notice weakness and act accordingly.  the world in the twenty first century looks as if it could be in for one hell of a ride.