Thursday, October 20, 2005

Fade Out Into the Astral Blue

While attempting to de-clutter my dresser drawers, I stalled out completely when I found a copy of my great-grandfather’s family history and a number of his letters beneath a stack of T-shirts. Of course, I started reading through the stuff. No further progress on the de-clutterization front was made.

This is part of the preface to the family history he completed in about 1947:

What a curious world this would be if each and every generation would as it were close its books, draw the curtains, lock the doors, and fade out into the astral blue as some say we do, leaving you and I to peer through the dim mist of the past. Then some say do not go too far back on our family tree as you may find someone hanging on it and this may have proven a retard to many on the same quest as I am.

Wow! Who writes like that anymore? Reading it, I really do feel like I’m peering “through the dim mist of the past.” I don’t know all that much about my great-grandfather, really. He gives only the bare essentials of his own life in his history. He was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1870 and emigrated to the United States when he was about 11 or 12. He may or may not have finished high school.

The letters were the most fascinating thing in the T-shirt drawer. My great-grandfather wrote them in the late 1930s and early 1940s to a cousin of his who was also a genealogy nut. They’re mostly about the progress of the family history, but from time to time—without warning—he’ll launch into an analysis of current world events and that is what I found absolutely riveting. The following is from a letter dated September 15, 1939.

Well James, the Hitlerites are on the march. Will the elements stop him or will The Almighty stop him for his murderous prosecution of His People when in years gone by Poland was equally as guilty? Or will Britain with her better sense of Justice? Or France with her frontiers always menaced? Will they prevail? You know we as Scots should be proud of the blood that flows through our veins, as the Jew when looking at the map of the world will point to Scotland and say “There is a country that never persecuted me.” And as a Scotsman, I say, I don’t have to take my hat off to anyone.

From a letter dated February 11, 1941

“There will always be an England.” What faith. I am more optimistic than ever. We certainly have a lot of bananas here (yellow skins) and that the third termite so called will go down in history’s pages as one of the greatest ever known and Churchill give us the tools and we will do the work. The dagos like to stick a knife in your back but he can’t take it in his guts; dissension and starvation will do its work, and I think the persecution of God’s chosen people will play its part. Well Wilkie done as he was told. Never liked him—his German antecedents too close. We have not got the men of the blood and birth such as fought and signed the constitution and born under The Union Jack seven of whom served as Presidents of this The U.S. in A.

There it is. An ordinary man’s stream-of-consciousness musings on the events of World War II as they were unfolding, complete with all his biases and his prejudices. I find the language he uses fascinating—the way he shifts back and forth from the lofty to the folksy. And what about those bananas and the mysterious "third termite?" My interpretation is that when he refers to bananas he’s suggesting that there are a lot of people too cowardly to take a stand against the Nazis and that the “third termite” is a reference to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s third term as president—that would make sense given the date and the reference to Wilkie [sic] who ran against Roosevelt. Anyway, apart from the ethnic slur and a double dose of jingoism (which should be considered within the context of the time), I think he comes across as an upright, principled, and intelligent man. And that's a relief. You can be sure that if his letters had revealed that he thought Hitler and Mussolini were great men or even if he had nasty things to say about FDR, I wouldn't be so eager to share.


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