Born to Run

I’m on a work project with no time to write, so I am posting this oldie but goodie. Enjoy!

I have lots of photos of my father’s mother. Portraits of her as a child. Portraits of her as a young woman. Portraits of her with her twin babies. Then snapshots of her with family, with friends over the years. A full chronology of my grandmother’s life.

But I can count the photos of my grandfather on one hand and still have a finger left over. He wasn’t camera shy. He just didn’t stop for the camera. In the first photo he is a boy of ten. It’s 1890 and he is with his family before their very large Ohio farmhouse (I count nine windows and four doors on just the two sides I can see). It looks to be late winter and this yard is no doubt beautiful in summer with its overhang of leafy trees and long views, but here it is a mess of mud and melting snow, a hazard for the ruffled skirts and high heel boots of his sisters. Grandaddy is in knee-high leather boots and holding the harnesses of two yearling calves, an odd prop for a family photo, and amusing given the formality of the other family members. He looks like he was just passing through and the photo’s subjects stepped aside to make way for him, he stopping for a moment before moving on. He was always headstrong, so more likely he insisted on including two calves he was raising himself.John H. Berryman Family 1890The next photo is a good 20 years later. My grandparents lived in a big two-story Colonial on Glen Road in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey. Granddaddy commuted across the George Washington Bridge and into Manhattan each day. In the photo his suit coat is off and tie is loosened. He is holding his baby boy in the air, gazing at him as if in sheer wonder. Or perhaps sheer fear, because these new twin boys were conceived bittersweetly three years after my grandparents’ darling daughters, one six and one six months, died of then-incurable disease, my grandmother deciding she would never again have children. Her own father had to intervene to persuade her that she could love other children, but that’s another story for another time. Granddaddy waited patiently, as was really his only choice, and now I have this photo of him cautiously holding this precious bundle of baby that was my father. Or uncle. I can’t tell.RF Berryman and Baby Ted BerrymanSometime during their Woodcliff Lake period he decided to invent a better kind of running shoe. He had been a track star at Oberlin College and held the “Big Six” record for the fastest two mile. Only fragments of the running shoe story remain. The soles were made from tires, or tire rubber. To prove their superiority he ran in them from Woodcliff Lake to Passaic (20 miles) or Lima, Ohio (625 miles), I forget which. That’s all I know. There is no photo commemorating his accomplishment. In fact, I have no other photo of him until about 40 years later.

Peg and Bob Berryman, Elizabeth and Waldo Berryman, r to lIn that photo he is an elder in his 80s, standing next to his brother and behind my grandmother who finally, after a life more nomadic and in all ways unsettled than she ever wanted, was sitting in the lap of luxury at her Leucadia, California home, the gleaming Pacific to one side and an endless panorama of rolling hills to the other. Granddaddy lived in that lap of luxury too, but it was luxury he did not want and did not take to with ease. The febility of old age frustrated his need to put one foot in front of the other toward some fanciful goal.

As a boy Granddaddy was a prodigy. I have it on numerous family authorities that he flew through high school in one year and graduated from Oberlin College in two years. He was  fluent in English, Spanish, French, Greek, Latin and Portuguese. As a recent graduate he accepted a one-year position to teach school in the Philippine Islands, where he became fluent in Tagalog. On coming back he went to work for a Wall Street Bank as an interpreter. A few years later he moved his family onto a commune called The School of Living in Suffern, New York, founded by the noted utopian, Ralph Borsodi. After a few years of that he scouted the Land of California, writing home that it was “a magnificent panorama of unparalleled magnitude.” That impressed the family, and as soon as my dad was home from WWII, off they went.

They weren’t following history, though. California’s greatest population booms followed the Great Depression and World War II. In the 1930s thousands of Americans, left destitute by the double whammy of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl drought, went west in search of work. By that time my grandfather’s brother, Waldo Berryman was already moving his growing auto aftermarket company from Ohio to Palo Alto. He eventually moved it to Encinitas, California, though I don’t know if that was before or after my branch of the family moved there.

After WWII thousands more Americans moved to California after GIs had passed through there on their way to the Pacific Theater. They came home, grabbed their wives or sweethearts, and headed for the promised land of sunshine and opportunity. By the time my father was home from war the family’s bags were packed, furniture all shipped, and car gassed up and ready to head west and join Granddaddy in the Berryman family’s new-found home upon that “magnificent panorama of unparalleled magnitude.”

In the last photo I have of my Grandaddy he is an old man walking, stooped and gnarled by Parkinson’s, but still, as he always was, moving forward and deep in thought.

I recently went hunting for photos of him online. Surely, with all he had done, there were photos of him in some college yearbook, newspaper, or historical archive. I know he was a track star in college, so I Googled “Robert Fulton Berryman” and “two mile,” his specialty.

Nothing.

I tried the search again with “R. F. Berryman” and bingo, I landed on the Oberlin College yearbook of 1905. (Thank you www.archive.org – you always come through!) I found the yearbook photo of the Oberlin track team. But…argh! The team members were not named in order of the photo. There was no, “Named, left to right.” In fact, there were more young men in the photo than names to the side. This wasn’t going to be easy. After studying each face, looking for my grandfather’s unmistakable upside-down pear shaped head, I settled on just one possibility. He had to be the confident looking young man sitting in the bottom row, second from right. Technically he’s seated in the second row, I suppose, but also technically his is the second head from bottom right.

R.F. Berryman Oberlin 1903 team

I still don’t know for sure if this is Robert Fulton Berryman, Oberlin Class of 1905. But I’m going to believe it is. Because he was almost certainly in the track team photo and no one else is a close match. Because the head shape, ears, and eyes match the photo I have from 1960. And because the only photos I have of this man I loved so dearly are blurred, dark, or from his back or side.

R.F. Berryman 1903 and 1960I take this from these few scattered facts or semi-facts: Robert Fulton Berryman always ran towards, never from. The whole world was that magnificent panorama of unparalleled magnitude. He raced through college and then ran (not literally, I must point out) to the Philippines to see the aftermath of the Spanish American War. He got an inheritance and so ran to Oklahoma to start a sheep ranch (fine occupation for an academic prodigy!). He ran from Wall Street to a commune, and from there to California. Whether he got comfortable in California and so decided not to explore further lands I don’t know. I do know that as I age, changing my life gets harder. I would like to move someplace completely different than coastal Southern California, but so many ties tether me here. After a while in one place it gets like that. But that’s another story for another time.

Grandaddy didn’t have time for cameras. But he had time for me. No camera can capture that.

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Stories My Father Never Told Me

No time to write this weekend. Here’s an oldie but goody….Aivazovsky_-_Strong_WindMine is not a family of storytellers. I don’t know what my father did in World War II. I don’t know if his heart skipped a beat the first time he saw his future wife, my mother. I don’t know if there was an instant he doubted he would live when his sailboat was torn to toothpicks in a hurricane a mile off the Florida coast. That was an event. But it’s not a story. I don’t know why he made it to shore across a mile of stormy seas, only that he did.

It might sound funny to wonder why he lived. But plenty of people wouldn’t have. Even people with the swimming skills and physical strength to make it. You also need a powerful will to live and the courage to face what look like insurmountable odds. He was sailing solo so there was no one else to help make the decision. No easier choice to just follow someone’s lead. Decisions don’t come any harder than the ones he had to make in his life. This was only foreshadowing what was to come. Stormy SeasDid he quickly calculate his odds and swim for shore as soon as he saw the boat was foundering, or did he try to hold her together till there was no hope left, braving seas that were by that time dramatically worse to try and save the boat he built singlehandedly? Did he risk going down with the ship by groping frantically through rising waters in the below-deck cabin for one treasured belonging he couldn’t bear to leave behind? If he did, what was so valuable that he risked his life over retrieving it? And when he reached shore did he walk away unscathed, or were his nights haunted with nightmares of drowning? A sea of churning water stood between him and life on that…that what? I don’t even know if it was night or day. Either way, he lived to not tell about it.

As a child I one time skipped down barefoot onto a gnarl of fish hook cactus and it lodged deep in the sole of my foot. My father came toward me to take it out and I warned him away with screams and tears. He laughed and asked if I intended to leave it there forever. I really did have to think about it for a minute. If it had been me in that sinking boat, the smallest doubt of whether I could swim over raging seas and make it to land alive would have me clutching to the last bit of floating debris of that boat like it was God Himself, and only He could save me from being swallowed by the sea. My fate would rest on how buoyant my bit of detritus was. I would use all my strength trying to make that shard of timber float, trying to rescue my rescuer so the rescuer could save me.

Cast up by the Sea - Winslow HomerNo such complications for my father. All my life he whistled while he shaved, sang while he worked, and went about his business with good cheer. Each day was a new opportunity to enjoy life, and whatever stories his past held, that’s where they stayed. When I grew up and became interested in him as a person as well as a father, one day I asked how he had the sheer guts and strength to get up and go back to work shortly after breaking his back and being paralyzed (for life) at 26. All he said was, “I had to, I had a family to feed.” Those words are plenty to tell me who he was, but I wanted all the elements of plot. I wanted the how and the why. And yet I didn’t have the guts to ask.

I wasn’t born yet when he fell off the roof of their new home and into a wheelbarrow, but I hurt to even think of all the crashing of bones and nerves and hearts and hopes and dreams that started when his body came freefalling onto the edge of that wheelbarrow spine-first. I don’t want to know about the pain, how scared he must have been, how dashed his dreams, how fearful for his future, no less his pregnant wife’s and two sons’. Even thinking about those pains is too painful for me.

In the hospital after his injury doctors tickled his feet. They poked his calves and pressed their fingers into his thighs. Nothing. No feeling. The doctors wouldn’t operate. They said it was no use. My grandmother stormed the hospital and they relented, slicing a 14-inch gash down his back. They poked around a bit, sewed him back up, and said, “Yep. He’ll never walk again.” He didn’t talk for a month. Then he dragged himself out of the hospital, stuffed his bodycasted self in the Jeep with my mother and brothers, and said goodbye to their new home in Denver. They couldn’t think clearly there. They needed to re-gather their lives within the familiarity of the house they still owned in California, among loving family and concerned friends. For the next six months he taught himself to walk with a complex series of movements that began with swinging his hips and legs forward with the strength of his glutes. When his uncle, Pappy we called him, told him it was time to saw off his body cast and see what he had, that’s what he did. After fits and starts he began walking with two canes, then one, then finally none. Still with no feeling below his hips. But it was something.

After the injury he developed other strengths. His arms could hold all us children at once. His calm could make any problem, however seemingly tragic at first, suddenly approachable. His courage could hold the weight of all our worlds on his shoulders. But part of that courage came by refusing to consider himself in any way but like everybody else. He simply refused to treat himself as paralyzed, and damned if anyone else would dare. So if I asked even the most innocuous question about his injury, would opening up and talking about it, satisfying his cherished daughter’s curiosity, open a hole that let all that long-ago pain come rushing back? I wouldn’t risk it.

That’s what I know. And I wouldn’t ask him for more. It wasn’t really lack of courage that stopped me from asking. I know that now. It was respect. Every day my father lived his life as a man with full use of his body would. He never gave in to physical limitations, never mind self-pity. He would not use handicap parking spaces. He coached and umpired Pony League baseball. He climbed on roofs and pounded them with sheets of shingles whenever that needed to be done, and I doubt he ever considered that irony.

He was a man of few words and was a firm believer that the value of a person’s life is in his deeds. That didn’t make him hard. Quite the opposite. He knew what a man is capable of. But he also knew how a man can suffer. Just seeing my father and what he did every day was enough to tell me the worth of the man. I didn’t need to know how he made it to shore to know he was strong. I didn’t need to know what he did in the war to know he was brave.

All this happened. And it affected our lives in unimaginable ways. In aggregate the consequences of that accident hurled our little family off orbit. He spent months at a time in the hospital because of internal injuries and infections and other complications. My mother tried to hold it all together, keeping house and feeding and caring for her three beloved children plus being a more intimate nurse to her husband than she could have ever dreamed of. But her struggles are a different story. The family is still trying to regain its balance now, a decade after he’s gone and well into his grandchildren’s adulthood. We’ll make it. In another generation the pain won’t even be a memory. But the family will be strong. Partly because he refused to let us be weak.

When he was late into his 70’s, on kidney dialysis for some kind of a record dozen years, his speech a little slurred from mini-strokes and body wasted by decades of the complications of paralysis, it finally occurred to me that he was not immortal. I asked him to write his life story. I wanted to know whatever stories he wished to share with me. He said he would, and so he spent his days at dialysis filling notebooks. His hands weakened and his handwriting deteriorated. We got him a dictation recorder, but he didn’t want to bother his fellow dialysees. So he went on with the notebooks, filling them with barely legible sentences and paragraphs and pages, pouring out his life with clearly apparent joy at what he had lived. He started with his grandparents, describing their lives, and four yellow-lined legal notebooks later he ended with his own early adulthood. That’s as far as he got before passing away on August 31, 1997, at 1:55 in the morning.

Harrrison - Ocean NocturneHe never got to the part about the sailboat. But that’s alright. I know everything that’s important about my father.

Art - Winslow Homer - Sunset Fires

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John Bailey and the Angel Gabriel

No sailor approaching Pemaquid Point, Maine, can look upon that black coast with anything but dread. Monolithic rock walls jut from the ocean floor like fists, waves crashing andPemaquid wind howling the names of all those lost at this ocean graveyard. Here the sea churns with tide and wind, fast ocean currents snag on rock outcrops and swirl the water into fearful chaos.

For eons nature’s forces have battered the shore, but those rocks are some of the hardest on earth, and if they can withstand thousands of years of such violence, they can withstand the hull of any boat or bone of sailor’s skull.

It was toward this point that the ship Angel Gabriel sailed on the night of August 14, 1635. She was a 240-ton barque and armed with 16 cannon, uncommon for a ship called to passenger duty, but this was no common ship.

She was originally commissioned into service and outfitted for combat by Sir Walter Raleigh for his voyages to South America. The mighty barque had seen battle at Cadiz, and at great odds fought three Spanish galleons simultaneously that repeatedly stormed the English ship and were beaten back each time, the Angel Gabriel losing three men to the Spanish ships’ five hundred.

For that deed a ballad was written, to be oft repeated by English seaman in search of courage on windy, moonless nights.The Honour of Bristol - Angel Gabriel

Now the galleon was in more peaceful service, transporting passengers from her home port at Bristol, England, to the New World, this time to land at Pemaquid, Maine.

Upon the Angel Gabriel was John Bailey, my eighth great grandfather, whose blood courses through seven generations before entering my Eggleston line. John and his eldest son had secured the required approvals from their parish priest, invoked the oath of allegiance, and once on board, obtained their licenses and the proper seal from England’s official emigration agents. Now they had only to endure the 12 weeks of rough seas it would take to sail from Bristol to Pemaquid.

On the last day of May in the year 1635, five ships left Bristol together. After dropping their river pilots at the mouth of the Severn on June 9, three ships sailed off on their own, confident they could outrun any pirate ship that pursued, for pirates prowled those waters in search of whatever treasure they could capture. The James chose to stay near the heavily armed but slow Angel Gabriel for protection.

The passing was not easy. With winds strong and waves high, the ship swayed violently. Not just for hours, but for weeks. Many if not most passengers were seasick, dizzy, light headed, vomiting, barely able to stand or walk without falling. A passenger, the Reverend Richard Mather, grandfather of the minister and scholar Cotton Mather, wrote in his diary that none could go on deck because of “the tossing and tumbling of the ship.”

Yet I’m sure some, maybe John Bailey walked the decks, drinking in the invigorating sea air, entertaining themselves watching the occasional pod of curious dolphins that sailed alongside the ship for long distances, and enjoying the fresh seafood the crew sometimes hauled on board.

More weeks went by.Raleigh's ship Jason for trip to Guinea The going was slow, so slow that the James sometimes furled only three sails just to stay beside the Angel Gabriel.

Twenty days out to sea the Angel Gabriel and the James pursued a Turkish pirate ship that had taken one of the ships that left Bristol with them, the Mary. They could not catch it and so regretfully turned back to their course.

On July 4, the James decided not to wait for the slower galleon any longer. Mather wrote that, “we lost sight of the Angel sayling slowly behind us, and we never saw her again any more.”

After twelve weeks at sea the Angel Gabriel sighted land. Under cloudy skies, she sailed into a small cove on the coast of Maine and dropped anchor. There was a small settlement at the place, called Pemaquid. John Bailey and the other ship’s passengers were ferried to shore on small boats, and there gave thanks for the voyage and now having solid earth under their feet.The ship James unloading on diff voyage

They immediately began the arduous task of unloading their belongings, but were taken by surprise by a violent storm.

They worked as long as they could, filling the dinghies with trunks, barrels, and livestock, rowing them to shore through the tumbling surf, dragging what they could across the rock and sand and away from the rising seas.

They had to watch in horror, helplessly, as the surf grew too dangerous to risk further trips to the Angel Gabriel. As night fell and the storm grew in power, most took refuge in the homes of the townspeople, though some of the crew stayed aboard the Angel Gabriel.

Thus commenced the most ungodly hurricane ever to hit New England, then or now, as evidenced in recent analysis by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA.

A storm surge of twenty two feet, the highest in history, sent wave after wave crashing into shore, wiping out all before it. Unknown numbers of Native Americans lost their lives. On its route from Ipswich to Marblehead the coastal barque, Watch and Wait, owned by another of my ancestors, Isaac Allerton, foundered off of Cape Ann with twenty three aboard. All but two were lost.

Homes in the town of Plymouth were blown down like matchsticks, and mile-wide swaths of forest were leveled by winds well over 130 miles per hour. Farther down-coast the James sought safe harbor from the storm at the Isles of Shoals, but the cables could not hold their anchors and all snapped, the wind and surf now pushing the ship ever closer to the rocks. But they were saved when the hurricane winds reversed to the northeast and pushed the ship away from the islands. The James sailed into Boston the next day, its sails in tatters.

In outer Pemaquid Harbor the Angel Gabriel began to slip her anchors, her cables strung taught as more than Shipwreck300 tons fought to rip away from their hold. But the cables could not hold, and gave way in snaps like mighty whips, lashing through sails already shredded by the winds.

The ship then drifted at the mercy of wind and waves, bowing and rising like a colossal monster from the sea, keel pointed skyward, only to slam back into the troughs, waves crashing over her decks, bowsprit dipping as though straight to the bottom of the sea. Thus she was reduced to splinters, her crew lost.

When they left England each of the Angel Gabriel’s passengers had to sacrifice what they could not transport on the ship, leaving behind treasured bureaus, beds, pianos, wardrobes; the poorer ones choosing only a few articles of clothing, maybe a few utensils and cooking vessels. Now once more their earthly belongings were being culled. This time the sea would take everything they had left in the world, and there was nothing they could do about it.

When John Bailey awoke the next morning and left his shelter, he beheld such destruction as he had never seen. What was this new land he had come to that could wreak such hell?

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At the Wheel: The Life of Jessie Merica, Part 2

It was time for Jessie Thomas Merica to leave his parents’ home. Because he certainly was not going to get rid of the car he just bought. It was his crowning achievement, as big a purchase as any man could make except a house and besides, it would be a few more years before he even thought about a house of his own.1910 Model T Ford

Jessie loved cars more than anything else, had since the day he saw his first one, no doubt. Now his father had told him to get rid of the car or leave, and so for Jessie the decision was easy.

There was nothing his mother, Florence Merica, could do to change either man’s mind. Her husband Tom was as stubborn as any man she’d ever met, except for her son, who was equally stubborn. Now that Jessie was a young man, it was inevitable this day would come. If it wasn’t the car that put the two men at odds it would be something else. You just can’t have two bull-headed men in one house.

Tom Merica was stubborn, but he was not an unreasonable man. What reason did he have for denying Tom a car, then? It’s been said Tom thought Jessie too young, not yet responsible enough. But Jessie was 17, or nearly so, and mature enough to manage work crews on the farm and drive the family car on his own. Maybe Tom was afraid Jessie would go wild now that he had a car. He did have a wild streak, and would later build and race his own stock car. Or maybe the money Jessie used to buy the car was supposed to be for something else. We’ll never know. But one thing is sure: Jessie was leaving home.

His mother and sisters were sad to see him go. The two younger girls, Ruthy and Annie, adored their big brother, though Florence favored Charles, Jesse’s older brother, because of his frailty. Just the same, the girls and their mother cried. But the two Merica men – for at 17 Jessie was indeed a man – stood firm on their respective stances, and the younger Merica packed his meager belongings and left.

It’s just as well, because what happened next was ordained as if by fate. Jessie drove to Waynesboro, 35 miles from Shenandoah, far enough away that he and his father would not be tripping over each other in the small towns of Shenandoah or Elkton, but not so far that he couldn’t see his mother and sisters when he wanted. Stehli Silk Mill 1925-1941He got a room at Hodge’s boarding house and a job at the Stehli Silk Mill. That’s where he met his future bride, Miss Emily Doom.

They courted in his car, of course, and Emily loved that her young man had his freedom — and his own car. He was so handsome, so charming, so sure of himself. He wooed her ardently but respectfully, taking her for long rides in the country, square dancing on Friday nights, Saturday night movies, mooning and flirting on the front porch of the Doom’s home.

William F. Landes auto company.GIFThey married two days before Christmas in 1940, and soon after Jessie found a job at Wayne Manufacturing for better pay. He started saving money. He was ambitious, there was a lot he wanted out of life, and he knew that would take money.

About that time he became acquainted with Bill Landes, owner of the William F. Landes Auto Company in Waynesboro, which sold and serviced Dodge cars and Graham trucks.

Landes gave him a job as mechanic in his garage. Jessie was in heaven, because nothing could be finer than to have two loves that consume your days and nights. He had his beautiful wife, and a job doing what he loved.

There was nothing he couldn’t do under the hood or chassis of a car. He didn’t need any training. He had a mechanical mind, and had spent a fair share of time working with mechanical tools on the farm, so for Jessie, it was just a matter of logic. He just followed a problem until he found its source. Landes was happy with his work, happy that he had such a responsible employee.Cadillac LaSalle roadster 1927

Jessie worked hard and saved even more money, till he had enough to buy a fine, shiny black two-seat Cadillac LaSalle Roadster with a rumble seat in back from Landes’ son, Bill Jr.

He was coming up in the world, and he and Emily cherished their freedom in that car, touring the twisting back roads of Augusta County, just a young couple in love and setting out on a new life together.Difficult turns for automobiles cropped

Jessie knew he wanted his life’s work to be with cars. But he also knew he did not want to work for someone else.

He talked with his friend Bill Landes about his hopes for the future, and Bill agreed to back Jesse in getting his own gas station/garage.

The Esso map.GIFEsso station was on East Main Street in Waynesboro, a busy thoroughfare that got plenty of traffic, which meant plenty of business.

Eventually the young family, for Patsy was born by then, bought a house just a few steps from the station, and Jessie liked that he could frequently come home for lunch or a quick rest.

Business at the station took off. Everyone liked Jesse Merica, looked forward to his friendly greetings and honest service.

Jesse might have spent a lot of time at odds with his father, but he learned the lessons well that his parents taught him. Always look a man in the eye. Be deferential to the ladies. Be honest and fair in all that you do, even when life doesn’t treat you fairly, and you’ll be able to hold your head high.

And Jessie Thomas Merica did do that, hold his head high. By all accounts he was a man larger than life, a handsome man who could command a room with his presence, and whose cockeyed smile and booming laughter could put a person at ease. Everyone in the small town of Waynesboro knew him, respected him, knew they could trust him.

People of all races knew they could count on both his generosity and fairness, and often turned to Jessie when they needed help. They knew that if they needed a quick loan, they could take their shotgun or watch or fishing pole to Jessie’s back door, and Jessie would give them whatever few dollars were necessary until they came to pay him back and retrieve their belongings. Many a Saturday night dinner was interrupted this way.

As his business grew, Jessie could afford to enjoy more time off. Jesse Merica under carHe built a race car, and enjoyed racing the dirt tracks at Keezletown, Natural Bridge, and Winchester. The family made pilgrimages to Daytona for the stock car races; he went nearly every year with Emily and the kids.

And nearly every Sunday they went home to visit Jessie’s mother in Shenandoah. Jessie always loved driving those 35 miles down Highway 340, turning right on Naked Creek Rd. at Verbena, then left on Fleeburg Rd, passing the familiar old Oak Creek Church, slowing for the curve at Aunt Minnie’s where he could now see the locust tree standing tall in the distance of his parent’s yard, then passing Uncle Hunter’s just before pulling up in front of his parents home.

Maybe he could have parked in the driveway. But he always parked on the road. It was a narrow road, and there was always the chance that someone might hit his car. But he never forgot that his father wouldn’t let him park his new car in the driveway, way back then when he was 17 and proudly came home with his first car, and so he wasn’t about to let his father forget it. He would park every car he ever had, most of them Cadillacs, on the road, both before and after it was paved. It’s that stubborn Merica gene, shared by both father and son, and not even love or forgiveness are as strong.

Jesse Merica and Tommy at beach croppedJessie Thomas Merica died suddenly on October 10, 1972, while doing what he loved most, driving his Cadillac. Waynesboro had seldom seen so many turn out for a funeral. The funeral hall filled and people spilled out over the lawn, coming to pay their respects to the man who for nearly 30 years greeted his customers by name, inquired after their children, quietly helped them make ends meet when they couldn’t themselves, and more than anything, made himself a strong thread in the fabric of the community.

 

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At the Wheel: The Life of Jessie Merica, Part 1

Jessie MericaI don’t know if Jessie Thomas Merica was a horse-obsessed boy, but even if he was, I bet he soon forgot ole’ Pet the family equine once the automobile came into his life.

Jessie was born in 1916, which was exactly the right time for a boy who would have a life-long love affair with cars. His was one of the first generations to grow up with the automobile, mostly those 4-cylinder 20-horsepower open-top Model T jobs, a simple, economical car invented by Henry Ford that would dominate America’s roads for 20 years. Until Ford’s modern marvel the average car sold for about $4,000, twice the average American’s income. Ford introduced the assembly line into manufacturing, bringing the Model T’s price in at $825.

Car ownership suddenly surged. The roads filled with Ford’s black Tin Lizzies, a tin can of a car in a world that before then had only known expensive, custom-made, hand-built autos. The Tin Lizzie was reliable, though, and even stubborn old farmers saved for them.

The first car in Shenandoah, where Jesse’s family lived, was owned by Dr. B. C. Shuler, and it turned heads everywhere he went. One day Jessie’s mother, Florence Merica, walked with a friend from their home in the Fleeburg district into town. They met Dr. Schuler there going about his business, and the three got to talking. When the women admired his car, he told them to hop in and he’d give them a ride home.

That ride gave Florence a notion that the Mericas needed a car too, and she made up her mind right then that her family would have one.

By 1929 over half of all American families owned a car. And the Merica family wasn’t about to be on the zero side of that equation. They weren’t the first in Fleeburg to have a car. But they weren’t the last. Tom Merica, Jessie’s father, brought home a Model T Ford with canvas top, eisenglass windows, and a bud vase, which was strictly an aftermarket addition for those who wanted a little elegance with their basic black car.

That Model T was the beginning of a love affair that lasted Jessie’s whole life. No, not just a love affair. It was also a job, a business, a recreation, even a grudge.

He was already used to being the family chauffeur even before the Merica family joined the new mobile era. When his mother wanted to visit her two sisters or mother up at #2 Furnace or Jollett Hollow she often asked Jessie to drive the wagon those six or so miles. She could do it herself, but liked when he came along.

Model T FordBut his best days were after he was allowed to chauffeur the car, especially when his mother asked him to drive her to her third sister, Jessie’s Aunt Emmie.

From their home in Fleeburg, a district of Shenandoah, Emmie’s home in Newport News was a good 175 miles or more. Instead of the three hours it would take today, it was a good half-day trip, four or more blissful hours of steering along curving, straight, rising, dipping, bumpy, and occasionally smooth roads from nearly one edge of the state to the other, ending at the Atlantic Ocean.

Jessie and his mother sat up front and talked together a good part of the way while Jessie’s little sisters, Ruthy and Annie, rode in the back seat. On hot summer days with the top down the the girls sat up and let the wind whip their hair. When they’d had enough they crawled off the seats and rode crouched on the floor till they were ready to climb back up and start the cycle again.

Buckroe Beach amusement park.GIFOn one of those trips to Newport News Jessie took Ruthy and his mother, Florence, to the Buckroe Beach amusement park. Florence rode the ferris wheel with a grin as wide as her face, then said once was enough, and she was glad she wouldn’t have to do that again.

Jessie took Ruthy off to ride the roller coaster and carousel, and play carnival games. But when he spotted a pretty girl, it was all over for Ruthy.

He stood up straight, pulled his shoulders back, ambled over and asked the object of his interest if she would go on the ferris wheel with him. While they were twirling in the sky Jessie leaned over and kissed her on the lips. Ruthy watched from the carriage behind in awe and embarrassment.

Buckroe Beach ticketJessie and his new girl played more carnival games while Ruthy tagged along behind. He won a prize and gave it to the current love interest, then they disappeared into a photo booth and had their picture taken. Ruthy had her picture taken too. Jessie gave the photos to Ruthy on the way home and asked her to put them someplace safe.

Once home she slid his under the cloth mantle on the piano. There it stayed until several years later when Jessie brought home the love of his life, a pretty young lady named Emily Doom, and announced that she would be his wife.

Ruth – for she was a young lady now too and no longer went by Ruthy – took out the photo and showed it to Emily, thinking Emily should know that Jessie once kissed another girl. Emily just smiled. She knew Jessie had never loved another.

But before Jesse would meet and marry Emily, he had some more growing up to do. He needed to learn a trade. But more than anything he needed a car.

Winter roadOne dank winter day Jesse took Ruthy along in the family car to pick up Uncle Nash, the aged black man who lived in a dark home by the railroad tracks in Shenandoah.

Uncle Nash was still eating his breakfast, a big plate of ham and eggs and pancakes that powerfully scented the small room.

Jessie looked around, then told Uncle Ned, “Well, I think I’ll just take today off. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He turned, Ruthy followed. They stopped to visit their oldest sister, Ola Grimsley, before leaving Shenandoah for home. It was too cold to work that day.

By the time Jessie was 15 his older brother Charles had taken control of the family car, and because Jessie desperately needed to drive, that meant he had to buy his own. So he worked hard, saved his money, told no one, and one day pulled into the driveway in his own car, a Model T, like his father’s.1910 Model T Ford

His reception was not what he expected, though. Instead of being heralded as the bright, industrious hero he thought himself to be, his father told him in no uncertain terms that he was not to have his own car, and to “get that thing out of here.” He said Jessie was still too young, too irresponsible.

Tom Merica, Jessie’s father, was as big, strapping, and handsome as Jessie. And he was as stubborn as Jessie. Thus an argument ensued. Jessie lost, and here is when Jessie decided he was man enough to leave home.

He was already responsible for hiring and managing the field hands on their farm, like Uncle Nash. He chose them, decided where and when they would work, showed them how it was done, paid them, picked them up and took them home when need be.

Tom and Jessie could not come to terms on the car. “Get rid of the car or leave,” Tom said.Jesse Merica c.1950 I don’t know if Jessie’s father already understood the outcome of that ultimatum. Maybe anger clouded his mind. Maybe he thought Jessie would back down. But no, that was not to happen.

Part 2 of At the Wheel: The Life of Jessie Merica will be published next Monday. To ensure you don’t miss it, enter your email address in the box at the top right of this page, and it will be mailed to you. Or, follow via WordPress. 

Posted in 20th Century, Merica, Old Photos, Shenandoah | Tagged , | 4 Comments

I Never Loved Her More

Snow came the night we reached  Shenandoah in late December, 1968, after driving night and day from Southern California to make it while there was still time.

Two birds and holly.GIFIt lay shining on the fields in the light of a full moon, glistening on the trees, then falling softly before the headlights, and whipped into small furies by the air displaced as we passed.

Uncle Charles and Aunt Ola were as excited as children that the first good snow came to greet us. Good luck, they said. It was late, nearly midnight when we arrived. My little sister Ellen was asleep in the back seat, sprawled out like a cat, limbs akimbo and face hidden in a bramble of long hair.

My father picked her up. Half awake, she put her arms around him and he carried her up the steps and across the wood slat porch. At the front door Uncle Charles reached out and took her into his own arms. She woke and hugged him tight while he cried, burying his face in her hair.

Ma lay in a hospital bed that dominated the living room from the middle, like a hub, furniture pushed back to the walls and facing the bed as though on spokes. Her tiny body was shrouded by a thin white sheet and protected, in case she rolled over, by high rails on the bed’s sides. She hadn’t rolled over. She hadn’t even moved a finger.

Uncle Charles, my mother’s brother, had the ancient wood stove stoked up and pouring out heat so stifling that I could hardly breathe. Aunt Ola, mother’s sister, was general of the operation. She fussed over us, took our coats and pointed us to seats, all in the name of love, both of us and of order.

My mother had stood back until then, letting her siblings huddle around us first to erase those years of absence. That is her nature, to quietly observe and to talk only when there is something worth saying. Now she came to us, arms outstretched and smile wide. Winter birds.GIFShe had flown back several months before to be with her mother, the two of them caring for each other, the elderly mother and the daughter who had been recently ill. They had those few wonderful months together, taking walks as far as Naked Creek, sharing quiet meals, working side-by-side in the garden, before Ma had her stroke.

I don’t know if she knew we were there or not. She had the stroke a week before our arrival, had held out till then, but just couldn’t hold it off those final few days until we arrived. The stroke took her from us and put her in a coma. I gazed at her smooth face, pale and lineless, her white hair swept back and tucked behind her head.

She had worn a sun bonnet all her life, one of those pioneer woman types with full gathered cap, massive quilted brim, and short “skirt” in the back, all held on by a wide bow tied under the chin. That and a sun parasol kept her skin like a girl’s her whole life. She was so still now that I could not detect even her breathing. I leaned and kissed her cheek. Uncle Charles put his hand on my arm; I turned and his thin arms encircled me next. We were not yet done with the greetings.Winter birds2.GIF

That night I slept above the living room, right about where I imagined my mother’s childhood bed sat. The heat up there was just as unbearable as below, and I opened the window, pulling my light bed as close as I could to the cool air outside. Ellen and I watched a gentle snow fall, the fields sparkling in the moonlight. I breathed in the crisp night, so unlike the salt and dust I could taste in the air at home, near the Pacific Ocean in Southern California.

Sometime during the night lightning struck a nearby tree with a deafening roar. I bolted awake, my hair standing on end, the room shimmering with electricity. Ellen and I looked at each other with wide eyes. “Wow!,” we both said, California style, and crept to the window for some lightening gazing. There’s nothing like that in Southern California, and it was as good as a ride at Disneyland.

The next day we explored the farm, my father, sister and I. We sifted through the old barn, gathering up the scythe and sickle, hay fork and cross-saw; examined the old worn wood, found a large draft horse harness with fat leather collar. In the house we marveled at the wood stove my grandmother still cooked on in 1968, and the flat iron she still heated on the stove to iron clothes. Bird cottage winter.GIFNot to mention the oft-used water pump that sat just outside the kitchen door, the outhouse just beyond the garden, the bedpans and washing basins that were still a part of daily life there.

My grandmother was never lured by the modern, never longed for the newest model washing machine or toaster. The only time I ever heard she wanted anything at all was after the first ride she took in an automobile. It belonged to Shenandoah’s physician, Dr. Shuler, who offered her a ride home from town one day. She came into the house grinning widely and said, “I’m going to get us one of those.”

Uncle Charles and Aunt Tessie, his wife, lived next door. Tessie loaned me magazines to read that winter, but my mother made me take them back when she saw that they were Hollywood gossip rags, Confidential, Screenland, Uncensored. I had never seen anything like them, much racier than the fan magazines you see today, full of lust and murder. Charles and Tessie lived in one of those upright old Virginia country houses whose only luxury was electricity, but theirs was furnished with the most salacious reading material of the day. The irony was not lost on me.Swifts.GIF

We settled into my grandmother’s house, my mother cooking on the wood stove, my father tidying up the farm, reading his newspapers and mumbling about the Vietnam War. He was a proud American and patriotic World War II vet, but was wholly outraged by this war. “Sending those boys to their deaths, and for what?”

Every day there were visitors, either neighbors bringing homey casseroles or family members coming to visit us and pay their respects to Ma. I loved every minute of it, wished we had kindly neighbors in California, wished we had more family there.

Ma and Pop, my grandparents, Florence and Tom Merica, were worried when their fourth daughter announced she was moving with her husband and baby to California. People don’t leave Shenandoah, or not many do. Ma was especially worried. She and Ruth, my mother, had a special relationship. More than her other daughters, Ruth loved spending time with her mother, helping her in the kitchen or garden, going along when Ma went “a’visitin’.” Ma knew it would be many years before she saw her daughter again, and I know she grieved. Sure, we visited now and then. But not enough.Bird in snow.GIF

Now here we were and Ma didn’t even know. Or if she did, she could not communicate it. Occasionally I crept near and sat by her side, holding her hand. I was too self-conscious to talk to her, as Uncle Charles did, and did not feel intimate enough to stroke her hair and cheek, as my mother did.

I simply sat, awkwardly, until a closeness overcame me, a love for my grandmother who I barely knew, a longing for her to wake and turn to me with arms open to envelop me, making up for all those years away from her. After sitting with these feelings for a while, I could get up again and move on.

Ma’s brother, my Great Uncle Charlie, had a farm up at Number Two Furnace, just up the rise from Jollett Hollow. We drove over to his place one snowy afternoon to cut a nice Christmas tree, and were all delighted when he pulled out a sleigh and harnessed the big old work horse to it. A real sleigh, just like Santa had, even with bells around the horse collar. So there we went, dashing through the snow in our one-horse open sleigh, into the woods to find the perfect tree. Not Douglas fir, like we always got at home, but cedar, the traditional Christmas tree of Virginia.

The next few days were busy, what with Christmas around the corner. We shopped in Harrisonburg, and I spent a few days with my uncle Jesse’s family in Waynesboro. My Aunt Emily and I sat at her kitchen table and talked. I told her about the piglets at Great Uncle Charlie’s farm and she told me she would love to Bird with apples.GIFhave a lap pig, “They’re so cute. And smart.”

We went shopping and she gave me $5 to buy anything I wanted. I chose a yellow dress for Ellen. One afternoon, sitting in the kitchen, their son Tom came in with a friend. He looked to be a few years older than my 16. After introductions Tom nodded silently to me, then he and his friend disappeared into the back. “Well!,” I thought, “I came a long way to be here, I deserve better than that!” Years later we would be close friends.

When I returned my grandmother was yet there, quiet and still, breathing steadily, her face peaceful. My mother, Uncle Charles, and Aunt Ola took turns sitting by her side so Ma was never alone, though none knew if she was aware of the doting children who sat vigil. My mother took the evenings, pulling in a small bed to sleep beside her. That evening we gathered after dinner in the living room. Uncle Charles walked home, which was next door, just across the field. He stoked the fire again before leaving, as always.

Ola was gone, it was just the five of us. I pushed my chair near the thin-paned window to draw some of its chill, trying to offset the blasting heat. My father was on the couch reading a newspaper, my little sister on the floor playing. I looked up from my book and saw my mother standing over Ma’s bed, stroking her hair with tenderness.

Birds in holly.GIFShe spent her adult life in California, arriving with my father and their first baby, then a toddler, just after the end of World War II. We did not travel back to see her Shenandoah family as often as we would have liked. There were four children to raise, and cross-country travel was far more difficult then. My grandmother never learned to read or write, so intimate letters between the two were impossible. As for the phone, I don’t know why they did not talk more often, except that both tended to quietness.

And now my mother was like an angel at my grandmother’s bedside, her face as serene as Ma’s, radiating something so essential and chaste that it felt like an essence distilled to its truest form, that bond between child and mother, or spirit and body. Her hand lightly caressed Ma’s brow, slowly stroking her fine white hair back and to the side. It was the most simple expression of pure love I had ever seen, and I could not take my eyes from her. The room was quiet, only the occasional snap of sparks in the fire or rustle of paper. Robin in dogwood.GIFMa was as small as a girl, her form beneath the sheet barely more than a bas relief in cloth against the bed.

Mother brushed back a strand of Ma’s hair, tucking it behind her ear. She touched her brow, ran the back of her hand across her cheek. Then, her soft words, “She’s gone.” At that moment I had never loved my mother more.

Posted in 20th Century, Shenandoah | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Surprise! An Award.

I was surprised to check my mail this morning and discover I’d won a One Lovely Blog award. one-lovely-blog-award_thumbAs a winner, I have obligations, and here they are:

  1. Add the logo to my blog.
  2. Link to the person from whom you received this award
  3. Share seven things about myself
  4. Nominate blogs I admire for the next “One Lovely Blog” award
  5. Leave a message on their blogs, letting them know they are “One Lovely Blog”!

So, in no particular order, here are blogs I admire:

Here are seven things about myself:

  1. My toes are very short
  2. I often have garden dirt under my fingernails
  3. My primary source of exercise is running up and down stairs
  4. I haven’t read most of the books I own; one day I will, not sure when
  5. I have a dog named Pixie; she is the (current) love of my life, but don’t tell my husband
  6. I’ve been to a lot of places
  7. I’m in kind of a nesting phase right now

Thanks to Cathy Meder-Dempsey of Opening Doors in Brick Walls for the award!

Posted in Strange Facts | Tagged | 5 Comments