Born to Run

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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