Wednesday, October 03, 2007
I've been thinking a lot lately about my family history. The picture above is my grandfather. He joined the US air force when he was 17. He lied about his age to get in: he and his brother had been in and out of boys' homes in Chicago and life wasn't so great. The armed forces, then as now, promised a better life for young American boys with no money and no family resources to back them up.
This is my grandmother (centre). She met my grandfather in London when she was 19, at a dance. When he was transferred back to the US soon after, they kept in touch by writing. He asked her to marry him. Her mother was against the match: she didn't want her only daughter to leave her to live on the other side of the world. But she went anyway.
He flew her over to California, where she expected her fiancee to meet her at the airport. He got the times mixed up, and she waited some hours before anyone arrived. It was, of course, in the days before mobile phones, so all she could do was wait. In those hours, she couldn't help but panic that it was all a big mistake, that he wasn't going to come and that she would be stranded here alone in this strange country. But then, to her relief, someone arrived. It wasn't him though - he had sent his sister (or maybe it was his brother?) to collect her.
They got married in Las Vegas, with just a couple of his siblings present.
My mum was born on an air force base in Merced, California. She was the first of six children, most of them born in different states (Florida and Maine among them).
Mum remembers living in Maine the most. She likes to tell stories about sledding and snow and watching the leaves change colour. She has wanted to go back there for many years, and now, next year, she is.
They lived on an air force base in Florida during the Cuban missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs affair. It was the very hottest phase of the Cold War. There were drills, when they would have to practice gathering in the air raid shelter. Not that that would help much in the event of a nuclear war.
Mum's favourite stories are about the time she got her head stuck beneath a sled while she was going downhill and the time her dad dared her to beat up the neighbourhood bully (named 'Chuck') and said he'd pay her if she did. She tried, but got punched, and her dad refused to pay up because she got beat up instead of beating up.
When mum was 12, they moved to Australia. She said it was something to do with the Vietnam war. Her dad retired from the US air force.
They first lived in a house on the Esplanade in Henley Beach, then eventually settled in Paradise, in the north-eastern suburbs of Adelaide. That's the house I remember spending a lot of time in as a child.
On one of their first days in Australia, they were left with babysitters while my grandparents househunted. The kids were all horrified when they were given 'black stuff' on bread and the youngest, who was two years old, actually ATE IT! Of course, it was Vegemite.
Mum remembers being teased a lot at school about being American. 'My dad says YOUR DAD started the Vietnam war!'
She's still pretty sensitive about anti-American statements. Understandably, I guess.
(My dad, on the other hand, was once chased by shaven-headed soldiers on leave when they drove past him in his panel van, which was painted on the side with 'VIETNAM WANTS EWE!' and a picture of a sheep.)
My grandfather loved planes. He collected books on air force planes. I worked in a bookstore as a late teenager and he would bring little scraps on paper when he visited with the details of out-of-print or long-disappeared-from-the-shelves books he wanted me to track down. I would get points for finding books - the harder to find the book was, the more points I would get. I was trying to work my way up to 100 points. 'You're getting there' he would say occasionally. I think we both enjoyed the game.
My grandfather was the type of man who made you work for his respect. You didn't automatically get it just by being there. Which is not to say that he wasn't generally kind and polite. I guess it's more that if you worked for it, you got a little something extra. I liked that.
He was a smart man, with a wicked sense of humour. He liked to banter. My parents both say that he got mellower as he got older, so us grandkids got to see the best of him.
He died when I was three weeks away from giving birth to my son, who would have been his first great-grandchild. I really wish they could have met. I think they would have liked each other. F has two middle names, and one of them is my grandfather's first name.
After he died, I remember sitting around my grandparents' lounge room in Gawler, telling stories: my parents and siblings, myriad aunts, uncles and cousins. None of us knew much about him when he was young, not even my grandmother. He never liked to talk about it. His father was an alcoholic, his mother was sent to an asylum when he was young and he never saw her again. They lived in a rough part of Chicago. His brothers and sisters are all dead. Their children now live in California: LA.
My youngest cousin seemed to have more stories about his early days than anyone. Maybe that means that if he'd lived longer, he would have told us more.
She told us a story about him being stabbed in the head in a fight in a Moroccan bar. I wish I'd heard more about that one.
Someone else told the story about how he was captured by the Russians during the Berlin airlift of 1948. The Russians stopped to refuel (or something) and one of the prisoners managed to get away and make a phone call because his wife was very pregnant and he wanted to find out if she'd had the baby and if it was a boy or a girl. He told her where they were and they were all rescued as a result.
I think part of the reason I've been thinking about all this is that when I travelled to the US earlier this year, I felt a real connection to the place that surprised me. I kept wishing my mother was with me to experience it and to tell me more stories, to show me the places that are part of my history. I had really not expected that. I was as anti-American as the next typical lefty (though I have, paradoxically, always been interested in American politics and history, so ...)
Anyway, there are so many stories that are lost to me, and to all of us, forever. My grandfather is dead and so are all his brothers and sisters, and I will never know anything much about his parents or his childhood. It's kinda sad.
But on the other hand, he had a tough life and he made it through a lot of dicey situations I know about and probably many more that I don't. So, maybe I'm just lucky to have known him at all.
* By the way, in the unlikely event that anyone in my family ever reads this and notices any facts here that I'm wrong about (I didn't, after all, write them down when they were told to me), please email me and set me straight.