An application of the teachings of heraclitus
The Centennial Celebration of the commencement of WWI has brought out more than the usual decrying of the Great War and all its benefits, merely because a handful of people died in an untimely manner, the culture of Europe was mildly affected, and the seeds were sown for another cleansing in the near future. Here at Chez Duke, on the other hand, we exult in the little snot who pulled off the assassination of whatshisname, not because we have an affinity with turn-of-the-century anarchism, nor because we have a bœuf bourguignon with the Kaiser’s domestic policies, sacre bleu! No, we are popping the corks of many champagne bottles because the scouring of Europe sucked my grandfather from his idyllic childhood into a world of pain.
He was married, so that means he was born somewhere in the early 1890s, and off he went, to participate in the chain of familial military service unbroken since the beginning of time, even resuming in the War Against That Protestant Usurper, a.k.a. the American Revolutionary War, under the flag of the French King (Jacobin, Jacobite, Jacobik: tomato, tomahto; let’s hear it for Bonapartite hegemony!), where he was shot in the back by the Bosch in a terribly unfair ambush and left for dead beneath a pile of corpses. After some time (a day? two days?) he was found, alive, indeed, but gravely wounded in his man parts. He would live, but he would never, but never, beget a child, so the doctors told him. His wife heard of it and took the liberty of remarrying.
He sat down to a delicious homecoming meal with his wife, who received him with joy and thanksgiving, preparing a menu complete from soup to nuts. She developed a neat culinary shortcut, making the soup to be also the nuts, including in it a healthy dose of arsenic, which he somehow detected before he ingested a lethal dose, and he began to yell. The yelling attracted the more recent husband, who appeared in the dining room in a rather animated state, and, weakened by a morphine addiction, my grandfather departed hastily.
My great-grandmother, against her husband’s wishes, counseled her son to pursue a career as a Methodist Preacher, bundling him off to Southern Methodist University, where he found atheism, which caused him to be bundled back east, but only so far as Memphis, where he became a trolley-car driver. By some cruel twist of fate, he accidentally ran over a negro child’s head, killing him instantly before my grandfather’s eyes. He again found himself departing with haste, disappearing from the knowledge of all who knew him and loved him. Was he dead?
No, he was married. In Tupelo, Mississippi, near the birthplace of Elvis Presley (my grandmother says she knew him when he was a wee lad), Uncle Joe, as my grandfather’s moniker came to be, found an Indian woman–Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole, or Creek; we don’t know–to be his wife. We do know that the Great Depression forced him out of hiding in Mississippi back to the bustling little railroad town of Cullman, Alabama, back home to his mama, hauling himself upon the veranda with his dark-skinned wife and his five children. “You have more black brothers and sisters than you do white,” he’d say when his mixed-race white children would utter unspeakable racist epithets under his shanty roof (“The Old Homeplace,” they called it. Thankfully, it burned to the ground during the night a few days after he died. My grandmother was outside with the twelfth child in her arms before the alarm was raised).
It is said that when his mother, who carried all the names of all the women in her family stretching back to the Mayflower, saw her beloved Messiah-son with that Indian woman and those half-breed children, all thirteen names screamed at once. She fainted. Son-no-longer-Messiah was dismissed, sent away to fend for himself. He did so, fathering seven more legitimate children by the railroad tracks, the ninth of whom was my father, born in 1941, when my grandfather was fifty years old.
In those intervening years, Uncle Joe had thought it wise to begin treating the morphine addiction he had acquired in France in the Army hospital. Self-medication was all he could afford in those heady days of Depression, so he developed an appreciation for something called Wildcat Whiskey. I don’t know if that was a brand-name moonshine or just a northern Alabama variety of distilled corn mash, but it burned hot, chasing away every Baptist preacher who came to condemn him for his wicked ways. The Lutheran preacher, on the other hand, found that Wildcat Whiskey reminded him of the wild winters of his childhood in Wisconsin, so he had the currency to talk Uncle Joe into allowing him to proselytize the Indian woman and the younger five children of the brood. Indeed, Dad was baptized a Lutheran–a Lutheran!–in Alabama, 1946. Are you doing the math? Lutherans and Catholics were on the same low rung in that heavily stratified society, but still one rung up above the Jews, who were just one rung off the ground, and above–you know. Ugh. A half-breed Lutheran in north central Alabama.
Wildcat Whiskey, such as it is, burns in all directions, and Uncle Joe meted out all his wrath on everyone around him, beginning with his family. To escape this horrible, sick, existence, my dad (may he rest in peace) married a pretty little German girl who was visiting her Aunt who had married a G.I. from Cullman, Alabama during the second, and lesser, world war. He rode her wings out of that life, eventually begetting me in 1973. My mother’s story is far more complex and layered than my dad’s (hint: her parents were true Aryans, even after the very end); I don’t understand it nearly as well yet.
In the meantime, I raise another glass of champagne to you, you millions who perished in the trenches, to the institutions which were utterly shattered, to World War One, without which I would not exist, and that is unthinkable.