Thursday, December 22, 2016

Hate is strong and mocks the song

"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" has been my favorite Christmas song since my Vietnam-era college days. But this year the words seem particularly relevant.

The song about holiday refrains of "Peace on Earth" is based on a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow not long after his soldier son had been seriously wounded in the Civil War.  In one stanza Longfellow laments:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong, And mocks the song  
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

       Although our country isn't at war now, hate seems to have taken over like dandelions popping up after a spring rain. Trump's whole campaign style was about inciting the anger and hatred simmering in the heartland. He blamed Mexicans and Muslims and media and Hillary and China -- and anyone else who happened to tick him off. Some of his followers took up this poisonous refrain and used it to lash out physically. Even some normally responsible, Christian people have rallied round his claims of greatness while the rest of us are still shaking our heads saying, "Didn't you hear what he just said?"
       I guess what scares me the most is not the hatred I see among his followers but the tendency to respond with equal venom. I don't like the anger he triggers in me. But lately I'm seeing a hopeful response, people really putting into practice "Love Trumps Hate." Individuals stepping up to protect and advocate for those likely to be victimized.
       Longfellow must have seen similar signs of hope because the poem has an upbeat ending:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Broken angels

About 18 years ago I started hanging only angels on my Christmas tree. I bought out all the angel ornaments at the local department store the first year. Then every vacation I would pick up an angel or two wherever I went. I have angels of shell from the Bahamas, simple pottery ones from Mexico, beautiful blown glass from Europe and a shiny copper angel from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. When friends learned of my obsession, they added to the collection.

Of course over the years there have been accidents. Several have lost fragile wings and one wooden puppet angel lost a leg. I've tried repairs with glue and wire but to little avail. 

This year I put up a smaller tree and didn't need all the angels in the collection so it was easy to choose only the perfect ones and return the broken ones to the box. But this curly-haired cutie looked up at me with such a sweet, innocent face that I realized that was the wrong choice.

God is perfect. The rest of us are broken. Some of us are impatient, quick to anger. (Guilty). Some of us are greedy or selfish or irresponsible. Maybe we're forgetful. Or a little lazy. But God loves us anyway. He displays us proudly on the tree of life, warts and all.

So I hung the broken angels where everyone can see them. And the tree is better for their presence.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The magic of change

         Long before the American electoral system transformed a TV reality show host into commander-in-chief, there was a legend about an arrogant prince who had been turned into a beast and was saved by a beautiful woman who taught him how to love.
         If you need a refresher course in this tale older than time, catch the production of "Beauty and the Beast" opening Nov. 18 at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre.
         Just a day after the historic election, Civic welcomed some local media representatives, and a few appreciative children, into their costume shop. Staff and volunteers are working on ways to transform household servants into mere objects such as a teapot and a clock. Kathleen Johnson, a Chicago expert in foam sculpture, explained how she uses lightweight, pliable foam to turn a chorus of children into teacups. By using matching fabrics to cover the foam, the elegant coat of butler Cogsworth becomes the rigid case of a windup, pendulum timepiece. In this photo, the costume-in-the-works is modeled by actor Jason Morrison.
            The show is being directed by Civic's associate director, Allyson Paris. Alyssa Meeuwsen, a 19-year-old musical theater student at Western Michigan University, will portray the tough but loving Belle who courageously tames the Beast. Meeuwson, who joined us in the costume shop to sing one of the show's stirring songs, said she has always dreamed of playing Belle. "She was my go-to Princess." The beast will be portrayed by Matt Hartman.
             Tickets to the month-long holiday show are disappearing quickly. You can get yours at
              We know we can count on Civic's team of professional designers and energetic young performers to create unbelievable magic on stage.
               Now, if only the fairy tale can actually come true. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Get out the vote

I went door to door for the Hillary campaign yesterday and have never been more proud to be a Democrat.
       They didn't just send us out to knock on any ol' doors. They gave each of us a list of people who had supported Democrats in the past and armed us with information about polling place, hours of operation and voter ID requirements. When somebody joked that we should tell any Trump supporters that the election would be Wednesday, our trainer quickly set the record straight. We were representing the Democratic Party and we were not to say or do anything mean or negative to anyone.
      "When they go low, we go high, " she reminded us.
       As if that weren't enough to make me proud I went out and met so many wonderful voters. The first was an elderly, black, blind woman who welcomed me into her apartment praising God. There had been a snafu with her absentee ballot but she was confident a new ballot was in the mail and she would deliver it in person to the clerk's office on Monday.
      There was a father still wearing the uniform from his third-shift hospital job corralling several young kids in a darkened living room. Yet he paused to accept my literature, smiled and said he and his wife would make it to the polls on Tuesday, kids in tow.
       I met an elderly couple whose excited chatter was tinged with the  accent of their native Netherlands. "They aren't smart," the woman said of the Trump supporters. Another woman from Estonia had such an accent I could barely understand her as she begged me to call her friends and tell them to vote for Hillary.
     An Hispanic boy was working on his car. His mother was on my list but she was sleeping he said. He wasn't sure if she supported Hillary or not, but he said he would take her to the polls on Tuesday. And maybe he would vote for Hillary too.
      A middle-aged mother told me she would be supporting Hillary but didn't know about her daughter. When the beautiful young woman with long false eyelashes and high spiked heels came to the door she asked,  "Can I write in a vote for Bernie Sanders?"  I reminded her that Sanders supports Hillary and Hillary has incorporated many of his policies into her platform.
      After three hours of trying to encourage voters, I realized they are the ones who had encouraged me. We are stronger together. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Who's laughing now?

          Most of my life I have worked on the other side during elections. I don't mean the other party, I mean I covered elections as a member of the media. Now that I am retired I will be working the polls as an election judge.
           Way back in 1972, when Tricky Dick was re-elected, I worked for the Charleston News-Courier. My regular assignment was in the "Women's Department," walled off from the army green newsroom in a "Kotex-box blue" protected sanctuary where we could view the bustle of the regular reporters through large glass windows but wouldn't be offended by their off-color language. On election night, however,  every hand was needed so I was stationed at the messy city desk just to answer phones. I was so excited to be part of the "real" story.
           In the '80s I was the assistant city editor at the Joliet Herald-News which meant I was in charge of election coverage. We had a union staff but on election nights we overlooked all the rules. Everyone volunteered to work back-to-back shifts, 16 hours straight. "At least we got pizza," one of my reporters recalled recently.
            And we got stir-crazy working with all the names and numbers in all the little contests that never get covered on CNN. In fact I saved an old chart of some of these minor offices in my computer at the Herald-News for coding reference at the next election. Unfortunately, when the 1990 election came around, I had taken a job in Grand Rapids. In the confusion, that old chart that was still in the system ran in the paper by mistake.
            Now I have graduated to the real job: working the polls. I don't think I ever really understood what dedication it takes to run an election. First you have to recruit and train all those polling place workers. And when the big day comes they will show up at schools and churches and other polling places all over America, working from 6 a.m. to prepare for the 7 a.m. opening until 10 p.m. to deliver the last votes to the county clerk.
             We'll get a boxed lunch, I'm told. Not enough time to eat a messy pizza!

Monday, October 24, 2016

War is never civil

In the narrative genealogy I'm working on, I've just started researching how the Civil War might have affected my ancestors who all lived in Missouri at the time. I've been reading about the election of 1860 which ended up with 5 candidates. The winner, Abraham Lincoln, received less than 40 percent of the vote, concentrated in the densely populated northern states.

But in the backwoods counties of Missouri, where my ancestors lived, he was practically unknown. In one county, Lincoln received seven votes or less than 1 percent. Although slavery was legal in Missouri, very few of these poor farmers had slaves. Missouri's electoral votes actually went for Stephen Douglas, the Northern Democrat from Illinois, who believed in popular sovereignty, or allowing each state to decide whether it would allow slavery or not.

It was a very divisive election. I imagine my ancestors feeling much like we do today, wondering how friends and relatives can support a candidate whose ideas seem so abhorrent. Maybe they ignored the election. They probably had no idea that less than six months after the votes were cast -- only a month after this unknown Lincoln guy took office -- that this new president would be demanding that Missourians take up arms against each other and against the people in the states where they were born.

Makes you think.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Rally Round


I just realized tonight that I have been attending political rallies almost 50 years.
           Tonight it was my privilege to hear Bernie Sanders address a thunderous crowd in Grand Rapids. We had waited, standing in that hot and airless gym for more than an hour, and yet the enthusiasm when he eventually arrived was not dimmed. We applauded almost continually every point he made. It was invigorating just to be part of that diverse company: African American young men with dreadlocks, Muslim women with scarves, a lesbian couple, white-haired gentlemen in suits, mom with baby tied to chest... all ages, all races, all lifestyles, united and cheering together. "America's already great" proclaimed a baseball cap on a tall blonde young man. The slogan definitely rang true.
Me at 1976 rally for Ford
           My first rally was 1968 for anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy. I was a college student but the event I attended that year was a dress-up fundraiser. A single minister who was a friend of a friend had received an invitation for Mr. and Mrs. and invited me to use the Mrs. ticket. I was so excited to actually see a senator who was opposing that awful Vietnam war.
           Eight years later, 1976,  I was a reporter for the Aurora Beacon-News covering a rally for president Gerald Ford. His son Steven represented the President at an event in a hotel in St. Charles, Il. The newspaper's photographer took a picture of me that I kept all these years. Both of these events were more subdued than tonight's rally.
           Another eight years, 1984, and I was attending a rally for Walter Mondale at a union hall near Joliet, Il. I was assistant city editor for the Joliet Herald-News at the time, but I didn't attend in an official capacity. I went because Mondale's VP candidate ... Geraldine Ferraro... was the guest of honor. I was so excited that a woman was actually getting that close to becoming president. I wasn't the least subdued. I was ecstatic, yelling like a girl at a Beatles concert.
          Just four years later I went to a large outdoor rally for George H.W. Bush. I was dating a man who was a Republican although my interests often followed the Democratic platform. Each of us had 11-year-old sons. We took the boys to the event. My experience in newspapers and dealing with Secret Service helped me to guess where Bush would be in the crowd. I steered the boys in that direction and both were able to shake hands with the candidate. Meeting the vice president  was the whole goal of the day. I don't remember any speech at all.
          I remember one day when a political rally was held at Calder Plaza, just outside the Grand Rapids Press where I was working at the time. Several of us attended just to see what was going on. I'm not even sure what year or candidate.
         It's good to recall these events and realize how much things have changed, and how much they have stayed the same. Sometimes the mud slinging gets ugly but the actual process is exciting, invigorating, and very hopeful.

Sunday, September 25, 2016


          At church this morning a familiar statement attributed to John Wesley was projected onto the screen.
         “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
         Although some bloggers claim Wesley didn't say this, it is spouted often in the Methodist church and attributed to the founder. 
        When I read those words this morning  I couldn't help thinking about Hillary Clinton, growing up in a Methodist church, probably hearing that quote often, seeing it in church publications and displayed prominently. 
        I thought how that quote seems to describe the way she has lived her life, working for the underprivileged  before she was even out of college. I thought of all the good she has done already from helping families in Arkansas to helping create the Children's Health Insurance Program that covers so many children in this country to working for care for the survivors of 9/11 and working for women's rights around the world.
           Even in the face of lies and unwarranted criticism she just keeps on doing all the good she can. At all the times she can. For all the people she can. As long as ever she can. 


Monday, August 29, 2016

End of an EAR-a

Last night Steve and I went to one of our favorite venues -- Kresge Auditorium at Interlochen -- to hear blues artist Buddy Guy. Since Steve and I started dating in 1995 we have seen anywhere from two to six shows each summer at Kresge. I fear this will be the last.
       From the first note of the opening act -- Jonny Lang -- I knew the sound system was set painfully loud. With my fingers in my ears it was tolerable, but Steve was uncomfortable so I suggested we wait outside until after the intermission. Many others had made the same choice. It was just too loud to stay in the theater. Even outside the theater the music was loud. Only one song in the set was at a moderate level so you could actually enjoy the music.
       As we reentered the theater after intermission the ushers offered us ear plugs, which many of the audience members were taking. Funny, my definition of good music doesn't include ear plugs. But without them I wouldn't have been able to withstand 5 minutes of Buddy Guy. The whole place vibrated the way the windows do in the house when some teenager with too much bass on his stereo drives by. It was tiring and detracted from Guy's otherwise entertaining performance.
         If we had selected a rock concert, I might have expected to need ear plugs. But the blues are meant to be intimate, smooth and soulful. Not ear splitting. I went to bed at midnight and woke up four hours later with my ears throbbing. I had to put on an ice pack.
         We had been looking forward to this evening. We spent the afternoon playing Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang videos on You Tube. It was much more enjoyable than the performance we paid $100 to see. From now on, I will save my money. Buy a CD and donate the rest to charity.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Power outage

           The bathroom light flickered and went out. I would have thought a bulb burned out, but there are two bulbs in the fixture. Power must be out.
             I left the windowless bathroom for the brighter kitchen. The electric tea kettle had already heated the water before the power went out. I enjoyed a cup of tea and a bowl of cereal while I read my daily Bible reading.
             Then I headed into my office. I sat at my laptop and resumed the genealogy I had been working on the night before. I must have worked 10 or 15 minutes with the document on my screen before I wanted to know more. I clicked the keys to do an Internet search.
            "Server not found."
            What? I clicked again. What was going on? Then I glanced at my AT&T  receiver. None of the little green lights were on. I had completely forgotten that the power was out. The computer was going on battery; the light was coming in the window. I had gotten by perfectly fine without electricity for a little while but suddenly, I felt unable to do any of the things I had planned. I couldn't search the Internet or bake cookies or do the laundry. Why even my phone was almost out of juice and would be going dead soon. I was feeling panicky.
             I often think God is like electricity, unseen but undeniably powerful. Yet how often do I take him for granted and fail to plug in regularly, recharge my batteries? How often do I stumble through life with the lights out and never even realize it? Better make sure my spiritual batteries are fully charged for the storms ahead.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Mennonite mystery, ehh?

Julius Otterbein was born in Canada
For a mystery writer like myself, genealogy is the perfect hobby.  It's full of quandaries that are fun to solve.
         My most recent mystery involved the German ancestors of my friend Steve Otterbein. His ggggreat grandfather Germanus Otterbein immigrated to Baltimore in 1851 with his wife and two kids. By the 1860 census he had moved his family to Grand Rapids, MI., where Steve grew up a century later and many relatives remain today.
         The census revealed, however, that Germanus made a detour between Baltimore and Grand Rapids. Three of his six children on the 1860 census were born in Canada. He and his family must have lived there from 1852 to 1857. The plot thickened when I searched online and discovered mention of Germanus in the Mennonite archives in Waterloo, Ontario.  The Otterbeins have always been Roman Catholic. Why would they be in Mennonite archives?
          At the Otterbein reunion in Colorado this summer, I found the answer in a notebook about some Canadian Otterbein families. According to "The Trail of the Black Walnut," a 1957 book by George Elmore Reaman, many immigrants left Germany because they were trying to avoid military service. They arrived here with few possessions.  Mennonite settlements took them in and gave them work to do until they could get on their feet again. Sort of like the way modern churches provided assistance to Vietnamese and Sudanese refugees, and undoubtedly will help Syrian refugees.
           It's humbling to realize we all need a helping hand now and then, and gratifying to know aid was handled in such an organized manner more than a century ago. But it's going to confuse some Syrian genealogists in the future.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Dusty dust


Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
        That Bible verse seemed particularly appropriate recently as I dragged my mother and brother all over Missouri trying to track down the graves of ancestors we had never met. I even recruited a long ago family friend, Paul Heiholt, who was a neighbor of my Grandmother many years ago.  Now Paul is the manager of a huge ranch that has encompassed the land where the graves of my grandmother's grandparents are located.
        With Paul's help, and his all-wheel drive truck,  we rumbled across the hayfields, dry creek bed and Missouri hills to the little square patch where C.P. Tharp, two of his wives, four of their daughters and a couple grandkids were buried between 1848 and 1897. Recent rainstorms had knocked down branches from a tree in the small graveyard. Paul had to haul out branches and set up a couple broken stones so we could see them, but many of the other stones were buried or too broken to stand up.
       Paul said he plans to be cremated when he dies. "In 20 years nobody cares about the graves anyway."
        Except genealogy nuts like me. Earlier, my brother and I had driven way back into the Mark Twain National Forest looking for Mill Creek Cemetery where John Wesley Merrell, my great-great-great grandfather, was buried along with many other Merrell relatives. I braved a "beware of dog" sign to knock on the door of a purple house to get permission to drive through a fenced cow pasture to complete our quest. We discovered that John's tombstone had survived beautifully but most the other graves we sought that week had not.
        High on a hill near Bismark, Mo., we looked for the Tullock ancestors who had moved to Missouri long before it became a state in 1821. Weeds had swallowed up most of the stones, and those we found were unreadable. We discovered another small Tullock cemetery in a grove of trees in the front yard of a fancy subdivision. The homeowner's dogs sniffed and barked as we felt the stones trying to read the letters etched away by time.
        Dust to dust applies to more than our bones. The granite markers wash away too. Even the stone erected 50 years ago for my mother's mother had been attacked by lichen since we last visited five years ago. We scraped it away as best we could and left the flowers we had brought. A little vanity against the ravages of time.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Go Grandma!

        Today, June 16,would have been my Grandmother's 114th birthday.  I suspect this photo I found of her in braids was probably taken a century ago when she was a young teen.
        She was one of a dozen kids born on a farm in southern Missouri. The biggest event when she was growing up was the annual reunion of ex-Confederate soldiers on nearby Barnitz Lake.
          Although she and grandpa met in St. Louis and lived in the city, they kept a weekend cabin in the country about a mile down the dirt road from the large white farm house where Grandma was born. We kids always considered her a hero of sorts and love to tell stories about her fighting off a snapping turtle at the swimming hole.
          Since she lived in the city and used public transit or walked to the store and church, she didn't learn to drive until she and grandpa retired to the farm. It was a good thing she learned to drive. Grandpa died a few years later and she was alone at age 68.
         But she was tough. I remember once when she was in her 70s she got her hand caught in the wringer washer and pulled the skin off her thumb. She wrapped it in a dishtowel, finished making a pie and delivered it to the church before heading to the doctor.
              When she was in her 80s her farmhouse was struck by lightning and caught on fire twice.  The first time she put out the fire with the garden hose. The second time the fire was too far along when it woke her. The electricity was off and the pump didn't work. She escaped in her nightgown and watched her home burn to the ground. She waded through a swollen creek and walked barefoot a mile down a dirt road to her brother's house.
             Grandma died almost 22 years ago, but I know she's watching us even now. Happy Birthday Maxine Tharp Merrell!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Take a bow

Watching tonight's Tony Awards I fell in love with theater all over again.
             Even in my living room I couldn't help but applaud as if these great Broadway performers could hear me.   I love the voices, the dancing, the raging emotions, the innovative stories and flashy costumes.
              But more than anything else I love the diversity. The stage looks like our country. Young, old, black, white, Latino, Asian, even deaf. As the host James Corden said, the Tonys are the Oscars with diversity, and it's true. American Theatre is the best and brightest our country has to offer from the innovative rap of "Hamilton" to the sign language of "Spring Awakening".
              And the show's response to the horrifying news of the day...a mass shooting in Orlando..was sensitive and heartfelt, from the lapel ribbons everyone wore to setting aside the prop muskets normally used in "Hamilton," to Lin-Manuel Miranda's sonnet about the tragedy.
             The Tonys broadcast topped a weekend in which I reviewed two shows and spent several hours Saturday working with my fellow Encore Michigan reviewers to come up with the nominees for this year's Wilde Awards -- Michigan's version of the Tonys. I am delighted to have this small role in local theater and be a part of this ingenious industry.
             We all know our hateful, violent world must change. And I believe American theater has the love, creativity and innovation to lead the way.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Too many cooks

It's always fun to stumble upon an ancestor whose story makes you laugh out loud.
       Andrew Foutz was a pacifist Dutchman who married my gggreat aunt Rachel Merrell about 1771 in Rowan County, North Carolina. Now that was the same year that one of my gggreat uncles Benjamin Merrell was hung for treason for defying the British governor of North Carolina. Benjamin was considered a hero to a lot of the colonists, and the Merrells were rabid Sons of Liberty.
      Although most of the Foutz family refused to support the Revolution, poor Andy must have felt pressure from the Merrells to join. But he tried to do a task that didn't offend his pacifist leanings. He was General Washington's cook.
       According to Rise to Rebellion by Jeff Shaara, that didn't work exactly as planned.

I have two cooks ... one of them, Mr. Foutz ... fancies himself quite the expert in worldly cuisine,” General Washington is quoted as telling Benjamin Franklin. “If we fed this army in the same manner Mr. Foutz has attempted to feed me, there would be mass desertion. He actually set out an elaborate dinner whose main attraction was bugs. Covered in some kind of sauce, mind you, but bugs nonetheless. I made the decision at that moment that Mr. Foutz would better serve this army by shouldering a musket."


Monday, May 30, 2016

Where have all the flowers gone?

Irvin Walker died of illness a few months after he "joined"
      Since Memorial Day originally started out as Decoration Day to remember those who died in the Civil War, I thought maybe I should mention some of my ancestors who fought in that war.
      Most of my relatives who served in the Union Army survived. My mother's grandfather,Granville Coleman, was born in Virginia but his family moved to Missouri when he was a child. He joined the Missouri Cavalry when he was 16 and fought at the Battle of Pilot Knob, the opening engagement of Gen. Sterling Price's raid on Missouri in 1864. Granville fell off his horse and was dragged along the ground. He was hospitalized for much of the remainder of the war.
     Granville's father-in-law, William Nicholas Rogers, was a lead miner from England. He served in the Missouri Infantry. They were fighting in Louisiana in  February, 1863, when Nick developed such severe lung disease that he was transported by ambulance boat up the Mississippi to St. Louis. Although Nick and Granville both received small pensions for their ailments, they lived well into the 20th Century.
      Robert B. Walker, my father's great-grandfather, went to Springfield, Ill., in February, 1864, to join the Illinois Infantry, although he was most likely rounded up in Missouri by Union soldiers and forced to join.  He survived the war but died in 1877, the same year his daughter, Dad's grandmother, was born. She was orphaned five years later when her mother died as well.
        Robert's brother, Irvin B.Walker, was 36 and planning to sit this one out when he was "recruited" in  the fall of 1864 to serve in the 48th Missouri Infantry guarding the railroad from Rolla to St. Louis. He became sick at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis and died in January, 1865, about three months after he joined. He was one of 120 in the regiment to die of illness that winter.
       Even more of the Confederate cousins died. The Coleman relatives who stayed behind in Virginia joined the Confederacy. John was killed at Richmond in 1862. Brothers Joseph and Thomas were wounded at Gettysburg and became prisoners of war.
        Andrew Tullock, one of my mother's gggreat uncles, lost his legs in the war, came back and lived with his brother but died a few years later. Another uncle Andrew J. Tullock died as a Confederate soldier at the Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas in 1862. His brother Samuel was killed in battle a year later.
       Oh the futility of it all! I can't help thinking about that '60s folk song, "Where have all the Flowers Gone?"  If you are out decorating graves today, sing  a verse for me.

"...when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?"

Monday, May 23, 2016

Tale of two cousins

Kit Carson
Last week I told you about my gggreat uncle James Jamison who was considered an outlaw during the Civil War but became one of the most famous lawmen in Texas. This week I'll tell you about his cousin who was also praised and scorned. Perhaps you've heard of him: Kit Carson.
         Actually Jim and Kit were third cousins. They shared the same great-great grandfather: Moses Carson. And since Jim's sister, Anna, was my grandmother's grandmother, I suppose I'm a distant cousin of Kit Carson too.
         But fame, I've come to understand, is something you want to touch with a long pole.
         Carson was born in Kentucky but moved to Missouri when he was just a baby. His parents settled near Boone's Lick in the middle of the state and were friends with the sons of Daniel Boone. Kit's father died when he was 8 and Kit was apprenticed to a saddle-maker in nearby Franklin.
          Now Franklin is a town where less than a hundred people live today, but in 1821 when Missouri became a state, Franklin was one of the most popular cities. That's where the Santa Fe trail began. People stopped by the saddle shop on their way West. It wasn't long before 16-year-old Kit joined a wagon train full of trappers.
          He supposedly killed his first Indian when he was 19 and became known for his ability to hunt and kill Indians who had attacked settlers or stolen their horses.
          In the 1840s John C. Fremont hired him as a guide for his expeditions mapping the Oregon Trail  and California. Fremont's reports brought national fame to Kit Carson. By 1847 exaggerated versions of Carson's adventures filled dime novels that everyone read.
            Carson served in the Mexican-American War and led New Mexico's Union troops during the Civil War. Since there weren't many Confederates to fight in New Mexico, Carson spent most of the war fighting Apaches and Navajo.
             Carson served as an Indian agent for the Utes and one of his final acts was to accompany Ute chiefs to Washington so they could plead their case to President Johnson. He died in Colorado in 1868 of an aortic aneurysm.        
          In the 20th Century,  many historians criticized Carson's participation the military's slaughter of whole Indian villages during the Civil War era.  Tales of his early Indian fighting years also show an over-eagerness to kill Indians whether they were a threat or not.
          Fame is a fickle thing. The same public opinion that calls you a hero can turn into hatred and blame. Cousin Jim would understand.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Genuinely scary

       They called him Genuine Jim, the real thing. But as I sort through reports of my most notorious ancestor, I have a devil of a time deciding what is real and what is legend.
         I can't even tell you for sure when he was born. His tombstone in Yoakum, Texas, says he was born in 1841 yet on the 1850 census he was listed as age 6. Other age reports conflict as well.
          About all we know for sure is Jim Jamison was a healthy young man in the unhealthy state of Missouri during the Civil War. Imagine if you took all the political disagreements of today and tried to solve them by shooting anyone who held an opposing view. That was Missouri in the 1860s!
           According to his widow's pension application, Jim served as a Confederate soldier from 1862 to the end of the war. But even that service is in dispute. Some say he spent the entire war in prison. Some say he wasn't an official soldier but a "Bushwhacker" who rode with the likes of Bill Wilson and Quantrill's Raiders.  The most frightening tales come from the memoirs of a former Union soldier, Col. William Monks, who describes Jamison as terrorizing southern Missouri in the years after the war, slaughtering returning Union soldiers for no reason.
          By 1870 Genuine Jim moved to Texas where his gun-slinging ability was appreciated. He served as a deputy or marshal in several Texas towns -- Halletsville, Luling, Flatonia, Schulenberg, Gonzales. Even those records don't always agree on his title and jurisdiction.He supposedly killed about 20 people during his lifetime, and was wounded at least that many times.
        When he died of pneumonia in 1906, an obituary called him "one of the best known peace officers in the state of Texas... He never knew what fear was and handled the toughest desperadoes with a facility and fearlessness that caused his very name to strike fear to the hearts of lawless people."
           Evidently Genuine Jim still has the ability to be pretty scary.
           Lavaca County Attorney John Stuart Fryer keeps a picture of Jamison on his office wall in the courthouse. Even in black and white, Jamison's icy blue eyes are so menacing that Fryer said one visitor commented that he looked like he was going to kill him.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

A Crane in the family

        The Indians called him The Crane. Historians call him a mountain man, a contemporary of William Sublette and Jim Bridger. I call him Uncle Sam.
         Samuel Tullock was one of the six sons of widow Jemima Tullock. She moved her boys to the Missouri territory in 1814 when Sam was 13. A decade later, Sam was a trapper and fur trader for the American Fur Company. He injured his wrist in a brawl at the fur traders' rendezvous in Idaho in 1827 and lived with a permanently withered hand. Didn't slow him down much. He slugged a  Frenchman named Bray who teased him about his hand at a Wyoming rendezvous in 1829. Bray never got up again.
         Sam built two forts in Montana for the American Fur Company: Ft. Cass in 1832 and Ft. Van Buren in 1835. Both forts were on the Yellowstone River, near the Big Horn River, in the middle of Crow country. He traded with the Indians: seven fur robes for a flint-lock gun, six robes for a red blanket.
         Sam returned to Missouri in 1839, married an Irish immigrant and raised seven kids. He served as a county judge in Iron County, Mo., from 1858-1860 and lived to be almost 80.
         But he left his name in Montana where Tullock Creek still flows into the Big Horn River less than a mile from where the Big Horn empties into the Yellowstone River.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Anna's eyes

I recognize those eyes, deep-set like mine. But the eyes of Margaret Anna Jamison saw much horror in her short life.
       Anna -- she went by her middle name just as I do -- was my grandmother's grandmother. Grandma, by the way, had those deep-set eyes too.
       Ten years before the Civil War, when Anna was 17, she married Coatsworth Pinkney Tharp. He had been the husband of her sister Jane who died in childbirth. Anna married a ready-made family with her sister's three-year-old daughter, Eliza Jane.
        In the 1850s, C.P. acquired 420 acres in the southern Missouri hills of the newly formed Dent County. As the farm grew, so did the family. By the time Lincoln was elected president in 1860, they had five children.
        But as the country fell apart, so did their lives. Missouri was a border state. Most of the people didn't want to secede,  but they didn't support the war either. As a result, Union soldiers marched across the state and treated everyone as the enemy. They attacked farmers, took their livestock, burned their homes.
        Anna's brother, James Jamison, was arrested for defending his home against the soldiers. He escaped from the federal prison and rode with the "bushwhackers" like Bill Wilson and Quantrill's Raiders.
         Family tradition says the soldiers invaded Anna's farm too, and hung C.P. Anna cut down her husband, and he survived. But her babies didn't do as well. Two infant daughters died during the war years. But Edwin, born in 1862, survived. He was Grandma's father.
         Anna's last baby, Evaline, was born in 1866. The war was over, but all the fight had gone out of Anna. She died two months after Evaline was born.
         Anna was only 32.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Stuck on single ply?

Toilet paper is so taxing! Which is the better buy? Eight mega rolls or sixteen super rolls?. Both packages claim to be equal to 32 regular rolls, and neither package is small enough to fit under the bathroom sink.Take your pick for $10. That's a lot of green for the ultimate throw-away.  But wait. Here's a package that claims to be equal to 32 regular rolls and it's only $6.
            I was debating these high finance options in the grocery store the other day when a woman I didn't know joined me with the same lament. We compared inches and centimeters; claims of softness and strength. Then we spotted the truth. The $6 option was "single ply."
             In other words, not enough thickness to keep your hand dry.
             "I've worked too many years to save money on single ply," I said, tossing the $10 package of mega rolls into my cart.
             The other woman sighed and settled for the  $6 option. "Once the kids move out maybe I can splurge on double ply."

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Don't be coy, Koi

A small square pond behind the Audubon House in  Key West boasts some of the biggest Koi I've ever seen. The flashy orange and white fish  almost burst out of the space.
      Somehow it seems appropriate for a house that naturalist painter John James Audubon never entered. In fact, when Audubon visited Florida in the 1830s, the house wasn't even built yet. The house that was on the property at that time was destroyed by a hurricane in the 1840s, and the current house built to replace it. Turns out, the only connection to the famous painter is that he used a plant from the property as the background for his painting of the White Crowned Pigeon.
       But the legend that a famous person had something to do with the house saved it from destruction in the 1950s and inspired a lovely restoration of the home of Capt.  John Geiger, including three floors of Audubon prints and a lush tropical garden.
       If it was called the Geiger house, however, it wouldn't attract nearly as many visitors. In the end, what difference does it make if an 1830s painter sat in the parlor or painted on the porch or never set foot on the property? The restoration is well done, the tour guides informative, and the visit well worth the time.
         The lesson here is to crow about yourself. Take that claim to fame even if it is a thin thread. Don't be coy, be Koi.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Why me?

      Sometimes an error in a book jumps out at me like an unintended villain, a snarling surprise that interrupts the story.
         About half of my 40-year career in journalism was spent editing and rewriting other people's stories. I just can't turn it off.
         I'm not as persnickety as some professional editors who know the rules for commas better than the names of their children. My strong suit is rewriting for clarity and smoothness.
          Usually, if the story is good enough, I can read right over a run-on sentence or misplaced modifier. But sometimes those errors grab me by the throat and won't let go. 
        Recently I was reading The Good Girl, a fairly complex thriller by Mary Kubica.Labeled a national bestseller, the book has excellent pacing including a final surprise in the last word. But right away I noticed awkward sentences that could have benefited from a rewrite. Then I stumbled upon a singular verb used with a plural subject. But the mongrels that kept nipping at me were object pronouns, used incorrectly in several spots.
        Consider this sentence:
         "We sit in the waiting room, James, Mia and me, Mia sandwiched in the middle like the cream filling of an Oreo cookie."
        Never mind that these phrases are squished together with a smattering of commas that would give a copy editor nightmares. The monster that growls too loudly to be ignored is the object pronoun "me." These three people are not the objects of any action. They are stand-ins for the subject of the sentence, "We."  Would you say "Me sit in the waiting room"? Heavens, no!
     Miss Hill, my seventh-grade English teacher, would be throwing an eraser across the room to get the attention of whoever wrote this sentence.
      I hesitate to point this out because I am sure readers can find typos in my books. But Jane, my editor, would never miss this one. To my mind, that's where the blame belongs. Mary Kubica has written an amazing story, but her editor either didn't have adequate training or adequate time to polish the work properly.
       I see it happening more and more these days, not just in self-published works that may not have professional editing, but also in books from major publishers. Writing has become slap-dash. It's like an assembly line turning out cars that run well but haven't been painted. Good grammar is not a corner that can be cut.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Me first!

          The latest ancestor in my genealogy quest is Robert Eakin Miller, reportedly the first white male born in Kentucky. I say reportedly because several people claim this dubious honor. 
          Robert was born Aug. 28, 1780, at Bear Grass Fort (Louisville) to Major John Miller and his wife Ann McClintock. Thirty-six years later, Robert's daughter, Ann Mariah Miller, married my son's ancestor, Joseph William Wallace.  
           In the History of Bourbon, Scott, Harrison and Nicholas Counties, Kentucky,  author William Perrin wrote "Robert Miller, born 1780, is said to be the first male child born in the state." Perrin's book came out in 1882. That same year Collins' Historical Sketches of Kentucky  lists a dozen babes who claim to be the first white birth in the state, several of them males, and all before Robert's 1780 debut. 
         This all goes to reinforce my journalism training to avoid claims of first, or oldest, or any other "est" unless the parameters are very controlled and knowable. The real lesson is it doesn't matter. What's the difference if Robert was the first  or fiftieth child born to white settlers in the territory that would become Kentucky? All that matters is that his parents were among the early settlers, and  he was born into a world full of possibility.
          Reminds me of that old joke: Men want the be a woman's "first." Women want to be a man's "last."      

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Nibbling the scriptures

Last week I read the story of Joseph and his brothers. This week it's Moses and the Exodus from Egypt.
          I am three weeks into the Daily Walk Bible. I bought this edition back in 1998. It was my new year's resolution that year to read the Bible cover to cover. The Daily Walk Bible divides the Bible into easy-to-read daily chunks, like a devotional . It made the task so easy, that I completed my resolution with relish  and have repeated the process three or four times over the past 18 years. This year is my fifth time, I think.
             I don't report this to brag about my devotion but to recommend the Daily Walk Bible. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How can you possibly read the whole bible? One verse at time.
              Although it is packed with drama, the bible isn't the sort of book you can read once and call it done. Every time I find stories I've forgotten. Oddly, this time I find myself paying more attention to who begat who, probably because I'm working on my own family genealogy. And today's reading about Moses turning the Nile to blood reminded me of the poisoned water of Flint and the many "plagues" that beset us today.
              I strongly recommend The Daily Walk Bible. Read the book, change your life.

Sunday, January 17, 2016


This is my place this winter: a slouchy chair in the dappled sun below loudly swishing palms. Perfect.
         It's so perfect that I have to pry myself out of the chair to go inside and get my phone so I can take a picture.
         You see, even in paradise such perfection is rare. Except for a couple of sunny days, it's been raining since we arrived two weeks ago. And even then I can only sit outside today because the gale-force wind keeps the no-see-ums away.  On a calm day, the blizzard of bugs keeps me cowered inside like a captive.
          In an odd way this perfect combination of sun and wind reminds me a of Michigan snowstorm. Snow is so beautiful when it is falling, white-washing the world with glitter. That is until it piles up on the roads and driveways and makes a simple task like wheeling the trash to the curb almost impossible.
           So I will wallow in my moment of perfection for as long as it lasts and try to ignore the clouds darkening in the west.