Saturday, September 26, 2009
Tonight I trace words, following little threads; my mind drifts into barely visible prints on the patterns of family history. It is not the truth supposedly latent in the tree driving me onward. All those branches with little leaves of generation. The names of those now decayed in Smith County soil come out of the past like talismanic figures, just as mysterious, sullen, even, in the sense of foreclosure that accompanies their memory to my presence. There is the long life figured in my clan’s most recent progenitor, John Henry Bonner, born 1842 in Missouri; he died 1930 in Tyler, Texas. Served five terms as mayor of Tyler. And the names after him arrive, burbling up out of the peace of nonexistence: Mattie Bonner, Charles Wellborn Boon, Wellborn Bonner Boon, Margaret C. Sledge. Harmolean Bonner, James John Covington. I recall as a boy meeting on several occasions Martha Covington, born 1901, and Bascom B. Watson (we called him B. B.). To my knowledge, he is the only man I have ever known to serve in the First World War. And his memories trailed back through the South to veterans of the Confederacy. I possess still a buckeye top, purple, that he gave me before he died in 1977. Martha was Wellborn and Luther’s cousin. Her family history reaches toward the ghosts of other eras, and perhaps this is why her handwriting leans strongly to the left. As she aged it became almost impossible to decipher. I remember learning of cardinals and chickadees, flycatchers and dicksissles, through the parchments she would send. I wrote her, perhaps for the last time, in California. It is terrible that we disappear from one another. Her writing slowly vanished from me. The shape of her letters was gripped with what looked like Parkinson’s, squiggly and yet violently wagering some sense onto the impossible shapes that reached out into the white space of her elegant stationary. “This is a notation concerning Martha Ellen Wade,” she wrote, “who was the wife of William Neval Bonner—Her father was Micajah Wade—Born February 8th, 1777 in N. Carolina. His mother’s maiden name was Sarah McCormick. She was the daughter of Dorcas and James McCormick. James McCormick was a soldier of the American Revolution and fought gallantly for the liberties of the Colonies throughout the seven years struggle. This is where the name Micajah came into the family.” The facts of names and dates, and the accidents of relation to events, wedge into historical record. In time objects accumulate and are oriented to certain names or moods. The first bursts of autumn bring residual feelings of harvest. I have no memory of the fields. My immediate family embraced machines and technology, abandoning the farm. I often reflect, however, on the lists of names that come into my possession. For instance, I have dreamed into the textual surface identifying those descendants of the first parents. The book of Genesis is where the records of birth and death begin in the Protestant line I happened upon by birth. The first ones are there by name alone. I often have imagined into spaces between the words of those great lists leading throughout the Old Testament to the birth of Christ. For hours as a child I would gaze on a small bible with pictures of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac. I do not know why that boy shares anything with me still. So much of the world seeks the failure of his vision and intimidates him into nonbeing. He is no more "me" than I am any of those others recorded by persistence in the family archives. It is only with great struggle that I come to see my image, or my name, among those others, not because I dread the company of the dead, but because I have not been often enough vigilant to what hovers just beyond reach of living habit.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
A ticket stub to a March 21, 1939, CBS Radio Theater presentation by Helen Menken survives in an album of family photographs. Luther and Wellborn had moved briefly to New York City to “study radio.” The lore of this sojourn to the big city resists biographic description, for where they studied is lost to immediate family recollection. Exactly what aspect of radio they pursued likewise slides into the ghostly residue of memory, though radio would eventually lead both men to unexpected careers. Somehow radio signals and vehicles of transport associate with the mature lives of these men, for ships, cars, planes, and, as I observe in an ancient photo now, motorcycles, all connect to their biography from an early interest in radio technology. Wellborn eventually settled near Washington, D. C., working for the department of the Navy to create missiles guided by radio waves that could deter Japanese Kamikaze pilots. An application to the United States Patent Office dated August 31, 1950, is assigned under Wellborn’s name. It describes an “invention” called an “angular accelerometer.” Several pages of description and illustrations relate the particulars of this device, with references in the literature of this technology going back to 1936. As an old man, not so long ago, he was interviewed on the History Channel, and you can see his angular features, aged as they are, strike the camera with matter-of-fact confidence. Photos of the young Luther, by contrast, are moody, brooding. They differ dramatically from the features of the man I knew growing up, an even and generous person devoted to the immediate artifacts of the world around him. If Wellborn looked to the invisible machinations of modern warfare, Luther turned to flight, sharing initiations into the knowledge of air. Back in Texas, a man gave flying lessons in a field and Luther became a pilot. But a deeper mystery of the urgency of flight compels my interest in this portion of a narrative that extends far beyond me and into a history of mutations and abandonments of rural life. I look at these figures—my grandfather in a field in overalls. Motorcyle parts lie about him and his hair falls forward to just above his eyes. I see the sandy loam below his feet and vertical posts that fence off a field that must have pressed against his imagination of escape. The contrast of that field of bluestem and switchgrass to the strident thrust of the arm of the Statue of Liberty into the Manhattan skyline obscures a long forgotten feeling in the American psyche. The air of the modern city could be breathed in quite differently than that of the rural South. Saved among these images of recollections is a picture of a woman making a purchase at an automat. Such urban novelty must have spoken concretely to Wellborn and Luther in a way lost to me in an age of manufactured convenience and presumptions of wellbeing. A popular image of Texas focuses on cowboys and cattle. But the men in my family pursued instead the mechanics of modernity. Somewhere between the images I have collected and my communion among the diverse possibilities projecting from them, I notice tremendous generational desire to be free of the grating monotony of the fields. Luther and Wellborn made themselves new—aviators and inventors. Their world possessed promise and enthusiasm. The positive force of the modern claimed their attention, and they acted on it. There is the Paramount Theater stub too along with the remains of my grandfather’s memorabilia. These are holy objects, fragments of spiritual identity in the dynamic drift of eternity. I remember, as an old man, his collection of jazz recordings, and the time we spent together listening to music. Among the genetic and familial legacies I share with him is foremost a sense of life made up of sound and levity. This of course contradicts the narrowing of light that prefigures a twilight darkness—a sense of inevitable gravitas that arrives at times to combat my inherited buoyancy.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
In 1932 my grandfather made his way from a small farm near Whitehouse, Texas, to Galveston, where he took a job as a radio operator on a Merchant Marine ship delivering cargo to Spain. He lied about his age, though perhaps it didn’t matter either. By the time he was fifteen he had taught himself to use ham radios and other equipment, and so he brought a useful skill to the Texas port city. I am unsure of any specific cause for this flight from East Texas to the coast, and then finally to Spain. He had been named Martin Luther, growing up in the home of a strict Baptist minister and farmer, Martin Luther, Sr. I know of a picture of his mother—Mary Elizabeth Bonner—from the turn of the last century. She wears what looks like a satin blouse and a dense skirt with many pleats. Her hair is bound up on her head and she peers sternly into the camera. She played violin and taught music lessons, and helped oversee plans for a new house after the previous one had been ruined by fire. I have heard it told that she contracted pneumonia while attending the construction of the new house in the cold of winter. I have heard other versions, too. A March 6, 1907, letter to the New York Times—“Would Shut Out Fresh Air: Draughts, Pneumonia, Death the Sequence in Thousands of Cases”—complains of “Fresh-Air Fiends,” “overfed male and female hogs, who with blood almost bursting through their skins demand ‘fresh air’ in order to keep from suffocating.” This cult of “fresh air,” some say, contributed to Mary Elizabeth’s untimely demise, for as she lay dying in the upstairs bedroom of the minister’s house, doctors had opened windows to let in the cold northern winds that gusted down from Canada. This was told frequently at dinner tables when I was a child. My understanding of the Sheppard’s way of life after her death is fuzzy. Luther, Jr., looked after a much younger brother, Wellborn, and together they disassembled engines and radios, working together in a small workshop some distance from the main house. Perhaps something about radio helped them process their new situation. Motherless, Luther and Wellborn, for comfort and meaning, discovered modernity, tuning in on a version formed by distant voices. The promise of a life far beyond rural East Texas must have been appealing. I am not sure what news they picked up on the radio from the shed by the tomato and squash patches under the stars at the end of a long workday. I imagine how the spark and crackle of the machinery worked in concord with the more ancient rhythms issued by cricket frogs and killdeer, the shrill utterance of woodland creek bottoms coming into their little lean-to of hopeful transcendence. Jazz, big bands, and news of the world—such sounds shifted through the air and entered the tubes and wires distributed over their workbench. Their father soon remarried and this, I recall, bothered Luther, who did not like the woman, Lollie Senter. I met her once as a child, and I remember being introduced to her, years after Luther, Sr., had passed, as “Miss” Lollie. Her living room smelled of mothballs while ancient furniture gripped my legs. Afternoon light streamed through lace curtains; doilies spread over small tables; a green rug covered wooden slats; through sheets of thin glass I saw the porch banister swell and extend beyond sight; a ceiling fan turned with moderate motion; the lower boughs of deciduous pine dipped into view in the yard where “Dai’s” El Camino shined brightly on the gravel drive. He sat in brown trousers and a polo shirt, speaking indifferently. It was my first experience of “the visit,” something one did to pay tribute to old folks. I now wonder about that tribute. He did not remain for long in Spain, and the details of labor aboard the ship are missing. He told me he was broke and alone in Europe. The point, though, was to see something.
Saturday, September 5, 2009
We tell stories to ourselves, often alone, suddenly dislocated from the habits of our own self preoccupations. (Or really, we are re-integrated into a body of feeling that we had never recognized, or, perhaps, only forgotten.) As a boy I turned the wheel of narrative through me, portraying the heroic deeds of medieval knights, or performing superhuman feats prefigured in the abundant strengths of Superman or Batman. I recall a double holster and pistols, dark blue denim, a colorful scarf that belonged to my grandmother, and cowboy boots. I would portray scenes from The Lone Ranger or navigate the western images of a John Wayne that so often lit up the nighttime on my father’s television. These dramas occupied me on the swing set in early spring, or as I rode a bicycle in circles on the driveway. I see a boy somewhere now in the far recesses of imagination as he cinches with a safety pin a red towel around his neck. He reaches forward with his arms to fly into the yard, or through a house among the now long forgotten items of a people he no longer knows. It used to be that our stories provided the tribal narratives—such yarns made sense of experience, or shaped the inchoate forms of our engagements with others, and with things. I recall those who knew how to tell a story, their voices rich with the textures of life more than with the exuberance of some tremendous episode. It takes little to narrate a tale in terms of the duration of event and experience. Instead, we are required to speak intimately to the other, though with a respect for distance, too. Stories are ours only insofar as our experiences generate passion in others. At least these are some things I have told myself from time to time, given, like that boy in scarf and holster, to narratives—ones I am not even sure how to possess: and yet, they take me. And so perhaps in my submission to the demands of the tale—of the vast dream that interferes with the linear grade of our progression—I arrive not entirely a whole person in any standard sense. Yet I cannot imagine it otherwise. Perhaps for these reasons I named, as a very young child, my grandfather, “Dai.”