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As I’ve documented often on this blog, my dad was a bomber pilot during World War II. In 1944, his B-24 was shot down after a bombing raid, and he was captured and imprisoned in Bulgaria.

Dad’s two brothers also served, and, by the grace of God, all three survived the war. The night they were reunited in Savannah, they talked into the wee hours about their experiences.

But after that, the subject largely was closed. Except for occasional anecdotes about the good memories, they rarely talked about the war.

The only detailed accounting Dad gave about being a POW came in 1984, when, one evening in Savannah, his sister Betty got him to open up.

It was just the two of them. Dad talked for a long time and in great detail. After he went to bed, Betty stayed up and documented what Dad told her while it was fresh in her mind.

This is her typewritten account.

———

July 21, 1984

As told to me by Walter Anthony Smith, Jr.

Shot down June 23, 1944 — Prisoner of War in Bulgaria

Stationed in Italy — Flying a B-24 Liberator (4 engine bomber)

United States Air Force

Returning from a raid over Ploesti, Romania oil fields, his plane was shot down. After being captured, was imprisoned in Shumen, Bulgaria. (Shumen also called Kolarovgrad)

When he bailed out, he fell several thousand feet before he located the rip-cord, due to the fact that in his haste and excitement, his parachute was upside down and the rip-cord was on the opposite side from where it should have been.

When he landed in the mountains, he hit his head on a rock and was knocked out. When he came to, a peasant woman was looking down at him, probably thinking he was dead. When he opened his eyes, she ran away screaming.

At that time Walter ran, trying to find a place to hide and hoping to contact the underground. The woman must have told the military where she found the American, because about 100 soldiers formed a huge ring around the area.

As they closed in, they kept firing their weapons, trying to make Walter surface. As the circle grew smaller, they stopped firing because they could hit their own men. They continued closing in until they found him hiding in the brush.

The soldiers beat him terribly with their rifle butts in the back, head and all over. When he was down, they all urinated on him and took him to their commander.

The commander placed his pistol on the table and threatened to kill Walter if he did not reveal military information, but Walter refused to talk. He reminded the commander about his rights as a prisoner of war and that he could not be killed after he was captured.

All the men in Walter’s aircrew survived the jump and were captured and brought to Shumen.

Shumen was the only prison in Bulgaria for all Allied prisoners. It held over 300 men from 12 Allied countries. Walter was the highest-ranking officer, being a Major at the time, so he took command.

His first job was the get the men organized and come up with a survival plan. They only had black bread and watery soup to eat and about one glass of water a day for all purposes. They could hear water pouring over a waterfall nearby, but could not have enough to drink, bathe and wash bandages. Walter’s weight went down to 120 pounds while he was in prison.

As the Russians drew closer, Bulgaria was in turmoil. Many wanted to change sides. Some of the guards had deserted their posts. A group of Bulgarians who were Allied sympathizers, mostly educated at the American University in Sofia, slipped guns to Walter and the prisoners. They overpowered the remaining guards and took over the prison.

They commandeered a freight train and held the crew at gunpoint while the 300 prisoners got on board for the trip to Turkey and freedom. (A movie “Von Ryan’s Express” was based on this story.)

Walter turned command over to his deputy, an English officer, and flew with the friendly Bulgarians to Sofia, where he was given papers vital to the war. They included information about the locations of the enemy, all about their supplies, positions and movements, as well as the names of the prisoners and what had been done to them. Walter was told to take the papers to the Allied authorities.

They took Walter to the airport and gave him a plane so he could join his men in Turkey. He flew low because the plane had German markings, and he was afraid he would be shot down if the Allies saw him. He followed the railroad tracks for a long way and his plane was giving out of gas.

He frantically tried to find a button or switch that might turn on an auxiliary gas tank, but everything was written in German. While looking down for a place to land, he noticed a handle under his seat. He turned it, and it was the proper handle to switch to the auxiliary gas tank.

He flew as far as he could and landed in a cornfield near Svilengrad, Bulgaria just short of the Turkish border. He was captured again and locked up by Bulgarians who this time treated him well. They contacted the American consulate in Istanbul, who came the next day. Walter was released and went to Istanbul with the consulate.

When the train carrying the prisoners arrived in Istanbul, Walter and the embassy representative were there to meet them. The men were taken to hospitals and treated, some remaining there. 36 of them were on stretchers.

The Turks prepared fried chicken, fruits and vegetables for the men. Not having eaten in such a long time, they all got sick, but appreciated the efforts.

After receiving wonderful baths and resting, the men continued their train trip through Turkey, then around the Mediterranean Sea to Egypt. After 4 days they were back in Italy.

Gen. Nathan Twining received the intelligence from Walter and ordered bombing of the vital points that really hastened the end of World War II in that area. Gen. Twining recommended Walter for the Legion of Merit, our country’s third highest award. Gen. Ira C. Eaker also awarded Walter the Bronze Star.

Walter broadcast from Rome over the National Broadcasting Company’s news program (Max Hill being the reporter) and told about being a prisoner and now released. Although Mother, Daddy and I always listened to the eleven o’clock news, this night we did not. We did not know anything about Walter except that he was missing, so would have been thrilled to hear him speak.

The next morning, Lillian Mynatt, a distant relative, called and told Mother that she heard this program, and she knew it was Walter because he was described as a Major from Savannah, Ga. and she recognized his voice.

Within a few days we heard that he was freed. The newspapers all over the country and the Stars and Stripes had articles about the story. (See scrapbooks)

After staying in the hospital a month with pneumonia, malnutrition and filth sores, Walter was sent back to Bulgaria with an intelligence team to identify war criminals. Some were sent to Nuremberg, Germany for trial, some were turned over to the Russians and a captured German general hanged himself in jail rather than be tried.

When Walter returned to Bulgaria, the men lived in 2 beautiful homes. Quite a change from the prison. The trip was not without danger. The Americans were fired on many times by snipers who were still Nazis.

After the mission in Bulgaria was completed, Walter came home on leave in January, 1945. Mother and all of us did not open our Christmas gifts until he came home. He went to Macon to get Ann and Rocky, then they came to Savannah.

No need to say how grateful we are not to have lost him, as well as Allan and John who were in the service and have many stories to tell.

———

Tom Brokaw called the generation of my parents “the Greatest Generation.” They were born during the Great Depression, had World War II thrust upon them, and shaped the era of growth and prosperity that followed.

I read an article recently that said four factors created “the greatest generation.”

First, that generation of men and women experienced seismic changes. The world changed radically as they matured. And they coped with and adapted to the Depression, the war, and the good times that followed with dignity and grace.

Second, their experiences instilled in them a strong work ethic.

Third, they learned to be frugal. They found ways to deal with scarcity, to think creatively, to make do.

Fourth, from the men at the front lines to their families back home, they had a strong sense of duty and were willing to make the necessary sacrifices.

It added up to a generation noted for grit and strength of character. All my life, I saw it in my parents and aunts and uncles and their contemporaries.

It’s hard to say whether the generations that followed didn’t measure up, or, never having to face the same level of challenges, simply weren’t called upon to prove themselves.

All I know is, thanks to the Greatest Generation, the rest of us had it easy.

War stories-1

Dad (center front) and the crew of his B-24 at their base in Italy. Taken in early June 1944.

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Dad (left) at the Officers Club in Italy after the train ride to freedom.

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The Smith brothers, Walter, Allan, and John, back in Savannah in January 1945.

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Dad and Betty before the war.

 

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Sunrise, Florida, 1972

In case you’re too young to remember, writing a “letter” once was a common form of communication.

It was a physical, non-digital thing. Not to get too technical, but it was, like, sheets of paper that you wrote words on. When you were done, you put the sheets in an “envelope,” and the Post Office delivered it to the intended party. Got it?

Recently, I came across an old “letter” that I wrote to my parents and siblings in 1972. It came back into my possession after Mom died.

In late ’72, my wife and sons and I had just moved from Metro Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale, and I was writing to give my folks the latest news. At the time, Britt was seven years old, and Dustin was 18 months.

It’s an interesting look back at our lives in those days and of the boys as kids. Fun and nostalgic. Here it is.

———

1540 N.W. 62nd Terrace
Sunrise, Fla. 33313
Nov. 5, 1972

Dear Smiths, one and all,

I thought I’d write our new address above just to see how it feels. This is the first time I’ve written anyone from our new house. In fact, this is the first time I’ve written anyone since we got to Florida. Now that I think about it, it’s one of the few times I’ve written anyone from anywhere. Oh, well.

Firstly, we all are well, although feeling a little out of place. We’ve been in the house since the middle of October, and that’s hardly long enough to find the bathrooms, much less feel relaxed and at home.

I managed to get out and cut the grass once, but I had to borrow a lawnmower. Now the grass is ankle deep again.

But really, I suppose you want to know about Britt and Dustin more than the grass — although there is a similarity in that all three are growing like weeds, ha ha.

As far as adjusting to the place, Britt has done much better than Dustin. Britt made a lot of friends around the neighborhood right away, so everything’s hunky dory with him.

Dustin, on the other hand, is just now coming around. For the longest time he wouldn’t leave his mother’s side, following her from room to room, wailing like a lost soul. Now he will venture into another part of the house on his own, for instance to get a toy from his room, as long as one of us is sitting down and probably won’t vanish before he gets back.

His latest favorite thing is to go out in the back yard (escorted, of course) to run around. He will look up with a pleading eye and say, “Bemly OW? Zobloo OW?” “Ow” means “out.” The rest of it is anybody’s guess.

He still isn’t talking very much, but he does use certain words to get what he wants. He says “Dow?” in the same pleading way when ready to get down from the dinner table. He says “Ba-ba?” when he’s tired and wants to lie down with his bottle. He calls me “Da.” He calls Deanna “Ma-MA.”

The child is whip-smart and headstrong. As often as not, he wins a confrontation because he’s not afraid of anybody or anything. He sees outlasting you as a challenge.

When we set the table for dinner, he is known to climb up on a chair, climb from there onto the table, and proceed to toss napkins and silverware onto the floor. If we take him down and say, “No, Dustin” in a calm manner, he shrieks and proceeds to scale the chair again. If we take him down and bark, “Dammit, quit!” he shrieks and proceeds to scale the chair again.

Climbing is his thing, as you know. He can climb a glass wall. The other day, I was moving the porta-crib into our bedroom so some friends coming to dinner could put their baby in it. Dustin wanted to get in. I said no, I need to move it. He ignored me, grabbed the side rail, and began hoisting himself up, gripping the bars with his toes. It was like watching a monkey or an acrobat.

Britt’s big deal is that he learned to ride his bike at long last. He got it last Christmas, and finally, he’s out there riding up and down the sidewalk. For the longest time, he avoided it because he didn’t want to fall down and get hurt.

We admitted he would do some falling, but argued that the rewards of being mobile would make it worthwhile. No dice. Eventually, we got some training wheels, and that helped. Except that he leaned to one side, and the rubber wore off lopsided.

When he saw that all the kids in Sunrise ride their bikes to school, he wanted to join them really bad. And he finally did — with the training wheels still attached. Bad decision. He got teased something awful.

That did it. He finally let us teach him to ride. It only took about half an hour and one or two harmless falls, and then he was fine.

Well, I guess I need to finish this up and get it to the mail-lady. I thought she was a mail-man for a long time because she wears one of those pith helmets, and all I ever saw was her head bobbing past the fence. But then Deanna told me she is a she, and I looked out the side window, and sure enough, a mail-lady.

Or, as Allan puts it, a mail-man lady.

I’ll try to write again soon about how we’re progressing. Meantime, drop me a note. I know Mom will write because she gets to feeling guilty like I do.

Love,
Rock

PS: Dustin did fine trick-or-treating, but he didn’t know what in the world was going on. He was dressed as a farmer with a red bandana. Britt was a cowboy in full western regalia, including chaps, hat, and six-gun.

Sunrise 10-18A

Sunrise 10-18B

———

FYI, the above “letter” is contained in an “envelope” with a “postmark” reading “6 NOV 1972 U.S. POSTAL SERVICE FL 333.” Affixed is an eight-cent EISENHOWER USA postage stamp that had to be licked.

 

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Meet the Fam

My previous post was a report on how I got motivated last year and began tracing the Smith family lineage in a serious way. With the help of Ancestry.com and other online resources, I traced the family way back — to the King of Jutland, a Danish Viking born circa 760 A.D.

His name was Halfdan Haraldsson, and he lived 33 generations ago, in the Early Middle Ages. Back then, Charlemagne was King of the Franks, forcing Christianity on everyone, and the heathen Vikings were busy plundering the region.

When doing the research, I focused on my paternal lineage, and I was able to follow the Smith name back 400 years before I ran out of clues.

That was disappointing, but not fatal. It was an easy matter to switch from paternal to maternal lineage and keep going back. Eventually, I stopped with Halfdan.

To be clear, the line of ancestry I documented is just one thread in the greater tapestry. I followed the most promising clues, going in one direction when others were equally available. In the end, I identified one specific chain of relatives out of a veritable web of them.

With that preamble, here is a summary of what I learned about our forebears over the 1,200 years between Halfdan Haraldsson and the Smiths of today.

———

Denmark, Germany, and France

Halfdan Haraldsson (circa 760-810) was born on the Jutland Peninsula in northern Germany near the Danish border. He lived in Denmark as an adult, fighting various rivals and becoming King of Jutland. He was a Viking and certainly facilitated much of their signature raiding and plundering.

The son of Halfdan and his Norwegian wife Helga was Harald “Klak” Halfdansson (c. 800-854), who succeeded his father as king. Harald married Sigrid Helgesdatter (800-854) also Norwegian.

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King Harald “Klak” Halfdansson.

Klak’s son, Godfrid “The Dane” Haraldsson (825-885), was in line to become king, but he was impatient. Godfrid moved south with a contingent of followers and seized land in Germany. Twice, he led raids back into Denmark, trying to overthrow his father. He failed.

Godfrid finally gave up and moved further south, establishing a fiefdom in Guines on the northern coast of France near Calais. Godfrid’s son Sigfrid (905-968) was the 1st Count of Guines.

Beginning with Sigfrid’s son Ardolph (965-996), the family name was gallicized to Le Blount.

Ardolph Le Blount was the 2nd Count of Guines. His son Rudolph (996-1036) was the 3rd Count. Rudolph’s son Robert (1036-1086) was the 4th Count. There was no fifth Count because events led the Le Blounts to leave France and become Englishmen.

To England in 1066

In 1066, William the Conqueror assembled an army from across France to invade England. That undertaking was, as you undoubtedly know, successful. Sir Robert Le Blount (the 4th and last Count of Guines) commanded William’s fleet of warships. He was known as “the Admiral.”

As the spoils of war, the Admiral was awarded a large chunk of the county of Suffolk, northeast of London. He became the 1st Baron of Ixworth, that being his town of residence in Suffolk.

Between 1066 and 1270, six Le Blounts held the title Baron of Ixworth.

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The family coat of arms.

During the 1200s, the family name evolved to Le Heyre, Le Eyre, and Eyre. Historians haven’t confirmed the reasons.

English Nobility

For several centuries, the Eyres lived as proper English nobility with holdings in both Suffolk and the county of Derbyshire, north of London.

In 1424, Sir Robert Eyre (1392-1459) of Padley, Derbyshire, England, married Joan de Padley (1399-1463). My previous post describes Sir Robert’s service as an English knight and the burial place of Sir Robert and Lady Joan.

To America

By the mid-1500s, the names Smythe and Smyth had appeared in the lineage. Richard Smyth (1553-1593) of Herefordshire, England, who died in Plymouth, Massachusetts, is the first Smith in our family known to have come to America.

Richard’s son John Smyth (1592-1649) and John’s wife Margaret Blythe Smyth (1596-1645) were among the first 140 settlers of the Maryland colony, arriving in 1634 aboard the Ark and the Dove.

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The arrival of Lord Calvert, leader of the Maryland colony, on the Ark and the Dove.

Maryland and Georgia

In the Maryland colony, the spelling of the family name changed to Smith. Maryland was home to the next several generations of Smiths, most of whom lived in Somerset County on the Eastern Shore. I haven’t made inquiries, but many of our relatives undoubtedly still live there.

Around 1800, three Smith brothers from Maryland moved south to Georgia. They were Archibald Smith (1736-1799) and two of his three younger brothers. (Benjamin, George, and Elijah were the brothers, but I don’t know which two accompanied Archibald or where they settled.)

Archibald lived in Hancock County, midway between Atlanta and Savannah. His son moved further south to a rural area near Savannah.

In 1839, Archibald’s grandson George (1817-1867) married Jemima Ruth Sumner (1815-1896), and they settled in Bartow, Georgia, near Augusta. The second of their eight children was John Wesley Smith (1845-1918), my great-grandfather.

In 1875, John Wesley, a Confederate veteran, married Martha Roseanna Sherrod (1854-1939) in a double wedding ceremony with her sister Elizabeth.

Fam-4

The youngest son of Martha and John Wesley was Walter Anthony Smith (1881-1950), my grandfather.

Savannah

In 1892, John Wesley Smith and his family moved to Savannah, where he worked as a house painter and roofer. In 1918, at age 73, he died on the job in a fall.

In 1916, John Wesley’s son Walter married Stella Etta Ham (1894-1969) of nearby Pooler, Georgia. The oldest of their four children was my dad, Walter Anthony Smith, Jr. (1917-2002).

Walter Senior was a prominent Savannah businessman. At age 19, he took a one-year business course and became a clerk at the Railway Express Agency. Soon thereafter, he went into the cotton business.

Walter became a “cotton factor” at the Port of Savannah — an agent for inland cotton farmers. His job was to grade, sell, and arrange for the shipment of the cotton to world markets. He was in the cotton factoring business for 40 years.

My dad, Walter Junior, was a bomber pilot during World War II, and he flew jet fighters in Korea. After his Air Force career, Dad went into banking, which had been his major in college. I’ve written about him many times on this blog.

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Dad, a dashing cadet at Army Air Corps Flight School. He included this photo with his Christmas cards in 1940.

Today

Names come and go. And soon, I regret to say, the Smith name will fade away in my family.

That’s because all of the children in the latest generation of Smiths are female. When they marry or pass on, our line of Smiths will come to an end. The literal end of an era.

I realize, of course, that a name is a superficial matter. As the foregoing family history illustrates, what counts is the bloodline and the people. I get that.

Still, the looming demise of the Smith name makes me sad.

 

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The Family Iceberg

Two years ago, I posted a story about finally biting the bullet and delving seriously into Smith family genealogy. As it turned out, we Georgia Smiths originally came from Maryland. I’m not sure what I expected, but Maryland wasn’t it.

Around 1800, for reasons unknown, three Smith brothers left Maryland, where their family had lived for several generations, and moved to Georgia. We, the Savannah Smiths, are descended from one of the brothers, Archibald.

At the time I wrote that post, we also thought we had identified the first American Smith in our lineage: James Smith, who arrived in Maryland from England in 1660.

We were wrong. That distinction, it now appears, belongs to Richard Smyth (1553-1593) of Herefordshire, England, who died (at a young age, you’ll note) in Massachusetts.

James wasn’t even the second American Smith. His parents, John and Margaret Smyth, were here before him. They were among the original settlers of the Maryland colony, arriving in 1634.

For us, those revelations were a big deal. Prior to 2016, we could trace the Smiths back only as far as Archibald. No one could figure out where he came from.

We guessed he was Scotch-Irish and came from North Carolina, because that’s a common background for Georgians. Now, suddenly, we had traced our lineage back 400 years to England.

Well, I’m here to tell ya, that was just the tip of the family iceberg.

Last year, feeling on a roll, I continued the research and traced our ancestry back a lot more. A WHOLE lot more.

I followed our lineage back through many generations in England; and before that, through many more in France; and before that, to Germany and Denmark.

At the moment, our earliest known ancestor is Halfdan Haraldsson (circa 760-810) a Danish Viking king.

I could have kept tracing Halfdan’s forebears, but I had to stop somewhere.

While doing all that digging, I learned some interesting lessons about genealogical research.

Lesson 1. To state the obvious, a family tree consists of numerous lines of ancestry, branching out (pun intended) in all directions. When you research your ancestors, you enter a labyrinth that is complex and mind-boggling.

You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents, and 32 great-great-great-grandparents. That takes you back just six generations.

In addition, every generation consists of some mix of sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins. Not to mention divorces, re-marriages, stepchildren, and adoptions.

In light of all that, genealogical research means choosing which path to follow out of many before you.

Lesson 2. On the positive side, this complexity also means that when the clues run out and you hit a roadblock, you can back up a step and explore another path.

Lesson 3. In my experience, the hardest part of the research was of the generations immediately preceding me.

I suspect that’s common. Like most families, the Smiths were ordinary folks leading ordinary lives. They were farmers and merchants, not presidents and popes.

They were not lauded for grand accomplishments, their deeds recorded in history. Most made the newspapers only upon birth, marriage, and death.

If your family includes presidents or popes, doing the genealogy will be a snap. If it doesn’t, be prepared to work hard for every tidbit of information you unearth. Believe me, that goes double if you are a Smith.

Lesson 4. At some point, you may discover an ancestor who was famous to some degree. This will be an important breakthrough, because someone likely has done the genealogical work before you. The famous person’s lineage will be on the record, waiting for you to find it.

In other words, find your celebrity, and the rest is much easier.

In my case, I came across a celebrity of sorts in Sir Robert Eyre (1392-1459), an English nobleman and knight who fought in the Battle of Agincourt (France, 1415) during the Hundred Years’ War.

If the name Eyre is familiar, you’re probably thinking of Charlotte Brontë‘s novel Jane Eyre, which takes place in the same family in the 1700s.

Doing the research back to Sir Robert was difficult and slow, because most of his descendants, as far as I could determine, were not remotely famous; researching the generations before him was much easier, because in his lineage was a succession of barons, counts, and kings.

FYI, Sir Robert and his wife, Lady Joan Eyre, are buried at St. Michael and All Angels Church in Hathersage, England.

This brass plate is affixed to their tomb:

Eyre-1

Nearby, this plaque is on display:

Eyre-2

Sir Robert and Lady Joan had 14 children.

In my next post, I will present a summary of the Smith family lineage, from Halfdan Haraldsson to the present.

I decided to make that a separate post, in case you aren’t interested in someone else’s ancestors and have better things to do.

You’re welcome.

 

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Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (1858-1919), the son of socialite parents, was a fascinating and influential figure in American history. At various times, he was a working cowboy, Rough Rider, scholar of naval history, writer, conservationist, and politician. He served as the 33rd Governor of New York, the 25th Vice President, and the 26th President.

Roosevelt was an exuberant personality with a spirited joie de vivre. His public image (and self-image) was that of a robust, manly man. I’ve written about him several times on this blog, to wit “Teddy and Edwin,” “Princess Alice,” and “To Mar the Wonderful Grandeur.”

When Roosevelt and his family moved into the White House in 1901, they proved to be, no surprise, a colorful and entertaining bunch. Teddy was Teddy, and the six Roosevelt children (Quentin, Archie, Ethel, Kermit, Ted Jr., and Alice, ranging in age from four to 17) were pampered and high-spirited.

The Roosevelts, all of them, were ardent animal lovers. During Teddy’s eight years in office, a wide range of pets, livestock, and exotic creatures resided in and around the White House.

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Teddy and friends.

Among the family dogs were Manchu, a Pekingese; Sailor Boy, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever; Pete, most likely a Bull Terrier; Rollo, a 200-pound Saint Bernard; Skip, a Rat Terrier mix; and Jack, a Manchester Terrier.

Stabled on the White House grounds were 10 horses (Bleistein, Grey Dawn, Jocko Root, Renown, Roswell, Rusty, Wyoming, General, Judge, and Yagenka) and two ponies for the children (Algonquin and General Grant).

Other family pets: five guinea pigs (Admiral Dewey, Dr. Johnson, Bishop Doane, Fighting Bob Evans, and Father O’Grady); Eli Yale, a blue macaw; Loretta the parrot; and two cats, Tom Quartz and Slippers.

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Quentin and Slippers.

Alice, the oldest child, had a pet snake named Emily Spinach. She explained that it was as green as spinach and as thin as her Aunt Emily.

Also part of the Roosevelt menagerie: Jonathan, a piebald rat; two kangaroo rats; a flying squirrel; a barn owl; two parrots; a raccoon; a coyote; a zebra; a wildcat; five bears; Joe the lion; and Bill the hyena.

Also, Maude, a white pig; Peter the rabbit; Bill the lizard; Baron Spreckle, a hen; and a one-legged rooster whose name I couldn’t ferret out.

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Manchu was a black Pekingese, a gift to Alice from the Empress of China. Alice relished the dramatic, and she claimed she once saw Manchu dancing on his hind legs on the White House lawn in the moonlight.

Teddy wrote that one of his favorite dogs, Sailor Boy, “had a masterful temperament and a strong sense of both dignity and duty.” He said the dog always broke up fights among the other dogs and “himself never fought unless circumstances imperatively demanded it.”

In 1907, the President wrote to his son Kermit that Pete the Bull Terrier had killed four squirrels. Teddy said it was proof that “the squirrels were getting so careless that something was sure to kill them anyhow.”

In time, Pete acquired the unfortunate habit of biting people. His victims included a naval officer, a policeman, and a cabinet minister. At first, Teddy said it was “the nature of the breed,” and he resisted getting rid of Pete.

But Pete sealed his own fate when he attacked the French Ambassador. Reportedly, Pete chased the Ambassador down a White House corridor, caught him, and tore the bottom out of his pants.

The French government filed a formal complaint; Pete was exiled to the family’s Long Island estate.

Teddy bragged that Jack the Manchester Terrier “was human in his intelligence and affection; he learned all kinds of tricks and was a high-bred gentleman.” Jack also was known to gnaw on books, and he was afraid of the female cat, Tom Quartz.

When Jack died, he was buried on the White House grounds. But the First Lady soon had second thoughts. She said she didn’t want to leave Jack behind “beneath the eyes of presidents who might care nothing for little black dogs.” Accordingly, when the Roosevelts left Washington in 1908, Jack’s remains were moved to the family estate on Long Island.

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Jack the Manchester Terrier.

Algonquin was a Shetland pony belonging to Archie. In 1903, while Archie was in bed recovering from measles, he told his mother he missed Algonquin and wanted to go to the stables to see him. His mother told Archie he was too ill and needed to stay in bed.

While Archie sulked, one of the stable hands suggested to the First Lady that they bring the pony to Archie. With the First Lady’s approval, Algonquin was walked into the White House, onto an elevator, up to the second floor, and down the hall to Archie’s bedroom, where a joyful reunion ensued.

TR-5

Archie astride Algonquin.

Eli Yale, a Hyacinth Macaw, was the beloved pet of 14-year-old Ted Jr. The bird was named after Elihu Yale, the British philanthropist and namesake of Yale University. The President wrote, “Eli is the most gorgeous macaw, with a bill that I think could bite through boilerplate, who crawls all over Ted, and whom I view with dark suspicion.”

TR-6

Ted Jr. and Eli Yale.

Archie had a pet badger named Josiah that was said to be friendly, but occasionally short-tempered. Once, when Teddy saw Archie carrying Josiah in his arms, he warned his son that the badger might bite his face.

Archie replied, “He bites legs sometimes, but he never bites faces.”

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Archie and Josiah.

Most of the exotic and wild animals were gifts from world leaders. Bill the hyena, for example, was presented to Roosevelt in 1904 by the Emperor of Ethiopia.

According to White House archives, Teddy was reluctant to accept the animal, being of the opinion that hyenas are cowardly creatures.

But he relented, and soon, Bill was allowed inside the White House, where he was known to beg for scraps at the dinner table.

Joe the lion, also a gift from the Emperor of Ethiopia, never set a paw on the White House grounds. Like the zebra, the wildcat, and others, Joe was taken on arrival to the National Zoo.

For reasons I couldn’t determine, Bill the hyena eventually joined him there.

TR-8

The Roosevelt family. Left to right: Quentin, Teddy, Ted Jr., Archie, Alice, Kermit, Edith, and Ethel.

 

 

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There was a time a handful of decades ago when people read newspapers. They did it because newspapers (and magazines) were primary sources of news and entertainment. Imagine that.

Back in those days, the syndicated humor column “At Wit’s End” by Erma Bombeck was hugely popular. It appeared three times a week in 900 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada. A staggering level of readership.

Nowadays, people may know her name vaguely, but probably haven’t read any of her stuff. I aim to fix that, because everyone should read themselves some Erma Bombeck.

Someone wrote that “motherhood was her beat.” Well, she covered it with remarkable insight and wit. Bombeck had a knack for finding and sharing the humor and absurdity in the life of a typical suburban mom. Her columns, whether biting, ironic, sardonic, sentimental, or a combination thereof, rarely disappointed.

Here is a sampling.

———

Waking Up Momma (1966)

How I am awakened in the morning usually determines how I feel the rest of the day.

When allowed to wake up in the natural way, I find myself quite civil and reasonable to cope with the routine. When the children do the job for me, I awake surly, uncommunicative and tire easily. (I once fell asleep while I was having my tooth filled.)

It all begins at some small hour in the morning. The children line up at my bedside and stare at me as if I’m a white whale that has been washed onto the beach.

“I think she hears us. Her eyelids fluttered.”

“Wait till she turns over, then everybody cough.”

“Get him out of here.”

“She’s pulling the covers over her ears. Start coughing.”

I don’t know how long it will be before one of them discovers that by taking my pulse they will be able to figure out by its rapid beat if I am faking or not. But it will come.

When they were smaller, they were even less subtle. They would stick their wet fingers in the openings of my face and whisper, “You awake yet?” Or good old Daddy would simply heave a flannel-wrapped bundle at me and say, “Here’s Mommy’s little boy.”

(Any mother with half a skull knows that when Daddy’s little boy becomes Mommy’s little boy, Daddy’s little boy is so wet he’s treading water.)

The imagination of children never fails to stagger me. Once they put a hamster on my chest, and when I bolted upright (my throat muscles paralyzed with fright) they asked, “Do you have any alcohol for the chemistry set?”

Probably the most unnerving eye-opener was a couple of weeks ago, when my eyes popped open without the slightest provocation. “Those rotten kids have done it again,” I grumbled. “How can I sleep with that infernal quiet? The last time it was this quiet they were eating cereal on the front lawn in raggy pajamas.” I hurried to find them.

I found them in the kitchen intent on their cereal. No noise. No nonsense. “Go back to bed,” they yelled. “We won’t want any lunch until nine-thirty or so.”

It was going to be another one of those days.

———

The Paint Tint Caper (1965)

Once… just once… I’d like to be dressed for an emergency.

I don’t mean like my grandmother used to warn: “That is not underwear to be hit by a car in.” I mean just to be glued together, so you’re not standing in a hospital hallway in a sweatshirt (PROPERTY OF NOTRE DAME ATHLETIC DEPT.) and a pair of bedroom slippers.

In a way, it’s almost as if fate were waging a cruel war and you’re in the middle of it. Not only are you (a) bleeding to death, (b) grimacing in pain, and (c) worried half out of your skull, you are also plagued with the fear that the nurses in East Wing C are passing the hat to adopt you and your family for Thanksgiving.

Take our Paint Tint Caper, for example. Our small son climbed into bed with us early one morning and smiled broadly. I’m intuitive. I’m a mother. I sensed something was wrong. His teeth were blue. He had bitten into a tube of paint tint. Now if you’re visualizing some sweet, tousled-hair boy in his fire-engine pajamas, forget it. This kid looked like he was being raised by werewolves!

In addition to his blue teeth, he was wearing a pair of training pants and his father’s old T-shirt, which caught him loosely around the ankles. This was obviously no time to be proud or to explain that I was a few years behind in the laundry. We rode like the wind to the emergency ward of the hospital, where the doctor checked over his blue teeth so calmly I thought there was something wrong with mine because they were white.

“What kind of paint tint?” he asked clinically.

“Sky blue,” we said shakily, pointing to the color on his T-shirt.

“I can see that,” he said irritably. “I mean, what did it contain chemically?”

My husband and I stared at each other. Normally, you understand, we don’t let a can of paint into the house until we’ve committed the chemical contents and their percentages to memory. This one had escaped us somehow.

While they were pumping his stomach, we took a good look at ourselves. My husband was in a pair of thrown-over-the-chair denims and his pajama top. I was wearing yesterday’s house dress with no belt, no hose, and a scarf around my uncombed hair. I was clutching a dish towel, my only accessory. We looked like a family of Okies who had just stepped into the corridor long enough to get a tin can of water for our boiling radiator.

There are other stories, other dilemmas, but the characters never change. We’re always standing around, unwashed, uncurled, harried, penniless, memory gone, no lipstick, no hose, unmatched shoes, and using the dirtiest cloth in the house to bind our wounds.

Makes you want to plan your next accident, doesn’t it?

———

When God Created Mothers (1974)

When the Good Lord was creating mothers, He was into his sixth day of “overtime” when an angel appeared and said, “You’re doing a lot of fiddling around on this one.”

And the Lord said, “Have you read the specs on this order? She has to be completely washable, but not plastic. Have 180 movable parts… all replaceable. Run on black coffee and leftovers. Have a lap that disappears when she stands up. A kiss that can cure anything from a broken leg to a disappointed love affair. And six pairs of hands.”

The angel shook her head slowly and said, “Six pairs of hands… no way.”

It’s not the hands that are causing me problems,” said the Lord. “It’s the three pairs of eyes that mothers have to have.”

That’s on the standard model?” asked the angel.

The Lord nodded. “One pair that sees through closed doors when she asks, ’What are you kids doing in there?’ when she already knows. Another here in the back of her head that sees what she shouldn’t but what she has to know, and of course the ones here in front that can look at a child when he goofs up and say, ’I understand and I love you’ without so much as uttering a word.”

Lord,” said the angel, touching His sleeve gently, “Go to bed. Tomorrow…”

I can’t,” said the Lord, “I’m so close to creating something so close to myself. Already I have one who heals herself when she is sick… can feed a family of six on one pound of hamburger… and can get a nine-year-old to stand under a shower.”

The angel circled the model of a mother very slowly. “It’s too soft,” she sighed.

But she’s tough!” said the Lord excitedly. “You cannot imagine what this mother can do or endure.”

Can it think?”

Not only can it think, but it can reason and compromise,” said the Creator.

Finally, the angel bent over and ran her finger across the cheek. “There’s a leak,” she pronounced. “I told You You were trying to push too much into this model.”

It’s not a leak,” said the Lord. “It’s a tear.”

What’s it for?”

It’s for joy, sadness, disappointment, pain, loneliness, and pride.”

You are a genius,” said the angel.

The Lord looked somber. “I didn’t put it there,” He said.

———

A Mother’s Love (1985)

Someday, when my children are old enough to understand the logic that motivates a mother, I’ll tell them…

I loved you enough to bug you about where you were going, with whom, and what time you would get home.

I loved you enough to insist you buy a bike with your own money, which we could afford, and you couldn’t.

I loved you enough to be silent and let you discover your handpicked friend was a creep.

I loved you enough to stand over you for two hours while you cleaned your bedroom, a job that would have taken me 15 minutes.

I loved you enough to say, “Yes, you can go to Disney World on Mother’s Day.”

I loved you enough to let you see anger, disappointment, disgust, and tears in my eyes.

I loved you enough not to make excuses for your lack of respect or your bad manners.

I loved you enough to admit that I was wrong and ask for your forgiveness.

I loved you enough to ignore “what every other mother” did or said.

I loved you enough to let you stumble, fall, hurt, and fail.

I loved you enough to let you assume the responsibility for your own actions, at 6, 10, or 16.

I loved you enough to figure you would lie about the party being chaperoned, but forgave you for it… after discovering I was right.

I loved you enough to shove you off my lap, let go of your hand, be mute to your pleas and insensitive to your demands… so that you had to stand alone.

I loved you enough to accept you for what you are, and not what I wanted you to be.

But most of all, I loved you enough to say no when you hated me for it. That was the hardest part of all.

———

Are We Rich? (1971)

The other day out of a clear blue sky Brucie asked, “Are we rich?”

I paused on my knees as I retrieved a dime from the sweeper bag, blew the dust off it and asked, “Not so you can notice. Why?”

How can you tell?” he asked.

I straightened up and thought a bit. Being rich is a relative sort of thing. Here’s how I can always tell.

You’re rich when you buy your gas at the same service station all the time so your glasses match.

You’re rich when you can have eight people to dinner and don’t have to wash forks between the main course and dessert.

You’re rich when you buy clothes for your kids that are two sizes too big for the one you buy ‘em for and four sizes too big for the one that comes after him.

You’re rich when you own a boat — without oars.

You can tell people have money when they record a check and don’t have to subtract it right away.

People have money when they sit around and joke with the cashier while she’s calling in their charge to see if it’s still open.

You’re rich when you write notes to the teacher on paper without lines.

You’re rich when your television set has all the knobs on it.

You’re rich when you can throw away a pair of pantyhose just because it has a large hole in it.

You know people are loaded when they don’t have to save rubber bands from the celery and store them on a doorknob.

You’re rich when you can have a home wedding without HAVEN FUNERAL HOME stamped on the folding chairs.

You’re rich when the Scouts have a paper drive and you have a stack of The New York Times in your basement.

You’re rich when your dog is wet and smells good.

You’re rich when your own hair looks so great everyone thinks it’s a wig.

Brucie sat quietly for a moment, then said, “I think my friend Ronny is rich.”

How can you tell?” I asked.

His mom buys his birthday cake at a bakery, and it isn’t even cracked on top.”

He’s rich, all right,” I sighed.

———

No More Oatmeal Kisses (1969)

A young mother writes: “I know you’ve written before about the empty-nest syndrome — that lonely period after the children are grown and gone. Right now, I’m up to my eyeballs in laundry and muddy boots. The baby is teething; the boys are fighting. My husband just called and said to eat without him, and I fell off my diet. Lay it on me again, will you?”

OK. One of these days, you’ll shout, “Why don’t you kids grow up and act your age!” And they will. Or, “You guys get outside and find yourselves something to do, and don’t slam the door!” And they won’t.

You’ll straighten up the boys’ bedroom neat and tidy — bumper stickers discarded, bedspread tucked and smooth, toys displayed on the shelves. Hangers in the closet. Animals caged. And you’ll say out loud, “Now I want it to stay this way.” And it will.

You’ll prepare a perfect dinner with a salad that hasn’t been picked to death and a cake with no finger traces in the icing, and you’ll say, “Now, there’s a meal for company.” And you’ll eat it alone.

You’ll say: “I want complete privacy on the phone. No dancing around. No demolition crews. Silence! Do you hear?” And you’ll have it.

No more plastic tablecloths stained with spaghetti. No more bedspreads to protect the sofa from damp bottoms. No more gates to stumble over at the top of the basement steps. No more clothespins under the sofa. No more playpens to arrange a room around.

No more anxious nights under a vaporizer tent. No more sand on the sheets or Popeye movies in the bathroom. No more iron-on patches, rubber bands for ponytails, tight boots or wet knotted shoestrings.

Imagine. A lipstick with a point on it. No babysitter for New Year’s Eve. Washing only once a week. Seeing a steak that isn’t ground. Having your teeth cleaned without a baby on your lap.

No PTA meetings. No car pools. No blaring radios. No one washing her hair at 11 o’clock at night. Having your own roll of Scotch tape.

Think about it. No more Christmas presents out of toothpicks and library paste. No more sloppy oatmeal kisses. No more tooth fairy. No giggles in the dark. No knees to heal, no responsibility.

Only a voice crying, “Why don’t you grow up?” and the silence echoing, “I did.”

———

Plenty of Erma Bombeck’s columns are in print, and many are available online. Do yourself a favor and read some more Bombeck.

Bombeck E

Erma Louise Bombeck (1927-1996)

 

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In Remembrance

This is a feel-good story about people and families, although it’s tempered with a measure of sadness. It seems fitting as we enter a new year, a time when the old steps aside for the new.

———

Here in Jefferson, the local hotspot on weekends is the Pendergrass Flea Market, billed as the largest indoor flea market in Georgia. Indeed, the place is sprawling, chaotic, and crowded.

PFM

Over time, the PFM has evolved into a social gathering spot for area Hispanics, and, to a lesser extent, various Asian groups. Much of the merchandise reflects that fact.

Maybe you aren’t in the market for Mexican pottery, oriental spices, cell phone cases, boom boxes, Iron Maiden tee-shirts, imported toys, imitation jewelry, pony rides, tools, tires, or live chickens, but the fresh produce is plentiful, and the food court has an array of authentic international cuisine.

The PFM began as an ordinary flea market operated, then as now, by Anglos. Likewise, while many of the vendors are Hispanic and Asian, just as many are locals of European stock.

One of them is my amiable friend Tony, a fellow divorcé and retiree.

Tony is a builder, a tinkerer, a hands-on kind of guy. In the same way that Trump golfs and I busy myself with wordsmithing, Tony enjoys woodworking. Behind his house is an elaborate workshop where he spends his days, and many nights, building planters, birdhouses, benches, side tables, and whatever else strikes his fancy.

On Saturdays and Sundays, you will find Tony at his booth at Pendergrass Flea Market, selling his creations.

Tony-1

Tony-2

Tony rented the booth a few years ago as an experiment, to see if sales would make it worthwhile. He seemed hopeful, but not optimistic. And, I gather, sales were slow at first.

But he stayed with it, and, over time, business improved. And continued improving. Soon, he was spending much of the week in the workshop to prepare for the weekend ahead. He also branched out and began making seasonal items for the various holidays.

One Saturday before Christmas, I stopped at the flea market to see how Tony was doing. His booth was brimming with woodcraft, including quite a few Christmas-themed items. Most notable: dozens of colorful paintings on rustic 4”x4” pieces of wood — Santas, Christmas trees, snowflakes, snowmen, elves, and more.

Had Tony painted them? Did his skills transcend woodworking?

No, he said, they were painted by his mom, an artist and author who lived on the other side of Atlanta.

To be clear, I know Tony only casually. I knew little about his family or his daily life. His mother was an artist and a writer? Interesting.

This is what Tony told me about his mother Marge.

She was born in Ohio, got married, had four children. She was a Registered Nurse by profession. Eventually, the family moved to Kennesaw, Georgia, where she worked at a local hospital until her retirement. Before long, she founded a private nursing service and ran it for the next decade.

Marge was an accomplished painter, working in oil, acrylic, and watercolor. She published five books. Her cooking skills and singing voice were widely acknowledged.

She was widowed in 2002. In 2015, at age 85, she toured Europe with friends.

Tony and his siblings were quite prolific. Marge had 13 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren.

In early 2017, Marge called Tony with a business proposition. If he would give her a supply of rustic wood squares, she would paint them with scenes suitable for Halloween, Christmas, and other holidays. Tony could sell them in his booth, and they could split the profits.

This was not a lady fading into her dotage.

Tony made and delivered several dozen 4”x4” squares. She demanded more.

He furnished more. She demanded more again.

In the end, she painted about 350 wood squares, all initialed, dated, and equipped with a ribbon for hanging. As each holiday arrived, Tony displayed and sold the appropriate paintings.

One of her favorite subjects, he told me, was an angel. Marge had painted about 50 of them. Tony figured they would be the hit of the Christmas season.

In November, after a long life of good health, Marge suffered a sudden and fatal stroke at age 87.

Because of his mother’s fondness for the angels, Tony decided not to sell them. Instead, he gave one to each of the 40 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in remembrance of Marge.

The proceeds from the sale of her other paintings will go to her favorite charities.

When Tony finished telling me all this, I turned away and began perusing Marge’s paintings. It helped me maintain my composure.

At that point, I badly wanted one of her paintings. Any would do. I chose this one.

Snowman

I may leave it up after the holidays. Just, you know, in remembrance.

 

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