Saturday, May 16, 2015

my grandfather's war II

A hundred years ago, literally, my grandfather, my mother's father, traveled from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Ottawa, Canada, signed up with the Canadian armed forces, and was accepted by the British (who run Canada) as a captain in the army that was bearing the brunt of battle in what would be called "World War I" but was then referred to as "the great struggle" or some other grand euphemism.

It was 1915 and as a point of associative interest, there were over 60 newspapers in Cincinnati at the time: Yes, Virginia, there was a time when the Internet did not exist and people found their entertainment in reading.

The Americans did not enter the war until April of 1917, but it was not unusual for men to do what my grandfather did -- sign up in Canada before their country became formally involved. I do not know my grandfather's motivation but 1915 was an era when "honor" -- the willingness and imperative to do things that an individual might rather not do -- was a personal badge and not just a throw-away line, a lapel-pin bit of bravado.

The information about my grandfather is detailed in a newspaper clipping saved in a ledger that I received yesterday in the mail -- a leftover salvaged from the effects of my mother who died in January.

Click to enlarge
The only other reference to the war is a military pass that indicates my grandfather got some time off in France. Otherwise the ledger has browned photos ranging from 1893 to 1933 and a bunch of newspaper clippings that detail a decorous kerfuffle about whether the Claypooles -- my grandfather's name was Harold Claypoole Eustis -- could trace their lineage back to Oliver Cromwell, a 17th century British religiously-starched hero or villain, depending on whose critique is applied.

Skimming this ledger, I find myself sucked into the maw of "lineage" and genealogy, neither of which I find particularly compelling. What leaves me behind when it comes to lineage is that you can gather facts about where someone lived or what they did, but you never get the particulars that flesh out a human being -- what made them laugh, what was their favorite breakfast jam, or whether they farted under the covers or believed that the world was flat.

I wonder at people who use lineage as a cloak of identity. If your ancestors came over on the Mayflower, if your forbears were slaves, if your family was decimated during one pogrom or another ... all these are things that may be interesting, but in what way do they define the collector of those things? To say that lineage is meaningless doesn't strike me as quite right and yet to call it meaningful in any concrete sense also doesn't strike me as logical or true.

What heft or self-worth does a family past actually have? As a bit of self-centered and self-affirming camouflage, I suppose it has some usefulness: The Daughters of the American Revolution seems to prove that. But in anyone's heart of hearts, do anyone's forbears hold a key to identity and station? Does a Hershey bar cost any less? How could anyone rest their self-assurance on the fact that they are "descended from" one person or another? Does that really clarify or improve anything?

I honestly don't know but it all seems tenuous and timorous to me.

I remain unconvinced ... and yet am willing to concede that where I came from is where I am.


  1. There's a lot of twists 'n turns that led up to now. People who contributed to events and were in turn somehow influenced by them. All of it contributing to me, carrying the torch to proclaim myself as the center of the universe. It's perfect because there really is no me, and an infinite universe really has no center. All of human history leads to me, the ultimate hoax, equal to 7 billion others.

  2. Lionel Lin RongxiangMay 22, 2015 at 2:16 AM

    A nagging thought at the side of the mind says "Take care of my own history, and let the world take care of theirs."