A Sophie’s Choice of Her Own

My mother has always loved the movie Sophie’s Choice.  She was riveted by the decision Sophie had to make, to choose between the death of her daughter and the death of her son.

“It’s impossible to choose,” she said.  “How could I choose between my children?  If I did, it would haunt me for the rest of my life.”

I always thought my mother’s fixation on this movie was based simply on the quality of the movie.  After all, Meryl Streep was the lead actress.  The other day, however, I realized that there was a bit more involved.  Her grandmother had faced a Sophie’s Choice of her own.

The grandmother in question, Conchita Rodriguez, had three children, one of them her father Jesus.  (For those of you who know my cousin Rudy, this is our common forebear.)  In 1913, when Jesus was 12, the Mexican Revolution was raging.  It wasn’t a simple war, but it sure was a bloody one.  Bands of revolutionaries roamed the countryside waging war on whoever stood in their way.  Whole towns and even states were decimated.  And their method of drafting soldiers was brutal: Soldiers would come up to a house, put a gun to the head of any males in the household, and ask a question that had only one answer.

Conchita Rodriguez, circa 1903

Conchita Rodriguez, circa 1903

“Do you want to join Pancho Villa’s army?

In fact, this is exactly what happened to Conchita’s two sons.

Some mothers cried their hearts out.  Some went crazy.  But Conchita was different, as many of the women in my family are.  She was as tough as nails.  She marched up to Pancho Villa’s headquarters and demanded to see the boss.  She ranted and raved.  It probably helped that she was a pretty woman, too.  She soon found herself in the company of Senor Villa himself.

“And what do you want?” he asked.

“I want my sons back!” she screamed.

“We need them for the revolution,” he said calmly.

“They’re my sons!  They’re not your sons!”

“Not anymore.”

“You can’t have them!”

“I’m afraid you don’t have a say in the matter.”

The Rodriguez family, circa 1903

The Rodriguez family, circa 1903

Somehow, though, Conchita made headway with Villa.  Perhaps it was her tone.  Perhaps it was her will.  Perhaps it was her looks.

So at a certain point, Villa gave her a Sophie’s Choice.

“You can have one back,” he said.  “Which one do you want?”

But Conchita would not make that choice.  She insisted that both her sons be returned and that was that.  Perhaps there was money involved, or perhaps feminine wiles.  We don’t know.  The only witness, my grandfather Jesus, died in 1970.  The best information comes from my mother, who heard the story growing up, and all she says is that Conchita was so strong willed that she convinced Pancho Villa to release both of her sons.

Conchita died at age 54 following complications of a viral infection.  She developed acute encephalomyelitis (a disease of the brain and spinal cord), chronic bronchitis, and an enlarged heart.  They lived in the barrio in poverty.  Antibiotics were just starting to be used.  But she waited to go to the hospital, and when she finally did, her strong will was not up to the task.  She succumbed on August 13, 1937.  A lioness died that day.

Conchita in her later years

Conchita in her later years

Strong will runs in my family.  My mother used her Herculean will in getting her education.  I used my strong will to become a featured performer at the world-famous Magic Castle within seven years of picking up my first magic trick.  And nobody is going to force us to make a Sophie’s Choice if we don’t want to.  We won’t stand for it.

What Would It Benefit Me?

Two weeks ago, I discovered the name of a long-lost relative through my genealogical researches.  On a whim, I put the name into Google, and lo and behold, a phone number came up.  Apparently, she lives in Plano, in greater Dallas.  So I called.

Kathleen is 83 and seemed rather bored by my genealogical questions.  Perhaps she was wary, too.  After all, I might be some kind of con man pretending to be a relative and trying to wheedle his way into her bank account.  Finally, she gave me a couple phone numbers to the genealogists in the family.

“Would you like to write down my phone number?” I asked.

“Well,” she said with a heartless Texas drawl, “what would it benefit me?”

After hanging up, I laughed.  Then I went upstairs and found my girlfriend.

“You’ll never believe what this woman said to me,” I said, and proceeded to tell her about the most precious line of the conversation.

What would it benefit me?

David and Claire after 10 years together

“That perfectly sums up a certain way of thinking that some people have, doesn’t it?” I said.

“Yes, it certainly does,” Claire said.

In time, I got over it and continued my genealogical search.  I called both of the numbers Kathleen gave me, and one of those people, Lloyd, was incredibly helpful.  He’s quite an accomplished genealogist, and didn’t really need to refer to the computer in order to rattle off names and dates.  I later learned that he had owned a bank at one point, in spite of the fact that childhood polio had rendered him wheelchair bound.  Now, in his late seventies, Lloyd was lucid, insightful, and comprehensive.

Two weeks later, totally out of the blue, Kathleen called back.  I guess she’d thought about it for a couple weeks and found herself curious. Turns out Kathleen didn’t know the name of her own grandmother, Lillie, or know that she had died at age 27 in 1901 while giving birth to her own father.  She didn’t know that her grandfather had died at 31 of a stroke, a sad turn that scattered their four children to the four winds.

“It’s really kind of a tragedy,” I said.

“Yes, it is.  But that kind of thing happened a lot in those days, women dying in childbirth.”

We talked a bit more, and then, when we were hanging up, she said something curious.

“You’ll call me every now and then, won’t you?”

I grinned.

“What will it benefit me?” I said.

It would have been perfect for me to say that, but in all truth, I didn’t.  I’m not the type of smartass who takes revenge just to be clever.

Yes, Kathleen, I will call you, just to say hello.

I Open My Arms to the World

I’ve always been interested in genealogy.  When I was 15, I asked my father all the schools he had ever attended.  He humored me, thinking that in some way he’d always be around to tell me that information.  Twenty years later, the ambulance came for the last time.  I still have that list.

Donald Groves in the kitchen 1b smaller

My father, Donald Groves

When I was 23, I asked my father’s father about our forebears.  He was the most silent man I’ve ever run into, and by that time, he was bedridden. I had driven all the way out from West L.A. to Yucaipa, a 2-hour drive, and he wouldn’t talk.  Finally, after about an hour, he said something.

“There’s more than one way to kill a cat,” he said with a sly grin on his face.

I waited for enlightenment, and then he gave it to me.

“The best way, though, is to slit it lengthwise along the belly and press up from the backbone.”

He did finally let me in on one important tidbit: his grandfather’s name.

Left to right, Sally Groves, Roy Groves, Emily Groves

My father’s father, Roy Groves

“C.C. Brundage,” he said.

I wrote that down.

“You know what the C.C. stands for?”

“No, what?”

“Christopher Columbus.”

Grandpa Roy let out a weak grizzled laugh.  It’s hard to describe what it sounded like, although maybe this captures it: It sounded like lung damage.  He had smoked most of his life, and on top of that, had had a career working for decades at a paper mill, where paper fibers floated in the air at all times.  Even at age 18, he was working at a factory that manufactured strawboard, which was a kind of paper made from straw.  I’m sure those fibers were permanently embedded in his lungs, too.  He died at age 70.

But the toughest genealogical resource in my family has always been my mother.  It’s not that she doesn’t give me information, although she sometimes does it in a grudging way, as if elucidating the past is putting another nail in her coffin.  Her toughness expresses itself in different ways, but in this example, it’s that she has never filed a census form.

My mother at age 16

My mother at age 16

In my genealogical researches, census forms have been my most valuable resource.  Through that, I have established the names and birth dates of many relatives.  In the common U.S. Census form, they first list the head of household and his or her age, and then list the other occupants and their ages.  Often, it’s clear what their relationship is.  In that way, I established that my great-grandfather’s name was Charles (born 1869), my great-great-grandfather’s name was John (born 1836), and my great-great-great-grandfather’s name was John, as well (born 1792).  I’ve also established the names of sons and daughters that have branched off my direct line.

Census forms also provide other fascinating information, too.  Depending on the year, U.S. Census forms have asked questions such as:

  • Level of education attained
  • Employment
  • Disabilities
  • Occupation
  • Address
  • Race
  • Birth country of parents
  • Relation to head of household
  • How many slaves you own

I make no excuses for my mother.  She’s guilty as charged.  But who is ever going to prosecute her for it?

It was in the year 2000 that I first witnessed her dodging the census taker, but it was in 2010 that I became acutely aware of it.  Because she had had a couple of strokes, I began going to her house on a more regular basis.

“Did you lock the front gate?” she would ask when I entered the house.


“Well go lock it.”

“Why?  I’m here to protect you.”

“The census lady is looking for me.”

“Why don’t you want to fill out the census?”

“It’s none of their business.”

IMG_1046 smaller

My mother now.

So I would lock the gate upon arriving at her house, and again upon leaving, shaking my head all the way.

This evasion went on for months and months.  Sometimes, I would ask her why she was so dead-set against filling out the census.

“I’m a very private person,” she would say.

“They don’t release the census to the general public,” I would say.

“It’s still none of their business.  Oh, you’re such an open person.  You’re always writing things on the Internet, giving away all of our personal business.  Why do you have to do that?”

“What is there to be afraid of?”

“Because it’s nobody else’s business!”

Strangely, very strangely, I have very different conversations with her about government surveillance.

“My new novel is about a woman who has a secret admirer in the NSA,” I said.  “He loves her and he hates her.  He’s spying on her all the time without government clearance.  It points up the dangers of having such an extensive surveillance apparatus here in the U.S.”

Cover What Happens 1d

“But we’re at war.”

“Mom, we’ve been at war for 12 years against the terrorists.  There’s no end in sight.  When is it going to stop?”

“Why do you have to get involved in politics?”

“So you’re afraid of the census lady but you’re not afraid of people who can listen to all your phone calls and read all your mail and don’t need a court order to do it.”

“Let’s not talk about this.”

I rarely show my blogs to Mom.  To most of them, she wouldn’t react well.  Mentally ill forebears, a great-uncle who shot himself in the chest at age 40, a brain-damaged great-aunt who babbled nonsense.

Why do they have to know our business?!

Because if you don’t tell the truth in your writing, dammit, you might as well be manufacturing sleeping pills.  Because it’s intimacy.  It’s charged.  Hell, I open my arms to the world.  I let them see my scars.  I let them judge me.  I let them sneer at me, because sneering is what they do, and this is what I do.  So sue me.

Business card Face Cards 6i

Adventure on Road X (part 11)

[Continued from a previous post]

It all started with a baby.

027 (2)In the spring of 1956, Donald and Sally Groves had hearts that were fuller than they could ever imagine.  They had both had difficult childhoods and gotten tangled up in their own pain and anger along the way as a runner might trip over his own shoelaces.  But finally now, holding a baby in their arms, for the first time in their lives, they had found themselves.  They knew they were doing something good and pure.  They had brought a baby into the world and they were going to give him all the love that they had never received.

Don and Sally in the woods 1a smaller cropped2

Sally had witnessed violence in her household.  Her father regularly hit her mother.  Her mother hated the pain, but in a strange way, loved it, too.  It made her feel alive in some primal way, so in some ways, she provoked it.  In fact, she was filled with primal feelings.  She put her daughter’s feet on the stove, ostensibly for coming home five minutes late from school, but actually, for beginning to grow up.  It was a confusing sin for the daughter.  Sally’s father had gone out with other women.  He longed for adulation and fame, as his grandson later would, but the progression of a Mexican entertainer in the thirties was by tradition stunted.  For his violence at home, he was rightly charged with assault and battery.  When Sally’s older brother grew old enough, he beat up the father for his violence.  As a reward, the brother was sent away from home to CCC camp.  It was a confusing and enraging childhood.  Heroes were punished, beauty was damned, pain was pleasure, pleasure was never quite pleasure, and truth was buried in the backyard along with the dead cat.

But now, with this child, it was all over.  The new baby wasn’t going to go through any of that.

I wasn’t going to go through any of that.  And I didn’t.

Sally Groves with her new babyMy parents took a 2-week trip, the baby in tow, to the Midwest to visit Don’s relatives.  Don’s grandfather Charles had died six years earlier, and his widow Dora had moved in with her son Earl in the oil town of Ponca City, Oklahoma.

Sally with her son in 1956 at Dinosaur Park, located in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Sally with her son in 1956 at Dinosaur Park, located in Rapid City, South Dakota.

It was an eye-opening trip.  I don’t remember it, of course, but we visited the Black Hills of South Dakota. We drove through Oklahoma and were refused service at a diner because of my mother’s skin color.  And when we reached Earl’s house, my parents were stunned to learn another ugly fact: The old lady didn’t want to see them.

Dora lived in a back house on Earl’s property, and she wouldn’t listen to reason.

“Why did she have to marry a Mexican woman?” she told Earl.  “I refuse to give my approval to a dirty Mexican and her dirty son.”

My parents were terribly disappointed and hurt.  They had traveled halfway across the country, after all, just to be refused at Dora’s doorstep.

After that, they looked for solace with Don’s great-aunt Caroline Allen, who lived in Colorado.  When he was in the service in 1948 – ’51, spending several bloody months fighting in the bloodiest battles of the Korean War, Aunt Caroline was the only one who wrote him letters.  Don always thought fondly on Aunt Caroline, and when the baby came along, they gave her last name to their child as a middle name.  But astonishingly, Aunt Caroline disliked my mother because of her race, too.  Caroline offered a chilly reception, and they went away terribly sad.

In the years that followed, my family looked back on that incident many times, and it eventually became a defining moment for them.  They settled into the comfortable suburbs and Sally hardened herself to those who had rejected her.  Thereafter, my mother referred to all Midwestern locations as “the South.”  To her mind, they weren’t worth visiting because they were all racists.  (There was much more to this story, which I’ve written about in a previous blog post.)


Many years passed.  In that time, the civil-rights movement transformed the country.  Racism began to be considered as an abomination, no longer the status quo that it once had been.  The child grew up not knowing what crucible he had been born into.  A whole new generation began intermarrying–brown with white, yellow with brown, red with white, and all shades in between, even black.  The n word became forbidden.  Laws changed.  Blacks moved into white neighborhoods.  In the 1950s, my Mexican Uncle Ray had been banned from purchasing a house in Paramount, but his son lived long enough to be glad that he had been turned down.  Hispanics were elected to Congress, state office, and even became movie stars–Freddy Prinze, J. Lo, George Lopez, and many others.  And finally, as a crowning glory, a black was elected President of the United States.

It is now 2013 and the baby has grown into adulthood.  A couple months ago, he was visiting Kansas on a genealogical quest and had stopped in at the local library to peruse the old newspaper archives.  It was at that moment, sitting at the reference desk, that he discovered an odd fact.  He stared for a long time at the article from the Hutchinson News-Herald that the librarian had given him.  It didn’t fit in with anything that he knew about the situation.

Dora Groves obit date

Dora, as you’ll recall, was Don’s grandmother, who had refused to see her own great-grandson because he had Mexican blood.  But there’s something strange about this obituary: It was published on September 25, 1955, reporting that Dora had died the previous Friday, September 23.  That was eight months before their trip to “the South,” and in fact seven days before he was even born.

When I returned to Los Angeles, I questioned my mother about it.  But she was adamant.

“Your Dad’s grandmother wouldn’t see us,” Mom said.  “It was Grandma Dora.  She was living in the back house at Earl’s place.”

I showed her the obituary again.  She looked at it for a long time, puzzling over it.  Finally, she looked up at me with confusion in her eyes.

“Then who was living in that back house?” she said.

Adventure on Road X (part 10)

(Continued from a previous post)

In my previous genealogical posts, I have attempted to boil down my ancestors’ lives into a single sentence.

Here is Roy Groves, born 1905, the racist who married a woman who quickly became schizophrenic.

Roy and Dorothy Groves 1

Here is Charles Groves, born 1869, who had a dream of having a Kansas farm tended by his sons, but his sons were bored stiff by farming life, and they all deserted him.

John H Groves royal society of the union 2a closeupHere is John H. Groves, who was wounded for the Union side in the Civil War, and then when hostilities ended, limped the 300 miles from Unionville, Missouri to Reading, Kansas to set up a new home.

John H Groves royal society of the union 2a closeup

At a certain point, though, every genealogical line peters out.

On my recent trip to Reading, Kansas (pop. 150), P. was showing me around the sights.  The Taylors are related to the Groves in the way explained below.

Family tree of Taylors and Groves b

P. and I were driving around in his grubby white Neon at 40 mph on Highway 99 when he pointed to the left.

“That’s the site of the original homestead.”

It took me a half-minute to hear him.

“What did you just say?” I asked.

He turned the car around.

“That’s the site of the original homestead where John H. Groves built a house in 1878.”

“I thought we had already seen the house.”

“No.  The original house was there.”

With that, he pointed to the right at a small collection of trees and rocks.

“Is there anything left?”

“I don’t think so.  I’ve never visited it.  My uncle just pointed it out once.”


“Do you want me to stop?”

“No, that’s okay.”

I would have liked to stop, and I should have.  To take a photograph would have been nice.  But, of course, we had a limited amount of time together.  What has remained with me is this:

This is where the physical remnants peter out.

I run into dry riverbeds, too.

This morning, I was researching John H. Groves’ wife Caroline Hayward, but I cannot get past her father, Joseph Hayward.  He was born in England in 1825, came to Canada, fathered Caroline there, and then died in Missouri.  But what comes before him is, at the moment, a mystery.

There are even more recent mysteries, too.  My grandmother Dorothy Fish’s grandmother came from Prussia.  She was named Karolina Klegen and died in 1915, but I know virtually nothing about her except that she spoke German.  What comes before her is, at the moment, a mystery.

One of my relatives has fancied herself a genealogist, and has traced our common roots back to Henry VIII.  When I sit in her living room and ask her for documentation, she waves her hand.

“It’s upstairs,” she says.  “I’d have to dig it out.”

It’s been a couple years now and she hasn’t dug it out yet.  As far as I’m concerned, that royal lineage stands on pretty shaky legs, especially given her predilection for wishful thinking.  After all, she’s an ardent Ted Cruz supporter.

Excavating the past is extremely daunting.  We attempt to piece together lives based on scant evidence.  We know he fought as a private in the Civil War in the Missouri Volunteers.  We know he settled into a house on Duck Creek where only this grove of trees now stands.  We know he died in 1935.  How much does that really tell us about John H. Groves?  I mean, really?

If one of your ancestors 100 years from now knew only that much about you, how much would they miss?  Take me, for example.  They might look at the facts and conclude that David Groves was an entertainer (from my census information) who lived in suburbia.  So?  That wouldn’t begin to encompass the other extraordinary aspects of my life.  I marched against nuclear weapons.  I exercised constantly.  I was at the same time an extravert and an introvert.  I once dated a woman who had spent the previous ten years dating women.  Turned out she was sexually damaged from childhood sexual abuse, and once remarked, “I haven’t been in my body during sex for the past nine months.”  After another year, that relationship ended up in court with her requesting a restraining order against me and the judge throwing it out for having no basis in fact.  My ancestors would never know about those parts of me just from studying census records.

Combination face 1a smaller

Take it a step further.  How much can we really know about those whom we think we know well?

My own father fought in the bloodiest battle of the Korean War, Chosin Reservoir, in 1950.  And yet I never heard a word about it from him.

Donald Groves in the kitchen 1b smaller

My grandmother suffered from schizophrenia, and yet I don’t know about its onset, its symptoms, the delusions she entertained.

In the 1940s and ’50s, there was a jazz pianist named Billy Tipton who attained some regional success.  He was married five times and lived to age 74.  Turned out he was a woman in disguise.

In my twenties, I was engaged to a woman named Suzy.  It broke up before we tied the knot, and as the relationship was disintegrating, she would often say, “You don’t know me.  Nobody knows the real me.”

If there’s someone sleeping next to you every night, think about it: How well do you really know him or her?  And what does it mean to really know someone?

Adventure on Road X (part 9)

[Continued from a previous post]

When I meet someone new, sooner or later, I’m going to perform a magic trick for them.  It’s a way of breaking through the barricades.  It’s a calling card.  And I suppose it’s a way of getting them to like me, as pathetic as that may sound, a way of getting them to think of me as special.

But here’s the dirty little secret: It tends to work.


I was in the little town of Reading, Kansas, on a genealogical search for my great-great-grandfather.  P. shared that great-great-grandfather, and was filling me in on what he knew about our common lineage.  It was an exciting visit, filled with stories, facts, explanations, and visits to two graveyards.

And after I had spent some time with P., I considered doing some heavyweight magic for him.  The only hesitation I had was religion.  After all, the Groves were all Baptists, and their type tended to be pretty literal about the devil and all his works.  I once approached Baptists at a restaurant table where I was working.

“I’m the magician at this restaurant,” I said.  “Would you like to see some magic?”

The party consisted of two men and one little boy.  One of the men looked up at me and, with a broad smile, said:

“We believe that God hates magic.”

It was quite a shock, but that’s the attitude you can sometimes run into in this business, and that was my fear with regard to P.  But at a certain point, my fear began to melt away.

IMG_3082 smaller

“I’m not religious at all,” P. said.

Plus, he said he had been living in sin with a woman for 21 years.  There was something in him that seemed to be brave about superstition.

So while we were standing there in the cemetery, I took out three coins.  They’re always the least intrusive way of doing magic.  They’re common objects, first of all, rather than bringing out a deck of cards, which might be considered sinful in themselves, or a hank of rope, which makes people think you might have come straight from the docks.  And secondly, coins are so portable.  I can carry them in my pocket at all times, and they take up hardly any space.

And if you think of it, a cemetery is a perfect place to perform magic.  You’re there with the spirits, and your performance seems to confirm the supernatural.

The magic looked like this, although the following performance is actually for someone else:

During the performance, P. just watched.  When I was finished, his voice contained astonishment.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said simply.

Forgive me, but in that moment, I thought of something that someone had said to me nine years earlier.

“These people have not seen such a thing before.”

The speaker was Belden, my driver on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific, which I had visited in 2004.  On Tanna, there are no paved roads, no electricity, and the tribes live in the old ways.  I had performed the same feat of coin magic for the Yuiniar tribe.  (Below, I am executing what we call “a vanish.)  The Yuiniar had greeted me with true awe and wonder, and there was at one point a tense discussion about whether I was performing “white magic” or something darker.  I also participated in a tribal dance, which involved 150 villagers dancing in concentric circles and stomping their feet in unison on the bare ground, and then after hours, Chief Tom sat with us in an open-air veranda in the dark of night and told us about magic men who can fly, transform into animals, and turn invisible just by putting a cat bone into their mouth.  (For my recent in-depth blog post on that experience, click here.)

Cover shot smaller

That’s not to say that country car mechanics are as primitive as South Pacific tribespeople, or even that Yuiniar tribespeople are primitive, God forbid.  I don’t want to insult anybody.  I’m talking purely in terms of astonishment and wonder.  Let me put it this way: If you’re searching around for an audience to stun with your coin magic, trust me, you’re not going to do much better than performing for a rural Kansan or a barechested Yuiniar.

[To be continued]

Adventure on Road X (part 8)

(Continued from a previous post)

When I met Claire, at my own birthday party in 1999, I learned almost immediately that she had grown up on a farm in Kansas.  It left me cold.  I seemed far removed from anything to do with Kansas.  The Midwest was the far-right flyover.

A couple years later, I started exploring my family tree.  Strangely, it seems that my family has had an alarming amount to do with Kansas over the decades.

John H. Groves moved there in 1878 because he couldn’t stand the bigotry in Missouri after the Civil War.

John H Groves royal society of the union 2a closeup

John H. Groves circa 1880

His son Charles moved to Hutchinson, which was exactly where Claire’s sister Becky lives.  When we flew there in 2006 to visit her family, we stayed only five miles from where my own grandfather grew up.

Charles S. Groves

Charles S. Groves

It was strange.  She could have been from anywhere, but she was from the glittery line that my family snail had left behind 85 years ago.  It’s coincidences like this that make me wonder if maybe there is a What Happens to Us, after all.  (Then something happens like a child dying and I know there isn’t one.)

In my recent genealogical trip to Kansas, I wasn’t just in search of ancestors, but also, in search of Kansas itself.  Reading What’s the Matter with Kansas, Thomas Frank writes that Kansas wasn’t always the apotheosis of averageness and conventionality that it seems to be today.

“A century ago, the favorite stereotype of Kansas was…the freak state,” Frank writes.  “The place crawled with religious fanatics, crackpot demagogues, and alarming hybrids of the two, such as the murderous abolitionist John Brown, who is generally regarded as the state’s patron saint, and the rabid prohibitionist Carry A. Nation, who expressed her distaste for liquor by smashing saloons with a hatchet.

“Kansas was a violent and a radical and maybe even a crazy place both by nature and by the circumstances of its founding.  The state was initially settled by Eastern abolitionists and free-soilers who came there to block Missourians from moving westward–in other words, to contain the ‘slave power’ by armed force….In the thirties, the state almost elected as its governor a beloved radio doctor who claimed to restore virility by transplanting goat testicles into humans.” (p. 31)

Politically, Kansas had a lot of far-left elements.

In the 1880s, when my great-great-grandfather John H. Groves moved from Missouri to Kansas, Kansas’ socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, had a circulation in the hundreds of thousands.  In 1912, the socialist nominee Eugene Debs actually carried Crawford County, Kansas.  Homegrown radicals like Mary Elizabeth Lease urged farmers to “raise less corn and more hell.”

In the decades since, however, Kansans have flocked to the conservative side.  They haven’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1932.  Their radical right is so wacko that one anti-abortion psycho shot abortion doctor George Tiller five times in 1993, and then another finished the job in 2009, shooting him in the head while he was attending his own Lutheran church in Wichita.

Along with this ideology, the right has brought an anti-union, anti-worker philosophy that has caused jobs and money to hemorrhage out of bleeding Kansas.

“…What they are demanding is more power for Wall Street, more privatization, and the end of Progressive Era reforms like the estate tax,” writes Frank.

What Frank is saying, in the end, is that in recent decades, Kansas has begun working against its own self-interest.  And man, that was a trait that I could see that in Kansas at every turn.

Coming back from researching my great-great-grandfather in Reading, Kansas, I made a wrong turn and drove onto I-135 south, which is a toll road.  Within a mile or two, I realized my mistake, that I should have taken Highway 50, and began looking for a turnoff.  But oh no, this was a toll road, run by a private company whose only purpose was to suck as much money out of its customers as possible.  This road, I was astonished to discover, had no exits!  It was as if Franz Kafka had designed a freeway.  I drove and drove, searching for an offramp, but there were none!  I contemplated making a U-turn, but there was a cleverly solid center divider that rose up three feet high.  To veer off on the right, I’d have to drive through pasture.

Somebody in government, I realized, had told the legislature that private companies always do things better than government.

“Privatize the roads,” he surely said.  “It’s the only way to bring competition back into the Kansas economy.”

The I-135 toll road was the result.  I didn’t encounter another exit for 35 more miles, when I reached Cassoday, which proudly calls itself “the prairie chicken capital of the world.”

IMG_3111 smaller

Working against their own self-interest was also in evidence in the houses you see throughout the state.  In searching for my great-grandfather Charles Groves’ old house, which he moved into in 1915, I discovered block after block of old historic edifices.  In Los Angeles, you never would have seen such neighborhoods fully intact.  Ninety percent of the old houses would have been torn down to make way for apartment buildings, strip malls, and more modern stucco structures.

Across the street from 117 E 9th Ave Hutchinson smaller

At first, I was puzzled at the profusion of old, dilapidated houses.  Gradually, though, it dawned on me.  They didn’t tear the houses down because they couldn’t afford to.  The money had been steadily draining of this state for decades.  People were taking shit jobs, living out their lives in old houses, dying in them, and selling them to other people who worked shit jobs, lived out their lives in them, and died in them, and on and on ad infinitum.  Nobody had the money to tear the houses down and build an apartment building or even just a bigger, more modern house.

Today, over 14% of Kansans live below the poverty line.  Stated differently, 19% of Kansas children live in poverty.  At the same time, however, Governor Sam Brownback has cut 15,000 people off the welfare rolls, slashed tax credits aimed at the working poor, and cut taxes for the rich and raised them for the poor.  In September, he announced that he will kick 20,000 unemployed Kansans off of food stamps.

Somehow, government officials have been allowed to let corporations such as Boeing, Iowa Beef Packers, Monfort, and others to push their workers around, outsource jobs at will to China, and keep the lid on minimum wage.  They turned Garden City into a giant cattle sewer that slaughters 30,000 cattle a day.  Taxes have been perilously low, so the schools have been poor, and so in turn, there hasn’t been a sufficiently educated workforce to support high-tech corporations or other more lucrative industries.  I mean, can you imagine Apple relocating in Kansas?

“The single most important element…is, as always, the demand for cheap labor,” Frank writes.  “From that simple imperative springs nearly everything that has happened here over the last 25 years.  Beginning in the 1960s, the big thinkers of the meat biz figured out ways to routinize and de-skill their operations from beginning to end.  Not only would this allow them to undercut the skilled, unionized butchers who were then employed by grocery stores, but it would also let them move their plants to the remotest part of the Great Plains, where they could ditch their unionized big-city workers and save on rent….

“…Take a drive through the countryside here, and you will see…trailer-park cities, dilapidated and unpaved and rubbish-strewn, that house a large part of Garden City’s workforce.  Confronted with some of the most advanced union-avoidance strategies ever conceived by the mind of business man, these people receive mediocre wages for doing what is statistically the most dangerous work in industrial America.

“Thanks to the rapid turnover at the slaughterhouses, few of them receive health or retirement benefits.  The ‘social costs’ of supporting them–education, health care, law enforcement–are ‘externalized,’ as the scholarly types put it, pushed off onto the towns themselves, or onto church groups and welfare agencies, or onto the countries from which the workers come….

“One angry [feedlot] worker told me, ‘After ten years, people walk like they’re 60 or 70 years old.'” (pp. 52 – 54)

It’s an old story: the corporation devouring the individual and spitting out the bones.  All over Kansas, people think that workers deserve nothing and corporations can do whatever the hell they want.  It’s been that way for decades.

It happened to my great-grandfather Charles Groves.  In 1910, Charles had a farm in tiny Greenwood County, Kansas.  He wanted his three young sons to help him work the farm, but they rebelled.  By 1923, my 18-year-old grandfather Roy was working at a paper mill that manufactured a type of cardboard made from straw called strawboard.  By 1926, all three sons had fled Kansas. Roy found a job in a Los Angeles paper mill working the graveyard shift, and spent his entire career there.

Good thing, too, because soon afterwards, Kansas’ ecologically destructive farming methods caused the Dirty Thirties, aka the Dust Bowl. By 1931, they must have read the newspapers and thought, “Whew, glad I’m not back there.”

The severe drought forced people to move and look for work.  Over half a million were left homeless.  Millions of farms were foreclosed on by the banks.  Thousands died.  By 1940, 2 1/2 million had left the plains states, hitting the road to try their luck elsewhere.  The Grapes of Wrath summarized their plight poignantly.

Charles Groves and his wife Dora hunkered down in Hutchinson and he eked out a living working as a carpenter.

Thirty years later, my girlfriend grew up on a farm in western Kansas.  It had become the kind of place where she could grow up, earn her Master’s Degree there, and get married there, and still not realize how banks and huge corporations had screwed the farmers.

Last month, while Claire and I were visiting, headlines blared the news of continuing abuse by the big corporations:

Layoffs Leave Wichita with Smaller Workforce

Fewer Are Working or Looking for Work

There are only 2.9 people left in Kansas–only 70% of the population of Los Angeles, where I live, spread out over 160 times as much land.  It’s an absolute null in national politics.  Still, I’m interested in what has happened there, if only to know what my long-ago relatives went through, if only to know what Claire went through, and if only to know what her network of relatives are currently going through.

“You know, in my family, we don’t talk about politics,” Claire told me today.  “It’s considered impolite.”

“Then why did your mother talk to me about Ted Cruz sticking it to Obama when we were preparing to take her to the hospital?” I asked.  “I wasn’t about to argue back.  After all, it looked she was having a stroke and they were preparing to take her to the hospital.  I didn’t want to be blamed for killing her.”

“Except my mother.”

If there’s one idea that has helped me to understand Kansas, really understand it, it’s this: Arguing against their own self-interest is the state sport.

[To be continued]

Adventure on Road X (part 7)

[Continued from a previous post]

IMG_3112a smaller

Land is what it’s all about out here in Kansas.  Standing in front of my old family homestead from 1890, that’s all that you see when you turn round and round in 360, is land and an endless horizon.

There’s a road that runs in front of the house, and it’s still just gravel, even today, but was just dirt around 1900, when John H. Groves and his family first moved there.  When wagons rattled along those roads, horse hooves clacking, huge clouds of dirt must have raised behind them, as they do today behind my rental car.  Back then, roads out here didn’t have proper names, and still don’t, it’s still just Road 270.  Look across the road and you see another man’s 40 acres behind a fence.  Look to the right and left and you see the old 80 acres that John and his sons used to till and work, using ploughs and horses and other machinery maintained by his sons Orlando and Frank Elmer Groves.

IMG_3067 smaller

At the moment, I was standing there with a ghost.  His name was Preston Taylor, Jr., a third cousin of mine that I had met for the first time just that afternoon.  He had been surrounded by this kind of vastness all his life.  Working as a farm mechanic, he had driven these country roads to the various neighbors for years, making house calls to fix their vehicles.

“We Taylors were one of the few people who came out of the Great Depression better than we went into it,” Preston told me.  “We had all our money in a bank, but then the bank failed.  At first, it seemed like it was going to be a tragedy.  But the bank had some land to pay us back with, so we took that.  That land has paid us back for decades.  We worked it till 1952, when we had a bad crop.  That loss hit my father so hard that from then on, we’ve just rented it out.”

Farms have been central to the greatness that is America.  My girlfriend Claire was born and raised on a farm.  Her grandfather had owned the farm, then handed it down to her own father, Fred.  Claire’s father worked the land diligently, ceaselessly, tirelessly.  He grew wheat, soy, and millet, and raised cattle.  Claire used to walk the pastures and enjoy watching the quail, hares, deer, and other critters.  If you’ve ever seen Claire watch an animal, you know the meaning of the term enjoyment.  She loved that farm, that land, and the critters who called it home, and when Fred became too old to work it a couple years ago and they had to sell it, we took one last visit.

IMG_3071 smaller

We walked the pasture.  We stood under the trees.  We mooed at the cattle.  A quail took flight and we heard that lovely flapping of its wings.  We walked the perimeter of that farm, which also consisted of nameless roads like Road X.  We visited the pond where Claire and her sisters had played as children dressed in their little bathing suits.  Visiting it for the last time, Claire’s heart ached.  She said goodbye to the land, because after all, it wasn’t just about the land, it was about the arc of her life.

But they made the best of it, as many American farmers do.  One story illustrates this better than most.  When Claire was 10, she remembers, a sudden hailstorm hit Plainville.  It was raining stones the size of midget golf balls.  She remembers being in the garage with her father, who just watched as the hailstorm destroyed his wheat crop.  There was nothing he could do but watch the destruction of his entire planting season.  After it was all over, Fred hung his head for a while, then just shrugged his shoulders.

“Girls, let’s gather up these hailstones,” he said.  “We might as well make some old-fashioned ice cream while we still have the chance.”

Standing in front of the old Groves homestead, with all those stories running through my veins, I felt a kind of reverence.

“I don’t know if anybody lives there anymore,” he said, looking at the house.  “Last time somebody was living here was the Wamsers, and they drank a lot and squandered away their money.”IMG_3068 bw smaller

So many things had happened in that house.  It was the house where John H. Groves, born 1836, had lived since about 1900.  It was the house that six children had called home.  It was the house that Daisy, a mentally impaired little girl, would live in all her life.  It was the house where Frank had shot himself in the chest one morning in 1920, despondent about his health.  It was the house where Daisy and her caretaker Cy had died so tragically in 1967.

But not all people show sufficient respect.  After Daisy and Cy’s death, the house was looted, Preston told me.

“Some rascals took John H. Groves’ Civil War military uniform,” Preston said.  “They also took a Victrola.  Shame.”

“Can we walk onto the property?” I asked.

I was eager to explore, or, as they call it in Kansas while holding a shotgun, trespass.

“I don’t like to do that kind of thing.”


So we gawked from a distance.  This was where John H. Groves’ two sons, Orlando and Frank, had worked their mechanical brilliance, according to Preston.

“I’ve saved some of the brothers’ tools and inventions,” Preston said, “and I’m willing to give you a couple.”

Give me?”

“Yes.  You can take them, if you want.”

The gesture made my heart skip a beat.  This blood thing was thicker than I had realized.

There was an antique watchmaker’s staking set, which was lovely and came in a handsome wooden box.  I later checked its worth online and discovered it lists on eBay for over $1500.

Antique watchmaker's staking set

Antique watchmaker’s staking set

There was an old ferrotype camera, which was fascinating because of my father’s and my own interest in photography.  I’ve gone into detail about Dad’s photography in a previous post that has become popular.

IMG_3077 smaller

And there was a puzzle that the brothers invented themselves.

IMG_3439 smaller

“The trick is, you have to get this ring over that ring,” he said.  “I’ve done it a couple times, but it takes quite a bit of effort to do it, believe me.”

I was searching for connections between the past and the present, and puzzles and magic was a connection.  Musical dexterity and mechanical dexterity was another.  I was looking for connections, because obviously, if we share some DNA, there must be some.  But it all came crashing down when I thought about Preston chucking his whole livelihood because he couldn’t spare the time to take a computer class.  Now that seemed ridiculous.

But it seemed disrespectful to think of him as ridiculous.  The occasion called for respect.  It called for an understanding of the decisions he had made.  After all, he hadn’t questioned my decision to spend 23 years of my life performing little trickie tricks, or spend 18 months with a witchy woman just because she had killer highlights in her hair.

So I looked him straight in the eye and listened.  He was my long-lost cousin.  It was the least he deserved.

Adventure on Road X (part 6)

[Continued from a previous post]

I must confess that I long to be descended from someone special.  I search records for evidence that proves I’m special.  Perhaps an ancestor was a Union hero in the Civil War.  Perhaps I was related to Shakespeare or Mozart.  Perhaps I was descended from royalty.  Or, at the very least, perhaps I was descended from the best barefoot sprinter in his village in 12th-century Provence.

It was always the subtext of all my researches.  How am I special?

Neurology face 1a

I know, for example, that I have an excellent facility with language.  I type 105 wpm.  When someone says a foreign word, I instantly repeat it correctly.  The language center in my brain must be highly developed.  (Good thing, too, because my math/science center is pretty atrophied.)

Thus, while embarked on my genealogy search, I wanted to find someone else in my line who was, say, a newspaper reporter on the Kansas City Star who mentored a young Ernest Hemingway in 1922, say, or maybe just someone who spoke ten languages fluently.

The long-lost relative I met in the minuscule town of Reading, Kansas was a mechanic.  He talked with a country twang.  He couldn’t learn computers, so what was his logical next step?  He decided to close down his business.

IMG_3084 closeup 1b

My long-lost relative Preston

Presented with this sad personage, I told my girlfriend over the phone that I didn’t see much of him in me.

“After all, we share only 1/16th of our DNA,” I said.

“You’ve told me that twice already.”

“Well, it’s true, if you calculate it.”


Charles S. Groves

Charles S. Groves

The next day, I woke up in Hutchinson, two hours’ drive away.  I decided to research a different epoch in my family’s history, from 1915 to 1955, and Hutchinson is where it happened.  Once again, I was hoping to find someone special.

Hutchinson is a town of 42,000, much more than the 150 who now live in Reading.  By afternoon, I was searching through the historical archives for my great-grandfather Charles S. Groves.  By 1905, he must have rejoiced, because his wife Caroline had just given birth to his third son.  Being a farmer, he knew that three sons could form the basis of a farming success in little Twin Grove, Kansas, where he lived.  It’s still a minuscule town, with a current population of only 601.

By 1910, Charles pulled the two eldest out of school and put them to work in the fields.  But after a year or two, the sons rebelled.  They hated farm work.  They wanted to continue in school with their friends.  Good for them.  They wanted to graduate.  Charles resorted to corporal punishment, but even so, the kids couldn’t find any enthusiasm for the job, and as a result, productivity slowed to a standstill.  Ten-hour days are more than a 7-, 9- and 16-year-old can handle.

Charles couldn’t run the farm by himself, so finally, he gave up.  He moved to Hutchinson to work as a chemist in the Solvay Factory.  By all signs, it was a sad fall from grace for him.  It was his dream to own his own farm, as his father had back in Reading.  Charles’ father had two sons, Orlando and Frank, to help him run the farm, and they loved it.  They thrived on mechanical challenges.  They weren’t enticed by the glamour of the big city.  Why couldn’t his own sons be like that?  Charles was quite angry.

In researching Charles’ Hutchinson life, I picked up other signs of conflict in the family.  The boys went back to school, and by 1917, the oldest had graduated at age 20 from Hutchinson High School.  At the time, they were living at the house pictured below.

628 5th Ave Hutchinson 2b smaller

I took this photo on my recent trip to Hutchinson, then Photoshopped it to look like an old photo.

After the Reno County Historical Society archives closed at 5 pm, I drove over to the house and took some pictures.  Amazingly, much of old Hutchinson is still intact, and very few houses have been torn down and replaced by apartment buildings and newer homes.

The two younger sons, John and Roy, dropped out of school, I suspect, because I can find no trace of them in the HHS yearbooks.  Now here’s a strange fact.  By 1923, John and Roy had moved across the street.  I mean, who moves out of their parents’ house and to a house across the street?  Only someone who truly wants to get out from under someone’s unpleasant thumb.  Below is a photograph of that house.

629 5th Ave Hutchinson 3b bw smaller

I took this photo on my recent trip to Hutchinson, then Photoshopped it to look like an old photo.

From here on, we encounter what I call a lost generation.  None of these brothers distinguished themselves as special in any way.  Each failure, however, is interesting in its own way.

My Uncle John, the middle son, became a professional gambler.  In the 1960s, he walked up to me at a family reunion and gave me a deck of marked cards.

John Wesley Groves circa 1934

“I’m going to tell you the secret to winning at cards,” he whispered.  “Cheating.”

“What are you telling my boy?” my mother said, quickly coming to my rescue.

“Don’t tell her,” John said.

“What did he say to you?” my mother said.

“I can’t tell you,” I said.

Later, John was kicked out of Las Vegas for cheating.  In those days, kicked out of described a bloodier process than they describe today.  His wife and daughter ended up hating him.

My Uncle Earl’s son Earl, Jr., grew quite obese and made his living playing music in smoky lounges around Los Angeles.

Earl Groves, Jr.

Earl Groves, Jr.

I remember going over to his house with my parents on July 20, 1969, the day of the moon landing.  He was living with a woman he had met in one of those lounges, and truthfully, all they did all the time was drink and yell at each other in an ugly manner, even with company present.  It was quite unpleasant.  I wanted to watch this historic moment, the moment that Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, but these boobs were interrupting it with their own dysfunctional melodrama.  Earl died soon afterwards.

And Earl Jr.’s own son was a complete loser.  When he grew up, he became a Hell’s Angel and we never heard from him again.

My own grandfather, Roy, moved to California before the Dust Bowl hit.  He got a job in a paper mill and married a pretty young thing.  They had a child in 1929.

Roy and Dorothy Groves 1

But soon, it became clear that his wife was mentally ill.  She would pester her 8-year-old son with obsessive thoughts and conspiracy theories, following him for hours around the house until he was nearly insane himself.  When the marriage broke up, amazingly, she received custody.  One rainy night, she was gone, as she often was, spending the night with a man.  Donald was left on his own.  The thunder became more intense.  Donald became frightened, not knowing if it was the end of the world.  There was no mother there to calm him.

“There there,” a good mother would have said, “it’s just thunder.”

Donald Groves as a child

Donald Groves as a child

Finally, Donald couldn’t take it anymore.  He ran out of the house, down the street, through the pouring rain, and to his father’s house, but his father wasn’t there.  As always, he was working the graveyard shift at the paper mill.  When Roy returned at dawn, he found his son huddling in a fetal position inside the screened-in porch, wet and shivering.  That was the moment that Dorothy lost legal custody of her son.

But Roy himself was no bargain, either.  Not only was he a racist, which is a philosophy that had no future, even back then, but he went public with it.  He doubled down, marrying another racist from Arkansas.  The name for that kind of person is, put politely, a jerk.

So my view of this generation was shaping up quite nicely, that is to say, quite badly.  Losers all, nothing special.

One of my relatives has traced our line back to Henry VIII of England, who distinguished himself by killing two of his wives.  To be frank, Charles and his sons weren’t even as distinguished as that.

It wasn’t until my father came along that the family gained some decency again.  Dad married a Mexican-American woman from East L.A. because he loved her.  He gave up his dream of being a photographer to provide for his kids with a boring job as an architectural coordinator.  He coached on his son’s Little League team.  He never drank.  He never hit us.  He never owned a gun.  He was determined to be a good father, because so many people in the previous generation had been shits.

My father Donald Groves in his twenties

My father Donald Groves in his twenties

But then again, this is genealogy, not science.  I don’t know what earned rebellion turned John into a card cheat.  I don’t know what heartache of dispossession turned Roy into a racist.  I don’t know what dysfunction may have turned Earl, Jr., into an excessive mess.  I don’t know Preston’s extraordinary sides, given that I’ve spent only four hours with him.

The challenge, really, is to see every single person in his best light, as I have done with my father.  The challenge, as with your own children, is to find and see all that is special within them.  The challenge, in the end, is to love them.

Given that, it is clear that my genealogy search is not over.  I must find a reason to love them.

Adventure on Road X (part 5)

[Continued from a previous post]

IMG_3082 smaller

Standing in a cemetery where your 19th-century forebears are buried is a humbling experience.

We will all one day be no more than names engraved on stone examined by those who never knew us.

That’s what goes through your head, and it affects you in a global manner, in the way in which you conduct your business, your relationships, your arguments, your approaches to strangers.

Life is short and harsh, so why make it harsher? 

Standing beside me was my long-lost cousin, Preston Taylor, Jr.  We were standing in front of the tombstone of our common great-great-grandfather, John H. Groves and his wife Caroline.

Preston and I couldn’t have been more different.  I’m a UCLA graduate from L.A. with a penchant for pink satin shirts, and he’s a country mechanic who repairs combines and doesn’t have a penchant for anything, wouldn’t think of having a penchant–What kind of word is that, anyway?!–but wears overalls and a beany, excuse the deprecation.

Computers brought our lines together again.  If it weren’t for the power of the PC, we wouldn’t be here.  A couple years ago, I subscribed to Ancestry.com, which is a true revolution in the search for one’s roots, believe me.  Suddenly, genealogy has become digitized, which has been an exponential improvement in that type of research.  Suddenly, long-lost relatives can share family trees on the Internet.  Suddenly, a computer does all the sharing for you.  Suddenly, a company is digitizing census records (back to 1790), Civil War pension records, gravestones, immigration records, ship passenger lists, historical phone books, even church directories, and we have access to all of them automatically.

To give you an idea how revolutionary this technology all is, consider this.  Three years ago, I didn’t even know the name of my great-grandfather, much less when he was born.  Now, after long nights on the computer during which it was impossible to tear myself away to go to bed because I was so excited, I know his name was Charles (born 1869), that his father was named John (born 1836), and that his father before him was named John, as well (born 1792).

John H. Groves was what tied Preston and I together, indeed, perhaps the only thing.  He was born in 1836 and raised his family in Duck Creek, Kansas.  But there, our bloodlines split (see diagram below).  His daughter Rosa fell in love with a Taylor and stayed in rural Kansas, tilling the soil.  John’s son Charles moved away, and Charles’ sons moved even further away, until today, we all live in teeming, seething, gridlocked, glitzy, flaky, overdeveloped Los Angeles.  Thinking about the difference between us, it seemed that this last element–the pure density of bodies–was the most obvious one.

Family tree of Taylors and Groves bI learned so many curious things about my forebears on my computerized genealogy network.  I learned that my ancestor Daniel Beinbrech was born in Germany, that he immigrated to America around 1750, and that his son Henry Americanized his name to Bonebrake, only to be changed to Bonebright by the next generation, because of how barbaric that name made them sound in this new language.

I learned that dozens of my relatives had lived out their lives in famed Essex County, Massachusetts, in 1692, when Salem Village (also in Essex County) began trying innocent people for witchcraft.  My forebear Sarah Conant had a ringside seat.  She was 26 years old when Sarah Good was executed, followed by approximately 30 others over the next few months.

The computer gave me the incredible access to names, dates, and details, and it connected me to the past in an extraordinary way by sparking just one thought: We all come from somewhere.

It was a thought that has stayed with me.  And I had the digital revolution to thank for it.

“Would you like to see the old homestead?” Preston asked after we had spent a half-hour at John and Caroline’s tombstone.

Preston was the somewhere from whence I came.

“Sure,” I said.

So we jumped into his dilapidated white Neon with the box of nails and other hardware detritus on the dashboard and drove over gravel roads.

IMG_3084 closeup 1b

“Listen, if you want, I’ll send you all my genealogical research by email,” I said.

“Don’t have a computer.  Don’t want one.”

I stared at him in disbelief.

“Okay, I’ll send it by post office.  Is there still a post office in the United States?”

“I pick up my mail every day.”

While driving, Preston talked a little about his business, which since the 1980s has been fixing people’s vehicles out in the country.  For years, he has been driving these country roads and making house calls.  Cars, trucks, tractors, combines, whatever they needed fixed.  He made a lot of money doing that and packed a lot of it away into a savings account.

“But then gas prices started skyrocketing and I had to raise my prices,” Preston said.  “And then people stopped fixing things.  If they have a rusted-out tractor, they’d rather throw it away and buy a new one.  I charged sales tax, everything on the up and up.  And then three years ago, the state tax board says I can’t file my sales tax manually anymore, I have to do it by computer.  So that was the end of my business.”

It seemed like I was missing something.

“You could get somebody to file it for you by computer,” I said.

“No, I don’t do computers.”

“So you haven’t worked in three years?”

“No, I’m living off of savings.”

“Couldn’t you get a job working at a repair shop in Emporia?”

“After so many years being my own boss, I can’t work under somebody.”

It was a puzzle.  He could take apart a tractor engine and put it back together, but he couldn’t figure out a Windows Start button.  He could figure out how to make a living in a region that the money had deserted decades ago, and yet he can’t figure out how to use a mouse.  He carried within his memory all these stories about his great-grandfather, including the astounding one that after the Civil War, John H. Groves had walked the 230 miles from Sullivan County, Missouri, to Lyon County, Kansas–walked! after being wounded and listed on his Civil War pension as an “invalid”!–and yet he wasn’t even curious about the Internet.

These were mysteries that were just starting to unfold.

[To be continued]