The War on Baby Boomers

It’s an old story, so I won’t bore you with the whole spiel.  The media called them the ’60s Generation, but demographers and advertisers called them the Baby Boomers, because when GIs returned from WWII, it caused a boom in births and a bump in the population.

All during my youth, they were a big deal.  Everybody looked to them to see what the future would look like.  Under their reign, racial barriers came down.  Whites started treating minorities like real people.  Whites started marrying blacks.  Kids started growing their hair long.  They didn’t see the use in raising their pinky while drinking tea or maintaining the perfect lawn.  They wanted to express themselves, find meaning, and gaze at their own navel.

David Groves with Afro ca 1979

The generation before them didn’t have a name.  But then Tom Brokaw came along and named them after the fact: The Greatest Generation.  And they were great, because they had real, life-or-death challenges that later generations didn’t really have.  They fought for everything they got.  They cleaned up the corruption that was rife within society throughout the 1930s and ’40s.

But now, those generations are under attack.  A virus has targeted them.  The media talks about the virus targeting the elderly, but let’s not forget that these people were a very big deal in their day.  They won World War II.  They brought us the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Aretha.  They took us to the moon.


Now, a small slice of American culture is saying that the mass death they are experiencing is just fine.

“Many people who are dying, both here and around the world, were on their last legs, anyway….” Bill O’Reilly said in an appearance on Fox News.  “A simple man tells the truth.”

Simple, yes, although not in the way that he means it.  Truth, no.

What O’Reilly is implying, of course, is that we shouldn’t mourn these generations because they would’ve died soon, anyway.  Well, O’Reilly is going to die soon, anyway, too.  But when that happens, I won’t go around disrespecting his life, because every life deserves dignity and respect.  Some people have no class.

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick put his foot in it, too, when he said:

“There are things more important than living,” and that those generations of Americans might be “willing to take a chance” on dying for the good of the economy.

Vicious, yes.  Pro life, most certainly no.

Sally and Paula in Paulas kitchen

Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

My own mother was a member of that Greatest Generation.  She remembers Pearl Harbor, blackout curtains and air-raid sirens.  She was a mother when Nikita Khruschev banged his shoe on the podium.  She worked hard for her Masters Degree, raised two good kids, and received her reward by retiring in a house on the hill.

My mother doesn’t deserve to be sacrificed body and soul so that a serial sexual harasser like Bill O’Reilly can try to goose his stock portfolio, or Dan Patrick can try to service the Texas oil companies by forcing people back into their cars.  They built this country before us.  It’s theirs.  Show a little respect, why doncha.

How I Killed My Father

Years ago, I gave my father the flu.  Six weeks later, he died of it.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.  The COVID-19 virus is spreading through families like wildfire.  There are still without a doubt children who have given it to their parents, as I did.  Everyone’s hunkered down in their hermetically sealed houses waiting to see how bad this is going to be.  We’ve seen the movie Contagion.  We’re waiting for dead bodies in the streets.  We’re waiting for loved ones taking their last breaths.  Or, more optimistically, we’re waiting for Fauci’s Curve to bend and for everybody to pour into the streets and hold up their hands to the strains of “Hallelujah” and ticker tape.

Donald Groves and Model A, age 17 smaller 2

My father’s story began in the late 1940s, when he was a teenager.  I don’t know the exact decisive moment when he started smoking, but he did mention a type of conversation.

“Come on, just take one puff.”

By the time Dad entered the Marines in 1950, his medical intake exam noted that his lungs exhibited “rales,” which are defined medically as “an abnormal rattling sound heard when examining unhealthy lungs with a stethoscope.”


By the 1960s, I remember Dad smoking a lot.  The smell of it didn’t disgust me, but simply reminded me of him with fondness.  He smoked Kents, which tagged him as intelligent and professional.  Mom smoked Salems, a feminine and breezy brand, something a pretty lady would smoke on a sailboat.  He never smoked as much as John Wayne, who bragged that he smoked two packs a day; he smoked half of that.  He was a construction engineer and a strong and silent 1950s Dad, and the smoking seemed to go along with it.  Decency was part of the profile, too.  He went to work in the morning at a big corporation and came home at night.  He never drank.  He wasn’t loud or obnoxious.  He coached my Little League baseball team.

One day when I was 16, I was in our house when I envisioned a moment that merited documentation with a camera.  Dad was sitting in the living room relaxing in his favorite dark blue velvet chair, a bright wall of curtained light behind him, having a cigarette and staring into space.  I snuck up behind him with my Rolleiflex and shot the photo before he even knew what was happening.

“Hey, what are you doing?!” he said when he heard the click.

“Taking your picture,” I said.


“Because that’s your favorite spot to sit,” I said.  “It’s a good picture.”

He was a tad pissed off, I must confess, but I was glad I caught it.  To me, that photograph perfectly defined my father, like Carly Simon’s song: “…My father sits at night with no lights on/His cigarette glows in the dark….”


My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking.

By 1985, I had graduated from UCLA and was writing freelance health & fitness articles for magazines and newspapers all over the world.  One day, I visited my parents at their home in Diamond Bar, California, and Dad was sitting on the carpeted stairway with his shirt off.  I was alarmed at how skinny he had gotten, although I didn’t immediately say anything.  The family was sharing time together, which didn’t happen all that often anymore, now that we were adults, and I didn’t want to dampen the mood.  However, I eventually just came out with it.

“Dad, you’ve lost some weight,” I said.

“Oh, I stopped eating donuts in the morning at work,” he said cheerfully.  “You know, the boss brings in a big box of donuts and they’re free. When I stopped eating those, I lost weight.”

“You know, the doctors that I interview say that a weight loss can also mean that there’s something medically wrong with you.  Have you gone to the doctor?”

“I’m okay.”

“But I’m just asking if you’ve gone to the doctor.”

“I’m okay and I don’t want to talk about this.”

“But Dad, what if you’re sick?”

“I told you I’m not going to talk about this,” he said, and stood up and walked up the stairs and into his bedroom, shutting the door behind him.

After he left, my mother, sister, and I discussed what had happened.  Whatever the cause of the weight loss might be, it was worth checking out.  We all agreed that something might indeed be medically wrong with him.

“He should definitely go to the doctor, Mom,” I said.

“Leave it to me,” she said with a wink.

Sally Groves studying 1

So I left it to her.  Mom said that she had “ways” of getting him to do things.

“I’ve been married to him for 34 years, after all,” she said.

So Mom started a campaign.  She discussed and cajoled.  She used reverse and double-reverse psychology.  She tried every trick in the book.  After several months of trying, however, he still refused to go to the doctor.

So my sister decided to give it a try.  She and Dad had a special relationship, like England and America.  She asked Dad if he would take her to the doctor.

“Okay,” he said.

So my sister made an appointment with Dr. Arnold Bergman in Montebello.  Dad drove her to the appointment, and they both waited in the examination room for the doctor.  When the doctor came in, he looked at the chart.

“So I’m here to see…Mr. Groves?” he said.

“No,” he said.  “It’s my daughter’s appointment.”

“No it isn’t, Dad,” Diane said.  “I want you to get examined.”

“Oh no.”

“Dad, we’re already here….”

“I said no.”

Dad walked out of that appointment, refusing to be seen.  His denial reaction, it seems, was quite virulent.  And all the time, he kept getting skinnier and looking more unhealthy.  His skin was prematurely dried out, his wrinkles deeper than they should be.

“I worry about you,” I told my father.  “You could be very sick.”

“I’m not sick,” he said, “I’m just getting old.”

“You’re only 57 years old,” I said.  “You shouldn’t be this frail.”

“I’m not frail.  And besides, I get all the health care I need on the radio.  I listen to Dr. Dean Edell every day on the radio.”

I’m sure Dad knew he was in bad health.  In the middle of the night, Mom would wake up and find him sleeping in strange positions, which is a common compensatory behavior when people find breathing difficult: Their body searches desperately for a position that makes it easier for their lungs to pull in oxygen, sometimes twisting itself in pretzels.  Sometimes, my mother would wake up in the middle of the night and find him sleeping with his butt shoved into the air.  Not only that, but he was getting down to an alarmingly low weight, partly because people with bad lungs find it difficult to eat; the time that the mouth is closed and chewing seriously interrupts their desperate efforts to breathe.  The body needs air more than it needs food, after all.

I was still writing health & fitness articles for all the major women’s magazines–Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Self, Shape, and the like–and was writing sagely about good health.  I was the man who told everybody how to live forever.  At the same time, however, I was full of heartache about the man I loved who refused to take care of his own health.  It was the heartache that we all carried around during that period, and we turned it this way and that in the light.

What occurred to all of us, quite as a surprise, I might add, that you just can’t force anybody to do anything.  It seemed ridiculous, but it was true.  We couldn’t make him save himself.  We couldn’t arrest him.  We couldn’t drag him bodily.  We couldn’t trick him.  It was our one great lesson in the mighty power of denial.

David Groves post college 1a smaller

In January, 1989, four years after I first spotted Dad’s weight loss, Mom was on a trip to Europe and Dad was all alone in that big house.  He didn’t like being alone, but he didn’t like to admit it.  He thought of himself as a lone wolf like Bogart in The Big Sleep or Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, but deep down, he really craved the warmth of the family.  During family parties, he loved to stand around the periphery, leaning on a railing, watching everybody enjoy themselves.  That spot on the railing was his querencia, which is a bullfighting term for the spot where a bull stubbornly stands in the ring where he feels he cannot be killed.  Dad never quite felt comfortable participating in family life, but he loved watching.  He wouldn’t have used the word love, but that’s what he enjoyed being in the middle of.

That winter, I had been sick with a particularly nasty flu.  For weeks, I would suffer its symptoms, fight it back with rest and medicine, and then it would claw its way back into my life.  I don’t know how many times I relapsed, but it was a few.  I remember sweating mightily in my sprawling two-bedroom apartment in Culver City, watching television while my head pounded and my sinuses filled with congestion.  The trash bins were filled with Kleenex.  But at some point, I had improved enough that I thought I was past the point of contagion.

“By the time you’re showing symptoms,” a gorgeous nurse friend of mine had said, “you’re no longer contagious.”

So I visited Dad in that big house.  It was a two-story house in suburbia with four bedrooms and a great hillside view of suburbia.  I hugged him, which he always bristled at.  I spent time with him.  We went to a video store to rent a movie, but ended up not being able to decide on what to watch.  He wanted to watch Conan the Barbarian or Sheena of the Jungle, while I wanted something literary or even Shakespearean.  To this day, I’m still not a fun dude.

Donald Groves in the kitchen 1b smaller

We went back home, having disagreed for about the millionth time in our lives, and before I left, had a conversation about Dad’s father.  I talked about how extremely strong and silent Grandpa Roy had been, and how I had given up trying to get him to talk, how it was impossible to get anything of meaning out of the guy.

“Wow, you noticed that, too?” Dad said.  “Wow, I thought it was me.”

Dad’s sudden interest in family dynamics surprised me.  He had never seemed that interested in the past, or even more so, psychological explanations for anything.  Thinking back, though, it occurs to me that Dad knew that he was quite sick, and that his life was flashing before his eyes.  He was gasping for air.  He was panicking.  His world was changing.  He was running out of time.

On February 9, my mother left a message on my machine.

“Dad has gone into the hospital,” she said.  “You better come today.  It’s serious.”

Dad had been diagnosed with a flu laid on top of the worst case of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and emphysema that the doctor had ever seen.  I pretty much stopped working.  The family spent all of our time at the hospital.  Mom slept there.  Dad was in ICU for two weeks, and then transferred to a Kaiser Hospital in Downey, just down the street from our very first house, back when I was 5.

There were many ups and downs that I could document, but suffice it say that after a month, Dad succumbed.  Early on the morning of March 9, while I was sleeping in my apartment, Dad suffered a series of heart attacks and strokes.  By the time I arrived around 8 am, Dad was brain-dead.  He laid on his ICU bed with blank eyes, staring straight at the ceiling.  We came in and said our goodbyes individually.  I looked at his body, with the same arms, the same chest, the same shape of face, and I saw myself.  In some strange way, I said goodbye to myself.  Soon afterwards, we pulled the plug.

I don’t know if I gave Dad the flu.  Truth be told, I’ve never worried much about it.  After all, I didn’t intend to give him the flu.  Not only that, but he could have caught it anywhere–at the grocery store, from a coworker, from the surface of a pack of cigarettes.  In addition, it was the severe risk factors that made that flu deadly, and I had no responsibility at all for that.  Hell, I had even asked him to quit a few times.

“I’ve tried to quit 150,000 times,” he said when he was first hospitalized.

Perhaps it was his fault.  Perhaps it was RJ Reynolds’.  When we went through his effects, we found a whole cache or RJ Reynolds promotional material that minimized the risks of smoking and complained about smokers’ civil rights, evil libertarian screeds that still make me angry.  But as for responsibility, I’ve never worried that it rested on my shoulders.  I don’t tend to worry much about things that are not my fault.


As of today, there have been over 162,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 3,000 deaths.  Many more may die, we’re not sure exactly how many.  It looms above us like a black cloud.  But hey, I’ve been there.  My father died at 59, but he should have had more years on this earth.  I would have liked him to see me get booked as a performer at the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, as I did in 1997, or to meet the woman of my dreams, whom I got together with in 2001, or to read my novel, What Happens to Us, which I published in 2014.  I would have liked him to read the passages in the novel about him.  I would have liked him to read what I had learned about life, so much of which I packed into that book.  But he only made it to 1989.

That very month, he had just fully paid off his home mortgage.  It’s ironic that he never had time to enjoy the payoff and his golden years.

Now, my mother is 89, and still misses Dad.

IMG_6024b smaller

Mom with my partner Claire.

“I think about him every day,” she says.  “He would have had to wear an oxygen tank around everywhere he went, but I wouldn’t care.”

Sometimes, I catch her crying.

“I’m just thinking about your father,” she says.

Like a nightmare, it’s happening again.  Mom also started smoking in the 1940s.  She stopped around 1990, but not before she damaged her lungs.  Now, she too has COPD.  She cannot walk half a flight of stairs without getting severely winded.  She cannot sleep through the night without wearing a tube that supplies her oxygen.  All of that makes her at high risk for COVID.

“If I get the coronavirus,” she told me recently, “I’m dead.”

IMG_5574 sm

She’s right.  As a result, she has holed herself up in her 4-bedroom house in Diamond Bar.  She doesn’t let anyone in, even me.  She lives there with her little Shih Tzu Phoebe and her five television sets.  She’s happy to watch her Columbo and Everybody Loves Raymond and documentaries on history and civilization. When she needs help on her computer, as she often does, I take control of it from my house with Team Viewer, a program that allows remote computer control.

The way it’s going, it looks like she’s going to turn 90 alone in that house.  Her birthday is in May.

When Mom needs food, I shop for her.  Then I drive into her driveway and call her on the cell phone.  She opens the garage door remotely and I bring the groceries into the middle of the garage and walk out.  Then she carries the groceries inside.  She washes each package with rubbing alcohol.  Then she washes the bags, even the handles, with bleach.  She can’t be too careful.  She loves life.  She still finds it sweet, indeed.

This week, I read the statistics.  Dr. Fauci says that up to 200,000 Americans may die of this COVID.  Other estimates say that up to 2.2 million may die.  Then on Facebook, Trump is afraid, not of the disease, but of losing money in the stock market.  He wants the country “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he said.  Republicans argue that we have to get back to the economy and not be afraid to live our lives.  It’s worth the lives we lose.  After all, they’re just old people who are going to die soon, anyway.

I just think of my father.  I would have liked another 30 years with him.  I would have liked to get to know him better.  I would have asked him about the Korean War, which he never talked about, but now, I realize, fought heroically in.  Hell, he fought at Chosin Reservoir, a bloody battle in which we sustained 25,000 casualties within two weeks, and I didn’t know that till after he was gone.  I would have asked him about his mother, a beautiful but schizophrenic woman whom I hardly knew.  His whole miserable childhood growing up in the Great Depression is a supreme mystery to me.

And then there’s his soul.  I would have liked to just sit around it for a few more years and warmed myself by its fire.  He was a man of good intentions, which I now realize is quite rare in this world.  He had no ulterior motives.  I know I could have found his center, even though he tried to hide it.  I would have located it, sat with it, and cherished it.

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.

Kicked out of Vegas

It started with a dim memory from childhood.  I was seven and the Groves family was holding a reunion at a park.  This older man in a stylish suit arrived with a flourish.  He was tall, white-complected, and looked like a variation on my Grandpa Roy.

David Groves around 1962 age 7 smaller

Me around age 7

“This is your Uncle John,” my mother said.

It was actually my great-uncle.  I shook his hand.

“Pleased to meet you, son.”


“Don’t say yeah,” my mother prompted, “say ‘Pleased to meet you, too.'”

“Pleased to meet you, too.”

John Wesley Groves circa 1934

Uncle John around 1934

All around at the reunion, there were introductions, handshakes, jokes, laughter, and catching up.

A bit later, in a moment when everyone’s attention was averted, John took me aside.

“I have a gift for you,” he said in low tones, squatting down to my level.

Uncle John took out a maroon velvet cardboard box.  I opened it up.  It contained two new decks of playing cards.

“These are yours,” Uncle John said.  “They’re marked.”

He used the term marked as if it were illicit–that is, prohibited and quite sexy.


“Yes, you can tell what card it is by looking at the back.”

And so Uncle John proceeded to show me how to read the backs.  Once I understood, I smiled at the deception.  It was like I was one of the few people in the world who had the secret of winning.  It was one of my earliest joys in the art of magic, and to tell you the truth, even now that I’m a professional, learning those secrets is still quite a thrill.

That’s when Uncle John glanced over his shoulder, as if to make sure nobody was listening.

“I’ll tell you the secret to winning at cards,” John said.  “The only way to win is to cheat.”

That’s when my mother came over.

“Hey, what’s going on here?” she asked.

“Don’t tell her,” Uncle John said.  “It’s our secret.”

“David, what’s going on?”

“It’s a secret,” I said with a grin.


Later, I learned that Uncle John was a professional gambler.  He wasn’t a weekend gambler, but was actually the real thing, my parents said.  He had been kicked out of Vegas for cheating.  He was the proverbial black sheep of the family.  And when I say kicked out, let me emphasize that getting kicked out of Vegas in the 1950s was quite a bit different from getting kicked out today, which is more akin to getting escorted out of Disneyland for smoking marijuana on Tom Sawyer’s Island.  You could sustain bruises.  You could fall down a flight of stairs.  They could make you cry.

Years passed, and as an adult, I eventually became a professional magician.  I learned card sleights, learned to treat 52 as 1, learned how to use gravity to my advantage, worked for 20 years on my double until it got really good, and even once performed an exceedingly difficult card trick 25,000 times over a period of three years to make it really sing.  To this day, it’s my calling card, the trick I do if I really want to impress someone.

There’s a subcategory of card magic that focuses on gambling sleights.  The holy grail in this arena is a trio of sleights that makes people believe you’re dealing off the top of the deck when in fact you’re not.  There’s the second deal, in which you deal the second card down from the top while seeming to deal from the top.  There’s the bottom deal, in which you deal the bottom card while seeming to deal from the top.  And there’s the center deal, which is the holy grail of holy grails, and I can count on one hand the number of people worldwide who can competently pull it off.

Formal promo shot

One of my early promotional shots. Notice I’m holding five aces.

Once, I asked a gambling magician how long it took him to learn the second deal.

“About 20 years,” he said with a sad grin.

I’ve experimented with it, and can clumsily execute something approximating “a second,” as they call it, but I wouldn’t try it under fire.  It’s just not ready for prime time.  And besides, once you’ve mastered it, you can’t really show it off.  It looks like nothing.   It’s designed to look like nothing.  If it looks like something at a poker table, you can come down with a case of lead poisoning.  On top of that, the types of magic tricks you can do with it aren’t that amazing, and you can pull off the same effect with much easier sleights.  The only arena in which they can accomplish miracles is at a real-life poker table, where false deals can earn you loads and loads of money.

A couple years ago, I read a book about the center deal.  The Magician and the Cardsharp is about Dai Vernon, the 20th century’s best closeup magician, who moved to Wichita in 1930 after the Stock Market crashed.  While there, he met a Mexican card cheat named Amador Villasenor, who had been charged with murder and was being held in a local jail.  Vernon met with him because of his prowess with card sleights, and during the conversation, was told that there was a man in the Kansas City area who could deal from the center of the deck.

Vernon lit up.  Up to that time, the center deal was merely a theoretical dream for magicians.  The world of gambling cheats was necessarily a secret world.  If people knew they were cheating, nobody would ever again let them sit down at a poker table.  Unfortunately, Villasenor didn’t remember exactly where this man lived.  He knew his name was Allen Kennedy, that he worked crooked card games in the greater KC area, and that he could execute a perfectly undetectable center deal, but that was it.

So Vernon set off on a months-long search.  The book chronicles Vernon’s quest, which ended in the little town of Pleasant Hill, Missouri, in a session with this Allen Kennedy, who had worked five years to build up the muscles in his hand well enough to master the sleight.  He died in the early 1950s in obscurity, the Pleasant Hill town drunk who was once the greatest gambling cheat in the world–and only a handful of people ever knew it.

Magicians idolize such characters, for they can borrow from their real-world sleights and tales.  They are exciting.  There are anecdotes involving deception and retribution.  Sometimes, people die.  In fact, there are several magicians today who have staked their reputation on being students of gambling cheats and other con men.

When I became a magician, then, I began to wonder if I could find my Uncle John.

About five years ago, I became interested in genealogy, and one of the first things I did was look up Uncle John.  Unfortunately, I discovered that he had died in 1990.  However, he had a daughter, Carol Ann, and I wondered about her.  I asked my mother about her.

“Oh, she married a rich lawyer in the late ’60s,” Mom said.  “I think they live in Huntington Beach.”

I did some Internet research, and after a few weeks, discovered a disappointing document: her death certificate.  She had died in Broward County, Florida, in 1995.  The trail for my Uncle John went cold.  My mother said that they never had children.  I wondered where the photographs had gone.  I wondered about the stories that I could have been told.


Over the next couple years, I continued researching my roots.  It became a true obsession.  Then a couple days ago, I received an astonishing email from a long-lost Groves relative.

“We’ve been exchanging Christmas cards with Carol Ann for the past few decades,” he said.  “Carol Ann is alive.  Here’s her phone number….”

This morning, I called Carol Ann.  She was delighted to hear from me, and at 76, sounded 20 years younger than that.  Her mind was quick, her voice, strong.

“I heard you thought I was dead,” she said wryly.

“Yes, I did.”

“Well, I’m not!”

We talked, and as we did, tears filled my eyes and I worked hard to hide my cracking voice.  We talked about many things.  Their retirement in Hansville, Washington.  My father’s death.  The fact that so many people in our line had died of respiratory ailments.  My life, first as a journalist, and then as a magician.

Carol Ann had never met me.  She’s many years older than me and our family was not particularly close.  That side of the family never had holiday parties, for example.  However, she mentioned that she had always regretted that.  My parents had met her a couple times.  My mother said that she was a statuesque redheaded beauty.  Talking to her, it was clear that she was pretty smart, too.

As the conversation stretched to 20 minutes and longer, I began to worry whether I should mention her father or not.  After all, children of con men are often filled with anger and shame.  Perhaps her father had been narcissistic and selfish.  Perhaps I shouldn’t mention John until the third or fourth conversation, if there even was one.  I didn’t want her to clam up and close off communication.

Still, as the conversation came to a close, I felt like I had to take the risk.

“Since I’m a professional magician, I do a lot of card magic,” I said, “and I heard growing up that your father was a professional gambler.  He must have been good with cards.”

“I have to tell you up front that he was a card cheat,” Carol said.

And then Carol proceeded to tell me the story of her life.  Her parents divorced when she was 7, and after that, she rarely saw her father.

“He made his living driving a cab in Los Angeles,” she said.  “He would pick up fares and then steer them to a poker game.  He would sit in on the poker game and secretly work with a partner.  Together, they would take the fare’s money by cheating.”

It was a life that sometimes had deleterious consequences, though.  Once, he had a pool cue broken over his head.

“I have a bunch of his marked decks,” she said.  “I’ll give them to you, if you like.”

Carol’s 12-year-old grandson is crazy about magic, and I promised I’d send her a copy of my instructional magic DVD.  It’ll make a great Christmas gift.  By the end of the conversation, Carol invited me to visit her up in Washington, and I look forward to the visit.  At the moment, though, I’m flying high, not just to be reunited with a family member that I thought I had lost, but also, to be exposed to the world of my most colorful relation, the scoundrel who was kicked out of Vegas.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.)

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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 7)

[Continued from a previous post]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And there was a puzzle that the brothers invented themselves.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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]

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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, 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]