A Way of Loving

Some people see magic as little tricks to intended amuse and befuddle.  Other people see it as a way of showing others how smart you are.  The term fooling people is often used.

But I see it so differently.  I see it as a way of eliminating the spaces between people.  I see it as a way of stitching up and connecting.  When it’s done well–and it’s very rare, but it’s what I aspire to–it’s a way of loving.

To see what I’m talking about, take a look at this performance:

The opening minutes of my Jungle Show is also meant to bring people together, as well:

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I was trying to connect, as well, on trip to Kansas in 2005.  Claire and I had been together for four years, and her clan back in her native Kansas was eager to meet me.  The sisters and other relations drove in from all over Kansas and Missouri–Salina, Hayes, Plainville, Pittsburg, Wichita, Kansas City–to get a gander at the new boyfriend.  They all met in Hutchinson, where everybody spent a fun weekend at her sister Becky’s large house.

But my primary focus was the parents.  I had met Claire’s mother a year earlier and it hadn’t gone well.  Although Mom had been more generous of spirit when she was younger, she had become increasingly strict in religious matters over the years.  She had flown out to California and taken an immediate dislike to me.  I didn’t have a respectable job.  I wasn’t Catholic.  I was a liberal.  All those factors seemed to portray me as the sort that you didn’t really want involved with your daughter.

One afternoon in California, we had all sat at a Starbucks, chatting.  Mom was bristling, as all Kansans with a chip on their shoulder do, at “latte culture.”

“Why do people pay $5 for a cup of coffee out here?” she said.  “Back home, you can get a good cup for a dollar, that’s it.”

I was trying to get an idea of what Claire had been like as a child, so I was trying to avoid the political questions and asking about the past.  Mom was stonewalling.  I asked more questions.  Mom still didn’t respond.  She felt that introspection itself was a sin, it seemed.

That’s when I remembered some advice on interviewing technique that had been told to me by one of my early mentors in journalism, KT Maclay.

“If you ask a question and the subject doesn’t answer, ask him again,” she said.  “If he doesn’t answer then, ask him again.  And ask him again and again until he’s so embarrassed that he has to answer it.”

So I did, asking the same question in slightly different ways until I started suggesting answers.

“Was Claire an energetic child?”

“All children are.”

“Was she an inquisitive child?”

“What child isn’t?”

“Was she an innocent child?”

Mom looked straight at me, no smile on her lips.

“She was until she met you.”

It hadn’t been an auspicious start to our relationship, for sure.  But I still had a chance with the other half of that couple.

Claire’s father was an exceedingly quiet man.  He had been a farmer who had come from a line of farmers, spending long hours every day working the land and harvesting wheat and soy.  He had generous instincts.  In many ways, he was the classic humble Kansan.  I was eager to meet him.

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All that weekend in 2005, I got to know the whole family.  We had meals together.  We played board games.  They got to know me.  And on Saturday afternoon, 20-year-old Sarah asked the inevitable question.

“When are you going to do some magic?” she asked.

“Whenever you want,” I answered.

“What about now?”

“Sure,” I said.

So I started preparing for a show.  When I was ready, I stood at the head of the dining-room table, looked out at the 30 people gathered around me, and started the show.

But there’s always one.  Little did I know that one of the relatives was so extremely religious that she objected to magic on general principle.  Claire’s Mom had walked into the other room to protest a performance of the devil’s work.  She stood in the living room waiting for others to join her protest.  But when she realized that nobody else was joining her, she sheepishly wandered back in.  Being the only good person in the family can be a lonely job.

My show, as always, was a hit.  Kansans aren’t too hip to express their astonishment, as Californians sometimes are.  The relatives connected with me on both a magical and a personal level.  I was entertaining, I was good at what I did, and I didn’t crack dirty jokes.  There was no downside.

At the end, Sarah was begging to know how the tricks were done, so I started performing a trick called Paper Balls Over the Head, which allows me to legitimately explain how a trick is done.  Another one of my performances of it can be seen here:

I was performing Paper Balls for 4-year-old Madeleine, and she was so excited by the magic that her astonished reaction became a bit of magic in itself.  So I performed the trick again, making a paper ball vanish again in front of her eyes.

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Madeleine, far left.

Each time, she became more excited and the family became more delighted.  So I went a step further, and pulled someone into the secret.  I vanished the paper ball and asked Dad to pull it out of her ear.  As you can see below, I held it up behind Madeleine’s ear so that Dad could be the magician.  To Madeleine, the illusion was perfect.  We performed variations on this trick over and over again.  We must have done it for a full half-hour.

Fred pulling a paper ball out of Madeleine's ear

Dad pulling a paper ball out of Madeleine’s ear

You can see the delight on everyone’s face.

Magic helped make my connection with this family a success.  It was also a great way to connect with Dad, who had nothing caustic or prickly in his personality at all, he was all connection, easy charm, and being at peace with his silence.  Dad rarely said more than a few words when he was around others, but he talked easily with me.  We had shared something and we both knew it.

Over the years, it has been this performance that everyone remembers most of about David from California.

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Eight years have passed since then.  A couple years ago, something happened.  One day, he was bicycling for exercise, old but robust, and the next, he was dead from brain cancer.  Everyone had loved him so much.  Nobody had anything bad to say about h im.  He was the quietest, most nonjudgmental member of the family.

Last month, I visited Kansas again.  Sarah, the young woman who had originally asked me to do some magic (the blonde in the photo above), was getting married now.  Before the ceremony started, I spotted Madeleine, who had been the excited 4-year-old.  She was now a lovely 12-year-old just starting seventh grade.

“Do you remember that I did magic for you when you were four?” I asked.

“No.”

It was a bittersweet moment, because you want to be remembered.  But gradually, the moment began to brighten.  Her face began to change, and gradually, recognition crept into it.  Yes, upon reflection, she did remember the magic.

“Mom, that’s the man who did magic when I was little!” Madeleine whispered excitedly to her mother.

Now, Madeleine had an 8-year-old sister named Riley.  So I concocted a plan to close the circle, as I like to put it.

“Let’s do the same trick that I did for you when you were four,” I said.  “But this time, you’ll help me pull it off.”

In sharing the secret with her, I was stitching up the spaces between us.  We were becoming co-conspirators.  We were becoming partners.  I took Madeleine aside and taught her how to do it.  She was delighted to finally know the secret, and she beamed.  Then I sat down her sister Riley and started performing the trick.

In performance, Riley was befuddled as to where the paper ball had gone.  Then I reached behind her ear.  Madeleine secretly handed me the paper ball.  Voila!  I had pulled the paper ball out of Riley’s ear.

Riley (L), Madeleine (center tall), and me (far right).

Riley (L), Madeleine (center, standing tall), and me (far right).

Madeleine, as you can see, was overjoyed.  And young Riley had something to think about for the next few years, until one day, a man from California comes up to her at a family.

“Do you remember that I did magic for you when you were eight?”

And that’s the day I’ll pull Riley in on the secret, too.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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]

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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.”

“Okay.”

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?

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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.”

“Okay.”

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 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.

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“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]

Adventure on Road X (part 4)

[Continued from a previous post]

I was rolling down country roads in an old Neon with my country cousin Preston Taylor.  We had issued from the loins of the same great-great-grandfather, John H. Groves, of Duck Creek back in the 1800s, and were acting like friends.  I guess we were friends.  At the very least, we shared some blood in common, driving past farms, fields, prairie, and every so often, a lonely tree.

A renegade thought went through my head.

Does he know that I’m half Mexican?

My DNA, you see, represents a clash of civilizations.  On one side is the English line stretching back to Henry VIII, if you believe my genealogical arboretum.  On the other side is the Mexican line that came over the border in 1915, when Pancho Villa chased them off their wealthy rancho in Leon, leaving their children in California picking fruit in the fields at age 8 rather than attending school.  Whites and Mexicans, that’s who I come from.  I’ve always been a kind of Hispanic Obama.

In my twenties, I would often ask people what nationality I looked like.  The answers were varied: Greek, Russian, Jewish, Italian.  Never 50% Mexican, 25% English, and 25% German.  And obviously, this Taylor fellow didn’t know, either.  I wondered if he would ask.  I wondered if I should ask him about his racial politics.  And furthermore, how does one ask about that?

David Groves, age 17

David Groves, age 17

Do you hate Mexicans?

No, you can’t ask things like that.  Nobody ever answers yes to that.

City boy, I don’t hate nobody.  Hate the sin, love the Mexican, that’s what I say, although I don’t cotton to the word love, sounds kinda queer.

Or maybe I was being too hard on him.  Maybe he’d react with acceptance and open arms.

My wife was born in Juarez, so that makes me half Mexican myself, don’t it?

It was definitely too touchy of a subject, so we talked about other things, like his significant other.

“No, I don’t have a wife,” Preston confessed.  “I have a girlfriend that I’ve lived with for 21 years.”

“Well, maybe it runs in the genes.  I’ve lived with mine for 12.”

“Mine is 14 years older than me.”

“I had one of those when I was 22.”

I didn’t ask his girlfriend’s ethnic heritage.  I quickly did the math, and realized that she must be 71 years old.  I recalled that Raymond Chandler had married a much older woman, too.  When he got famous at age 48, he was tempted to stray, but didn’t, not because he didn’t have offers, but mostly because he was so socially inept.

I looked around at the wheatfields speeding past us and wondered, as I sometimes do, what this place looked like back in 1854, when the federal government passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, opening up Kansas to settlement.  At the time, it was already occupied by the Sac and Fox, a proud native American nation that stretched from Nebraska to Oklahoma, and whose name meant People Arising from Water (and really, aren’t we all?).  The Sac and Fox were excellent athletes, the best example being Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox man who won two gold medals in the 1912 Olympics and played professional baseball, football, and basketball.

In 1857, the first white man moved to this area, to a location he called Duck Creek.  His name was Phillips.  Two years later, so the story goes, Phillips was notified that he had settled on Indian land.  I smiled when I read the word notified.  I wondered how the Indians had notified him, perhaps with a well-placed arrow?  The Phillipses promptly moved to the present site of Reading, but the Indians still sometimes bothered them, walking into their home as if they owned it, taking whatever food and items they liked, and leaving.

Once, the Indians entered the Phillips home when Mrs. Phillips was sick, a white cloth wrapped around her head.  They began searching for items to expropriate when Mrs. Phillips confronted them.

“I hope you like smallpox, because that’s what I have, and you’re going to get it,” she said.

They understood smallpox, and immediately skedaddled.

John H Groves royal society of the union 2a closeup

John H. Groves, kneeling

My great-great-grandfather John H. Groves settled in Duck Creek, too.  He grew up in Sullivan County, Missouri, and when he was 25 years old, joined the Missouri Volunteers (23rd regiment) and fought on the Union side.  In 1878, he drove his young family in a covered wagon from Missouri to Kansas, settling in Duck Creek.

Preston and I weren’t in a covered wagon, for sure, but in a Neon speeding along at 40 mph.  And as we were driving towards the Reading Cemetery, Preston dropped a bombshell that clarified things considerably.

“After the Civil War, John Groves walked from Missouri to Kansas,” he said.  “That’s what my Uncle John told me.”

“Walked?!”

“Yes, walked.”

I wondered why anyone would walk to Kansas.  Well, the walking part was easy, I guess: because he didn’t have a car.  But with regard to leaving Missouri, perhaps it was because Missouri itself was such a boiling roux of Confederate racists and Union abolitionists.  He didn’t want to live in boiling water.  In fact, the Missouri Compromise had been all about slavery: Congress had allowed the slave state of Missouri into the Union only if it was balanced by the free state of Kansas.  When the Civil War broke out, Missouri had its own internal civil war, while Kansas had been established from the outset as a free state.  So perhaps John Groves’ move had to do with his own moral convictions.

I liked the sound of that: moral convictions.  It was ironic, though, given all the ugliness that happened to later generations.  John’s great-grandson Donald married a Mexican woman in 1951, and endured a lot of flak from the family.  Don’s father ridiculed her for eating beans and cooking “oochiladas.”

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

My other (L) and Roy Groves (center).

In 1957, Don and his wife Sally drove to Oklahoma to show their new 2-year-old to the remaining grandparent, Dora.  But Grandma Dora refused to allow her into the house.

“You think I’d allow a dirty Mexican into the house?” Dora said.  “Over my dead body.”

“But they’ve driven all this way,” her son Earl said.

“I’ll see the baby, but not her.”

Sally Groves and her new half-Mexican son

Sally Groves and her new half-Mexican son

Appalled by the insult, Sally and Don refused Dora’s kind offer.  They visited with Earl for a while and then left.

That mixed-race 2-year-old was me.

On the way back, we all stopped at a diner for some lunch.  They served Don, but not Sally.  Oklahoma, it seems, didn’t want their kind.  They left insulted and hurt.

Over on the western side of the state, they didn’t want darkies, either.  That’s where my girlfriend Claire grew up, in a tiny town just outside of Hayes, Kansas.

“They used to say that the sun never sets on a black man in Hayes,” Claire once told me.

Strangely, though, Kansas had pockets of racial friendliness.  In my research, I discovered a couple negro boys in the 1922 yearbook of Sherman Junior High School, 120 miles southwest of Reading (see photo).  It can’t have been easy, but they managed it.

Sherman Jr High black students 1922 1b cropped smaller

In fact, my own great-uncle Earl graduated from that same school system in 1917 (see the photo below), the same great-uncle who took in his mother, Dora, when she was widowed in 1950.

Earl Groves, Sr.

Earl Groves, Sr.

As you can see, there was a lot going through my mind during that 20-minute drive.

When Preston and I finally reached the Reading Cemetery, I got out and took a deep breath.  Looked around.  It was sobering.  This, I thought, is the grassy plot of land where they took my dead relatives.  This was the setting of their final act.

The Reading Cemetery

The Reading Cemetery

“I haven’t been here in about 20 years,” Preston said, “but I think the graves are somewhere on the east side over there.”

We finally found them on the west side.

“It’s been a long time,” Preston said.

I stood for a long time in front of those headstones.

There was Daisy V. Groves, who was born in 1880, turned out to be mentally impaired, but lived to the ripe old age of 86, when she died a curious death.

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There was Orlando and Frank Groves, who never married and made their living on the farm, “true mechanical geniuses,” as Preston put it.  They died curious deaths, too.

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And there they were, the patriarchs.

John H. Groves, who walked 230 miles to create a new life for himself in a state with less prejudice.

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And Caroline Hayward, who took care of her mentally impaired girl for 3 1/2 decades, and whose nephew Cy took care her for three more.

At one point in that graveyard, I stood face to face with Preston Taylor and just asked straight out.

“Being out here in the country, I’m guessing you’re a conservative,” I said.

“Yes, I surely am,” Preston said.

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“I’m guessing you listen to Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.”

“Yes, I do listen to both of those.  It all started in the 1980s when I started listening to this man in Florida, I forget his name.”

I thought about who I listened to–Rachel Maddow, Randi Rhodes, Thom Hartmann, Chris Matthews, and Lawrence O’Donnell–and realized we could start a new civil war with just these combatants.  Luckily, the cemetery would be nearby.

All the way on the drive over, I had been tuning into the conservative stations to see what Sean and Rush had to say about the government shutdown, and I was appalled at their ignorance.  It was like listening to an infant scream, “But I want to touch the stove!”  It was easy to think of them as stupid, ignorant, victims of Fox News, and identifiers with the aggressor, as some blacks are these days when they vote Republican.

But here standing in front of me was one of them, and he was me.  I didn’t want to kill him.  I didn’t want to argue with him.  I just wanted to talk about family.

“Well then,” I finally said, “we probably shouldn’t talk politics, because I’m on the other side.”

In death, I mused, there is no more Civil War.  There are no more waitresses who insult you because of your race.  There are no more grandmothers who refuse to see their “dirty Mexican” daughter-in-laws.  There are no more ranting talk-show hosts.  All is quiet, all is past, all is done.

[To be continued]

Adventure on Road X (part 3)

[Continued from a previous post]

When you first meet someone you haven’t seen in 163 years, you’re understandably nervous.  Preston Taylor, Jr., and I shared a common great-great-grandfather, John H. Groves.  I unearthed a photograph of John in the local historical museum.

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John was posing with the local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, or GAR, which consisted of Civil War veterans who fought for the Union, or as they put it, “veterans of the late unpleasantness.”  I was astonished to learn that they were quite a force for good, supporting voting rights for black veterans, lobbying Congress to establish veterans’ pensions, and supporting liberal political candidates.

I was terribly excited when I discovered this photograph in a local history book, Thru the Years.  I scanned and examined it, but was disappointed with the results.

ImageTry as I might, I can’t make out much from the photograph above.  Okay, here’s what I can see.  He’s white.  He has a beard nearly to his chest.  He’s trim.  Looking at his face and using other information to help pinpoint it, John could be anywhere from 42 to 55 years old, which would put the date of this photo at 1878 to ’91.  I’ve asked the museum director to research and see if she can locate the original, so an improved photograph may be forthcoming.

(This Grand Army of the Republic is not to be confused with the Star Wars Grand Army of the Republic, which is a clone army created by Jango Fett.)

John and Caroline Groves had six children.

My line started with their son Charles, who moved away from Reading, and then continued with his three sons, who moved out of state, luckily, just before the Dust Bowl.  I ended up in Southern California.

Family tree of Taylors and Groves b

Preston’s line started with Rosa Groves, who married Perry Taylor and stayed in Reading, as did their progeny.  As I drove to our rendezvous at the Emporia Historical Museum, I pondered how fate can veer some people left, other people right, and keep still others right where they are.  Driving through the wheat fields, and reading extensively on how the big money had been fleeing Kansas for years, I mused that my line had been the lucky one.

There he was, Preston Taylor, leaning against a tree in jeans overalls and a hat.  Finally, after all these years.  I walked up and shook hands, knowing that hugging might seem strange after 163 years.  We talked, but while we did, my mind was like a river flowing beneath it all.  I looked at his face while we talked, examining it for traces of myself, and found little there.  I looked at his bare arms, and they looked familiar.  I looked at his height and he bested me by about three inches.

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Later, I compared the faces in a more Photoshoppy manner.

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In this mind-meld photograph, I see little similarities in our facial features, but nothing major.  Most of what I recognize in his face is my intensity.  His intensity is saying, I can work 10 hours a day and earn a good wage and feel good about myself, while mine says, I’m from the big city and I use the most expensive razor blade in the store, so don’t hate me because I’m handsome.

At the outset, Preston and I stood behind my car, my genealogy papers spread across the top of the trunk, and talked about specific ancestors.

“I’m very interested in genealogy, but I haven’t put much effort into it yet,” Preston said.  “When I was a kid, I was much more comfortable being around adults than I was around children.  I idolized my uncle, John Taylor, and he used to talk an awful lot about the different people in our line.  I remembered a lot of what he said, even though he died 44 years ago.”

In fact, I learned from Preston, Rosa Groves was a maid in the Taylor household when young Perry Taylor first fell in love with her.  Preston offered to show me the house where this all happened, so we drove a few blocks away and saw a fabulous yellow house from a bygone era.

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Kansas is the kind of place where they’ve saved their architectural treasures, and this is a case in point.  The reason, unfortunately, is financial.  First, there has been the money and manpower drain.  And secondly, for decades people have been living in the same old houses rather than knocking them down or renovating them, which is the way it’s done in Southern California.  Thus, what we’ve been left with is a kind of historical preservation by default.

Even the street itself is historically preserved, being made from old brick rather than asphalt, as you can see below.

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“Would you like to go to the graveyard?” Preston asked.

It seemed like as good a place as any to start, with death.

“Jump in,” he said.

So I grabbed my camera, my research papers, and a little bit of courage, and stepped into Preston’s aging white Neon.  It was a wretched little car with a bunch of junk on the dashboard: a box of nails, a couple wrenches, and other mechanic’s detritus.  The seatbelt didn’t work, either.  But as the car putted off down Emporia’s quaint old streets, and then out of Emporia and onto wide-open country roads, I realized that I wasn’t just driving to some podunk town, I was driving into the distant past.

[To be continued]