Tuesday, July 30, 2013

My Grandfather: From Immigrant to Proud American

On my mother's side of the family, my ancestors arrived on these shores around 1710. They were Quakers and, as non-conformists in their homeland of England, were not accepted there. So they crossed the Atlantic and settled in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where folks of all religious denominations were accepted.
Whether they wanted - or intended - to or not, they helped this land of their new home become the United States. As Quakers, they would have spoken with the thee's and thou's that they were known for, and outspoken against war - all war. This is what their religious beliefs dictate. But, even with their religious differences, they assimilated and became friends with the society around them.
Unfortunately, most descendants on my mother's side either lived very far from where I grew up, or died before I had the chance to know them well.
Or they just never associated very much with family.
However, I have loads of information on them dating back, as stated above, to the 18th century (and before, in one case).

On my father's side, my ancestors immigrated much more recently - 1912. This line came from Siciliy and, if you know anything at all about American history, you know that the Italians were not very much liked by the other nationalities. Because the Italians were culturally different from most of the other European immigrants and "natives," hostility towards them reigned, along the lines of the hatred of the Irish in the previous century.
And my grandfather, bless his soul, received his share of the ill will from the moment he arrived on these shores in that year. But, grandpa, who was sixteen years old at the time, persevered. He worked long hours at the Detroit Stove Company, married a young girl named Rosa, who bore him two children, and bought not one but two houses. Eventually, he also bought a summer cottage (followed by a second a number of years later) on the banks of Lake Huron.

Grandma and Grandpa at the cottage - mid 1960's

Grandpa (and grandma) also became a legal American citizen.

But, one thing he never did that his siblings did - he never returned to his homeland of Siciliy. He had opportunities, but declined them all. He was an American now and this was where he wanted to remain. He learned the language the best he could. No arrests - not even a traffic ticket. His two sons both served their country during the second world war.

Grandpa kept some of his old ways - how could he not? - but he was a proud American and he was proud that his children and grandchildren were all Americans. He understood the importance of hard work - how one will earn what one deserves through employment and not through hand outs. Except for his monthly social security checks (after working at the Detroit Stove Company for around 40+ years), he received no other funding. He didn't need to - his houses and cottages were paid for, and, just as important to him, he also had a massive vegetable garden. We all enjoyed the fruits of his labor, believe me. He very rarely went out to eat - a waste of money for poor quality food that was never cooked to his satisfaction. You see, grandpa was a cook beyond compare. He put on spaghetti dinners for the local churches and communities; he cooked for his extended family - all the cousins came over frequently and never left with an empty stomach.

Grandpa also was a peacemaker. Once, as a pre-teen, I got my butt beat by some bully who lived a couple blocks over. When I told grandpa, instead of going after this kid like I had hoped, he, instead, invited him over for cookies and milk! I didn't understand grandpa's motive at the time and was quite angry with him. It wasn't until I was an adult that I understood - grandpa showed this angry young boy friendship and a kind heart. It worked - the kid never beat me up again (whew!).

Why am I bringing up all of this about my grandfather? Well, besides the fact that he, except for my father, was the greatest man I have ever known, he was also a proud and true American; he was what every American should strive to be, despite all that was literally thrown at him when he first immigrated to this country.
And that makes me proud knowing that I am descended from someone like this - someone who made something of himself because of the opportunities he saw and grabbed. Not because of some government handout.

My grandpa was a great man - his life lived is proof of that - and I hold him high on the American pedestal. He was what all immigrants and native-born Americans should strive to be like:
Grandpa's obit from the 1st week of August, 1972. Grandpa died on July 30 of that year.
As I write this on the 41st anniversary of his death, I can say that I think of him often. Almost daily, in fact. And I tell my children stories about him.
In that way, he and his spirit still live on.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Charlton Park - July 2013: An Immersion Experience

 Historic Charlton Park Village in Hastings, Michigan
Welcome to our town
I have very much enjoyed the way so many in this 'hobby' of reenacting continue to step it up a few notches as we attempt to bring the past to life. It seems every year the living historians who 'become' the civilians during the Civil War make a concerted effort to take their entire portrayal to higher and higher levels, and this year's event at Charlton Park was no exception.
A few weeks before the reenactment, Brian from the Detroit-based progressive Federal unit, Sally Port Mess, phoned me asking if we would like to do a scenario with them at the event, especially since, once again, I was able to procure the 1857/58 Sixberry House as my own. Of course, I responded with an enthusiastic yes!, and we then worked out the preliminaries.

That's our home on the left!

For some reason, when we reenact at Charlton Park those of us portraying the civilians tend to be of the southern persuasion, no matter which unit we reenact with, and this year was no different.
So we in my house were a southern-sympathizing family living in the border state of Maryland.
Here's how this semi-immersion experience played out:
My wife and I in front of our home

On this day there was my wife and I, our 17 year old son (he is autistic and does not have an interest in military reenacting), and our 12 year old daughter. To add to that we had another older "daughter" 'Christine' (Kristen) who was widowed last December when her husband took a hit at Fredricksburgh. She was still in mourning. This is the same young lady who portrayed my daughter at Fort Wayne last Christmas.
We also had my wife's "sister," Caroline, in from out of town.
My wife (on the right) and her sister Caroline

To complete the family picture, our domestic servant, Agnes, was on hand to help run the household. Our very good friend (and sort of adopted daughter) does a fantastic job as our hired girl, and actually does work: she cooks, cleans, answers the door, serves us as needed, washes dishes, cleans up after we've eaten...and, yes, we do take care of her after the reenactment has ended.

Agnes checks on the bread she was baking

My family and I were peacefully enjoying a fine summer day in this year of 1863, still a bit bewildered over the news of the recent engagements at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. My wife and her sister, who was spending time with us from her Virginia home, had just stepped out for a moment to check on a neighbor (and to visit the hollyhocks). My youngest daughter was enjoying the swing set I recently made for her while her brother was at a friend's house.

My oldest daughter was upstairs, choosing to spend time by herself, for the sad news of the war of late had made her a bit more melancholy, and her thoughts were of her dead husband lying cold in his grave and of the Yankee soldier that put him there.

Still grieving over the death of her husband at the hands of a Yank, Christine spends much of her time up here in her room.
Agnes had made bread earlier in the morning, and my wife had baked a pie, and both items were cooling on the counter. Agnes had also picked onions and potatoes from the garden as well as berries that grew along our fence and was preparing our dinner.
Without rhyme or reason, I saw Union soldiers just outside my formal parlor window marching toward the back of our house and, without a chance to comprehend what was about to unfold, I heard discourse from the kitchen. I moved quickly to the doorway of the kitchen only to find a Union soldier standing there while Agnes stood confused and, well, pretty scared. He had entered from our back kitchen door.

As I went in to inquire of this man's purpose, I heard a rap - and then a loud pounding - upon our front door. Agnes scurried to the front and opened it, and to our surprise and horror, there were what seemed like an entire company of Yankee soldiers standing in our yard. In actuality, there were only around a dozen men, but it certainly seemed like there were quite a bit more! One of the men, I believe he was a Lieutenant, told our servant that he and his men were hungry and that they needed food. I then stepped up and said we had no food for them, but he turned and told two of his men to guard the front door and then he pushed his way in and quickly found our kitchen, promptly locking the back door. The other men followed (sans the two who stood guard out front). Imagine! Guards in front of my own home!
The men in the kitchen saw the bread first and immediately began ripping it apart with their dirty hands, passing clumps to their pards. The next thing they saw was my wife's pie. I never even got to find out what kind of pie it was, for the soldiers began digging in as soon as it was spotted. And that wasn't all: the freshly picked peaches and the few remaining dried apples leftover from last fall were also quickly eaten. And our pitchers of water and lemonade were drunk as quickly as if the men had just come out of the desert.

We were preparing to eat our dinner when the Yankee soldiers forced their way into our home. Agnes did such a fine job setting our table.

During this ordeal, poor Agnes was frightened to near fainting, but I kept her calm and told her to do as was asked and I would make sure no harm would come to her. Christine heard the raucous from up in her room and I sternly told her to get back in her room and remain there. My youngest daughter had come into the house with our neighbor, Mrs. St. John. Mrs. St. John, the kind soul that she is, had brought cookies over to share with us and had no idea of the discourse that was occurring. She was able to hide the confections under the skirts of my daughter's dress as they entered, ensuring no Yankee would lay a hand upon a single one.
Again, my eldest daughter peaked out and asked what was the matter. And again I ordered her back into her room and to stay there, of which she obeyed. The Lieutenant asked me who I was speaking to and I replied in truth. As he moved up the stairs I told him she was in mourning and to please show her the respect she deserved. He asked how did her husband die, and I replied that he was shot and killed last December in Fredericksburgh, of which he stated that it was no great loss that a rebel should lose his life and that the man got what he deserved. He then proceeded to search our 2nd floor, for what, I couldn't tell you. But he did show my daughter respect and spoke little to her. As for Christine, she can, at times, become vocally boisterous, though I believe fear had kept her quiet on this day.
The Lieutenant soon returned to the main floor and I was ordered into the kitchen where he gave me two Yankee greenback dollars for what they were taking from my home, which I gladly accepted, though the amount of our food they took was worth far more. He then questioned me about my loyalties. Of course I would not give him the satisfaction of bowing to the aggressive behavior of his President and proudly stated that I was a southern man. We bantered back and forth on this subject before he put his men to work searching my home for firearms and who knows what else. With the guns in their hands, I was helpless and could do nothing but sit and watch as they opened each and every cupboard door and closet and searched underneath the furniture.
During this time, my wife and sister-in-law had returned home, very frightened indeed at seeing Federal army guards at both of our doors. I calmed them the best I could and, under my orders, they dutifully sat in the front parlor, for I know my wife well and she would give them a what-for if she had the chance. Agnes spoke to my wife in secret to tell her they had made a great mess in the kitchen and were eating all of our food.
But there was nothing any of us could do.
After around 45 minutes of this frightful experience, the soldiers had eaten just about everything we had and the Lieutenant ordered them out of our home, and they obliged. He then held out his hand as a peaceful gesture and gave me his thanks for us being so accommodating. I said to him, "I will not take your hand, but I do thank you for doing no harm to my family and no damage to my home."
With that, the door was closed behind him and I locked it promptly.
The terrifying ordeal was over.
As the men marched off, our laundress, Mrs. Fiona Hanley, scurried in our back door, quite upset at the sight of seeing Yankee soldiers filing out of our front door. She spoke a mile a minute in her thick Irish brogue about how she was so frightened at what she saw that she dropped the basket of our clean laundry and it spilled all over the ground. I thought the poor woman was going to have the vapors. I really thought so!

Mrs. Fiona Hanley expressed her concerns to my wife about the Yankee soldiers that invaded our home.

Christine, who was still in her room, asked if she could come down, and I gave her permission to do so. She had no idea of what had just happened; she only heard the commotion from her room (and she told me later that she believed it was a more frightening experience not knowing of but only hearing the danger than being in the midst as we were. Now that's a neat perspective! Plus I used a pretty stern tone when I told her to "get back in her room." She'd never heard my "dad voice" before!).
We all remained in our 1st person manner as we spoke of what had just occurred, not even breaking 'character' to speak as reeanactors about the scenario; we couldn't, for it truly was very real to us and it was almost as if we had no choice but to stay as we were - to continue to be in that mode of "being there," maybe out of a respect for those who actually had it happen to them. To break our immersion now would have ruined everything we had just worked so hard to accomplish.
(By the way, there were no photos taken during the scenario for we wanted to keep it as authentic as we could without any modern intrusions whatsoever. All photos seen here were posed afterward.)

Since there was no camera usage during our scenario, the men of Michigan's Sally Port Mess gladly posed for a photograph with my family a couple hours after it had ended.
Here is one of the more interesting aspects of why this all went so well:
I began the day with the statement that we would remain in 1st person /semi-immersion the entire time we were here, so my "family" already had the mindset of "we are there."
And, except for a few visitors that stopped by here and there, we did keep that mindset before and after the scenario and throughout the day.
Another thing was that very few of the soldiers and civilians who participated even knew that a scenario of this sort was even going to happen. And that in itself made it real. Brian, the Lieutenant, marched his men past our house and, in true form, asked who was hungry. Of course, since they had not actually eaten yet that morning, every man raised his hand. Brian then asked them if they thought any of the houses might have food they could procure. Playing along, they chose the house we were in. So that's when the scenario began, and the men were just as surprised at what was to happen as anyone.
Domestic servant Agnes (Carrie) was truly frightened when they pushed their way in, and she was very upset that they were eating our food, not realizing that our food for us to eat was hidden away and that Brian and I had pre-planned to have the food for them out on the table and counter. The look on her face when she saw the soldiers actually eating our food and what she thought was my wife's pie was priceless! So when she spoke to my wife in secret to tell her they had made a great mess in the kitchen, she was being totally serious and concerned that we would not have any food for our own dinner or supper! Agnes/Carrie really felt it!
As you can see, we had plenty of food for our dinner. It pays to have hiding spots in your house! Agnes waited dutifully in the background.

And there was plenty of dinner left over for our supper!

Eating our dinner and supper as a family in a period kitchen really brought the whole semi-immersion experience home (so to speak). And, of course, it sure is wonderful having a domestic to take care of our needs!

Poor Agnes was so distraught and disheveled after such a day as she had...

...and yet she still had work to do!
Before the day had ended, we made sure to take a couple of family photos, including this one at the top of our staircase...

...and this image was taken in our formal parlor.

But, most important in all of this is having willing participants who make such fine and true attempts to bring the past to life in the way they do, and, to me, this is something that I am so appreciative of. All involved researched - and continue to research - everyday life of the 1850's and 60's in order to make our time in the past as real as possible, and we do take it seriously; for instance, having a girl who really does work and act like a domestic for the entire day is, well, as good as it gets, for there was no "break" for her - she had work to do - and if that ain't real, I don't know what is.
Are  we perfect? Not by any means. But we are trying. For our next step we will speak of what went right and what went wrong and where we can improve. We will compare notes. We will ask questions and research the answers. And we will continue to watch and learn from others who practice this sort of living history in hopes of bettering ourselves for our next time travel excursion.
And I believe we are heading in the right direction.

 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The following are other photographs taken this day at Charlton Park, including the battle and hospital scenarios:

It's always nice when friends come to call.

 We gathered in the front parlor where fine conversation ensued.

Mrs. St. John and I played a fine round of dominoes. Yep - she beat me two out of three times.
  ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

~The Battle and Aftermath~

Fear that a battle might take place kept the townsfolk on edge. Most skeedaddled to their homes and cellars.

The rebel cannons were placed in position

We live in hard and stirring times,
Too sad for mirth, too rough for rhymes;
For songs of peace have lost their chimes,
And that's what's the matter!

When the war had once begun,
All party feeling soon was gone;
We joined as brothers ev'ry one!
And that's what's the matter!

So what's the use to fret and pout,
We soon will hear the people shout,
Secession dodge is all played out!
And that's what's the matter!

That's what's the matter,
The rebels have to scatter;
We'll make them flee,
By land and sea,
And that's what's the matter!

And, thus, this battle had ended. The Union army had taken the rebels.

The casualties were plenty - many more dead and wounded than doctors and nurses.

Some of the soldiers fairly begged to be taken next, so great was their suffering, and so anxious were they to obtain relief.

I saw the nurse hastily put something over the mouths of the wounded ones, after they were placed upon the bench. At first I did not understand the meaning of this but upon inquiry, soon learned that that was their mode of administrating chloroform, in order to produce unconsciousness.
But the effect in some instances were not produced; for I saw the wounded throwing themselves wildly about, and shrieking with pain while the operation was going on.

I am becoming more used to the sights of misery. We do not know until tried what we are capable of.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There are many to thank who made this special day happen:
the Civilians of the 21st Michigan and the military of the Sally Port Mess for keeping it real
the mgt. of Charlton Park for allowing us to have access to the historic Sixberry House
and especially to Sally and Samantha, for without their trust in us, none of this would ever take place.

See you next time! Thanks for stopping by.