Unvarnished History

Family MemoriesWho We Come From … What We Truthfully Remember

A Note To Baby Boomers: My daughter, Beth, is building a family tree using Ancestry.com in part. The other part involves questions to family members and independent research. She seeks to better know family members from the past. Her work will be of great worth to those who follow.

She emailed me. “Can you tell me the birth dates, full names, and death dates of your grandparents? Her request sent me back to when my grandparents walked this green earth, a time when one grandparent took the time to write some of his memories down.

Some of the information she needed I knew; some I had forgotten. Thus began a quest for knowledge as deceased grandparents lived again in my mind.

As I made notes of the information Beth needed a vivid sense of history came to me. My grandparents—just like yours—lived through an era of tremendous change. Let’s take my grandparents in order of birth years looking at a few key events.

Benjamin Cleborn Walker came into the world in 1896. Grover Cleveland was president but William McKinley would be elected president before 1896 ended. The Ford quadricycle paved the way that year for Henry Ford to put American in cars. F. Scott Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby Fame was born. In Georgia the first electric lights appeared at Brumby’s Drugstore in Athens.

Lillian Walker was born in 1898. That’s the year Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders fought in Cuba in the Spanish-American War. The rallying cry “Remember the Maine” went up when 216 seamen die in the explosion that sunk the battleship Maine in Havana harbor. The United States annexed the independent republic of Hawaii. In Georgia the first batch of Brunswick Stew was made on St. Simons Island, and down in Richland, Georgia, a lady by the name of Lillian Carter was born August 15.

John M. Poland Sr. was born in 1903. That’s the year Coca-Cola removed cocaine from its popular drink and the first box of Crayola crayons sold for five cents. The first cross-country trip by car took place from New York to San Francisco, taking 71 days. Wilbur and Orville Wright made their first sustained airplane flight at Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina. In Georgia a strong earthquake shook Savannah.

Thelma Poland was born in 1904, the year the ice cream cone was invented at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The United States acquired the Panama Canal and a fellow by the name of J. Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York City, where something called a subway opened. In Georgia the statue of Elijah Clark was dedicated at the corner of College and Hancock in Athens.

I can imagine the conversations my grandparents’ parents had about these events, some major some minor. During buggy rides to church and sitting around the dinner table no doubt these things entered their everyday talk. As for my grandparents they would grow up to see the world go from horse and buggies to cars to airplanes and outer space. They came in around the Spanish-American War and lived through World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam. They lived to see the day when we lost the will to win wars as politicians handcuffed generals.

As for my daughters’ descendants what might they dig up about my times and me? I suspect future keepers of ancestral bios might write, “He was a baby boomer, born between 1946 and 1964. He belonged to a generation who were the most active and most physically fit generation up to that time; the first to grow up genuinely expecting the world to improve with time.” Well I’m not so sure about that. Key events from my life portray dark times.

Some cultural highlights for me include the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and Vietnam War protests. I remember the Beatles and Armstrong’s walk on the moon as bright notes. Going back to the year of my birth, 1949, we lost an iconic writer. Margaret Mitchell enjoyed a few drinks at the Atlanta Women’s Club. Then she and her husband John crossed Peachtree Street at 13th Street to a movie theater to see “Canterbury Tales.” A speeding taxi driver, drunk, hit her. She died five days later. A few moments from my life so far pale compared to the birth of children and grandchildren.

You can do this too. Dredge up the big stage events as your birth year and life go. Then recall your life’s truly meaningful moments … births, deaths, and times of pure joy and crushing sorrow. A true life consists of meaningful-to-you moments the world be damned stitched together by the fragile thread we call life. Short for many; long for a few.

Recently the country’s oldest person died. Just across the Savannah Mamie Rearden of Edgefield died January 2. She was 114, the same age my Grandmom Walker would be were she alive. What times these two ladies could have recalled over tea but alas they are no more. All that they remembered; all that they clung to, newspaper clippings, photos, and letters—whatever records they left—are in the hands of their relatives. Maybe.

That’s why it is really important that someone like Beth digs up history and build that family tree using all the documentation and photos she can find. The task is always harder because too few people take the time to write down things. Some of us do however. Take my columns for instance. As trivial as they often are many years from now they will provide a record of how things were.

In December 1978 my Granddad Walker took the time to write a letter to the editor of the The News- Reporter up Wilkes County way. I didn’t discover his memoir of sorts until after he passed but were he alive today I’d thank him for leaving this record for Beth and me. Here, then, are a few Civil War stories his grandmother told him, a lady he referred to as “the jolliest person I ever knew. I loved her and her visits.”

—Cleborn (C.B.) Walker: “Once when my grandfather was in battle in Richmond, Virginia, for three days and nights he couldn’t get any water to drink because it was bloody, but after it was over, he found a clear spring and drank so much he didn’t get far until he had a heart attack and subsequently he was subject to heart attacks until he died.

She related to me that she was a great horse-rider before she and grandfather married. She was Margaret Stevenson. Her brother, Henry, who later became a preacher, bet her she wouldn’t ride the young stallion their father owned. She took the dare and told him to catch him and she’d ride him. The stallion was caught and she rode him down the lane, circled the pasture, came back up the lane holding the horse’s mane, without even a bridle and rein! He’d never been broken! He was thereafter.”

She said once when the Yankees came through, her father sent her brother deep into the woods with all their horses including the stallion to keep him from whinnying to give away their whereabouts. Her father would hide his meat and lard in the branch, to keep the Yankees from finding it. He would dam up the branch, bury the meat and lard below the dam with dirt and brush over it, then break the dam and let it cover the meat. He would kill 25 to 30 hogs each year. He owned many slaves and he had to save food for them.

Once he left one ham in the meathouse on purpose and when the Yankees came and examined the meathouse, they were heard to say, ‘This poor devil has just one ham. We won’t take his,’ and left it. There were all the hams and meat, lard of 25 to 30 hogs buried in the branch!”

There. You just read unvarnished history free of political correctness, something we call the truth. Using the word “Yankee” and owning up to owning slaves—how insensitive to say that today! I hear many people today confess that they are afraid to research their ancestors’ lives because they’re afraid to learn if their ancestors had slaves. Well why? That was the way life was back then. It was another time. It had nothing to do with you. All parties involved were dead and gone before you came along. But let’s pretend it really didn’t happen.

Sure you can write up the records of your life and parents and grandparents and sanitize things. You can delete or gloss over things that prick you but that falls into the realm of revisionist history. In other words you become a professional liar. So here’s some advice for my fellow boomers: make records of your life and family and make them true. Don’t write around sensitive matters; don’t delete things. Don’t gloss over. If your granddad made moonshine, say so. If Uncle Horace served time in prison say so and why. The grandchildren of your children’s children will respect you for that and so will something called history.

Meanwhile live your life to the fullest. Boom on fellow boomers and leave truthful records. Boom on until you’re all boomed out and hope that a century later someone will see how things changed far more than you or anyone could and would have imagined.


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Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at www.tompoland.net Email me at [email protected]