Friday, February 24, 2012

Write me a letter

I shot this pic a few weeks ago. I posted it to instagram and made some comments. It is a letter to my maternal grandfather from his half brother. Oliver. My grandfather was raised by his paternal grandmother in Thurman, Ohio. His mother had "run off" or perhaps more correctly left his father and return home to the Akron area. She was a career woman. She worked as a telephone operator. My maternal great-grandfather was a real peace of work, although as the story goes he wasn't much for actual work, drifting from one odd job to another.

As the story goes Oliver was only a few years younger than my grandfather and was a happy go lucky kind of guy. Amy Jane, my maternal great-grandmother, did not stay married to Oliver's father very long at all either, if in fact she was actually married, as no one could really say if she was actually divorced from my maternal great grandfather.

My grandfather did complete high school and worked a variety of odd jobs in his teens and early twenties. This is all in the mid to late 1920s. He drove a truck from the "hills" up to Columbus on a fairly regular basis, hauling whatever he could find. Christmas trees, coal, lumber, whatever. My cousin, who I have always thought of more as an Uncle, remembers times when they only ate meat because my grandfather had stopped to visit them and brought some, from either down home or he bought it with some of his earnings.

Oliver apparently had been visiting the family at the time the letter was written and had found work at a beer garden or brewery in the Akron area and was explaining to my grandfather that he should come north where the jobs were plentiful.

I am not sure if my grandfather gave this serious thought or not, because shortly after this letter was written Oliver was killed. He was struck by lightening while standing under a tree.

Eventually my grandparents did leave Gallia County and came to Columbus. My grandfather got a job as a "fireman" on the rail road and made a living slinging coal for a number of years. He also worked second and third shift in a factory in what is now the Short North, during the war making munitions. A stick ball injury and a bum ear drum kept him out of the army. The railroad rented them a house on Central Avenue in the early years and later they moved to Grove City and bought a house of their own. This was an accomplishment for two people who left "the hills" with little more than their car and the clothes on their backs. After trying to make a living "down home" they faced the facts and moved. They had no other choice.

Later my grandfather worked at the Ohio Penn, which is now the Arena Distract. He survived the riots and would tear up, telling the story of an inmate who shoved him in a small closet, full of mops and buckets saying, "Captain, you be a kind man and a fair man, and I don't want to see you get hurt, but if you stay out here in the thick of it, they kill you. They want you all dead."

He did survive the riots, he was taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation. The man who locked him away, died in the riots. Most likely shot by corrections officers or killed by an inmate who had witnessed him tucking my grandfather away safely.

I found this letter, tucked in with a box of my mom's sewing stuff. Why? I have no idea. I know there is a box of other letters tucked away still at her place, which is actually now my brother's place.

This letter got me thinking. How will we keep our family histories in the digital age? I seldom keep emails, I just read them, act on them and delete them. Sometimes I keep really special notes and cards, but then again, I don't get long letters these days. Even just 20 years ago, when I was a teenager, I wrote long letters. Sometimes in English to friends in the States and much of the time in German to my pen pals and such.

For historians, letters have been a wonderful window to the past. But what if their aren't letters? What if we have no first hand accounts of life, as normal people lived it. Will my blog survive for my great grandchildren to read? (goodness I sure hope so) With all the changes to technology and the possible electromagnet changes, servers and hard drives could be erased in a blink of the eye.

As the pencil fades and the paper weathers, this note penned in a masculine scrawl, from a man I never met and who lived a very short life, is a piece of my family's past, which is fading away with each passing year.

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