History

My grandmother never learned to drive a car. That was not an unusual situation during her lifetime, even though it is very unusual today. I never could figure out how women…or anyone for that matter…could get by these days without being able to drive, much less manage to raise nine kids and get them through all the stuff needed for their schooling without driving a car. Nevertheless, my grandmother did just that.

Since she didn’t ever drive, and counted on Grandpa for all the things that went with raising a family, I also found myself surprised when she said she was taking a trip to Ireland with her sisters. It wasn’t so much that traveling was so unusual for my grandmother, because my family had taken her places, as had Bob and I. I also know that there were other family members who had taken them traveling…so, while taking a trip wasn’t an unusual thing…taking a trip to Ireland seemed like taking a trip to the moon. It seemed so strange that Grandma and her sisters would be going so far away alone!!

The trip was to follow their roots. They planned to stay with family that lived there. It was the trip of a lifetime for my grandmother and while I felt nervous, I was so excited for her. She would see the green Irish hills, castles and ruins. She would see the coast of Ireland that I had heard was so beautiful, and most of all she could trace her roots back to there.  I can’t think of a more exciting trip for my grandmother to get to take. What a wonderful treat for her!

The trip was everything she had hoped it would be, and she returned to us different somehow. She was a world traveler now. She had been to distant shores and visited family and graves far away. I was so happy for her, and secretly hoped I’d be able to make such a trip some day. I imagined seeing castles and the ruins of castles. I wondered what stories I would hear of the past and those who lived in it. I am so happy that my grandmother had the opportunity to take such a trip. The chance to see new places, and meet new people…the chance to go in search of her roots.

Having grown up in town, I didn’t spend much time around horses. I had a friend that lived out in the country, and rode a little when I went to her house, but I didn’t meet her until junior high, so I didn’t ride often, even though I found myself enjoying it when I did. My girls got to ride when we went to visit Bob’s grandmother in Montana, but that was just once a year, so they were no more experienced than I was. We were what would have to be like tourist horseback riders. I have been looking at some really old family pictures, and I have come to the determination that our kind of riding would have been unacceptable in the days of the Old West.

When Bob was growing up, they spent more time around horses than we did, and so had the opportunity to ride more than I did. Still, of he rode when he was very little, he always had someone older on the horse with him. Most of the time you would see Bob with his sisters, Marlyce and Debbie. It was a way to make sure he didn’t fall off, because he would have probably tried to make the horse gallop or buck, if I know him.

Apparently however, just a few short generations back, children were expected to be born with horse riding expertise, because I found this picture of Lester, my first cousin once removed on my Grandpa Byer’s side, and he was pretty little when he first was placed on a horse. Lester was born in 1920, and while I’m sure that he didn’t do much riding in this picture, it did strike me as amusing that here he was being a grown up big boy and sitting on his horse all by himself. I’ll bet that by the time he was 5 years old or so, he was a pretty accomplished horseman too, since he had such an early start. Even if he wasn’t an expert, my guess is that he certainly was not a tourist horseman…like me.

Most of us are able to trace our roots back to the Old West, since many of our ancestors were homesteaders. The Old West was a dangerous place to live. There were few, if any lawmen around, and outlaws found it to be a good hiding place. Probably a bigger concern for many of the settlers was the Indian population. There were a lot of hard feelings toward the white man, because of broken treaties and stolen lands. Still, this wasn’t really the fault of the settlers and homesteaders, but they were the ones who often suffered the consequences. For this reason, friendships between the Indians and the White Man were rare.

My grandfather’s family was privileged to have one of those rare relationships. They were accepted and even loved by the Indians in the area. They were invited to the Pow Wows and other celebrations. The had meals and probably hunts with the Indians, and got to know them well. They knew men like Chief Thin Elk and Sitting Bull, two Lakota Sioux Indians and their tribes. They spent time with them, and learned their customs…spoke their language. Not many White Men had the opportunity to do that.

Of course, when we think back on the Old West, the first thing that comes to mind are the old shows, like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and Little House on the Prairie. We seldom think of the real people who lived those times…especially our own ancestors. I had been told that my great grandfather knew some Indians, but it just didn’t register until I saw pictures of him with the Indians…being friends with the Indians…having Pow Wows with the Indians. My great grandfather was one of those rare people who really did know Indians from the Old West. It was such an eye opening moment for me.

As is the case in most families, we have a number of heroes, both living and deceased, in our family. Memorial Day was originally set aside as a day to remember our military heroes. It has evolved into a day to remember those loved ones who have left us too…even if they weren’t in the military. I know there are those who have served that I am unaware of, and I first want to thank every member of the military past or present for their brave service to our country. Freedom isn’t free, and it was your dedication, bravery, and sacrifice that have made it possible for us to enjoy our freedom.

My grandfather and my great Uncle Ted both served during World War I. My dad , Uncle Jim Wolfe, and Uncle George served during World War II. My Aunt Laura and Aunt Ruth also helped during the World War II by working in the shipyards welding ships…a man sized job that was being handled very well, but a group of outstanding women. Others in the military were my Uncle Larry, Bob’s Uncle Eddie and Uncle Butch, my cousins Larry, Greg and Michael, Bob’s cousins Sheila and Pat, Bob’s brother Ron, Bob’s brother-in-law Lynn, and my nephews Rob and Allen.

Whether our military men and women served in wartime or peacetime, doesn’t matter. It takes great bravery to even sign up for the military, because you never know when war can break out and you will be given the call to action. Our military men and women sign up not only to fight if necessary, but to give their very lives as a sacrifice for others. Their everyday life, the places they live, the job they have, and the hours they work are all things that they give up control over. Many have missed the births of children, wedding anniversaries, and family birthdays, because they were far away from home serving their country. The things we take for granted that we will be able to attend, they know with certainty that they will not be able to attend.

Such sacrifice…such selflessness…such dedication!! These are all a part of the very makeup of these individuals, and something many of us never give any thought to. These people turned a part of their lives over to their leaders, in order to make our homeland, and the countries of other people a safer place to be. They fought for people they didn’t even know, while leaving their own loved ones behind to answer the call of duty. Today is Memorial Day, and I want to thank these, and all our military men and women for your courage…your selflessness…your strength…and your dedication!! God bless each and every one of you!!

When you think of your grandmother, how do you picture her? Is she gray haired and wrinkled, or can you picture the girl she once was? Most of us can only imagine our grandmothers as the age they were when we were able to have our first memory. That would put them in the vicinity of 40 to 50 years old, and of course, we are certain that they are ancient, mostly because when we are very young, anything over 20 is ancient. Rarely do we consider the idea that our grandmother could have been young once. We are sure she was born old…or at the very least, have not been young in such a long time that there is no way they remember it.

It can be so hard to picture as young, someone who we assume has always been old, but there was a time when our grandmother was a girl. She had to go through the same teenaged years, even though the times were different then. Could she possibly understand what kids go through today? I think she does, because even though she hasn’t gone through the exact things kids today have, she still had the same emotions and age related changes you did.

Bob’s grandmother grew to adulthood during the Roaring Twenties…a time of breaking with tradition. World War I was over, and everyone was in the mood to party and…well cut loose from the mundane. Jazz music became the “in thing” and I’m quite sure that the parents of that generation thought they were insane. And maybe to a degree, they were. Finally having the war over must have given them a feeling of euphoria. It’s like being under pressure for a long, long time, and finally the pressure is over, and you feel like you can fly.

That is the age when Bob’s grandmother grew up, and when I look at the pictures of her in those young years, she really looked the part, but of course, by the time she reached the age of 20, the Great Depression had hit. I can only imagine the emotions she must have gone through. The roller coaster ride from euphoria to depression within a matter of a few years. Now this generation of young people was going to have to really prove themselves. They were going to have to be the generation that would bring this country back from the brink. Imagine the emotions they must have gone through. Still, they did start our country on the road back from the brink to recovery. When you think about that, you are able to get beyond the idea that they couldn’t possibly have ever gone through the things you have gone through, to the point where you finally understand that it is you who have never gone the things they have gone through. It brings an appreciation of just how amazing that generation really was.

I have been reading through some of my dad’s letters home to his family from World War II, and I find myself thinking about the secrets that had to be kept. During wartime, locations and mission cannot be spoken of, because it might, or more likely would, compromise the mission and the men involved. I’m sure it was hard for the men, when they couldn’t tell their families where they were, other than the country they were in. Still, they knew that what they were doing was bigger than they were, and they were a part of something greater than their own needs…and there were spies everywhere. Letters and calls could be intercepted, and if they were, missions could fail, and lives would be lost.

Mixed in with the necessity of secrecy, was the need to let family know you were ok. Remember, that most of these men were very young, and many had never been away from home before. Now on that first trip away from home, there are people trying to kill them. My dad had lived away from home before going into the Army Air Forces, but he was very loving and loyal toward his family. It was very important to him that they not worry about him. Dad was also an honorable man. He was a patriot. He would never do anything that would dishonor or put in danger his country, or the men he served with. I can imagine that these men all found themselves in a tough place at that time in the world’s history, but they did what they had to do, because they were a part of something greater than their own feelings, or those of their families.

My dad was the top turret gunner and the flight engineer on a B17 Bomber, stationed at Great Ashfield, Suffolk, England. It was a base in the middle of the English countryside, surrounded by civilian towns and farms. These people knew all too well how important the United States military presence was to their safety, and indeed their very lives. If one of those men had revealed information about their upcoming missions, the entire area could have been attacked and destroyed. So important was their mission over there, and so grateful were the people of that area, that memorials were erected to remember…forever, the sacrifice made by the brave men of the 385th Heavy Bombardment Group, U.S. Army Air Forces. The memorials were placed so that generation, and future generations would remember the sacrifices made to save their lives by men who were a part of something greater than their own lives…to protect the lives of people they didn’t even know. That is what my dad was a part of when he was barely more than a teenager.

Those years changed who my dad was, just like they changed the lives of all the men who lived through that turbulent time in the history of the world. Those were hard times for everyone, and yet my dad and the other young men he served with, played their very important part with dignity and honor, placing the lives of innocent civilians ahead of their own lives, because they were a part of something greater.

My dad loved pretty much everything that had to do with history. I suppose that is why we stopped at every historical marker or historical site we found. Dad wanted his kids and grandkids to know as much about our nation’s history is he could show us. He wanted us to know where this nation came from, how it progressed, and what it had accomplished…what our ancestors and the ancestors of others had accomplished. From the founding fathers who started this country, formed it ideals and its government, to the days of the horse and buggy when the pioneers began to head west, looking for their fortune and a place to put down roots. He loved the old west.

He showed us so many aspects of history, that we almost felt like we were there. I sometimes wondered how he could have possibly known so much about things from the past. Of course, now I know that some things were taught or passed down, and many things he read about. He simply absorbed the information. And he also had a flair for story telling, so he often made history seem like he had actually lived it. These are stories and places I will never forget, although I’m sure I didn’t completely appreciate all of it like I should have, but I guess most kids wouldn’t have.

My dad was very patriotic and loved his country. I suppose that is one reason he loved the Black Hills so much. There was so much history there, and so much information. Just spending a little time listening to one of the many speakers at Mount Rushmore, can open a bounty of information. To this day, I can’t go to Mount Rushmore without feeling a sense of awe. There is a need to show respect to the memory of those great presidents. Almost a need to be very quiet…or at the very least, whisper. Kind of a show of respect.

I think that must have been how Dad felt whe he visited Mount Rushmore in his younger years, because he took lots of pictures and kept them safe all those years. I think he knew it was a special place full of history, the kind of place he might want to show his family some day. The kind of place he might want to come back to and share with his kids. So we could learn from it the way he did.

With the upcoming release of the 3D version of the movie Titanic, discussion in our office turned to the passengers on that fateful voyage. My boss, Jim and his wife, Julie found out that there was a couple on board the Titanic named Charles Emil Henry Stengel who was traveling with his wife Annie May. I have been researching both my family tree, and theirs, so I told them I would check into it. Unfortunately, so far, I haven’t found the connection in their family that I am fairly certain exists, but I will keep looking for it. As I was looking for the name of those passengers, however, I found that there was a man named William Augustus Spencer, who was traveling with his wife Marie Eugenie. It has been my experience in my years of research, that most of people with the last name of Spencer are related, so I began researching William Augustus Spencer.

He was pretty simple to find, as he became famous when he died during the Titanic disaster. Of course, finding him doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be easy to connect him to me. The good news is that the Spencer family is one of the few who kept extensive records. I followed the line backwards through names I had never heard of before, until I finally came to one I knew quite well…Gerard Spencer who married Alice Whitebread. To get to that connection, I had to go back to the 1500’s. Then moving to my own tree, and starting at Gerard, I followed the correct children to get back to William Augustus Spencer. After that, I requested a relationship connection between William and myself. I found out that William Augustus Spencer is my 7th cousin 3 times removed. I know that relationship seems very distant, and I suppose most would consider it so, but when you consider that Princess Diana was my 18th cousin, I guess 7th isn’t so far after all.

William was married as I said, but they had no children, so sadly his line ended on that tragic day at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean when the RMS Titanic met her fate. He was 57 years old. His wife Marie Eugenie died just 6 months later in Paris. She was only 46 years old. Strangely, I have found several survivors who died a short time after the Titanic sank. The causes of death have varied and really cannot be linked to the sinking of the Titanic, but I still find it strange. I don’t know what Marie’s cause of death was, but at 45 years of age, it seems strange to me…almost like she died of a broken heart.

William Augustus Spencer’s estate was valued at $2,218,650 of which $1,273,071 went to Marie and the remainder to his nephew and his sister, so Marie was not destitute. But money cannot buy happiness, as we all know, and it certainly couldn’t extend her short life. Their story is one that I find interesting, and even strange to think that one of my family members perished on that tragic day…that seemed so far removed from my family a mere 2 days ago. But, I also find it very sad to think that two lives were…ended that day. One just took 6 more months to complete the ending process.

Bob and I are on a trip to Florida, Louisiana, Alabama,  and Mississippi. It is a trip I have looked forward to for some time. As I have read through letters from the past and searched for past records for my family, it seems fitting that I should travel to an area of our country in which resides so much of our nation’s past. I don’t know if any of my ancestors were plantation owners or not, but I do know that some of them came from the south, so I suppose there is a possibility.

Going through Nottoway Plantation, gave us a peek into the lives of the very wealthiest plantation owners. These were people who could not “afford” to marry for love. Every child in the family knew what was expected of them. You married to better your standing and value…even if that meant marrying your cousin, as did happen in some cases, but was not totally common. Does this remind you of “Gone With The Wind”? It did us, but that is how the wealthy lived in those days, and maybe even more than we know in today’s world.

The Randolf family completed Nottoway Plantation in 1859 after 2 years of construction. It was situated right on the Mississippi River, and that was how the family traveled…by river boat, directly into New Orleans. They new no shortage of funds, and lived extravagantly…at least until the Civil War broke out in 1861. One of their sons was killed in the war, one became ill and was sent home, and one was captured. Still, the family proved what they were made of. The father, John went to Texas to grow cotton in order to make money, and the wife and some of the daughters stayed in the family home…even when the Yankee troops showed up. A wise woman, Emily offered to let the troops camp on her property and use what they needed. They took most of the vegetables and livestock, but left the home and the women alone…mostly because one of the soldiers knew one of the Randolf boys.

The home was made of the finest Virginia Cypress wood, which resisted rotting and termites, so the home has endured through the years. The shutters made of the same wood, are simply closed when hurricanes came, and the glass is even protected. The home is beautiful, and the family held many balls there as their children came of age for marrying, because they had to make sure that their children married from the right families.

While this family was wealthy and extravagant, they were also among the few families in the South who were good to their slaves. After the harvest and at Christmas time, John Randolf roasted a pig, and the family ate with the slaves. During that party, John handed out money to his slaves as a reward for jobs well done. Because of that, when the Civil War was over, and John offered contracts to his slaves, so they could now work for a wage, most of them stayed on with him. From the pay they had received through the years, they trusted him to keep his word and pay them after the war as well.

As I said, I don’t know if my family were plantation owners or not, but I like to think that if they were, they would be like John and Emily Randolf, who treated their slaves with kindness. I don’t like the idea of slavery, but I suppose that the people of that time didn’t know any different. It was a different culture, and as far as slaves are concerned, one that I think should not have happened, but unfortunately it is a part if our nation’s past.

There is something about getting a brand new car that is so exciting. It’s never been used by anyone else. That’s kind of how my dad felt about the B-17G Bomber that he and his crew were assigned. It was brand new. They were to be the first crew to fly her. I’m sure they weren’t the last, since their plane survived the time they were in it. But I don’t really know if the plane continued to fly in war times. The B-17 bombers had a strange history, and I’m sure many people wouldn’t have felt like it was going to be a very safe plane since the early prototypes didn’t fly well. That is probably a fact that I’m sure my grandparents were thankful not to have known, and hopefully my dad didn’t know either. Still, the early models that crashed were built in the mid 1930’s and the B-17G version, which came out in the mid 1940’s, was the final and by far the best version.

I am thankful that it was the final version that carried my dad on his missions, and even more thankful that his plane brought him back every time…even though they flew through many hazardous missions. My dad was so proud of his plane, and he believed that it would bring him safely home again. He could seen why the plane was called The Flying Fortress and The Super Dread, because it could come home even after taking some damage, provided the damage left the fuselage in one piece, of course.

In my dad’s letters, he described the beautiful plane to his family. Dad could see the beauty in the planes, of course, because he had worked for Douglas Aircraft Company, building planes. So, the intricacies and the strength of the B-17G Bomber made sense to him, where they were probably lost on my grandmother. I took my dad out to the airport the August before he passed away, and he got one last chance to go through the B-17G bomber. He was still highly impressed with the plane, and all it could do. He told me where he was stationed on the plane, and what his duties were, and what a wonderful plane it was. I could still see the look of wonder on his face…almost like that of a little boy with his first toy car or plane. As we went through the plane, I could see why my dad was so impressed with it.

Dad went on to tell his family about how smoothly the plane flew, and how impressed the crew was. He also wanted them all to know that this was a plane that would keep him safe and bring him home. It was very important to him that his family not worry. My dad knew that “not worrying” would be difficult, but he wanted to encourage them and let them know that God would take care of him and bring him back safely. Dad did return from World War II, of course, and he was unscathed. He had experienced things he never expected to experience, and sadly, he really never much enjoyed flying after that time, but he was always in awe of the B-17G Bomber.

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