Born to Fly

WikiTree is a web-based, free genealogy site.  I’m too busy these days to do much digging, but it’s hard not to stop and consider it once in a while.  Some years back I put some family information on it, and every great now and again—I don’t have a sense for the timing—I get notices that include “degrees of separation.”  It seems I’m always about twenty-some degrees removed from famous people.  In August they were featuring aviators.  I’m about as close to Orville Wright as I am to Amelia Earhart.   Then there was Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, better known as “the Red Baron.”  What always surprises me about these charts is that they never follow the path you’d expect.  My ancestry is about half German, but Richthofen is attached through the other half, predominantly Celtic.  As my wife pointed out, we must all be about this far removed from each other.

Genealogy can be enticing.  It’s got an air of mystery and discovery about it.  I suspect many of us hope we’ll find that we’re connected to someone famous, even if we never meet them.  My cousins remember visiting Melvin Purvis’ house when they were kids.  An ancestor of that generation was married to his sister.  But what of all those who never become well known?  Are they any less important because they don’t have books written about them, or movies that feature them?  Isn’t simply connection enough?  And the matter of being connected can often heal wounds.  It’s harder to hate someone whose house or childhood you shared.  This is a profound lesson from looking at how humans have loved each other.  We tend to get fixated on the mechanics, but it seems to me that the love is the important part.

I’m not a statistician, but I find that genealogy helps me feel connected.  We are all, of course, connected at some level.  That’s one reason it’s so distressing to see the hatred being carefully nurtured by our government for political ends.  Black lives do matter.  They are connected to white lives in often unexpected ways.  Despite what 45 says, race is a human construct only.  We are all human and we each have inherent worth and dignity.  This isn’t rocket science.  Good leadership brings together.  Poor leadership divides.  So my twenty-something-th cousin was flying around shooting down airplanes in World War One.  My other twenty-something-th cousin was trying to show that women can do just what men can do.  Which is a better model to follow?  It’s the one that promotes love.

Fame and Fortune

I was that awkward introvert in high school. Actually, I’m still that awkward introvert now, as easily talked over in editorial board meetings as I always have been at the lunchroom table. As a consequence I’ll gladly take any help I can get on my street cred. No doubt it will have to come from others. I get rejection emails from agents saying I’m just not famous enough to merit attention, so I guess I’ll have to bask in the glory of strangers. I do have a famous brother-in-law. It also turns out that I’m also only 43-degrees separated from J. R. R. Tolkien. I’ll take it!

One of the beauties of genealogy is that we learn we’re all connected. As much as we might want to distance ourselves from any unsightly Trumps in the family tree, we are all, at some remove, related. J. R. R., as those of us in the fam like to call him, had a common great uncle who had some descendants who by marriage became connected to the obscure Tauberschmidt family, of which I’m a member. I posted some time back on my degrees of separation from Bob Dylan, but the closest near miss to fame in my background is Melvin Purvis, “the man who shot Dillinger.” Even he’s only related by marriage. Still, I can’t help but wonder if we all took our relations seriously if it might not help to understand that when we oppress anyone we’re actually violating our own family. Makes you think.

Wiki-Tree is a great place for finding connections. Unfortunately I don’t have much time for genealogy anymore. I used to spend quite a bit of time at it and now I can’t even find my paper files. Those of us on the obscure end of the human continuum have to take whatever jobs we’re offered, even if it means moving so many times that those family tree files from pre-electronic days get buried in the back of some attic crawl space in your rental. So it goes. I’m sure J. R. R. had his own rough times. At least he doesn’t have to try to get published in today’s market. I suspect that if the Inklings were to meet today they’d all be chatting about the merits of self-publishing on Amazon. In ebook form. Publishing’s not for the feint-hearted. So as I open yet another pinhead email, I think of my 43rd cousin and smile.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

When Bob Dylan was changing American music I wasn’t really in a place to notice. I was too young, living in a small town, and the member of a church suspicious of that kind of music. We didn’t listen to the radio at home, so I only really discovered who he was when I was in college. I’d heard many of his songs by then, of course, I just didn’t know the persona. So when the news broke that Dylan had been selected for a Nobel Prize in poetry he stunned me yet again. As someone who has always wondered if he’s made any contribution at all, let alone a significant one, this seemed like one of those roads a man walks down before he’s called a man. A mensch. A person who matters. I was pleased, then, to learn that I’m only 37 degrees of separation from the great man himself.

It was probably something like this desire to be significant that led me to genealogy in the first place. My wife had done significant work on her family tree, and apart from a college project in anthropology I’d done little. While at Nashotah House I began to work on it. I managed to make some connections and take many of my lineages (pedestrian, all of them) back a ways. One of the results of this was I posted some information on WikiTree. I had intended to put much more there, but since leaving academia I also seem to have misplaced anything resembling free time. The loss of summer is the hardest to bear for a man whose very pulse is divided into semesters. In any case, I received an email from WikiTree this week with the following chart, showing how I’m attached to Bob Dylan.


Now, I didn’t ask for this connection to fame. I received the email unsolicited, blowing in the wind, as it were. I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle all the hits that are sure to follow such a public revelation. Fame, I’m told, can be quite a burden. The one important thing this chart tells me, however, is that we’re all connected. I suspect there are some famous people much closer than 37 degrees from me. Melvin Purvis, “the man who shot John Dillinger” was married to one of my great aunt’s sisters or something like that. Some of my southern cousins even got to visit his gun-lined house. Fame, as it will, rests rather on the side of John Dillinger. And Bob Dylan. If we were to cast the net wide enough we’d see that we’re all related and therefore shouldn’t hate one another. I would say “we are family” but I think that might be a different artist’s song.

I’ve Been Meming to Tell You . . .

There’s a tag game going on among the blogging community in an attempt to get a new meme going. Perhaps in payback for my researching memes for years, I was tagged by Dr. Jim of Dr. Jim’s Thinking Shop to reveal something about myself you wouldn’t normally guess. Now, I’m not much of a tag player, but I am a good sport, so I’ve been trying to think of something I wouldn’t mind letting the world at large know.

A little background first: I am a pacifist. When I had to register for the draft back in the Dark Ages I learned how to sign on as a conscientious objector. I don’t kill bugs in the house. Even the scariest looking ones I capture in a jar and release in the wild. In Wisconsin we used humane mousetraps and any captured rodents received a complementary automobile trip across a river a few miles away so that they couldn’t tunnel their innocent way back into our kitchen. I believe life is a good thing.

So far anyone who knows me could have guessed most of that. The new meme to be added is this: I am a good shot. With guns. I am not some gun-slingin’ ranger, but on the occasions when I’ve been invited to heft a sidearm and let fly, I’m not a bad shot.

melvin-purvisHow far back does this go? It’s hard to say. I am related to Melvin Purvis, J. Edgar Hoover’s “Little Mel,” probably the most famous FBI operative in history. Purvis was responsible for tracking down such characters as Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and John Dillinger. Less famously, he married my father’s aunt. My cousins who saw his house before he died (apparently shot himself accidentally while cleaning a gun) tell me that it had a grand entrance hall lined with guns. Well, I’m related by marriage, and as much as I’d like to blame my short stature on him, it just won’t wash.

Little Mel with J. Edgar Hoover

Little Mel with J. Edgar Hoover

Probably more to the point, I grew up in redneck territory. The first day of deer season was a school holiday (not kidding here), and my high school had a rifle range in the basement. This latter point is unbelievable in the shadow of Columbine, but it is true. When I worked as a janitor in the school I saw the (by then disused) range with my own eyes. All boys were required to pass a course on gun safety before going to high school. Every week we sat in the Junior High School auditorium with Mr. Meade, the very masculine gym teacher, while he lectured about the parts of a gun, how to use one, and general safety issues. I shot my first rifle before I was twelve.

A typical day in seminary

A typical day in seminary

Well, there you have it. A pacifist who knows how to shoot. Now, I’m not sure if anyone on my blogroll plays tag or even if most of them read my humble attempt at a blog. If you’re out there reading this, I would tag my following colleagues: Wulfila of the Lonely Goth’s Guide, Alan of Feeling Finite, James of Kethuvim, Stephen of Biblische Ausbildung, and Daniel of O. McClellan. Let the meme-pool remain ever refreshed.