Thomas Jankus: Tracing the Mysterious Story of the Yench Family

Since I last wrote about my maternal grandmother’s family,  I have a few answers, a few new ideas, and even more questions.  Here’s some updates on the Yench family, who I’m sure had a history prior to showing up in Oklahoma!

To begin with, I’ve started referring to my grandma Nell’s father as Thomas Jankus / Yench, as he refers to himself essentially interchangeably during the first decades of his life here.  His children’s records seem to uniformly use the Americanized “Yench” version of the name, but Thomas vacillates.  In fact, by reviewing a rough timeline of Thomas Jankus / Yench’s life, we can arrive at answers to some of the questions I posed previously.  But only some, sigh.  So with no further ado,

Thomas Jankus:  A Life, Part I

About 1877:  Born in Kaunas, Lithuania

I could not arrive at a settled birth date, because there is not a preponderance of evidence for one specific date.  His funeral card lists 7 March, 1877;  his Declaration of Intention to Immigrate declares 11 November, 1877;  his Petition for Naturalization states 7 March, 1878.  Census records all state about 1877.  As tempting as it would be declare one of these dates the “winner,” I think “about 1877” is the most accurate birth date we can assign Thomas.

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Funeral card of Thomas Jankus / Yench

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Declaration of Intention, filed 26 December, 1901

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Petition for Naturalization, filed 25 March, 1936

 

You’ll also notice that, between filling out one immigration form in 1901 and a second in 1936, Thomas changes his place of birth!  He initially identifies his natal town as Kwiedon, Poland, and later as Kauna, Lithuania.  Was he intentionally being deceitful?  The familial myth around his coming to American was one of literal escape from draft into the Red Army…

On the contrary.  It’s simply that in 1901, the country of Lithuania did not exist.  I hate to be a slave to Wikipedia, but sometimes the hive mind just states things so nicely:

After the fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, most of Lithuania was incorporated into the Russian Empire. The beginnings of industrialization and commercial agriculture based on Stolypin’s reforms, as well as the abolition of serfdom in 1861, freed the peasants and turned them into migrant-laborers. The pressures of industrialization, Lithuanian press ban, general discontent, suppression of religious freedom and poverty drove numerous Lithuanians to emigrate from the Russian Empire to the United States continuing until the outbreak of the First World War. The emigration continued despite the Tsarist attempts to control the border and prevent such a drastic loss of population. Since Lithuania as a country did not exist at the time, the people who arrived to the U.S. were recorded as either Polish or Russian; moreover, due to the language ban in Lithuania and prevalence of Polish language at that time, their Lithuanian names were not transcribed in the same way as they would be today.   Only after 1918, when Lithuania established its independence, the immigrants to the U.S. started being recorded as Lithuanians. This first wave of Lithuanian immigrants to the United States ceased when the U.S. Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, followed by the Immigration Act of 1924. The Immigration Act of 1924 was aimed at restricting the Eastern and Southern Europeans who had begun to enter the country in large numbers beginning in the 1890s.  —  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithuanian_Americans

 

And the city now know as Kaunas, Lithuania, had different names depending on the ruler of the day.  The city was generally known in English as Kovno, the traditional Slavicized form of its name; the Polish name is Kowno; the Belarusian name is Koўна, Kowna. An earlier Russian name was Ковно Kovno, although Каунас Kaunas has been used since 1940.

 

kaunas

Kaunas is the second most populous city in Lithuania, second only to the capital, Vilnius.

 

What his life there was like, I have no idea.  I still don’t know his parents’ names, nor that of any potential sibling.  There are neither family diaries nor memoirs.  As I suggested in my introductory post, this is where it gets hard.  It is clear that at the time of Thomas’ growing up, young men were compelled to serve in the Russian Army; perhaps there’s something to that famil myyth.  Regardless of what the ultimate deciding factor was, the above naturalization documents indicate that Thomas Jankus / Yench came to the United States.

1901 (age 24):  Emigrated to the United States

The degree of subterfuge and bribery needed to achieve his departure isn’t clear.  Like so many thousands of others, he departed from Bremen, Germany, and arrived via New York.  By the end of 1901 he was filing his immigration papers as shown above, and listing his occupation as coal miner in Hartshorne, Oklahoma Territory;  Oklahoma was not yet a state.  Many Lithuanians, Poles, and other eastern Europeans immigrating at the time were deemed highly suitable for such unskilled labor as coal mining and work in slaughterhouses.  Many Lithuanians, in fact, settled more predominantly in the coal mining regions of Pennsylvania.  So, how Thomas chose Hartshorne, Oklahoma, I have no idea.  However, the town itself was established as a coal-mining town, and mine operators were actively recruiting immigrants to work the mines.

The city of Hartshorne is now small with a population just under 2,000.  The Catholic Holy Rosary Church, which was established by Russian and other Eastern European immigrants, still exists;  this is the church at which my grandmother was baptized.

Hartshorn

Hartshorne, Oklahoma is located in Pittsburg County.

 

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My grandmother, Nell, visited the town of her birth at some point in her adult life, as shown in this undated photograph

 

Between 1901-1908:  Marries first wife (assumed)

1908, 1910, 1912:  First three children born

These first three children were boys, Joseph, Anthony (who went by Fed), and Peter (who went by Bob). I wish that I could say I had copies of their birth certificates, or even the Yench family’s federal census records from 1910 or 1920, but I just do not.  As far as federal census records go, they MUST exist, however who knows what iteration of the last name I should be searching under?  Their birth dates and places are verified in other, later documents.  However, I have no record of who their mother was or whether she and Thomas married prior to arrival or after.  “Well, just pull their birth certificates!” you say.

This is a grand idea–in theory.  However.  The Oklahoma Department of Health abides by a statute that seals all birth certificates until 125 years after the date of birth!  I was able to see that a birth certificate for at least one of the boys does, in fact, exist–and presumably names his mother.  However, genealogists requesting a birth certificate from less than 125 years ago must provide (among other things:)

  • If the subject is alive: a statement signed by the Subject releasing record to the Applicant and a copy of the Subjects ID

  • If the subject is deceased:

1) a statement signed by a family member, proof of familial relationship to the decedent, and a copy of the family member’s ID [Applicant may also be required to provide proof of death if the death occurred outside Oklahoma] or

2) court order

So close, and yet so very far away.

Between 1912-1914:  First wife dies

Again, due to the largely unsearchable vital records of the state of Oklahoma, I got nothin.  No name, no death date, nothin.  However, there is always hope.  As a next step, I plan to:

  1. Attempt to contact any living descendants of the three boys to see what records they might have.  My mother still keeps in touch with some of them.
  2. Put in a query to the Pittsburg County Genealogical and Historical Society.  Most counties have a group who catalogs records and, to varying degrees, makes them available online.  Most also will take queries for a modest donation, which are generally researched by a volunteer.
  3. Attempt to contact the Holy Rosary Church.  If my grandmother was baptized there, I’m hoping at least one of the three oldest boys was as well (her half brothers).  They may also have funeral records on Thomas’ first wife.  The church doesn’t have its own website, so I suspect it is rather small at this point.  But it still has a telephone number and address.  I hate making cold phone calls, but for the sake of historical accuracy I must get over it!

25 August, 1914:  Marries Helen Shareva 

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Marriage of Helen (Shareva) Yench and Thomas Jankus/Yench

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Interestingly, they got married in Chicago, but then returned to Oklahoma to reside.  Why was this?  To answer that question, we must delve into the larger story of the relationship between Lithuanians and Chicago.  And that’s a post for another day…

So what do you have to look forward to next?  Hopefully results from my three-step plan outlined above.  And an interesting look at the history of Lithuanian immigrants in Chicago.  Hint:  Upton Sinclair took notice…

 

 

Snow Reverie

Two days ago it snowed, a light fluffy, non sticky snow, the stuff of bitter cold weather and bright clear skies.  Yesterday it blew, and the crisp edges of the driveway were blurred into little duney drifts.  Around town, those stretches of road with no windbreaks were heaped up with snow.  It was just the like snow on the stretch of County A starting just in front of my parents’ old house and heading east. It was a Bermuda Triangle-esque stretch of country road, where any bit of wind would sweep the snow off of the flat, plowed fields and send it racing across the prairie, to be caught and heaped up on the roadway.  We kids always thought that those swirling eddies of snow across the two lane road looked like the action of hockey players, racing and jostling across the ice.  Every winter, people heading east out of Janesville would be caught unawares by the treacherous stretch of windswept road just past the farmhouse, and they’d end up in the ditch.  Ours was the nearest house, and the drivers would inevitably end up at our back door, asking to use the phone, back in the day when cell phones weren’t a thing.  The kitchen phone was wall-mounted with a curly white cord that cold easily stretch into the unheated “back room” as we called it;  I know because perched on the washing machine was the only place that anyone could have a private conversation in the house. If mom was home alone with us kids, she’d make any single men make the call from the back room, with the door shut firmly between us and them, the white coil of cord mashed in the door jamb.  If there was a woman or kids however, a spot was generally cleared for them at the kitchen table.  One time, dad even gave the mom and kids donuts.  But that was a time that the mom was crying because she’d hit a farm dog in the road further up the way, not because of snow.

 

That swirly, windy, country snow would sometimes appear pink, as the debris from the silos filled with drying soybeans at the farm across the road would dust the top layers of it pink.  One winter the snow heaped up dirty  brown on the bottom, clean white next, and a pinkish layer on the top that looked for all the world like a cross section of the Neopolitan ice cream in the half-gallon box container in the freezer compartment of the house on County A.

Ketzelsdorf and Schönhengstgau updates

Although I declared my intent to turn my family history attention to my Grandmother’s story, I have to  share a few updates regarding our family homeland in Ketzelsdorf / Koclířov before I do so.

Since receiving a letter from Pepi, our friend in Koclířov, in the fall, a few interesting things have transpired.  And all of them are creating a fascinating, real-time experience in seeing how history is created.  Recall that a year ago, I was still grappling with the fact that Ketzelsdorf (German) had become Koclířov (Czech).  Since then, I’ve seen the evidence of the Slavic version of this story during our time in Prague.  More so, recent correspondence has introduced me to the displaced Germans’ version of the story, and it is a passionate one.

Before Christmas I received a letter from Dr. Franz Kossler, who you may recall is Pepi’s
“professor friend” in Berlin, a fellow Ketzelsdorfer and an historian of the area.  He kindly wrote me in English, and here is his email:

Dear Dr. Angela Bier,

because I was mentioned by Pepi (Koclirov), by Stephan (Berlin) and actually in your article „Voices from the backseat“ (…who is this Dr. Franz Kössler?), it‘s time to introduce myself.

Really, I was born in 1931 in Ketzelsdorf (Koclirov), home no. 60. My father was a carpenter and worked in Zwittau (Svitavy), our mother took care of the children (altogether six, born between 1923 and 1942). She also took care to our small farm with several animals as well as to the agriculture (some hectares).

Until the end of 1944 I visited the school in Ketzelsdorf, but after the wild repulsion (Juni 1945) I was living five years as a farm worker in a small Prussian village. From 1950 to 1953 I visited schools in Potsdam; after that I studied Biology in Berlin five years long.

In 1958 I entered the Institute of Occupational Medicine and was engaged in different fields. During this scientific work I met a lot of famous scientists, among them some from the USA, e.g. Prof. Gergely (Boston), Prof. Hazlewood (Houston).

During my investigations on bioluminescent bacteria I had contact by letters and reprints exchange with the pope of bioluminescence Prof. J. W. Hastings (Boston) and I met him in Chabarowsk (East Siberia) and Boston, in 1979 and in 1996, respectively. In my second dissertation (Habilitation, 1969) many persons of bioluminescent research are cited, among them was Beatrice M. Sweeney (perhaps related to McSweeny?).

I retired 1997, then I started some activities in historical fields, beginning with the history of Botany in Berlin and Potsdam, followed by writing books about my home village Ketzelsdorf, my home area Schönhengstgau and about countries in Eastern Europe where German was spoken earlier..

The term Schönhengst originated presumably from a male horse (in German: hengst) in connection with an ancient burglord with a pretty (in German: schön) horse. Another legend tells that the old traffic road between Ketzelsdorf and Mährisch-Trübau (Mor. Trebova) which has to cross a mountain passage and this crossing was a great strain for horses (in German: schinden, schind den Hengst – Schinhengst-Schönhengst).

Finally, I want to congratulate you to your engagement in family history and the enthusiasm for Ketzelsdorf and the landscape Schönhengst.

Thanks for the informative paper, delivered to Pepi who sent it to Berlin; I prepared a short communication for the Journal Schönhengster Heimat.

With best wishes for cheerful Christmas time and Happy New Year,

Sincerely yours

In addition to being interesting in its own right (bioluminescent bacteria?  Wow!  Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article.  ), I found the description of how the beautiful region along the Bohemian and Moravian borders got its name.  Finally, if the summary of the story of the Biers’ coming to America ends up being published, I’ll be simply delighted.

The Journal Schönhengster Heimat that he mentions is produced by a society of the Sudeten Germans now residing in Germany.  They also maintain a small museum in  Göppingen, Germany, which is in the Stuttgart region.  Any of you who speak German will probably get more out of this website than I have, even with the assistance of Google translate.

Museum

Schönhengster Heimat Museum in Göppingen, Germany

In exploring some of the information contained on this website, I’ve discovered that there’s actually a song to the Schönhengstgau region.  Here’s a google translation of the lyrics, which are quite poetic and evocative:

Between March and Adler spreads
a richly blessed land,
which traverses the wanderer’s path,
captivating as a sweet spell.
Blessing rests in every valley,
Peacefully greenens on mountain and on the meadow.
Greetings many thousands of times,
Trauter German Schönhengstgau!

Our native mother tongue, of
our ancestors of the same kind, is kept
under every roof
like a delicious good.
Manly courage and women’s dignity
Carries the people there proudly.
Stay of the earth garden Zierde,
Trauter German Schönhengstgau!

And the girls, like the boys of
our future, comfort and reverence,
are to dig deep into the heart of
their fathers. Word of Solace :
Shine happiness in golden shades,
Come days dull and gray,
Faithfully bound, yours forever,
Trauten deutscher Schoenhengstgau!

I’ve received further correspondence from Stephan Bier, our presumed relative in Berlin, and I include a few “Google translations” from his letter;

Our small commemorative book “Memories of Ketzelsdorf in Schönhengstgau” will be sent to you by our representative in the local newspaper Wilhelm Bier. He lives in Roitsch in the larger town of Bitterfeld. In Roitsch a larger group of 1,945 stranded Ketzelsdorfern and many of them are still living there or in the neighborhood.

Guess what I came in the mail literally as I was writing this?  The aforementioned copy of the book from another presumed relative, Wilhelm Bier.  It’s wholly in German and I think I’ll have to seek some help from the University on this one!  The small commemorative book, which I was presuming would be a pamphlet, is 278 pages long!!

Ketzelsdorf book

Recently arrived.

I will have to add this to my reading list (after translation) after I finish Orderly and Humane, which tells the story of the expulsion of ethnic Germans after WWII.  For some interesting insight into how contentious the issue of the ownership and telling of this story is, read some of its reviews on Amazon.  The author, R.M. Douglas, is careful in his introductory material to emphasize that he in no way conflates the story of this group’s treatment with that of the treatment of the Jews, Gypies, homeosexuals and other targeted groups during the Holocaust.  Nevertheless, the need to tread excruciatingly lightly is brought into relief in those reviews.

Orderly and Humane

Finally, a comment from Stephan Bier at the end of his letter drove home the point of history being the provenance of the victors (recall that this is a rough Google translation and likely misses some of his nuance):

I was Ketzelsdorf only interested because I was born there. The political conditions were not pro-German. Even the current administration in Prague is not interested in historical truth. I have a garden Czech neighbor and told me that many of his relatives in Prague and its surroundings believe that the Germans came in the former Czechoslovakia only with Hitler 1938. You do not know that the German settlers hundreds of years ago, large parts of the country have made it all under cultivation, the land was donated. That is not taught at school. The expulsion of more than 3 million Germans and the appalling atrocities be concealed today. Bohemia and Moravia were hundreds of years to the German association of states. The language has Slavic origin and people have little cultural differences, but otherwise it is a European country like other countries.

So there you have it.  Learning history as it’s being written is an interesting, contentious subject.

A Clean Slate

By the end of the Christmas season, I’m itching to get back to normal.  And by get back to normal, I mean put all of the crap away and revel in a few empty horizontal surfaces.  You might not suspect this of me, given that I currently own 17 bins of Christmas decorations and put up 7–count ’em, 7–trees in my house.  I LOVE decorating for Christmas!  And I love putting it all away even more.  And after flipping the calendar, it can’t happen soon enough.

My mother always lived by the rule that the Christmas season extends to Epiphany, a full 12 days after Christmas.  To be fair, this is an excellent rule for teachers, which she was.  They have so little time to prepare for things in the run up to the holidays.  The shift of the celebratory block into January and away from the creep toward Thanksgiving makes perfect sense for that population.  Mom took full advantage of this loophole for many years and sent Epiphany cards rather than Christmas cards.  This bought her until January 7 in time and an easy theme to follow in that her cards, for many years, featured the three wise men.  Clever, Sister Janice, clever.

Christmas 2017

My God it was charming while it lasted (photo and S&P shakers courtesy of Pat Bier)

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But I’m so glad it’s over.

I can’t slog through that long, though.  There’s my own holiday excess to blame. Then there’s Jimmy’s toy model train situation, which involves a span of two rooms and multiple villages.  Realistically, our holiday displays reduce our usable living space by about half.  So there’s that.  Then there’s the fact that the decorations start to look a little off.  The train tracks are separating.  The ornaments are drooping.  The one live tree has more needles on the ground than on.  The batteries are expired on 50% of things.  There’s glitter in places that it just shouldn’t be.  I can make it through the new year, but once those kids are back in school, it’s time to get serious.  This, thank you sweet Jesus, happened today.  Save for Jimmy’s disassembled trains awaiting storage, it is DONE.

The other exciting thing?  Putting away Christmas means it’s also time to Konmari the crap out of the house.  What is this weird verb I mention, you ask?  Have you heard of this quirky little book that was popular a couple years back, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up?  It’s basically a book about how to get rid of stuff and put it away neatly.  The book is interesting for a number of reasons.  First, it’s like a little virtual homestay with an unmarried young woman living in Japan.  There are all sorts of references that so clearly don’t apply to me, but are quite interesting.  (e.g., how long good luck charms picked up at Shinto shrines are “good” for).

Second, her approach to tidying is quite useful.  In a nutshell, she recommends sorting things by item rather than location–that is, don’t go through your coat closet and clothes closet separately.  Instead, make a big pile of all your coats from wherever they reside and deal with them all at once.  This forces you to be honest about what you really have (in most of our cases, too much).  You think you don’t have too many pens?  Pile ’em up on the kitchen table and then get back to me.  The other interesting thing about her approach is that she has you decide what to keep rather than what to throw away.  This sounds like no big difference, but it works.  She wants you accomplish these decisions by holding every object and determining whether it brings you joy.  This is corny, so instead I look at every object and decide whether, if it was the only one left in the drawer / shelf / closet I’d still use it.  For example, the third string underwear.  Does it really need to stay?  When I get that deep in the bench, I’m doing laundry ASAP.

Third, she has some ways of folding things that have produced an inordinate amount of pleasure in my life.

Finally, the book has allowed me to reintroduce the word tidy into my daily vocabulary.

I won’t bore you by forcing you to participate in the daily rehashing of my Konmari extravaganza, but trust me when I report that my Konmari plan will be happening big time.  The purge produces a thrilling amount of things that leave the house.  When I’m on pace, there’s usually at least a bag that leaves per day.  This almost balances out the daily deliveries e at our house thanks to Jimmy’s Amazon Prime addiction.

So, stay at school a bit longer, children, and don’t pay attention if I blame the dog when a few “precious” items go missing (decorative but useless erasers, those damn Shopkins, every Valentine you’ve ever received).  Mama’s ready to wipe the slate clean.  Christmas is put away, and mysterious shelf over the refrigerator?  I’m coming for you . . .

My brother, the spritely curmudgeon

I got up at 4:35 a.m. this morning to drive my youngest brother, Pat, to the airport after a week’s visit to Wisconsin.  He was already up, dressed, and had neatly made the guest bed.  The trip to the airport is only 15 minutes door to door, and I assumed we’d complete it largely in not-yet-caffeinated silence.  I was completely wrong, and the random string of topics discussed deserves its own post.

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Pat in his natural state…

pat

…and what he wishes were his natural state.  These were both taken from his Facebook profile and, therefore, are the best way to determine the way in which he self-identifies.

Pat is a bit of a conundrum.  He’s this odd combination of ridiculously coddled youngest brother / son and curmudgeonly old man.  For evidence, I cite some of the commentary that issued forth from the passenger’s seat from 4:45-5:00 en route to General Mitchell Airport:

 

Young man:  [on Jimmy’s life quest for a perfect credit score]  “What is Jimmy even going to do with that high credit score?  Better to use it now and get some joy out of it.  Whaddya gonna do?  Carve it on your tombstone?”

Old man:  “You know what I really hate?  Seeing the sunrise.  That just means I got out of bed too early.  Who needs that crap?”

Young man:  “I don’t like to be cold, but I also don’t want a puffy coat.  Yeah, you look pretty comfortable over there in that knee length number, but I only have to walk three blocks to the subway.”  Every day.  In sub-zero weather.

Old man:  And speaking of sleep . . . “I don’t know about those people who claim to enjoy getting up early to exercise.  Me?  I need as much sleep as I can get.  Around 9-10 hours a night.”

Young man:  “I also don’t like hats, and I only have only ever liked one pair of earmuffs, and I’m pretty sure Louise lost them.”

Old man:  “Google?  Who needs it?  I just text my sisters when I need answers to questions.” (e.g., What season will it be when we’re in Germany?  What time does the DMV open?  What does mom want for Christmas?)

Young man:  “No, I’m pretty sure they’ll let me check these hand weights and 15# geology text that I brought from mom and dad’s.  [2 hours later…via text….]  Yeah, I’m carrying a geology textbook in my arms through the airport because *apparently* my bag was over weight.”  [to be fair, this was actually from a previous trip to the airport.]

I hope that some of his friends / associates might read this and contribute other ways in which he’s a hopeless mix of naivete and old man crustiness.  It was great having you home, Pat!!!

Banned Words

 

[note:  updated on December 29 to replace the word “authority” with “expertise,” which more accurately describes my intent.  I also included the phrase “wish-based reality” which I think summarizes things nicely.]

The other big news of the weekend was the the CDC banned a set of words:  “diversity,” “fetus,” “transgender,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “science-based” and “evidence-based.”  Since then we’ve learned that the words weren’t officially banned, but rather it seems that someone suggested that they be avoided in order to secure funding / fly more stealthily under the radar.  I’m not sure which is worse:  an outright ban in which blame can be securely assigned or that scientists are having to self censor in order to keep doing their work. 

Here’s a few thoughts I had on the matter.    

  1.  I’m just sick and tired of having to pretend that there’s no such thing as expertise anymore.  Or reality.  Did you know that I’m no longer practicing medicine?  I’m not.  There are a lot of very subtle, nuanced reasons that I arrived at this decision.  One thing that steadily wore me down, however, was the daily reality in which I had to pretend to support parents who were seeking decidedly non evidence based  sources to make medical decisions for their kids.  Their sister in law.  Their mommy group’s message board.  A blog by some dad with a minivan.  The concept of reasonable, earned expertise has completely gone out the window, and it really made me mad sometimes.  OK, all the time.  Especially in regards to vaccination.  I would often think, “if I’m either that evil or stupid as to recommend something that was really as dangerous as you believe, why on earth are you even here seeking my opinion on anything?”  I suppose a lot of that frustration was my pride.  But a lot was frustration with a generation of parents who is shifting inexorably toward wanting to believe in magic.  
  2. OK, back to the list.  I’m a little unclear on why the words “vulnerable” and “entitlement” are there.   When compared to the rest of the list, these words don’t seem to be the type that would raise conservative hackles–they’re not hot button words like (gasp) transgender.  Vulnerable?  Are conservatives really uncomfortable acknowledging that there really ARE people who are systemically disadvantaged?  And that some of these people really just can’t wake up one day and decide to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and catch some of that trickle-down economics?
  3.  I would think the word “entitlement” would be encouraged, as it smacks of unearned handouts, just the kind of a story that many right wingers want to spin.  Someone’s going to have to help me out with why this word would be seen as a danger word in the current administration.
  4. Part  of me wants to just laugh, though.  Do the non-thinkers really assume that without the words “science-based” and “evidence-based,” scientists will just throw up their hands and say out with the scientific method, let’s close up shop?  That responsible medical providers will suddenly be swayed by what the random mom bloggers are writing about the vaccination schedule?  Give me a break.  We’re made of tougher stuff than that.  The work and the concepts will continue apace.  Don’t get me wrong–words matter and none of them should be banned, outright or implicitly.  But really.
  5. It’s also an interesting exercise to think about what the opposites of these words might be.  That is, if these words or concepts are so wholly undesirable, what is the implied desirable item?  What can this teach us about the presumed audience for whom the CDC is writing?   Diversity would be “sameness.”  What’s the opposite of fetus?  “Autonomous-human-from-the-moment-the-sperm-hits-the-egg.”  Transgender?  I guess the opposite of that would be something like “strict gender binary.”  Vulnerable would be “winning,” and I guess that makes sense.  The opposite of science based and evidence based is “true because that’s what I experienced” and “true because I read on the internet.”
  6. What does the list from number 5 have in common?  THEY ARE ALL IMAGINARY.

SAMENESS

AUTONOMOUS HUMANS FROM CHEMICAL CONCEPTION

STRICT GENDER BINARY

WINNING

TRUTH THROUGH EXPERIENCE or WISH BASED REALITY

So.  We can confidently say that Trump’s Great America is littered with forced binary gender conforming, mimeographed humans all of whom are winning and whose beliefs are solely informed by things they’ve personally experienced or read on the internet. And that it’s completely imaginary.

I welcome your reasonable thoughts.  I haven’t yet written on anything overtly political, but this one really pushed me over the edge.  I honestly thought it was satire at first.  Ah well.

 

A Flame in a Manger

 

For years my parents had been christening our one-acre front lawn with a set of those plastic Nativity figurines frequently seen huddled together during the holiday season.  When I was younger, the novelty of having a complete set—two lambs and a camel along with the full cast of characters including a shepherd—was enough to keep me feeling special.  As I got older I comforted myself that, because ours were vintage, displayed in a tasteful hay bale barn, and illuminated from above with a floodlight rather than garishly from within, my family had narrowly escaped being hopelessly tacky;  we instead rested firmly in the camp of whimsical nostalgia.  Regardless of the taste level, the annual appearance of the gang on the front lawn was something that provided a sense of continuity and, no matter the chaos going on inside, a sense that a certain Christmas serenity still reigned.

manger scene 1

I must have been photographing this particular moment, as only mom, dad, Katie, Louise and Pete are pictured.

manger scene 2

Louise with vintage (read–really old and chipped) Mary and Jesus.

It was my senior year of college that everything changed.  There were only a few days left of the term, and I slogged through finals with the promise that a comfortable, familiar Christmas on County A awaited me in a few short days.  Mom and I were wrapping up our once-weekly call that Sunday night when she offhandedly mentioned,

“Oh, and the Manger Scene burned down the other night.”

Coming as it did, across the phone line to my door room a couple hours’ drive away, my mother’s comment seemed even more incongruous.  True, we certainly did edit our traditional Sunday evening calls down to a skeletal minimum.  On my part, this was to spare her the details of the questionable choices that I was making during my last year of undergrad—a decision that she was more than happy to go along with.  This approach formed the crux of her parenting after age 12:  don’t ask any questions that you don’t want to know the answer to.  On her part, the lack of foreshadowing and leaving out of key details was more routine.  She never has been very good at foreshadowing things.  Dropped in your lap like an unexpected, squirming baby, her pronouncements were often without context and, similarly, without clear instructions on where to proceed next.  Luckily, it took very little to get her going, relating the story that now exists as a legend.

Apparently they’d gotten the manger scene set up a few days before.  It was a typical weekday night, and they were settled down in the family room for the evening.  A bright floodlight swept across the back of the family room as a sheriff’s vehicle swung into the gravel driveway.  They immediately assumed that this had something to do with the family’s newest driver, my sister Louise, who had already had one hit and run incident to her credit since getting her license in September.  (Fear not, the victim was the bumper of another car in the parking lot at dance).  They hustled to the kitchen door and stepped into the crisp, semi darkness of a winter night on the Wisconsin prairie.  The only light came from the manger scene, the dusk to dawn light having been ritually unscrewed to provide center-stage billing to the front lawn tableau.  The light seemed a bit brighter than usual however.  And and it was throwing off heat.  And crackling.

The nativity scene was completely engulfed in flames

The sheriff’s deputy exited his vehicle, glancing perplexedly from the Biblical inferno to my dad in his then-uniform grey hooded Janesville Fire Department sweatshirt.  Oh, have I forgotten to mention that he was the Janesville Fire Marshal at the time?  Must have slipped my mind.  The young deputy glanced nervously between the two and asked the only logical question:

“Sir, are you aware that you Christmas scene is on fire?”

An interesting question.  Perhaps my parents just were tired of that particular decoration and couldn’t see taking a trip to the dump.  Trash burning was not uncommon in the township, and who needs a burn barrel when you have a snow-covered front lawn as a fire ring?

His mind already reeling ahead to the implications of this very public display of the fire dangers inherent in Christmas light displays, dad wearily asked while rubbing at his furrowed brow, “Sheesh, please tell me that this hasn’t been called in.”  He was answered by the crackle of the deputy’s radio coming to life.  Oh, it had been called in.  And heavily discussed by all on duty firefighters that evening.  Dad told the deputy that he had things under control, no a hose truck wasn’t needed, and PLEASE don’t say any more than you need to about this on the radio.

As the deputy pulled away into the quiet night, dad wearily pulled on his barn boots and walked over to the fire.  He unplugged what proved to the be the inciting culprit:  a 50+ year old extension cord festooned at various points along its length with electrical tape.  Using a piece of scrap lumber he knocked the haybales apart, attempting to dissipate the the now roaring blaze.  Haybales really can go to town, once they get started.  They burned for several hours and smoldered into the night, long after my parents went to bed.  In the morning all that remained was a charred circle in the center of the lawn, melted plastic lumps marking the former positions of the holy family and their retinue.  Unfortunately it didn’t snow again for several weeks.  County A is a fairly heavily traveled road, and between the the dispatch radio and the road’s usual traffic, word of the incident spread quickly.  I think that dad took the ribbing in stride, and several poems commemorating the incident were delivered to the house, all set to familiar Christmas tunes.  The best was clearly “A Flame In a Manger.”

I didn’t quite believe my mother until I saw the evidence for myself.  And for those of you who have heard the story before, perhaps you didn’t believe it either.  But while dad put out the flames, mom had the foresight to document the proceedings for posterity.  Thanks mom!

Flame in a Manger

The next Christmas, mom went out and got a new set of figures at the Farm and Fleet, but things were never really the same.  The manger scene’s magical allure was diminished somehow.  One good thing, though, they didn’t need to purchase new wise men.  You see, the year of fire brother Patrick–he would have been around 8 at the time– had added some theatrical flair to the proceedings and was having the magi approach from the east, set to arrive on Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas.  Every morning he trudged across the acre-wide lawn in his boots and hauled the three statues several feet closer to the scene.  At the time of the fire, they were still far enough to the east to have been saved.  It took a couple of days for him to give up on the project, and for awhile the three plastic wise men were seen to be slowly approaching the burned patch of lawn little by little, inching their way through the blowing prairie winds toward the greasy plastic disc on the lawn of my childhood home.