Tomorrow morning, June 14, 2019, I set off on a journey that began in New York the early winter of 1947.
Questions from a lecture by my friend, Professor Mark Christensen haunt me as I pack my suitcase and map my route:
What is my state of mind before I leave? Am I on a quest? A journey?
As I travel will it also be an internal journey?
Will I learn something? What discoveries will I bring home?
Is the journey forced or by choice?
Do I expect to find something or not, or something unexpected?
What archetype might I symbolize in my journey?
What obstacles might I encounter—internal/external?
What will be my state of mind after my journey—if it ends?
How did it all begin? That early winter of 1947 a young man had recently returned from World War II, and as millions of soldiers have done over the centuries upon returning home from war, he must have been ecstatic to have survived. He and his friends celebrated life. He met a young woman who was alone, struggling psychologically, seeking comfort in the wake of a recent divorce. Nine months later I was born; I don’t think the young man ever knew. My mother never spoke of him. Sixty-two years later she went to her grave, secret intact.
Earliest photo of me–in buggy:
The winter of 2018, through the miracles of DNA and the persistence of a wonderful genealogist, I learned the identity of my late father and recently connected with siblings I never knew existed. I’ve been in correspondence and conversations with one of seven and in a few days will meet him and his family.
A few years before my mother died I began interviewing her and making notes. After her death in January 2010 I discovered a treasure trove; 200 years of our family history locked in the chickenhouse—about seventy feet from where we had visited in the old farmhouse.
Over the next eight years I studied and catalogued thousands of pages from letters, diaries, scrapbooks, photo albums, and a “Mental Health Journal” my grandmother kept.
I began writing—hundreds of pages, but not finding the door I was searching for. I discovered the Lonely Hearts catalogues my stepfather Herman had ordered after World War Two. From Cupid’s Columns my mother’s picture and advertisement jumped out at me and I realized the story started with Herman—he had made first contact.
My first memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers, picks up where Pawns ends. After bouncing through a series of foster homes and a summer riding the rails and living in hobo camps, I enlisted in the Navy in 1965—over the next three years, I did two deployments to Vietnam.
Herman free with the purchase of Pawns
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This print book includes the first singles catalogue that my stepfather ordered after he returned to his farm from World War Two in October 1945 and began his search for a wife. The $2.99 PDF download includes the compete book plus all the singles publications he ordered and a preview of Pawns (The Farm, 1950s), Chickenhouse Chronicles, Book II.
I recently read Thomas Childers Soldier From The War Returning (2009) in which he explores the lives of three Second World War veterans and their families. The book documents a part of our collective past—an inconvenient truth—that has been airbrushed from our national memory. Yet millions of Baby Boomers grew up in the shadow of that history.
By the spring of 1964 I was tired of my mother and stepfather’s constant feuding. As soon as school was out I left our farm in northern Minnesota and spent much of the summer riding freight cars and living in hobo camps—jungles—across the Northwest. I look back from more than fifty years out and try to recall the men I met. They’re faceless now but I remember a story passed around in the Wenatchee jungle that prompted many of them to hop a freight car. Witnessing the way this story spread like wildfire, even through the prism of a sixteen-year-old worldview, I realized it was somehow unusual.
The tale circulated that there was a state program in the South—I don’t recall what state—that was giving every homeless veteran fifty dollars, no residency requirement necessary; all one had to do is show up at the disbursement office. Younger men gave older and crippled men a boost up into slow-rolling freights. I realize now those old men were probably First World War veterans—possibly a Spanish American War veteran or two. The helpers, the majority of the hobos, were Second World War veterans. How I wish I had known to take notes; to visit with those men.
Statistics in the “Introduction” of Childers’ book are what first grabbed my attention. For example, he writes, “By 1943 the U. S. Army was discharging ten thousand men each month for psychiatric reasons, and the numbers increased as the war dragged on. During the Battle of Okinawa…the Marines suffered twenty thousand psychiatric casualties. …Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals were swamped with “psychoneurotic” cases, and two years after the war’s end, half the patients in the VA medical facilities were men suffering from “invisible wounds.” Post traumatic stress disorder was not diagnosed until 1980….” (page8)
My stepfather was one of those men who was discharged early but slipped through the cracks when he did seek help in 1948 from an overwhelmed VA system.
The majority of those hobos I lived with the summer of 1964 were no doubt a remnant of the legions of rootless veterans from those earlier conflicts. It was that summer I met my first Vietnam Veteran—of him my strongest memory is his drunken, unpredictable rages.
I’ve prayed so much that her life would straighten itself out – the more I think of it the more I feel it is possible her war experience unconsciously to her was eating out her vitals – how tragic life is for the world.
Henry O. Philips, January 23, 1943
Written by my grandfather, a World War I veteran. He recognized post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) forty years before the world put a label it.
Folded in half, tucked inside a scrap book I salvaged from the chickenhouse, I discovered this seventeen year old girl. She’s standing on the weather deck of SS American Farmer, lifeboat resting in the davits behind her, in New York Harbor. PROOF, NEWS EVENTS PHOTO SERVICE, PULITZER BUILDING, stamped across, dated September 24, 1937.
I studied my future mother, Barbara’s, face for the longest time trying to imagine what might be going through her mind. She is four months beyond high school graduation; less than two months beyond her first suicide attempt. Two years later, to the day in 1939, she will return to New York on this same ship, carrying memories that will impact her for life.
A month earlier, my grandmother wrote in her diary, “August 26, 1939: A frightful shock this a.m. in the air mail, mailed by Bar [Barbara] from Poland enclosing a letter from a young Polish Engineer asking us for permission to marry Bar—apparently immediately. We are simply stunned. We don’t know what to do—of course our inclination would be to cable to wait until xmas. Think of her beautiful talent being stored away in Poland, the tension spot of the world.”
(I believe they did get married. In a 1960 psychiatric report my mother speaks of a fourth husband.)
On the same day Elsie received that stunning letter, Saturday, August 26, 1939, Eva’s (Barbara’s friend) father put Barbara on a train in Nowy Sacz, Poland, warning her she must flee. She must have been frantic with worry about her new husband, Kristaw.
There is no record of her saying goodbye to him. He was probably bivouacked in the Gliwice area, less than one hundred miles from Nowy Sacz where the opening shots of WWII would be fired, one week later, on the night of August 31, 1939.
My researcher discovered that he was a Major in the Polish Army.
For that full story go to: https://www.wendellaffield.com/war/chickenhouse-chronicleskatyn-forest-massacre
As many of you who follow my posts know, after Barbara died in 2010 I discovered a treasure trove, our family history—thousands of pages and documents—locked in the chickenhouse on the old farm homestead in northern Minnesota.
These documents are the foundation for “Chickenhouse Chronicles” a nonfiction book series in progress.
(I stopped calling her Mom the spring of 1962. In 1960 she had been committed to Fergus Falls State Hospital—we children had been sent to foster homes. It took almost two years for us to be reintegrated—three of her nine children never did return.)
But back to the chickenhouse—It was obvious that Barbara “Barb” had never looked at the treasure. Many packets were still bound together by decades-old ribbon, string, brittle rubber bands, or rusted paper clips. Rodents had tunneled into ruptured boxes and gnawed documents. Mouse urine had seeped and stained. Crumbled feces flecked pages. Dust hovered in sunbeams when disturbed. The cache was water-damaged and mildewed. The smell, like a peripheral nightmare, has seeped and stained my memory.
Thousands of documents lay in the decomposing heap, the earliest, a letter dated 1822 written by my fourth great-grandfather, David Olmsted, Bedford, New York. I learned that he had served in the Connecticut Militia from 1778-1781 and had fought in the Hudson River campaigns during the Revolutionary War.
Why had my mother relegated our family history to the leaky-roofed chickenhouse? Was it because of lifelong antipathy toward her mother? Or was she afraid of what she might discover? Our changing seasons fluctuate one hundred fifty degrees. Thankfully the leaking roof and temperature extremes had formed a crust over the treasure, protecting it, much as loose hay crowned atop a haystack will shield the forage beneath.
Some of my siblings wanted to burn everything.
My sister, Laurel, and I spent several days excavating documents and artifacts from our past. Another sister, Bonnie, arrived on the weekend and discovered our grandfather’s urn. I’ve spent five years sorting, studying, scanning and archiving, and have witnessed a heart-wrenching story unfold.
As tiered decades revealed their secrets I began to understand incongruities my siblings and I had been raised with. And I’ve come to realize that this saga possesses literary and human depths that dwarf the decomposing heap my two sisters and I rescued from the chickenhouse. (Five years later when I open a tote-box to review a document chickenhouse smell wafts, reawakening the memory.) And each time I read an old document, newly-discovered puzzle pieces fall into place.
After my mother died in 2010 I discovered this church service bulletin tucked in a mouse-stained scrapbook, locked in the Chickenhouse on our old family homestead in northern Minnesota, USA. Holland played an important part in the first pilgrims–Separatists from England’s religious persecution. Apparently those roots were still celebrated in 1937. Are they still celebrated today?
Elsie’s diary entry for Nov 24, 25, 1937:
B is my mother, Barbara, off to her music lesson.
On September 24, 1937, my grandmother, mother, and aunt traveled to Europe aboard the SS American Farmer. My grandmother, Elsie, kept a detailed account in her diary. In this excerpt, Pol, fifteen years old, is my aunt and Bar, seventeen years old, will be my mother ten years later.
“Third day out, Sunday. Sept. 26: Pol and I started the day by going to a very brief church service. However I first enjoyed a good bath and a good breakfast with the people across the way- very nice from Chicago. I’m so glad we’re on a slow boat with our own bathroom and comfortable stateroom. The storm is abating but the waves are still very high. The captain appeared at noon & and [sic] for luncheon. A very jolly middle aged soul – Bar is still very sick. slept all day – a rather dreary day- In the eve I sent a cable back to Henry.”
On August 26, 1939,Barbara escaped from Poland seven days before the German Army invaded. On September 9, she wired her parents for money.
Elsie wrote in her diary, “They are not allowed to cable sailing dates and names of steamers—all must be kept in secrecy because of the German U-boats sinking so many steamers. “Athenia” with 1500 passengers the first day. Almost all lives saved.”
From Belgium, my mother returned to England and purchased passage on the SS American Farmer, the same ship she had sailed on two years earlier.
Late evening September 17, the second day out from Liverpool, England, German U-53 surfaced near the Farmer with twenty-nine survivors from a British Steam merchant ship she had torpedoed. The Kafiristan had been enroute from Cuba to Liverpool with a cargo of 8870 tons of sugar. Six crewmen had been killed during the attack by U-53.
U-boat captain Ernst-Gunter Heinicke hailed the Farmer to take the survivors aboard. The Farmer lowered her lifeboats, motored to U-53, and loaded the Kafiristan crewmen. The Farmer’s loaded lifeboats were midway back to the Farmer when a British bomber swooped down out of the sun and strafed the U-boat. The bomber circled, came in low, and dropped a bomb on the U-boat’s conning tower, a sure death-knell for the German submarine. U-53 sank with all on board. Or so the world thought.
This past week I participated in a writing workshop titled “Nonfiction and the Archeology of Memory,” taught by Joni Tevis. Joni’s website, http://www.jonitevis.com/
Joni’s class was a perfect fit for the project I am working on, reconstructing our family’s past from the wealth of primary documents I have. The biggest takeaway was when Joni told me, “Claim the authority over the material and your telling of it. You are the narrator, and you are the expert on this particular slice of history: your life, and your mother’s impact on you.”
I already have hundreds of pages written, reconstructing the history so I have a very firm grounding in the story. Now I must search for the deeper meaning of how my mother’s early life came to impact my siblings and me.
Ron Carlson was the Distinguished Visiting Writer. My main takeaway from his talks was the importance of discipline in writing. Google and Email is the writer’s enemy as they attempt to lure one away from the screen. “Ron Carlson Writes a Story” is a succinct guide on discipline as one writes the first rough draft. At the end of the writing hours each day is the time to do Google research and check the email.
Our class–Joni in the middle with red shoes. Note the monitor on the desk to the left: “Catherine from Wisconsin” could not travel to Bemidji State University so she participated via computer.