About the Wheelers: in search of my father’s family

by Barendina Smedley

[The following is yet another family history essay. It has no connection with Norfolk, although it does contain a story about a witch. I doubt it will interest anyone other than my close relatives, but I am posting it here in case it might be of use to someone who shares some of my father’s lineage.]

My parents divorced when I was in my early teens. Far from being saddened by this, I was delighted. There must have been a point where the two of them enjoyed each other’s company, but if so, it had taken place long prior to my birth. Trapped in a conflict where neutrality wasn’t an option, I sided with my mother, although we later fell out very badly indeed. 

This is why most of what I ever knew about my father — about his earlier life, his family background, about the sort of person he was — came to me by way of my mother, who by that point was consistently negative about him. 

My mother had previously parted company with the rest of her family, comprising her brother and half-sister, as well as their offspring, over the terms of my maternal grandmother’s will. As this happened when I was still very young, almost everything that I knew about her side of the family also came to me via her own narrative framing. And then when she duly fell out with me, when I was in my 20s, she made it clear that I was no longer a member of the family — that I was not only a disappointment to her, but also to the many generations of my forebears, too.

So it was that when I first dipped a tentative toe into genealogical research last year, the whole project felt disloyal, transgressive — taboo. It has taken me months to get remotely comfortable with it. At times, the emotions it threw up were surprisingly raw. 

Yet at other times, the longer perspectives of historical time brought seemed to encourage a strange sort of healing. If those around me didn’t always understand the value of collecting long and gappy lists of largely unremarkable dead relatives, it’s probably because this healing process wasn’t something they themselves wanted or needed. 

Of all the challenging moments of this journey, though, perhaps the most difficult were those involving my father, who died in 2006. Here was a man I’d last seen at some long-forgotten court hearing over visitation rights and child-support payments — the almost mythical antihero of my early life. I’d tried to banish him from my memory, and had almost succeeded. Now I was going in search of him. 

This is his family story, which is also my family story. 

* * *

My father, Charles Lovelace Wheeler, was born in 1925 in rural Kentucky. “Lovelace” is, by the way, pronounced “Loveless” — in the late nineteenth century, even literate Wheelers were quite capable of spelling it “Lovlis” in family Bibles. He was the eldest of eight children — seven brothers and one sister. His parents were farming people, although I’ve been told that in the depths of the Great Depression, his father also ran the backwoods equivalent of a corner shop. 

His childhood was, I think, spent at Talley’s farm, Hammonville, Hart County. Even now, judging from a cursory visit via Google Maps, the area is very rural — flat land, not all of which has even now been cleared, cut through by meandering streams — “creeks”, I guess — and studded with Baptist churches. To this day, Hart County is a “dry” county. There are places with barely-credible names like “Barefoot Hollow”, “International Harvester Road” and “Lion’s Den”. Fort Knox, next to which the US gold reserves used to be housed, is nearby — a testament to the remoteness of the place. 

While naturally very beautiful, it would be fair to say that Hart County is neither a very wealthy area, nor a very ethnically diverse one. Yet it’s a place in which my father had deep roots. He must have grown up knowing that one local road, “Wheeler Road”, was named after his father’s family, while two others were named for his mother’s Talley lineage. He must have known that his family, both material and paternal, had been amongst the earliest founders of this little community. 

For the sake of simplicity, though, at least for the moment, let us pursue only my father’s direct patrilineal ancestry. First, how did the Wheelers end up in Hart County, Kentucky? 

In 1819, a group of Wheelers left their home on Long Island, New York. They first journeyed west, then travelled down the Ohio River by flatboat. Like others from New York and Connecticut, they had traded property they already held for land in Hardin and Hart counties, apparently as part of a deal organised by Gideon Granger, a New Yorker who owned vast tracts of land in central Kentucky. 

Flatboats were, at that time, a standard conveyance on those big American rivers. Built rather like a floating dresser drawer, they carried cargo downstream, steered in a vague sort of way by boatmen using long poles, then were broken up for the timber once they reached their destination. 

The Wheelers travelling on the flatboat included Samuel Wheeler (1762-1845), his wife Elizabeth Rowley (1772-1856), and a number of children including his young son Thomas J. Wheeler (c 1804-1860). Samuel and Elizabeth ended up settling along the Nolin River, at what is now known as Wheeler’s Mill, Kentucky. 

After decades of gradual settlement by immigrants both from America’s eastern seaboard and from Europe — and the gradual, genocidal ejection of native Americans from their ancestral lands — Kentucky had extracted itself from government by the state of Virginia, and became a US state in its own right in 1788. By the time the Wheelers arrived, the state had a population of something like 500,000. The area in which they settled would have been more sparsely settled than some, if only because the land was relatively poor, and it wasn’t very near the Mississippi River or other towns or villages. Still, it was all their own, and perhaps they liked that.

In due course, Thomas acquired land on Bacon Creek in nearby Hart County. In about 1825 he married Jane “Jincy” Gaddie (1797-1852), then later, in 1855, after Jincy’s death, Nancy C. Ellis (1820-1905). In 1860, the year he died, aged only 56 years, his wealth in real estate was estimated at $1,600 and his personal estate at $200. These were the first Wheelers to live in the Bolton Schoolhouse and High Hickory area, which is more or less where my father grew up.

Thomas Wheeler had a number of children, including Samuel Gaddie Wheeler (1826-1867), who had been born back at Wheeler’s Mill, but who died in Hart County at the young age of 40 years. In 1847 Samuel married Susan Ann Hodges (1828-1909). They, too, had several children. One of these, born in 1861 in the midst of the American Civil War — although there was an actual battle fought in Hart Country, Samuel Gaddie Wheeler seems to have somehow avoided military service — was given the remarkable name of Lovelace Henry Rousseau Wheeler. As there were at least three boys named “Henry Rousseau” born in Hart County, Kentucky circa 1861, I can only imagine that the inspiration here was some visiting preacher or other local celebrity. My Wheeler ancestor was, though, more commonly known as “Taud”. 

In any event, “Taud” Wheeler (1861-1933) seems to have spent his entire life in Hart County. In 1884 he married Eliza Harriet “Hattie” Puckett (1867-1900). In 1899, after they had produced a number of other children, their son Joseph W. “Big Joe” Wheeler was born. Oddly, his actual name seems to have been Joseph Wheeler Wheeler — which sounds as if it can’t be true, but turns up on several official documents, including his draft registration cards. 

And “Big Joe”, in turn, was my own paternal grandfather. He married a local girl, Ruby Talley, and continued to farm in Hart County, just as his father and grandfather had before him. He lived until 1967, two years after my birth, although I have no idea whatsoever whether I ever met him.

* * *

So much, then, for the Kentucky Wheelers, who arrived in Hart County in the year it was established, and who still seem to maintain a presence there, more than two centuries later. We have seen that they came from Long Island, New York. What were they doing there, and why did they leave?

The Wheelers first appeared in New York in 1656, soon after Thomas Wheeler of New Haven, Connecticut died. He had worked as a tailor and left a modest estate of £200. He had apparently lived in New Haven since at least 1644, quite soon after it was settled. After his death, his widow Alice, along with their children John, Mary and Sarah, moved to Southampton, Long Island. Here, Alice married Josiah Stansborough, gentleman, with whom she had four more children — one of whose own children’s children, Mary Stansborough’s daughter Anne Edwards, would later marry a Wheeler cousin. 

John Wheeler (1638-1718), Thomas Wheeler’s son, in turn moved to from Southampton to East Hampton, buying land there in 1669. Here, he made quite a name for himself. He served the growing community as captain of the militia, justice of the peace, tax collector and assessor, and official spokesman for the town on various occasions. From 1704-1718 — at which point he died, aged 80 years — he was town supervisor. Unusually for early East Hampton, where “goodman” was the usual, self-consciously levelling honorific,  John Wheeler was styled “gentleman”. 

John Wheeler’s sons were named Thomas (1668-1728) and John. In 1725, Thomas moved to Smithtown, Suffolk County, Long Island with his wife Anne Edwards (1682-1727). They brought with them three sons: Thomas, Timothy and Jeremiah. By the time of the War of Independence (1776) there were at least eight adult male Wheelers living in Smithtown, which was never a large community, and the name continued on in the town’s records for many years afterwards. 

Thomas Wheeler (1710-1783) and his brother Timothy, however, in turn became two of the first settlers of what is now Hauppauge, a little settlement just on the edge of Smithtown. Here, in about 1740, Thomas built a house — a neat little two-storey affair, with six-over-six casement windows and covered with cedar shingles called “shakes” — that only burned down as recently as the 1930s. There stands in its place, on what is now a busy crossroads, a petrol station. His brother built another house nearby. It’s likely that both of them, by the way, built these houses themselves — felling the timber on their own land in order to clear it, constructing the dwellings and then farming the cleared land. 

Thomas married Phoebe Saxton (1720-1801). And amongst Thomas’s nine children (the Wheelers run to big families) was the Samuel who ended up selling out his interest in the Long Island property, travelling to Kentucky in 1819 and, as we have seen, making a new life for himself there. 

There is quite a lot of very helpful Wheeler genealogical material online. From this, I gather that Samuel — the youngest son of the family — may have decided to move west for the simple reason that there were too many Wheeler sons chasing too little land on Long Island, and that his opportunities might be greater elsewhere. Obviously, anyone who has considered the relative present-day value of farmland in Hart County, Kentucky versus Long Island, New York might have something to say about Samuel’s life choices. But if he felt he needed to make his own way far from the place of his birth, who am I to criticise him? 

So for practical purposes, my own Wheeler ancestors lived on Long Island from 1640 to 1819 — 139 years — covering five generations. Quite a few Wheelers, including direct ancestors of mine, lie buried in the Wheeler family cemetery on the King’s Highway, on what I think may have been Timothy Wheeler’s land. From the photos, it looks like rather a lovely place. 

Next, let us see how it was that the Wheelers came to be in New Haven Connecticut in 1656. 

* * *

Observant readers will, by now, have noted several points about the Wheeler family. They produce big families, they move around a lot, and they name their sons “Thomas” more often than genealogists might recommend. 

Meanwhile, because the Wheelers were among the early settlers of colonial New England, their activities have attracted the interest of serious genealogists, bringing an unusual degree of investigative rigour to their story.

Here, then, is what we know. We know that by 6 December, 1643, Thomas Wheeler the tailor was resident in New Haven, Connecticut, because on that date he was fined 5 shillings for not owning a ladder. (The fledgling settlement lived in fear of fires and also attacks by native Americans — hence the need to be prepared for any emergency.) We further know that by 1 July 1644, he and his father Thomas were both in New Haven, taking an oath of fidelity to the town and its government. This means that at that time, they were both adults. 

The younger Thomas Wheeler died, as we have seen, in 1656. Remarkably, his probate inventory still survives. The document opens a window onto the material reality of his life. He owned apparel, arms and shot worth £11 2s 0d, as well as a Bible and “other books” worth 18s. (How one would love to know what those “other books” were.) The inventory goes into great detail about Thomas Wheeler’s old and new beds, coverlets, blankets, sheets, tablecloths, napkins and a solitary towel. He owned a chest, old trunks, a boarded table, vand arious joined stools. His kitchen was furnished with pewter, brass and iron pots; a frying pan; a spit; tongs. He owned a looking-glass and a hour glass. The inventory lists quite a lot of farming implements including cow bells; it lists his livestock and the contents of his barn; it even details the food he had stored in the house. The value of all of this was just short of £200, which was not a trivial sum. 

The elder Thomas Wheeler, for his part, died in January 1672, also in New Haven, Connecticut, having outlived his son by about sixteen years. 

What none of this tells us, though, is where these two Thomas Wheelers came from, or how they ended up in New Haven.

And yet the fact that they did end up in New Haven does, in itself, tell us something. New Haven, founded in 1638, followed on from earlier settlements: Plymouth (1620), Cape Ann (1623 — not successful), the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1630) and its centre in Boston. Between 1630 and 1640, about 20,000 puritans and religious separatists of different sorts left England for the New World in what was termed (much later) the “Great Migration”. Those who emigrated appear to have done so almost entirely for religious and political reasons — insofar as it was possible to make any such distinction on the eve of the English Civil War. 

New Haven itself was founded by John Davenport, a Puritan preacher, and Theophilus Eaton, a wealthy Puritan merchant from the City of London. Both Davenport and Eaton had been involved with the creation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, so when they set out for the New World in 1637 along with a group of followers, their first stop was Boston. From there, in the spring of 1638 — and accompanied by some Bostonians — about 250 of them set off for what would become New Haven. Here they made a treaty with the indigenous people who were living there, offering to protect them from their local enemies in return for a grant of land on which the English settlers could hunt and farm. 

As with most of these other settlements, the goal was to create a Christian utopia here on earth — although as there was considerable disagreement how best to achieve this, these settlements each had their own distinctive rules and organisational structures. New Haven was, at the start, governed by 16 burgesses, selected from the “planters” — property-owning adult males — who were members of “some or other of the approved Churches of New England”. The basis of law there was simple: it was ordained that “that the word of God shall be the only rule to be attended unto in ordering the affairs of government in this plantation”. It was, in short, to be a “Bible Commonwealth”, an explicitly theocratic New Jerusalem, perhaps more so than any other of these early New England settlements. 

So to summarise, New Haven was set up in 1638 — and six years later, in 1644, we have seen that the two Thomas Wheelers, father and son, were present there. 

We can deduce from this several points. First, the Wheelers were born in England, although we don’t currently know precisely where they originated. Second, they were certainly people so committed to their particular strand of faith that they were willing to leave their home and families in order to pursue what they saw as their personal role in God’s scheme of things.

Emigration was a real leap of faith. The trans-Atlantic voyage still, at that point, took about ten weeks, was at best an ordeal, and sometimes went badly wrong. In 1646, having invested huge amounts of money in the development of a “Great Ship” that was supposed to travel back to England, bearing cargo that would make the infant colony profitable, the inhabitants of New Haven saw the ship set off with some of their most prominent members on board — after which it was never seen again. No doubt their preachers were able to see in this disaster, as in everything, signs of God’s wonder-working providence. But for anyone else, it was a token of how catastrophically dangerous this whole enterprise could be. 

Unfortunately, there is no list of those first 250-odd settlers who were led by John Davenport, nor indeed of the Bostonians who joined them. So when it comes to working out where the Wheelers came from, we can only evaluate possibilities. Before we do so, though, it’s worth pointing out that there were already quite a few Wheelers in early colonial America: in Massachusetts, Virginia and Connecticut, among other places. 

Many of these early Wheelers seem to come from Cranfield, a tiny village in Bedfordshire, now best known for its business school. Unfortunately, at least from the point of view of genealogists, by the early seventeenth centuries there were several closely-related Wheeler families living in Cranfield and its immediate environs. Worse still, they all enjoyed naming their sons Thomas. These means that despite years of work on the relevant sources by capable researchers, the tangle of Thomas Wheelers remains frustratingly difficult to sort out. 

It is clear that quite a few Wheelers left Cranfield for the New World in the mid 1630s. There’s even a tax document where it is noted that Thomas Wheeler has not paid his ship money because he was “gone out of Cranfield to New England”. Whole families left — on one occasion, a group of seven brothers and sisters, including two brothers named Thomas. It is at this level that one sees what losing 20,000 souls in a decade must have meant for parts of England.

It seems fitting, though, that so many Cranfield natives left for the New World. The area went on to have a strong separatist tradition. A Wheeler was locked up in Bedford gaol with John Bunyan, and may indeed have been mentioned in Pilgrim’s Progress; later in the century, other Wheelers would be active as Quakers. So much of the genealogical efforts around the immigrant Wheelers has centred, unsurprisingly, on Cranfield.

It may well be that “our” Thomas Wheelers were in fact Cranfield residents. If so, however, it has not been possible to identify them specifically, or to identify their own ancestors. 

There were, however, plenty of other Thomas Wheelers in England who left for America. 

Let us look at just one of them, purely for the sake of demonstrating this point. 

In 1635, an artist named Augustine Clement, late of Reading in Berkshire and aged about 32 years, arrived in Boston on the ship James, which had sailed from Southampton. He was accompanied by his wife, their two young children and a servant named “Thomas Whealer”. Earlier in the year both Clement and his servant had taken the oath of loyalty and supremacy required in order to make this journey to the New World. At the end of the ship’s manifest, the compiler noted that the passengers included 53 persons in all, “besides the wives and children of divers of these”. Only the wives and children of gentlemen seem to have been listed by name. It’s surely not impossible that Thomas Wheeler — explicitly a servant, not an apprentice — might have brought his wife and young son with him. It was, after all, quite a thing to ask someone else to travel all the way to America. Possibly Thomas’s wife might even have helped Mrs Clement with her own two young children. 

If so, the servant in question might have been the Thomas Wheeler who was christened at St Giles, Reading on 24 February 1599, and indeed the Thomas Wheeler who, on 29 June 1623, married “Jone Chamberlane” in that same church. 

And while we know that Thomas Wheeler the younger was a tailor — he is listed as such in several documents, and had “remnants” of cloth in his house at the time of his death — we actually know nothing about Thomas Wheeler the elder’s profession. Might he not have come to Boston with Augustine Clement as a servant in 1635, but then decided he wanted to make the move from Boston to New Haven in 1638 or thereafter, either for theological or other personal reasons? He would not have been the first or last who hoped to rise a bit in the world once he arrived in America. There is very little difference between his son’s probate inventory and that of the artist Augustine Clement. 

Of course, there is no proof whatsoever that this Thomas Wheeler is “my” Thomas Wheeler. The only reason I mention him at such length is to illustrate that the Cranfield Wheelers, with their complicated lineages, aren’t the only Wheelers worth considering.

And what about my own Wheelers’ puritan heritage? Reading through the published records of the early New Haven colony, I don’t think I’d have lasted a month there. Of course these records — so full of public confessions of wrongdoing, horrific punishments, executions — inevitably produce a skewed image of the place, because they are mostly focused on aberrant behaviour, infractions against God’s law, things that went wrong. Yet life in a society based on the closest scrutiny of one’s behaviour and ideological correctness by one’s neighbours has no appeal whatsoever for me. 

But perhaps this account leaves out a compensating, sustaining sense of camaraderie and shared enterprise, as friends have reported from e.g. time spent at a kibbutz. Also, I am almost certainly underestimating how irksome it must have been for religious separatists in England to live within a society where their activities and beliefs were also relatively closely policed, yet where the basis of that policing was not one to which they’d ever been asked to give consent. 

Having said that, these elective micro-theocracies invariably started to splinter and mutate once they had to confront the challenges of second and third generations of inhabitants, for whom this issue of consent once more became an issue, which is more or less the point at which the Wheelers left for a different, arguably more tolerant separatist protestant community elsewhere in the New World. But I do think it tells us something interesting about my father’s family that they were part of the early life of New Haven, and that their experience there seems to have been a positive one.

* * *

The Wheelers are only one strand of my paternal ancestry. As for the rest, this isn’t the place to discuss them in detail. I’ve not tracked absolutely all of them back yet, and in some cases, the links I’ve discovered may be incorrect. 

Having said that, though, I’ve not yet found any line of that family that wasn’t in the New World by 1750 — and some of them turned up much earlier, including early members of the settlement at Jamestown. Quite a few of them seem to have been more or less puritan / separatist / Presbyterian in doctrinal affiliation. Over recent centuries, they were virtually all farmers. 

Most were of English descent, although a few came from Scotland. My father’s family seems to include, for instance, that fabled thing in the folklore of the American south: Scots — in this case, McDonalds of Keppoch — who were forced to make a swift exit from the land of their fathers following disaster at Culloden. 

Several of my father’s ancestors took part in the American War of Independence — always, I think, on the rebel side. We are descended, for instance, from John Hawkins who was a captain in the 5th Regiment of the Maryland Militia in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland. Was “our” John Hawkins descended from Sir John Hawkins, whose, ahem, “mixed” legacy includes both a key role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and also the foundation of the English slave trade? Well, I’ve traced that line of the family back as far as 1630s Devon — but then moved on to other projects. Perhaps I’m not quite ready for that particular set of discoveries yet. 

My mother always insisted that my father’s family was very ordinary. And certainly it’s true that none of my father’s ancestors that I have yet located can plausibly be described as aristocrats, armigerous, or anything else along those lines. Most of them were, at best, husbandmen or yeoman farmers. Yet that is, in itself, no bar to the odd extraordinary figure.

Take, by way of example, the woman who I am pretty sure is my eight-times great grandmother, Grace Sherwood, nee White. Grace was born in about 1660 near what later became the highly commercialised holiday resort of Virginia Beach, Virginia. She died in 1740, at about the age of 79 years. 

Grace was the last person — the most recent person, anyway, to borrow a friend’s comment — to have been convicted of witchcraft in Virginia. Because she ended up in court so frequently, quite a lot is known about her. Tall, attractive and with a lively sense of humour, she had grown up relatively poor, but had come to make her living as a subsistence farmer, a midwife, and a healer both of animals and people. She often wore men’s clothing. In the course of time, she fell out with many in her local community, who repeatedly accused her of witchcraft. Charges included ruining crops, killing livestock, conjuring storms, and turning herself into a black cat in order to persecute a neighbour. Her mistake at this point, arguably, was taking some of these people to court for defamation, to a degree that the local magistracy apparently considered tiresome and problematic. 

Matters came to a head in 1706, when Grace herself was brought to trial for witchcraft. Enjoined to admit her guilt, Grace reported exclaimed ‘I be not a witch, I be a healer!’ The criminal process included not only checking her naked body for unusual excrescences — something done in the open, by her neighbours and accuser, before a large crowd — but also a so-called trial by water, in which Grace was trussed up and thrown from a boat with a heavy Bible hung around her neck. The fact that she managed to free herself and float to the surface apparently proved that she was a witch. Her apparent ability to summon up a storm that drenched her persecutors immediately afterwards didn’t help much either. 

Happily, Grace lived in Virginia, not Massachusetts, so the result of her conviction was 14 years in prison, of which she appears to have served about ten years, rather than outright execution. 

After her release she lived quietly to a fair old age. Her husband James Sherwood had died while she was in prison, but she had inherited land from her late father, so was able to leave small bequests to her three sons. She lies buried in an unmarked grave under some trees in a field near the intersection of Pungo Ferry Road and Princess Anne Road in Virginia Beach — it’s actually possible, I think, to spot this on Google Maps. Apparently her modest home on Muddy Creek stood for over 200 years. In the twentieth century it was vandalised by fire; by 2002, all that were left were two brick chimneys, which were bulldozed, so that all that is now left are a few bricks and the overgrown foundation. 

On a more positive note, in 2006, the then governor of Virginia offered Grace an informal pardon, and in 2007, a statue was erected near her old home — also, pleasingly, in front of a hospital — in her memory. A street is named after her. There are also several places in the vicinity with “witchduck” in their name, in commemoration of her trial by water. There are folk-tales still circulating related to her life and activities. She has certainly not been forgotten. One might argue, I suppose, that her life has been exploited to give a bit of sensationalistic, perhaps even voyeuristic heritage interest to a prosaic, rather charmless seaside resort. But even that is better than oblivion.

As someone who grows herbs, enjoys looking after cats, is invariably quick off the mark with amateurish health-related advice, and occasionally finds some of my neighbours tiresome, I very much like Grace Sherwood. Much more so than the self-consciously godly denizens of New Haven, it is her story speaks to me. 

* * *

My mother died very recently. In the wake of that, a wise friend said something to me — quoting something someone else once said in her presence — “with death, enmity ceases”. 

In my own experience, to quite a remarkable extent, this is true — not in an injunctive sense, so much as a detached observation of what actually happens. On one hand, it’s much easier to forgive someone when that person is unlikely to do anything further for which forgiveness might prove relevant. But death also confers distance. Looking back on the totality of someone else’s life, across that last definitive frontier, one’s perspective changes, so that the dead person becomes smaller, somehow — less capable of harm, but also more susceptible of understanding, even empathy. 

Few people are all good or all bad — most of us are both, depending on all sorts of things. Death gives the living the chance to reflect on this, perhaps even to moderate our judgements accordingly. 

While writing this, I stumbled, very much by accident, across a short biography of my father, which I think must have been written by the woman he married after he and my mother were divorced, and to whom he was married, I think very happily so, for thirty years. It was strange for me to read the facts of my father’s life, in a narrative framed not by my mother — at a point where she very much disliked him — but by someone who clearly loved him dearly. 

Some of what was in that biography confirmed things I already knew. I knew, for instance, that my father had done very well at the Western Kentucky University — even my mother, who had of course done her undergraduate degree in the rarified confines of Bennington College, had to admit something that the biography didn’t mention, which is that my father had been offered a GI Bill type scholarship to Yale University, but had rejected it because as the eldest son of a big family, he needed to stay close to home to help with the family farm. My mother clearly viewed this as a sign of deficient initiative. There are other ways of reading it. 

Likewise, my mother was always underwhelmed by my father’s military service in the Second World War. Few who, like my mother, spend their childhoods living on army bases on which their father was the commanding officer grow up unmarked by the experience. My mother was not one of those few. Her version of the story was that, having joined the Army Air Corps, my father caught some sort of “cold” — the imputation there was not a subtle one — and hence avoided being sent overseas for D-Day. Well, who knows the truth of that? Instead he was sent to guard German prisoners of war in the southern United States, which he apparently enjoyed, because he liked the Germans he met there. Again, although my mother didn’t quite go so far as accusing my father of being not only a coward but also a traitor to his country, the implication was hard to miss.  

Memory isn’t neutral. I have vanishingly few clear memories of my father, and most of those that remain aren’t pleasant. I do, however, remember once going out to lunch with him when I must have been about ten years old. Why we should have been out at lunch together, I have absolutely no idea. But we did, as it happens, discuss in passing this particular interlude in his life. 

Having read up about it later, it’s easy to piece the story together. Because my father, the simple Kentucky farm boy, turned out to be very good at learning languages, he was basically talent-spotted to do a quick German course, then look after some of the German PoWs who had been captured first in the North African campaign, then after D-Day. (The UK sent quite a few of its German PoWs to the US, where they posed less of a security threat, and where they could also, within the bounds of the Geneva Conventions, help make up for the shortfall in labour caused by mass enlistment.) 

It appears that these particular PoWs were, genuinely, treated fairly well. On one hand, it was in the interests of the US to keep them relatively comfortable and content, so they were easier to manage, but also to make them more sympathetic to the the US and its ideology when the time came for them to be returned to Germany. Yet at the same time, it seems that many of the Americans who met these PoWs, perhaps expecting to encounter monsters, instead found some very ordinary young men, not unlike their own sons and brothers and friends, who were, if anything, relieved to be alive and in a place where the weather wasn’t bad, the work wasn’t too hard, and where there was plenty of food to go around. 

My mother was right that my father liked the Germans. What I remember from that lunch was some light-hearted chat about the miscellaneous German phrases he remembered, alongside some funny stories about the culture-shock of German soldiers encountering a world of peanut-farming and turpentine production. And at the time, I can remember thinking that while this did not sound like the heroic, stirring stuff of war movies — and these amiable German lads certainly did not sound like the quasi-demonic Nazis who were already so familiar to me from books and films and folk memory — there was, nevertheless, something attractive about the rather more nuanced scheme of human relations implicit in my father’s stories. 

Looking back at the biography, my father does seem to have had a genuine gift for breaking down barriers between groups of people who usually got on badly. After the war, my father went to university — the first in his family to do so — then ended up employed in various capacities in state government, in Kentucky, Ohio and North Carolina, for the rest of his working life. His politics were always those of the Democratic Party. He genuinely cared about civil rights. In his professional role as a state-level university administrator, he worked hard to ensure that minority ethnic students — black, native American — and their institutions were able to gain access to funding. It has always been a happy shock to me that my father does not seem to have been, at any discernible level, a racist. Given his own background, and the times in which he lived, this really isn’t something to be taken for granted. 

At least one of the clergy who officiated at my father’s 2006 funeral in Raleigh, North Carolina was a pastor at St Paul’s AME Church, a traditionally black institution. Again, this may not sound like a big thing. Yet it’s worth remembering that all this took place in a city where the most prestigious country club only accepted its first black member in 2013, more than a century after it had been founded. 

My father was born in 1925, in the depths of the Great Depression. That wasn’t an easy time in Kentucky. One shouldn’t exaggerate these things — my father’s parents owned their own land, they weren’t dependent on the sort of employment that could suddenly disappear, their household included a domestic servant and there was someone who did their laundry for them. They were hardly the poorest people in their community, and their community was richer than some, e.g. in eastern Kentucky. At the same time, though, it was a big family, with plenty of mouths to feed, and perhaps not that much to go around. 

My father’s obituary doesn’t mention this, but during his time in the Army Air Corps he apparently won several marksmanship competitions at a national level. And the reason for this, I was always told by my mother, is that in his early days he had honed his marksmanship shooting squirrels so that his family had some meat to eat. As ever, there was an edge to this narrative. Because of her father’s military rank, my mother had grown up in a household where — delightfully, it always seemed to me — one could never argue or indeed speak freely at meals, because there were always servants standing by. My father’s world was different. Looking back, though, that story also says something about resourcefulness, practicality, a desire to look after those who needed his help.  

My mother could, at times, be particularly acid regarding my father’s origins. It was always entirely clear to me that she thought she had married “down” — even that she regarded herself as rather more cultivated and refined than her own children, because, unlike us, she wasn’t actually related by blood to my father. She engaged in much not-entirely-Christian sneering at his journey from the Baptist churches of his childhood to his eventual, very deep involvement in the Episcopal church — perhaps forgetting as she did so that her own father had been raised as a Methodist. 

Well, one could, I suppose, make the case, looking at that biography, that my father had indeed come a long distance in life. He was very proud, I remember, that in his capacity as an officer of some gardening-related organisation — possibly related to the wildflower collection mentioned in the biography — he had once entertained Lady Bird Johnson. From a childhood spent scratching a living trying to farm in a part of the world where farming isn’t easy or particularly successful, he had moved on to cultivating roses, day-lilies and, on this occasion at least, former first ladies. Like an illustration from Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”, he was a great participant in miscellaneous community organisations, which he seems often to have ended up chairing. Here again, an ability to smooth over differences may have helped him, even if it couldn’t quite save either his first marriage, or indeed his relationship with his children. If, by the end of his life, he had discovered that he loved ornamental flowers, age-old liturgy, the semi-formal conviviality of voluntary associations — well, is that really such a terrible thing? 

As we have seen, my father came from a long line of people who, if they didn’t like where they were, felt able to set off for somewhere that suited them better, and who didn’t always feel constrained by what the neighbours would say, either. I, for one, am not going to condemn him for that. 

My father (right), his sister Sylvia (left) and in the centre, his baby brother Marshall, circa 1929/1930.