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Month: September 2018


Corn, it’s what we do.

Corn, it’s what we do in Indiana. We measure our summers by the height of the corn. With days of sufficient rain and hot sun, the corn flourishes and towers over us and the fields appear to be vast blankets of lush dark green. When the days began to fade quicker and earlier in the evening, the progress of the corn beginning to dry becomes our clock to measure how long until Fall and Winter will overtake us. When the August sun has sucked all the moisture from the corn and the September wind blows through the long rows, the rattle of the leaves sounds like the bones of every farmer who has tilled the land. Then comes the harvest. Machines as wide as a county road strip the fields, our horizons expand again and we feel suddenly exposed and naked.

Having grown up in rural Indiana, I’m as used to corn in the summer as I am the hot, wet blanket feel of a humid July day. I never tire of teasing my city friends who freaked out every time they visited me, driving county roads bordered by towering corn plants on every side and from every direction even at intersections. They especially felt overpowered at twilight, hurrying to get to my house before full darkness pressed down on them as the corn seemed to get closer and closer to the sides of the car!

I heard a farmer casually state that the custom in his family was to plant corn on one side of the family farm, soy beans on the other. When asked why they did that, the young man paused for a moment as if he had never considered the question, then said, “Well, I guess it was because Dad didn’t like being surrounded by corn all around the house all summer. That can be pretty claustrophobic.”

Corn is so common here, it’s hard to remember it’s not exclusive to Indiana. In fact, corn is vital in the agricultural system of America. Its grown in nearly every state and its importance to the economy is not only in the actual corn on the ground, but in the research, breeding and promotion of corn and corn products.

In 2013, Indiana corn went 36% to Feed & Distillers, 26% to Ethanol production, 11% to foreign exports, 10% held for future use, 10% to starch and food production and the rest…well, just to Other.

As far back as the mid 1700’s farmers had to struggle with not only the problems of actually growing crops, but also how to use and store them in a way to maximize the profits. Crops fed their families, either directly or by feeding their animals, or by the sale or trade value of the surplus. Think of corn as money and you begin to understand early American economy.

Think about the huge grain bins that dot the midwestern countryside today and you realize that storing quantities of corn or grain until it can be sold or used is a bit of a problem. Pioneer farmers had that same problem. Early on our forefathers discovered a good way to store and monetize corn was to convert it into something more 1) portable, 2) economically rewarding, and 3) fun. Look back at the list of uses for corn in 2013 and note that 36% goes for feed and distillers and realize that once a farmer feeds his livestock, making whiskey solved the problem of how to store a grain that molds when it gets wet and is the favorite food of rats and other varmints when stored in a barn.

Whiskey storage barrels

In early America, distilling corn and other surplus grain into whiskey also solved another problem…stored away in wooden barrels, it only got better as time went on, so it was like money in the bank, earning interest every day, a win/win for the farmer. Making whiskey was not bootlegging in those days, it was sound economic business.

At least until 1791, when the government, as governments are wont to do, decided taxes would be the best way to reduce the huge debt incurred by the Revolutionary War. The new government of the United States imposed a tax on whiskey. The first tax on a domestic product, this “whiskey tax” was hugely unpopular, especially in western Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey. Since whiskey was an important commodity in the barter system that was the foundation of the frontier economy, this tax was like taxing money and was most burdensome to the poorer farmers and businessmen who did not have access to ready cash for their transactions.

The Whiskey Rebellion is one of those footnotes to history we don’t study much, but it played an important role in the westward movement.

There was a violent reaction and many of the protesters simply did not comply with the law. In 1794, more than 500 armed men attacked the home of the tax inspector, General John Neville. The government responded by sending 13,000 militia into Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to squash the rebellion. The rebels disbursed to their homes with no bloodshed, but the government, while proving they had the will to enforce their laws, still found this tax difficult to collect.

As a direct result of this “government outrage” many of those pioneer farmers and entrepreneurs decided to move on into wilderness beyond the reach of taxes and government and that, I believe is when my ancestors left western Pennsylvania and headed to what today is known as the Bourbon Capitol of the World, Nelson County, Kentucky. There seems to be an interesting correlation there!


So, I’ve been thinking a lot about story lately. Not a particular story, but story as an abstract noun…story as an idea.

Seriously, where does a story begin? It’s an important and very tough question for any writer. Does it start with the event I want to write about, or does it start with how my characters came to the place or time of the event, or does it start even further back to previous events that had to happen for this event I’m writing about to even be possible?

We have this idea that a story is simple thing with a beginning, a middle and an end, but those facts alone can drive a writer crazy, because often there is no beginning, no end. I love a line in the song “Closing Time” by Semisonic that says “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” There’s the definition of story in a nutshell.

For the longest time, storytelling was the only way of recording history. Before reading and writing were skills shared by nearly everyone, only the storytellers held our history. It was a powerful

Plato said: “Those who tell the stories rule society.”

position in any tribe or family to be the one who knew and could tell the stories. The storyteller was the one you went to with questions that did not have yes or no answers, questions like “where did we come from?” “why do we look the way we look?” “why don’t we eat this or that plant?” “why do we fear the big winds?”

Storytelling was entertainment, education, and moral compass. Sadly, we no longer hold the storyteller in high regard. Storytelling has been reduced to joke telling. Everyone loves a good joke, but they expect it to last no longer than, say, a minute and a half and it must have a good punchline.

Storytelling is an important skill and something we should appreciate, and I believe we should all develop and nurture storytelling in ourselves and in others. Stories are how we learn about each other, how we come to understand those around us and how we explain ourselves to the world.

During a 2012 TED talk, filmmaker Andrew Stanton told of a card that children’s TV personality, Mr. Rogers, carried with him. On the card he’d copied a quote from a social worker he knew. It said: “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.”

I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that every person has a story and that story when it is told can make a difference in the way the world sees us and deals with us. And if our story is never told? That, too, makes a huge difference in the way we fit into the world.

I think the most important fact of any story, the one thing that every story must have, the kernel that every listener wants to find in a story is …why?

Even if the final answer to that question is “we just don’t know,” the story can help us understand why it is we just don’t know. In the telling, the story is the answer, whether we like the ending or not.

No Warning

It happens with no warning.

It’s the clap of thunder and the bolt of lightning that knocks you flat on the golf course after your third birdie in a row. You never saw it coming.

It’s the driver that ignores the stop sign and T-bones you in the intersection on the sunny day with the blue, blue sky and your favorite song on the radio. You never saw it coming.

It’s the snake that you walk past never knowing it’s there that reaches out and buries its fangs in the soft part of the calf of your bare leg above your leather boots. You never saw it coming.

It’s the phone call at 5:30 on Friday evening from a distraught doctor who says: “I hate to do this by phone but I didn’t want to leave you hanging all weekend. The biopsy results are back. It’s cancer.” You never saw it coming.

We’re pretty good at guarding against the things we expect to happen. Door locks keep our possessions safe, turn signals protect our back bumpers, coats, hats and boots help us avoid colds and we never, never, never pet an unfamiliar dog.

We tell our kids to look both ways before crossing the street, eat the vegetables, fasten the seatbelts and never, never, never talk to strangers.

And yet…the unexpected event happens, the thing we never saw coming, never prepared for and suddenly we are reminded how fragile we are, how easily we can be broken.

September 11, Never Forget

This week we once again remembered how lives and the very heart of a nation can be stopped in an instant. Seventeen years later, the words “Let’s roll,” and the iconic date numbers 9/11 still ring loud in our ears and wrap around our hearts and minds.

There is a new generation now, children who have not known the parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents that they never had because of that sunny, September day that will now be known forever as 9/11. I sometimes wonder if that particular day was chosen because of the irony of the numbers, the three numbers we are to call when tragedy erupts, “911 – please help.”

Those of us who watched from a distance as that day unfolded will, indeed, never forget. We will remember how fragile we felt and yet how strong we were and how we knew beyond a doubt that we were one nation who did not crumble, but stood up.

That day we felt like individuals who had been knocked down, but collectively we rose to the occasion. From the fire and police personnel who pounded up those hundreds of stairs, to the passengers who did what they knew they must and fought back, to the nation who came together to wrap the victims in their arms, we stood back up…together.

We should never forget what we can do together…I just wish it hadn’t taken 9/11 to be a marker to remind us of that every year. Since it did, I wish we could keep remembering not just on that day, but every day, what a country can do if it works together.

About Those Names

One of the difficulties (and maybe a little of the fascination) of getting involved in genealogy lies in naming…take our friend Nicolaus Crist, whose journal or account book I’ve been using in my stories.

Nicolaus is not a relative of mine, but his son married into my family line and when Nicolaus grew old and tired of keeping up the journal, he passed it on to that son, George, who went on to record some facts and events important to the story of me. For that reason, I became as interested in Nicolaus’ family story as my own.

Nicolaus Heinrich Crist was born in 1716, in Emmerns, Germany, to Johanne Jorge Crist and Anna Elizabeth Crist (born Mueller). Both of his parents were also born in Emmerns, Germany, his father in 1690 and his mother in 1695.

And as we read in his account book, he and his four brothers emigrated from Germany, through Rotterdam, to America in 1738.

In 1739 when he was 22, he married Anna Catherine Nowlin.

Nicolaus listed the five young Crist brothers as: Johanne John Jacob, Johanne Nicolaus Heinrich, Johanne Peter Ludwick, Johanne Philip Henrie and Johanne Michael Jorge.

What IS this with the Johanne? And by the way, though I had not mentioned this, why were most of the women’s names preceded by Anna (Ana)? I found Anna Catherine, Anna Margaret, Anna Maria, Anna…well, you get the picture.

This calls for a side trip off the genealogy highway and into German culture.

Interesting fact about German names: children were typically given one or two names, much like today, but their first name was a “spiritual” name, usually to honor a saint. Their second name was their “call” name, the name they used throughout their lives. The most common saint’s name for a male was Johann and that’s why our Crist boys’ names were all preceded by Johann (as was their father’s name).

The most common saint or spiritual name for a female was Johanna or Anna, so you would see whole families of daughters named: Anna Maria, Anna Catherine, Anna Louise, etc.

Now, that makes genealogy a little confusing, but add to that the fact that the use of junior and senior was a lot looser in the old days. A Sr. might not be the father of a Jr. but rather the uncle or grandfather. The terms were used when two males of the same name lived with or near each other and simply designated the older and younger man of the same name. That fact will REALLY have you scratching your head when researching!

One more fun fact is that there was a convention to the naming of multiple offspring which involved re-using names. There’s even a chart! The first child typically got the name of the grandparent, the second child the name of the parent, the third child the name of the great grandparent, etc. But all bets were off if a child died! Their name might be re-used for the next child. And if a parent died, the pattern might start all over again with a second spouse so that there might be two brothers named Henry who were actually half siblings.

The Crist brothers came to America to an area called the Monongahela Valley. The Monongahela River is 130 miles long and runs north (yes, it runs north!) joining the Allegheny River to form the mighty Ohio River at present day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Nicolaus and Anna Catherine had six sons who survived childhood: John Jacob, Nicolaus Heinrich, Jr., Phillip Henry, George Heinrich, William Jorge, and John Michael. They lost one daughter in infancy.

All six of their sons served during the Revolutionary War and Nicolaus writes at one point: “We do not know if our sons are dead or alive. They could be somewhere wounded in the cold with no shelter.”

Nicolaus wrote quite a bit about the Revolutionary War years, and I want to share some of that with you when I next write about this Crist family saga.

I Think — I Remember

For a long time, I thought I’d invented something I called genetic memory, but then I found out it’s a thing, this memory we are born with. Scientists call it epigenetics, and they get all caught up in trying to describe and explain it in scientific terms, but here’s what I know that it is –

Working with one’s hands, surrounded by the smell of good leather…

The other day, I was with two of my sisters when one said she wanted to stop by the leather shop to pick up a suitcase that had been repaired. As we pulled into a parking space, she started to ask if we wanted to wait in the car, but my other sister and I were already opening the door to the shop. Miss out on a chance to breathe in the smell of all that leather? No way would we wait in the car.

I have leather workers on either side of my family tree, a grandfather and a two times great uncle. They worked with leather every day, repairing harness, cutting out and sewing together shoes and boots. There’s no way I can explain how I feel when I feel and smell good leather. I love leather chairs, leather computer bags and backpacks, leather seats in my car and when I’m not wearing sneakers, I’m wearing leather shoes.

I think my love of leather is a genetic memory.

I’ve heard people tell about an unexplained feeling of “being home” when they visit an area they know they have never before visited, others who can’t tell you why but are terrified of black dogs or being on open water in a boat or walking across a bridge. It seems like our fears, our life’s desires, our prejudices might be…must be embedded in our being. How do we know things we never learned?

There’s a theory that child prodigies are channeling genetic memories. How else would a 10-year-old Ruth Lawrence have the knowledge to rank first of 530 candidates sitting the exam for entrance into Oxford and go on to graduate at the age of 13? …or Karl Benz, the founder of Mercedes-Benz pass the entrance exam for mechanical engineering at the University of Karlsruhe (in Germany) at the age of 15? …or Shirley Temple a professional actor and dancer win an Academy Award by the age of seven?

This area of Kentucky and Indiana holds nearly all of my ancestral memories.

My own genetic memory is more mundane…that love of the smell and feel of leather, the feeling of both peace and anxiety that flows over me when standing by the Ohio River, the love of place that I have always felt in the Lexington/Bardstown area of Northern/Eastern Kentucky.

I believe all of those can be explained by genetic memory. My ancestors traveled down the Ohio with all their belongings on a flat-bottomed boat sometime in the mid 1700’s and settled in that same area of Kentucky that I have always loved. In the early 1800’s they moved on into the area of southern Indiana that I now call home. I never knew the facts of these events until I began studying my family history, but I have known the facts of these feelings all my life.

If there is a lesson to be learned here…well, there might be many lessons. Maybe more important than learning to listen to our “gut” feelings about things we don’t know how we know, maybe we should be aware of what genetic memories we want to pass on to our future generations. Maybe we should be a little bolder in the face of our fears; work a little harder on being a kinder, gentler person; try to develop new skills and gain new knowledge; seek new frontiers.

Maybe it isn’t just our children who are our responsibility, but the entire line of those who come after. Maybe the future of not only our ancestors, but of the world to come, really does rest on our shoulders and depend on what we learn and do every day.

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