Betting There Were Stories…

My father enlisted as a young man, and like a lot of WWII veterans, he didn’t speak much about his experiences. He was assigned first to the USS Keller, and later was transferred to the USS Moore, a destroyer escort with duties in the Pacific. I often marveled at the fact that he served as a radio operator – a capacity in which I spent decades talking into a civilian radio microphone.

One of the few stories he told me was how he witnessed Japanese kamikazes in their attack on the carrier his group was escorting, and how they flew so low over his perch in the Moore’s conning tower that he could see the pilots in their cockpits. The carrier was lost – which he didn’t mention – but the Moore was able to rescue a number of sailors who survived the attack. (Another experience he never mentioned.) When he told me the story, I asked him if he had been nervous and he admitted he was.

The same informational advantage I have in learning about his experiences has also allowed me to learn some things that my father might not have known. Or, it could be that he didn’t live long enough to share those things with me, and certainly never had the opportunity to repeat anecdotes like I do with my son. (He lets me know when it’s a re-run…)

The combination of Veterans Day and a weekend visit from my cousins has me thinking about my Dad’s family.

My father’s grandmother, Mamie Gillen, was born to an Irish couple and I suppose the story of their journey from Ireland to America has been lost to history. Probably managed to secure ship’s passage to escape hard times. On the other hand, I have a copy of a letter in which my dad’s grandfather, Michael, notes that he was born in the Kingdom of Bavaria (before there was a united Germany). Somehow, the lives of those two immigrants intersected in Kansas City.

I like to tell people they had a great relationship, because they spoke different languages. (Excepting the language of Love, I suppose.)

Michael and a brother were sent to the US on the eve of political troubles, according to family folklore.

The same information access that allowed me to learn about my father’s naval career also gave me a glimpse into the Old Country background of his family. I have done contract research for years to help pay the bills, and I somehow maneuvered onto a German language website.

The ‘translate function’ gave me a rough idea of what information the website held, which I have paraphrased:

In 1908, the painter Fritz Gratz completed a chalk drawing of the idyllic mill race in Gemünden, which the Hoefling family has placed on permanent loan with the Historical Society. The mill race provided the drive for two flour mills and the Hoefling tannery, where cattle hides were tanned into leather, a process that took several months. [Visible in the picture] above the barn was the residence of the Höfling family, along with the house of baker Ludwig Ditterich, and the hipped roof of the “privatiere” Gretchen Holzemer. Merchant and wine host Josef Rau’s home is also depicted. Tanner Konrad Höfling was listed in the commercial and business directory, 100 years after the family operation was listed in an 1823 directory.

Karl Konrad Höfling was mayor of Gemünden (on the river Main, east of Frankfort) from 1871 to 1876, and the tannery and shoemaking factories were turned over to son Ludwig at his father’s death. In 1914, the operations were taken up by Charles and Max Höfling, the sons of Ludwig and his wife Catherine. At the time, six sons of Ludwig worked at the family operation, while another brother ran a butcher shop in Rieneck.

The property consisted of the “dwelling house with barn,” workshop, boiler house, and a drying room, which was later enlarged during a time of increased production.

In a postwar letter to Michael Höfling (who Americanized the spelling to Hoefling), his nephew related the hard times the factories had fallen upon, with materials shortages that eventually ended more than a century of a family trade.

The painting by Fritz Gratz indicates the operations were ongoing in 1908, and the photograph was taken in 1930.

Konrad Höfling is mentioned in several areas of a German-language book published in 1861, but my lack of language skills keeps me in the dark as to what the passages are about.

As to leather-tanning and shoemaking, my contribution to the family trade has been solely confined to soles – and wearing out my non-skid black-leather-uppers.

Night Air and a Cheap Guitar

It wasn’t even fully dark, but my wife – being an early-to-bed-early-to-rise sort – had abandoned the vacation-ship for the night. Being more of a night-owl, I put down the paperback book and slipped out of the condo and into the Caribbean night.

Our rental was off to itself, but we were provided an electric golf cart and in no time I was humming my way down the road to the marina. Near a line of anchored yachts was a long, open-air bar called the Tipsy Seagull, mostly deserted, with plenty of space for me on the near side. I sat down and ordered a frosty pop. Back then, there were no mounted televisions blaring sports commentary – but there was still plenty to look at.

Probably the main grabber was the shark. Maybe eight or ten feet long, mounted below the beams of the roof. Could have been a real catch, or could have been a rubber version of a reef shark – the open-mouth toothy grin had the same Jaws effect, either way. From one end of the bar, all the way down to the other, there were hanging nets, strings of colored lights, fishing poles, seaweed, harpoons – everything but a wax-version Captain Ahab.

The bar was long and as irregular as Elbow Cay – just wide enough to be too far to have a conversation with the two or three folks sitting opposite me. That was okay, too. I was enjoying the beer, the evening air, and the whole Abaco Island vibe.

There was a young guy walking toward the bar from the marina area, and just as I noticed him, I realized he was headed straight for me. He looked like a man on a mission.

“How ya doing?” he asked, before dropping onto the barstool next to me. We exchanged pleasantries before he came to the point. He was flying back to the US in a few hours and was hoping to lighten his personal effects. “Wanna buy a guitar?”

I didn’t really want to, especially after hearing him describe it as a cheap, no-name brand, without a carrying case. Cheap… he said – which turned it into a what-the-heck kind of deal. He promised to run back to his room and return with it straightaway.

He showed up just as I was giving up on him. I dug into my pocket for some cash, and he handed it over. Star brand. Star Guitar. Five Star, to be precise. Never heard of one, but now I was a proud owner. Or at least, an owner.

As he started away, he turned back and said, “Can I play one last song on it?”

It only took a couple of seconds for me to realize he had the guitar set up with an open tuning, so he could change chords just by moving a single finger across a different fret on the neck. He had a nice voice, and did himself proud. When he handed it back, he suggested I play one for him as a way to complete the deal.

I explained that I didn’t know how to play with an open tuning, but that if he would allow me a minute, I’d give it a quick reset. After a couple of tilted-head listens and turns on the tuning keys, I launched into an easy James Taylor song – one that I could manage even on a guitar I had only just strummed for the first time. He grinned broadly through the whole song, and when I finished, he laughed and said, “Maybe one more before I’m off?” So I did.

We shook again when I was finished, and after watching him walk away, I knocked back the last dregs of my now – no longer frosty pop. I set the little guitar down on my lap and turned around to face the bar. There were four big mugs of beer sitting in front of me. And those folks who had been sitting across the way? They were sitting on the barstools just to my right.

“Will you play another one?” the lady nearest to me asked. I’m pretty sure it was more the ‘ham’ in me than any sense of social obligation from the row of beers they had sent over to me, but I launched into another. When I finished, I was flattered to see the bartender joining in the applause from down the way.

The thing is – I’m a pretty hack guitar player. A guy who knows just enough to accompany myself as a singer. And I never have professed to be anything more than a mediocre vocalist.

But I do like to sing.

It may have been the Caribbean moon, or the salt in the air, or the extra tasty drafts that were accumulating in front of me – but there came a cosmic alignment of bar crowd and goof-off strummer. Every song title that was requested over the next hour-and-a-half was – by some miracle – a song I knew how to play, and remembered the words to – at least most the words.

At one point, the woman who first spoke to me leaned in and semi-whispered, “Are you someone we should know?”

“What do you think?” I replied.

She grinned and said she thought I was. Since she obviously couldn’t come up with a name, and since I certainly WASN’T anyone she should know, we just smiled at each other with our secret safely kept.

Later, a young man was setting up a keyboard just to my right, and I realized he was likely the night’s scheduled entertainer. I was loving the evening, but I knew I was AWOL from the condo and my sleeping wife. So I gave an appreciative thanks and bid the gathering a pleasant evening. As I walked away toting my little Five Star guitar, an island constable who was standing near the bar extended his hand and smiled. He said he had enjoyed hearing me.

The smile the constable gave me, I wore all the way back to the golf cart and then glided back down the dark road to the condo. My wife was still sleeping. The guitar got propped up in a corner and I lay down on the bed thinking there could be no sleeping dream better than the waking one I had just experienced.

Next morning – bright and early – my wife and I took a walk along the gentle surf looking for some beach-side breakfast. We had managed a hundred yards or so walking along on the sand before we saw a figure approaching from the opposite direction. When he drew near, I recognized him as the constable from the Tipsy Seagull.

He took a quick step out of his way to shake my hand.

“Will you be doing a follow-up tonight? he wondered.

I glanced at my wife, whose puzzled expression told me she had slept uninterrupted through my absence of the previous evening.

“You never know,” I answered, “what might happen on an island night.”

These days, that Caribbean island refugee sits atop a book shelf in the shop, and occasionally whispers out to me to remember a moonlit evening at water’s edge, a night when I was almost a somebody.

The Battle of the Books. (Not found in Game of Thrones.)

It is pretty rare when a set of books comes in – with all the volumes present… but it happened today. And it’s always a happy day for me when Charles Dickens makes an appearance in the book shop.

Much to his dismay, the works of Charles Dickens were widely pirated, and he sold thousands of books – receiving nothing. His solicitors would send ‘Cease and Desist’ orders to U.S. publishers, who generally had ordered a copy of the latest Dickens novel and then set the type, reprinted the story, and took the profits. Copyrights were difficult to enforce in Dickens’s time, even though he made arrangements with publishers to print his ‘authorized’ version.

After his death, his works were widely reprinted in the U.S. by publishers who knew that Mr Dickens would no longer be sending legal representatives to protect his stories. The books that arrived today might be of that sort. Typically, early unauthorized editions contained no copyright information and – usually – no actual printing date. I was trying to pin down the date on this set when I ran across an ad in an Oakland Tribune issue from 1937.

The idea was to collect the twenty volume set by purchasing a couple of books at a time. (I remember doing that at the grocery store to acquire a set of Funk & Wagnall encyclopedias.) But – what a set of hoops the buyers were required to jump through!

According to the article from 1937, to obtain a set required a registration form, a printed mailing label, and a dozen ‘Dickens Certificates’ (obtained from the pages of the newspaper). Of course, the thirty-four-cent per volume price tag sounds pretty nice these days. Even the adjusted-for-inflation amount of $6.45 seems a bargain for a nicely printed hardback!

Such bargains could be offered when publishers were not required to pay royalty figures to authors or copyright holders. In the case of the Cleartype Edition library, the marketing expense was covered by the participating newspapers across the country – which also served as a distribution point for copies that were to be picked up in person rather than by mail.

Dickens wasn’t the only one ever to be defensive of his copyrighted works, and although he was vocal in his opposition to pirated copies, at least no lives were lost: the Irish in the mid-6th Century were a wee bit more emotional about their printed works. According to Wikipedia, the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne (Gaelic for the Battle of the Book) caused the deaths of some three-thousand Irish in a dispute over a copied religious book.

In the year 560 (or thereabouts), Irish abbot and missionary Saint Columba and Saint Finnian of Movilla Abbey disagreed over a religious book. Columba copied a volume owned by Saint Finnian, intending to keep the copy, but they disagreed as to whether it belonged to Saint Columba because he copied it or whether it belonged to Saint Finnian because he owned the original.

King Diarmait mac Cerbaill ruled on the disagreement, concluding that: “To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy.”

The judgment didn’t please Columba one bit. As a result, he staged a rebellion of the O’Néill clan against the King, which succeeded, but was said to have resulted in some 3,000 casualties.

Perhaps rightly shamed over the fuss, Columba took his copied book and left for Scotland, where he founded the Iona Abbey and devoted the rest of his life spreading the Christian gospel.

No lives need be lost in acquiring copies of books in our shop. And, although Charles Dickens might not have been happy about it, we are happy to offer the full set of the Cleartype Edition of his works, circa 1937, so patiently acquired by a newspaper reader and Dickens fan, in the time between the World Wars.