Friday, January 25, 2013

Poem of the Day (for Sophie)

The fat cat on the mat
 may seem to dream
 of nice mice that suffice
 for him, or cream;
but he free, maybe,
 walks in thought
 unbowed, proud, where loud
 roared and fought
his kin, lean and slim,
 or deep in den
 in the East feasted on beasts
 and tender men.
The giant lion with iron
 claw in paw,
 and huge ruthless tooth
 in gory jaw;
the pard dark-starred,
 fleet upon feet,
 that oft soft from aloft
 leaps upon his meat
where woods loom in gloom
 —far now they be,
 fierce and free,
 and tamed is he;
but fat cat on the mat
 kept as a pet

does not forget.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


The first written record concerning my mother’s father’s side of our family, in 1556 in Europe—probably 99 years before a descendant came to North America—is from a tax they paid for a dike protecting farmland in the area from the storm floods of the North Sea.

Gates like these were set into dikes to allow inland streams to flow out, during calm weather. When storm floods threatened, the gates were shut.

The record shows that we owned (under the name “Bremer”) 80 Diemat: about 112 acres, or 45 hectares.

We paid 60 Taler in tax. A Reichstaler back then was a gold coin. In 1573, a milk cow cost 16 Taler. The “Taler” (pronounced “taller”) is the basis for the original U.S. “Dollar.”

* * *
The next written record we have of our family is of our farm’s losses in the big All Saints Flood of November 1, 1570, which drenched farmland for hundreds of miles around:

  • 2 one-year-old steers
  • 1 sheep
  • 8 hogs

  • 20 cows
  • 4 pair oxen
  • 3 pair two-year-old steers
  • 13 one-year-old steers
  • 5 horses
  • 2 foals
  • 2 hogs
  • 7 sheep

On our farm, no homes were washed away (“wechgedreven”) or people drowned (“verdrenckt”). Some farms nearby did worse, some better. Up and down the North Sea Coast, the flood inundated hundreds of miles of coastline. Probably 20,000 people drowned in this single event.

The dike had to be rebuilt, and many sections were rebuilt several hundred feet back from where the old dike had been, so roads and farmland were lost. Because of the sandy soil in that area, a lot of the new dike was rebuilt with wood reinforcements, a very expensive dike-building method.

We continued paying dike taxes for several generations on that farm.

This is the signature of the father of my ancestor who came to New Amsterdam around 1655. It says “Clas Janßen wegen Benser Vogedei”: Clas Janßen, representing the Benser district. Clas was on the local dike committee, and the document, from February 23, 1635, details deterioration in the dikes protecting local farms, and the repairs needed.

Clas appears to have been intelligent, stubborn, and passionate: His name shows up more often than it probably should have in the records of people fined for fighting, and a local nobleman mentioned him by name, in Latin, in a memoir for Clas’s role in usurping the nobleman’s father’s role in dike maintenance.

* * *

Another huge flood came less than 100 years later, in February 1651. The seas pounded hard enough to split one coastal island in two, and to sink half of another.

A few years later, my ancestors left for the New World, where they could stop worrying about flooded farmland and start thinking instead about when the Indians were going to attack. Two brothers and two sisters moved to Wiltwyck—where Kingston, New York, is today—and three sisters stayed home. One of the sisters who stayed home kept the farm and left it to her son. To this day, Google Earth shows a farmhouse still standing right where an old map shows the family’s house and barn were in 1670.

My ancestor who came to North America, the son of the dike keeper, followed in his father’s footsteps. He was fined for fighting, and for a quarrel he had with a carpenter and his wife (he didn’t exactly call her a witch, but he observed when she was swimming that were she not a witch, she surely would have drowned*); he was fined by the Dutch for keeping company with Lutherans and beaten by the British for refusing to observe Christmas according to their calendar. He also went on to serve on the local council for many years; he read and wrote, raised a large family and was involved in all kinds of commerce, from horse trading to part ownership of a few boats on the Hudson.

But when I read about a storm and a flood in modern times, my mind goes back to the Old World floods before the North Sea dikes were strong enough to hold them out, and my Bremer ancestors who struggled against the rising waters, in times when a big storm hitting the coast could mean thousands of human lives lost, and countless animals.

My mother and my brother standing on the modern North Sea Dike, in the Netherlands, near a statue commemorating the workers who built it.

*In the end, the court was not able to come to a conclusive determination on whether the carpenter’s wife was or was not a witch, but the members of the court encouraged the local populace to strive to get along anyhow.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Goofing at 1178, March 17, 1990

Mom and her three brothers, no different from any other little kids when a camera comes out. My brother Franklin took this sequence. That’s our old family car in the background.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

1945 Road Trip VI

These notes were in an unmarked manila folder at Mom’s house, with no further explanation, nor any sign of any further correspondence from the trip. If I were a gambling man, I’d bet Mom had preserved them from her mother’s files back when Mom and her brothers spent a couple of years clearing out Grandmother’s house, much as my siblings and I are sifting through Mom’s, trying to sort the clutter from the keepsakes.

I have no idea why Dick enclosed the torn-off classified ad in this envelope, unless it was to show that he had received a packet of newspapers from California.

Envelope postmarked Kincardine, Ontario, July 18, 1945, 4¢ Canada stamp on an unmarked envelope.

Addressed to The De Witt’s, 3482 Knollcrest Ave, Los Angeles 43, Calif., U.S.A.

Tuesday, July 16, ’45
On the farm

Dear Mom & Dad & Doug

Well, this is going to be a short letter as I have about ten minutes in which to write. Yesterday we chopped & cut wood all afternoon. It was all elm. It rained a lot again Sunday and thus made things pretty wet.

We turned part of a field of hay over to dry last night and I am going out now to help load it and bring it in.

Dad, do you need any Gillette razor blades? They have plenty of Canadian Gillette razor blades up here and they sell 5 for 25¢ same as down there. If you want me to, I’ll get some. Let me know. The[y] have lots of things up here that are scarce in the States. Yesterday I bought a box of Wrigleys gum. It is a cinnamon-flavored gum and is pretty good. When I get back in the States, I’ll mail it home.

How is Bill? I hope everyone is all right.


Dick DeWitt
℅ Bill Ferguson
R.R. #1 Kincardine

1945 Road Trip V

After Dick got out of university a few years after this trip, he more or less settled in at my grandfather’s manufacturing company, where he worked the rest of his career in an industrial environment. All his life he remained fond of travel. It was only at the far end of his biography that fate found him once again farming hay, this time involved with his brothers in setting up a series of alfalfa fields, in the U.S.

Unmarked white envelope with four green 1¢ Canada stamps.

Addressed in pencil to: Doug E. DeWitt, 3482 Knollcrest Ave, Los Angeles 43, California, United States of America.

Saturday July 14, 1945

Dick DeWitt
℅ Bill Ferguson


How are you? Is everything OK? I haven’t heard from anybody yet and I have wondered how everybody is. Maybe the lack of mail is due to the fact that I haven’t been in one place too long!

We got up here to the farm last Wednesday. The hay was ready to bring in and we started to work on it. There is Bill (Bruce’s cousin), Bruce, John (Bill’s brother), and myself working on the Hay. John helps Bill with his haying, and then Bill goes over and helps out at John’s farm, etc. with all the crops.

Bill’s farm has 100 acres and it keeps him busy. He has pigs, a few chickens, a few calves, sows and 7 cows. Bruce and I milk 2 each and Bill milks three every morning and night.

Last night we went down to Lake Huron, which is about three miles away, and did a bit of swimming. The air is pretty cool and so is the lake. When you go in swimming and come out you are warm, because of the cool air. The lake sure is a change from the ocean. It is nice and clean. There are no waves and the bottom slopes out slowly, thus making it possible to walk a long way out.

How is your job? We are getting up about the same time you do. How is the beach? Is the weather getting warmer.

Up to last night we have brought in about 20 loads of hay. He has one now which is 19' x 40' and the rafter is 18 feet high which is filled a little bit above the rafter. Yesterday we started pitching hay in a loft. We have a few loads in it also.

Many thing[s] are much cheaper up here. The exchange on an American dollar is ten cents. You can go in a store, buy a hamburger which costs ten cents, hand them an American dollar, an[d] they will give you the hamburger and an Canadian dollar. That’s pretty good!

When we came across the border we got our ration books. They ration sugar & preserves, & butter. Now they have started to ration meat. There is no shortage up here, and we can buy plenty to eat.

It is raining and storming right now, so there isn’t much to do. The rain up here isn’t like California rain. It most likely will rain for a few hours and then blow over. Anyway I hope so!

I guess that’s about all now. If you have time, drop me a line. Say hello to everyone for me. Thanks


1945 Road Trip IV

Nothing says Modern and Air Cooled like a picture of a Conestoga wagon in the desert with a cactus.

Envelope postmarked Detroit, Michigan, 10:30 a.m. July 9, 1945

Two enclosures: single-leaf flyer on Mammoth Cave (at Put-in-Bay) and four-page glossy black-and-white newspaper, “Lake Erie Breeze,” Summer 1945 edition

Sunday, July 8, 1945

Hi there—

Well, we went to Put-in-Bay yesterday. It is up in Ohio in Lake Erie, not Lake Huron. It wasn’t a bad place, except there were millions of June Bugs. There were piles of dead ones all over. One good thing about June Bugs is that they don’t bite. We saw the Mammoth Caves. We walked down some stairs and as soon as we were down about fifteen or twenty feet, it got very cold, and it stayed that way. There was a lake down in the bottom which had very clear water and was perfectly pure. The temperature of the cave is 45°F. all year-round. After seeing the lake we went through a tunnel, around which were small stalagmites ? (the ones on the top of a cave). I guess if you have seen Carlsbad Caverns this would be a hole in the ground, but being I haven’t, I liked it. We didn’t [do] anything special the rest of the day.

Today we mo[w]ed Bruce’s aunt’s lawn and then went to his Aunt Jennie’s house for dinner. We had pot roast and a regular home cooked dinner. You should be glad that you have meat out there. Here, it is really scarce.

After dinner, we went to the ball game with tickets that Mr. Cameron bought for us. It was a double-header between N.Y. & Detroit. New York won the first game 8-6 & Detroit the second, 3-2. Eddy Mayo is now playing for Detroit, & he hit a homer in the first game. Joe Hoover is also playing for Detroit.

We just finished dinner and are going over to Dearborn to do our washing and to stay with some of Bruce’s friends over there. They are leaving now, so I must say good-bye.

I hope everyone is all right. Say hello to Mary, when you write her. Thanks!



1945 Road Trip III

When Dick took his trip, his brother Doug would have been in high school too, and their sister, my mother, Mary Sarah, was 13. The baby of the family, my uncle Bill, was three going on four.

Envelope postmarked Detroit, Michigan, 11 p.m. July 6, 1945. Envelope is from Pioneer Hotel (“Modern, Air-Cooled,” with illustration of a Conestoga wagon), Tucson, Arizona

Addressed to: The DeWitt Family, 3482 Knollcrest Ave., Los Angeles 43, Calif.

Return address: Dick DeWitt, ℅ 3626 Wabash, Detroit 8, Michigan

In ink, on 3 folded leaves of stationery from Pioneer Hotel (“J.M. Procter, Manager”), each leaf hand-numbered into four pages.


July 6, 1945

Hi there—

I guess that you’ve been wondering what has happened to me. Well, when I last wrote to you I was on the bus to Omaha. We got to Omaha at about 7:30 AM, July 2. We slept on the bus all night. Our luck wasn’t too good Monday either. We got to Des Moines, Ia. Monday evening. Owing to the fact that auto travel was rather slow, we decided to try trucks! We would go to an eating place where a lot of the truck drivers stopped, and if they were going where we were, they would give us a lift. We left Des Moines Monday evening and got to Aurora, Ill. Tuesday morning. We slept a bit on the truck. By Tuesday evening we were at Gary, Indiana. Note the great mileage! There was another eating place for truck drivers outside of Gary and we got a ride to Detroit. At Gary we split up. Because the next day was the 4th, none of the trucks could unload, so very few trucks went all the way through to Detroit. Only those having homes in Detroit came through. We couldn’t get a ride in the same truck, but we could get rides separately.

Bruce went ahead in one truck and I followed. We met at the YMCA Wednesday morning. After we cleaned up, Mr. Cameron picked us up and took us to Bruce’s aunt’s house. He then took us down to send the telegram, and to get my pants pressed. Then we came back to Bruce’s aunt’s house, where we have been staying ever since, and had lunch. We then did a little washing and unpacking. Later on Mr. Cameron took us out to eat, and he showed us a bit of the town. We got to bed early Wednesday night, and slept late the next morning. Both nights on the trucks, we didn’t get too much sleep. When we got up we had a bath and breakfast, and then decided to do a little sight seeing. We decided to go to Belle Isle (Thursday). It is an island in the middle of the Detroit River. Going across the bridge to the Isle we saw two people in a small boat being pulled out of the river. There was a strong wind which made the river roll right along. When we got to the Isle we looked around and then rented a canoe. It cost only thirty cents an hour! We canoed up to the very end of the Isle and then back. On the way back it began to rain. There were lots of bridges over


the canals, and we would wait under a bridge until the rain would let up, and then would head for the next bridge, etc., until we reached the boat house. The buses didn’t run too often, so we walked back across the bridge in the rain. We came home and then had dinner. We were canoing for about three hours.

We then had to get some ice and get Bruce’s aunt’s carburator [sic] fixed. It seems that they have a very close friend who is head of tool production at Willow Run. Some job, eh!

He helped take the carburator all apart and fix it. Then we went in and talked and had some cookies and lemonade. Mr. McGreggor (the man who is head of tool production at Willow Run) said that Ford is putting out a “straight 5,” and it wouldn’t have a dead center, thus making it better. He also had a very good workshop in his cellar. He had a lathe, drill press, forge, and all kinds of tools, although he said “All my tools are out at the plant.” Also he designed and made the heating system for their house. Also, he happened to mention that Henry Ford is a sick man: Mr. McGreggor had seen Henry Ford several times recently, but each time he didn’t get out of his car. That was unusual for Mr. Ford.

This morning we decided to go to Greenfield Village, that is a town reproduced by Henry Ford, just outside of Dearborn, and the museum. We went through the village first. It had all kinds of buildings connected with the life of Henry Ford and the development of America. I am sending to [?] booklets about the Village and the Museum home. The village was a place that you all would really enjoy.

The museum was also a beautiful structure. Different parts of the buildings were reproductions of parts of famous structures, such as Independence Hall, etc. You walk in the museum, and pay, and then you go down a large hallway which has much furniture and china wear [sic] of different periods. Then you come to the main room of the Museum. The floor is made of teak wood blocks about a foot or so long and about three inches wide and worked into a herringbone pattern. It is the largest teak wood floor in the world. Many early shops are reproduced there and there are many automobiles, bicycles, airplanes, trains, and all kinds of inventions which have aided in the developement [sic] of the country. Because of the labor shortage we were hurried through the museum, but we could have spent a


week there and still enjoyed it. But time marches on and so did we. We came home and I got my shoes fixed up and then I started writing this letter. Then we finished dinner and I continued on the letter.

Tomorrow Bruce and I are going to Put-in-Bay which is up the Detroit River and in Lake Huron. I believe the round trip is about one hundred and sixty miles. We leave at nine tomorrow morning and we get back at eight in the evening.

I imagine that we will be heading for Canada the first of next week. Don’t write me here, because I will be gone by the time a letter would have time to reach here. My address will be:

Dick DeWitt
℅ Bill Ferguson
R.R. #1
Kincardine, Ontario

We are having a swell time. I forgot to mention that Mr. Cameron had two tickets to the ball game the day we got here. It was between Boston & Detroit. They split. Boston won the first game 4-3 and Detroit the second 5-3. In the first game Hank Greenbey hit a homer in the second tier and the ball was still going up. Hank, I believe, played his first game last week. The ball stadium here is “Briggs Field.” It is owned by Mr. Briggs, of Briggs Manufacturing Company, Mr. Cameron’s company.

Where we are staying here, we are having swell food and it is a good place.

How is Bill getting along? Doug—Are you still working-out hard? I hope Mary Sarah is also having a swell time. Dad—How is the cellar coming? I hope you are all all right. Mom—How is it not to wash and cook for one less?

I have been meaning to write more but something always comes. I hope this letter will make up. I should have taken my camera out to Greenfield Village today, but I didn’t think of it. I’ll be sending some pictures along later.

I guess that’s about all for now.



P.S. The stationery is Mr. Cameron’s. It is the only stationery around the house. Dick

1945 Road Trip II

It’s a hoot to read the story of Dick’s cross-country jaunt, because I took a similar ramble across the U.S., also in a high-school summer, also on a lot of buses (but without the hitchhiking), also stopping by the families of friends I was traveling with—and also making a point of stopping in Laramie, Wyoming, on the outbound leg, getting off the bus to spend the night and meet with relatives of my grandmother, who grew up there. At the time I knew nothing about the trip Dick had taken 35 years before.

Four penny postcards, written in pencil, postmarked North Platte, Nebraska, 10:30 a.m., July 2, 1945, addressed to The DeWitts, 3482 Knollcrest Ave., Los Angeles 43, Calif. (The second card is addressed to Mr. & Mrs. & Doug DeWitt.)

Dear Mom & Dad & Doug

afternoon July 1, 1945

I didn’t get to write the last two nights but I am writing now. When I get to Detroit I’ll write a good letter.

How are you? We are just fine! July 29 [sic] we stayed at Craig Colo. The man that picked us up out of Las Vegas brought us there, and we stayed with him. We could have gone on with him to Denver, but as we were stopping by Laramie, we had to cut up to the Lincoln HI-Way.

Being we were on a bad road, we had trouble getting rides. We expected to get to Laramie early, but we got there at about 5:30. The stores in Laramie close up at 6:00! & we just said hello to Uncle Bert & Guy & Mr. Walker. They all said to say hello!

We had a ride to Cheyenne that night. It was pretty rainy in Laramie so we decided to go on. The man said he knew the Raifs? [handwriting unclear, but he writes a question mark after the name and underlines it, as if he’s not sure of the name either]

When we left Cheyenne we went on about 30 miles out of Cheyenne & we stayed at an auto court. This morning going was pretty slow. We got to Pine Bluffs and were able to get a bus to Omaha—so here we are on the bus. That’s why my writing is so jumpy. The roads just got better, as we came into Nebraska. We’ll get into Omaha at 7:30 tomorrow morning. The drivers change at N. Platt. [sic]

I’ve been wanting to send you a birthday greeting, but we seemed to pass through all the towns where I could send one. But here’s wishing you

A H A P P Y B I R T H D A Y.

[spelled out in block letters like a telegram]

Say hello to Bill for me and tell him I’ll be thinking of him. I guess that’s about all now, so until later, I’ll be seeing you.


1945 Road Trip I

In the summer of 1945, my uncle Dick was in high school. The Germans had surrendered in Europe, but the war in the Pacific was still on. My mother must have been off at Girl Scout camp. Henry Ford was a few months away from passing the presidency of his namesake company to Henry Ford II. Two years later, the elder Ford would be no more.

With the summer stretching out in front of him, Dick got on a bus with a friend and headed across the country to find a job haying in Canada.

In ink, on a penny postcard postmarked Provo, Utah, 4:30 p.m. June 29, 1945, addressed to Mr. & Mrs. D.H. DeWitt, 3482 Knollcrest Ave, Los Angeles 43, Calif

June 29, 1945
Provo, Utah

Dear Mom and Dad:

We left Los Angeles early Thursday morning on the P.E. bus for San Berbnado! [scribbled, apparently trying to say San Bernardino]

Last night we slept at Cedar City. That’s where Dad and I slept in 1939, and in the same auto court.

Yesterday we got several rides and about 75 miles out of Las Vegas we got a ride with the man we are still driving with.

Hope to get to Laramie early Saturday. Everything is going well. Hope you’re fine


Monday, December 27, 2010

Ceci ne Sont pas des Collines

It’s not the hills you capture; it’s the light.