Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tradition in Lustbader, L'Amour & Helm

In Eric Lustbader’s Nicholas Linear sears, in the third novel, White Ninja, Linear’s grandfather, So Peng, receives information from his mother about the “Tanjian” people that she abandoned. The Tanjian are a gypsy-like group of Ninja-like people that threaten So Peng and his mother because leaving the Tanjian, apparently, is deserving of the death. So Peng was apparently able to defeat the Tanjian assassins that came after him (I have yet to read that far), but apparently the Tanjians are now after Nicholas Linear and his skills are powerless against them – unless he revisits his tradition and discovers weapons he can use. I was reminded of Louis L’Amour’s Sacket series. If any Sacket got into trouble, other Sackets would come a running. That was their tradition.

Do family traditions really exist? They don’t seem to in my family. If there were any traditions that could have been passed along I never heard of them. My father’s father, Harry, died when my father, Harrison, was ten. He didn’t remember hearing of anything like a tradition from either his father or his mother. He didn’t even know who his grandfather was. He had read in a book about someone named Helm running with a gang of outlaws and being hanged; so he liked to tell his schoolmates, and apparently some of his teachers, that his grandfather was an outlaw. That wasn’t true but I wondered whether his idea of his grandfather didn’t influence him a bit. He became a social outlaw to some extent, spending his after-hours in the neighborhood pub and resisting all family connections including recommendations that he make something better out of his life. He liked working on the docks, and when he was done working, he liked drinking beer.

My grandmother, Bertha Freeman was about 40 in 1925 when her husband Harry died. She raised me until I was ten, but she didn’t pass anything along to me that resembled a tradition. My aunt Dorothy said we were related to Alice Freeman Palmer who founded Wellesley College and had a “tradition” of teaching. Bertha and Dorothy inspired a love of reading and for awhile it looked as though I might be heading in the direction of teaching college, but I veered off into engineering. The “teaching” tradition wasn’t very strong. In fact I tend to doubt that it existed.

On my mother’s side my Grandfather, Troy Matthews died when I was eight or nine. Perhaps he inspired in me a love of photography, but nothing more – no traditions. He came from a line of farmers and his elder brother inherited the farm in Augusta Illinois; so he had to do something else. I saw a journal his uncle William Jackson Matthews kept until he went off to Oregon in 1859. I once read about a “Boss Jack Matthews” in the Oregon State legislature. Was this Troy’s Uncle? Perhaps it was, but if so, none of Boss Jack’s political prowess was handed down to his nephew.

While not a tradition, there was a bit of a pattern that was common throughout the country at the time. My grandfather’s Troy and Harry left parents who were farmers to work in cities. They gave up farming to become blue-collar workers. My father was a second-generation blue-collar worker, but there was no tradition being passed along. I became a “white-collar” worker in Aerospace.

But what about a military tradition? My great-grandfather was Schyler Helm. He was a sergeant in an Engineering unit in an Illinois division on the side of the North during the Civil War. After the war received a veteran’s benefit and bought some land to farm in Iowa in 1865. Years later I was a sergeant in the Marine Corps, went to college on the G.I. Bill and bought a house using a V.A. Loan. After college I went to work in the Engineering division of Douglas Aircraft Company. But was that a tradition? I don’t think so. My father didn’t even know about Schyler, and I didn’t learn of him until after my father died. I see this as a coincidence rather than a tradition. Schyler was born in 1834 and I was born in 1934. Schyler’s son, Harry was born in 1865 and my son was born in 1965, but again, not a tradition.

There is a tradition in the Walter Russell Mead sense that my great-grandfather and I were both Jacksonians. Our country was at war so we signed up to fight. But our warrior tradition wasn’t as strong as that of say the McCain family. If there was a war on and we were of the right age then we would fight it, but if not then we would do something else. My father was born in 1914 and would have been 27 in 1941 when Jacksonians signed up in droves. But by that time he had three kids and was in a war-related industry; so he was not eligible to join, but he always regretted not being in World War II.

There was no war on when my son was of an age to fight one, but I have two grandchildren who are telling me they are going to sign up. My granddaughter Evelyn Helm graduated from High School in June 2011 and has signed up with the Navy. She is scheduled to begin her enlistment in January 2012. My grandson Alex Helm is a year away from graduating from High School. He tells me he intends to enlist in the Marine Corps. While things can occur to cause a change of mind, I had announced to friends and family at year ahead of them time I actually joined; so I think it very likely that he will eventually join as well. But if this is a tradition it isn’t peculiar to the Helm line.

As to other traditions in American families, I can only speculate. We hear about powerful political, military and industrial families.
There are a few of those. C. Wright Mills once called them “The Power Elite,” and while most historians don’t agree with Mills’ assessment, they would probably not argue that these families inspire their sons and perhaps their daughters to seek greatness in some important line of work. I was never inspired to seek greatness, nor have I inspired my children to seek it. Perhaps the farming and blue-collar heritage is at work here. We have no interest in being great. We just want to be left alone to do a job, but if a war breaks out and our country needs us to fight it, we are more than willing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

:) - Tradition is something that a family has to intentionally work on, be interested in...and most families are too busy or perhaps just overwhelmed with trying to survive. Also, rugged individualists seem to make lousy tradition makers. ;))

As for greatness, I have noticed that 'great' ones never seem to aspire to be great...but they do seek to do that which they love almost obsessively and they do it very, very well. Then one would hope that whatever "it" was that they did would get preserved. Think of all those wonderful wives and children that saved the things in our art museums (or sold them to collectors who then donated them or sold them to museum collections)--certainly the artists weren't the least concerned with such things...mostly all of them just needed to 'art'.