Thursday, June 10, 2021

On the love of place

 Menachem Kaiser, “Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure” was recommended to me. 

I am currently on page 44 and ran across, "We stayed another couple of hours.  We talked about the city, its history, its architecture.  Hanna's love for Sosnowiec was abundant and heartwarming, in the way that a learned, earned love of a place always is."

I stopped and thought about this strange comment for a long while.  As far as I can recall I had never "learned, earned love of a place."  And knowing what little I do about my ancestors I have never heard that they did either.  But, I think to myself that it is no wonder.  We are so new here.  My ancestors arrived in the "new world" in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Many of them arrived early in the 17th.  Many settled in Rhode Island and New York.  I have a great-great (great??) grandfather who was a private from New York and captured by the British during the war of 1812.  His grandchildren had soon moved through Indiana to Illinois where my great-grandfather Robert Dale Owens Matthews bequeathed his farm to his eldest son.  My grandfather, Troy, not being the eldest son moved to California where he was a "very clever" handyman.   During the time I knew him, he earned a living developing photographs.

On my paternal side my great-grandfather, Schuyler Helm, was living in Illinois, at least that is where he enlisted.  He had been a blacksmith and his Military specialty was therefore listed as “Engineer.”  He was a Sergeant by the time the war concluded in 1865.  He was approved for an increase in rank to lieutenant, but he instead took his mustering out pay and bought a piece of land in "Indian Territory."  Schuyler didn’t make it out of his 40s before he died, and so I have wondered if he mustered out with some injuries as well as money.  He was with Sherman before the latter's march to the sea.  Sherman divided his force and Schuyler was with the northern segment (under General Thomas) that kept Confederate forces from chasing after Sherman.  I don't have any details about what Sgt Helm did as an engineer, but I sort of relate to him having been a Sergeant in the Marine Corps and later an engineer mostly with McDonnell Douglas.  Also, Schuyler was born in 1834 and I was born in 1934.  But no relatives I'm familiar with stayed in "Indian Territory."  Schuyler's son, my grandfather (Harry Homer Helm) was born in 1865 and died in 1925; so I never met him.  He worked for the railroad and retired with a gold watch which I left with my first wife to give to my son (she being afraid I would lose it if I took it with me) which was subsequently lost.

Harry Homer Helm left his first family and married my grandmother, Bertha Freeman, who was born in 1885, making her 20 years younger than Harry Homer.  My father, Harrison Schuyler Helm, was born in 1915, and was ten years old when Harry Homer died.  My father knew nothing about his ancestry.  He once told me that he read a novel which mentioned someone named Helm who has hanged as a cattle rustler.  He told the kids in his class that this rustler was his grand-father -- as a joke.  I only learned about Sgt Schuyler Helm after my father died.  I sent for Sgt Schuyler's military record.  I still have it.  It's in a box in the garage.  There isn't anything very exciting in it.

Bill Helm, from Harry Homer's first marriage worked on the docks in the Los Angeles harbor.  He got his younger half-brother Harrison a job there as well.  Harrison married Ferne Matthews (my mother) and rented a small house at 524 West Denni in Wilmington which was part of the Los Angeles Harbor.  Harrison worked as a lumber carrier driver which was considered an important activity as the U.S. began building up its war effort and so never was in the military. 

My mother was getting ready to take us to church.  My sister, brother and I were standing down below on the sidewalk.  My father with a stunned expression on his face, came out onto the porch and said, "the Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor."  My mother took us to church anyway.  My father stayed home.

My mother and father were divorced when I was ten.  We were still living in Wilmington when I enlisted in the Marine Corps.  Two years after I graduated from Long Beach State College with a degree in English I bought a home in Torrance; which was an easy drive to the engineering department in Santa Monica.  I worked on the Skybolt program which was moved to Culver City.  After it was cancelled by Robert McNamara I transferred to the Commercial Aircraft division which was located in Long Beach (near where I was born).  I was still working in Long Beach (on the C17 program) when I retired and moved to San Jacinto in 1999.

Upon retirement I wanted to move to Northern Arizona, but Susan didn't want to move too far from her ailing parents; so she made a bargain with me.  If we moved out of the Los Angeles congestion which I detested, but close to her father, Robert McWherter, who lived in Indio; after he died she would move wherever I wished.  After her father died, Susan said she was ready to fulfill her part of our bargain, but by then she had several nearby doctors looking after her.  She never said she wasn't willing to fulfill her part of our bargain, but I was never willing to put her through a move.

Susan used to tell me that I only managed to get in touch with my feelings when I wrote poetry.  Not having written much poetry since the Covid Pandemic, I will however guess that if I were in touch with my feelings and asked them if there was any "place" that I loved, they might guess that if there were such a place, it was the most-often-dry bed of the San Jacinto River.  The River was part of my compromise with Susan.  If I couldn't retire to Northern California, I would at least need two things, I told her: 1) a large, fairly quiet, study area and 2) a nearby place where I could let our dogs run off leash.  Susan got her sister to help and they began showing me places they thought suitable.   One of the selections was this one in San Jacinto.  It was up to me to drive about and find that the San Jacinto River was a wonderful place to let the dogs run; and so it has been for all the years since we moved here.   The circumstances of it have changed considerably in that there are now clusters of homeless people living down there.  Various family members and friends have warned me about the river over the years.  At first it was about the coyotes; so I carried a S&W 357, but none of our encounters with coyotes required me to use it.  Later on I opted for a Walther 22 caliber semi-automatic, but after the homeless people arrived I don't usually carry even that.  The homeless are mostly a pacific people who spend their time sleeping.    If they look out from underneath their tents it is because we have disturbed their sleep.

But (I argue with my imagined feelings) how can I say that I love the river when I had to take up photography in order to keep going down there?  I do, it is true, feel it a duty to take my dogs down there, but after a while I found it boring; so I took up photography and photograph the dogs and scenery.  I even photographed many of the homeless and their surroundings.

Lest it seem that I have been an unhappy person wandering from one unpleasant place to the next, if I could reword the comment of Menachem Kaiser’s that provoked all this, I should begin by asking how unhappy can I be living in one of the most desirable places in the world, Southern California?  That generality has its flaws, I know, but those who don’t like it here and move usually do so because of the congestion (both people and cars) and the high-cost of living.  But people come here and drive long distances to work because living here is otherwise very pleasant.

More specifically I have been immensely happy in the sea free-diving.  I did truly love to be in the sea. I took my kids with me and they played in tide pools while I swam out to free-dive.
Later I bought a West-Wight Potter as a dive platform and learned to love sailing as well. 

Also, even before joining the Marine Corps I loved to hike.  And so during the hot months I would free dive and then during the cold months I would hike.  In regard to hiking, it wasn’t a particular place I could stand in and say I loved to be there, it was the process of hiking, as it was with the process of free-diving. 

Beyond these I love to be in states of mind where I am writing poetry.  I also love states of mind where I am reading an entertaining or captivating novel or work of history or some other subjects. It was because I hadn’t been in the latter state of mind for a while that I hastened to buy Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure by Menachem Kaiser.  I do not love it yet, but I am still in hope.

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