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My Family’s Fourth of July

While we are celebrating this weekend, I remember picnics with dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins in the locust-zizzling heat of the New Jersey Pines. We would be surrounded by the scents of barbeques chicken and hotdogs, the sights of impromptu softball games and horseshoe pitches, and the constant chatter of familial gossip. Everyone lurked around the dessert table, the most popular attraction of the day, but we would have pans of baked browned baby lima beans, apples sauce flavored sauerkraut, and you-can’t-have-a-picnic-without trays of deviled eggs. Sometimes it was hot enough, and we were near enough, one of the branches or streams of the crick (creek to you) to take finger-nail-blue swims in the spring-fed, icy waters, where one aunt always warned us not to get “ammonia.”

Occasionally, there’d be someone of the really old generation that still said odd things like S’brasky for Nebraska or h’ain’t for ain’t or flivver for a car. I had a grant aunt who had three turtles who lived under her house (shack) along the Davenport Branch. She fed them bread crusts at noon, and at 12 o’clock they waddled up to the plank board back steps for their feeding. When she came, she brought the turtles. And they always told the tale of my Uncle Rusty who once met two Pine rattlers at a log crossing and how he grabbed them both by their tails and snapped their necks like lashing a bullwhip. Then he threw the carcasses up on the Martins’ box, and the birds wouldn’t come back for  half a decade.

This post relates a family’s history of a life in the US that is almost no longer part of American’s past, especially since the likes of writers like Howard Zinn and professional leftists have turned the country inside out. My ancestors were Scots and Irish (I say we are people of  no color), some who immigrated here in the 1700s when Atlantic crossings were time-consuming and perilous, long before Ellis Island or quotas or illegals. It’s hard to remember there were times without even trains, when the horse was the fastest transportation, and most people lived within walking distance of wherever they might want to go.

In my father’s family the first Samuel S. settled on the New Jersey Coast across from what would be Atlantic City. My guess is he clammed or fished or both and kept the ubiquitous “kitchen” garden every household maintained. A descendant was a wagoneer at an iron-in-the-Pines foundry in the 1830s, and appears in the Martha Forge Diaries. His son ran a general store and stage coach stop in today’s Wharton Track on a gravel road in the Pines. The wooden Indian he had for advertisement was in the family down to my father’s time. Two Samuels served in the New Jersey 4th Regiment during the Civil War, and my great-grandfather, by family lore, was an aide to Ulysses S. Grant and participated in a search party for Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, but not the group that found the murderer–although I have never been able to verify that story. His son, my grandfather, Samuel, was a conductor on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Philadelphia to Atlantic City line. He taught me to sing, “Casey Jones” when I was in kindergarten and contributed a new rail car or village piece each Christmas to my Lionel train set. My father graduated high school, class of 1928, played semi-pro baseball in  Vineland, New Jersey, as a catcher, and worked all his life for the same company–because he endured the Great Depression and valued job stability. I was always impressed that he could quote most of “Macbeth.”

When he was a child, my father’s mother died of “inflammation of the pancreas,” which could have been any abdominal disorder. She had been an Irish immigrant in 1908 who dropped the O’ from her name to be more American and converted from Catholicism to Quakerism. I have a postcard from the Campbell Soup Company in Camden, New Jersey, showing her sorting tomatoes. It is the only picture of her we have.  At two, Father was virtually orphaned, because after his mother’s death, his own father “gave” his son to two aunts to raise. As a working adult, he supported those aunts until their deaths. Father built this house that I live in, being general contractor and doing the carpentry while my uncles covered the electrical and plumbing needs for $11,000 cash in 1947. Then he saved his sales bonuses until the year he died, annually investing in the stock market.  When he was dying, he still worked the phones from his hospital bed. My mother became a 1/2 millionaire on my father’s death. Now, current legislatures in New York and New Jersey (let alone the federal government) regard that money/property as a windfall to tax more heavily–for being “rich.”

On my mother’s side, her ancestors first came to New Jersey in 1734 in the Na’vasink area, now Shrewsbury, and a descendant, John T., was a captain in a Revolutionary War militia. His grandson bought 16 acres of property in the then Dover Township in 1835. Thomas and his wife had 12 surviving children, one of whom, my great-grandfather, served in the New Jersey 2nd Cavalry throughout the Civil War. The legend there is in 1863 he and his best friend, Tom L. (a relative of the supposed founder of Toms River) heard a huge battle was taking place in Pennsylvania, so they mounted up and rode off to teach them Rebels what for. But, in actuality, Thomas T. enlisted in 1861for the duration, became a captain, and received his discharge papers in Lincoln’s hand.

As a side note, my son’s Great-great-great Uncle Alexander B. of my husband’s family immigrated here in 1857 and settled in Illinois, where he was a farmer. He applied for citizenship in 1862 when a five-year residency and the endorsement of two full citizens would make him legal. He immediately enlisted in a state volunteer regiment and died at Mursfreeboro, Tennessee, in 1863.

My sister and I were “war babies” who grew up in the mythical 50s that many disparage today, having been born decades after. Hollywood’s view is the 50s, for instance “Pleasantville,” is a static period of repression and racism, forgetting entirely that in 48, Truman integrated the armed services, the Brown decision came down in 56, and  Eisenhower sent troops to escort black children to school in Arkansas at that time.  Martin Luther King, Jr, started the major push for mid-century civil rights then, and we as a nation defeated communist intrusion throughout all of the Korean penisula. Later, the country knew impotence in the face of the Hungarian uprising, but we had a strong dollar, the world’s gold in Fort Knox, and no one thought we were the cause of the world’s troubles, since the Allies had saved Europe twice and liberated Japan, bringing freedom to over a billion people.

I think we do believe such a childhood was blessed, as my sister and I lived in a time now distant to the experience of many Americans. We didn’t lock car or house doors, the telephone was connected by live operators, my mother had an old Plymouth with running boards that children piled onto to ride up and down the drive, and we rode bicycles everywhere without wearing helmets or knee pads. The household had its own zoo of dogs, cats, birds (wild and parakeet), rabbits, and even an alligator, when they were sold legally in Georgia. In fact, animals were so important that I can name the Grandfather T.’s hounddog, Andy, and my Grandfather S.’ setter, Colonel Freckleface. Ours were Flash Gordon, Sparkle Plenty, and Brandywine, while I once owned four: Casey, Lacy, Nash Bridges, and Pert–all Shelter rescues and only Nash named by me. Now, I have Nash Bridges II, although she’s a female, a mixed collie whose occupation is barking at anyone within sight or scent.

My husband and I were both the first of our families to graduate college, he an engineer and I a teacher. My son is an engineer with advanced degrees in computer sciences. He married a lawyer whose relatives came from Italy after WW I.  My immediate family owned two houses in the 60s and 70s, with down payment help from my parents, but I only have my house today because my mother bequeathed it to me. As a single woman currently retired who works part time as an adjunct professor, coach, and tutor, I can see the day coming when I may not be able to afford my own property due to rising taxes and the upkeep the house takes from an essentially fixed income.

When I hear or read about redistributing “the wealth,” I wonder where such people think those assets derive from. Mine came from dirt farmers, who spent generations getting up at daybreak to start feeding the chickens and didn’t retire until near midnight each day, if they had horses or cattle. They often had no regular jobs, because life included constant battles with Nature over raising crops and animals, hunting as a necessity and not a sport, and such extra income earners as making Christmas wreaths and cutting Christmas trees. My Grandfather T. also was a part-time cabinet maker, lumberjack, and carpenter.

My Grandfather T. died when my mother was 5, and his brothers wanted their share of the farm. My Grandmother T. took out a mortgage of $300 dollars in 1915 to pay them, and then worked in a shirt factory for five years to pay off the debt–walking two miles each way every day to her job as a seamstress.  She was probably pretty good, as she made her own wedding dress of turquoise linen in 1898. Unfortunately, at 41 she remarried and died in childbirth with her fifth child. My mother was left orphaned at 11, and she grew up in an uninsulated clapboard drafty farmhouse with her brothers and cousins, whose father had died in a railroad accident and whose mother had then simply “went to bed.” I always said they were the Waltons without Grandpa.

Who are illegals and welfare clients and even the unemployed to take the equity built up little by little over my families’ generations and what kind of government wants to take those assets? Who in Washington, DC, is able to decide what part of my families; hard-won “wealth” should be confiscated and given to people who have not taken the time or responsibility to make their own affluence? When I was in grade school, my father was  paid twice a month, supposedly a big “white collar” status symbol, but it often meant near the end of the second week, there was no cash in our home. I had a silver dollar collection, mostly given to me for birthdays by my father’s father. Many times, we went “shopping” or even a couple times I went on field trips, and took a couple of those silver dollars as emergency fare. None were ever spent, and I still have the collection.

The alternative was my sister’s piggy bank. So many times if we wanted to see a movie, we would “break the bank” for a couple quarters to get into the Saturday matinee, where you had an A (color) movie and B (black and white–usually Western) movie with sometimes a serial, cartoons, previews, and the news reels.  Then we had to find ways to repay our pink benefactor. When I was 14, I made a Christmas  list for gifts for 15 people based on savings of $10, mostly babysitting pay. We didn’t have Dollar Stores then, but we had Woolworth’s Five and Dime, maybe an even better alternative.

Now, our “elected” officials are taking paths that lead them into direct opposition to the majority of the country, no matter how calculated or polled, and I see the liberties and opportunities of America twisted into ideological leftism. Europe is nearly incapacitated, unable to defend itself militarily or promote itself culturally. I cannot imagine what some of my predecessors would think to turn on a tv today and see demonstrators waving Mexican flags and demanding the rights of American citizenship as a given, while they declare their allegiance to another country.

I joined a tea party on April 15, 2009, and hang my Don’t Tread on Me flag over a valance in the dining room. At this age, I am not likely to ride a horse off to Pennsylvania to fight the invader, but I am unutterably opposed to the Democratic agenda for the nation and despise it for denigrating my people’s hard work and contributions to the nation.

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