When I was a lad I served a term as office boy to an attorney’s firm. I washed the windows and I scrubbed the floor and I polished up the handle on the big front door. (And he polished up the handle on the big front door.) No, wait!
That’s a tune that’s run through my head for 57 years. What I meant to say was, when I was a lad I met an 83-year-old man who spent his days and nights digging up the genealogy of his family. Osborne had traced his ancestors back 300 years. The only surviving historical record of the oldest ancestor he’d found was that he was so poor he walked around in a “noisome shirt.”
“How’d you like it if that’s how you went down in history — as a fellow with a noisome shirt?” Osborne asked me, at 83, chuckling under an enormous poster of Raquel Welch.
I polished up that handle so carefully that now I am the ruler of the Queen’s Navy. (He polished up that handle so carefully that now he is the ruler of the Queen’s Navy.)
All of us have ancestors who were known for something, somewhere, in their time — good, bad, or in that gray area. I find all of it interesting. For instance, my great grandparents were the first Jews to get married west of the Mississippi River. Isn’t that something?
I don’t know if it means anything — probably not — but it’s interesting to me that in this day and age I am so closely connected to what seems like ancient history.
Here’s a better story. In the late 1800s my great grandfather, Rafe Kahn, ran the General Store in Shreveport, Louisiana, on the west bank of the Mississippi River. I got this story from his son, my Opa.
“Back in those days you could tell when the Klan was going to ride, because Huey Long would come into my daddy’s store on Monday or Tuesday and order a barrel of whiskey and a barrel of cigars,” Opa told me when he was an old man and I was a young pup.
After the Klan lynched a Negro or two that weekend, they’d drink the whiskey and smoke the cigars my great grandfather had sold to Huey Long.
I don’t like this. But it’s the truth. It’s a part of our nation’s history.
My Opa left Shreveport on a steamboat the summer he turned 12, to visit an uncle in Chicago. He sent his daddy a telegram that summer to tell him he was staying in Chicago because the schools were better there. Opa was proud to tell us about the time his elementary schoolteacher asked if anyone in the class knew Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and he recited it from memory.
“Now, aren’t you ashamed,” his teacher told the class (you could shame students back then) “that a Southern boy knows this by heart, and you don’t even know what it is?”
My Opa taught me that racial prejudice is a horrible thing, and will never go away “until everyone has married everyone else for so long that no one can tell who anyone is anymore.”
He also told me this. When Huey Long walked into my great grandpa’s store to buy whiskey for the Klan, he greeted my great grandpa by saying, “Hello, you kike bastard.”
And my great grandpa replied: “Hello, you Irish son of a bitch.”
My Opa was a little kid, sitting on the counter — by the candy, I’ll bet.
“You see, Robert,” Opa told me, “Southerners speak two languages: English and obscene. You have to cuss your friends out when you meet them, or they’ll think you’re mad at them.”
As we both laughed, Opa said: “I’m serious.” And we both kept laughing. Though there really is nothing funny about any of this.
Today, all across the United States, people are cussing each other out, calling each other worse words than son of a bitch.
Americans are killing each other for stupid stuff like this.
Is there any way to stop it?
Maybe if Americans spent a few minutes looking up their own family history, on one of the many internet sites devoted to it, it might help.
But I have transgressed. I have asked Americans to do something for themselves — instead of inheriting it.
Pardon me. Is that a crime yet? Or just something you can get away with on your taxes?