What’s in your family’s past that you have never been able to explain? I would be willing to bet that there is, at least, one mystery that you would like to solve.
So, hop in your Marty McFly (Back to the Future) DeLorean Time Machine, albeit an easy chair and laptop, and get to work. Why you may become so excited about your revelations that you’ll be motivated to write a book. Worked for me. In fact, my detective work led to two novels.
Discovery is so cool, especially when you have a vested interest. One seemingly meaningless document took me to a place I knew nothing about and revealed a segment of Charlie Polk’s life of which I only had minuscule information. The place – West Point, Virginia. For the life of me, I don’t know how or why that piece of paper survived for 63 years. Found it in an old box of photos that belonged to my grandmother. Clues. Just like a mystery novel.
Last night, a friend asked me to help her learn more about her family. But she had no idea where or how to start her search. The simple answer, start with what you know.
Case in point. I knew, based on conversations with my grandmother, that Charles Polk, Jr. worked at hard labor, building Virginia roads after he graduated from high school. I also knew or had been told, that he left his class ring in a restroom at a service station during that time. That’s it. Nothing more.
Then I found a 1953 Reimbursement Voucher, which clarified my grandmother’s claims and added more vital layers of information.
Oh, my gosh. Check out those meal prices. About three bucks per day. Hotel rates? $2.50 per day.
What about lodging at the West Point Hotel? Googled the heck out of it and came up with nada. But there is a West Point, Virginia and that’s when I came across a web page featuring town history and a photograph of the hotel that was torn down years ago.
In a previous article, I talked about another valuable piece of info uncovered on the document. His job for the Virginia Highway Department was not nearly so exciting as advertised by his mother. Instead of road builder, he was a car counter. That was before computers when counting was handled manually. Hashmarks on a clipboard.
Also, in the box of family memorabilia was a stack of letters from Charlie’s friends, most of them girls, and one who made her home in, you guessed it, West Point, Virginia. In one of her letters, she talks about working as a waitress at the West Point Hotel Diner, which is where their summer romance began.
Another group of letters from a gal named Roxanne from New Bern, NC during the USMC years. Google Maps to the rescue. New Bern is just 18.6 miles away from the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, SC. Roxanne’s address was in her letter so; I looked it up on Zillow. House is still there. Beautiful pic. What the heck? Let’s try ancestry.com. Found a census record for Roxanne and discovered that she was only 14 years old and dating a Marine. What? Didn’t include the rest of what I found, but I traced Roxanne all the way to Arkansas, where she became a prominent socialite. Died a few years ago.
The preceding is just a sampling of the clues that helped me unravel some mysteries about my family’s past and helped me to become a time traveler. All of it from my living room chair in Alabama, Starting in the small town of Strasburg in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and then 17,000 miles away to Iwakuni, Japan. All the while, experiencing the way it was in 1953 to 1955.
I am happy to report that at no time in my time traveling did I encounter a bully named Biff.
Hop in your DeLorean and get to work. You’ll be amazed at what you discover.
You can read about my family mystery, Farewell PFC POLK: The End of a Nightmare. And if you would be so kind and like the book, then leave a review.
Characters in stories must be believable. Even amazing superheroes have flaws and weaknesses.
Case in point…Kryptonite and Lois Lane make Superman weak and stupid. So, when I decided to write a book about my childhood hero, I was determined to find the holes in his perfection.
The star of Farewell PFC POLK is Charles F. Polk, Jr., my Uncle Buddy. He died when I was 7-years-old, which means that I have little recall of the actual man. Most of what I know about him was advanced by my family, the best PR firm ever.
Did I want to risk knocking him off that pedestal? Not at all. But I did want to know him better and answer the question, “Was he that good?”
So I began my research without the benefit of a single living family member to assist. Fortunately, my grandmother left behind a trunk filled with Charles Polk memorabilia, and the United States Marine Corps was wonderfully forthcoming with detailed records of Buddy’s military service.
As with any tragedy some facts are misunderstood, erroneously reported, or misrepresented. The first myth-buster was that he was accidentally killed by his best friend in Korea. In fact, PFC Polk was killed in Japan which was revealed in several documents.
My grandmother often talked about Buddy’s job out of high school when he worked for the Virginia Highway Department. She was persuaded that he worked on the roads doing heavy labor. In reality, he spent the summer of ’53 sitting along Virginia roads in a chair, counting vehicles. His job title is listed in the travel reimbursement request form below.
Armed with that simple document from 1953, I uncovered a photo of the hotel (no longer exists) in which he stayed and where he met the love of his life, that is, in the hotel dining room.
West Point Hotel, VA
To be clear, I don’t believe for an instant that Buddy’s mother lied about details of his life away from home. Just like most parents, she was left out of the loop. Parents have two ways of keeping up with their children. Eavesdropping on their conversations with their friends (not always intentional) and monitoring Facebook (not an option in the 1950s).
One tale that was often repeated was an incident in which Charles was reprimanded by a Marine Corps officer for carrying a New Testament in his shirt pocket. The miniature Bible was in his personal effects and mentioned by him in a letter to a girlfriend.
Buddy Polk was strikingly handsome, and blessed with movie star good looks. Again, it was his mother who advanced the story that he had a bunch of girls after him. Was that true? Judging from numerous letters from multiple love interests the answer to the question is a resounding “yes.”
Letters from friends were a great resource for time, places, activities, his thoughts, and key players in his story. Judging from the testimonials in those letters it was clear that he was perceived as a “good guy.”
In researching the letter writing of a girl named, Roxanne, who was madly in love with him, I unveiled a shocker. The girl from New Bern, North Carolina, was only 14 years old. They met when Buddy was stationed at Cherry Point at a nearby beach. And they dated (maybe only once). After his death, Roxanne paid a visit to my grandmother who would have had no idea that the girl was so young. She thought that it was strange that her daddy drove her to Virginia all the way from North Carolina. Knowing Mable Polk as I did, she would not have been happy to learn that her 19 year-old-son had a 14-year-old girlfriend. But then again, the more I studied the letters, the better I was able to understand the relationship. She was into him. He was just nice to her, you know, the good guy thing. Didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
His real love interest was Sally Duffy, a girl that he had met while working for the state in ’53. The letters revealed that their love was rekindled to the point of thoughts of matrimony.
Conclusion: After a ton of research, digging through family and military records, tracing the paper trail of his letters, and essential data uncovered through ancestry.com…Charles Polk, Jr., really was that good.
If you get around to reading my novel, and I hope that you will, please be so kind as to share a review. You can get Farewell PFC POLK: The End of a Nightmare here.
My granddaughter often jokes about my advanced age. “Did they have electricity when you were a little boy?” “Were you frightened by the dinosaurs?”
Once in a while I try to tell her about what it was like when I was her age, which by the way, is not so antiquated as she might think. We even had TV, albeit 3 channels with rabbit ears.
I was her age once and surrounded by adults who attempted to fill me in on their past, but just like her, I wasn’t the least bit interested in those ramblings about Aunt So and So and Uncle What’s His Name.
None of that genealogy stuff really meant anything to me until about a year ago. Come to think of it, I don’t have a clue as to what triggered my interest. Suddenly, I wanted to know more about those people from my past and began to try to piece together what little I remembered about them and the stories they shared.
There were clues in the attic. Old family photos and even some old love letters written by my grandparents.
So, I Googled their names. Nothing on Mable or Charlie Polk, my grandparents. And then, one of those bothersome ads popped up telling me that I could trace my roots and discover my past. Of course, it was going to cost me. So I took the plunge and went to work at ancestry.com.
Soon I found documents revealing boatloads of info about my past. Death certificates, birth records, census records, travel manifests, military records, newspaper articles….and a nifty tool for helping me to construct my family tree. As a side note, I have now found 6,204 family members. I’ve traced them back to the Vikings and the Huns. That explains Uncle Willard.
Seriously, let me show you what can be learned from one boring document.
My grandmother, Mable Polk, had a bunch of sisters and a brother. I recalled very little about her siblings. Her sister, Pearl, did snuff. Her brother, Walter, introduced me to my first foot-long hotdog in Winchester. Her sister, Ella, lived in Baltimore where we occasionally visited which is where I discovered tamales sold by a street vendor.
You see, it’s little memories like that upon which you can build your research. So, my grandmother, the youngest, was born in 1897. Luckily, there was a census conducted in 1900.
Oh, and by the way, I don’t expect that my family info will be interesting to you. My intent here is to show you what can be dug up (pardon the expression) about YOUR family.
First thing I notice is that Ella is missing. Further research indicates that by 1900 she was already married and living elsewhere. Second, Moses Shown was 9 years older than his wife, Mary. There’s 3-year-old Mable at the bottom of the list. Oh, yeah. Forgot about Aunt Less and Aunt Carrie. Vaguely recall them from my childhood, but there they are and now there is more substance to my faint recall.
Some other gems uncovered in that census: Moses was the only one in that family who couldn’t read or write and they all spoke English. What’s that? Why would the census be concerned with Americans speaking English? Thought that was just an issue for now. We really are a nation of immigrants.
All the aforementioned folks can be found IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE.
I’ll bet there are some really interesting people in your past. Why don’t you enrich your life’s experience by paying them a visit as a time traveler? Who knows, you might become so inspired by your discoveries that you’ll write a book.
Someone asked me recently, “How much is fiction and how much is truth?” Great question which I’ll attempt to answer by revealing some of my research.
It is also important to define the genre, Historical Fiction: Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past
That definition is a very broad stroke and leaves considerable room for sub-genres like romance, mystery, etc. Personally, I am drawn to Historical Fiction because I’m old. Just kidding. I like the genre because it creates mood, feeling, and color.
When writing IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE, I had a very specific geographic region and time period in mind that related to historical characters. The places referenced are very real and for the most part still exist. Most of the dates are accurate although there are some that are speculative and based on my best guestimate. For example: Charlie’s 1918 WWI draft registration is spot on because I found the original registration document. He registered at the Shenandoah County Courthouse in Woodstock, VA.
WWI Draft Registration p.1
WWI Draft Registration p.2
Many of the Wissler family events are linked to accurate dates based on stories uncovered in Woodstock, Virginia’s Shenandoah Herald. From November 11, 1891, I found the following article concerning the purchase of Strathmore.
Frank Wissler Purchases Strathmore
Check out all the valuable info revealed in an account of John Wissler, Jr’s wedding from June 24, 1910.
John Wissler, Jr. Wedding
In one scene in the story, when Charlie’s father, Bill, is belittling him, he references his deceased child, John. That idea was based on a Herald article from June 23, 1905.
Death of Bill Polk’s son
Although I had done considerable ancestry research on my family, I was unaware of my Great, Great, Grandmother Teeny Shown. Well, actually I had uncovered her name, but did not know that she was called Teeny or that she was somewhat famous. Until discovering the following article, from February 13, 1909, I only knew that her name was Christina.
Golden historical nuggets are found by asking lots of questions. That “who, what, where, when, why, and how” that was drummed into me by a high school English teacher, keeps me busy. Example: What about travel in the Shenandoah Valley of 1910? How would it differ from travel just 10 years later? Surely automobiles began to enter the picture but when and how many and what kind? Horses, horse drawn wagons, horse drawn buggies, mule and buggy, oh yeah, and miles and miles of walking. Back then, walking was not for exercise, it was a necessary form of transportation. But wait. The IN mode of transportation was by train. Check out the following train schedule from 1910 and notice how it linked the towns of the Valley.
Valley Train Schedule
For me, Historical Fiction is a work in progress. There’s the initial research and then continual research until I hit those coveted words, “The End.”
So, in answer to the original interrogative, “How much is truth and how much is fiction?” Truth is the anchor and used as accurately as possible and fiction is where creative imagination breathes life, emotion, and interest into the story. 50/50? Uh, maybe. Whatever a good story requires.
Who is the HERO in your life? I’m not talking about heroes of the Hollywood or sports variety. Let’s give thought to those who had the greatest influence on molding you into the person you are today.
Interestingly, if you look up the word, HERO, in your trusty dictionary, you may get a surprise. Check this out from the Oxford Dictionary.
a priestess of Aphrodite at Sestos on the European shore of the Hellespont, whose lover Leander, a youth of Abydos on the opposite shore, swam the strait nightly to visit her. One stormy night he was drowned, and Hero in grief threw herself into the sea.
Wow. I didn’t know that. HERO was the name of a mythical person and did nothing heroic. She took her own life after the drowning of her lover. Well, that bursts my bubble. Let’s try again. Next definition, please:
(1st century), Greek mathematician and inventor; known as Hero of Alexandria. He described a number of hydraulic, pneumatic, and other mechanical devices, including elementary applications of the power of steam
Struck out, again. Oh, yeah. A HERO is also a sandwich. Once more, back to the dictionary:
a person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities
Finally. That’s what I was looking for. However, forget the gender specific argument.
Me, Mable, & Inky
My primary motivation for writing IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE was to pay tribute to my HERO, in this case, HEROINE. No, Charlie, is not the HERO in the story. He is the protagonist.
The character, Mable, is the HEROINE, and the individual who has had the greatest influence on my life. My grandmother’s unshakable faith, kindness, generosity, sacrificial love, and moral integrity was my foundation. She taught me more about right and wrong, life, and how to treat others than anyone.
A passage of scripture, 1 Cor. 13:7, comes to mind when thinking about the way she loved me. “ It (love) always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
In high school when I showed some musical promise she surprised me with a professional trombone that she paid for with money from an envelope in which she kept her “mad money.” Mind you, she was poor. It was like the story of the widow’s mite from the Bible, the gist of which is that…she gave all she had. She loved me…sacrificially.
When I brought Janet home for the first time, my grandmother called me into the kitchen. “She’s the one,” she said. “Don’t let that one get away.”
I could go on an on about that great lady, and as I said, IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE is a tribute to her. The second book in the series is already in the works and tells the story of when her faith was put to its greatest test.
One more quote here, from the classic Bette Midler song, The Wind Beneath My Wings:
Did you ever know that you’re my hero,
And everything I would like to be?
So, who is your hero? Who is The Wind Beneath YOUR Wings?
[kad_youtube url=”https://youtu.be/jorJh8DTMVM” ]
She was just 5′ 2′, and as the song goes, “with eyes of blue. I’m referring to one of the main characters IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE. That was my grandmother, Mable Polk.
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She was small in stature but huge on faith, a prayer warrior who was relentless in her pursuit of God’s help.
Mammaw, as I called her as a child, prayed about everything. Nothing was too trivial. In her latter years, when her eyesight and memory began to fade, she used prayer like you and I use GPS. It was her built-in navigator.
One day she lost a pencil and asked me if I had one. “No, mam. Sorry, I can’t help you.”
“Then, I’ll just ask God where it is,” she said while closing her eyes and lifting up her silent request. Moments later she proudly announced, “Found it.”
I was the blessed benefactor of many, if not most, of her prayers. After her funeral in 1981, an old family friend offered her condolences and then asked me how I was doing.
“Doing great,” I responded.
“Of course you are. Your grandmother prayed for you every day of your life.”
Once, not long after Janet and I were married, while living in Charlotte, NC, we were so broke after paying our bills that there was only $5 left for groceries. We bought dried beans, cornmeal, and powdered milk.
Next day, Janet called me at work and wanted to know how to cook dried beans. “Don’t really know,” I said. “You probably just boil them all day.”
That evening when I arrived, the beans were boiling as prescribed. I performed my usual task of tasting and decided more salt was needed. Then we retreated to the backyard to play with our dog and forgot about the beans. When we returned our supper was badly burned and not fit for consumption by man nor beast. So, the evening meal consisted of cornbread and water, which is what we dined on for the remainder of the week.
On Saturday afternoon, there was a knock on the door. Our neighbor, also our landlord, dropped by to pay us a visit. “Had our annual Lion’s Club barbecue today,” he said. “Had a bunch left over and thought that you might like some.”
“Oh, no sir. We can’t afford it. Maybe some other time.”
“It’s not for sale and it’s all yours if you want it.”
As soon as the door was closed behind him, Janet and I did a happy dance all the way to the kitchen. I promise you, that was the best barbecue ever and enough to feed us until my next paycheck. I was convinced that our blessing was the direct result of my grandmother’s prayers.
Our kids grow up, move away, and start families of their own…and we worry about them. Sometimes we feel powerless and wish there was something more that we could do to help. Actually, there is something more that we can do. Pray. Pray for them everyday. There is nothing you can buy, or say, or give, or do that could accomplish more than to lift them up in prayer.
Hopefully, you’ll get a chance to read my book, IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE, and learn a little more about this amazing little woman of faith.
What’s that old saying, “Home is where the heart is?” I attempted a little research on how many homes the average person lives in…in a lifetime. Couldn’t find anything concrete. Some suggested every five to seven years. Others offered three to five in a lifetime. So, I’ll go with…it’s just different for all of us.
For the record, I’ve lived in twenty-four homes in my lifetime. That’s a different place just about every three years. Most of those moves have been the result of job or career changes. Oh, did I mention that I hate moving?
How many homes have you lived in over the years? And…if more than one, which one of those is “where your heart is?”
The Polk House in Strasburg
In my book, IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE, Charlie and Mable made their first home together at Strathmore near Mt. Jackson, Virginia. That was in 1919. But, as I have said before, “life happens.” Ultimately, Charlie Polk left the farming that he loved and, in the 1940s, he and Mable bought a home in Strasburg, Virginia. It was the only home they ever owned. Paid $500 for it on installments of $11 per month. That’s where they lived until they both died in the 1980s.
It was there, at that rickety old house, where I would often spend the night when I was just a pup. And then “life happened,” again. Daddy died, mom suffered a stroke, and in the eighth grade, that house on Capon Street became my home. Lived there until joining the Navy out of high school.
I love the place where I live now, in Calera, Alabama. But, all things considered, my grandparent’s house in Strasburg, Virginia will always be the place I call home. So, I suppose there is something to “home is where the heart is.”
How about you? Where do you call home?
It’s amazing what you can learn about your past when you know where to look. About a year ago I subscribed to ancestry.com and began to piece together my roots. Yeah, I am the descendant of kings and queens…even the Vikings. I’ll save you a few bucks by informing you that you, too, are related to royalty. We all are in some way or another. But I digress.
More interesting to me was the more immediate past, those courageous ancestors who traveled to the New World and then helped establish this great nation. I was also intrigued to find new information on relatives that I only faintly recall from my youth.
Then you start digging up old documents like birth records, deeds, wills, court records, death certificates, military records, and newspaper articles. Don’t worry, you won’t have to leave your easy-chair. It’s all to be found on the internet.
Researching your lineage gives you a greater sense of family and for those of us advanced in years it means connecting with those who are no longer with us.
A resource from which I gained considerable information for IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE was searching through old newspapers preserved by the Library of Congress. Let’s hear it for those tax dollars at work.
In particular I found a treasure-trove of helpful information in the archives of the Shenandoah Herald, a newspaper of consequence that was published from 1865 to 1974. The Woodstock publication revealed more than I ever hoped to find about the characters in the book.
One golden nugget was revealed when I was researching my grandmother’s father, Moses Shown. Not only did I find some interesting info on Moses, but I also learned that he had a very colorful 95-year-old mother called Teeny. She was quite the celebrity in the Shenandoah Valley, worthy of several front page feature articles.
When I was growing up there was a Social section in the Strasburg, Virginia newspaper, The Northern Virginia Daily. Basically it was nothing more than local bragging and gossip. Most all of the old newspapers had such a column. I’ll bet you can find some juicy tidbits about the relatives from your past in the archives of your local paper. Happy hunting.
By the way, you can read how Teeny takes up an entire episode in Chapter II, IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE.
Pipe Smoking Granny