My great-grandfather emigrated from Hanover, Germany in 1859 on his 19th birthday at the behest of his parents to avoid being conscripted by the Prussian Army. He made his way by himself via Ellis Island to Chicago which had a large German community where a number of his uncles, aunts, and cousins lived. Two years later he enlisted in the Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War after being paid by a rich merchant to take the place of his son who had been drafted (which was legal at the time). Below the fold is more of this story about my great-grandfather, the irony of my great-grandfather fleeing the military at home only to end up fighting here as part of the bloodiest war in American history, my own musings about my great-grandfather and that unknown rich merchant's son whose father managed to buy out (legally) his son from having to serve in the Civil War, and how that part of my family history negatively colors any personal respect or admiration I might have for Mitt Romney (and others like him in the 1%).
In 1840 my great-grandfather was born to a farming family near Hanover in the northern part of Germany. He worked on his father's farm, attended school, and at the age of 14 became a baker's apprentice. As he turned 19, he and his family received word that he was about to be conscripted into the Prussian Army. I don't know much about the history between that part of Germany and Prussia, but apparently his family was part of a group of Germans from that region who disliked the Prussians greatly (maybe "hated" is a better word). So on his 19th birthday, his parents arranged for him to emigrate to the United States to avoid serving in the Prussian Army. This was apparently a fairly common practice for that region where sons who were called for conscription by the Prussians were aided by their families to leave Germany for the United States. This would be similar to fleeing to Canada to avoid being drafted by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. But for my great-grandfather and his family this would be a one-way trip. My great-grandfather never returned to Germany or saw his parents (or they him) ever again, although they surely corresponded regularly. I often wonder what it was like for my great-grandfather to travel all by himself to a strange new land which spoke a language he couldn't fully comprehend. I wonder what it must have been like for his parents to say goodbye to him, forever. I wonder how a child of today (or even myself) would survive on a similar journey at that age like my great-grandfather was forced to undertake. I wonder about many things.
(Now allow me to digress a moment. I have a neighbor who was born in Munich and became a German war bride right after WWII. Several years ago, my wife and I made our first trip to Germany, particularly to visit Munich and the opening day of Oktoberfest. I asked my neighbor whether I should take a side trip to Hanover to visit the region of my ancestors. She said don't bother because that's "the bad part of Germany"—according to her the south and west of Germany were "the good parts", and the north and east were "the bad parts" (with a few exceptions like Berlin and Dresden). Of course I think she might have a slight bias since Munich is in "the good part" of Germany, but after consulting several guide books that didn't exactly describe Hanover very glowingly either, we skipped Hanover and spent the extra time in Munich and Oktoberfest, which I can only describe as 10,000 amazed Americans watching 200,000 drunk Germans. It was a lot of fun which I highly recommend. Maybe Hanover will be on the next trip. We now return to the story in progress.)
After landing at Ellis Island, my great-grandfather made his way to Chicago which had a large German community with instructions from his parents on how to find various uncles, aunts and cousins there who would help him find housing and a job and become familiar with life in America in the late 1850's. We're not sure what he did for the first two years in Chicago. But we know he did learn English because the next thing we know about my great-grandfather is that he enlisted in the Union Army in 1861. We also know that he was paid some unknown amount of money by a rich Chicago merchant to enlist in the place of the merchant's son who was drafted to fight in the Civil War. This also was a perfectly legal and fairly common practice at the time to those who had enough money and could find someone who would be willing to be paid to take the draftee's place. And apparently there were those poor enough (like my great-grandfather) and those rich enough (like the merchant) that finding takers wasn't all that difficult. Again during this time the Civil War draft was quite unpopular in many cities in the North and there were many Draft Riots in various places in the North—think of the war protests and draft card burnings during the Vietnam War. We don't know the name of the merchant or the name of the merchant's son or the profession of the merchant (although some in my family speculate he might have owned some bakeries). This unknown merchant and unknown merchant's son and their relationship and history with my great-grandfather enters my meditative and nostalgic thoughts and has definitely colored my opinion of people like them, including Mitt Romney. But I shall return to this later.
So in 1861 my great-grandfather enlists in Company H, 3rd Illinois Cavalry and joins the Civil War on the Union side in what will become the bloodiest war in U.S. history. My family and I often comment about the astounding and perplexing irony of my great-grandfather leaving his native country to avoid serving in the Prussian Army only to join the Union Army two years later in a war that will be worse than anything going on in Germany or Prussia at the same time. Fate sure has one twisted sense of humor. It's one of the ironies of life that keeps me scratching my head and wondering what are the odds of that. I also wonder what my great-grandfather's parents thought when they undoubtedly received word from him that he had joined the Union Army as the Civil War was just getting underway. Did they think, better the Union Army than the Prussian Army? Or that my great-grandfather must be touched in the head after all that trouble we went through to get him out of the country and away from the Prussian Army and now this! All I know is that life can be amazingly strange and unpredictable.
So my great-grandfather joins the 3rd Illinois Calvary in 1861. We also know that he brought his own horse with him (valued at $115) and that he had to buy his cavalry saddle from the Army (for $32). We suspect he used some of the money the merchant paid him to buy that horse since my great-grandfather never had a lot of money. We also think that he planned to use that horse on the farm that he hoped to buy after the war ended (if he made it out alive, which he obviously did since I'm around telling his story here). My great-grandfather fought until the end of the Civil War and achieved a rank of Sergeant. He fought in numerous engagements including the battle of Pea Ridge (Arkansas), the battle of Nashville, and with Gen. U.S. Grant at the Siege of Vicksburg. (I've actually visited the national battlefield park at Vicksburg and found the commemorative monument for Illinois and for the 3rd Illinois Cavalry within.) During these battles he had two horses shot out from under him (his own and a replacement provided by the Army), so he definitely was in the midst of some pitched and bloody battles.
When my great-grandfather was finally mustered out of the Army in 1865, he had saved most of his 4 years of Army pay and received his final salary and severance pay, an Army pension, and $115 for the horse that he had brought with him that was killed in action. He returned briefly to Chicago where he met and married my great-grandmother, who interestingly was also from Hanover but who my great-grandfather never knew until they met and married in Chicago—another amazing and ironic twist of fate. My great-grandfather's life just seems to attract irony. Together with the money that the merchant had paid him to serve for his son, my great-grandfather and his new wife headed west from Chicago and they eventually bought 200 acres of rolling black fecund land in southwest Iowa (for $12.50 an acre) which became the farm that is still in my family today (though now considerably expanded from the 200 acres he originally purchased). My brother and his son now farm that same land that has been in the family for 5 generations, and my brother's son and his wife have two young boys with expectations that the farm will continue at least through the 6th generation. The typical large white Victorian-style Iowa farmhouse that my great-grandfather built in 1884 for $2,000 (after living previously in an adjacent two-room structure that is now used as a granary) is now occupied by my brother, and will be occupied by his son after him. The original barn that my great-grandfather built is still standing and in use, and his old cavalry saddle still hangs in that barn. There are other out-buildings and sheds that my great-grandfather built still standing (although some other buildings have disappeared) as well as a tornado shelter/potato cellar my great-grandfather dug below ground that my brother and his family still use when the weather turns dark and foreboding as it does at this time of year. My great-grandparents also had 10 children (2 of whom died in childhood), lots of grandchildren, and a horde of great-grandchildren such that I'm directly related to least one-third of the residents of my small German-Swedish hometown and community of 5,000 near our family farm.
Now most of this information about my great-grandfather was compiled by an aunt of mine who was very interested in (or some in my family say crazy about) genealogy. She collected old family pictures, newspaper clippings, got copies of many of my great-grandfather's Army records including his Volunteer Enlistment form, Company Muster Rolls from the 3rd Ill. Cav., and Army discharge and pension records. She talked to many family members about their memories and experiences and made family trees. And then she methodically organized all this information and produced a wonderful book about our family history starting with my great-grandfather and great-grandmother that she Xeroxed and made copies of for every member she could find of my great extended family. The work she put into it was immense, but the value is immeasurable. Those Xeroxed pages bound into a simple binder are a family treasure to me.
So now we fast-forward around 110 years later to 1971. I'm in my Senior year at Iowa State University. Of course this was during the time of another bloody war, the Vietnam War. For those whippersnappers out there (and get off my lawn), we had a draft at that time and the way you found out if you were going to be drafted was via a "draft lottery". Each year, all the dates were put into a big drum, and dates were randomly selected in sequence like in Bingo (but the prize was not a $5 transistor radio, but an "invitation" to serve in the U.S. Army—slight difference). The earlier the date selected that matched your birthday the more likely you were to be conscripted, and the later the date selected the less likely (with date #1 matching your birthday being 100% likely, and date #366 being 0% likely). So when my birthday got picked in the #13 slot, my heart went into my throat because that made it dead certain that if I didn't do something, I would be conscripted into the Army the day after I graduated and then most likely sent to fight on the ground in Vietnam. In fact, my father contacted my local draft board and found out that's exactly what they were planning to do—they were going to send me my draft papers the day after I graduated. That was the only lottery I have ever "won" in my life—and the only one I didn't want to win. Now I definitely did not want to serve in the Army, so what to do. I could go to Canada like many others did (and guided by the example of my great-grandfather). But that was not for me—I couldn't do that. The other way out was to sign up for some other branch of service before graduation, and that's what I did. With degree close at hand, I signed up to become an officer in the U.S. Navy.
So in the fall of 1971 I was at the Navy's Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Newport, RI and six months later was commissioned an Ensign in the U.S. Navy. I then went to Navy Supply Corps school in Athens, GA, and from there became a supply officer on the commissioning crew of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, which was being built at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company right across Hampton Roads from the largest Navy base in the world, Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. I remained on the USS Nimitz through its building and was a member of its illustrious crew when it was finally commissioned in 1975. Also in 1975, with the commissioning of the USS Nimitz I had completed my required service and was released from active duty and went on to graduate school at Cornell University to begin the next chapter in my life.
Although I never served in combat, my four years in the U.S. Navy were a very influential period in my life. I have written previous diaries here about some of my Navy experiences, so you can read those to learn more details. I feel honored to have served my country in the military (and especially the U.S. Navy—sorry Army, no offense—but there's something about the Navy for some of us growing up far from oceans, like for Chester W. Nimitz from Fredericksburg, TX). And I take pride in my service now even though I was actually coerced into it at the time, kind of like how I think my great-grandfather possibly felt about his service with the 3rd Ill. Cav. in 1861-65. In fact, looking back if I had gotten a draft number in the 300s so that I wouldn't have been drafted, I know that back then I would not have signed up for military service voluntarily. And I know today that I would not be the same man I am today. I'd be less of a man, I'd be less rich (in the emotional sense), less disciplined, and less brave (the military is a place for learning to face and overcome fear, with varying degrees of success). My time in the U.S. Navy is now something I rely on and treasure—something that's now an intrinsic part of me. Everyone who knows me knows I've always got a Navy story to apply to almost any situation. Some of you certainly have fathers or brothers or uncles like that too—and feel awed and fortunate by that (and occasionally embarrassed too—we tend to have an expanded vocabulary).
So now I come to how this history of my great-grandfather and my own experience in the U.S. Navy has affected negatively my opinion of Mitt Romney (and others like him in the 1%). And for those who have stayed with me this far, I say Thank You—just hang on for a little bit more, I'm nearly done. When I think about Mitt Romney, I think about the rich merchant's son. This son who was called to serve his country, but whose rich father just bought out someone else to serve in his son's stead. And that seems to me to be a metaphor for Mitt Romney's whole life (and that of the 1%). I think about how strong my great-grandfather had to be and how his Civil War experience changed him and probably made him even stronger, disciplined, brave, and determined. And I think about how Mitt Romney might be different if he had some of the traits that those of us who have served seem to have. Now I'm not saying that military service should be required for everyone, or even for those who seek public office. And military service is not a panacea either, just look at George W. Bush, Joseph McCarthy, or Allen West. But I'm talking about Mitt Romney in particular. Mitt Romney seems to have no backbone whatsoever. He'll say anything he thinks people want to hear. And to me that's bullshit—and the military is a place where bullshit is not tolerated and is quickly sniffed out (at least in the ranks) and the bullshitter exposed and straightened out. So I think military service would have done Mitt Romney personally a world of good. But in his 1% world, wealthy people don't join the military, and unfortunately that's as true today as it was in my great-grandfather's time (though WWII might be a partial exception). How many of the CEOs in Mitt Romney's 1% world of friends have served in the military? Undoubtedly the Harvard Business or Law School is a very good place, but you can also learn important things from Camp Lejune, or the USS Nimitz, or Fort Leonard Wood that you won't learn from Harvard. Why can't it be both Camp Lejune and Harvard—there's no law against that. And maybe you'll learn something in both places that will double the respect and esteem you will earn from the world.
Perhaps another way to say what I'm feeling is that undergoing a time of difficulty and tribulation can make you a stronger, better, more determined person if you'll let it (and if it doesn't kill you, a la Nietzsche). Now military service is certainly difficult and trying, but it can also strengthen your character. But the military isn't the only way to do this. Those who suffered through the Great Depression built enough character to last a lifetime. Those raised in trying circumstances can overcome those circumstances and thrive (or can also be overwhelmed and lost). That's one reason (of many) that I respect and admire President Obama even though he didn't serve in the military. He was raised with an absent father by a mother who died young and then by his grandmother—that wouldn't be easy for anyone. After President Obama graduated from Harvard Law and went to the University of Chicago to teach for a while, he left all that to become a community organizer, not the most lucrative or power-laden of professions. But President Obama has a strength of character forged from facing and overcoming trying circumstances. President Obama had the credentials to join a large lucrative law firm or a big business and make millions with board room wheeling and dealing, or by finding, writing, or exploiting various legal loopholes. But he didn't do that.
And that brings me (surprise) to Mitt Romney. When I look at Mitt Romney I don't see anything there. And what little I can see, I don't like. I don't see strength of character, I don't see the will to do what is right regardless of cost, I just see...emptiness. Mitt Romney spent even more time at Harvard Law (and Business) School than President Obama, and followed a completely different business path post-Harvard that is now well known (at least to the non-fact-averse). I don't think Mitt Romney has ever had a truly difficult, dangerous, or trying moment in his whole existence (also like George W. Bush in my opinion). And if he ever did face a situation he might consider difficult or trying, I think his first response would be, how do I buy my way out of this problem. Kind of like the rich merchant and his son facing the Civil War draft. That money can solve a difficult situation. That if it's legal it must be right. And I don't respect that philosophy one bit.
Ultimately, when I see Mitt Romney I see that rich merchant's son that my great-grandfather replaced when push came to shove—rich, privileged, pampered, protected. Someone who hasn't been forced to travel up the river of tribulation and peer into his own heart of darkness. And no, learning French to evangelize from a manse in France doesn't cut it with me—ooh, l'horreur, l'horreur. Where is Mitt Romney's hero with a thousand faces? When I see Mitt Romney, I see T. S. Eliot's hollow man:
"We are the hollow menWhen I see Mitt Romney, I see Shakespeare's (and Faulkner's) "... a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". That is what I see when I see Mitt Romney. I'd rather see my great-grandfather.
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;"
So in conclusion I contemplate the situation of the unknown merchant and his son purchased from harm's way. I wonder more about the son than the merchant—the merchant is trying to protect his son which any father would try to do. But what did the son feel about his father buying his safety? Did they ever meet my great-grandfather in Chicago after the Civil War? I would think that had to have happened at least one time. Did the son notice how my great-grandfather had changed (and he had to have changed after facing the red heat of Civil War battles, having horses shot out from under him and realizing how close to death he came). Did the son think about how he himself had changed over the same course of the preceding 4 years? Did the son ever think about how he different he would be if it had been him in the 3rd Ill. Cav. instead of my great-grandfather? Did he have any regrets; and if so, how long did they haunt him, or not at all? And I think the same thing about Mitt Romney and myself, especially since we're similar ages. If he had undergone what I did, how different would Mitt Romney be from how he is now (like I know how different I myself became)? Would he be more understanding of those facing difficulty themselves? But he hasn't of course, and I don't think he has fared as well because of that, in my humble opinion. That's the main reason I don't feel inspired by or in admiration of Mitt Romney—in fact about Mitt Romney, I see nothing and feel nothing but maybe a little sorrow.
I've often thought that my great-grandfather and the rich merchant's son could make for an interesting and metaphor-rich story, either short, novella, or even novel. I keep thinking things through and developing more ideas (though they're usually more in the form of questions at this point). Hopefully some day I'll have enough in my mind to sit down and start writing this out for real. I think my aunt (RIP) would enjoy that. Maybe this is the beginning. Thank you again for persevering with me to the bitter end, such as it is.