The Captain’s Daughter

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

I come by my storytelling habits honestly,  mostly I credit my grandmother for my love of a well-turned tale. I grew up way out in the woods, on a cattle ranch surrounded by forest. With no TV and little radio, in my earliest memories there were always stories—tales of derring-do, of foreign lands, of good and evil men, of strange doings and stranger characters. My family, particularly my grandmother, unrolled them at any occasion. And the stories my grandmother told were us kids’ favorites.

My grandmother’s stories often contained somewhere in them the mystical figure called “The Captain” who was my grandmother’s father. The Captain’s name was Francis Edward Dyer. He was the Captain of a succession of sailing and steam-powered boats trading in the Gulf of Mexico, most of which he built with his own hands. My grandmother and her sisters always said his name in capital letters. He was never Dad or Daddy or anything remotely like that. He was either “Our Father” or “The Captain”, and you could hear the capital letters when my grandmother said it. She idolized him, and passed that on to her two daughters and us seven grandchildren. And if she said “I wonder what The Captain would think of what you just did” to one of us kids, we knew we were in big, big trouble.

The Captain was an Englishman, born in 1848. When The Captain was a young boy, my grandmother told us, his father died. His father was an expert boatbuilder, as was The Captain himself in later years. His father died at sea, appropriately for a seaman and boatbuilder, traveling from the US to England. The Captain’s uncle Walter took him in. The Captain’s eldest daughter, Ida, wrote of this time:

… Walter, who owned an armored cruiser, took Francis and an excellent tutor and Francis grew up practically all over the world. They went to India for spices, China for tea and silks, the Arctic and Antarctic for whale oil and whale bone, to Africa for ivory and precious goods.

square rigged shipI heard rumors that Walter was a so-called ‘Black-Birder,’ a dealer and smuggler of stolen slaves. I’ve heard my father tell of how the native Africans hated his uncle, how they had threatened to get him, how he had a huge bodyguard who slept across his door each night, tasted every bit of food he ate, etc., but in spite of this, he did die of a mysterious poisoning.

Yikes! Slave trading was outlawed in England in 1807. Trading would have been legal for an American ship before the US Civil War. It was illegal for an English ship. The Captain was 12 when the US Civil War started. So yes, he could have been a blackbirder, the Africans hated his uncle Walter for some reason. I don’t know. If so, The Captain became the very opposite after the war, he was fiercely egalitarian in later life, as was his daughter.

All I knew was that the stories of The Captain swept my young imagination away to distant oceans and fierce pirates and warships and the mysterious East, and ruined my young spirit for the prosaic work-a-day world. I wanted to put to sea, to explore the far distant lands where The Captain had gone trading, and buckle some serious swashes like The Captain had done.

The stories flowed from my Grandmother. But she wouldn’t stand to be called “Grandmother”, she said there was absolutely nothing grand about old people—they were just old, not grand. She told us to call her “My-mummie”, I don’t know why. She was born and raised on Lake Arthur, Louisiana, where The Captain built and kept his boats. Her name was Christina Dorothea Dyer. She was a tall, awe-inspiring woman for children and adults alike. She had been everywhere and done everything.

She grew up in the 1890s as one of eleven children in the only white family on the north side of Lake Arthur, Louisiana, surround by “blacks, Creoles, and Redbone Indians” as she said. She would not allow the word “nigger” to be spoken in her presence ever, she said that all people deserved honor and respect. In the 1930s, she scandalized the upstate New York town she’d moved to after her marriage. When a black Minister brought some vegetables to her back door to thank her for the assistance she’d given to his struggling parish, she famously said “Certainly I will speak with him, but only if he will come around to the front door and ask for me there.” Didn’t sit well with the local busybodies, not at all, and that wasn’t the only thing she did that upset those good women who believed that their place was in the home, cooking and sweeping …

mymummy p19

I love her campaign slogan … and oh my, that was just one of the many stories that astounding woman told us children, tales full of heroes and villains, of voodoo curses, of wars and kings,  … but these weren’t stories out of books. They were stories of heroes she had known, and wars she had fought in, and real villains she had vanquished or not, and a deadly curse that she herself had cast, and kings she had met. She sat in her favorite rocking chair, us seven grandchildren around her on the floor, entranced by her tales of other times, strange people, and foreign wars.

She told us how The Captain had returned to England when he left Walter’s ship. He fell in love with his cousin, some in the family said. Others believed darker stories. So he had to leave England. Whatever the cause, he came to the US around 1873. He lost all of his money farming in Kansas. The grasshoppers ate their crops. He said the grasshoppers even ate their clothes. My-mummie quoted him as saying “I went to Kansas with over five thousand dollars in gold and left with a dollar and a quarter in my pocket, on foot.”

His eldest daughter Ida described The Captain in her own words:

When he was 60 years old or older he could jump through a broomstick forward and backward, held in both hands. He had beautiful manners and was the best educated of any of our acquaintances. He could read Greek and speak several languages and a dozen or more dialects. He was a champion chess player. He never made a grammatical error. He had a beautiful singing voice. He did not smoke, chew, or drink. I never heard a word against his morals.

He worked 7 days a week, never seemed to tire, spent no money on himself, and brought all of his earnings home. But in spite of all these good attributes he was cursed with an ungovernable high temper. He just exploded over anything and everything. Nothing was too trivial to trigger an episode. I used to dread his coming home from a freighting trip.

How curious. A rough and terrifying master mariner, educated by a tutor on a slave ship, who spoke Greek and other languages, sang, had an ungovernable temper, was in superb physical condition, a talented boatbuilder, and played championship chess … egads, I loved my grandmother’s stories.

By 1888, My-mummie told us, The Captain was married with three children, and had built and was skippering a sailing ship carrying freight around the Gulf of Mexico. He was living in Matagorda, Texas, and trading along the coast and as far as Cuba. In that year he moved his then-small family to Lake Arthur, LA, where My-mummie was born. The Captain continued to ply the Gulf, with the river allowing him to return to Lake Arthur between trading trips.

lake arthur LAAlthough he died in 1920, The Captain was a very visible figure in my childhood. We aspired to his strength, to his ideals, to his code of honor, and most of all to his adventures. My-mummie would tell us tales of him that seemed to have no end. To us kids, it was like he was still living, just off on a trip on his boat somewhere. Here’s one of the tales, in My-mummie’s own words, from her own writings about her father:

Once when he was in a great storm, he finally had to cut the barges loose and the boat was lost—it burned. We got word of the storm, then a message from The Captain saying we were to send a boat down for him. He had written the message on a shingle which a fisherman brought to us:

“The barges are lost; the rice is lost; the oil is lost; the steamboat burned; but all is well.”

We suffered with him in this loss but suddenly we could look at each other and realize how magnificent he was, and the experience became an example. Immediately we all straightened up. We were The Captain’s family, and what was the loss of a boat and barges and rice and oil?

What indeed? That was the indomitable spirit of The Captain, and of his children. Here is another story from her childhood, again in her own words, not mine.

After Our Mother’s death, Our Father ran boats on the inland water. He didn’t go overseas again. Our town was on the Lake, which was about seven miles long and about two and a half miles wide. If the wind came in off the Gulf, the Lake could get very stormy, so when Our Father was coming down the river with a long tow of barges, he usually tied up at the mouth of the river and waited until sunrise and calmer water to cross the Lake.

When he did that, he usually signaled with the whistle that someone was to bring him the mail and whatever orders or messages there were, and the account of the family and its doings.

Almost always a couple of the Negro men had that chore and they went with the messages. On this particular night the Negroes were having a celebration out in their section of the town and there was no one at the house. The children all had the measles. I was the lone one up and around. It will convey some idea of our feeling about Our Father, that we never questioned for one instant that somebody had to go to take the messages, and that I was that somebody.

So my sister and I discussed whether I should take the shotgun with me, the lantern and the mail, and I tried them out but finally decided I could run a lot faster without the shotgun, so decided on just taking the mail bag which was on a strap that went over my shoulder, and a lantern that had a bull’s eye which was supposed to give light enough.

The bridge was only about twelve to fourteen inches wide and there were about three miles of it through the swamp. We were never allowed in the swamp after dark because Louisiana was still a rendezvous for criminals and hunters and tramps and all sorts of characters, but I was much more afraid of The Captain than I was of the bandits inhabiting the Swamp.

So I started out and arrived at the opening in the swamp – at the footbridge, probably at half past eleven o’clock that night. It was very dark and as I started in across the footbridge, all the creeping and crawling things of the swamp were out and making noises of various kinds. I knew most of them: the hoot owls and screech owls and alligators’ barking, and though I hurried, I still maintained a walk. But suddenly there was a shriek! It sounded just like a woman in agony. I don’t know what it was, but I suspect it was a wildcat.

Well, I bolted, and once again, reflecting Our Father’s influence, I bolted towards the river rather than back home and in my desperate running, I suddenly fell forward on my face, hitting on my nose, mouth and forehead. The lantern swung forward in my hands and hit the footbridge and broke the globe. I didn’t lose it, however, and the light didn’t go out, and in falling I caught the calf of my leg on a nail in a cross board.

In a minute I scrambled up. My nose was bleeding; my lips were bleeding; a place in my forehead was bleeding. My nose immediately swelled up and so did my upper lip, and I ran desperately until finally I saw a light, way off in the distance ahead, and I knew The Captain was there and that he was waiting, and his effect on us was such, that having seen the light, and knowing he was there, I could walk. But I couldn’t stop my lower jaw from shaking when I appeared before The Captain.

My dress was torn. The blood was still running down over my mouth from my nose and it was still gushing out the side of my leg. Our Father looked at me and he said:

“Did you come alone, Christopher?” [She was the first of his children born in Lake Arthur, so he called her "Christopher Columbus" or "Christopher", never Christina or Dorothea.]

“Yes, Sir.”

“Why did you come?”

“The Negroes were having their celebration, Sir.

“Were you afraid?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“What’s the matter with your leg?”

I looked down at it as though it belonged to somebody else entirely, and as though I didn’t know there was anything wrong with it at all.

“It must have gotten hurt, Sir. “

“Well, I think we had better go into the houseboat and clean you up. “

I sat down and he got a pan of water and washed my face and my forehead.

The cold compress he put on my nose stopped the bleeding and he pulled the place in my leg together. He took the tail end off one of his shirts and bound it around the leg and poured crude oil in it, and told me that for three days I was to keep it wet with the crude oil, all the time, and after the three days I was to take that off and put turpentine and sugar on it and keep them on it until it closed up and then it would be all right.

“Well, I guess I better put a new globe on the lantern. “

“Yes, Sir.”

He put it on and went and sat down and looked at the mail, put his mail back in the bag, then asked me how the children were, and I told him they all had the measles, and he asked if any of them were very ill and I said, “No, Sir,  – I don’t think so, they were all getting better now. “

So then we got up and went back outside. It was probably about half past two in the morning by that time, and I have always felt that was one of his moments of great understanding, when he was a great man, and not the cruel, brutal man he was most of the time, but a great man, because he stood there and put his hand on my head and looked at me and asked:

“Would you like to have me go back through the swamp with you, Christopher?”

“No, Sir. “

And he let me go alone, and I walked all the way. I didn’t have to run, going back, at all, and it was about half past four when I got home, and my sister Ida was sitting up waiting for me.

I think had he come back through the swamp with me, it would have destroyed something in me that I never could have regained. I wasn’t more than eleven or twelve at the time, but it did something for me that nothing else could have done.

I’m sure glad home medicine has improved since then, but I’m not sure I could add much to her words, if anything … like I said, I come by my story-telling honestly. So let me tell another story that she told us kids, in my own words, but to the best of my ability in her voice.

To set the stage, in 1943, during World War Two, as a member of what would later become the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association, she was sent to Egypt. There, she was placed in charge of finding food and work for thousands of displaced Greeks and Yugoslavs, who had been interned in Egypt with their families and children after fleeing the war … no problem, right? …

She settled back in the rocking chair, and told us kids that when she took the job, she discovered that there was no food available anywhere. She told us “I searched and searched. Everywhere there were Egyptian bureaucrats. They’d say ‘I’m sorry, Mrs. Greene, we can’t help you … you know there’s a war on’. I knew they had food, there was food around, warehouses full of food. But I was blocked at every turn, I couldn’t get any of it.” She said that it was breaking her heart that children were dying for lack of food in the middle of plenty. So she decided she would go see the King.

“The King of Egypt?”, us kids chorused, eyes wide.

king farouk“His Majesty King Farouk the First of Egypt and many other countries”, she said. He was still King of Egypt then, and Sudan and others.

“How did you get to see the King?” we asked. “Can anyone go and see a King? Could we go see him if you took us?”

“Oh, no,” she laughed. And when she laughed she was a Louisiana girl again, eyes full of mischief and voodoo. “People said it was impossible, the King didn’t see anyone, the idea was preposterous. And after I came out from meeting him, the Minister said that I was the first woman who had ever been granted such an honor.”

“But how did you get in, My-mummie? Tell us the story! Tell us the story!” She rocked in the rocking chair she’d brought with her when we moved to the cattle ranch where I grew up, she loved that old rocker, and seven grandkids at her feet, she told her story.

“I found out the day and time when the King would sometimes hear petitions from the people,” she said. “I went to the guard at the Palace Gate. I drew myself up to my tallest and most imposing and said in a firm, clear voice, “My people are dying. I have a secret and urgent message for the King”. The guard asked what the message was, and what people I was talking about. I refused to tell him, saying my message was for the King only.

The guard went away, and then came back and brought me inside. There, I said the same thing to his superior, that my people were dying and that I carried an urgent message that could be told only the King.”

“He went off back into the Palace like the first man, and came back and passed me to another man. Eventually after repeating my story over and over up the ladder of the bureaucracy, I was shown into the office of a Minister of the State. It was a very nice office.

He invited me to sit down, and offered me thick Turkish coffee and sweets. He said it was very unusual to see a woman in my position. He said that perhaps he could help me. I thanked him for his kind offer, but I said again, my people were dying, and that I carried a secret and urgent message to be revealed only to King Farouk in person.”

“He considered that for a while. He played with a letter opener. I could see he was afraid of taking me to see the King. I was a woman, he would be breaking protocol, perhaps I was mad, he didn’t know. But he was also afraid that the King would be angry with him if my message were important and the King didn’t get to hear it.”

“He finally decided the safe course was to accompany me in. He took me into a Reception Hall. The King was there with his Bodyguards, tall fierce men with moustaches and swords. They were nervous, I was a woman, they didn’t know if I was dangerous or not.

The Minister introduced me to the King. They talked a while in Egyptian. The King glanced at me as the Minister spoke. Then the King looked at me. He said ‘The Minster says your people are dying of starvation, and you have an important secret message for me. Who are your people, and what is this secret message?’ He looked at me, and waited. I stood up, straight and tall. ” 

“My people are thousands of Greek and Yugoslav refugees, Your Majesty, I said, and the important secret message only for the King himself is that his kind voice alone can prevent them and their children from dying of starvation.’ I looked at him and waited a long moment, and added ‘Children are starving to death as we speak, Your Majesty, for one reason—because Egyptian bureaucrats are standing between them and the food in your Royal warehouses.’ I said no more, just looked at him and waited.”

She told us kids that the Minister watched the King “like the mouse watches the cat”, she said, eager to match his response to the reaction of his all-powerful Lord when he heard her brazen tale, and nervous about King Farouk’s response to her accusations against the Egyptian bureaucracy.

“The King looked a me for a long, long moment that seemed to stretch on and on … and then he smiled. And in huge relief the Minister smiled as well. Then the King laughed and the Minister laughed. They looked at each other, and they broke up. I found out later they had been friends for years, as much as you can be friends with a King, and neither one could believe what I’d done, the nerve, they roared at the joke I’d played on them … then the King fell serious again, and the Minister predictably followed.

“The King asked the Minister what should be fed to children dying of starvation. The Minister said he was very sorry, Your Majesty, but he didn’t know. The King sent for the Royal Physician. The Royal Physician said “Oranges”. I told His Majesty that his kindness and generosity were a credit to Egypt and his humanity would be spoken of forever.

“I left the Reception Hall and was out of the Palace within an hour with two truckloads of oranges for the children … and within a couple days the bazaar telegraph knew that Mrs. Greene enjoyed the protection of His Majesty. I had no trouble getting food for the children after that.”

Whenever I think that I’ve done bold things in my life, I think of My-mummie audaciously and cleverly bluffing her way in, all the way up to the top to see the King of Egypt himself, Farouk the First, in order to save dying children … and I realize I’ve done nothing, really, nothing at all …

mymummy p39My-mummie on the right, in Germany in 1947 at an UNRRA training center for bricklaying.

She’d tell us a story like that, and for weeks us kids would dress up in tall hats and paint curly handlebar mustaches on our faces and put fake turbans on our heads and be Egyptian Kings and King’s Bodyguards … until she’d tell her next story, about a time after the war when she was sixty years old and sneaking through the barbed wire of the Iron Curtain to smuggle in forged exit documents and sneaking out again, terrified and cold, and then we’d be Border Guards and Freedom Fighters for weeks … until she’d tell her next story about …

A co-worker in Egypt wrote about her:

An official of the Egyptian government called on her at UNRRA HQ one very hot day to inform her that a Yugoslav refugee had been run over, his body was in the morgue and as the ‘responsible’ she would have to come to the morgue and identify the body. (One of more than 300,000 refugees in the Middle East!)

Nothing daunted, Dorothea drove to the morgue with the official, was shown into a room where bodies were being chopped up on a block, blood and flies were all over, and she was shown bodies in drawers. She identified a body somehow, and then the official, remembering his Middle Eastern courtesy clapped his hands and ordered coffee then and there.

It was brought, and my guess is that of the many brave things Dorothea did in her life, that was one of the bravest.

She drank it.

Growing up on those kind of stories, you gotta admit, it was out of my hands, my doom was sealed early on. She’d start telling us kids of some work that she had done for the Kurdish people towards the end of the War, and I was gone, swept away again by the magic of her words, the cattle and the hay barn outside the ranch house fading and being replaced by the tents and turrets of the mysterious Middle East again, in her words I could see it, almost touch it …

She said that she’d known the man who was the King of the Kurds at the time (or at least recognized as King by some large section of those notably fractious folks, while others undoubtedly disputed his title). And He and his retinue were so grateful for some work that she’d accomplished on their behalf, that the King invited My-mummie to a feast in her honor. On the appointed night, she said she dressed in her finest and most modest, wrapped her shawl around her head to hide her hair, and went out into the warm desert evening.

The King had no Palace, but he had a long, resplendent oriental tent outside of town, his semi-permanent residence. She went inside. The tent was long and large. The floor was thick with rich carpets. The walls were hung with colorful tapestries. At one end were musicians and dancers. Oil lamps hung at intervals, the flickering light making the shadows dance. Men smoked from hubble-bubbles, and talked in undertones.

She was the only woman there, except for the dancers. A long low wooden table ran half the length of the tent. When the time came, everyone sat on cushions on the floor. She was seated next to the King at the head of the table. She knew many of the men, she had worked with them.

All went well during the first part of the meal. Various courses were served, she spoke to the King through an interpreter. Everything was shaping up for a lovely evening.

Then a waiter came in and put a special pot in front of the King. The King stood up and made a speech. He said that this was the first time that a woman had been awarded such an exemplary honor as eating with the King of the Kurds and his retinue. But that was not all, there was more honor to come.

He spoke highly and praised the efforts of President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill. He said that he was sure that Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill would be very proud to know of the outstanding work that Mrs. Dorothea Greene had done for the Kurdish people. He said that in recognition of all of the things that she had done for them, she would be accorded an amazing honor. He took the top off of the pot. It was lamb stew, with sheeps’ eyes floating in it. He said that for her perseverance and her dedicated work and her notable accomplishments, she was invited be the first woman in the history of the Kurds to be allowed to eat the ultimate delicacy, the sheep’s eyes, with the King of the Kurds himself.

sheeps eye soupAnd matching his actions to his words, he demonstrated the right way to do it by picking up an eye, turning it so the eyeball faced out, putting it half-way in his mouth, sucking out the soft inside part, and tossing the harder outer shell with the iris, pupil and all into a saucer. It sat there, emptily and blindly looking at my grandmother. And knowing my grandmother, she likely sat looking it right in the eye, unmoved. The King gestured to the stew pot, for her to follow suit. Every eye in the room was on her.

“Eeeeew!” us kids all shouted. “What did you do, My-mummie? What did you do? Did you have to eat the gross sheeps’ eyes? Yuck!” We loved her stories, and she loved us.

“No, dears, I didn’t have to eat them,” she smiled.

“Tell us, tell us how you got out of it!”

“I stood up straight and proud,” she said. “I thanked the King for his generous words. I thanked the men that I had worked with for what they had done. I thanked the King for the incomparable honor he had shown me by inviting me, the first woman to ever dine with Him and His court, and to be invited to share in the rare, unheard of pleasure of eating the sheeps’ eyes. Finally, I thanked Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill for all that they had done to make all of this possible.

When they translated that part of her speech, she said there was much head nodding and murmurs of agreement. She said she went on, in the floweriest language she could muster.

‘However,’ I told them, ”I know that Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill would not dream of allowing you to break the long and honorable traditions of the Kurds. I know that Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill would agree that you have done me enough honor already by inviting me to eat with you. They would want you to follow the rest of the ancient ways and time-honored customs of the noble Kurdish people, not change them too. I said I was sure Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill would agree that those customs were hallowed by tradition, and were worthy of respect. 

And I said that I, like Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill, would want the King to respect the venerated Kurdish traditions by seeing that the great honor of eating the sheeps’ eyes should be bestowed on the men who truly deserved it, the men who were the proper recipients of the sheeps’ eyes, the men who had worked so hard with her on the project. The sheep’s eyes should go to them.’ 

“When my speech was translated to them,” she laughed, “the King and the men all applauded and cheered, they’d understood what I’d done. They knew Westerners didn’t like sheeps’ eyes, so the King had put me to the test, and I’d escaped very neatly and graciously, in the flowery style they admired, so there were smiles and lots of comments and laughter. I sat down, and the serving man put some lamb stew without sheeps eyes into my bowl. It tasted delicious. The other men who’d been awarded the sheeps’ eyes laughed, and looked at me when they ate their special treat, smiling to show me how good it was.”

She was an amazing woman, one of a generation of giants who preceded us and whose achievements we can only aspire to. She taught us kids that racism and religious hatred were unmitigated wrongs, that lying was unforgivable, that it was the responsibility of the strong to assist others, and that the only human color that mattered was the color of someone’s blood. If they bled green, she said, that’s when she’d start worrying about someone’s color.

And if we complained about anything, any single thing, in her presence she’d say “I wept because I had no shoes until I met a man with no feet.” And we knew she had known men with no feet, so we stopped complaining.

With those kind of stories in my head, told by that kind of woman, I was a goner, I tell you—lost to dreams of foreign lands and strange adventures and tall sailing ships before I was ten years old, I was off to out-captain The Captain himself. I picked the easier target to aim for … I knew I could never be a better man than his daughter.

Keep taking chances, my friends, it’s the only chance we have …

w.

… from Willis’s autobiography-in-progress, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …

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56 thoughts on “The Captain’s Daughter

  1. Hi Willis, I thought that slave ships were to be stopped and confiscated by the US Navy circa 1820.

    Regrettably , later than our Cousins, but earlier than some.

    Ray

  2. Great stories, Willis.
    I hope someone has written your grandmother’s biography as we need stories of indomitable people to inspire our youth. They are being turned into wimps by our modern society that seems to be always treating people as victims and who need support via ‘counselling’.

    Someone said you have a gift to be a childrens’ author, I agree.

    Thanks so much for inspiring tales of achievement.

  3. Wow, incredible stories. I prefer info related to the bogus AGW, but I find myself reading, enjoying, and learning, so I guess I support these tales.

    But, as many of your tales are sea-related, have they been “pier reviewed”?
    (Sorry, I couldn’t contain myself.)

  4. The United States also outlawed the importation of slaves in 1807 (effective date 1808). Of course, slavery and slave trading was permitted within the United States until ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Consitution but if Walter was bringing slaves into the US from the rest of the world after 1808 he was breaking US law.

  5. No wonder you jumped straight to a plan involving writing the Emperor of Japan to finagle the Japanese Ambassador. Your grandmother was an amazing women.

    Oh and ignore those grumps who wonder what your sketches from life are doing on WUWT…. Anthony lets you play here and post them and they make a great break from CAGW.

  6. Thank you, Anthony & Willis for putting up this archive—saves me hunting through everything. Love-love-love the stories, am avidly waiting for the book. Every time I read a passage, I’m reminded of Ruth Reichel’s comment in the introduction to her own autobiography, “Tender At The Bone.” She wrote, “I assure you that all of these stories are true, whether they happened or not.” Meaning no offense—I LOVE true stories!

  7. Great stories Willis. My Grandfather went to Africa with the Royal Navy to stop the last of the slave traders sometime in the late 1800′s. He left as a 14 year old boy and returned age 21 from his first voyage. He was drafted into the first world a soldier despite trying to join the navy again and was gassed yet he lived for another 30 years.

    BTW if The Captain was talking about Black Birding he was most probably down in the South Pacific rather than Africa. The idea was to ‘recruit’ islanders on a ‘contract’ to work the sugar cane fields of Australia for 2 years. They often didn’t return home. The politicians of the time were up to their ears in it. Nothing changes really….

  8. These stories fit perfectly into the stated mission of Watts Up With That…the puzzling thing that is life and its living…keep up the great story telling.

  9. Thanks Willis , as I grew up my father kept my brothers am myself (and cousins) in rapture about the adventures of Cho, Co and Lad (in dutch) three young buccaneers that traveled all over the world. The bed time stories literally went on for years and woe the night my father had to work late nobody slept!! My poor mother tore her hair out on those evenings. Nothing would get us to sleep and if you did something wrong no story for you that night, it is sad to see it disappear I told stories with my kids but do not see much of that anymore.

  10. Thanks to Ray and bmcburney and those providing information about the US laws and the slave trade, I didn’t know that, time for more research.

    And my thanks to all who have posted their comments, in part the comments, and what I learn from them, and the inspiration I take from them, keep me going to wring more stories …

    Tuduri says:
    February 18, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    What a wonderful story I’m sending it to my 16 year old daughter for inspiration.

    Wonderful, My-mummie would laugh and be overjoyed to know that.

    w.

  11. Does it seem to anyone else that people were made of sterner stuff in earlier generations? This is far from the first time I’ve heard things like:

    …We aspired to his strength, to his ideals, to his code of honor, and most of all to his adventures… …She was an amazing woman, one of a generation of giants who preceded us and whose achievements we can only aspire to…

    I invariably feel a great deal of humility even when taking the shorter relative step of comparing my life to my parents or that of my in-laws. Not so much that I’m ashamed as that I’m just not as tough as they were.

    Thanks so much Willis.

  12. I stayed a couple nights in one of King Farouk’s palaces back in the last century. The water was brown, but just fine if you waited until the desert dust settled out.

  13. Willis,

    Your Mummie probably worked with my Step-Grandfather after the war in Eastern Europe, at least on the same project-if not “ensemble”. You may have encountered my uncle Jeff on your various fishing trips. I spend some time in The Captain’s old stomping grounds…when I get the chance.

    My Padre grew up in Northern California/Southern Oregon when it was rural. He has good stories about learning to fish from an old Indian named John, swimming naked in the Truckee river, snow shoeing supplies to stranded trains in Donner Pass, and a thousand other things. I can’t imagine what a paradise that place must have been in the early 1900′s.

    My stories are pale by comparison.

    Perhaps time for another retirement nears….I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.

    Strange how the ball bounces.

    Your stories are much appreciated.

  14. For many months I have eagerly opened this blog each day to read of how our science warriors are defending the Realm of Science … of late I’ve eagerly opened the blog to be entertained by Willis’ excellent story telling. Being an old saltie, I’ve particularly enjoyed those with a nautical theme. Bravo, Willis !

  15. I’m relieved. Having followed you down fascinating rabbit holes that I couldn’t conjure in my wildest imaginings . . well . . .
    Well, now I have my answer. It’s not so much that I’m boring – it’s that you’ve been genealogically blessed.
    I’m guessing we all have a few mentionable characters in our lineage, but The Captain and My-mummie? Nope. It’s nice of you to share them with us :)

  16. Amazing story as usual. I’ll make sure that I get to buy that book when it’s published, no matter if it’s sold in Spain or not! Thank you very much Willis.

  17. Bob Thomas says:
    February 18, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    BTW if The Captain was talking about Black Birding he was most probably down in the South Pacific rather than Africa. The idea was to ‘recruit’ islanders on a ‘contract’ to work the sugar cane fields of Australia for 2 years. They often didn’t return home. The politicians of the time were up to their ears in it. Nothing changes really….

    Errol Flynn’s autobiography described how he engaged in that practice in the 1920s (or early 1930s) in New Guinea. And here’s a snippet from Mark Twain’s autobiography:

    Back of the Virginian Clemenses is a dim procession of ancestors stretching back to Noah’s time. According to tradition, some of them were pirates and slavers in Elizabeth’s time. But this is no discredit to them, for so were Drake and Hawkins and the others. It was a respectable trade, then, and monarchs were partners in it. In my time I have had desires to be a pirate myself. The reader–if he will look deep down in his secret heart, will find–but never mind what he will find there. I am not writing his Autobiography, but mine.

  18. Another great set of stories Willis, keep up the good work. I see the story gene is is strong in your family as is the pyromania gene in mine, my grandfathers both had adventures with gunpowder or fires my father always likes a good burn to get rid of garden rubbish, I and my younger son like to “play” with fireworks and a garden incinerator made from an old piece of 36 inch water main which when in full flight glows red and roars with a 10-15 foot flame.
    As for the ending of the slave trade it is still an ongoing work for people like http://www.27million.com/
    Prompting songs like this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0L7NH48BWE Trying to bring to the attention of the world that many are still bought and sold for domestic, industrial and sex slaves.
    One of my sisters works in a local women’s prison where some of them had been kidnapped, raped, smuggled into the UK and sold. They did not know where they were until the place where they “worked” was raided by the police, having no passport or ID papers, everything having been taken care of by those that owned them.
    Many of those who wanted to keep slavery were not wanting to see the end of their “nice little earner” as those who are involved in CAGW are wanting the gravy train to keep on rolling!
    James Bull

  19. So many go through life with their eyes and ears closed. They don’t listen to fascinating people like Billy or your grandmother. Sadly many are so preoccupied with their petty troubles they fail to see the wonder, the beauty and the fun of the world around them. Something I have long been guilty of.

    We need our story tellers as we need the air we breath, they are the gifted ones who keep our history, our cultures and our ancestors alive. Willis you have a rare talent; you are able to take a stone from the earth of your life and with complete sincerity, joy and a deep and sympathetic understanding of your fellows, you can craft it into a diamond of a tale.

    I’m not sure anyone has written their autobiography in this way before. Publishing very compelling and tasty morsels, generously relating the adventures of their lives and bravely allowing anyone to comment along the way. This could be the future of story telling.

  20. Willis, great stories.
    I married captain’s daughter too, so your latest story rings a (ship’s) bell with my children. Their great grandfather (on their mother’s side) transported many American immigrants from Liverpool to New York in the early 20th century. His son, my children’s grandfather Mortimer Hehir, transported American troops back to Europe in WWII, he was chief officer on Queen Mary, ending his sailing life as a captain on one of the greatest ships ever to sail the Atlantic, met many top royals , presidents and various countries leaders. http://www.rmsqueenelizabeth2.com/hejir.html

  21. And if we complained about anything, any single thing, in her presence she’d say “I wept because I had no shoes until I met a man with no feet.” And we knew she had known men with no feet, so we stopped complaining.

    My mother used to say that a lot, except it was “I had no shoes and complained, until I met a man who had no feet.” There was even an old wall plaque around with the saying, which had a drawing of an Indian on it, and quick Googling identifies it as an “Indian Proverb”.

    Now she is much older, and much complaining. And if she, for example, complains her head is throbbing, I say to her “My head was throbbing and I complained, until I met a man…”

  22. No one will ever know whether it’s nature or nurture, but adventurism and spirt most certainly are strong in your family

  23. Aww… You just made tears appear in my eyes. Such a world is lost now. Try seeking an audience witht a Middle Eastern King these days…

  24. It would be very nice to limit topics of discussion on this blog to the climate change and climate modeling related issues.

    REPLY: It would be nice if I was able to write new stories 24/7 without sleep, spending time with my family, or a vacation too. Since I chose to go on vacation with my family this past 4 day weekend, I opted to provide some light entertainment, and per the masthead of WUWT, it fits just fine. Like television, radio, and newspapers, you can simply choose not to watch, listen, or read it. – Anthony

  25. Willis, let us know when your book is finished. (You are going to publish your stories in book form, right?) I will buy a couple dozen copies of the book to give to family and friends.

  26. Thank you again, Willis,

    In some families people marry young, and a person can be a grandparent at age thirty-two. In other families the generations are spaced more widely, and a person can become a parent at a much older age, and not become a grandparent until they are eighty.

    I notice your great-grandfather was born in 1848, which puts you in a family with “widely spaced” generations. My own great-grandfather was born in 1850, and my great-great-grandfather in 1797. One thing I have noticed about being at the end of such “widely spaced” generations is that the past seems more near-at-hand, when you hear tales from elders.

    For example, when my grandfather spoke of his Dad, he was speaking of someone who was fifteen when the Civil War ended, and who could recall many friends who were only slightly older than he was marching off singing, “When Johnnie Comes Marching Home Again,” and then never marching home. That in turn made the Civil War much realer to me, and made the Civil War monument in our local graveyard have a poignancy it didn’t have to other boys.

    Your writing captures the same quality. It is like a telescope, and things far away are brought nearer.

  27. Walt The Physicist says:
    February 19, 2013 at 6:39 am

    It would be very nice to limit topics of discussion on this blog to the climate change and climate modeling related issues.
    _____________________________

    “So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell,
    blue skies from pain.
    Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
    A smile from a veil?
    Do you think you can tell?”

    Pink Floyd- “Wish You Were Here”

  28. Willis,
    I am a long time reader, and a learner here at WUWT., I have not commented in the past. Four face book friends have discovered WUWT as a result of your marvelous stories!

    While I momentarily have the floor, one aspect of AGW that does not get much discussion is any economy cost benefit analysis. Let’s say that doing everything that the AGW folks want will knock 1% off of GDP growth rate (ie from 3% annually to 2% annually) for the next 20 years. The current US annual GDP is about $14 trillion.

    Net present value of forgone growth is in the range of $4 trillion. Reduction of growth rate by 2% (ie from 4% growth rate to 2%) is around $8 trillion. Adjustment as things happen may be less expensive for the risk. Everything about AGW is hard to measure,, and more critically hard to properly statistically quantify the range of the error, and this is no different.

    It is worth considering because it allows those of us who believe that AGW is hot air, to counter their arguments with the argument that even if they are right, the US is better of economically adapting, rather than imposing carbon restrictions.

    Keep up the good work guys!
    Best,
    Bill S

  29. Hi Again, Willis,

    When I read about your life, and the lives of your elders, I sometimes think you would have been promptly put on Ritalin, if you were young in our times.

    Personally, as I deal with small boys at our Childcare, it is the trouble-makers that give me the most joy, even as they exasperate me (or break my glasses with a snowball.) Then, when they reach the advanced age of five and head into the Public Schools, I am often dismayed by the treatment they receive. It is little wonder to me that they fight back, and go through decades of rebellion and even jail (which your tale describes.) I think it is important to read tales of wild young men who grow onwards to do good things and even become wise old men. Too many think a young trouble-maker is a “lost cause,” and fail to see they might be a young Churchill or Einstein.

    Last fall I met a former boyfriend of one of my daughters who, after a boyhood on Ritalin, went through a wild time and wound up in jail for selling, among other things, Ritalin. Somehow, after going through a hell of withdrawal, he had shaped up his act to such a degree that I took a hard look at my own shortcomings, and quit smoking. I also got somewhat irked at the system, and wrote something which is a bit unfair towards schoolmarms, but which some people like, called “Attention Surplus Disorder.”

    http://sunriseswansong.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/attention-surplus-disorder/

  30. vukcevic says:
    February 19, 2013 at 2:01 am

    Willis, great stories.
    I married captain’s daughter too, so your latest story rings a (ship’s) bell with my children. Their great grandfather (on their mother’s side) transported many American immigrants from Liverpool to New York in the early 20th century. His son, my children’s grandfather Mortimer Hehir, transported American troops back to Europe in WWII, he was chief officer on Queen Mary, ending his sailing life as a captain on one of the greatest ships ever to sail the Atlantic, met many top royals , presidents and various countries leaders.

    How curious, Vuk. First thanks for the tale. Second, I was born in Belgrade, appropriately in a country that no longer exists, and came to the US in the Queen Mary itself in 1947 when I was three or four months old. My mom said she took a drawer out of the chest of drawers in the stateroom and wedged it in a corner and put in a pillow for me to sleep in so I didn’t roll around … and now I find your father-in-law might have been the chief officer on that very voyage.

    Gotta love this world …

    w.

  31. “It sounded just like a woman in agony. I don’t know what it was, but I suspect it was a wildcat.”
    I think not a wildcat – MUCH larger.

    Every one of your entries makes my day.
    Please don’t stop.

  32. Willis Eschenbach says: February 19, 2013 at 10:01 am
    ………..
    Hi Willis
    Belgrade is the city of my youth. In January of 1947 I was 6 months old too.

  33. Some people may doubt the veracity of your stories, but being interested in genealogy, I couldn’t resist trying to find your family. There’s a tree on Ancestry.com which has the descendents off Frances Arthur Dyer, and it verifies essentially everything in your story. And I found some documentary information to verify it as well. Anyway the tree shows that your grandmother’s daughter married an Eschenbach, so while there might be some exaggeration for effect somewhere, I have no doubt of the essential truth of the stories.

  34. Gary Hladik says:
    February 19, 2013 at 9:03 am

    On a whim I looked up “Dorothea Greene UNRRA” on the Web and ran a cross a clipping from the Schenectady Gazette, 1947, that mentions a “Benson Eschenbach”:

    Dang, that’s my dad’s picture! ! What a find, I’d never seen that, thanks for the treasure. There’s a whole story behind him meeting my mom in Cairo, as usual, I’ll have to tell it one of these days. I would have been four months old when my dad’s photo was taken and that interview published …

    w.

  35. A Homeric tale indeed. Willis, you have been doomed to write – you better not leave it any later. What a wonderful (and beautiful) grandma you had.

    “…but in spite of this, he did die of a mysterious poisoning.”

    I may have an angle on this. While working for the Geological Survey of Nigeria, I engaged my gardener (sounds uppity but I was provided with a fairly large granite house surrounded by about 3 acres of grounds – mainly lawn with mangoes, etc.) to serve as a security guard – “mai gardie” – while I was in the field. He arrived at the porch of the house with a sleeping roll, kerosene lantern and a short bow with arrows about 14-16″ long, no feathers, one quarter the length was iron with sharp, knurled up jaggers along its length. I picked one up and he immediately said: No, No fo’ the poison suh. I carefully put the arrow down and he explained that even if he hit an intruder in the leg he would die in less than an hour! Walter wouldn’t have had to eat it. He might have got a small scratch and that was it.

  36. And if we complained about anything, any single thing, in her presence she’d say “I wept because I had no shoes until I met a man with no feet.” And we knew she had known men with no feet, so we stopped complaining.

    This saying was burnt into a wooden plaque hanging on the wall in the living room of my maternal grandparents farmhouse. I lived on the farm during summers as a hired hand. I earned between 2 and 5 dollars a day. I often read that and quote it today to my grandkids. A good saying to live by as are many of the short old sayings.

  37. daved46 says:
    February 19, 2013 at 10:29 am

    Some people may doubt the veracity of your stories, but being interested in genealogy, I couldn’t resist trying to find your family. There’s a tree on Ancestry.com which has the descendents off Frances Arthur Dyer, and it verifies essentially everything in your story. And I found some documentary information to verify it as well. Anyway the tree shows that your grandmother’s daughter married an Eschenbach, so while there might be some exaggeration for effect somewhere, I have no doubt of the essential truth of the stories.

    Thanks for that, Dave. Curiously, I’ve never even though about looking up The Captain on something like Ancestry.com. I simply took everything My-mummie said as unquestioned gospel, as did everyone who knew her, and to my poor knowledge at least, none of us were ever disappointed.

    As to the veracity of my stories, as I said (emphasis mine):

    She taught us kids that racism and religious hatred were unmitigated wrongs, that lying was unforgivable, that it was the responsibility of the strong to assist others, and that the only human color that mattered was the color of someone’s blood.

    I try to tell my stories exactly as they happened, given a bit of literary license. For example, I don’t really know what the Japanese Ambassador was thinking when he saw Billy’s letter … but I think my guesses are pretty good in that regard.

    So yes indeed, my stories are all as true as I can make them, just as I lived them, without exaggeration (other than perhaps in the Mark Twain sense of highlighting the absurdities). I’ve told them as they actually happened, and have been widely doubted.

    For example, for years people didn’t believe my story about the endless pod of dolphins that were still coming over the horizon when the head of the pod had long disappeared over the opposite horizon. Hey, I’m just a reporter, that’s what went down. I saw that pod around 35 years ago, and back then it was just another tale of the sea, they so rarely occurred, and people thought I made it up … but now, particularly with the sighting of the “mega-pod” near San Diego over the weekend, I’ve lived long enough to see the wheel come full circle.

    My best to you, thanks for looking up The Captain.

    w.

  38. Willis Eschenbach says:
    For example, for years people didn’t believe my story about the endless pod of dolphins that were still coming over the horizon when the head of the pod had long disappeared over the opposite horizon.

    Caleb’s website: http://sunriseswansong.wordpress.com/
    100,000 Dolphins gather off coast of San Diago
    validates at least basis of Willis’ story.

    I will digress
    It has been suggested that dolphins may possess a magnetic sense that enables them to use the Earth’s magnetic field for orientation and navigation. Evidence for a magnetic sense is still tentative and consists in part of some correlations between regions where many stranding of dolphin species have occurred and the presence of geomagnetic anomalies or disturbances in these region s. Other suggestive evidence comes from the presence of iron oxide crystals (magnetite) in various locations in the head region of some dolphin or whale species. Recent satellite tagging of several humpback whales off the coast of the island of Kauai in the Hawaiian chain have shown that they seemed to deviate very little form a magnetic north heading during their long journey back to the feeding grounds in the higher latitude near Alaska.

    http://www.dolphin-institute.org/resource_guide/dolphin_perception.htm

    Earth magnetic field ( in this case declination) is not static, it has a secular variation. In Atlantic Ocean these changes are not as pronounced as in the Pacific.
    I would dare to suggest that dolphins do gather in large groups at regular intervals, and then proceed along a predetermined route to update their magnetic memory.
    Declination map at the time of the Willis’ dolphin story

    http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/geomag/data/mag_maps/pdf/D_map_mf_1980.pdf

    Declination map of the current San Diego gathering (see Caleb)

    http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/geomag/data/mag_maps/pdf/D_map_mf_2010.pdf

    Idle mind speculates…

  39. vukcevic says:
    February 19, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    Interesting speculation, I do love idle minds. Many thanks for the declination maps, even I as a sailor was unaware that the change was that fast. Normally, you just see declination on the charts as say something like “Declination 10.6°E, increasing .6°/decade”, and you just figure and use that data for your year.

    Nice,

    w.

  40. Mark Bofill says:
    February 18, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    Does it seem to anyone else that people were made of sterner stuff in earlier generations? This is far from the first time I’ve heard things…
    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    Oh yes. Society wants us to wrap our kids in cotton batting.

    For example My husband had a friend whose parents would not allow her to walk on snow or ice. Even as an adult she was terrified of snow and ice, a real problem since she lived and worked in Boston. She solved it by moving to California.

    I am sure My-mummie, and my great grandmother, another formidable woman, would be appalled at the wimps that we are turning out today. Heck if a little boy won’t sit still in class they now want to label him as ADHD and drug the poor tyke. Guess the teachers never read Dennis the Menace as kids.

    Keep the stories coming Willis. One of the regrets I have is not taking the time to record the stories of the Civil War from one of our neighbors before he died. He knew every battle and who was in it and what happened for the surrounding area.

  41. Willis,
    Great story.
    I will look at my family tree again to see if we are related, maybe we are triple-double upside-down cousins or something :), it would be fun to be related to such an interesting group of people, by the way, my dad’s name is Walter Dyer, go figure.

    Keep up the good work, the world is richer for it!

  42. Willis, you have put me to shame :-(

    Two years ago, I did begin “webifying” A celebration of the life of Christina Dorothea Dyer Greene, 1889-1974 which you were kind enough to share with me (a year prior to that).

    So far, I’ve completed four “Chapters“, But because I’m privileged to have the benefit of having read the entire story (as lovingly told and compiled by Dorothea’s daughters), I can honestly say that I’ve never “met” a more remarkable woman … or as one would say, in my tradition … Dorothea was truly “a woman of valour“.

    This year, I shall complete the “webification”, I promise!

    Hilary Ostrov

    P.S. Willis, you might want to take a look at a comment left by a reader, a few months ago, whose great-great-grandmother was a sister of “The Captain” :-)

  43. “I wept because I had no shoes until I met a man with no feet.”

    I’ve read a sick-joke punchline to that:

    “So I said, Can I have your shoes?”

  44. Mark Bofill says:
    February 18, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    Does it seem to anyone else that people were made of sterner stuff in earlier generations? This is far from the first time I’ve heard things…

    AJ Nock made the same observation–but that was about 70 years ago!

  45. What a wonderful woman and what a great story, well, set of stories. Thank you Willis.

    The bit about King Farouk and the trucks of oranges brought back childhood memories of living in the Canal Zone in Egypt and how I loved the greenish-skinned delicious oranges there. What a treat for a child of post-war rationing!

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