Sunday, October 2, 2016

Strange Staten Island Dream

So apparently a combination of sardines in a tin can and a jar of herring in wine sauce for dinner last night (my Anglo-German side clearly coming out), and a night of very much interrupted sleep, leads to some pretty epically strange dreams (which I'm wont to have anyway).

This dream occurred, appropriately enough, on Staten Island, the home of the brave and very strange. It started out in my old teenage West Brighton/Silver Lake neighborhood across the street from the gorgeous synagogue on Forest Avenue I lived across from. I spent a good part of my teenage years living there with my mom and my grandparents.

But in the dream I had last night I was on a wooden moving cart from GCTS and was rolling down the sidewalk past the synagogue across the street and then turned left behind the synagogue through their parking lot (I'm still a member through their FB page in real life) past Liz's house (the owner of the Book Nook, our favorite bookstore in the neighborhood on Forest Avenue), and then stopped at the cross road while chatting with several neighborhood friends of mine as traffic passed by, until a vehicle stopped, which allowed us all to pass over to the telephone building where I was able to gain a bit of speed and roll down the hill.

Eventually I rolled down the Forest Avenue sidewalk towards West Brighton into Port Richmond and finally close to Mariner's Harbor where I stopped at a park to rest. I was late in the day and it was unoccupied, so I thought it would be a safe place to rest.

It wasn't. A very attractive young woman who had blonde hair and was rather petite approached me and started asking me about terms I didn't understand. I was just sitting there wanted to rest from a long walk on the Island. She eventually explained to me that she was talking about drugs, especially marijuana (I think she was also a prostitute), and that she thought that I was interested in buying them at that park.

I was just tired and wanted to rest and enjoy the late afternoon. But a few other folks decided to join us, both family friendly folks and a few gang bangers, who decided to sit right next to me on the other side of this young woman. They sat on my right and immediately started to act against my interests, both physically and sexually, invading my space in both cases.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

West Virginia Hillbilly

I've been very impressed with JD Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, on the various talk shows he's appeared on lately. He speaks for a demographic which has been historically overlooked by both major parties. Since my own family background on my mother's side is straight up West Virginia Hillbilly, he speaks to my own kith and kin going back centuries. The good folks of Gassaway, West Virginia, a beautiful little town nestled in the hills of central WV, still have many of my relatives living there. My mom was born there, but my grandparents decided to leave town for NYC during the Great Depression so that they could start a new life and have opportunities that simply didn't exist in a small town hit hard by economic woes.

But it wasn't just economic issues which drove them to the big city. It was also cultural and very personal. They eloped because neither of their parents approved of their marriage (I have no idea why). West Virginians are very tight knit, but this also shows itself in splits and feuds which can last a very long time. And no, as far as I know, I don't have any Hatfield's or McCoy's in my family history! But I do have a distant cousin who was the 1924 Democratic nominee for President, John William Davis, who lost in an historic landslide. But the economy for the vast majority of West Virginians in the 1930's was grinding poverty, and sadly it's not a whole lot better even now all these decades later.

Back in the Spring of 2004 I drove from Holland, Michigan to Charlotte, North Carolina to consider attending Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary at their Charlotte campus. On the way back to Michigan that Monday I decided, last minute, to take a detour and drive up to Gassaway, West Virginia to visit my mom's home town. As I drove along the highway and stopped just before the appropriate exit, my lights shorted out, so I knew I'd have to stop at a repair shop in order to drive the rest of the way home to Michigan. So I drove into town and noticed along the side of the road election signs to my left and right with local candidates running for various offices and I also couldn't help but notice that many of the names on the signs were old family names that my mom and grandmother had told me about many times over. There were Bosley's, there were Lee's, there were Davis's, there were Dennison's, all names that I had been told about by my family, so I knew that I was driving into and through family, even though I'd never been there before.

When I finally got into town it looked like it hadn't changed in at least fifty years. I stopped at a little food mart and asked the young woman if they had a repair shop in town and she told me that they did and it was the only one. Thankfully it was a Pontiac repair shop and dealer, since that's what I was driving back then. So I dropped my car off and asked if the town had a library, and the receptionist, in her thick Hillbilly twang, told me that it was just down the road a bit, maybe a five minute walk. And so that's what I did during lunch when my car was being worked on. I visited the town library and did research on my family history going back to the Civil War. It turns out that family members fought on both sides of the Civil War. In fact, several family members were drafted by the Union Army at the beginning of the war but deserted and fought for the Confederacy. Bad move. There's a reason why the only hotel (long since closed and abandoned) in town is called the Lincoln Hotel and not the Davis Hotel.

In Gassaway, West Virginia, there's not many career options available for the people living there. At least back in my grandparent's day you could either be a coal miner, a lumberjack (two of my great grandfathers died doing that), a railroad man (my beloved grandfather Harry Goff Bosley was one), or a moonshiner (I'm sure some of my kin did that too!). And no matter which of these you did, you were damned proud of it. That's part of the Hillbilly way too. Pride in your heritage is part and parcel of what it means to be a "Red Neck" or a Hillbilly. My grandmother Ruth was Scotch-Irish through and through. But she was also a woman of the modern world who worked independently as a seamstress and dress maker while my grandpa worked for the NYC subway system.

But back to my car problems. I finished researching my family history in the town library and walked back to the repair shop wondering how much they were gonna get me for. I mean, I'm a Yankee from NYC after all in the middle of hillbilly country! I won't lie. I have my deep seated prejudices too. I could see, in my minds eye, some blind kid playing a banjo as I drove into town. But when I walked back into the shop and started chatting with the receptionist about my family ties with Gassaway, the owner of the shop walked in and asked me about my family. And when I started mentioned the names, he immediately said that many of those folks still lived in Gassaway. But when I mentioned the family name of Dennison, he looked at me in shock and said: "You're a Dennison?" I affirmed that yes, through my grandmother, that I am indeed a Dennison. He then laughed and said that the guy who repaired my car was a Dennison! He's a cousin of mine! I didn't even pay for the labor, only the fuse that was needed to get my lights working again.

I was kin!

Obviously I love telling this story to any and all friends of mine, since it shows how small our world can be if we dig deep enough. But my West Virginia Hillbilly heritage has its dark side too. Addiction is a major, multi-generational, problem throughout Appalachia. My family isn't exempt from that curse. I won't go into too many personal details here simply out of respect to many of my family members who have struggled with addiction and other mental health issues. But suffice it to say that these issues have run replete throughout my family going back many generations.

Monday, May 30, 2016

My last name is Brandkamp.

On this Memorial Day I can't help but wonder about the etymology of my ancestral surname. My father and I used to joke about what our family name meant, jesting that it might have meant that our long lost ancestors were pirates on the North Sea (our ancestors were indeed sailors along the coast of northwest Germany for many generations), even to the point of me saying that my last name meant "the pillagers of the villagers" since the first part of our name is "Brand" and could mean either a burning torch or a sword, and the last part "Kamp" which could mean either a military encampment or, more notoriously, a struggle.

Now maybe all this surname guessing is all nonsense. I admit that's a real possibility. But I do know enough about the German side of my family history to know about our religious history, and that's where it gets interesting. My grandmother's maiden name was Noormann and she was from Lehr, Germany in Ost Friesland (East Friesland in English) just next to the Dutch border. She could walk to the Netherlands in a few minutes from her B&B house where she grew up. She apparently fell in love or maybe lust with a boy my great grandparents didn't approve of, so they sent her off to America in the late 1800's to makes sure she didn't get into a relationship with him. She always bragged that she didn't arrive in America at Ellis Island like the rest of the "immigrants". She arrived on Long Island and simply overstayed her tourist visa! She was such a proud woman!

Sadly, my only memories of her are from my earliest childhood and were of her dark home in Old Town, Staten Island and how she wasn't a very nice person. My mom only half jokingly said that she always knew when it was time to leave grandma Brandkamp's house when she'd start talking about pure Aryan blood. It's still heartbreaking to me that she bought into the Nazi ideology of her earlier years. She did have a very cool lava lamp though that I always thought was super cool! Talk about a strange juxtaposition!

My German grandfather, on the other hand, died several decades before my birth. I own his Plymouth Brethren hymnal which my father, Herbert, gave me many years ago. It has his signature in it. He had the most perfect penmanship and his first name was Fred, the short American version of his German first name of Friedrich. I also have a picture of him sitting on a stoop somewhere in New Jersey (I believe at an aunt's house). He has a short stogie cigar in his hand and has the most beautifully gentle eyes and definitely had the typical Brandkamp furrowed brow. I wish I could have known him in person. My father had only good things to say about him. He was a very godly man who even preached on occasion. Strangely enough, I'm glad he died before Hitler's rise saw its awful fruit come to its deadly genocidal conclusion. I'm grateful he was spared that awful spectacle.

My German grandfather Fred was also born in the same part of Germany as my German grandmother Marie, in a similar sounding town nearby, but they only met years later in NYC at a German Lutheran church in Brooklyn, NY. after his first wife had died. I don't know anything about his first wife, or much about my aunt from that wife, except that she was much older than my father and his other siblings. But I believe they all got on quite well. My father joked about how my grandfather carried his Scofield Study Bible tightly and thought that Scofield's notes were only "slightly" less inspired than the original text! Bless his heart (if you're Southern, you'll see what I just did there)!

Anyway, he was a good man from everything I know of him. What I find especially interesting about his past in coming to America is that he came over as a child and was raised by German Mennonites in Kansas (I have no idea which port he came in through) and only later came to NYC and fell in love with the big city and the bright lights (most likely gas lamps back then!). Here was this German country boy, mostly familiar with farm life both in Germany and Kansas, speaking Plattdeutsch/Low German and halting English in NYC!

In fact, my favorite story from my father is of him meeting a West African man, skin black as coal, who emigrated from a German owned part of Africa, who he happened to meet in the Lower West Side of Manhattan. He asked my grandfather for directions in his language, and my grandfather understood everything he said! They had a wonderful conversation as two expats in a truly strange and wonderful land! Their common Plattdeutsch dialect united them!

But I digress...

I meant to speak about Memorial Day.

It seems my last name is strange. Brandkamp is a strangely militaristic name, bespeaking a familial history of military exploits. And yet my grandfather's family was thoroughly Mennonite and Anabaptist, thoroughly pacifist traditions. How could a name so associated with such a militaristic history be pacifist? I do know that my great grandfather and his elders all signed the "nonconformist papers" in Lutheran Germany in the 19th century. This allowed them to avoid paying the state tax for the Lutheran church, but it also barred them from any public service. This had real world consequences for these signers. They were shunned and seen as enemies of the state and state church. I'm not sure, but I think a long distant relative had a "come to Jesus" moment a few centuries ago and decided to leave his life of warfare for the state and decided to engage in warfare of a more spiritual sort with different kinds of swords.

This is the part of my spiritual heritage I'm most interested in investigating.

Soldier on friends, soldier on.