My great-grandfather, John C., passed away when I was eight years old. Throughout my life, I’ve seen pictures of him as a child, as a schoolboy, as a young husband and father, as a middle-aged professional. But, when I think of him, the only image seared in my memory is that of a frail, ninety-year-old man in his nursing home bed. This freezing of someone in time in one’s head is common. Friends that I’ve reconnected with after over thirty years have the benefit of The Picture of Dorian Gray phenomenon – they’re forever adolescent in my mind. A person stuck in time this way is “foto stecken,” derived from the German meaning “stuck picture.” (Okay, I just made that up, but I’m copyrighting it.)
After my mother died, I found a collection of family history records that she’d been gathering to pass along to my brothers and me, and I spent the next two years completing the genealogical project she’d begun. She’d scanned photographs, put together birth/marriage/death certificates, land deeds, and military enlistment records. Included in it were her own stories and childhood recollections as well as several written by John C. in 1961. The memories about his young uncles particularly captivated me because those rapscallions were wild and raised hell at every chance. Had we been contemporaries, I imagine we’d have been friends.
John’s first solid memory of his uncles was when they set him on fire at his grandfather’s farm. They didn’t mean to set him on fire. They were just engaging in a little tomfoolery. They wanted to scare their five-year-old nephew while he was seated in the yard, so sneaked up behind him and lit a string of firecrackers. The child screamed and leaped to his feet but, Webster, fourteen, and George, thirteen, were paralyzed as they watched his shorts smolder and flame. They argued – while John continued screaming – about whether to dip him head- or bottom-first into the rain barrel. Grabbing him, they were about to hoist him in when their older sister Charlotte raced from the house and patted out the fire. No permanent scarring resulted, John recounted in his memoir, except for his lifelong revulsion of July 4 celebrations.
That little firecracker mishap might have scared straight those of lesser fortitude, but Webster and George thrived on a symbiotic competitive relationship. As with many teenagers, the fascination with explosives drove them to devise bigger, better, and more exciting ways to blow things up. They needed a cannon. Somewhere, they found an old piece of a gun barrel and managed to attach it to a wood block and plug up one end. Next, they put a hole in the barrel for a fuse. They had a powder horn full of gunpowder. They were set. Each took turns ramming shrapnel into their weapon to see who could create a bigger eruption. Wadded paper produced nothing more than a sizzle. Pulverized brick and small stones were more satisfying but still too tame. Webster was delighted to remember where he’d seen some ball cartridges and soon lead balls were flying out into the fields. George wanted a target to see how good their marksmanship was, so they chose the newly installed outhouse. This was no ordinary outhouse. At that time, the Chick Sales House was the Cadillac of outdoor toilets, decorated with fancy stars and half-moons. And, it was a two-seater! My great-grandfather recalled that for as long as they owned that farm, one could take a jackknife and pick out lead balls from the side of the outhouse.
In late 1800s New England, Sundays were devoted to church: preparations for service, attendance, then a large family meal or community picnic would follow. A full day of solemnity was too much to expect of the young scallywags. When they weren’t pestering the younger children seated in the pew in front of them, Webster and George would surreptitiously disrupt the worship by making noises or using a piece of glass to reflect the sun into the pastor’s eyes. It seemed God had a little light-hearted retribution the Sunday afternoon the boys went swimming in the grove behind the church picnic area. While all the congregants, including some comely young ladies, were lunching, George hobbled yelling from the water with a crab attached to a toe.
Another favorite pastime of Webster and George was damming up the nearby streams. What began with leaves and sticks morphed into boulders and fallen trees. The goal was to create ponds to play with the marine life trapped there. This sport created an additional perk for the boys. Early one fall morning, after several days of heavy rain, the banks of the streams overflowed. Their father went to the cellar – accessible solely by an outdoor ramp – to fetch an armload of firewood only to find himself waist-high in water. When word got out, Webster and George were jubilant. They grabbed a skiff and launched it down the ramp into the pool where they paddled happily collecting floating wood and any other trinkets they could reach.
My favorite story about Webster and George took place the day their older sister, John C.’s mother, was getting married for the second time. Her first marriage, to John’s father, ended in an acrimonious divorce and the family was thrilled when she found happiness the second time around with Matthew. Described as a bit of a dandy, Matthew was particular about his wedding outfit as he prepared for the ceremony at the local Unitarian church. His frustration mounted when he couldn’t find his newly purchased bowler hat and ascot. Finally, he had to settle for an old hat and necktie as he set out to meet his bride. A wedding luncheon for fourteen was spread for the newlyweds and their family. Upon returning home from the service, the groom was greeted by the family dog, nattily dressed for the occasion with a black bowler hat affixed to his head with a striped ascot. Conspicuously missing from the welcome party were the bride’s young brothers, Webster and George.
Even though I’ve read the humorous tales of my great-grandfather’s childhood and am aware of his celebrated career as a city planner, in my mind, I picture a bedridden elderly man. Sort of like when I show up at high school reunions, and I can’t reconcile the reality of my middle-aged peers with the teenage classmates of my memories. Webster and George lived to be men in their late sixties/early seventies. My own family tree search has traced them through decades of censuses and, while Webster never had children, many of George’s descendants still live in the New England area. Even with that knowledge, Webster and George will forever be foto stecken as impish young teenagers who relished leading their young nephew astray.