Geneology and Bureaucracies Of, For, and To the People
Thom had known from infancy that his mother had had a love affair with an American. She had later married a Scotsman and left Thom for her mother, his grandmother, to raise. This old lady was a simple woman who was rather more hindrance than help to Thom, but he loved her nonetheless. He was not a great success in school, at work, or at home. He never developed enough courage to propose to either of the two women in the village who were desperate enough, even momentarily, to consider him. His grandmother died and left him with debts and no property unless you count the old, cracked rosebowl under the bed. Thom did not. He moved to a rented room in Mr. Arbuthnot's house and wiled away his evenings out at the public bar of one or other of the local pubs. If his evenings at home always coincided with Mr. Arbuthnot's evenings out you must not jump to any rash conclusions because Mrs. Arbuthnot's bedroom door is forever closed to us although perhaps we are a select few.
When his step-father died, Thom's mother returned to Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding and joined him. She often drank too much and talked loosely of "the good old days" when she was young. These "good old days" included the Great Depression and World War II.
In fact she had been a popular young woman then and in the later days of World War II when the Americans joined in the festivities. Her popularity was based on her willingness to share her affections for small personal rewards. Her notoriety became so great among the Americans from a nearby airfield that the chaplain was asked to intervene. Taking her for a walk one evening he advised her in a fatherly way how best to conduct herself. His conversation about economic theory floored her right there in the woods.
He told her of the laws of supply and demand. Limited supply and unrestricted demand led to rising prices, he explained. After a minimum of such economic lessons, for she was a fast woman learner, he created a monopoly for her. This exclusive rights agreement proved to be both lucrative and productive. Thom was the reverend's second product in that small village. Fortunately for the good reverend, D-Day came just in time to save him from embarrassment.
Forty-five years after the war, Thom's mother was reminiscing loudly one evening in the public bar of the Rose and Crown and Sarah Witherick, the school mistress, was sitting in the quieter saloon bar listening intently to Thom's mother through the glass partition. If what Thom's mother was saying was true, it was likely, Sarah felt, that she and Thom were half-brother and half-sister. Strange how the offspring of one man could turn out so differently.
"Would Thom be so kind as to bring his mother round to the saloon bar for a drink with Mrs. Witherick?" asked the publican.
"I could not help overhearing your conversation, madam," began Sarah. She explained the significance of a clipping she had in her purse from the Daily Telegraph of November 20, 1990.
The truth gradually emerged from the mists of time and the fog of Thom's mother's brain. It was almost certainly true, Thom and Sarah were half-siblings. Thom was more delighted than Sarah who was thinking ahead to the letter she would write.
Dear Mr. Ambassador;
Kindly inform me of the proper procedure, forms or methods required by your Department of Defense and National Archives which will allow me to discover my father. I know that his name was Gregor Pugilovich and that he was a chaplain in the U.S. Army stationed in Essex during World War II. Yours sincerely,
P.S. I believe that Thom Tickletrout, also of this village, was fathered by Mr. Pugilovich at about the same time.
Tilde Pugilovich sat on the veranda of her secluded cottage just outside Mendocino, California quietly reading the morning paper. For years she had had to wait for her brother to complete his perusal of all the sections before she was allowed to disturb him or his paper. She had served him with greater devotion than a wife since his early retirement from the ranks of the Catholic priesthood.
Tilde had long since resigned herself to the smaller inconveniences of living with her brother. She had struggled early in their life together to reconcile his beliefs with his actions. Gregor had always succumbed to those parishioners who wanted to know what was under his cassock. More often than not these women had been married. In fact Gregor preferred them to be so, it was far less messy that way.
She had followed his career since he had been discharged from the U.S. Army under a minor but honorable cloud and given a parish in a small Central Valley town. The bishop of the diocese liked his charm, intelligence, and political good sense. His after dinner war stories and the depth of his intellectual discussion as to God's purpose at such times, was appreciated. He was witty, articulate and persuasive, ardent without being strident. He could also hold his wine.
When one of Father Pugilovich's early indiscretions came to the bishop's attention, he solved the problem by removing his friend from the valley in the kindest way he knew. He promoted him to an urban center. Tilde had joined him there. They had thrown themselves with great vigor into the service of the parishioners, especially the impoverished veterans. The more adventuresome of the volunteer workers, all complete strangers to poverty, threw themselves with equal vigor at the new priest.
This pattern had repeated itself slowly and regularly throughout his service to the church and its parishioners. In time his friend the bishop passed on to the hereafter and shortly thereafter the new bishop had a very confidential and very civilized chat with father Pugilovich. The new bishop explained to Gregor that being father of a flock was somewhat different from being father of a flock. Gregor retired with his sister, Tilde, to the arty little town of Mendocino where people are more open minded about such fine distinctions. There he died leaving Tilde all his worldly goods.
She dropped the paper to the side of her chair to rest her eyes and enjoy the peace of her surroundings. It was three years since her brother had retreated from the rigors of parish life to this quiet spot protected from the Pacific storms by a pine covered knoll yet within easy walking distance of the cleansing ocean breezes. Even she, at seventy, enjoyed the stroll.
A hummingbird flashed up to a scarlet passionflower growing over one of the pine trees which further protected the house from the weather. She missed her brother since his death, but for the most part she was better off without him, and she knew it. She ate when she was hungry, read when she felt like it, hired pretty, young women to help her around the house without having to watch his every move, and she could manage her financial affairs very nicely. She was living off the interests on his investments, traveling occasionally and donating judiciously with no erosion of the principal.
The old lady picked up the paper again and read a filler article.
BRITISH WAR BABIES GET O.K. TO FIND DADS. Washington - a U.S. District Court settlement announced Monday will allow British children of U.S. servicemen from World War II to get information about their fathers from the Department of Defense and the National Archives. The agreement reversed a longstanding federal policy of withholding such information to protect the servicemen's privacy. Up to 100,000 sons and daughters of U.S. GIS who had been stationed in England during World War II could be affected by the settlement.
There was little left in the world to shock Tilde at her age but certainly she was surprised. One hundred thousand British bastards of American men. How many of them were Gregor's? She had known for years of two pregnancies. A vicar's daughter in a small village in Wiltshire by Salisbury Plain and the butcher's girl he had had in the ancient circle of Stonehenge. There might have been others, undoubtedly there were. She wondered if there were more in France and Germany, too. He had been there as a chaplain, passing cigarettes to soldiers for four years. The old sadness passed over her. Years ago she would have quickly pushed it behind the walls in her mind but this time the sheer numbers, one hundred thousand, troubled her.
The arrogance of the action, denying access to the fathers of so many people for forty five years appalled her. The bureaucratic mess that resulted from this decision stunned her. Could these war babies now make claim to the estate of their fathers? How many would want her money which had come solely as a result of her brother's labors? She fell asleep pondering these things and dreamed of swimming by a tropical pool fed by a waterfall and scented by flowers.
Sarah Elizabeth Georgiana Witherick was a moderate success as a school teacher in Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding. She had grown up in post war England living through the years of rationing with her mother and spending her summers with her grandfather, the vicar of Newbury, a small village in Wiltshire. It was this reverend gentleman who told Sarah that regrettably her father was an American clergyman. It mattered not a bit to the Reverend Witherick that Sarah was illegitimate, certainly he would have preferred that his daughter had married first and fornicated second, but Sarah was the apple of his eye no matter what her mother's sins had been.
Sarah spent her leisure time in those long summer days, walking the moors and plains in search of peace among nature. She never married, but like her mother, conducted the occasional illicit love affair. She spent some of the long winter evenings in the jovial company of the regulars in the saloon bar at the Rose and Crown. The drink was purely for medicinal purposes, naturally.
Eighteen months and as many letters after she wrote to the American ambassador, Sarah turned the rented car off Highway 1 onto an inconspicuous lane. She was weary and tense as she parked the car below a wooden water tower. To her left was the Pacific Ocean, where she intended to wet her toes before she left. To her right were a few meadows with protecting hills around them. At the end of a short lane was a white house partially obscured by pines with scarlet passionflowers climbing over them. A small burro slept on its feet in the shade of a California laurel tree. Sarah thought that she could smell bay leaves amid the ozone.
"Miss Pugilovich, it is so good of you to see me, I am Sarah Witherick from England."
"It is such a lovely day, Miss Witherick, that I thought we could sit on the veranda. Mary will bring us some tea presently."
The old ways of diplomacy and secrecy came back to Tilde at once. The truth was out to some extent, but she would negotiate a settlement without revealing any more about her finances than was absolutely necessary and she would limit the damage to a minimum while taking every opportunity to advance her cause. She relished the challenge even though her brother was dead.
Sarah soon became aware as they mentally circled each other that she was dealing with more than a frail, little, old lady. She changed her strategy before it was really begun.
"You have kindly told me a little of Mr. Pugilovich's life, his good works and, of course, I am cognizant of his weakness. I should like to hear more about his passing if that will not trouble too much."
"Oh Dear! Not at all. He was delirious for several days at the end there. He had cancer, as I believe I told you in my letter, but he could not accept heroic medical acts. It was a matter of faith. He also felt that he was paying the price for his sins here on earth where they were committed rather than paying for them elsewhere later. He said things during that time which I have tried to relate to your circumstance, but I am afraid to jump to too many conclusions."
In fact her brother had shocked her. The graphic nature of his "dirty talk", as she called it, had persuaded her that a professional nurse should be called in. There was, after all, a limit to her devotion.
She was prepared now to admit all that she knew in a ladylike manner to this fine young woman who so charmed her. Tilde feared that she could not afford to support all her brother's offspring without knowing, with some degree of accuracy, just how many there were of them.
"My dilemma, you see Miss Witherick, is that Gregor was a prolific man. I hesitate to speak ill of the dead, but since this is strictly within our family, I feel that I can tell you that he may have other children in other parts of England. I also know that he spent a short time in Scotland. In his delirium he would sink into a kind of moaning sound and then grunt words of endearment. On the first day it was all 'my wee lassie' this and 'my wee lassie' that."
"I see," said Sarah, "Were there any other indications of that kind?"
"I am afraid there were rather more 'mon cherie's' on the second day than I cared to count. The morning of the third day he was in severe agony and his grunts were full of 'mein liebe'. He died that evening. Is this disturbing you, Miss Witherick? Is it painful to find that your father was a rake?"
"What does concern me now, is not my judgement of his morals, but rather the difficulty of discovering a man's life after he has gone on. Trying to understand a person by talking to him directly is hard enough, but getting one's knowledge indirectly through others is much more difficult."
They had not begun the final, financial part of the negotiations when Tilde suggested a visit to the cemetery. They walked up a steep, curving lane passing an Indian meeting place with a tepee of redwood bark and acorn stores of woven twigs. Sarah felt very far from home and the Rose and Crown. As they entered the small, rural cemetery she looked around. The old woman lead her over to a large granite marker. "The Very Reverend Gregor Pugilovich 1921-1989, In Loving Memory and Gratitude for His Life on This Earth, Tilde." She had been the only relative at his funeral.
She held her niece's arm as they walked back down the hill. The English woman saw the sun setting into the Pacific Ocean, but her mind was far away wandering about with her half-brother, Thom. Who was Sarah to say that Thom should or should not inherit this lovely lady's wealth, such as it was. What would Thom do with it? Invest it? Sarah doubted that. Drink it? Quite possibly. Give it to his mother, the lush, to drink? Very probably. Certainly Sarah did not need her aunt's money.
Now she had a brother, for what he was worth, an admirable American aunt and, finally, some knowledge of the man who fathered her. The sun set into the Pacific as she returned Miss Pugilovich to her nest.
Sarah flew back to London and Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding two weeks later after a brief visit with Plinge and I and a spell as a tourist in San Francisco. She recovered from jet lag slowly, but eventually met Thom in the Rose and Crown.
" What'll it be Thom?" She asked.
"The usual, Sarah, if you don't mind."
"Thom, our father was a priest for many years after he returned to the states. He died of cancer last year."
"Any money?" Asked Thom.
Sarah looked at her brother's empty glass and saw that he was waiting impatiently for it to be filled at her expense. Clearly Thom's priorities were never going to change. Sarah's opinion of him was not altered by this conversation, but there was a sadness which seeped into her heart. Her half-brother was all too humanly weak, just like their father.
There comes a time in every young man's development when his heros become human also. They become mere mortals. Their pedestals are pulverized, they become human sized and flawed. Of course, they were that way all along, the change has been in the clarity of vision of the erstwhile hero worshipper. I remember the precise moment when I realized that my dear, old uncle Fred was not the omniscient sage I had imagined him to be. I still loved him. It was just that now I could see his imperfections, his fears, his biases, his weaknesses. It was comforting to know that he was as human as I and, if the truth be known, he may not have been much more mature than I.
We were passing through the dense shade of the forest. Fred was telling me about the trees around us, hornbeams.
"Look at these trees, Donald, they have leaves like coarse beech leaves, but their trunks are all witchified at the top. These are 'pollards'. "
"Pollards?" I asked.
"Yes, these trees have been used for coppicing." He enjoyed throwing those old words into his conversation knowing that I would ask about them.
"Coppicing, " said Fred," is repeated cutting back to the tree stump, to yield firewood and faggots, especially used to heat bakers' ovens in the old days. The hornbeams, from the words 'horn' and 'beam', an old Anglo-Saxon word for tree, were lopped at about six feet up, so that cattle could not eat their young shoots. Those trees that have been repeatedly lopped are called 'pollards' ."
"The wood is very hard, strong, smooth and white. It was used years ago for ox-yokes, and the cog wheels of watermills and windmills. Today it is used in butchers' chopping blocks, because when it is set in small squares, with the grain end uppermost, it withstands cutting better than any other wood."
He was talking about the differences between the great, stately beech trees and the witchified hornbeams, but I was no longer paying attention. I had suddenly seen him clearly for the first time. Here was a man who rarely had a job, who lived off the land, who was dressed in a combination of an old railwayman's uniform and burlap sacks with baling twine for a belt and buttons. I realized that the wounds of war were still open in his mind. That he could never return to the innocence that I enjoyed.
Now, in the moment of realizing that my dear, old uncle Fred Plinge, E.P.N.S. was not perfect, was not all-knowing, I listened as he wandered off down the lane. He was singing. Each time I hear these words I see in my mind's eye my dear, old uncle walking Oh! so carefully down that sweet smelling path, singing.
I heard the silence of the Dead
And saw the visions of the blind.
I wandered lanes of crippled minds
And cried the mother's tears unwed.
I found a path from twisted maze
And saw the blue of youths old eyes.
I heard the groan of passioned sighs
And slipped away from tortured days.
Then without in my lone-lover bed,
I sat still, staring, numb and dry
And as I watched...time go by,
I heard the silence of the Dead.
He fades from my mind's eye as I watch, leaving only the vision of the lane he had gone down.
A strange thing has happened since that day. Slowly, imperceptibly, my uncle Fred has regained the stature and esteem I held him in when I was a lad. Today I accept his stories with a clearer, more defined belief. I care more now for his well being than I ever did as a callow youth. He has grown, not larger than life, but life has grown larger for me and his stature within it.
For these, and for many other reasons I shall tell you all about some other time, I am quite sure that this entire story is in fact, in deed, indubitably true, because my dear, old uncle Fred Plinge, E.P.N.S. told me so himself. I am glad that we have had this little chat. Tea?