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Through the years I had heard occasional rumors of a distant relative on my father’s side called Indian Mary. When my son the anthropologist was writing about Ishi, the last Yahi Indian, the time seemed ripe to research the rumor. On balance, and on record, there was also an ancestral Civil War general, Eugene Carr, who later fought in the American Indian wars.
More recently there was my own grandfather, reportedly a gentle man, who fought in almost every war in his lifetime. It’s a challenge to calculate how he managed to sire four boys and a girl, quite closely spaced, while on leave. An even greater challenge must have been for my small but spunky grandmother to raise them all on sporadic soldier’s allotments.
My father, late in life, chose to loathe another Civil War general who went on to slaughter Indians, George Armstrong Custer. He read everything published about Custer, who was, to be fair, loathed by many others. He and my mother travelled to various Custer sites, Gettysburg and Little Big Horn, if not to Custer’s grave at West Point. I might perhaps mention that a subsidiary interest of my father’s was the Donner Party.
It gave us both considerable satisfaction for me to assign my father to review a psycho-biography of Custer for the Berkeley Gazette, where most, but not all reviewers were my more literate friends and relatives. Alas, Evan Connell’s fine book on Custer, Son of the Morning Star, did not appear before the Gazette and its nepotistic book section folded in 1984.
The latest grand entry in the long, defiant tradition of nepotism is of course Potus 45. Whom to cite first? British journalist Matthew Norman predicts much nepotistic merriment to come: Ivanka will win the $600 million contract to supply new U.S. Army uniforms, Donald Trump Jr. will replace Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 dollar bill, & eleven year-old Barron & two of his teddy bears will be appointed to replace the National Security Adviser and two four-star generals in the Situation Room.
Another American general loathed by my father was Douglas MacArthur. Here the dislike was more grounded; he had served under MacArthur’s command in the Philippines and in the occupation of Japan. But it wasn’t until the Korean conflict that MacArthur’s megalomania came close to igniting a third world war. Luckily, President Truman had the courage to remove him from command before he could bomb China. (In our time the closest analogy might be some responsible general removing a president.)
It comes as no surprise to learn that P-45, as one world-class narcissist to another, has expressed his admiration for the doughty General MacArthur. He would have been a bit young to have watched the Congressional hearings that determined beyond doubt that Truman was justified in firing the general, and it’s hard to imagine Trump Sr. backing the Missouri haberdasher.
George Armstrong Custer was ranked last in his West Point graduating class, and Douglas MacArthur was first in his. But they were equals in egotism, flamboyance, and blinding self-righteousness. Custer’s oblivious bravado ended his and many hundreds of others’ lives at Little Bighorn. MacArthur was booted before he could make the fatal decision to bomb China. Like other self-promoting egotists, MacArthur later considered running for president, but had the brains to decide against it in the end.
Shortly before my father shipped out to the Pacific, I remember awakening, wailing, from a dream of a tractor, or a tank—ratcheting up the screen of my bedroom window. And one morning as I was playing alone in the courtyard of our apartment building, a moving van began to back slowly toward the wall behind me. In each case, I waited anxiously to be crushed by a large machine. This would have been wartime San Francisco.
My baby brother was still nursing after Pearl Harbor, when my father enlisted. Even in her nineties, my mother’s eyes would turn hard as she repeated that she could never forgive him for leaving. At thirty, with two children, he might have been deferred. In fact, the war did mark him and us for the rest of our lives.
Early on, even before he was first posted to Alaska, he stopped eating. My mother was summoned, and we went to to visit him in a Vancouver hospital. In some gloomy Kodak prints, we are sitting on a porch, my father rail-thin in his dark uniform, and my mother, also thin, clearly trying to look cheerful. She did get him to eat again, so that he could be sent back to the war, in Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines, where he contracted malaria.
Meanwhile, behind our cottage in Santa Cruz, California, my mother planted a victory garden full of zucchini, chard, beans, and tomatoes. Neighbors to the west sometimes sent my dimpled little brother home with his overalls stuffed with fresh corn and secured around his ankles, while I steamed with jealousy. The other neighbors were friendly but a bit odd. Mrs. Fertig was a health food convert and often suggested to my dubious mother common weeds that would be nourishing and delicious in a salad.
My mother had taped a large pastel map to the living room wall, moving a colored pin to show where our father was stationed. During the years he was overseas, what I could remember of him mainly was the harsh wool of his uniform, its smell and feel.
One balmy Santa Cruz night, we were allowed to stay up late. Our father was coming home. Finally the screen door creaked, and there he was, hugging us all tight against his scratchy wool uniform. He’d brought us two glass animals filled with tiny candies. Of course I immediately coveted Bill’s puppy and despised my kitten.
Eventually he opened his foot locker and pulled out, well, booty, from Japan—silk kimonos, platform sandals, inlaid chopsticks, and, I think, a sword.
In the months just after his return, we spent day after day at the beach. Every day after school, he would read to me tirelessly, mostly from the Oz books, as if making up for the years lost in the war.
After the war, when my father found a job as a resident engineer with the state highway department, we moved back to Santa Cruz, where much post-war construction was underway, asphalt beginning to cover the state. Occasionally we stopped by to see him on a site, where he usually worked out of a trailer on a hot and dusty roadbed carved out of a slope by big orange machines.
Before the war he had been studying journalism at San Jose State, but the Depression—and probably drink—had driven him out of school and into a job as a surveyor for the highway department. After the war, he needed to support his family, and a civil engineering degree had seemed a safe choice. California highways and car ownership were expanding virally. Through the years he never seemed to take any pleasure or pride in his work, and I could see why.
On our last birthdays our daughter gifted me and her father with DNA test kits. This seemed an opportunity to confirm or deny the existence of my father’s Indian ancestry —and on my mother’s side, there was a mysterious Hungarian great-grandfather who might have been a gypsy or a Jew.
The disappointing results had only one, to me rather surprising ramification. The test showed it to be extremely likely that I had ancestors among the first colonial settlers of New England. Thus I could probably qualify for membership in the D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Revolution) a historically racist group that has spent many decades trying to improve its image.
At least the colonial New England connection fits with General Eugene Carr’s forbears. And I suppose it was obvious why his military nickname was the Black-bearded Cossack.
In 2016, a well-publicized Russian concert in the ruins of Palmyra just happened to overlap the centennial of the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement. Russia had only a bit part in that hasty, furtive slicing up of the Ottoman Empire to please French and English interests. The new borders failed spectacularly to transform tribal Syria into a national state on the European model, or even into a viable French colony. The Syrian civil war continues into its tenth year.
In Europe, the new designation “Czechia” was approved last week by the government, if not the people, of the Czech Republic. Elaborate historical justifications for changing to “Czechia” omit a more pressing motive– that sports franchises want a shorter, snappier name for their teams and equipment.
Czechoslovakia was created somewhat arbitrarily—not unlike Syria—after a world war. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Moose Hall, a committee of Czech and Slovak activists drafted the agreement. Later that year philosopher-politician Tomas Garrigue Masaryk became the new country’s first president. Masaryk was nominated seventeen times for the Nobel Peace Prize that a later Czech president, Vaclav Havel, declined in 1991 in favor of Aung San Sui Kyi of Myanmar, formerly Burma. Just then, Havel might have been depressed about the impending breakup of his country.
The Treaty of Versailles has been blamed even more harshly and more often than Sykes-Picot for setting the stage for multinational conflict and carnage after World War I. Even now there’s some nostalgia for the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, dismantled and replaced by new nations with conflicting ethnic and linguistic minorities. Lebanon and Jordan were no longer part of Syria, and Slovakia no longer belonged to Hungary.
After my enthusiastic review of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I began to receive piles of freshly translated fiction by Slavic writers. I did note that Kundera was born Czech-Moravian, like Tomas Masaryk, Freud, Janacek–and my maternal grandparents. Still, I knew next to nothing about Czech history and literature. Auditing a meeting of Czech I on campus, I found that it was a conversation class, led by a small but dynamic American graduate student. McCroskyova argued that I would be a better critic if I knew the sound and structure of Czech. Followed, a slippery slope into unexpected years with the Czech language and culture.
In 1988, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had ventured with my mother into Communist Czechoslovakia . After a tense crossing at the Austrian border, we stopped in the first town with a hotel. Sehr einfach, very simple, said the young innkeeper apologetically, showing the beds, foam pallets covered with large dish towels. Downstairs, an open kitchen spewed fumes of stewed pork and steaming bread dumplings. Good beer, we discovered, flowed in the pub.
Next morning, we drove around the Moravian countryside with a map, looking for my grandparents’ villages. And we did find them, dreary, plain rows of stucco cottages, sehr einfach. Our German proved useful.
At a bus stop in Mohelno, my grandmother’s village, we got directions to the cemetery. My great-uncle Antonin was there—according to my mother, a cocky, annoying fellow, who travelled more than once to California to sponge off his relatives. Several other Peskovi were on the memorial obelisk to World War I dead. On the horizon, a cluster of Russian nuclear reactor towers discouraged any idea of picturesque rusticity.
In the nearby village of Rohy, I was surprised to see my grandfather’s family name, Pozar, above the entrance to the most imposing building there. (Later I learned that pozar means fire, and the building was presumably the firehouse—whereas Rohy means simply Crossroads.) Outside the village, a wizened German-speaking farmer stopped hoeing long enough to point to a barn-like building on the opposite slope, as the Pozar place. My grandfather’s eldest brother Alois had become the head of the family. That Alois was a hard man, said the farmer, confirming the reason my grandfather, youngest son, had left home for California.
After the Berlin Wall fell, of course I followed the Czechs’ Velvet Revolution, and was in Prague in time to see Vaclav Havel’s very moving inauguration.
In 1992, I returned to Prague to research a piece on the state of the arts in post-communist Czechoslovakia. Long story short: deprived of government subsidies and samizdat glamour, publishing and the theater were in serious trouble. The Golden Age of Czech Arts turned out to have been under Soviet domination.
At that point Slovakia was already chafing at the dominance of the Czechs. Even Havel’s remarkable human skills failed to keep the Slovaks in the federation. In 1993, from the troubles leading to the Velvet Divorce, two countries emerged—the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Federations of any sort, from fourth-century Greece to twentieth-century Europe, often have short lives. The Hellenic League against Persia fell apart after sixteen years, and the Weimar Republic after fourteen. Empires seem to survive somewhat longer, maybe by definition. An empire has one hegemonic state, while federations involve, theoretically if not actually, equal sovereign states.
In any event, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and of Syria are episodes in an endless kaleidoscopic shifting of national borders, altered to suit the interests of the reigning powers. Once, land and treasure were the prizes; then oil. It isn’t clear what prize every country seeks now. In America, not, surely, a state walled against immigration. East and South Asian immigrants now animate Silicon Valley, universities, finance, and the arts. Farmers, like my Pozar grandparents, came to Galveston and then California in hopes of a better life. Central American refugees flee violence and seek economic survival.
In yesterday’s museums, few visitors knew or cared whether an emperor’s polished marble likeness or the graceful body of a goddess had once been goods for barter in some tomb robber’s grimy hoard. Now the end of colonial empires and the fevered growth of nationalism favor returning looted art to its place of origin. A Still, at the British Museum, you can still see, along with the Parthenon marbles, the magnificent Egyptian antiquities carted off by the son of a Paduan barber–one Giovanni Battista Belzoni.
Belzoni was an enterprising lad who dodged Napoleon’s draft by emigrating to England. Lacking both English and a profession, he found work as the strong man in a circus. Soon he won the heart of an intrepid Englishwoman, who may or may not have been a tightrope walker. She contrived somehow to set him up as an engineer, and before long he was invited by a travelling pasha to design a hydraulic system on the Nile.
When that project failed (fault of a lazy work crew, said Belzoni), he quickly shifted to the antiquities trade. Eventually he was able to dig up and haul off such trophies as Ramses the Great, with “Belzoni” chiseled naively near its large left foot.
I happened upon Belzoni during research in the old British Library, on the rich topic of Looted Art. How I enjoyed those months of bootless delving, the untidy piles of book request slips at my desk in the dimly-lit inner Reading Room, my notes filled with vivid and shocking details. Themes did emerge–Looted Art and Nationalism/Colonialism/Imperialism, but it seemed to me, then and now, that Belzoni’s story was a natural for a Sondheim opera.
I did meet a musicologist at the American Academy in Rome, who knew Sondheim well. This was immediately following 9/11. Military helicopters were circling in the blue September sky over the Janiculum Hill, and armed guards patrolled the American Embassy across the street. When we weren’t watching the sky and the street, we were all glued to CNN on our computers. Nothing would ever be the same again, we all agreed. Hardly the moment to float a frivolous opera project. Eventually the Academy fellows went back to their painting, their research, and their complaints about the Academy’s food. Although nothing in fact ever was the same again.
Still, Egyptian obelisks continue to adorn eight Roman piazzas. Venice still has its looted lions and horses, Florence an obelisk or two as well as a trove of mummies, and museums throughout the world hold treasures of other lands. Why did the Islamic State prefer to destroy rather than flaunt the captive architecture of pre-Islamic eras? Marketing of antiquities is said to be more profitable than oil sales.
While mourning Isis destruction in Palmyra, Mosul, and Nimrud, it’s hard to ignore the West’s own robust tradition of iconoclasm. This extended from biblical idol-bashing to the Crusades, the Reformation, and the French Revolution. In 16th-century Geneva and in Basel, Calvinist mobs destroyed every Catholic image they could find, from stained glass windows to statues of virgins and saints and holy medals.
And as we recoiled from the barbarous Isis beheadings, historical memory slid over an estimated 16,000 guillotined by French revolutionaries, not to mention the millions annihilated in the Holocaust. Note that enlightened France continued execution by guillotine until 1981. Their bloody revolution did occasion a French diaspora, mainly of the aristocrats. Irish emigration, almost entirely of the poor, followed in the mid-19th century.
Among the masses fleeing southern and eastern Europe before the First World War were my grandparents. Born in Moravian villages (then Austrian) they travelled to California via Galveston,Texas. My grandfather, a strapping redheaded farm boy, good with horses, had served in the Austro-Hungarian cavalry until the end of his term. It was in August 1914 as it happened, and he knew to immediately book passage to America. My grandmother, who had found work as a seamstress in Vienna, eventually followed him to California. There was no pot of gold for them in California, but they never returned to their villages.
Shortly before the Soviet Union fell apart, I went with my mother to then-Czechoslovakia. After a tense border crossing from Vienna, we pored over a large paper map and in a single day located both villages. In Mohelno we found a large war memorial and a few ancestors in the graveyard, including the the annoying uncle who had travelled more than once to visit them in Santa Cruz, California. Just outside the village were mysterious windowless towers that turned out to be a nuclear power station.
Near my grandfather’s village, Rohy, an old man hoeing by the main road pointed out the Pozar place. “Yes,”he said, in German, “that Alois Pozar (my grandfather’s eldest brother) was a hard man.” A large building near the village church still had “Pozar” over the door. Later I learned that “Pozar” meant “fire,” and the imposing structure would have been the firehouse rather than my ancestral manse.
Scant decades after my grandparents left for California, there was the crucial migration, from Europe in the 1930s, of the Jews. Many of these, in the academy and the art world especially, became our respected elders and/or the parents of many of our friends. Once, at a dinner party where table talk had turned to Israel, we realized that as gentiles, we were not as free to condemn Israeli expansionism as the others. America, founded by immigrants, didn’t welcome Jews until after the Holocaust, just as we aren’t welcoming most refugees from the Middle East now–even fewer under the new administration.
Regarding much earlier migrants, genetic research on the 5,200 year-old remains of a woman farmer found in Ireland, suggest DNA from the Middle East. Agriculture thrived there long before and after the Irish potato famine. But we don’t need ironies as much as we need peace settlements.
The good news from the Middle East is that American ally Saudi Arabia decapitated only 27 people in 2020, an 87 percent reduction from the previous year…probably because the pandemic limited the audience for this instructive public event.