Saturday, December 31, 2016

Worst year. EVER!

A lot of folks are complaining about this past year--lost love, lost family, lost celebs...yes, 2016 sucked as a whole for all those reasons and more. My year took a turn in the last quarter of 2015 when I lost my mom at Thanksgiving, November 29th to be exact. Just two days before Christmas '15, I lost a secondary job that was going to help me get back on my feet and into an apartment of my own. Two days before Christmas, and just two weeks after memorializing my mom in Indiana, I get the carpet yanked from under my feet.

Fast forward two months, and the wheels really came off in early February. Through no fault of my own, I lost the house where I rented a very nice room and nearly my primary job. I was no longer playing drums and hadn't for a few months by then. At the same time I was facing a personal crisis, my ex-wife was facing a very real, life-and-death crisis. When her friend died, it affected many of our mutual friends AND, most importantly, my two daughters. I was there for them, putting my own issues aside for a few days.

I have to take a minute to thank my dearest friend, Paula Boyette, without whom that month would have been SO much worse. Not only was she a great friend and a personal aid to me, but she came over the morning after the tragic loss and cleaned my ex-wife's house. That's a true friend. Thank you, Paula!

So February sucked and seemed like a continuation of the end of 2015...then April happened. Just a week before I was planning to leave and spend my summer in Indiana with my widowed father, I totalled my Black Beauty--the 2014 Ford Focus sportwagon I'd only had for 10 months. To make matters worse, my insurance had just lapsed (yes, that was $200 mistake that I'm STILL paying for dearly) and I was "at fault" in the accident. Plans put on hold yet again.

Now, I DID get to have two great months with my dad mid-June through mid-August, but not without help. And I was unable to find employment while I was up there, but it didn't matter to me. I was right where I needed to be. That put me in a financial hole and when I returned, there was much uncertainty. I can't say that I was loving life back in Tallahassee. I seemed to be pulling knives out of my back every time I turned around. That's why when I heard this song by Saint Asonia this morning, it rang true:

Let me live my life 
I can go get my knife 
Or I can pull out the one that you stuck in my back 
For my suffering, you've got nothing to gain 
My pain is your entertainment
(Saint Asonia, 2015)

I offer up those lyrics to 2016. It's been a fuck-my-life kind of year from Nov 2015 - Oct 2016.

I am thankful that things began to change in November of this year, but that first anniversary, first Thanksgiving and all without mom were very difficult and painful. Yes, things have turned around in this last quarter of 2016, but I'm not sad to see this year fade into the blackness. That's what this last year has been shrouded blackness...the only bright spot being my precious time spent with dad in Indiana.

Goodbye to 2016...and fuck you very much!

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Power Failure in Tallahassee-Leon County

TALLAHASSEE - Power failed post-Hurricane Hermine and the lights went out, too. The power structure of city-county government failed to serve the residents of the capital city in an efficient and effective manner. No amount of spin on social media is going to cover for an inept municipal government that bungled the power restoration effort to a city nearly blacked out overnight Thursday and into Friday morning, as a weakening Category 1 storm made landfall southeast of Tallahassee.

Scott Maddox and Mayor Andrew Gillum took to social media in the immediate aftermath of the storm to assure constituents, 80-percent of whom sat in the dark, that power was being restored as quickly as possible. Four days later, more than 20,000 city utility customers still had none. That would be a reasonable response time for a hurricane of any magnitude, but taking into account this was no more than severe thunderstorm strength on the weaker, western side of Hermine, it is inexcusable.

Maddox was trying to encourage patience and keep Tallahassee's residents informed. The mayor was playing the politician's favorite game of covering one's own backside with wordplay. "We are happy to accept any help," the mayor posted to Facebook. The problem with these words are that you don't sit in a darkened city and wait for the cavalry to arrive. Did he learn nothing from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's inaction and ineptitude post-Katrina in 2005? The cavalry, in this case nearly 600 Florida Power and Light employees situated in Lake City 100 miles away, doesn't impose its will on a community and start working to restore its power grid. There's a procedure in place that involves no more than a simple phone call or e-mail to the State Emergency Response Team across town at the Emergency Operations Center in SouthWood. And that call simply needs to be made through the Leon County Emergency Management structure. Yet, no one seems to be calling out Emergency Management Director Kevin Peters or even including him in this discussion. That's the chain of command. City manager coordinates with county EM and the call is made to the state and immediate help is sent to the city.

This is Emergency Management 101. When the capabilities of a local community are overwhelmed, the county and state work to provide the necessary resources.

Mutual aid compacts exist between states to allow for procurement of resources across state lines with full reimbursement available. Closer to home, municipalities and county resources stand at the ready to assist each other and those resources are under the Governor's purview once a state of emergency is declared. And in the case of this storm, a private utility company stood at the ready to pounce on Tallahassee's large-scale power outage. The Governor had to act where the city and county did not, at least not quickly enough by all counts, in the wake of Hurricane Hermine.

That's when the finger-pointing started in the media; all the while, Mayor Gillum insisting he hadn't denied any and all help. An article in Saturday morning's Tallahassee Democrat told a different story, one of a city utility manager speaking in direct contradiction of the mayor. "If you send 150 more trucks, we don't have 150 people to put on those trucks," he told the Democrat. Jim Rosica, in a blog post today, tells of the offer of help from FPL President Eric Sigaly who was sitting across from Gillum and utilities chief Rob McGarrah. The problem of 150 hardly seems like an excuse for denying the help of the private utility.

As the city's top brass, they should have made those calls Friday as soon as they knew the extent of the power outage. Every available resource, including FPL, should have been in Tallahassee Friday evening, ready to get the job done. And instead of pointing fingers and covering his own backside, Mayor Gillum should have been leading the cavalry, not waiting for it to arrive uninvited.

The blame game continues today as 17,000 remain without power, air conditioning or refrigeration in their homes. At some point, the mayor and the local governments need to step up and take accountability. What if Hermine had been a Category 3 or higher storm? How would the capital city handle what would unequivocally be a utility apocalypse?

There's no denying that this storm caused unforeseen levels of damage to the region's power grid, especially considering that there weren't copious amounts of rain, like what the Tampa Bay region experienced last week, nor were hurricane force winds felt in any part of Leon County. The real power failure, however, rests with city hall, plain and simple. We can do better, Mayor Gillum. We must. Your job depends on it.

Chris Doyle is a former Public Information Officer with the State Emergency Response Team in Florida and a freelance writer. Contact:

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Memories with Mom I'll never forget

Just found an emotional letter I wrote to my mom on the day I turned 45 back in 2013. It was a difficult letter to write as we had not really spoken or communicated at all since my divorce was finalized earlier that year. In fact, since my estrangement from my family in the summer of 2012, things were tense between me and my parents. My mom and I had grown distant. This letter was my attempt to begin a conversation that would hopefully bridge the gap between us.

It wasn’t an apology letter or a defense of my actions. I simply told her how I’d been feeling and about how hard it was to go it alone, without the emotional support of my mom or dad. Knowing that they’d only heard one side of the story, I didn’t attempt to counter it, per se, I just tried to get my mom to walk a mile in my shoes. She was upset and hurting for my girls. She grew up the child of divorced parents, so it killed her to see her granddaughters hurting. And believe me, if I could’ve sheltered them from that pain, I would have.

At any rate, mom didn’t see things the way I did. She’d been married to my father for 45 years at that time. She never really thought divorce was an option. I was the third child of hers who went there. I hated that I let our differences of opinion cloud my judgment and keep me from speaking to her. In 2013, I didn’t call to wish her a happy birthday or a happy mother’s day. That guilt was weighing on me so heavy by the fall that I sat down on my laptop and wrote from my heart.

I don’t remember verbatim the phone conversation we had a few weeks after she received my letter, but it didn’t seem to hit its mark. I still didn’t feel that she was hearing my heart or understanding where I was coming from. But, at least, we were finally talking. That was the main thing. My letter had started the conversation.

It continued in the spring of 2014, when after moving to Tallahassee to be nearer my girls, my parents came down to Florida for Spring Break with my sister and several of their grandkids. I took my two girls over to Panama City Beach to visit with them even though their Tallahassee Spring Break had ended a week or two earlier. I sat poolside with my mom and engaged in a very difficult conversation where I tried to clarify some of the points of my letter. Mom was hearing me with her ears, but I still wasn’t getting through to her heart and it was frustrating for me. I nearly left in tears. I did leave my girls with them and return to Tallahassee to resume my search for work. At least, that was my excuse for leaving. I was having no luck reconnecting with my parents on a substantial level and I left there very disheartened.

They brought my girls home before heading back to Indiana that April. In June, I’d receive a call from mom that would bring me to my knees. She called to inform me of her aggressive cancer diagnosis and to tell me that she wouldn’t be fighting it medically. She resorted to prayer and, short of a miracle, was going to succumb to the cancer, and leaving the outcome in God’s hands. To say that I was shocked and devastated is an understatement. It shook me to my foundation. She couldn’t leave me with our relationship still in turmoil, so I determined to get up to Indiana as soon as I could.

Once my girls were out of school, they were able to go stay with their mother who was working for nine months in Colorado. I drove the aging Volvo up to Noblesville, Indiana, and spent six weeks that summer in mom’s basement. That was her literal basement, not figurative. I had begun to work my way out of her figurative basement by then. Plus, her terminal illness, I believe, had her ready to re-evaluate her assessment of me and open to listen with her heart.

That summer of sadness had many bright spots, like the long conversations we shared on her back porch, where I poured out my soul and she listened without judgment. We didn’t always find common ground, but I knew for certain that she was finally hearing my heart. Like I told her, “You’ve known me for 45 years! You know the kind of person I am, the man inside. You raised me. We grew up together.” And so there was much healing that came to our relationship on her back porch that summer.

I left there with my girls in tow. They’d flown in from Colorado to see their Grammy and get the devastating news direct from her lips. It was a bittersweet trip for us all. But I left there feeling so much relief. Years of physical separation and emotional distance were removed and the chasm between us swallowed up by understanding, grace, forgiveness and love.

I will always and forever cherish that summer as a priceless gift bestowed upon me. I was able to follow with trips to Noblesville that Thanksgiving, and three visits to Cicero, where she moved in 2015, before she died. In fact, my daughters and I were at her Cicero home the morning she died following Thanksgiving last year.

I will never, ever regret writing that letter on my 45th birthday. It was the beginning of a new love between my mother and I and a new chapter in our relationship. I’m so glad I ran across it on my laptop today even though it was difficult to read. I miss you mom and always will. I love that we understood each other on such a deep level. It was a great joy to grow up with you and to be your oldest child, witness to so many of your joys and sorrows. Thank you, God, for the time of healing and reconciliation we shared 2014-15. Rest in peace, Mom.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Nips, Rube & Stein, a segment (first draft)

Just finished the first draft of a 22-page short story, working title, "Nips, Rube & Stein."

Here is an excerpt...

The last thing Rube remembers about his father are the words he uttered after they had just buried Rube’s best friend, Nips. “He was just a dog, son. Dogs are a dime a dozen.“

But Nips was the best thing that had happened to him in his 10 years on Earth. A mongrel mutt he found in the woods at the end of their road, Nips had been Reuben Edwin Schwartz’s companion and confidant the last four years. His father, a non-religious man, had named the dog Rabbi as a joke. Rube called him Nips for his aggressive disposition toward strangers. He’d bark and nip at the heels of anyone he didn’t trust. Now that he was gone, young Rube felt lost. It marked a major turning point in his life.

Rube’s father, Ben, was a hard man with a penchant for booze and for women. All he knew was that his father upped and left one Sunday in 1974 and never came home. The plain truth was that his mother had finally had enough with his Vodka-infused debauchery. A well-known adulterer, Ben had squandered any chance of reconciliation with Mary Schwartz, so after years of neglect and emotional abuse, she kicked him out. Rube missed his dad, but he missed Nips even more.

Never had a boy found a better friend. He and Nips went everywhere together. Sometimes Henry Rollins Hicks would tag along. A stuttering, African-American boy, Henry Rollins befriended Reuben at school, where they were both bullied as black sheep. Rube’s family was the wrong religious persuasion, even though they were not practicing Jews, and Henry was simply the wrong color. Rube knew that Henry Rollins was alright when Nips, untrue to his nickname, went right up to the frightened boy and licked his hand. It was the first stranger Nips hadn’t nipped. That told Rube all he needed to know about his newfound friend.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Alice K. Thurston, Deaf and Determined, my 2nd cousin

This morning, I came to the Thurston branch of my family tree, which shoots off from the Greeks and McCormicks of Gibson County, Indiana. For reference, my third great-grandmother on mother's side was Berilla (Mills) Greek, who lived 1829-1908 and was the daughter of my pioneer ancestor, Duston Mills (1804-1875), and wife of prominent Gibson Co. farmer, Joseph Greek (1822-1911).

Berilla's grand-daughter, Helen McCormick-Thurston (1902-1980), had two daughters--Evelyn in 1925 and Alice in 1931. Helen was a single mother in 1940, raising her daughters alone and running a beauty salon in Princeton, Indiana. The girls were listed on the 1940 U.S. Census as living at home with their mom; however, I found a second census record that year for the youngest one, Alice K. Thurston, and it led me to this:


I searched for records of her attendance, but could find nothing on Google. On the school's website, I found the Admissions Office and contacted a Mrs. Rice. She led me to the digital collection containing their archives on Indiana University's website. That's where I struck gold, including this senior picture of Alice, giving her full name and hometown.

Not only was that such a cool find in and of itself, but her name is the same as my grandmother, Alice Kathryn Dunning-Larson-Wright, just spelled in the "southern Indiana way." In fact, I've seen my own grandmother's name mispelled "Kathern," they way it's pronounced in the country. :)

The school had a monthly publication, first called The Silent Hoosier, but by the time Alice enrolled in January 1937, it was simply called The Hoosier. Not only was Alice in that publication dozens of times between 1937-1950, but she submitted more than a couple of articles, including this one on learning to swim in the May 1949 edition of The Hoosier:

I have been afraid of water all my life and never learned to swim until last summer. My sister and brother-in-law tried their best to make me overcome this fear. When they tried to teach me how to swim, I was very stubborn. They let me go after they helped me to float many times. I was choked, but sure enough, I conquered the fear. I learned to do several things in water. I have not learned to swim skillfully, but it is satisfying to know that I can swim some. Now I would love to go swimming. —Alice Thurston

I learned all kinds of valuable information from that publication, like her nickname "Thirsty," the names of her best friends and her aspirations. During her last two years at the school, she aspired to become "the world's fastest typist," the Vice-President of the United States and the operator of her mother's beauty shop in Princeton. I don't know if any of those aspirations were realized or not, but I feel like I came to know my second cousin a little bit better. She was a very active student at the school, attending there from K-12, participating in clubs, music, cheer squad ("yell leader")--yes, the deaf school had yell leaders--and writing for The Hoosier. She graduated June 6, 1950 and the trail for her grows cold.

Her parents either divorced or her father perished while she was a student at the Indianapolis-based school, about a three hour drive from her hometown. There was one instance where she wrote about a visit by her mom, dad and sister, in the late 1930's. My best guess is that her father left for California, remarried and became an auto mechanic for a Bakersfield, CA, Chevrolet dealership. Her mother reported to the 1940 Census taker that she was widowed. I'm not certain, but I do know that she grew to womanhood without her father's presence. I can't imagine that opportunities were as plentiful in the 1950's for people with disabilities as they are today, but with her good looks, abilities and determination, I'm sure she made a good life for herself.

Discoveries like that are what fuel my drive to complete the book I'm writing about my family, from pioneer times in Gibson County, IN, to the present. Thanks for taking the time to read this post.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Sybil Niemann, Rest in Peace

So this is the post I either missed or didn't want to consider last July...

At the time, I had just returned from visiting my mother who was dying of late-stage cancer. Honestly, I don't remember if I read Sybil's post or not. I just remember some of her more recent posts about her illness and how it was keeping her from one of her loves, and that is Facebook. It's how we stayed connected.

You see, I had met Sybil on a Gibson County (IN) message board, a forum where we discussed everything from corn and melons to family history to politics. I originally joined the forum to discuss my genealogical pursuits in the county of my birth. Sybil and I hit it off right away. We shared a similar worldview and sarcastic sense of humor. I would private message her to make comments I wouldn't otherwise make on the forum, especially when it came to other users.

From that conversation, we became Facebook friends, and though I wouldn't meet her in person for a couple of years, I felt a keen connection to her. It was as if we came from the same stock. She was of my parents' generation and grew up just up the road from them in Patoka, Indiana. I was born in Princeton, where my parents were raised. My roots go back to pioneer times in Knox and Gibson counties, so that's why I had originally joined the forum where I first met Sybil.

She was very young at heart and seemed to connect easily with those of us younger than her. That's probably why she was such a good teacher at IU's School of Dentistry.

On Facebook, she would post of her simple life in Speedway, Indiana, where she had retired and lived with her two Jack Russell Terriers. And through that medium, she introduced me to the "rock smiley" and her friend in California, Lisa Albanese. Lisa and I became Facebook friends through our mutual love of Sybil and her youthful persona. I knew from following Sybil online that she frequented Charlie Brown's a longstanding eatery in the heart of Speedway.

So on a visit to my parents' house in the summer of 2014, I finally got the chance to go meet Sybil at Charlie Brown's for lunch. I arrived just as she came riding up on her tricycle, adorned with spinning wheels, American and checkered flags and a personalized Indiana license plate. I found her to be just as charming and warm in person as she was on the Internet.

We communicated quite regularly through early 2015. In fact, it was spring the previous year when she learned of my love of percolated coffee and without even a passing second thought, sent me a percolator she no longer used along with a rock smiley she had made. Her generosity struck a chord in me and I reciprocated with a hand-written thank you note. I think my daughters ended up with the rock smiley. My oldest thought it was so cool, she painted an old, black guitar pick with pink nail polish making a pick smiley of her own design. I posted a pic of it as a comment to Sybil's post of my thank you card back in May 2014. I still have the Farberware percolator she sent me.

But somehow, we sort of fell out of contact. You know how life has a way of interfering. I was focused on spending as much time with my mom as I could, making three trips up to Cicero, IN, to see her last year. During that time is when Sybil learned of her own cancer.

When she learned of my mom's cancer, unaware that my parents were still together and able to get around okay, she offered assistance in getting my mom to and from her appointments. She didn't want my mother to deal with any of it alone. I assured her that my dad had those bases covered, but I really appreciated her selflessness when she had never even met my mother. That and the gift endeared her to me, as did her wisdom and worldliness.

I'll never forget Sybil Niemann's thoughtfulness, friendliness or her indomitable spirit. Even cancer couldn't keep her down when it was ravaging her body. She was such a stellar human being. I was quite shocked when I just learned today, 15 days late, of her passing. It's bothered me greatly all afternoon...more because of my ignorance and neglect of our friendship, than anything else.

I needed to get this down in a blog post, so that I could begin to get past it. I feel really awful for her precious dogs, for her sons and their families and for the world at large. We lost one of our everyday angels, but the heavens gained a bright-shining star.

Rest in peace, my sweet friend. (Her obituary from Colvin Funeral Home).

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

My Dunnings and the Great Flood of 1937

The Great Flood of 1937 hit the Ohio River Valley hard in mid-late January after 12 days of rain caused every tributary to over top their banks, flooding 70 percent of Louisville and 90 percent of it's sister city, Jeffersonville, Indiana. Things were so bad down river that Evansville officials declared Marshall Law. Upstream, things were nearly as dire for towns like Hazleton, Patoka and Wheeling, Indiana. The highest crest ever recorded in the town of Hazleton, situated at the mouth of Robb's Creek on White River, was in January 1937 at 31.7 feet, just for reference.

Gaylord, Elsie & Nancy Kirk
We'll get back to the flood momentarily, but first let me introduce you to my Aunt Elsie's family. That picture was taken around 1957 of Aunt Elsie with her husband and oldest daughter. Elsie was the first child born to my maternal great-grandparents, David and Ruth (McEllhiney) Dunning. 

She was born in 1909 on the farm of her grandparents, Thomas J. and Rhoda (Greek) McEllhiney. In fact, the attending physician mistakenly wrote her last name as McEllhiney on the birth certificate when, in fact, she was the first Dunning child born in Center Township, Gibson County, Indiana.

Aunt Elsie married Uncle Gaylord on Christmas Eve 1933 in Evansville. She had spent the better part of her life taking care of eight younger siblings, so having kids was not her first priority after marriage. Oldest daughter, Nancy Gayle, wasn't conceived for almost seven years. In the meantime, the young couple took up residence in a house near Hazleton, owned by the Ice family. The Ices were property owners north of Wheeling, not far from where Elsie grew up. The Dunning family farm was on Wheeling Road, north of Francisco. Anyway, Elsie's older cousin, Venita McEllhiney had married Charles Ice three years earlier, so we know the cousins were tight with Charles and his family. While living near Hazleton, Gaylord was a bus driver for the local school there. It wasn't long before they moved into the house owned by Gaylord's grandfather, John A. Kirk, elsewhere in Washington Township, Gibson County.

When they moved to Section 1, Center Township in Gibson County, they were living in the Netty Moore house very near where Elsie attended 7th and 8th grade at the Lawrence School, a single-room country schoolhouse before the consolidation of county schools in 1927. She never went beyond the 8th grade. That old schoolhouse, as well as the Netty Moore place where she was living, was on property once owned by her 3rd great-grandfather, a war hero, Joshua Stapleton, who fought the Native Americans at Tippecanoe (and I believe, also saw battle during the American Revolution). Joshua had lived there as early as 1820 and donated the land for Lawrence School. This was the best place they had lived since getting married in 1933 and it put Elsie much closer, within 2 miles, of her family home.

So that Gaylord could work his own farm, reaping more of his labor, they once again moved within Center Township. This time, they moved even closer to Elsie's family, taking up residence on the 100-acre Morrow farm on Wheeling Road in the Patoka River bottoms. It was late 1936 and they were about to experience one of the worst flooding disasters in Indiana's history. By mid January the next year, with the ground frozen and saturated by the Indiana winter, the rains began to fall, 15 inches in 12 days at Louisville fell from January 13-24th, according to the National Weather Service. As noted at the beginning of this post, it was a disaster of epic proportion for the entire region.

The land rented from Vesper Morrow began to fill with water. Unlike their McEllhiney neighbors across the road who had built their house on an elevated piece of land in the bottoms, the Morrow home that Gaylord and Elsie lived in was at ground level. The Patoka River flowed into the first floor of their farmhouse, but they had prepared by removing valuables to the second level and elevating furniture as best they could. Wheeling Road was impassable below the Dunning farm and the Kirk home on Vesper Morrow's farm was only accessible by boat until waters receded in February. The family had escaped in time and most of their valuables and sentimental items were spared.

It was still a mess and took some time to get back to where they were when they had moved in a few months earlier. Keep in mind, this disaster came on the heels of the Great Depression. As Uncle Les (Elsie's younger brother) reports, the financial crisis did not hit farm families quite as hard as they were more self-sufficient than ordinary homes. For instance, "they had their own wheat for flour, cows for milk and butter, chickens for eggs and meat, hogs and cattle for meat, their gardens for vegetables, enough crops to feed the livestock and sell for the staples needed. Eggs and cream were sold for salt, pepper, coffee, baking powder, soda, sugar and etc." ("The Early Life of Elsie Isabell Dunning/Kirk/McDowell" by Leslie Dunning.).

Elsie took the hardships of the flood without complaining and accepted the gracious help of friends and neighbors to recover, clean and set back up her home. In early 1938, she was dealt another setback, as her mother left her father at home with two children and another finishing high school. Elsie stepped in to help her grieving father take care of the house and the children, stepping back into the role she served as a teenager. 
Aunt Elsie

Her mother left with Elsie's Uncle Edward Williams and soon filed for divorce from David Dunning. This was quite a shocking development and David demanded that his ex-wife, Ruth, have no contact with their children, the youngest of whom, Carl, was only six. Two years later, Elsie became pregnant with Nancy, who was born in early 1941. By then, her brothers, Roy, Tom and Les were serving our country, Ginny was in high school at Francisco and Carl was in 4th grade.

Aunt Elsie survived the Great Flood of 1937 that claimed nearly 400 lives, fairly unscathed, and the personal tragedy at home of her parents' 1938 divorce. She was a great stand-in matriarch for the Dunning family all while trying to start a family of her own. She and Gaylord Kirk had two daughters who are still living in the area where their parents made their humble start. Speaking of humble beginnings, Elsie started her life in a one-room log cabin and grew up on the Dunning homestead, which still stands (in an updated form) on Wheeling Road outside Francisco, IN. She was my great-aunt and lived a great life of 96 years.

My family has now farmed Center Township in Gibson County, IN, for more than 200 years. I'll be posting more about our pioneer ancestors in the weeks to come to commemorate the bicentennial of the State of Indiana, admitted to the Union in 1816.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

My pioneer family and ties to Lewis & Clark

Today's pioneer history lesson takes us back to 1799 and Gibson County's oldest known settler, Keen Field. I was transported back in time when I first saw his grave, marked with a pioneer-era tombstone, a piece of slate with his name rough-etched into it. He's buried north of Patoka, Indiana, in a cemetery now known as Field-Morrison Cemetery, once maintained by my late Uncle Les Dunning. It sits at the edge of a corn field alongside the railroad tracks and CR 50 E. It is the cemetery where my Morrison ancestors from North Carolina are buried.

It is Rachel E. Morrison (1840-1917), my third great aunt, who ties me to the famous pioneer family. I say famous because Keen Field's wife, Anna Lewis, was kin to Meriwether of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition. Keen's brothers, Joseph and Reuben Field, were part of Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery. Anna (Lewis) Field gave Keen at least 10 children, some born in Kentucky before the move in 1799 to Indiana. Their grandson, Joseph Jackson Field (1831-1864), who died in a sorghum mill accident, was my Aunt Rachel's first husband, married in Gibson County 8 Jan 1863.

The Field and Morrison families were part of what became the Steelman Chapel neighborhood just north of Patoka. That area, first surveyed by the British when it was still part of the Northwest Territory, is laid out in 100-acre tracts running diagonally, SW to NE, known as Military Donations (land that was given to American war veterans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries). The Field family owned Military Donation 10, just south across Steelman Chapel Road, from where the pioneer cemetery mentioned above is located. The Morrisons took up farming just east of there and on the north side of Steelman Chapel Rd, sometime during the last half of the 1850's.

Aunt Rachel was married twice. After her first husband's accident, she married a Henry Barton, whose lineage I have not confirmed, as there were at least 3 Henry Barton's born around that time in Knox and Gibson counties. The headstone where he is buried at Shiloh Cemetery, not far from the original family farm, bears a birth date nine years later than his actual birth--a mistake on the part of the family or the gravestone engraver, I'll never know. I only have record of one child, Nancy Jane Field, being born of Rachel's first union. However, with Henry, she bore at least six children. She died 5 Dec 1917, at age 77, near Patoka and is buried near her parents, David and Jane (Swaim) Morrison, in the same cemetery as Keen Field.

Though not a direct relative, I took much time in researching the Field family from Virginia, who settled at the mouth of the Salt River, just south and west of Louisville, KY. I happened upon Lucie and Gene Field's research some years ago at, where they have painstakingly laid out the family history and retraced the famed steps of Meriwether Lewis and his intrepid group of explorers. It was with great sadness that I did not get to meet Gene and Lucie in person during their trip to SW Indiana in the Summer of 2011. Gene Field left this world two years later, leaving a great legacy to those of us who were connected to his family, either by birth, marriage or friendship.

I've been painstakingly tracing my roots back to the pioneers of Knox and Gibson counties for the better part of 15 years. My mom's lineage goes back to pre-Indiana statehood and pioneers from Maine by the English name, Mills. Since this is the state's bicentennial, admitted to the Union in 1816, I'm near the end of writing a book about that family, showing where we've come in 200 years, it's working title is "My Mills Family: 200 Years in Indiana." Stay tuned for more as I travel along in this quest.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Stewart Cunningham (1818-1903)

In keeping with my Indiana Bicentennial theme, here is the profile of another pioneer ancestor from my Scot-Irish roots on mom's side.

Stewart Cunningham was born in Edwards County, Illinois, and raised in southwest Indiana. The county maps of 1880-81 show that he owned a 75 acre farm in Decker Township, Knox County, Indiana, operating a ferry across White River between Gibson and Knox counties. His affairs were very much tied to Gibson County, where he was a commissioner as early as 1852, according to Gil R. Stormont (see p.91 "History of Gibson County...", Bowen, 1914), a post he proudly held, on and off, until 1866.

He was the son of either John C. or William "Buck" Cunningham, brothers who came with their immigrant father to the Wabash River valley from a Scot-Irish settlement in north Georgia. Stewart's grandfather (presumed), Andrew J. Cunningham (1776-1840), was born in East Lothian, Scotland, but married a Nancy Shields (1778-1840) in Ireland, 1797. They lived in County Donegal before joining other Scot-Irish immigrants and sailing to the Port of Savannah in Georgia. Also, Andrew's brothers, John, Joseph, and Stewart and sister, Jane (who married Edward Phillips in Gibson County, IN) were born in Scotland and came to American about 1800 at the Port of Savannah. They left Georgia and came north about 1803, according to Leland S. Cunningham (see his book "Early Hazleton"), but Dan Elliot has found a land record where Andrew deeds to Samuel his land in Clark Co, GA, in Sep 1805, so they may have moved before the winter of 1805 to Indiana.

Back to our subject, legend has it that he ran away from home in Illinois as a young boy, sometime after his mother's death in 1827, crossing the Wabash River at Mount Carmel, coatless and barefoot. He wound up finding shelter at a home in Gordon Hills, a bedrock rise near the mouth of the White River due west of Patoka, Indiana. He was but a teenager when he left there and took up residence with Smith Miller at Miller's Station, an old stop on the Evansville & Terre Haute railroad between Patoka and Hazleton. He was married to Susanna Robb, who undoubtedly introduced the young Stewart to her younger sister.

On the first day of February 1842, a 23-year-old Stewart was joined in marriage to Miss Georgianna M. Robb, whose father, James Robb, Jr., was also an early Irish immigrant to pioneer Gibson County, Indiana. They were married by Methodist minister, Rev. Samuel Stewart, who at one time also served as a judge in Gibson County. For their first home, the couple had but $400, so they borrowed money from John Brown to purchase Militia Donation 39, a one-hundred acre tract in White River Township, about a mile northeast of Miller's Station. They set up housekeeping in a small log cabin on the north end of the tract. I believe present day Steelman Chapel and Cunningham roads intersect near where his property was. The 1881 county map shows that he also owned part of Military Donation 26 giving him 150 acres of land in that township. From his land across the river in Knox County, it is said that he set up a saw mill and launched flatboats to carry farm products all the way to New Orleans. This is also where he ran the aforementioned ferry until automobiles and bridges made his service obsolete.

Every year, Stewart and "Georgie" celebrated their birthdays together on August 12th by providing a large meal for family and friends, of which they had many. That was Georgie's actual birthday. Stewart's was three days later. Known as very generous folks, they would take in orphans and the needy on a regular basis, per family sources. Their son "Doc" Cunningham (1844-1915) always brought several dozen watermelons for the occasion. And anybody who knows Indiana produce, knows that Decker melons are the sweetest and juiciest in the world!

The two-story home they built in the Steelman Chapel neighborhood from timbers Stewart razed from his military donation lands was burnt to the ground in December 1948. It had stood for more than a hundred years as an old pioneer landmark in Gibson County. The couple had been long since passed from this world, Stewart died in 1903 and his bride in 1915. They are buried in the cemetery that bears her father's name.

My connection to this pioneer couple is through my 3rd great-aunt, Gracie E. Morrison-Cunningham (1844-1921), who married "Doc" the farmer and melon-bearer mentioned two paragraphs above. She was born in the Surry/Yadkin County area of North Carolina, where my maternal great-great grandmother, her younger sister, was also born in 1854. Their family traveled by wagon through the Cumberland Gap in 1858 to escape policies they didn't agree with in the South, namely the institution of slavery. Arriving in southwest Indiana sometime before 1860, they took to farming the same area of Gibson County as the Cunninghams and Robbs. Gracie and Doc Cunningham raised a family of four children in that area and are buried in Patoka's Oak Hill Cemetery.

I've said it before, my roots run very deep in Gibson County, Indiana. This is yet another example of my pioneer roots in that county. I will continue to celebrate my rich Hoosier heritage throughout 2016, the Bicentennial mark of Indiana's statehood.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Mary Mills-White, My 5th Great Aunt & Pioneer Ancestor

I don't have a photo of her, but then again, she died in 1877, so the headstone will have to do. Mary Mills-White is my 5th great aunt on my mother's side. Her parents, James and Rachael Mills, were pioneers who made the arduous journey from southern Maine to southwestern Indiana in the second decade of the 19th century. They arrived in what was then still wild country full of Indians and every kind of game, settling in the area that would become Princeton, Indiana, before Indiana was admitted to the Union. That would not happen until five years after their arrival in the Indiana wilderness.

Mary was only three when they began their journey, her mother setting up home in New York while her father and uncle ventured westward in search of new farming land. The story has it that the family dog accompanied the men on the journey, returning alone by harvest time back to the temporary farm in New York. Fearing the worst, Rachael Mills, an industrious woman, sold the harvest and made plans to return to their homeland in Kennebec County, Maine. Before she could start the journey back eastward, the way she had traveled with her husband and five young children earlier in the year, the men returned from surveying their future home in Indiana territory. The family then made their way south to Pittsburgh and west down the Ohio River by flatboat until they reached Indiana on New Year's Day 1811, or so the story is told by Berilla Mills-Greek in Gil R. Stormont's "History of Gibson County, Indiana" (1914, Bowen & Co.).

By the time Mary was 18, she had caught the eye of a handsome suitor, Isaac A. White, a young man born in Massachusetts, but reared just across the river in Friendsville (Wabash County), Illinois. He went by his middle name, Anson, and is also mentioned in Stormont's history.  According to Gibson County (IN) marriage records, the two were wed on Christmas Eve 1825. They remained in that county until the late 1830's welcoming at least six of their ten children into the world in Indiana. The other four children were born in Wabash County, Illinois. They remained in that county at least fifteen years before heading westward in 1855. Anson White is counted among the men in Wapello County, Iowa, on that state's 1856 Census. He would die two years later, leaving my Aunt Mary a widow with three children at home--twins Elizabeth and Sarah, 18, and Mary, 15.

On the 1860 U.S. Census, less than two years a widow, Mary is found keeping home in rural Sciola, in the West Nodaway River Valley, halfway between Des Moines, IA, and Omaha, NE. Twenty-four year old son, Samuel W. White, who would not marry for another couple of years, was home tending to the family farm and looking after his mother. He would soon enlist with the 9th Iowa Infantry of Company A, serving eight or nine months before becoming ill and being laid up in Nashville, TN. He returned to Douglas Township, Montgomery County, IA, buying a 100-acre farm nearer to Grant (just north of Sciola, where he lived with his mother before the war). By 1870, Mary had moved in with Samuel and his wife, Sarah Jane, near Grant, Iowa, where she would spend the last seven years of her life, helping to raise four grandchildren, the youngest of which was only 2 1/2 when she died in 1877. Mary joined her husband in a plot they had purchased in the back lot of East Grant Cemetery in Montgomery County, IA. That is where the headstone, above, was photographed in 2010.

Obviously, Mary inherited her pioneering spirit from her parents who made the roughly 1,260-mile trek from Maine to Indiana in 1810-11. She was among Gibson County's earliest families, then helped to shape Wabash Co, IL, and Montgomery Co, IA, living a robust life of 70 years, seeing a son go off to war in the South, only to come home with impaired eyesight due to sickness, to outlive her husband by nearly 20 years (the date on the headstone for her death is off by five years) and to help raise many grandchildren.

This year marks Indiana's Bi-Centennial, so I'll be sharing more about my pioneer ancestors who came to the Hoosier State before it's admission into the Union in 1816.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Cartoon Depicting Racism

When my friends or those who suffer white angst tell me that I'm just suffering "white guilt," I'm going to show them this cartoon and tell them it's something called EMPATHY...they should check it out. :)

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

What brought us the Trumpinator? White angst.

I asked and answered my own question in the headline. "What brought us the Trumpinator? White angst." This blog post examines how we got to a place where a reality TV star and real estate mogul became the face of "white America" and why that scares me.

I don't dip my toe too often into political waters, not because I'm politically illiterate or can't swim, merely because I'm disenfranchised and I haven't felt like swimming in a long time. I don't believe my vote even counts. My say in matters of government mean absolutely nothing. I'm not represented by people inside the beltway. They are mere puppets of Super PAC's, Wall Street and men with money, influence and power, of which I'm none of those.

But I'm writing this post today, in the shadow of Super Tuesday, with a growing unease of where this election cycle is headed. If you think down the toilet, that'd be my feelings about the state of the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee and the SWFL beaches. No, my feelings about where DECISION 2016 is headed is subterranean, an upper ring of Hades, more like.

It all started with the three-ring circus run by the GOP this election cycle. The "Bad Lip Reading" videos of each GOP debate on YouTube were hilarious, but mostly because they weren't that far-fetched. And as Trump distanced himself from the other Republican candidates, I just sat back and laughed. I didn't take it at all serious until serious candidates, like Gov. Jeb Bush, dropped out of the race. That got my attention, but I still blamed Bush's inept advisors and campaign leaders. As it became more and more clear in the primaries leading up to Super Tuesday that Trump was indeed going to be the Republican candidate for President, I became more serious, as in seriously alarmed. What if this race boils down to Trump vs. Hillary? OMG! That's a very real possibility now.

Now, it's time to wake up and get active. I don't want either of those inept, morally bankrupt kooks running my country!

But how did we even get here?

I don't want to waste my time on a beltway insider like Hillary Clinton. We all know why she's there. And we pretty much know where she stands. We need another Clinton about like we need another Bush in the White House. I'm over career politicians, by the way. They only serve to exacerbate and extend the age-old problem in politics and to reinforce all the stale jokes about how far you can trust them. That is, about as far as you can throw them!

But the Trump phenomenon is beyond weird. He played upon the growing angst of white, conservative America. He served up, in true reality TV fashion, all the most inflammatory rhetoric he could muster, like a grand dragon at a KKK rally in the deep woods of Mississippi. He's yet to distance himself from that domestic terrorist organization, by the way.

And what is at the heart of that angst? Is it the same disenfranchisement that I've been feeling? I think it is, but for many different reasons. Where I feel voiceless is because I don't own any land, have any assets or any political clout of any kind. Where they feel voiceless is in stemming the tide of progress in Western society, in general. This is why they cling to their "traditional" and "family" values. They want to believe that life was actually once like "Leave It To Beaver" and their favorite black-and-white television shows of the 1950's. They'd like nothing more than to turn back the clock and relive those heydays of segregated bliss. They want prayer back in school, abortion abolished and white privilege to once again reign supreme.

If you gave them collectively the chance to roll back the changes brought on by the social revolution of the 1960's, I'd bet you they'd gladly do it! I say, "Let's buy them all 'Back to the Future'-style Deloreans and set the destination for them!" Back to 1955 and away they go!!!

Because what the cultural and social revolution brought us in the turbulent times into which I was born are the progressive values of the new millennium. And part of that creed is that everyone should have a voice. People, regardless of sex, race, sexual orientation or religion, are inherently equal. I mean, for the love of God, that's a 1787 value!!!

But white privilege breeds fear and it has ever since the end of slavery. I believe Trump has preyed upon that fear and stoked its evil embers. "Immigrants are bad!" "Be scared of anyone who doesn't look like you!" "They are only here to steal your jobs, your income, your wellbeing!" These themes are nothing new. In fact, they are ancient. But no one has marginalized the white, Anglo, Protestant majority more than itself! They have marginalized themselves because of their illegitimate fears and now they are fighting back against a straw man! And Trump is their new ideological leader. "Death to the straw man who is out to steal our money, our jobs, our way of life!"

It baffles me how these people, amongst who I was raised, feel threatened by the progresses we've made as a society, as humans. Science has progressed rapidly, allowing us to see far out into the galaxy and even to take a closer look at our own planet to see what irreversible damage we've done to it. Yet, now science is somehow bad. It's like they want to turn the clock back to Roman Imperial times and imprison the heretics who say the Earth is warming, or that it's indeed round!

In the new Millennium, with the freedom to practice and engage in any religious ritual one feels comfortable, the WASPy world wants to turn back the clock to Puritanical times when white Christians fleeing government tyranny ruled the day. We now know what those "Christians" did to the non-white minority (who were then actually still in the majority in this country). And it didn't stop there. Those same "Christian values" put Africans in shackles, Native Americans on reservations, turned a blind eye to the mostly Jewish Holocaust, interred Japanese-Americans and now wants to deport every "illegal" back to their homeland. WWJD, folks? (Hint: read about the Samaritan woman at the's in the New Testament...that's to the right of all the warnings about homosexuality!)

What has white privilege bought these people? A growing sense of fear. They fear that they are no longer in the majority, a position of absolute power. And even if that were so, do they really think any of those great tragedies would be wrought upon them as a whole? Did the African-American President ever open those FEMA camps to inter white folks? Has any minority--Latino or otherwise--ever considered putting privileged white folks in shackles and selling them into slavery? So what are they so scared of?

I know how scary same-sex unions can be. Look at how stirred up the right got over gay marriage!

I know how scary it is to share the streets with men wearing turbans and women who keep their faces covered. You know, because it's so much better to have your skirt barely cover your hoo-ha and your boobs hanging out (a real American value).

I know how scary school desegregation was in the 70's. I LIVED IT! (and survived it, btw)

I grew up in a racially mixed, lower middle class neighborhood. I think diversity is what's so great about this country. But the growing polarization is what scares me more than anything...more than gun violence, terrorism, illegal immigration, even Donald Trump as President. If we keep on this current course, I fear we are headed for a revolution. But that's a topic for a separate rant/blog post.

I'm speaking up this year because it really concerns me how "white America" has responded to the perceived risk to their centuries-old privilege, the status quo and the new social norms. If Donald Trump is really their "savior" and the answer to all that ills them, then heaven help us!!! This is a time for all of us, even those of us who feel totally disenfranchised and unrepresented, to speak up and shine the light on white angst and fear mongering politicians. This is our country and it's about time that well-meaning, non-voting people of all color take it back.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


It's Lent and the exercise is pretty self-explanatory.

I wrote myself the first note on Ash Wednesday (yesterday) after finding this challenge, created by "The Fat Pastor" a couple years ago. My church had posted it to their Facebook page and I was inspired to get creative myself, updating the graphic (above), and starting my note-writing campaign.

Yesterday, I took time to identify the other 38 people I would write. Well, to be honest, I ID'd 36 with a couple of lingering question marks, most notably today's recipient. It'll come to me, I'm sure.

I was inspired to write this blog post after reading this about Day One of #40Notes40Days. And I'm also glad to see it gaining traction again this year on Twitter:

I know I was late to the game on this one, but even if I inspire a couple of people to write some thoughtful, encouraging notes on HALF the days, I'll be happy with my effort. So cheers to the Fat Pastor and to Lent!