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This was me in the summer of ’53, between Kindergarten and 1st Grade, probably in July, the month I turned six years old:

1953_07_paradiseI’m the one with the beer.

And this was me in 1st Grade, Mrs. Heath’s class:

Grade_1I’m in the last row by the aisle with my back against the wall, looking lost, which I was.

Some kids are good at school. I sucked at it until my junior year in college. That was when I finally grokked a rule: Find what the teachers want, and give them more than that. When I shared this insight with my wife, she said “I figured that out in the third grade.” She remembered sitting in class at her Catholic grade school, watching the nun go on about something, pointing her pencil at the nun and saying to her eight-year-old self, “I can work with this.” Which she did, earning top grades and blowing through UCLA in just three years before going on to a brilliant career in business.

Don’t get me wrong. I learned a lot in school — probably just as much as the other kids, and maybe more than most because I read a lot and was curious about approximately everything (which is still the case). I also enjoyed hanging with friends and doing what kids did. But I hated the schooling itself: the seven lessons teachers were paid to deliver

  1. Confusion
  2. Class position
  3. Indifference
  4. Emotional dependency
  5. Intellectual dependency
  6. Provisional self-esteem
  7. Submission to authority

But Summer was paradise.

One big credit for that goes to Grandma Searls, whose birthday is today. She’s top left in the first photo, which was shot at her house in the woods in what’s now Brick, New Jersey. (Back then it was still in the Pine Barrens — a more delightful region than the name suggests.) If Grandma was still around, she’d be 132 years old. (She died in 1990 at nearly 108.) She was our family matriarch, without the regalities, and one of the world’s most loving and welcoming people. Gatherings like the one above were constant and wonderful, all summer long.

I also want to give a big hat tip to Nancy Gurney, one of the other faces in the back of the room in the second photo. Nancy has put together this Bogota High School site for our graduating class: 1965. I didn’t go to Bogota, but I did go to Maywood elementary and junior high schools, which fed into Bogota High back in those days. When I look back at the old photos on the site (of which the second above is one), only fun memories come back.

A couple weekends ago I visited the graves of relatives and ancestors on my father’s side at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx. All of them died before I was born, but my Grandma Searls and her sisters often visited there, and I thought, Hey, now that I’m in New York a lot, I should visit these dead folks. Grandma would like that. Here she is at at age three, in early 1886:

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She was born Ethel Frances Englert, on November 14, 1882, the third of four sisters. Here they are with their dad, Henry Roman Englert, in 1894:

5212424474_60250bb2dc_zGrandma is the foxy one on the lower right.

They lived here, at 742 E. 142nd Street in the South Bronx:

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That row house was razed, along with the rest of the block, to make room for what is now called “Old” Lincoln Hospital. These days an impoundment lot for towed cars reposes atop a hill formed by the imploded remains of the hospital. Amazingly, a lookup of the address on Bing Maps still goes to the same location, a century after these homes disappeared. Here’s how it looks now.

Henry was a son of Christian and Jacobina Englert, immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine, and head of the Steel & Copperplate Engraver’s Union in New York. His first wife, the four girls’ mom, was Catherine “Katie” Trainor, the daughter of Thomas Trainor, who emigrated from Letterkenny, Donegal, Ireland at age 15 in 1825, leaving six siblings behind. Thomas married Mary Ann McLaughlin of Boston, settled in New York, and made his living in the carriage trade:

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He lived and died at 228 East 122nd Street in Harlem. He and his wife Anna (née McLaughlin), married at St. Peter’s in Manhattan produced seven children, of which Katie was the second. The others were Hanna, Ella, Margaret, Mary and Charles, who was killed in the Civil War. Family legend says Chartles ran away as a teenager to fight, and was shot carrying the Union flag. But he didn’t die then. The old man visited the kid in a Washington army hospital, barely recognizing his son through the boy’s thick red beard. On Christmas 1865 the Charles arrived home in a box.

Thomas, Charles and other Trainors are among the early plantings in Old Calvary Cemetery in Queens. At three million corpses strong, Calvary is New York’s largest. I’ve never been there, and I’ll bet almost nobody else has in over a century. (One exception: Aunt Catherine Burns, about which I say more below.)

Katie’s sister Margaret, better known as “Aunt Mag,” or “Maggie,” was a favorite of the Englert girls and a source of gentle but stern family wisdom. A sample: “You’ve got it in your hand. Put it away.” Here she is:

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Maggie was the only one of the Trainor kids to live a long life, dying in 1944. Katie died at 38.

After Katie’s death, Henry married Tess Atonelle*, who had worked for the family. Here is Tess with Henry’s youngest brother, Andrew Englert:

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Tess and Henry produced a number of additional offspring, of which only one was remembered often by Grandma and her sisters: Harry, who died at age 4 in 1901:

harry-roman-englert

The next year Grandma married George W. Searls, my grandfather, who was 19 years older. George was, among other things, the head carpenter for D.W. Griffith, when Hollywood was still in Fort Leed. Here he is…

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with his crew:

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He built the family house at 2063 Hoyt Avenue, where my father and his two sisters were born and raised, and where my parents were hanging when I was born in 1947. The two upstairs floors were mostly rented out. Among guests and tenants passing through were Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. Grandma preferred Lillian, finding Mary’s language too salty. Another was Edward Pierson Richardson, Sr., M.D., father of Elliot Richardson (who served as Commerce Secretary under Richard Nixon).

Grandma met Grandpa when she was working as cleaning help in a boarding house, where she found Grandpa sleeping. She was so attracted to the rugged carpenter that she bent over and kissed him. He woke up, pulled her down and kissed her back. Natural selection, I guess.

Grandpa died in 1934 at age 70 after catching erysipelas from a nail that scratched his face. If they had penicillin back then he might have lasted a lot longer. I remember his older sister, Eva Quackenbush, well. She was born in 1853, lived almost to 100 (she died in 1953), and told stories about what it was like when Lincoln got shot. She was 12 at the time. Here she is with Mom and the infant me:

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I was lucky to know so many interesting characters born two centuries back, or close: stories of New York when the streets were all dirt and cobble, of the arrival of gas light, electricity, subways and trolleys, bridges and tunnels, cars and phones.

These people were living history books. Grandpa walked with a limp from a wound he got fighting in the Spanish-American War. Among many other achievements, he was foreman of the crew that built the Cyclone at Palisades Park: the scariest roller coaster in world history. Pop worked in that crew and was the first to ride it. Heres a photo he shot from the top:

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Pop was a fearless dude.

Through the Depression Pop worked as a longshoreman in New York, helped build the George Washington Bridge, served in the Coastal Artillery and went to Alaska to build railroads. That’s where he met Mom. Then he re-enlisted to fight in World War II, where his last job was as General Eisenhower’s phone operator in Paris.

All four Englert girls were still going strong the whole time I enjoyed perfect childhood summers at the beaches and in the backwoods of South Jersey. Here they are on the Jersey shore in 1953:

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They all spoke Bronx English, so the place where they stood was called ‘Da shaw.” It was also Mantoloking, not Point Pleasant. Just being historically accurate here.

What matters are the memories, which fade in life and disappear in death. I had hoped to bring some up, or to organize them in some way, when I visited Woodlawn.

It was less eerie there than blank: dead in several meanings of the word. Graves not “endowed” were marked by stones sinking into soft and hummocky glacial moraine. Who still remembers or cares about Henry Kremer (1853-1905) and his infant son, whose headstone is a few years away from burying itself? Those who cared enough to buy the stone are surely gone. How about Joseph Harper, who departed in 1897?

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Bet nobody.

I took those photos while following a map made for me by my cousin, Martin Burns, who shares the same ancestors and relatives, and who had been there before with his mother, Catherine (named after her Irish grandma, Katie), who did much of the genealogical and photo-gathering work from which my research here benefits. She died not long ago in her late 90s. (If accident or disease doesn’t get us, we’ve got a nice portfolio of genes to work with here.)

I walked around for about half an hour. During that whole time, and while driving in and out of the cemetery, I saw nobody else, other than my wife, sleeping in the car. (She said this wasn’t her idea of a fun date.) Verdant and peaceful as it is, Woodlawn is abandoned by nearly all but the dead who reside there.

The Englert inhabitants of Woodlawn are spread across three grave sites. The fourth one on Martin’s map is the Knoebel’s. They’re the family into which Aunt Gene, Grandma’s oldest sister, married. She’s the second sister from the left in the beach shot, above. There are six graves in the Knoebel plot, which is the only one of the four that I found. Thirteen people were buried there. One, Aunt Gene, went in when she died in 1960, and came out a decade later, when she was moved to Fairview Cemetery in New Jersey.

Christian and Jacobina are in an endowed plot, so their headstone stands upright. Here are aunt Catherine and cousin Kevin Burns (brother of Martin), standing behind it a few years back. There are three graves here, containing the bodies of seven people. I’ve listed them in this photo, by Martin. Four died young, and three lived full lives.

The single grave of Andrew and Annie Englert is unmarked, far as I know. (That’s Andrew next to Tess, above.) I didn’t find it. Nor did I find the grave of Henry Roman Englert, the root stock of most of the descendants I knew and heard about growing up. (I hadn’t yet posted the photos I got from Martin, so all I had to go by was a print-out of his map.)

After finding none of the Englert graves, I stood in one quiet spot and sent out a mental message to any ghosts who might be around, asking for a clue. I felt and heard nothing: clear evidence that the departed are truly gone.

Later, when I looked at these two photos, I saw that I was standing exactly on top of the graves of Henry, Katie, Harry, and several others. Here they are, in a photo Martin shot:

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Several more things weirded me out, once I looked at the affidavit Catherine got from Woodlawn (or somewhere), listing the deceased under the grass there.

First was that a fifth Englert sister, Grace, existed. She was the youngest, died at age 2, and was buried here in 1889. Obviously my aunt Grace Apgar was named after this kid. But I never heard about the late baby Grace or forgot it. Either way, it was a surprise to learn she once walked on Earth, and lies in it here.

Second was that little Harry lay beneath both his older sister, who died at 28, and his mom, Tess, who died at 63. That all died young seemed even more tragic to me. (I’m five years older than Tess was when she went. “Young” is always less than one’s own age.)

Third was that old Henry R. got the only headstone, and it was probably not one he bought for himself. I’m sure it was put up after he died, I suppose by his surviving daughters.

Yet the site was visited often, way back when, I was told. Why did nobody ever mark them all? Or those in the other plots? Was it too expensive? And how did they know where to look without a marker of any kind?

I doubt I’ll ever know. Whatever the reason, it became clear to me that cemeteries are for one or two generations of living souls, and that’s it. If the dead remember the dead, they don’t do it here on Earth. Thanks to burial vaults (coffin containers) the dead don’t even serve as fertilizer.

At any moment there are better things for the living to do than dwell on dead people that nobody alive remembers or cares about. I’m probably wasting my time and yours by visiting the subject right now.

Yet I do feel a need to put what little I know about these people in pixels on the Web, rather than just on cemetery stones. I am sure, for example, that some Englert descendants — cousins I don’t know — will some day find this post and appreciate the efforts put into this accounting, mostly by Catherine and Martin.

Harvard, founded in 1636, is likely (I hope) to keep this blog up long after I’m gone; but even Harvard won’t be around forever. Everything dies. Rock under my ass in uptown Manhattan dates was formed about a half billion years ago. In another half billion years, life on Earth will be gone: burned away by a growing Sun.

Kevin Kelly once told me that in a thousand years, evidence of nearly everyone alive today will have disappeared. It’s a good bet.

Life is for the living. So is knowledge. All I’m doing here is contributing a little bit of both to the few people who might care — and acknowledging the love and caring that flows between people within and across all generations, nearly all of which are gone or not yet here.

Since I started with Grandma, I’ll close with her gravestone, in Brookside Cemetery in Englewood, New Jersey:

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If we matter enough to be written about, our lives are framed by dates in parentheses. Grandma’s here is (1882 – When?) The answer is 1990, when she was nearly 108 years old. She is buried next to her husband George and her older daughter, Aunt Ethel M. Searls (1905-1969). Grandma’s other two kids were my father, Allen H. Searls (1908-1979), and Aunt Grace Apgar (1912-2013).

Ethel died of horrible medical treatment (including convulsive electroshock) for what was probably just depression. Though beautiful and brilliant, her love life went poorly, and she hit the glass ceiling as a regional office manager for Prudential Insurance Company — the highest position in the company held by a woman at the time.

Pop died of his fifth heart attack, all of which I am sure were caused by decades of heavy smoking. He and Mom are buried together in North Carolina. I visited Pop’s grave three times: 1) when he was planted in it; 2) with Mom on her 90th birthday; and 3) when she died a few months later. I haven’t been back since.

Grace died last December of being done. Until then she lived an active and wonderful life. You can see that in shots of her 100th birthday party, which was a gas. She lived in Maine and her body, like those of husband Archie and son Ron, was cremated, sparing us all the need to avoid visiting remains in gardens of stone where almost nobody goes — except once, when they die.

I’d like my body to be recycled. Just put it in the ground somewhere, to feed living things. These days they call that natural burial. But I’m in no rush. Too busy.

_______________

* Since Google finds approximately no families named Atonelle, and many named Antonelli (and a few named Atonelli), I suspect Atonelle is an error. So I’d welcome a correction.

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Yesterday was my Uncle Chris’s 100th birthday. When he passed fifteen years ago, I wrote the following, which I just unearthed from the Old Web. Now seems like a good time to expose it to the world. He was the embodiment of a Good Man, I still miss him, and I’d like his many great-grandkids to know more about the kind and strong root stock of their amazing family.


The Good Doctor

chris1

December 17, 1999

My Uncle Chris died yesterday morning, just before dawn, surrounded by his wife and five sons, at his home in Graham, North Carolina. In addition to his immediate family, he is survived by thirteen grandchildren, dozens of nieces and nephews, thousands of former patients, the church and town he helped build, and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, all of which will be diminished by his passing.

Uncle Chris and his mom, Granny Crissman

Uncle Chris with his mother, “Granny” Crissman

He was eighty-five years old. For forty-five of those years, he was Graham’s family doctor. If Andy Griffith had played a doctor instead of a sheriff, his model would have been Clinton S. Crissman, MD. Uncle Chris and Andy both grew up around Mt. Airy, North Carolina, and Graham was a real-life Mayberry: one of those little Southern county seats with the courthouse in the square and the Confederate soldier statue facing north up Main Street.

Although Graham was no less segregated than most southern towns in the Forties and Fifties, Uncle Chris was always everybody’s doctor. Over the course of his career he delivered more than three thousand babies, including at least one Miss North Carolina. I doubt that other human being has ever done more good, personally, for the people of Alamance County than Doctor Crissman.

Uncle Chris was a Good Man in the purest meaning of that expression. He was more than a doctor. He was a healer. When he put his arm around you, looked you square in the eye and said “I believe you’re gonna be all right,” you were on the best drug the good Lord ever made.

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Doctor Crissman with grandsons Steven and Andrew

While we were all wondering what this was about, nobody did more to calm me down than Uncle Chris. He drove down from his office, forty miles away, put his strong hands on my legs, looked me in the face and said, with grave authority, “Now David, your job is to hold down the bed. You just do what these nurses tell you to do and you’ll be all right.”Case in point. Back around the turn of the Eighties, when I was still a young man, I was seized by chest pains at work. I went to my local doctor, who didn’t like my EKG and promptly put me under Intensive Care at Durham County General Hospital. A week later we found that it was only pleurisy, but for a while there it was scary.

In those days I knew lots of doctors, including several who worked in the local health care system, and I talked Science with every one of them. But none did more to heal me than Uncle Chris, with his strong hands and plain words. If I tried to talk Science with him, he’d just smile and joke back. saying, “Well, David, I think you know more about that than I do.”

Of course, I didn’t know squat. And most of my doctor friends didn’t know a zillionth of what Uncle Chris knew in his bones about what makes people sick and well.

My cousin Mark, who took over his father’s practice a few years ago, marvels at how much medicine his old man practiced without the aid of modern technology — and how successful he was at it. I believe it’s because Uncle Chris was a natural. Love is always the best medicine; and God never made a doctor who was better at delivering that medicine. Especially to kids.

Whether he was giving us polio shots, carving up a watermelon or hauling us around to church, school or countless athletic events, he was always warm, funny, generous and kind.

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Uncle Chris with granddaughters Laura and Julie

When I look at these pictures of Uncle Chris, which I harvested from old family photo albums, the hands strike me again as perfect instruments of love and care. It’s easy to see their effect on his grandchildren — the same effect their parents, aunts and uncles experienced a generation earlier.affectionate. But those are all just adjectives: brochure words. Where they all came together was with those big hands of his. “Hands are the heart’s landscape,” says Pope John Paul II. They are also the best metaphor or for care (from the Allstate slogan to Christ’s last words on the cross). For countless children, patients and friends, those hands were the places to be.

Even as an adult, I loved the way Uncle Chris would hold people while he talked with them — or even while he was talking with someone else. I think I’ll miss that even more than talking with him about basketball, especially his beloved Deacons. If I didn’t bring them up right away, he’d say, “David, you haven’t asked me about my Deacons yet.”

Uncle Chris went to college at Wake Forest University, as did sons Paul and Charles. He was a loyal member of the Deacon’s Club, and often traveled with the team. Once in a shopping center I ran into Rod Griffin, one of Wake Forest’s basketball greats. I asked him if he knew Doctor Crissman and he said “of course,” making it clear that the good doctor was among the team’s favorite Deacon Club members.

Uncle Chris’ affections and appreciations were not limited to the Deacons alone, however. Next to the Deacons he loved to follow all of ACC basketball, and beyond that the rest of the college game. I remember how he was moved to tears when David Thompson, the N.C. State star, was injured in an especially brutal accident under the basket. “I love that boy,” he said to me. “I just hate to see that happen.” But the truth was that Uncle Chris loved just about everybody, as far as I could tell.

Even though our family lived 500 miles away, in New Jersey, we were always in the Crissman orbit. At least once a year — usually on Easter, at the height of North Carolina’s dogwood season — we would drive down to visit with the Crissmans on their farm-size property (bought in the early Fifties from next-door neighbor Tom Zachary, the great baseball player best known for pitching Babe Ruth’s 60th home run). Uncle Chris and Aunt Doris (my mother’s sister) had five boys. The first two, Paul and Eric, were the same ages as me and my sister Janet. The other three, Charles, Mark and Kelly, were no less fun.

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Uncle Chris surrounded by sons Eric, Kelly, and Charles; granddaughters Karen, Emily, Julie, Melanie and Kate; daughters-in-law Linda and Patt; and grandson Steven

In my mind I can still see the original property — twenty-six acres of rolling pasture, populated by a single tree. Near that tree Uncle Chris built a large ranch house that was ideal for a family with four (soon five) active boys. The pool came soon after the house, then the barn, the gardens, the greenhouse, the bamboo grove and then the hundreds of new trees. Today those trees, mostly hardwoods, are huge. They also comprise some of the prettiest woods in the whole state: silent testimony to the nurture in their author’s nature.The Crissmans had ponies, dogs, cats, and other animals that roamed the acres of grass and trees. With a spread that big, everybody worked like farmhands when they weren’t having fun. For kids it was paradise. And there was never any doubt about who made it that way.

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The Wheel House in 1974, 1980 (after Hurricanes David and Frederic) and 1999 (after Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd). Note how the lower floor was washed away, twice. It’s still gone.

In the Seventies, when Uncle Chris and his generation were starting to retire, his wife Doris’s two sisters, Eleanor (my mom) and Margaret both moved to Graham (Mom with my father from New Jersey and Aunt Maggie from California). So did I, with my wife and two kids. The gravitational pull was that strong. Like those trees, all of Uncle Chris’s sons, nieces and nephews are in now their forties and fifties (his first son Paul and I are the oldest, at 52). When my wife Joyce first met the whole family, she said “those are all such good men.” It’s easy to see why.

March, 1974 was a rough month for my own little family. Colette was three and Allen had just turned one. My radio career in New Jersey had fizzled, my car barely ran and everything was looking bleak. We needed a place to stay and Uncle Chris provided one. It was a giant old house on Main Street in Graham that had gone unoccupied for so long that the mailman refused to come to the door because the place was clearly “hainted” (because, legend had it, the original owner, a judge, had died there in the very long tub in the bathroom upstairs). Uncle Chris let the four of us live there free of charge until I could get a steady job and we moved to Chapel Hill. He never asked for, or expected, a dime.

He was also generous with another amazing piece of real estate: The Wheel House — the Crissman’s family retreat in Oak Island, North Carolina. This simple box has always been closer to the water than anything else around, always expected to be trashed by a hurricane, and always survived after hurricanes passed through. I’m not sure if it signifies anything, but it seems worth noting anyway.

There are so many other things I could say about Uncle Chris. How he was the best man at my second wedding. How he survived the tragic premature death of his beloved Doris and later married a dear friend, Bernice, who in the difficult final months of his life returned the good care he had given so many others over the years. How much Mom, who now calls herself “the last twig on the tree” of her generation, will miss his visits to her house. How he gave so much to the Methodist Church he helped build, to the schools, to the community. How hard it is to imagine a world without him.

Of course he’s still here. The love he gave so abundantly continues to grow and spread;’ because that’s what love does. And that’s what he knew perhaps better than anybody else around.

Doc Searls
Emerald Hills, California

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I couldn’t resist.

Our kid, a high school senior, gets pitch letters from every college and university in the U.S. Or so it seems. (Our sample size is 1, so wadda we know?)

Most of these pitches are talking brochures, but some are so packed with clichés that I couldn’t resist mocking the worst of them, one of which came today. I rewrote it enough to mask the source, which is actually a good college. (And hell, who knows… the kid might wanna go there.)

themodernA couple weeks ago I took a walk around the historic neighborhood in Fort Lee where my extended family had a home — 2063 Hoyt Avenue — from the turn of the last century into the 1950s. It’s where my parents lived when I was born, and where my aunt and grandmother sat for my sister and me (taking us often for walks across the George Washington Bridge, which my father helped build) and held big warm Thanksgiving dinners.

It was all erased years ago, and the parts that aren’t paved over are now turning into high-rises, starting with The Modern (there on the left), a 47-floor mirror-glass monolith that towers over the George Washington Bridge, and straddles what used to be Hoyt Avenue, exactly next door to the old house, which was paved over by Bruce Reynolds Boulevard (where “Bridgegate” happened). A twin of The Modern will go up nearby, as part of the Hudson Lights project. The whole thing is huge and will change the New Jersey skyline and the Fort Lee community absolutely. But hey, that’s life in the ever-bigger city.

Anyway, I shot a bunch of pictures. More in the captions.

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My father, Allen H. Searls, would have turned 106 today. It’s not inconceivable that he might have lived this long. His mother lived almost to 108, and his little sister died at 101 just last December. But Pop made it to 70, which still isn’t bad.

He was, to me at least, the living embodiment of a good man: strong, warm, loving, loyal, fair and funny. He was a good husband and father, a hard worker, and a soldier who served his country twice. First was in the Coastal Artillery at Sandy Hook. Second was when he re-enlisted to fight in WWII. He was also very smart. he could do math in his head faster than anybody I’ve ever met, and he rarely lost at card games. Not surprisingly, the Army measured his IQ at 157. (Not that I think anybody’s smarts can be reduced to a number. I’m just bragging on the old man here.)

Here is what I wrote about Pop on my old blog, fourteen years ago…

Bootstrapping

 

Al Searls
Allen Searls: bootstrapper, gandy dancer & fisherman, West Palm Beach, 1958

Today’s DaveNet is about bootstrapping. Dave says:

 

When engineers build a suspension bridge, first they draw a thin cable across a body of water. Then they use that cable to hoist a larger one. Then they use both cables to pull a third, and eventually create a thick cable of intertwined wires that you can drive a truck across (actually hundreds of trucks).

My father was a bootstrapper: a high steel construction worker whose first big job was the George Washington Bridge, which connected Manhattan with his home town of Fort Lee, New Jersey. The bridge was completed in 1931, the year he turned twenty-three.

Pop’s favorite job on the bridge was rigging the giant cables that draped from cliff to cliff across the bridge’s 600-foot towers. When my sister Jan and I were small, he’d take us for walks on the bridge — then just a couple blocks from our Grandmother”s house — and explain how they hung and wrapped the cables, how he and his buddies would cut the hanging carriage loose at one tower and ride it up and down the parabola draped in space between the two towers, not sure if the thing would hold in one piece or if they’d get killed looking for cheap thrills. I’n fact, I’m pretty sure that’s the old man, right there on top of the hanging carriage in this archival picture. For all I know, he might be in some of these other cable-rigging pictures, here and here.

I thought about Pop a lot the last time I was in New York. The view from our tiny apartment there includes a small slice of the bridge. Looking at it brought back the pride I felt as a kid — and still feel — knowing Pop helped build this magnificent thing.

I was born sixteen years after the bridge was finished. By that time Pop had already lived an adventurous life, serving twice in the military (the second time in WWII) and working as a gandy dancer on The Alaska Railroad. His specialty was building railroad trestles. It was in Alaska that he met Mom, a Swedish girl from North Dakota, doing social work for the Red Cross out of Anchorage.

It’s funny. We had a pretty standard suburban life when I was growing up in New Jersey. Mom was a teacher. Pop sold insurance. But Jan and I always knew our parents were a little… different. Good, hard-working people, but adventurers too.

Mom is still around, going strong at 87. Pop died in 1979. I still miss him. He’d have loved the Web and all the bootstrapping it takes to build it right.

Addenda…

      My sister Jan writes:

Actually, Mom was a country school teacher who got her masters in U of Chicago and pioneered the Child Welfare Service for the Territory of Alaska in 1939. She joined the Red Cross in 1944 when she “went outside” (what they called leaving Alaska). She really was a pioneer — Child Welfare was a very new concept then.

Tom von Alten also adds this correction: Great image, and probably too poetic to be niggling about, but the curve of cables under their own weight is a catenary, rather than a parabola, fwiw. He also points us to a fun page on the PBS Super Bridge site.

And a bonus link.

 

It Istanbul Spice Marketwould have been great to visit the Egyptian Spice Market in Istanbul with my old friend Stephen Lewis, whose knowledge that city runs deep and long. But I was just passing through the Old City by chance, waylaid en route from Sydney to Tel Aviv, and Stephen was still in Sofia, which he also knows deeply and well.

But I still enjoyed his company vicariously, though his remarkable photography, such as the shot on the right, explained in his blog post, Exuberance or Desperation? Street Vendor, Rear Wall of Egyptian Spice Market, Eminönü, Istanbul, Anno 2000. Stephen’s tags — Film-based Photography, Infrastructure, Istanbul, Public Space, Rolleiflex 6x6cm, Street Commerce, Turkey, Urban Dynamics — expose the depth and range of his knowledge and expertise on all those matters, about which he blogs at Bubkes.org.

His two prior posts, also featuring Istanbul, are Unkapani Before the Construction of the Golden Horn Metro Bridge: A Declining Neighborhood Perched Atop a Major Infrastructural Improvement and Urban Back Streets: End of Day, Samatya Quarter, Istanbul.

Before that, is Brooklyn, Late Spring: Blossoms in the Midst of a Cold Spell. There he writes,

The photos above, below, and linked to via the Read More button at the bottom of this entry, were taken during a late-day stroll in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Heights and a mid-day walk from Park Slope to Boerum Hill, a couple of miles to the west.  On most grounds, economic and social, I oppose the rampant gentrification that has pushed out non-white, lower-income, and gray-haired New Yorkers from swaths of northern Brooklyn.  However, when I see the revived and manicured beauty of such neighborhoods my opposition momentarily softens … that is, until I remember that, given the pace and expanse of gentrification, ordinary New Yorkers will soon be forced to live so far from the city’s lovely historic neighborhoods that they will rarely have the opportunity, time, or means to visit them.

This hits home in a literal way for me. My ancestors on the Searls side (half of which originated via German and Irish immigration) lived in New York for generations. And I am currently domiciled, at least part of the time, in a district of far-northern Manhattan that remains, as @ChrisAnnade, puts it, “Starbucks-free.” It is a high-character neighborhood of Orthodox Jews and Spanish-speaking immigrants, mostly from the Dominican Republic. It’s an inexpensive part of the city, where commercial establishments are mostly of the non-chain type and sky-bound rents are not yet the norm. But it’s nice enough that I suspect things will change as the neighborhood gets “discovered” by people with more money or fame than those who already live there.

Fort Lee has been in the news lately. Seems traffic access to the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee was sphinctered for political purposes, at the spot marked “B” on this map here:

The spot marked “A” is the site of my first home: 2063 Hoyt Avenue. Here’s how it looked in 1920:

My grandfather, George W. Searls, built it in 1900 or so. He and grandma, Ethel F. (née Englert) Searls, raised thee children there: Ethel M. Searls, born in 1905, Allen H. Searls (my father), born in 1908, and Grace (née Searls) Apgar, born in 1912. Grandpa died in 1935, but Grandma and Aunt Ethel lived here until 1955, when I was eight years old.

It was in a fine old neighborhood of similar mansard-roofed homes, most of which were built before the George Washington Bridge showed up and became the town’s landmark feature. Pop, who grew up climbing the Palisades and had no fear of heights, helped build the bridge, mostly by rigging cables.

Not long after finding a place to stay in New York in Fall of 2012, my wife and I took a walk across the bridge to visit the old neighborhood. I knew the old house was gone, the land under it paved over by Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. What I didn’t expect was finding that the entire neighborhood had been erased. See the brown area on the map above, between the highway and Main Street? That was it. Palisade Avenue, behind Hoyt, is now a house-less strip of rotting pavement flanked and veined by wild grass. The only animal life we spotted was a large groundhog that ran to an old storm drain when we approached.

Little of the Fort Lee I knew as a kid is still there. The only familiar sights on Main Street are City Hall and the old fire station. Dig this: City Hall also shows up in the background of this shot of Mom with my cousin Paul and I, when we were both a few months old, in April 1948. This street too has been obliterated: replaced by stores and parking lots, with no trace of its old self.

When I was a kid in the ’50s, my grandparents’ generation — all born in the second half of the 19th Century — was still going strong. One relative I remember well was great-aunt Eva Quackenbush, Grandpa Searls’ older sister. Here she is with Mom, and the baby me. Eva was born in 1853, and was twelve years old when President Lincoln was shot — and event she talked about. She visited often from her home in St. Louis, and died just a few days short of 100 years old, in 1953. Living long is a Searls family trait. Grandma made it to 107 and Aunt Grace to 101 (she passed just last month, fun and lucid to the end).

So to me the world before cars, electricity and other modern graces was a familiar one, because I heard so many stories about it. Grandma grew up in The Bronx, at 742 East 142nd Street, when it looked like this:

Today, according to Google’s StreetView, it looks like this:

The red A marks 732. On the left, behind that wall, is a “towed car” lot. It sits atop a mound of rubble that was once “old Lincoln Hospital”:

According to the Wikipedia article on Lincoln Hospital, “In 1895, after more than half a century of occupying various sites in Manhattan, the Board of Trustees purchased a large lot in the South Bronx—then a semi-rural area of the city—at the corner of 141st Street and Southern Boulevard.” This is a morning view, lit from the southeast, looking north across 141st Street. Grandma’s place was on the back side of the hospital. Amazing to think that this scene came and went between the two shots above it.

Grandma’s father, Henry Roman Englert, was the head of the Steel and Copper Plate Engravers Union in the city. His trade was also destroyed by industrial progress, but was an art in its time. Here he is, as a sharp young man with a waxed mustache:

Henry was a fastidious dude who, on arriving home from work, would summon his four daughters to appear and stand in a row. He would then run his white glove over some horizontal surface and wipe it on a white shoulder of a daughter’s dress, expecting no dust to leave a mark on either glove or girl. Or so the story went. Henry was the son of German immigrants: Christian Englert and Jacobina Rung, both of Alsace, now part of France. They were brewers, and had a tavern on the east side of Manhattan on 110th Street. Jacobina was a Third Order Carmelite nun, and was buried in its brown robes. Both were born in 1825. Christian died in 1886 while picking hops in Utica. Jacobina died in 1904.

Grandma met Grandpa in 1903, when she was twenty and he was forty. She was working as a cleaning woman in the Fort Lee boarding house where Grandpa lived while he worked as a carpenter. One day she saw him laying asleep, and bent down to kiss him. He woke, reached up, and kissed her back. Romance commenced.

Grandma didn’t like to admit having done cleaning work, insisting always that she was “lace curtain Irish,” to distinguish her family from “shanty Irish.” When ethnic matters came up in conversation over dinner, she would often say “All for the Irish stand up,” and everybody would rise. In fact she was only half Irish. Her mother, Catherine “Kitty” Trainor, died in her thirties. Henry later married an Italian woman and produced more progeny, only one of which was ever mentioned by Grandma. That was Harry, who died at age five. The largest framed photograph in Grandma’s house was one of Harry, looking up and holding a toy.

Kitty’s dad was Thomas Trainor, who came over from Ireland in 1825 at age 15 to escape England’s harsh penal laws. (He shipped out of Letterkenny with an uncle, but the Trainors were from south of there. Trainor was anglicized from the Gaelic Tréinfhir, meaning “strong man.”) Thomas worked as an indentured servant in the carriage trade, and married Catherine McLaughlin, the daughter of his boss. Thomas then prospered in the same business, building and fixing carriages at his shop at the south end of Broadway. His two daughters were Kitty and “Aunt Mag” Meyer, whom Grandma often quoted. The line I best remember is, “You’ve got it in your hand. Now put it away.” Mag taught Grandma how to walk quietly while large numbers of other people in the house were sleeping. Grandma passed the same advice to her grandkids, including me: “Walk on the balls of your feet, toes first.” The Trainors also had a son, who ran away to fight in the Civil War. When the war ended and the boy didn’t come home, Thomas went down to Washington and found his son in a hospital there, recovering from a wound. The doctors said the boy would be home by Christmas. And, when Christmas came, the boy indeed arrived, in a coffin. Or so the story went.

An interesting fact about Fort Lee: it was the original Hollywood. The Searls family, like most of the town, was involved. Grandpa was D.W. Griffith’s head carpenter, building film sets such as this one here. Here he is (bottom right) with his crew. Here’s a link for the Fort Lee Film Commission, featuring samples of the silent movies made there. Among the extras are family members. Lillian Gish and Lon Chaney both boarded upstairs at 2063 Hoyt. So did the dad of the late Elliot Richardson, a cabinet member in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Time flies, and so do people, places and memories. My parents’ generation is now gone, and family members of my own generation are starting to move on. I can count ten places I used to live that are now gone as well, including my high school. Kevin Kelly told me a couple years ago that none of us, even the famous, will be remembered in a thousand years. I’m sure he’s right.

But I still feel the urge to pour as much as I can of what I know into the public domain, which is what you’re witnessing now, if you’re still with me at the bottom of a long post. I believe it helps to see what was, as well as what is.

For example, this view up Hoyt Avenue from the site of the old Searls place, in 2012, is now filled with a high-rise that is almost complete. The little bridge-less town where my grandparents met and my father and his sisters grew up is now a henge of high-rises. Fort Lee itself is now also known as Fort Lee Koreatown. In this constantly shifting urban context the current scandal seems a drop in the bucket of time.

 

Aunt Grace — my father’s younger sister — died yesterday at her home in Maine. She was 101 years old, and in good health until just a couple days ago. Last month, in fact, she flew to San Diego to visit one of her granddaughters.

Grace often said she wanted to live to 108, like her mom, Ethel F. (née Englert) Searls. We should all be so lucky as either one.

Talk about a good life.

Grace was a lifelong artist, best known for her ceramic Toby Mugs, which she made in the basement studio of the Apgar family home alongside Big Brook in Marlboro, New Jersey. She and Uncle Archie moved there around the turn of the ’50s, with their three kids, George, Ron and Sue. The house was first built as a mill in the early 1700s and had been through many incarnations afterwards. Archie continued to work on improving it through the rest of his life. Same went for the land, which the family also farmed for many years.

When Grace finally “retired” a few years ago, after the age of 90, she didn’t go south like so many seniors. Instead she moved to Edgecomb, Maine. There she continued to maintain a vigorous and independent life.

To help remember her, I’ve put together a couple photo sets on Flickr: one of shots throughout her life, and one of her 100th birthday party last year. The former are mostly from her own photo collection, which I’ve been scanning and posting over the last several years. Some are of Grace, some are of her relatives and friends, and some are mine that she’s commented on, as “gsapgar.” She was the last person whose approval I still craved.

I’ll miss her smarts, her humor, her hospitality, her generosity, and her loving presence in the world. She was as fine a Mom, aunt, grandma, great-grandma and friend as anybody could wish for.

We’ll all miss her.

Grandma Searlsfootstone says “1882 -  ” and is hardly and overstatement. She died pushing 108 in 1990, and was lucid, loving and strong in all the ways that matter.

She was one of four sisters in her family. That’s them, with their dad, on the left. Grandma is the one on the bottom right.

My father was one of three sibs, with two sisters, Ethel and Grace. My mom was one of three sisters and one brother. My wife is one of six sisters, plus two brothers. All those women were, and are, strong too. (Grace is now 101 and doing great.) My sister (Commander in the U.S. Navy), daughters and granddaughter too. Love ‘em all.

It’s Grandma’s birthday tomorrow, her 131st. It’s my wife’s birthday today. My daughter’s was yesterday. (Also JP Rangaswami‘s and RageBoy‘s.) So here’s a toast to all of them — and especially to the strong women who have been raising me all my life.

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