Wake Up, 100 Years Ago

Standard

Here’s an interesting thought:

You wake up, and it’s 1918.

What are you qualified to do?

Source: WVU Library

 

My automatic response is, I’d be a teacher, but maybe not, because in many jurisdictions, once a woman married, she was expected to retire. And I’d most likely not be teaching in higher education, as most of these jobs went to men.

And at my age, I’d definitely be retired if this were 1918.

(I saw this question on social media yesterday morning, and it’s intrigued me. Tip of the hat to Eric Alper on Twitter for the idea.)

Advertisements

A structure worth saving

Standard

As far as I know, most of my friends in the Florida panhandle survived Hurricane Michael. I’ve heard from almost everyone — thank goodness, all seem to have fared pretty well, given the severity of the storm.

Friends in Pensacola tell me they were lucky; Hurricane Michael didn’t affect them much. Others in Chipley report many trees down and some property damage, along with inconveniences related to interrupted utilities, blocked roads, and so forth. As one colleague said to me via email last night, “It wasn’t pretty, but all in all, it will be OK. We’re all fine. Things can be replaced, but people cannot.”

Marianna, unfortunately, was hit badly. Many buildings were destroyed; one news report said it looked as if a bomb had gone off in Jackson County, Florida, it was that bad.

And, unfortunately, Cephas’s old office, the building in Marianna still standing with a true Emmett Wilson connection, was significantly damaged.

Cephas’ old office, on the right. The front wall to the top floor is missing, and it’s hard to tell the extent of the damage to the structure. Source: https://postimg.cc/jWW1JwNx

Here’s what Cephas’ office looked like in October 2015, when I took the photo below:

Cephas’ old office has the bright blue awning.

I hope the current owner will be able to save it. Cephas built the red brick structure around 1909. When I visited the office with the awesome Sue Tindel, I took several photos from that second floor, which was unfinished, but had a great view of the courthouse across the street.

Obviously, not the original courthouse where Emmett and Cephas worked; but the current courthouse is on the original site.

A lot of damage especially to the ancient oaks. Source: Jeffrey Burlew, Tallahasee Democrat

I hope Cephas’ old office can be saved.

 

The Gold Medal

Standard

Source: The Stetson Collegiate, January 30, 1904.

The thin gold medal, looped with a blue silk ribbon laying across my palm was inscribed: “1st place, Interdepartmental Speech Competition.” The obverse: “Stetson University, 1904.”

I coveted this medal because last year I was the runner up to my best friend Paul Carter. I never placed first in any competition with Paul —  be it academic, athletic, romantic — I was always second.

It’s a beautiful medal. I strove to win this medal. It was my own holy Grail. If I won, I reasoned, it might fill the hole in my soul that constantly nags at me to be beat Paul. To be number one.

Only now, as I hold the medal in my hand, I realize:

The hole in my soul is still there.

This holy medal isn’t enough.

And,

Nothing may ever be enough.

I close my hand over the medal for a moment; I drop it in the wastebasket.

Confirmation

Standard

The original Pensacola Hospital.

Piled high with boxes, the floor thick with dust and recently scraped paint chips, this room, like much of the building, is a work-in-progress. Aaron Ritz, one of the owners, has been hard at work all morning; he’s determined to bring his patient, Pensacola’s landmark 1915 Gothic Revival hospital built by the Daughters of Charity, back to life.

I’m here to find the room where my ancestor, Emmett Wilson, was a patient in 1918. I have Emmett’s admission records, but I dread finding his room, because it absolutely confirms my research.

Aaron bends over in paint-splattered coveralls to open a drawer in a low cabinet; he gingerly sifts the brittle original blueprints — water and rust have not damaged the clarity of the drawings. He pauses, peers closely at one page — “Here,” he says, with satisfaction. “There’s two patient rooms on the basement level, next to the electric therapy room.”  He notes that these patient rooms had a separate vestibule, which was unusual.

The vestibule in between the patient rooms in the alcoholic ward.

“It was for security purposes, as some patients would likely have been restrained,” I said.

After reviewing the blueprints, Aarons escorts me downstairs. The original terrazzo floors echo our footsteps as Aaron points out faded Tudor arches, and radiant tiger oak window frames. To lighten the mood, I ask if he thought the arches were to accommodate the Sister’s tall, winged cornettes, which were often as wide as the Sister’s shoulders.

As we reach the basement, Aaron points out the rooms from the blueprint. I thank him; he heads upstairs back to work, leaving me to explore.

The basement’s cool calmness quells my anxiety — it was probably a good place for patients like Emmett, who were desperately seeking peace and tranquility from their demons. It isn’t lost on me that patients in this ward — the alcoholic ward — were sequestered from the rest of the hospital on purpose. The quarantine is poignant: I know that Emmett’s final months were also spent in isolation, as his family and friends had given up on him, unable to convince Emmett to heal himself, to achieve sobriety.

Emmett’s room was down this hallway.

But Emmett knew he was dying of alcoholism almost a year to the date of his death. I saw it in the words of his last will and testament: A terse, pathetic document that dispensed with his worldly goods in less than two pages. He didn’t have much in his life; he didn’t have much at the end. Not even family, really. He was brought unconscious to Pensacola Hospital by strangers on May 25, 1918.

Hesitantly, apprehensively, I touch the door of what was Emmett’s room. I close my eyes, and try to image what he was feeling, or thinking.

When Emmett came to, God only knows what he thought, as he was in the throes of delirium tremens: Irrational, raving, and likely strapped down to his iron bed. He was probably shocked to see a dove-like cornette hovering over him, as the Sister-nurse ministered to him. 

Was it possible that in the throes of his delirium, Emmett, like King David, prayed for the wings of a dove, so that he could fly away and be at rest? Did he know that the end was near, and that the Sisters were there to ease his passing?

Perhaps, as he closed his eyes for the final time, Emmett realized his prayers were answered.

I Wonder

Standard

When I first started blogging about the Emmett Wilson research project, my goal was to put his name back out into the public discussion forum, in the hopes that distant relatives or descendants (who were also doing genealogical research) would find me/him, and exchange information.

I knew that by itself, the blog wasn’t going to be as effective — if you want research to produce results, you have to be proactive — so I simultaneously launched an outreach project to descendants of both Emmett’s family and friends, as well as to archivists and historians in West Florida. This combined effort has worked well. I’ve met in person and online many wonderful people — and new family members — in this effort. Everyone I’ve met has been generous and helpful sharing information, photographs, clips, and the like.

I enjoy — and prefer — writing as my main means of communication. It isn’t that I don’t like to ‘talk’ to folks (I do!), but when I write, I have a chance to reflect before I hit ‘send’.  Writing the blog gives me a chance to try out new ideas and perspectives about my research.

For example, when I first ‘met’ Emmett, I felt sorry for him, and angry for him! I remember thinking (while reading his obituaries on microfilm for the first time): Poor, misunderstood young man. I even wrote those words in my notes that afternoon at the American University library, as I scrolled through the film. This was, of course, before I learned that he died pretty much by his own hand — drinking himself to death. I didn’t know him at all in those days.

I thought I could get to know Emmett this way, through reading about him, hopefully some of it in his own words, too. But alas, there’s very little of him, in his own words (save for the elusive scrapbook of his that may be floating around out there, somewhere).

And while I feel as if I know something about him, there’s so much I don’t know, and that is intimidating me, 100 years after his death. I know a lot of details about him, but there’s so much I still don’t know. I wonder:

  • why he persisted in a career that he was fundamentally unready to embark upon;
  • why he always seemed alone even in a crowd of admirers, both male and female;
  • why he seemed to always have an ‘escape’ from personal commitment when people got too close;
  • why he ultimately drank himself to death.

I’m not sure I’ll ever find the answers to these questions. Whether or not I do, the discovery of this long-lost cousin, and the journey to understand him — and myself — has been a worthwhile project.

 

But for the Grace of God

Standard

When I close my eyes, I see it: The ancient scrapbook covered in gray dust, high on a shelf in a Florida library, long forgotten. And on the phone, I hear the excited voice of my friend Jacki the Archivist:

“We aren’t sure how it got there, but it’s been undisturbed for decades. It was part of a collection of mementos belonging to a long-deceased Florida lawyer named Kehoe.”

It? I ask.

“Your cousin Emmett Wilson’s long-lost scrapbook.”

I’ve fantasized receiving this message from Jacki since I began this research in 2013. This scrapbook is the major piece in the puzzle to tell Emmett’s story that’s still missing.

Emmett willed the scrapbook to his namesake, Emmett Wilson Kehoe, the son of his best friend and law partner, Walter Kehoe.

Emmett Wilson Kehoe, son of Jennie and Walter Kehoe. 1930, University of Florida. Source: Ancestry.com

But young Kehoe was only 12 when Emmett died on May 29, 1918.

And the scrapbook disappeared shortly after Emmett’s funeral. And it’s still missing, unfortunately.

Always the realist, Jacki has warned me: “The odds of finding Emmett’s scrapbook intact today are minute.” But I’m optimistic, because I’ve uncovered a surprising amount of information on my obscure and troubled cousin — once considered the Golden Boy of Pensacola politics — who succumbed at 35 to combined addictions of ambition and alcohol.

Emmett’s story isn’t a happy one. I doubt my ancestors would appreciate me writing his biography, even 100 years after his death. But I am compelled, because Emmett’s story is also my story: My long-dead cousin and I are related not only by blood, but also chemistry.

Emmett drank to escape. I drank to escape.

Emmett had three interventions. I had three interventions.

Emmett didn’t want to face himself, character defects and all, to find out who he really was minus booze in his life. It has taken almost a decade of continuous sobriety to be willing to face myself after drinking for more than 30 years.

Emmett’s struggle with alcohol killed him.

My struggle with alcohol almost killed me.

After Emmett died, my ancestors literally closed the book on him: They dispersed his meager belongings; shelved his memory, hid his truth. Tried to forget.

For years, Emmett had put his family through an emotional and psychological wringer; his death was probably a relief to them all. This may explain the disappearance of Emmett’s scrapbook. And I don’t really blame them.

Frankly, I’ve been trying to forget my alcoholic history. Sometimes I believe that if I can hide that part of my life, pretend it didn’t exist, then I, too, can move on.

Or can I?

I understand why my ancestors chose to bury Emmett’s memories along with his body, but ignoring an unfortunate truth only excuses it temporarily; renders it dormant to rise again, when you least expect it — as it was with Emmett.

Writing Emmett’s story isn’t only about coming to terms with Emmett’s truth — but rather it is about coming to terms with my truth. Perhaps Emmett couldn’t save himself; but now, 100 years later, he life story can save me from myself.

====

Coffee with Emmett. May 20, 2014

It was a glorious Spring morning, May 20, 2014, the day I ‘met’ Emmett.

There was nothing to fear, but I was jumpy; my heart and thoughts racing as I walked through St. John’s Cemetery in Pensacola, anxiously scanning the headstones with a travel coffee cup, a cemetery map, and a dozen supermarket red roses in my hands. Few were about save for a middle-aged woman on a brisk morning stroll with her terrier, and a caretaker carefully moving a buzzing weed whacker along granite-lined family plots. He nodded good morning to me across the rows, as I picked my way along the bumpy, but well-manicured turf in search of Emmett. He politely silenced his weed whacker while I paid my respects.

Why was I nervous visiting a dead man? St. John’s wasn’t a frightening place during daylight hours; I felt perfectly secure. Absurdly, I wondered if, when I arrived at Emmett’s grave, the ground would move and he would reach up through ground and throttle me for unearthing his unfortunate life story —

— but before I could parse my feelings, I realized I was standing in the Wilson family plot — and there was Emmett beneath my feet.

The concrete slab over his grave was covered by several inches of sand — from occasional floods during hurricane season — irregular tufts of weedy grass, and sandspurs. Emmett’s granite headstone was in good condition: The engraving clear, the stone mostly unchanged in almost a century.

Then, it struck me: No one has visited Emmett in decades. Maybe almost a century.

I remember thinking: Booze took everything from you, Emmett.

And then: There but for the grace of God go I.

My anxiety was gone.

I laid the roses atop Emmett’s grave. I sat down next to him with my coffee.

“It’s good to finally meet you,” I started.

I left St. John’s feeling calm and resolute: I’d keep looking for Emmett’s scrapbook. I’d tell his story. Not from a sense of obligation, but because even though we’ve never met, I understand him. And in understanding Emmett, I understand myself:

His story’s tragedy is my life preserver.

===

Jacki the Archivist and I are still looking for Emmett’s scrapbook. I hope we find it, because Emmett’s story isn’t complete without his words. His truth.

There’s a saying in the AA rooms: “We are only as sick as our secrets.” I’ve almost twelve years in recovery, and I’m still discovering the secrets that drove me to drink. The reality is that I live authentically when I can come to terms with all of myself, including those dark days of alcoholism. My truth.

That truth saved my life in 2007, when I took a deep breath and declared in an AA meeting that I was an alcoholic.

And so, with Emmett’s scrapbook, I would take a deep breath, and carefully open the cover —

And accept the truth, Emmett’s and mine.

For better or worse.