Stories to Tell (And Save)

Army combat helmets (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Today the AP reported on how one long-forgotten casualty of World War II had finally been rediscovered and inscribed upon his hometown’s memorial. I’m glad to read those stories, where neglect ends in recognition.

A couple of years ago I did a pro bono bit of research, looking for a man killed in World War II who’d been “found,” in a sense, at a garage sale. A medal, plus a copy of a citation, had surfaced in a box of miscellaneous items. The seller had no idea where they’d come from. Since the fallen soldier had lived in my hometown, the buyer hoped I could lead him to living descendants who might want the medal.

Unfortunately that didn’t happen. The soldier was an only child, married but childless, and his widow never remarried. This garage-sale mystery ended with a cold trail and a bit of sadness that his story had ended up in a box in a stranger’s garage.

On Memorial Day, it seems especially fitting to think of ways to preserve and protect veterans’ stories. Here are a few examples. I’m sure there are others in other places. Maybe there’s one near you, too.

• The Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project is a national initiative to collect and preserve first-hand accounts from veterans.

• The Biography Project of the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation collects biographical information on the men and women listed on New Jersey’s memorial. At the link there’s a list of the veterans for whom there are still no photographs; the foundation welcomes any clues from the public.

• And the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop provides opportunities for veterans to tell their own stories.

 


Walking Through Hudson County History

Summer finally got here to New Jersey, even if we had our doubts that it ever would, back there in the dark days of February and March. What better way to celebrate than by getting your walking shoes on and exploring a bit of the past through a series of Hudson County history tours?

If you’re in the area, take a look at the topics below. All tours cost $10, and reservations are required. (Be advised that all tours also require walking over a variety of distances. If you have any questions, contact the tour leader.) For more information, see the Hoboken Museum’s tour page.

May 30: Lafayette History Tour (presenter: Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy) –Drs. Jenny Furlong and Rebecca Shapiro, historians, explore Jersey City’s oldest neighborhood, including historic residences and such prominent landmarks as the American Type Foundry and St. Mary’s Greek Byzantine Rites Church.

June 6: A Walking Tour of Bayview-New York Cemetery (presenter: Hudson County Genealogical & Historical Society) — Historian Dennis Doran of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy leads a walk through a cemetery where many notable politicians and entrepreneurs from Jersey City’s past are buried.

June 7: A Walk Along the Harsimus Branch Embankment on Sixth Street (presenter: Embankment Preservation Coalition) – The coalition will explore this imposing remnant of the Pennsylvania Railroad in downtown Jersey City, which they are working to transform into a nature habitat and public park as a segment of the East Coast Greenway.

June 14: The Stevens Family Legacy (presenter: Bob Foster, director of the Hoboken Historical Museum) – Gain insight into the impact left in Hudson County by the prominent (and civic-minded) Stevens clan, including a visit to Hoboken Cemetery on Tonnelle Avenue, where many family members are buried.

June 20: “On The Waterfront” Bus Tour (presenter: Hoboken Historical Museum) – Cinema buffs will enjoy this excursion led by film industry expert Lenny Luizzi, which highlights Hoboken locations from the classic film starring Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint.

 

 

 


‘This Is A Girl I’d Like To Hang Out With’

That’s how Jerry Stiller described his first meeting with his eventual wife and partner, the comedian/actress/playwright Anne Meara.

The headlines over the obituaries for Meara, who died yesterday at age 85, consistently described her as the mother of actor Ben Stiller. But she is also deservedly remembered for the warmth and wit of her 1960s comedy routines with Ben’s dad.

A lot of Stiller/Meara humor revolved around cultural differences that might not seem like a big deal today, but mattered a lot when I was growing up. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, an Irish Catholic girl marrying a Jewish guy was a big enough deal to provoke questions even if the couple were the last two humans on Earth, as the duo illustrated in a routine from the Ed Sullivan Show. (The routine covers the clip’s first three minutes.)

“Mixed” marriages, fear of nuclear annihilation – who else could combine those two particular strands of mid-century angst so deftly?

As the AP notes, Stiller and Meara, for all their gently wry humor, were very much a part of the cutting-edge 1950s Beat scene in Greenwich Village. Not that they were noticing at the time, as Meara observed years later:

But WE thought that when the Village was REALLY happening was in the ’20s, the F. Scott Fitzgerald days, before our time. People never know what’s going on while it’s happening. You think, during the Renaissance, people called it ‘The Renaissance’?

Nailed it — talk about polishing off the topic of time-wasting nostalgia!

Anne Meara certainly made things happen whenever she was in the room. Rest in peace, and thanks for the smiles.


Publication Information

A quick note: The Archaeologist has an article featured in the current issue of Actuarial Review. Yes, really.

This story grew out of my ongoing research into the fate of my German grandfather’s sister, an ancestress whose long-ago presence in the United States I discovered only a few years back. (I wrote about her here and here.) The more I dug into the story of the 1921 automobile accident that caused her death, the more it got me to thinking how quickly and radically America’s roads changed in the years after the First World War. This article delves into that a bit, and reflects on a world in which auto insurance was still in its infancy.

It all goes to show that you never know where genealogy might lead you.


Mid-Century Memories

I see that actress Jayne Meadows has passed away, aged 95.

Busy with Broadway, movies and TV, she had notable mid-20th century showbiz chops – and pedigree. Her husband was comedian/talk-show host Steve Allen, while her younger sister, Audrey, made history giving Jackie Gleason what-for as Alice Kramden on “The Honeymooners.” And Jayne was a game-show panelist par excellence in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Perhaps one of Meadows’ most endearing collaborations with her husband was a long-ago PBS series called “Meeting of Minds,” in which Steve Allen presided as his urbane talk-show host self over a roundtable of “guests” who were actors portraying pivotal characters from history.

Watch Meadows (as Catherine the Great) sitting down for a chat with Oliver Cromwell and Daniel O’Connell. The clip manages the feat of being both a hoot and a brain-teaser at the same time. Could you imagine anyone successfully pitching a show like it today?


New Jersey Newsiness

A tale of two Saturday events: The drum beats ever louder for the Global Family Reunion on Saturday, June 6 at the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows. The sheer volume of activities and speakers is daunting, but so is the awesomeness potential.

You could pose for the world’s biggest family photo or do a family-themed scavenger hunt — or match brawn with an arm-wrestling machine!  Not to mention the presentations by genealogical heavy-hitters like Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Finding Your Roots) Maureen Taylor (the Photo Detective) and CeCe Moore (Your Genetic Genealogist).

How-so-ever …

I would be derelict in my duty if I failed to point out the Genealogical Society of New Jersey is holding its spring program on the Very Same Day, June 6th,  from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark. No scavenger hunts, but:

  • James Amemasor and Doug Oxenhorn will be presenting Doing Research at The New Jersey Historical Society.
  • Christopher Zarr will be presenting NJ and the National Archives at New York City.
  • Melissa A. Johnson will be presenting Researching Your Newark Ancestors.
  • Catherine Stearns Medich will be presenting So What is New at the New Jersey State Archives.
  • Andy McCarthy will be presenting New Jersey Collections at NYPL.
  • Joseph R. Klett will be presenting Colonial New Jersey Research.

It is undeniable: If New Jersey research smarts are what you’re after, head to Newark. Here’s the program brochure. Note that free parking will be provided.

I know you really wanted to check out the arm-wrestling machine. But it is all about sharpening the skillz, is it not?

Plus: free parking! In Newark! I mean, come on!


 

Meanwhile, in May … Thank goodness not everybody is scheduling things for the first Saturday in June. Here are two more New Jersey events to consider:

May 2: The Montclair Historical Society is presenting its Restoration Fair at its headquarters, the historic Crane House, 108 Orange Road. Check out free workshops on repairing vintage roofs and researching your house’s history. Also, the society will be holding its annual herb sale, so you can get started on the heirloom garden, too.

May 9: Mark the calendar for the Spirit of the Jerseys history fair: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., rain or shine, at the  Monmouth Battlefield State Park in Manalapan. Wander the historic battlefield and check out exhibits from historical sites and societies from all over the state. A list of exhibitors is here.

 


Musical Memories: Sing Amen, Everybody

The Archaeologist is Irish-American-Catholic, and a chorister. This entails two deeply felt but diametrically opposed things: church singing and old-style Irish-American Catholicism.

In my Catholic youth, everybody sang pretty much all the time until they got to church, where they clammed up and glared at anybody who dared so much as intone an Amen. Churches were places of reverent silence, muttered responses and rigidly maintained personal space. (During my adolescence the Vatican enacted the Sign of Peace, a part of Mass ritual in which you shake your neighbor’s hand and say “Peace be with you.” For many in my hometown parish, this was the emotional equivalent of requiring a raised middle finger and a raspberry.)

Music was show-offy, vaguely suspect. Especially the good stuff. (Was Mozart’s setting of the Regina Coeli OK for church? Oh, Mozart was Catholic? Seriously? He wrote that stuff for Catholics?)

As for Handel … well. He belonged to the Protestants. You could hear him in a concert hall, if you wanted. But not in church, not on Easter Sunday.

Happily, that has changed. My present-day parish revels in its music program. We have adult choir, children’s choir, bell choirs. And we do Handel, especially at Easter. This year at the Vigil we took a gander at “Worthy is the Lamb,” with its majestic, endlessly textured Amen.

It’s kind of a monster. But a great one. Here’s an old-school version conducted by Otto Klemperer, with a big fat chorus and orchestra. Not the Baroque-authentic, smaller-scale sort of production favored today, but delightfully rich and ripe. Enjoy.

 

P.S. For a penetrating and frequently hilarious dissection of American Catholics and their love-hate relationship with music, read Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing. It’s a treat.

 

 

 


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