I thought I’d try my hand at some non-fiction this week, though I confess this is not my forte. For the reason I’ve engaged this genre–and, as always, for the exercise itself–see below.
I come from a line of seamen. My father, and my father’s father, and my father’s father’s father-in-law, all were captains of the sea, and so my life has always been associated with the sea. When I acquired my Master’s License, I became the fourth consecutive Master Mariner in the family, but I had known the sea long before then.
My father, who encouraged us all to call him Papa, came to America because of sea. When a boy of only twelve, he had been wrestling with his younger sister Jannetje, and Jannetje got too close to the fire. Her hair kindled in the coals and burned half off. My grandfather, Gerrit, was as much a captain at home as at sea, and he was a hard Master. Once, as a boy, Papa had reached for a biscuit at dinner without asking them to be passed, and my grandfather Gerrit reared forth and jabbed the tines of his fork into the back of Papa’s hand, told his son to remember his table manners. This time, with his sister scarred and half-bald and screaming on the floor, Papa feared what his father might do but he knew it would be terrifying. So Papa left home, fled to the docks, boarded a ship, crawled down into the hold and fell asleep. The ship sailed before morning. The next day a crew member discovered Papa and brought him before the captain, who made my father his cabin boy on the spot. So began my father’s career.
By the time I was born, my Papa had risen to the rank of Master and served as captain of the barkentine SS Modena. He was asea the year I was born, carrying a cargo of lumber between Texas and Rio De Janeiro, and according to his ship’s log he was off the coast of Uruguay when I came into this world. This was June 15, 1920, at three-thirty in the afternoon.
When the Modena arrived in Rio De Janeiro, my Papa disembarked and sought the offices of his company’s representatives in Brazil. There he learned that the company that owned the ship had gone bankrupt. Stranded, he took it upon himself to unload the ship of its cargo and deliver it as promised, then he sold the ship and used the money to pay the crew their wages and a passage home. But his good heart and honorable nature bore no reward, because the local attorney who brokered the sale kept the cash for himself and fled the city. Unwilling to leave his crew stranded, my Papa found a bank with connections to his accounts in Texas, emptied his own savings, and paid the crew himself. We estimate my Papa doled out fully ten thousand dollars to help his men, but he viewed it as his duty. When it was done and his men were safely on their way home, he found himself alone and broke in South America.
He found a local company, hired on well below his rank, and began to work his way home. He had left Texas on November 19, 1919. He did not arrive back home—still broke—until July, 1921. In that time his second son, my older brother Norman Garrett, died from a relapse of pneumonia after suffering from whooping cough. He was twenty months and five days old when he died, and I was still but nine months old. When my father left, he had a son barely a year old; when he returned, that son had died and he had a new son, also barely a year old, whom he’d never seen before.
Recently, my great-uncle Ed “Snake” Guidry* died. Because I live overseas I missed the funeral, but my great-aunt Janette (my paternal grandfather’s sister and Uncle Ed’s wife) sent me a short bio of his life so I could better remember him. The events contained therein are astounding as to defy belief, and they reminded me of Bill Roorbach‘s frequent comment that everyone believes our fiction to be true stories and our nonfiction has been entirely made up. Reading over the event’s of Uncle Ed’s life, all I kept thinking was how it was only believable because no one is creative enough to make this stuff up!
Which put me in mind of my own grandfather, Capt. Ted Snoek, who this summer will turn 90. My grandpa is a wonderful storyteller–and Bill Roorbach would be pleased to know that people often think my grandpa makes up half his stories, too–and has lived such a rich and eventful life that for years now I’ve been asking him to write down his stories and send them to me. For all his storytelling prowess, though, he claims not to be a writer, and so we have agreed between us that we will write his story together: He will record the events and the memories in text, and I will work with that text to make a story.
This is how I might begin one version of that story.
The exercise itself, if you’re looking for one, is fairly standard: Simply interview someone–in this case, a member of your family–and tell their story. Most of us did a version of this in grade school, and because I continue to assign the interview in my composition courses, many of my college students have returned to this exercise with great success. If you’re looking for a written set of instructions for how to do this, you might try this one, or try chapter 4 in Tell it Slant, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola.
* My uncle Ed had a lot of nicknames, but the coolest by far was “Snake.” Among the many hobbies he became an expert in, Uncle Ed was an amateur herpetologist, and he wrote several articles on herpetology and has been cited in books on Texas snakes, including this one (see page 359). He picked up the nickname after identifying a unique species of snake in southeast Texas, which was subsequently named the Guidrii.