Tangled Roots…

Do you ever wonder about your ancestry? Do you know how and when your family came to America? Is there any strange fruit hanging on your family tree? Einstein? Al Capone? Sarah Bernhardt? What do you really know about your family’s history?

Are you a true American? Probably not; Elizabeth Warren’s recent DNA test confirms that she is, because her ancestry links back to those who inhabited North America before 1600. They’re the only true Americans. The rest of us are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Even Donald Trump’s tangled roots are buried in one of those “shithole” countries in Africa he likes to disdain.

Like most Americans, I didn’t know a lot about mine–when did the first Bernards arrive in America, where did they come from, or how to find the answers to these questions until recently. I hadn’t really thought much about it until I was living in Berlin and a friend questioned me about it. When I told her I didn’t know much, she was stunned and walked me over to a framed picture hanging in her entrance hall. It was a drawing of her own family tree dating all the way back to 1500. I learned later it was common for Germans to build those family trees – true or false – because the Nazi’s were always checking for genetic purity. Nevertheless, her question piqued my curiosity.

My own parents, like many American parents, seemed reticent to talk about family ancestry. I didn’t understand it, but it didn’t seem that unusual. My mother was an only child of older parents and I sensed her childhood was an unhappy one. My father was the youngest of five siblings, 17 years younger than his next oldest and raised mostly by his older sisters. Neither my mother nor my father offered me information about our lineage and I didn’t press them for it. To be fair, they might not have known much. In the early days of the republic and the rush westward to a better life, a lot of family histories were lost or forgotten.

I accepted the conventional wisdom that immigrant families were anxious to assimilate and distance themselves from their foreign roots and chose not to pass on the story of their origins. I had no reason to believe that about my family, but there was an absence of information so it made sense.

Because my parents didn’t talk about it, family history didn’t seem important. At one point, to fill in the blanks, I concocted a story about a French heritage, plausible in my own mind because Bernard is a French surname and I’ve always been a Francophile. But it was bogus, and I started to unpack the family history when my mother died and a distant cousin sent me information she had uncovered about our family’s roots.

Since 1953, when James Watson and Francis Crick broke the code – literally broke the code –and discovered the structure of the DNA molecule (double helix, below) it’s become increasingly easier to trace ancestry. Genome scientists have expanded the decoding and today ordinary mortals can send a saliva sample to various commercial enterprises such as 23 and Me or Ancestry.com and unlock the door to their genetic provenance.

Recently, with information from 23 and Me, I discovered that Bernard ancestors, mostly Irish and Scottish in origin, settled in Virginia before America became nation. We weren’t fugitives after all, and from a farm near Thomas Jefferson’s estate at Monticello in the 1700’s the family slowly moved west over the next 200 years.

My favorite Bernard story, maybe a metaphor for the whole clan, involved two distant cousins. Uncle Sam and Uncle George who had reached Colorado just before the Gold Rush at Cripple Creek. In 1892 they opened a grocery store to supply the miners, and according to “The Ghost Towns of Colorado,”

Sam took over William Shemwell’s half interest in the Elkton claim for canceling Shemwell’s $36.50 grocery bill, and Uncle George paid Sam Gee, a “colored ash-hauler,” $50 for his one-eighth interest. George then financed the development work for two years until he was just about broke and the Elkton was about to be abandoned. Then they hit pay dirt–$40,000 in the first week. Eventually, the Elkton produced gold worth $16,000,000. Later Sam Bernard got control of another rich mine, the Beacon Hill El Paso—an $11,000,000 producer.

The Bernard boys took their millions and more or less retired from mining in 1902. George bought a huge ranch north of the Springs and raised blooded cattle. Sam went in for trotting horses. But, George died practically penniless in 1933. Sam died in ’37 an indigent patient at Colorado State Hospital (the state mental hospital).

As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.” The Bernards and their money are soon parted, but it’s a good story and we like good stories. Thanks to DNA science and the expansion of genomic and genealogical resources, we can all learn more about our families.

In the past, I’ve asked myself “Why is family history important?” I still don’t know the answer, but as the last remaining member of my generation it “feels” important. Of 5 uncles and aunts and 10 first cousins I am the sole survivor. Ancient cultures have always had a tradition of passing their ancestry information to succeeding generations. At this point, I wish my parents had talked more about it.

The more I learn about my ancestors, the clearer the picture of the American timeline becomes. Pre-revolutionary immigration, the acquisition of land, the establishment of homesteads, child mortality, hard farm labor, the halting trek West, education as a way to a better life (my uncles and aunts were all college graduates before 1920), and improvements in the quality of life. My father was born the year the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, and 55 years later I flew an airplane at 1000mph.

America is a land of immigrants and opportunity. Mr. Trump wants to close the door, pull up the ladder and dump the people of color overboard. My family would probably pass the Trump test, but I have grandchildren, close friends, and neighbors who would not. We can’t let him close the door. Immigrants and diversity have made America as great as it is. Embrace it. I’m glad to have learned more about my ancestry. I plan to learn more. The information is out there, but sometimes it takes a little digging to untangle those roots.

The Act of Becoming…

Today, I’m sitting in a book-filled room at Folio, the membership-based, non-profit library that’s been my writing home for the last two years. Every Tuesday and Thursday I ride the bus from home in Kenmore to downtown Seattle and settle in, free of homely distractions, for a day of writing. No dishes to wash, mail to retrieve, rugs to vacuum, trash to empty, or decks to sweep.

For the past nine years I’ve tried to approach writing as a full time job. Try is the key word. Even here at Folio there are distractions. I sneak looks at Facebook, peak at incoming email, or dreamily watch the Bainbridge ferry crossing to the island. Writers have always complained about how difficult it is to concentrate. Joseph Conrad had his wife lock him in his bare bones study until his allotted writing time was up. Good for writing but hard on the marriage.

Folio was created “as a gathering place for books and the people who love them” in rooms full of them–floor to ceiling bookcases, hallways lined with them, big rooms, small rooms, and alcoves full of them–and being here reminds me of a story I wrote years ago about an introverted bachelor lawyer who loved literature, as I do. He felt compelled to write, but as he sat in the library looking at thousands of volumes lining the walls he had an epiphany – there were so many, most unread and collecting dust – and he willed himself to write anonymously to avoid adding to the glut.

And, this was his passion for the next 50 years. He wrote after work. He wrote on weekends. He wrote novels, short stories, histories, and biographies that, when completed, he stacked neatly in a closet in his San Francisco Victorian. He showed them to no one. Then, ironically, following his death the cache was found by a relative sorting the estate out and the work was offered to a publisher. Only then, through this chance discovery, did he become famous and widely admired for his prose style and innovative treatment of subject matter. 

It’s a long-standing debate; is it the product or process that is most important? For many I suppose it’s both. For the bachelor lawyer it was the process. I think that’s true for me as well, although it’s always flattering to receive a compliment on the product.

I recently exchanged emails with a talented young writer I knew long before he was a successful writer. Now at age 40, he’s published three novels and a number of short stories. I’ve known several authors and been impressed by how hard they work and how difficult it is to make a decent living from the craft. Several teach. It’s a growing field, but what they really live for is writing.

In my early thirties my wife, Abby, and I lived in a small French town for nine months. It was my try out year as a writer. A local office supply store rented me an old typewriter, and learned the French keyboard – another challenge – but after a week or so of that my life as a writer began.

This is Rue Jean Aicard in St.Tropez, where my French typewriter and I lived and wrote.

For almost a year I labored at writing fiction that no one but my wife read. There was no one else to show my work to. I wasn’t another Conrad, so in the spring, I wrote to San Francisco State, one of a handful of colleges that had a creative writing program and asked if I could take a few courses when I returned. I wasn’t interested in another degree, but they told me the only way I could take classes was to enroll in their MFA program. So, I did.

I spent almost a year at SFS where my advisor, Kay Boyle, was the novelist and a Lost Generation colleague of Hemingway, Beckett, Joyce and others. The stimulation and contact with other writers was just what I what I was looking for, but I was transferred to New York in the spring and didn’t complete the program. Now, years later I’m writing again. I wish I had been consistent over the years but wishing doesn’t get it done. Whatever happens next, I feel good about what’s happening now. My friend, Bob Gandt, wrote a book called Mastery in which he suggests creating a new mission for ourselves when we escape from the daily grind. Mine is to be a better writer. In the end, like my bachelor lawyer character, what I’ve written may be discovered by my children. Maybe they will learn things they didn’t know. I’ve had an unusual life, much of which they haven’t been part of. Being their parent has been an important part of my life but not the only part. I hope they appreciate the first part of that and enjoy the second.

Am I a Racist?

I can predict the responses when I, a white male, criticize a person of color. “That’s so racist.” “You sound like a closet racist.” “You don’t understand the culture of race.” “You haven’t experienced what he or she has.” “You don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color.” “You can’t understand because of your ‘white privilege’. ”

Almost from the beginning of these conversations I’m on the defensive. I say I’m not talking about race. I explain that I’m talking about a person or a behavior. I’m expressing my opinion that the behavior is unacceptable, or that the person is acting like a jerk or simply out of line, but inevitably I have to defend myself against a charge of racism.

Am I a racist? Am I blind to my own prejudice? Maybe. I’m certainly aware it’s a possibility. I’m white. I grew up white. My parents were white and it’s possible I’m simply unaware of my racial bias? I sometimes ask myself if my criticism of someone is well founded or whether it’s because its object is a person of color? I could be wrong, but isn’t that kind of criticism of me just a racist trope, accusing me of racism because I’m criticizing a person of color? Am I supposed to limit my social commentary, especially negative commentary, to white folks like me?

The dictionary defines racism as the belief that a particular race is superior to another, that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and the differences produce the inherent superiority of a particular race.

So where am I coming from? What’s this really about? It shouldn’t be a surprise, it’s about Serena Williams, that never-ending lightning rod for racial controversy.

The greatest woman tennis player of all time? Yes. 23 Grand Slam titles? Yes. Rises from the ghetto in Compton to become a champion? Yes. New mother? Yes. Poor loser? Yes. Bad actor? I think so.

Last weekend, down 2-6, 3-4 in the US Open Women’s Championship match  she lost it – the match and her emotional cool. After being outplayed by 20-year-old Naomi Osaka for almost two hours Serena had a meltdown that cost her (1) a warning for a coaching violation (2) loss of a point for breaking her racquet and (3) loss of a game for verbally attacking the chair umpire. With the score then 3-5, Osaka finished off the match to win the championship. The final score 6-2, 6-3. It’s worth pointing out that in their only other meeting, at the 2018 Miami Open, Osaka beat Serena 6-3, 6-2 to win that championship too, making it two wins to none for Osaka in head to head matches with Serena.

In the interest of full disclosure, despite her unparalleled achievements as a tennis player, I’ve never liked Serena Williams. Never – but it’s not about tennis. I see her as a hypocrite and sore loser. She may be the greatest woman tennis player of all time, but I don’t think she’s an admirable person. I respect her sister, Venus, but think Serena is an insincerely modest winner and a sore loser – blaming anyone but herself when she loses.

Over the years she has had a series of incidents that reveal a pattern of self-destructive meltdowns. At match point, during the 2009 US Open semi-final against Kim Clijsters, an Asian lineswoman called a foot fault, that caused Serena to threaten the woman with, “If I could, I would take this fucking ball and shove it down your fucking throat.” That outburst cost her a point, after moments earlier being warned (a precursor to the penalty) for throwing her racquet (eerily like last weekend). The penalty point cost Serena the match (again, like last weekend).

And, last week’s dust up is not the first time Serena has taken the shine off an opponent’s US Open victory. In 2011, she lost the championship to Samantha Stosur, but sucked all the air out of the room by throwing a fit mid-match, berating the chair umpire, and refusing to apologize. Like her behavior in the Osaka and Clijsters matches, she was being badly beaten but created a firestorm that took away from her opponent’s well-deserved celebration.

That’s three notable instances of losses at the US Open in which her own churlish, out of line behavior diminished the achievements of another player. After last Saturday’s match the internet was alive with the Serena story, and many of my African-American and Asian friends came down heavily on Serena’s side, something I hadn’t anticipated and which added to my self-questioning. Am I being racist? Or sexist? I don’t think so, but I’m on the inside looking out.

It’s arguable that behavioral rules and penalties are subjectively applied in tennis. Serena argued forcefully that penalties are imposed more often against women than the men, but an article in today’s New York Times shows that to be false.


I’m a huge tennis fan. I play 3-4 times a week and spend hours watching the Grand Slam events. I get up at 2 a.m. to watch the Australian Open, 5 a.m. to watch the French Open and Wimbledon, and have attended all of them. I’ve also been a player for over 60 years.

I don’t think of myself as racist, but I’m obviously bothered by the criticism. I’ve been a civil and voting rights advocate since the ’60s and have a wide circle of friends who are also active, but I’m reminded of the old saw about “Some of my best friends are black (or Jewish).” I don’t think I’m like that, but we all see ourselves through self-serving lenses.

Having acknowledged my concern, I can say honestly that my all-time idol, regardless of race, is Arthur Ashe–not just in tennis but in every way. He was a trailblazer in America and challenged apartheid in South Africa. He died of AIDS but faced it with courage and dignity. His autobiography,“Days of Grace” is my favorite of the genre. He happened to be black and a tennis player, but those are not the attributes that made him admirable. It was his humanity and courage in the face of real adversity that made him great. I see a similar quiet dignity in Naomi Osaka, the 20-year-old mixed race (Haitian/Japanese) woman who defeated Serena last weekend, and I look forward to seeing a lot more of her in the future.

I realize that my criticism of Serena is a no-win situation. Last year I wrote an article called “We’ll Never Get Over Slavery. I sincerely believe that to be true, but I try every day to live as if it isn’t and to emulate Arthur Ashe. I wish Serena would too.


“So It Goes”

On September 2, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered to General Douglas MacArthur on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, there were huge victory celebrations across the country (Seattle above).

It was the end of WWII, and Americans saw it as the triumph of democracy over fascism and good over evil. The nation was ready to party on one of the most important of days in American history. My parents were excited and wanted me, their 7-year-old son, to see and feel its importance too, so late that afternoon we hopped a bus to join the melee in downtown Seattle. My blurred memory of the scene is chaotic. The streets were a teeming, noisy, confetti-filled sea of humanity, and I remember watching it all from under the awning in front of Byrnie Utz Hats, Seattle’s iconic purveyor of men’s hats.

In the years since that night, I’ve changed a lot, but Byrnie Utz Hats managed to stay pretty much the same. The steel-gray art-deco storefront looks exactly as it did then–familiar but not flashy – and it still occupies the same space at 310 Union Street with its original Borsalino/Stetson signage and tiger-oak interior furnishings. Byrnie Utz Hats was only 4 years older than I was on that night in 1945.

Two weeks ago, after 84 years, Byrnie Utz closed its door for the last time. I didn’t know Byrnie or his successor, Paul Ferry, so it’s reasonable to ask why I’m upset or think the closing of a men’s hat store in downtown Seattle is worth noting.  I don’t wear hats, and until two weeks ago I had never been in the store, but after 84 years I think Byrnie Utz Hats deserves a proper eulogy.

When I returned to Seattle after years away, I was surprised to see Byrnie’s right where it was when I left – rare in these days of retail turnover. But, I was saddened when I recently heard it was closing, marking the end of an 84-year cycle and the imminent demolition of a Seattle landmark building. Byrnie’s demise is a melancholy reminder of times past, overlapping eras, our changing city, and my own mortality.

Yes, times have changed, and it was widely noted that men stopped wearing hats when President Kennedy appeared hatless at his January 1961 inauguration. I’d argue that they didn’t stop but styles did change after the hatless inauguration; gone was the felt fedora my father wore, and in its place came the ever present baseball cap of my sons and grandsons.

In 1964 the Seattle Times noted in a headline that “Hatter Holds on During Bare-Head Trend.” That article was written 54 years ago, and yet 54 years later Byrnie (and Paul) were still in business at 310 Union Street, maintaining their thriving business in hats until an out of town real estate developer, not a lack of customers, brought about their closing.

Byrnie Utz Hats never compromised its belief that hats make an important statement about a man’s style. Byrnie did not adapt to changing fashion by selling baseball caps. Instead, he doubled down and stocked the store with handmade Panamas, wool berets, porkpies, and ten-gallon Texas-style cowboys.

During its last week in business, when I went in to check it out there were dozens of customers still willing to pay $200 for a handmade straw or felt porkpie. Yes, there is still a market for a well-made, handcrafted gentleman’s hat. Byrnie’s closing was not a fire sale, but it was the end of an era, and Mr. Ferry presided over it with dignity and good spirits.

In his 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut used “So it goes” as a marquee phrase to mark a death or noir invocation and show us how tragedy has been normalized, trivialized, or randomized after sad or horrific events. It seems appropriate to mark the closing of Byrnie Utz Hats with a nod to Vonnegut.

“So it goes.”

My dad always wore a hat. It was part of his “kit.” He didn’t feel dressed without it. In Marine Corps parlance, his uniform was incomplete unless he was “covered.” Marilynn regularly comments on my need for a hat since I’ve had a number of serious skin cancers. My father had none, so she has a point. I do need to protect what skin is left on my crusty, leathery, freckled, shaved head.

With the closing of Byrnie Utz, it’s clear I’ll have to go elsewhere to get “covered,” but I like to think, had he stayed in business, I would have found the perfect Panama-straw there – when I felt it was really time to man-up.


A Real Fighter Pilot…

“We just love our pilots.” Marine Sgt. Major TC Crouson (VMF-323 Reunion)

History’s most famous fighter pilot, the “Red Baron,” Manfred von Richthofen, offered the following description of how a fighter pilot approaches his job:

“Fight on and fly on to the last drop of blood, the last drop of fuel, to the last beat of the heart.”

Since the death of Senator John McCain last weekend, a number of journalists have seized on his days as a fighter pilot to describe his personality and character. The conventional wisdom is that fighter pilots are aggressive, competitive, work-oriented, cocky, conscientious, extroverted, risk takers. Looking back it’s clear that the life and career of John McCain was faithful to both the Red Baron’s and conventional wisdom’s summary of attributes.

The fighter pilot Senator from Arizona lived his life and prepared for his death in the best traditions of both fighter pilot and senator. I like to think John and I would have been friends had we known each other. Not that I, in any way, am comparing myself to this national hero, but I’m proud to have shared some friendships, airplanes, and history going back to our days in Pensacola and beyond.

McCain graduated from Annapolis in June of 1958 and went straight to pre-flight training in Pensacola. I graduated from the University of Washington in December of the same year and went to Marine Officer Candidate Class in Quantico, Virginia, before going to Pensacola in May of 1959. Our paths didn’t cross there, except possibly at an aspiring aviators’ bar on South Palafox called Trader John’s or on a Friday night at the Mustin Beach Officers Club where young working girls from town came to meet pilots-in-training. I’m sure we were in those rooms together more than once.

Among Naval aviators there’s always six-degrees-of-separation. John and I shared a couple of friendships I know about, maybe more, including my friend and Marine squadron-mate, Carl Vogt, who went through flight training with John and later knew him in Washington DC as the senior partner at the law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski. In 1992 George H.W. Bush appointed Carl Chairman of the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) and Senator John McCain presided at his installation ceremony

This is the official photo of Carl Vogt the lawyer, not Carl Vogt the fighter pilot (although, if you look closely, those are Navy wings in his lapel).

Carl and I joined VMF-323, an F8 Crusader squadron at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, after getting our wings. Then, following our active duty service, started law school together at UC Berkeley. If you met Carl today you’d be impressed by his courtly, dignified manner, but beneath that smooth surface is the fighter pilot who once ejected from a Crusader and who, during a break from our law school studies, saved my sorry ass by taking out a guy in a dive bar on San Pablo Avenue when the guy thought I was getting too familiar with his girlfriend. One punch. Fighter pilot friendship. That’s another story John McCain would have smiled about.

So it goes with fighter pilots… but back to John McCain. In addition to the mutual friendship with Carl, McCain and I flew some of the same airplanes, F9s, F11s, and our last airplane, the A4 Skyhawk, the airplane he was flying when he was shot down over Hanoi’s West Lake.

The version below, in Marine colors, carries markings that designate it as part of the USS Forrestal contingent, coincidentally the carrier McCain was stationed aboard when his A4 caught fire on the flight deck during the tragic accident that killed 134 sailors and injured 161.

John’s post-Vietnam history is well documented, but a new story caught my attention this week. In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, his Chief of Staff talked about a visit the senator made to the Yukon. As a congressman, he actively supported measures to combat climate change, and on this trip to the Yukon to observe its effects he met the mayor of Whitehorse. Upon meeting McCain, the mayor mentioned that Whitehorse was the home of the poet Robert W. Service, whereupon McCain, to everyone’s surprise, began reciting Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee.

It seems that during his days in the Hanoi Hilton, the prisoner in the cell next to his was a Canadian, and as they were unable to speak to each other they developed a code they tapped out on the common wall between their cells. During their long stay as POWs, the Canadian taught McCain the Service poem which he never forgot. In fact, as he was reciting the poem to the mayor of Whitehorse he began tapping it out in code, and soon after that they left the delegation behind, and in his unique and unconventional way, went to visit Robert Service’s home.

I didn’t share John McCain’s political views for the most part. I’m a Berkeley-educated liberal and the son of an insurance salesman. He was an Academy-educated conservative, the son and grandson of Navy admirals. He made mistakes (so have I). He wasn’t afraid to admit them (neither am I). And, he did his best to correct them (I hope I have too). While we didn’t share the same politics, I have the utmost respect for him and I’m proud to have served as a fighter pilot and shared those experiences with him.

I admired McCain for his independence, self-deprecating sense of humor, and highly tuned bullshit detector – the one that set off alarms when Donald Trump emerged as the Republican’s nominee in 2016. McCain knew immediately that he was a fraud and needed to be stopped.

This week’s ceremonies honoring McCain’s life has brought about a national period of mourning and highlighted the differences between a man of courage, integrity, and character with those of a pathological liar and draft dodger who famously had the audacity to question McCain’s status as a war hero.

McCain always laughed when he acknowledged his fifth from the bottom finish at Annapolis while Trump never tires of puffing himself up to tell us he graduated at the top of his class at Wharton – The truth, of course, is that he transferred to Penn to take classes in the Wharton undergraduate program after spending two years at Fordham. Character is destiny. We’ll see whose legacy lives longer.

“Fight on and fly on to the last drop of blood, the last drop of fuel, to the last beat of the heart.”

RIP John McCain