How am I ever going to complete this assignment?
Write the 'origin story' of a person who goes on to achieve great things.
Don’t we have enough stories about Horatio Alger, Huckleberry Finn, and Abraham Lincoln? Maybe not, so I’m going to tell another one.
Once upon a time there was a little boy who was born in a little village north of Stuttgart. The village could have been Möckmühl, Hardthausen-am-Kocher or Lampoldshausen. That’s in the Heilbronn District, in the Swabian region of southwestern Germany, for those who might be interested in knowing.
The little boy, they say, was born around 1849, which in the US is the year associated with the Gold Rush. That event is one people can learn about through the History Channel or some other means of information retrieval. Everybody in the US went west then. Everybody wanted to get rich. Or maybe everybody just hoped to survive.
In two more years, the little boy, whose name was either Karl or Carl, since only the church authorities of the lovely little Nikolauskirche with the old murals and stark but spotless wooden trim knew for sure, was older brother to two more boys. He was as happy as a starving little boy could be, given that the potato famine was in full force and all his parents knew how to do was dig potatoes, maybe chop firewood, and gather hay that grew in community fields in order to feed their one horse.
That wasn’t enough, not with the famine plaguing Europe and the wars that were reshaping France and Germany back then. Little Carl, as we’ll call him, would soon forget his birthplace and travel westward. His two brothers, who were Ludwig (or Heinrich) and Wilhelm, went with him, as did his parents, Carl Senior and Rosina. They all went north to catch a ship because they hoped to start a new life, hoping not to lose any along the way.
The voyage was, in fact, the start of losing. They may not have lost their language at first, but since they didn’t know how to write, it probably didn’t matter to many people. Except it really did matter, at least to the one who would find them a century and a half later. A family of five had embarked on the journey, four were recorded in the first census in the new country, and only one ever returned. When he returned - the reason is a mystery still - he was all grown up and had a different name.
Since Carl had been taken from his birthplace, he had fought in the Civil War of a country that was not his by birth and he had gotten a passport to allow him to leave the country that was not really his in order to return, just once, to his village. That was to Lampoldshausen, or to some nearby village. He left no explanation of the reason for his trip, but it must have been hard, long, and lonely. He left four siblings in the new country that he hadn’t asked for but had fought for, went back, then returned. Nothing is left of that trip except for the application for a passport. He was not tall and had brown hair. That is the extent of the information on the form he had to complete.
Carl grew up and married. His wife, if we are to judge by her name of Alsatian (not Swabian) origin, was from das Elsass, better known as Alsace, but for a long time called Alsace-Lorraine, in the new country. He had his own family and that family had more family. Everybody seemed to like the names from the Old Country, so there was always another Heinrich, Ludwig, Carl, and Friedrich. Eventually one of little Carl’s progeny had a son named Fred. Fred had a son named George Frederick, and George in turn had a daughter. Fred’s father had had a sawmill just like the one in Lampoldshausen today.
The daughter knew nothing about Lampoldshausen, Möckmühl, or Hardthausen-am-Kocher, and she knew nothing about the clean little Nikolauskirche with its white-washed exterior and perfect churchyard where everybody still went to honor those buried there. She knew that wasn’t right.
Unfortunately, somebody in little Carl’s family had lost the language (although they had kept the name), so George’s daughter struggled to find out anything when she went back - with her own passport, of course. By then the last name on her passport was the same Carl had. The warm twilight on her first evening there did nothing to improve her ability to communicate with the people, and all she wanted to do was to hug them. None of Carl’s family was buried there anymore, though, because they had been gone too long and had been moved to make room for the newly dead.
George’s daughter wept when she arrived in the village, just as Carl, his siblings, and his parents had probably wept when they left. She saw the breadth of green pastures, the hills of wealth, the passion of the landscape wedded to its history, and she wept some more. If little Carl had not been taken from there, she knew it would have been her birthplace, the slopes of gold and emerald would have been her playground, and her language would have been German, or at least some Swabian dialect of it. Nothing she had could compare to what Carl had left behind.
George’s daughter was therefore not well-prepared for the trip, for what she would see. She knew only her side of the story and that was not much. Nobody had written anything down, just as they had written nothing down when they left or when they arrived in the new country. She tried to break the silence, but it was a pitiful attempt. Verbs and articles tumbled out all jumbled and with a Spanish accent because that’s what she had to offer along with English. She was like a damn Yankee tourist, admit it.
Carl was her great-great-great grandfather (or so she had calculated), but it seemed he had left her nothing. What could he have left her? He would have been a starving toddler who took on the ocean to end up fighting in the War Between the States, and then he had his sons and grandsons fight in another war. Never, after all the fighting, did he get rich. (All the gold was on the west coast, apparently.) At least he hadn’t starved to death.
We should mention that Carl did possess a certain amount of influence in that his great-great grandson, the one named George, did actually return to Germany. There was also a great-great nephew who had never left the Old Country. That boy’s name was Otto. When they were both grown up, Otto and George met, sort of. They met, face to face, with guns in their hands. One was disembarking on the famous beach and the other was up on the rise above it. Armed from head to foot, they aimed to kill. Neither knew he was aiming at his cousin. By then, their last names were different.
Little Carl did not want that to happen. He didn’t want family fighting family. He had political views, of course, but they were his relatives and he didn’t want any harm to come to either of them. Somehow he was able to save them both, and both went home after that horrible war to have a family - George had the daughter already mentioned, and Otto had at least one son. This was all Carl’s doing. Despite his humble origins and his almost total silence surrounding them, he could not help passing something along. In doing so, he achieved some great things.
Although he had failed at teaching George’s daughter German (his brand of German), Carl had given her a nickname in Swabian on the very day she was born. It was a great thing, that name, because it was like a vise that refused to let go of her. Carl had been a very strong little boy, crossing the ocean, fighting in a war when he was fifteen, going home to a land that was now empty for him, then leaving it all once more. That’s why he had gotten to choose her nickname and offered it to her father, who used it immediately.
Carl still had two more accomplishments up his sleeve, and may have more, but only time can reveal that.
First, he made sure George’s daughter had some sense of where he was from and he gave her a passion for languages. His biggest error, however, was not steering her toward the right languages. He should have been more careful about that, should not have overlooked it, but nobody is perfect. After all, he had done his best to save the battling cousins at Normandy, so at least he had accomplished that and deserves credit for it. It’s just so sad about the German, however. Such a beautiful language, and all the history and culture that goes with it.
“This is Paradise,” thought George’s daughter when she arrived in Lampoldshausen after a very long trip by plane, train, and bus, but not by ship. She could only stand and look at the hills, all gold and green and lush, and the horses beside the road, the sawmill, and the lovely little Evangelische Kirche where she sat through a service with tears streaming down her cheeks, hoping none of the locals would notice and think she was a foreigner. She did scoop up two stones from the cemetery, one for little Carl and one for herself, along with an acorn. The acorn, naturally, was not something she was allowed to bring back, but she did anyway. She planted it in her back yard, where one day it will grow.
Second, Carl did manage to get his name and his brothers’ names included on the ship’s manifest the year they left. The document gives the name of the ship and the origin of the passengers. It doesn’t say the origin was a humble one, but of course it was. It called them farmers, from Carl Senior to his wife, down to little Carl and his two brothers. It also said the family was from Bavaria, which was wrong. Nobody saw fit to correct this. The captain was probably French or Dutch and not interested in lowly dirt-workers.
Having the names and a date on the manifest revealed that little Wilhelm had disappeared. Nobody remembered him. He could very well have boarded the great ship Redwood in Bremen or some other port, but after that he just disappeared. He hadn’t deserved that, poor little thing, so Carl turned to the only person left: George’s daughter. George’s daughter would have to retrieve the little boy and set him out where people could see him, know he existed.
She didn’t know much, but she had been given at least a fragment of a life and felt she had to do something with the scrap she’d been given. She had no German, but she had the name, she had memories of a place she had never seen but knew she was going to visit. Had to visit. Had to, even if it might split her apart like first poverty and then war had split cousins apart, murdered languages, tossed whole families there into the abyss of emigration and mass unmarked graves.
Where was Wilhelm, poor boy? Where had he gone? Had he emigrated and reached dry land? If it hadn’t been for George, she would never have heard the story about the three brothers who arrived. Or had they only embarked? Had one little boy never arrived? Carl finally taught her how to tell the story that was a century and a half old, the one with a beginning but no end, the one with German on one side and silence and English on the other.
George’s daughter hopes Carl or Karl, no matter what his age, will like what she has done. She knows how few things the boys and their parents carried with them when they left home, but she is proud of the boy who was - is - her great-great-great grandfather. He left her an enormous inheritance, worth all the gold on the west coast and then some. He had left home labeled a farmer at age two (cf. the passenger list; it’s there) and she thinks he died a farmer in New York over sixty years later.
Yes, little Carl had taught George’s daughter about churches with old frescoes, about the lazy Kocher River, about the land of plenty and how it can turn on its people, starving them to death, squeezing them from their land, blighting their potatoes and rotting their hay. He had taught her that the trip from the cradle to the grave can be infinite if we know where we are going. He had taught her that all lives matter, regardless of whether they are tiny or poor.
He taught her memory. She knew she ought to recognize Carl’s accomplishments and did so by telling him, albeit in English, that she remembered his brother, his parents, the forests, the grist mills, and every single blade of grass between the Heilbronn region and her house.
George’s daughter wept as she wrote. She wept for the great-great-great uncle she had never met, just as if he had been her own brother. She wrote with salty ink and the smudges of what has always been on the verge of being forgotten. She wrote because a boy from Möckmühl, Hardthausen-am-Kocher, Eberbach, Neckarsulm, or Lampoldshausen, or from Öhringen had come from there. She wept for the loss of a common language, because she knew his speech must be beautiful.
It must be beautiful because the little boy’s eyes had seen the oaks and poplars, he had crossed the Kocher and Neckar Rivers, and heard the mills grinding their wheat. He had tried to work the lands that refused to yield their crops to human hands, and he had been forced into a rebirth of sorts in a new world. The least she could do was give him this poem, so he would know she had remembered him, his parents, the cruelty of life and inevitability of hope.
Shipped in 1849
Foreign hands twice wrote
on the edges of his world
letters like spiders
tracing, gliding harsh gestures
It is not so hard
to will one into existence
the arms can touch the water
that swims beside the ship
Wilhelm embarks after birth
spindled, bespidered, misnomered, misplaced
places he should know on the list, language(s)
still not used, now replaced
Something churns in this new port
and is set on its way
the one in watery meander crosses countries, but
despite what the manifest claims
it is clear to no one
if he crossed the ocean in somebody's arms
in a coffin. Too small to know.
For a child of peasants, with nothing but their arms, hands, and backs, Carl had come a long way. George’s daughter knew and would not forget.