“They used to go ahead and put my lunch in that liquid nitrogen [at NASA] and freeze it.”

John is definitely one of the badasses in my life.  I met him five years ago during my second term in the National Civilian Community Corps, stationed in Chalmette, LA, for Katrina recovery support.  John is the self-appointed tour guide for all volunteers that set boots in St. Bernard Parish.  He came into Camp Hope (the volunteer camp) each week with a box of doughnuts or a bag of kumquats from his tree to give to the latest group, and invited them on a five hour tour of the area.  The first time I went on one of his tours, I apprehensively wondered how might we fill a full five hours.  Would we get bored?  But John has the gumption of a thousand men, and we soon found ourselves laughing and enthralled in his stories.

John Wilkes Booth, Jr., was born February 17, 1942 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Upon giving birth, his mother developed a blood clot in her leg which made care taking difficult, so John was raised by his grandmother and aunt on an island in Chef Menteur Bayou.  She didn’t pass at that time, but later in life the clot came back in a sudden way.  In his words:

John was always a sort of prodigy to me.  It seemed like he’d done everything there was to experience in life.  He explained growing up with the land and sea as his teacher and friend outside from school.  He passed time fishing, crabbing, hunting, trapping, and anything else he could do.  In High School he worked for Beaux Brothers building roads in the Parish.

John was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War as a mechanic, which he excelled at.  He started with one plane in his care, and ended his career with two rows of 20.  That job gave him the experience he needed to work with Boeing after his discharge.  There he worked on the NASA Saturn V as the Pneumatic and Cryogenic Technician – that’s the rocket that took our men to the moon.

He finished his career as the Car Knocker at the railroad.  He coupled the cars when they came into the yard as well as had opportunities at other jobs there such as manning the crane.  Here, he tells all this in his own words.  He had me laughing when he talked about playing with liquid Nitrogen at NASA.

In all, John worries about technology and how it’s been affecting our culture.  One thing he highlighted is the things we’ve done with weapons – the plus side of splitting the atom with the power we’ve achieved, but the sheer danger of the weapons it enabled.  He believes that children are smarter today, based on the number of books he sees kids carrying to school.  But he sees them staring into their cell phones, even when spending time together, and feels the loss of the closeness people once had.  He admits, however, that science really has come far.  Here he explains both:


John is a card.  At the end of his interview, we started talking about colors.  I hope you enjoy listening to our wind down.

“My daddy was a racist of the worst kind…  I did not understand that kind of thinking.”

How can I convey what it was like to listen to a hundred years of family secrets?  Floored is the word, I believe.  When I was referred to Charlotte, I was told she grew up in the country of Louisiana.  To me, that means people who live with the land.  What I did not expect, was someone who had seen such an evolution, not just in society, but within her own family.

Charlotte Ann Robinson Lawson was born January 8, 1946 in Lizard Creek, Louisiana.  She was delivered by her uncle at home – “whoever happened to be home did the job”.  Lizard Creek wasn’t an incorporated town, but a community of farms and families that lived near and supported each other.

Charlotte spoke very candidly with me.  She said that when she heard I was coming, she began to consider the past and things that had been forgotten.

When she was a girl, people didn’t eat with “colored people”.  In fact, there was a moment of confusion when she tried to remember just how it was that the “colored people” sat in the balcony of the movie theater – she never saw them enter, nor saw a separate stair.  Segregation didn’t happen in her town until she was out of school.

Charlotte didn’t fully understand why the people were separated.  She admitted that her dad was positively racist, and mean about it.  In her own words:

It was custom in those days to witness things that one might have known were wrong.  They were brought up to not question things that they were told, and to never ask again once an explanation was given.  Charlotte learned the truth of things in their adult life – some I won’t disclose in keeping hers and her family’s confidence.

What she disclosed that I do feel can be mentioned was instances of adultery, rape, bribery, domestic abuse, and the family ‘black sheep’, Charlotte’s Aunt.  She was regularly in prison, to which point her sister illegally adopted her daughter, and kept her the next time she was out.  This Aunt once made herself a nurse, and waltzed right into the hospital to get information about their cousin when he was ill and information wouldn’t be released.  This Aunt also had two marriages, but they’re sure she had many more illicit relationships outside of those.

With respects to technology, Charlotte is rather pessimistic.  In spite of the advances in knowledge and personal reach, she truly feels today’s tech is separating families from the care they used to provide each other.  In her words:

Charlotte highlighted that their family was greatly intermarried with another family – to which point many cousins were two-time first cousins.  The family was enormous, and took care of each other.  They shared food, responsibility, and care-taking.  This became a recurring theme in the interview, as Charlotte had thought hard over the previous days about the way the family used to band together and support each other.  It was this topic that ended the interview in tears.

“Between ten of us, we had keys to everywhere on that ship.  We made wine on that ship, and they never found the distillery.”

Marion Graff reminded me of an 18 year old in a 92 year old’s body.  He was very cavalier with me during my entire visit, immediately making me feel a part of his life.  “Come on in, sit down,” he instructed immediately as I entered his home.

Marion was born on August 19, 1922 in Ironwood, Michigan – along the border of the Upper Peninsula Michigan and Wisconsin.  His family moved to the Grand Rapids Area when he was three years old.  In 1942, he chose to put college on hiatus and enlisted in the United States Navy.  He was assigned as Pharmacists Mate Second Class on the USS battleship West Virginia.

I could tell Marion was proud to have been on the West Virginia.  He led by telling me that the ship had just been serviced and updated before deployment, making it the most advanced in the fleet.  Its battle stations could hit any coordinates given within range with only one test shot for calibration.  The ship was so valuable and kept at sea so long it once ran out of fuel and had to be re-loaded while still at sea.

During the course of 1943 – 1945, Marion traveled 71,615 miles on the USS West Virginia, which spent 223 days in combat, sank one Japanese Battleship, and shot down 23 Kamikaze / Japanese planes.  The ship spent a total of 3,000+ 16″ projectiles, approximately 30,000 shells, and over 200,000 rounds of small caliber shot.  That totaled 5,500 tons of ammunition.  Losses included four killed due to a Kamikaze attack, four in observation planes, and four others.  31 men were wounded during its mission, with two men MIA.

Though it was a serious tour, he admitted it was what you made of it.  In his words:

When Marion returned to Grand Rapids, he re-enrolled at Aquinas College, finishing out a Business and Finance degree.  He went on to work, first for John Hancock Insurance, then started his own venture as a General Agent selling insurance.  He sold his business to Steenland Insurance Agency after retirement and disinterest in running the business (though not disregard) from his five children.

When asked about the youth today and the upbringing of his grandchildren, he responded, “It’s a whole different world.”  He worry’s about their ability to make their way in the world, especially due to the affects of the credit card.  “They should have never invented it,” he said.  He’s shocked at how many spend far beyond their ability, compared to his upbringing at a time when one spent only what he had.

He also is concerned with the culture of the College Degree.  “It’s coming to the point where if you don’t have that piece of paper that says ‘Degree’ on it, you’re lost.  You’re going to work for an $8.50 or $10 job.”  What to do about it, well that’s a whole other conversation.

Ella is a force to be reckoned with.  She heard about this project through a flier posted in her hall, and called four times in one morning just to make sure she’d have the chance to tell her story.

Ella Louise Cecilia Middleton was born on April 11, 1931 in Flint, Michigan.  Her mother passed away when she was born of complications.  Sadly, her father, originally from the Grand Rapids Area, didn’t know what to do with the new infant suddenly in his care.  He was very young at the time and she was his first child.  For the first six months of her life, Ella was in a sort of nursing home, until relatives scolded him for his neglect and pressured him to take her in.

Ella’s father remarried when she was three.  On her fifth birthday, her first sibling was born.  A situation that sometimes may alienate those caught in it, Ella recalls her step-mother being kind to her, increasingly as she grew, in spite of having a total of three children of her own.  Still, Ella walked to the beat of a different drum.

When Ella reached her early teen years, she was put in charge of the groceries.  Her step-mother stated that her father would pick a terrible selection, and knew Ella would enjoy the responsibility.  So, each week, Ella would go down to the market and collect the groceries.  Once bagged, the grocer would hold them until her father arrived to pay for them.  You see, she really enjoyed the responsibility because it took place next to the theater.  While waiting for her father, she would pay for an 11 cent movie using her babysitting money.  She states that those movies brought her up – they taught her to be an adult.  In her words:

Today she still loves to watch television and has it going all the time.  When I would call to schedule the interview, she always had it on in the background.  She believes it has been a lifesaver.  “What would I do?  Sit here and stare at the wall?” she quipped.  She told me that she’s seen all the movies that Villa Maria screens, but she still attends the events.  She’s glad to reminisce.

“[The trains] would stop for no reason, and everyone would pile off [to see why]… and if it didn’t move again for another two hours, so what? … There were no deadlines.” 

Ruth Inez Wilson was born in Birmingham, England in 1935.  At age three, her parents decided to become missionaries, and moved to the Congo.  At age six she moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, for school.  She returned to England and the end of secondary school and reunited with her parents.  Her final education was in nursing school before she married and moved to New Jersey.

Her childhood was really something.  Growing up in Congo, there weren’t the amenities the UK or the United States were enjoying.  She has a real appreciation for those changes.  Listen to her talk about the radio and cars coming into her life (ironic that a car drives by in the background when she talks about them):

Ruth recalled the train that used to run from Johannesburg all the way to Cairo.  She took it several times in her life.  She said it was different, then.  One might expect to eat prime rib in the dining carriage, and to sleep in comfort each night.  It was a time when people weren’t in a rush.  The train might make several unexpected stops during the trip, either for supplies or for herds that were crossing the tracks.  Sometimes it would stop for no reason at all.  Everyone on the train would pile off to see what was going on and to talk with their co-passengers.  Due to war, it is unclear if the full train line still exists.  She tells it better than I.

Ruth strongly feels we’ve lost the understanding of leisure time due to the fast pace of technology in today’s society.  Instead of getting off the train and sharing stories, today’s passengers would likely stay sitting impatiently while browsing their smartphone.  Ruth especially sees this affecting children.  She notes that they don’t go outside to play like they used to.  During her youth and that of her children, kids were able to run and play where they liked, and made up their own games.  Ruth fears that this lack of interaction and imagination will have a lasting affect on our society.