Living Through Stories

As the header of this Blog indicates, I intend to write about many things here. I might have plagiarized Moby Dick and titled it, “Call Me Ishmael,” the wanderer. That would fit. As a child I was moved often as my dad followed his trade in the lumber industry.

I love history, perhaps because all my life I have been so aware of my own. My father was a storyteller and his stories were those those of his own life and those of the lives of his parents and grandparents. In his stories the relatives who lived long ago were vividly alive, and listening as a small child I saw them as I assumed he did, the ages he portrayed them, living pretty much as I lived and dressed as I dressed.

I am the eldest child of a second marriage. My dad was 53 when I was born, my mother 20. He was born in 1888 and she in 1921. Yeah, that makes me old as dirt. It is what it is; get over it. I have seen firsthand many events and lived through the effects of others. Through my parents’ and grandparents’ eyes the experiences reach back to antebellum times.

Dad was also the eldest child of a second family. William–Billy–Stiles married the niece of his first wife, Rebecca, after she died. Rebecca left him with three boys, the youngest still a baby. Billy’s second wife, Jane Ellen Baker, was the daughter of Rebeca’s brother, Will Baker. Will was a Civil War veteran whose chest wound left him permanently weakened until he died of pneumnia at the age of 59.

The Bakers all were Unionists and wore the blue. The Bakers, like the Stileses, lived in the mountainous SE corner of Tennessee, Monroe County, in various small towns.

“At the outbreak of the war there seemed to be 3 sentiments in SE Tennessee,” Arthur Stiles wrote in his unpublished autobiography, “Union, Confederate, and a good many neutrals who could see no sense in fighting each other. Grandpa (William McConnell) Stiles was a neutral, as were several hundred others, and as the war raged back and forth these men were forced to hide out in the Smoky Mountains along the Tellico River where they waited out the war.

“I remember a tintype picture in our family collection of a commissioned officer in Federal uniform and, I was led to believe, the rank of captain, and Mother told us children the name but I have forgotten. It was either Baker or Smith, Grandma Baker’s maiden name.”

William McConnell’s son Leander—“Lee”—Stiles, however did wear the gray (whether of his own volition or conscripted I have no idea) and was injured. Lee Stiles survived many firefights, always refusing to take cover. His buddy constantly berated Lee for refusing cover until finally he prevailed, and in the next engagement Lee took cover behind a tree. The first time he stuck his head out to fire, a bullet plowed a deep furrow. The surgeons put in a silver plate which he wore until he died.

So a part of my personal history are stories like these transmitted to my dad by family he knew well, family who lived through the war and Reconstruction. William McConnell Stiles and his wife, Elizabeth (Eliza) Pack, both died in April 1880 during an influenza epidemic that swept their area, so my dad never knew either. Their stories came to him from Billy Stiles and Billy’s numerous brothers and sisters, including Lee.

All of this sounds so dreadfully long ago, especially to those young now. And I understand that. My dad lived quite a full life before his second family came along, and when he would talk about his experiences as a young man in his late teens and twenties his stories were always entertaining and the people real, but those times were so foreign to me, and so many events and innovations had happened in the meantime, that those were worlds I could picture only like the worlds I knew.

Earlier this week I mentioned to a granddaughter that during my career as a journalist I had interviewed Dave Brubeck. THE Dave Brubeck. “I’m sorry, Grandma, I don’t know who that is.” Well, EVERYBODY knows who Dave Brubeck was. But they don’t, and he died not so long ago, as famous then as he was much earlier. But most of her generation never heard his magical jazz.

© July 16, 2022 Notmae