There are few men in my extended family whom I consider honorable, but I believe my maternal grandfather was one of them. Too bad he died when I was a baby. Recently, I inherited part of his legacy in the form of 10 disintegrating scrapbooks and a bin of loose photos. Most of this stuff is 70 to 80 years old.
In paging through it, I glimpsed life through the eyes of a U.S. Navy sailor in the 1920s and 30sbut more importantly, I learned something about the nature of books and immortality, and about myself.
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Bennie Edward Burnworth wanted to get away from the family farm in Abilene, Kansas; that much is certain. The siren song of adventure proved irresistible at age 16, so he enlisted in the Navy. His mother sent him off with a loaf of homemade bread and a jar of preserves for the bus ride. Family legend says he lied about his age to get in. Perhaps he switched the numbers around; his birthday was May 8, 1910, but the U.S. Navy memorial website lists it as October 5, 1908.
Whatever the case, he soon found himself aboard the U.S.S. Saratoga, a $35 million aircraft carrier touring the South Pacific. The "Sara," as they called it, was state of the art: 888 by 106-feet-long and with a crew of over 2,000.
Charles Lindbergh taking off from the deck of my grandfather's ship.
My grandfather wanted to preserve every moment of his experience. So he started his first scrapbook, consisting of issues of the shipboard newspaper, the Saratoga Plane Talk. This is where I found articles about Charles Lindbergh�s visit to the Saratoga not long after his historic trans-Atlantic flight. Elsewhere, I found pictures my grandfather snapped of the celebrity.
The scrapbooks contain a ton of other historically interesting stuff: May 21, 1930 coverage of Pres. Herbert Hoover�s much-ballyhooed review of the Naval fleet; 1932-34 snapshots of Chinese infantry at battle in the China-Japan War; postcards showing the Long Beach, California, earthquake of 1933; an article about the disappearance of the ship Cyclops in the Bermuda Triangle, "the Greatest Mystery of the World War"; and articles about advances in military technology ("�Al� Williams Predicts Planes at 1,000 Miles Speed"). There are especially lots of clips about dirigibles, which are "better for distance and cargo." The ZMC-2, the first (and, as it turns out, only) metal-clad dirigible, was hailed as the forerunner of "super-metal Airships, which will solve the problem of trans-oceanic flights." Also, I found articles from the 1930s about how the Japanese in their diplomatic talks protested the use of advanced armaments such as those onboard the Saratoga, plus a rather jarring photo of U.S. sailors holding a Japanese rising-sun flag and a samurai sword.
As I�m writing this article for Horror World, I can�t fail to mention the snapshots I found of public executions in the Orient. This raises my first major observation: my family has a congenital morbid streak. Why else would there be so many articles about people who died in shipboard accidents? Why else did he snap of a photo of a woman�s body floating down a Chinese river? In one scrapbook, next to an article about a plane falling overboard during an attempted landing that killed the pilot, I found a strip of gray cloth resembling old duct tape. Under it was my grandfather�s handwritten caption: "fabric from recovered plane that Lieut. COM Oscar Erickson drowned in from Saratoga 11/5/32."
Then there are the endless pages of souvenirs collected from Hawaii, China, and Japan: tickets, brochures, postcards, money, menus, ads, beer and wine labels, business cards, rail schedules, liberty passes in rusty metal frames, and photographs. And of course there are souvenirs of shipboard life: orientation pamplets to the ship, photos, friend�s autographs (with nicknames like Mick and Skeeter; Bennie�s apparently was Snipe), and a "subpoena" to a Neptune�s party, which is a hazing ritual Naval personnel still undergo when crossing the equator for the first time. I even found an honest-to-God laundry list ("Aprons $.02, Bag. Laundry $.01, Belt $.01 ").
My grandfather also clipped hundreds of comic strips and jokes that reveal how the meaning of humor can be buried in the sediment of time. Take for instance:
They were driving out on a lonely road in the country. He stopped the car.
"How about a little kiss?" he asked.
"Not here," she said. "Drive on a few miles further."
"What�s the big idea," he asked.
"Well," said she, ["]even Saint Peter could hardly expect a girl to walk back that far!"
Did you understand the punch line? Because I sure didn�t. Still, I found some jokes I understood:
Sailor: "So you yearn for the life of a sailor?"
Civvy: "Yes. The one that stole my wife."
And ones I think I got:
WE read in a MAGAZINE when not one in TWENTY-FIVE people can TELL which way ABE LINCOLN is facing on a PENNY. But AFTER all, the ANSWER doesn�t make CENTS. And any COPPER will tell you.
Humor is always a revealing mirror of societal attitudes. Take for instance the occasional drawing I found of someone in blackface or the comic of two men sleeping in the same bed under a sign reading, "Homo Sweet Homo." A great many jokes concerned women and how they must have been regarded aboard a ship of 2,000 lonely men:
There was a young sailor named Dub
And oh! how he could lub
He had 60 girls in 22 ports,
And he became very good at all,
"My family has a congenital morbid streak."
Which leads me to the spicier items I found, like the 80-year-old catalog from the Arita Sex Store of Kobe, Japan, which my grandfather concealed inside an envelope marked "WarningBeware." And the one-page flyer headlined, "WARNING! BEWARE OF WHORES!" and the "Safety First" waiver to be signed by a hooker before sex, certifying her consent to intercourse and her promise never to prosecute her customer under the Mann White Slave Act. (Don�t worry; the waiver was unused.)
I�m glad, though, that my inheritance became more personal than that. Even something like the drinking songs he transcribed"Woman" and "Have You Plenty of Lead in Your Pencil"in his flowing, smooth penmanship revealed someone with an attention to detail, an even temperament, and a sense of humor. I like to think I share a couple of those qualities. (An even temperament isn�t one of them.)
My grandfather, according to one newspaper clipping, was the shipboard Casanova, "whose invasions of the Sawdust Trail so often bring grief to his sorrowing and envious shipmates." After his second three-year enlistment, he went to the Submarine & Diesel Engine School in New London, Connecticut. He was destined to rise to the rank of Chief Machinist�s Mate during a career spanning nearly 37 years. During that time, he periodically received telegrams ("wear civilian clothes otherwise don�t come," read one) and dozens upon dozens of pre-World War Two holiday cards, which are so much more attractive than the crap on sale today. He dutifully captioned everything and put most captions into quotes for some reason.
Three generations of Burnworths. From the left: my grandfather Bennie, my great-great grandfather, and my great grandmother.
The real treasures, though, are the postcards I found from my great-great grandmother and great-great grandfather, sent on the occasion of my grandfather�s first birthday in 1911. Imagine: century-old pen scratches from someone I�m related to. Plus a picture of my great-great grandfather and several photos of my great grandmother, who reminds me of Aunty Em of The Wizard of Oz.
My grandmother HazelBennie�s wifeand my mother even make appearances in these scrapbooks, however obliquely. It seems that Grandma had a jealous streak, even of women Bennie dated before they met in the late 1930s. Lots of pages only contain captions where once hung photos. They include: "Lora," "Sweetheart," "Stella & Me," and "My sailorette sweetheart." I found my mother�s influence in a book containing clippings of print advertisements. Across the foreheads of women such as Betty Grable is my mother�s name, "Patsy," penciled in a child�s scrawl.
Then there were the loose photos and newspaper clippings my grandmother added about me after she took custody of the collection. She died in 2005 at the age of 94.
My grandfather Bennie died 31 years earlier, a victim of the smoking habit that was so much a part of a Naval engineer�s life. Before that, however, he recieved honorable discharge certificates in both 1940 and 1950, and a retirement certificate in 1957. He received a medal "for bravery and valor" at the 1932 Battle of Soochow Creek in Shanghai. Mixed in with the collection are his uniform bars and dog tags. A tiny walnut basket hangs from the dog tag chain, perhaps a gift from someone.
I never met him, at least not that I remember. Somewhere, probably under that pile of ancient hatboxes in Grandma�s closet, lies a picture of him holding an infant Matt Warner on his knee. I also have a silver piggy bank he made for me, imprinted with my name.
I feel robbed that I never knew him.
These books, however, have given him a small measure of immortality, so I�m glad he felt a compulsion to archive his life. Maybe that�s also a reason I�m a writerI�m afraid of deathand why indeed any artwork or monument or building is ever constructed, and why, when you can�t successfully conceive a child, it feels as if something inside has died already.
I write; I journal; I archive. But time still erodes my land as it will one day my body, even as it dissolves the leather bindings of my grandfather�s scrapbooks. What is the point, then?
Because books speak through time.
Today, I shake hands with a young man standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier in 1927. I�m a distant echo of him, so I�m thankful for the chance to see where we traveled together.
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