The Irish in me, and other familial highlights

Wilken's Watch

I wrote a column about a month ago concerning my paternal grandparents, good German folk (if recent history doesn't make that, if not them personally, oxymoronish) and promised at that time to equal the books with some news about my Mom's family. Well to start there are two things: Mom's people are generally far more interesting, and I know a whole lot less about them.
For example, until I was 30, I thought Mom, my aunt Dot and My uncle Peck were 50-50, German-Irish. But my uncle John, known as Peck after an old movie starring Jackie Coogan, called "Peck's Bad Boy," (about an urban Irish kid who gets into a lot of messes) despite claiming not be interested in the then-television phenomenon "Roots" got interested in exactly where in the hell the Brenners and Dixons came from.
It might have gone no further but Peck had an accident, either falling off a scaffold or ladder. The exact nature of his failure of balance is lost in the mists of time, where Peck himself went a couple of years ago, but the results of his ancestral dig were, to say the least quite startling to we settled Midwestern folk.
We were Irish, German and German Jewish on mom's side. Of course we couldn't get any clarification from older folks. My Grandpa John had died when I was 11 and I NEVER saw my maternal grandmother -- she died when my Mom was 12, leaving grandpa John to raise four kids.
Somebody on either the Brennan or Dixon side, decided when arriving in Cincinnati early in the 20th Century and seeing signs (I've seen the photos) 'No Irish or (N word) Need Apply) that being Jewish too might be too much handicap to overcome. Anyway they buried that and my Mom and her sibs were raised strict Roman Catholic.
In addition to never seeing my Irish-Jewish grandmother, I never saw my Mom's twin brother Paul, either, although I was given his middle name. He died fighting the Japanese, somewhere in the Philippines, in 1945 during the Big War. But grandpa John I knew pretty well as a kid. He took me to the candy store at the corner of his street whenever I stayed at his house. He loved arguing baseball with me and I still can remember his old face, reddening up, the beginnings of the turkey neck I seem to be inheriting from him shaking, as he yelled I was crazy if I thought Willie Mays was fit to even carry Ty Cobb's glove.
In my simpler days, disguised to myself as a baseball loving virgin who hadn't even kissed a girl, and thought, like many of those elderly children causing trouble at tea parties today, that everything priests and ministers said was true AND somehow God's word, I assumed Grandpa was a racist. Many white adults in Cincinnati in the '50s and '60s, were, despite the way they've all, like their generational contemporary, the late Strom Thurmond, had public (if not always private) conversions now.
I realize these days that I might be being unfair to Gramps because when a young friend of mine started extolling Ken Griffey, Jr., the other day, I verbally eviscerated him. I'm sure my fledgling turkey neck was shaking. "That sleepy young punk couldn't hold Willie Mays' glove. And Frank Robinson was better than Junior, too," I half-yelled.
Statistics be damned, the heroes of our sporting youth remain pristine. And since Willie, Frank and Griffey are all black you could hardly accuse me of racism. So, 'Sorry gramps, if I got you all wrong,' although an apology, even written and public, 54 years after the fact might be construed as worthless by some folks.
Still, William Burroughs, a very profound man under the cultural provocations, firmly believed that the past was never dead and that we could change it somehow by writing about it honestly. Don't ask me to explain that, Old Bill, born on Feb. 5, a few years earlier, like moi, was a lot smarter than I am. Just know he might be onto to something.
Anyway grandpa Brenner was lively and as a child I preferred him to my stolid German grandpa Wilken, just like I preferred my uncle Peck to my German uncles.
During his researches into the family past, Uncle Peck found a great uncle of his who had been shot to death on a Mississippi riverboat for some gambling offense. And one of my Mom's cousins or uncles, Joe Dixon, was elected to Congress and got into trouble with his then-President, Warren G. Harding. One of his sons or grandsons became an attorney in Cincinnati and defended a multiple murderer named Alphonso Provens who received the death penalty. Joe looked like a younger version of Peck, who I was very close to as a youth, but for some reason we never hung out after his losing courtroom effort in the early '80s.
The Wilkens came out of the solidly conservative working class of the old Midwest. They worked long hours, cut the grass on weekends, and socialized with each other.
The Brenners, especially my uncle John, my Mom and her sister, my godmother, aunt Dorothy, were cut from a different cloth.
They liked sports, playing and watching, they liked bars and restaurants, they liked to play spirited weekly card games and they were much quicker than the Wilkens to take offense and defend themselves, verbally, and in Peck's case from what I've heard about his youth, physically too.
As a lifelong wannabe rebel and artist which side could I pick? The folks who gave the world Beethoven, Thomas Mann (he of the 800-page, nothing happens philosophical novels)  Max Schmeling and Martin Boorman didn't stand a chance against the folks who birthed James Joyce, Frank O'Connor, Gene Tunney, Benny Leonard and I.B. Singer to name just a few.
As I've aged, I've learned to acknowledge the mixture which made me who I am, good and bad, German, Irish and Jewish, but there's no question I feel like I am much more a product of my mothers' folks, those briefly mentioned Brenners and Dixons. And I don't mind that at all.[[In-content Ad]]