Monday, April 25, 2011

Tragedy and heroism in the Johnson family history

So I've been doing this "dad" thing for just over eight months now, which probably explains why I haven't written all that much in my blog over the past eight months. It turns out that babies need food and they don't know how to use the bathroom, which really slows down my plans.

Still, I've managed to do a bit of family research on lately, and I've been pretty impressed with what I've found. I managed to track my family as far back as my sixth great-grandfather, an English fella named John Keep who lived from 1698-1751. I suppose that I should send a shout-out to the Mormons for that bit of record-keeping, as John's descendants converted to Mormonism (but my great-great grandma became a Lutheran when she married my great-great grandfather).

The one branch of my family tree that I've been focusing lately is on the Johnson line. It all began with my third great-grandfather, Sven Johnson, who came from Sweden around 1870 to Nebraska. See, he was the first Johnson in my family, as his last name followed the Scandinavian tradition where a man takes his father's first name plus the word "son". (If we were still following it, my son's last name would be Lanceson.) Once he lived in America, his descendants took on the tradition that most people follow where you simply take your dad's last name. My direct line goes from Sven Johnson to Peter Johnson to William Johnson to Alvin Johnson to Gerald Johnson to me.

While doing this bit of research, I re-read a story that had been told to me several times while I was growing up, but now it's having an impact on me that it never quite did before. It involves how my great-grandfather, William, died.

He was mowing the lawn when it happened, and you have to realize that this was 1924 and he lived on a farm. In other words, the "mower" was pulled by a team of horses. He had left them standing for a moment when he went to check on the washing machine that my great-grandmother, Edith, used since it had stopped working. Somehow, the horses got spooked and they started to run, and they were headed right for my great-uncle Leonard, who was three and a half at the time.

Of course, William's first instinct was to save his son, which he did but not before the sickle took off Leonard's feet just above his ankles*. Tragically, great-grandpa saved his son only to have the blade tear into himself instead - cutting off his right arm below the elbow and wrist and his left thumb. Also, his right leg was cut down to the bone from his knee to the crotch. The evidence also indicated that the horses came back around again and hit him one more time, severing one of his toes. Great-grandma had a hard time getting help, but he eventually got medical attention. Unfortunately, the nature of the injuries were so severe that William Johnson died a couple of weeks later.

As I wrote at the start of this entry, I had heard this story several times growing up, but there's something about being a father that makes me see and feel things differently. For instance, I always tell my freshmen about how Odysseus faked being mad in order to get out of fighting in the Trojan War by acting crazy and driving his oxen all over the field. Sensing that Odysseus was bluffing, Palamedes put Odysseus' baby son in front of the plow. Of course, Odysseus diverts it, revealing that he's perfectly sane - the irony being that while saving his son he has basically doomed his relationship with him considering that the prophecy said that he'd be gone for twenty years. Anyway, I always tell that story. When I told it this year, it hit me in a way that it never hit me before. The same thing happened with this story about my great-grandfather.

While I think that many parents can be annoying and patronizing with their platitudes about "if you were a parent, you'd understand" there is something about being a parent that changes you. There are some things that I get that I didn't get before. I mean, I get it now why some people won't leave couples without children alone about having kids. Don't get me wrong - I don't do that, as I still realize how annoying and obnoxious it is - but the thing is, I at least understand the feelings that makes a person do that.

With this story, there is no question in my mind that I'd react in a similar fashion if my son, Logan, was ever in danger. As gruesome a thought as it is how my great-grandfather died, the thought of something happening to my son is a million times worse. No doubt my dad felt (and probably still feels) the same way about me and his father felt the same way about him. The best part is that we're hardly unique, and I would never think that it's a quality that's particular to the Johnsons. It's one of those things that actually makes you happy to be a human being and start to think that maybe we're not so bad after all.

*Leonard passed away in 2001. I got to meet him once - he was a funny guy and got along just fine with his artificial feet.

**The photo is of my grandfather, Alvin Johnson. I don't have any photos of William - yet.


Ingrid said...

You didn't mention that your grandfather was there also to witness the accident, and they later sent him out to gather the cut off limbs. Not to compare this especially tragic story but your other great grandfather also suffered tragedy with his two first born children. Both contracted meningitis when they were less than two years old, and grandmother (who I never knew) told her later born children how he walked helplessly night after night, carrying his dying babies. After the second one did he said "this house is killing my babies" and started to build his own house under great financial and physical sacrifice. It almost cost my grandmother her life because she helped by carrying the bricks. If you keep digging back, the Castro family wasn't without sacrifice either. All thanks to some great men who loved their families. You come from a good line of fathers.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

I recall hearing about how my grandpa saw all that, but it wasn't written down in the records that I had been reading - thanks for the confirmation - and the info about the rest of the family.

Katherine said...

Being a parent does put the world in a different perspective. It's never the same again. It's better in many ways, but sometimes you just wish for a little peace and quiet. Until they move out and you miss the commotion.

That was an amazing and sad story about your Great grandfather. Thanks for sharing it.

There was one father who sacrificed his son so that we could live forever with him.