Thanks to Ken Burns, old people are hot today. No longer are they geezers who drone on and on and on about the good old days and you'd kinda wish they'd just shut up already since they don't even know what an iPod is. No longer are they the crotchety codgers who grouse about how (per the New Yorker) for the price of a lousy postage stamp today, they used to be able to buy a whole damn Cadillac.
They once were all this and more but Ken Burns changed that with his WWII documentary The War, which recently aired on PBS. Spanning 15+ hours, he told the story of the epic war through interviews with the real live participants, not the bullet-headed generals or the egg-headed historians. Today those participants are pretty old and, for the most part, still ordinary Joes. But they held center stage for those 15 hours. The long buried memories they brought to life were absolutely riveting. Turns out the good old days weren't so good for several very bad years. Like….was it Eisenhower who told how after Normandy, you could walk hundreds of yards and step on nothing but rotting human flesh?
When Mr. Burns’ documentary recorded victory over Germany and then Japan, I knew the story was over. But I also knew there would be some epilogues, some “wrapping up” by the old people. And, dog tired though I was (did I not have to get up early next morning to report to the Institute?) I figured I owed it to these old folks to hear them out. You couldn’t help but connect with these people.
But old people remember lots of things, not just war. Today, the hottest of all old people may be our family’s own Violet, profiled in Violet in the Old Folks Home.Of all living persons, she has the most vivid family memories of the boxer Joe Jennette. This, it turns out, is a critical asset since a TV sports network is making a documentary tribute to Joe. And it’s about time. Long ago, Joe used to routinely fight Jack Johnson, the first black World Heavyweight Title holder, and there’s plenty of people who think he would have captured the title himself had Jack given him a shot. But Jack didn’t. Why should he have? Winning the title himself, he had nothing to gain and everything to lose by fighting black challengers. Wouldn’t he, at best, get bruised up to no purpose? But having broken into the white boxer’s domain, all he had to do was stay there. He could pound white boy after white boy to his heart’s content. He dominated his years in the ring.
All this, of course, was too bad for Joe. It consigned him to the footnotes of fighting. But now TV sports wants to do their tribute. They’re poking around for people to interview and came across the white family Joe married into (my family) through this blog!They even thought they might interview me, Tom Sheepandgoats, but it turns out I don’t really know anything. I’m merely the chronicler. Yes, I saw Joe a few times when I was little, he probably carried me around some on his shoulders, but I really don’t remember. No, better to put the TV people in touch with our family historian, a cousin. But they will really hit pay dirt if they can talk to Violet, Joe’s niece through marriage. It might be good for Violet, too. Old people love to think their memories are valued. Has she yet had her 15 minutes of fame?
Alas, her health has taken a turn for the worse since my post about her. The clock is ticking toward midnight. Pop’s visits are more frequent. Will her memories of Joe be sharp as ever? Will she imagine Joe is still around? (That might be good for an interviewer) Or will she tell them that it’s simply none of their business? That’s unlikely, but you never know, especially if they descend upon her all full of themselves because they're on TV. Violet was always a down-to-earth person
Joe and Adie would drive out in his fine car, a rare sensation, on his way to visit Adie's sister and family in the boondocks. We had one of those country families where everyone gathers around the huge kitchen table for hours on end, trading stories and gossip. By all accounts, Joe cut a fine figure. The neighbor kids were impressed. Who was the rich person with the chauffer? they wanted to know. “That’s no chauffer….that’s my uncle!” Pop replied.
Decades later my own sixth grade daughter searched for an African-American person to write about for Black History Month. She trotted out all the regulars: Martin Luther King, George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglas, and so forth. All perfectly fine candidates. Nothing wrong with any of them. But none were family. So I told her the story of her great great uncle Joe, passing the torch of his memory to another generation. Did she not earn an "A" with her report? Would I not gladly embarass her and put it online if I still had it?
From time to time people hit on that post about Joe. The TV writer, for one. But also a couple of young women who are descendants of Joe’s black family, through his brother. This is all welcome. We’ll now be able to link both sides of the family. I wasn’t able to trace his family when I wrote the post. They used to be in Connecticut, I heard. But googling the name, there were more Jennettes and Jeanettes (a misspelling that stuck...even the Jersey City street named in his honor is misspelled Jeanette!) in Connecticut than you could shake a stick at, so I gave up.
We never knew much about Joe’s family. Maybe Violet will remember it all, if they reach her in time. I used to think it was on account of racial tensions. But the old guy (another one!) I work with every morning says, no, all families used to be like that. You seldom kept close to both sides of a family. You’d identify with one or the other. Travel wasn’t so easy as it is now, telephone not so reliable or cheap (people had party lines back then...the neighbors would sometimes listen in), email not so existent, and so you tended to lose touch with one or the other side.
But now, at long last, we can glue it together! We'll do Joe proud.