Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Some Family History

James Alexander Davidson, ca. 1945
 Ambiguity characterized our return from the Renaissance Weekend in Santa Monica on Wednesday last.  On the one hand we had been exhilarated by a rich diet of lectures, panels, discussion groups and simple high class schmoozing among the remarkably able thought-leaders gathered in a luxury beach hotel.  One of my own talks touched upon the Rosicrucian Enlightenment, which at the beginning of the seventeenth century had modestly announced itself with the publication of a plan “for the comprehensive and thorough-going reformation of the whole wide world” addressed to “all the learned people and leaders of Europe.”  Though far less megalomaniacal, the Renaissance Weekends, festivals of ideas, do have a little of this spirit.  Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,” writes Browning, “Or what's a heaven for?”  For all of fifteen minutes I convinced myself that I understood Bitcoin.  No less enjoyable, in a somewhat different register, were two days spent with a dear old friend in his stunning Hollywood condo.  Thanks to Larry we had our first visit to the Getty Museum: magnificent art in a magnificent setting.   The “ambiguity” part began to appear on the return flight.  With each eastward mile I was getting sicker and sicker.  A nasty flu, showing utter contempt for my prudential inoculation months ago, laid me low and delayed this essay by a week.  However, resurgo, and let the deed shaw.

The Renaissance Weekends are not the Judaeo-Masonic conspiracies that the Czarist police spies once attributed to any meeting of the learned people and leaders of Europe, but they do observe an informal, consensual off-the-recordness designed to ease the candid, open and respectful exchange of experimental and sometimes conflicting ideas.  One of the most fascinating things I learned at the weekend was in the category of personal family history, and hardly politically controversial; but in identifying the midwife of my enlightenment I shall say only that she is an eminent expert in environmental law and the one-time majority leader of the Colorado House of Representatives.

My maternal grandfather, James Alexander Davidson, was born just before the Civil War and died in his nineties in the late 1950s.  He was a true Colorado pioneer, most of whose life was spent as an engineer of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, an instrument of cardinal importance in the economic history of Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico.  For a time in the first decade of the last century he was a member of the Colorado legislature.  He lived in the railroad town of Salida, where my mother and her three older siblings were all born. This tale concerns her oddly named sister, my aunt Evangeline Heartz Davidson.  My brothers and I spent the War years living with my grandparents in Denver, where they had retired.  Heartz (the Evangeline part was for documentary use only) lived with her retired husband amid spacious undeveloped fields toward the edge of the city, then just about half its current size.

This man Jodie Stewart, nearly two decades her senior—he had actually been in the first war--had about him an air of mournful mystery.  He was a Mississippian, a retired Army chaplain with the rank of colonel.  He had briefly served as a Presbyterian minister in a parish, but he never talked about his civilian life, which had been indelibly stained by divorce—a huge social disgrace for his time and place and calling.  Later, when I became a reader and came upon Faulkner’s Light in August, I thought: “Uncle Jodie.  Gail Hightower!”  Aunt Heartz had no children of her own, but tried to play beneficent stepmother of Jodie’s son Gerry, another career Army officer (captain) and his wife Virginia.  This was a little awkward, given that Heartz, Gerry, and Virginia were approximately the same age.

The Stewarts had spent their married life on army bases in the Philippines.  Their furniture seemed exotic, practically all of it being made of blond palm fibers and strips of bamboo, what Heartz called “our rattan work”.  The social perceptions of a lad of seven or eight are unlikely to be authoritative, but I believe that Jodie had reached mandatory retirement in 1937 or 1938, and that his resentment at having to “miss” the war was exacerbated by the certain knowledge that his former American friends and colleagues in Manila were suffering horrors in a Japanese death camp.

Mrs. Evangeline Heartz, Populist of Arapahoe County, ca. 1915

Heartz, when asked about her name, always answered that she “had been named by an act of the legislature”.  This was true, and thanks to the help of my dynamic Renaissance contact from Boulder, I am now in possession of the details.  It’s a charming story, and rather inspiring, as it reminds us of the vibrancy of American democratic ideals long since smothered by carpets of money.  Around 1900 it was not merely possible but unexceptional for a workingman to be a citizen-legislator in a western state house.  It was more exceptional, but still possible, that one of his distinguished colleagues might be a woman not yet enfranchised to vote in Federal elections.  This would describe the situation of my grandfather (Democrat, Chaffee County) and Mrs. Evangeline Heartz (Democrat-Populist, Arapahoe County).

My source for the following is the House Journal of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Colorado, for the session of March 7, 1902.  (Colorado of course became a state in 1876—hence the Centennial State—but the relevant documentary archive has this title.)

H.R. No. 13, by Mr. Burwell:
“Whereas, The wires announce the arrival of a little princess at the home of our esteemed fellow member, James A. Davidson, of Chaffee; be it
“Resolved, That we extend to our fellow member, the mother and the child, the good wishes of the House of Representatives of the Thirteenth General Assembly.
“May happiness light the life of this little one as our almost cloudless Colorado sun does our beloved state.
“Resolved, That the clerk be instructed to furnish the little one with a copy of these resolutions.”
The resolution was adopted.
It was further moved and seconded that the little one be named Evangeline Heartz Davidson
The motion prevailed.
The House adjourned.

A wonderful bit of true family lore, but before I wax too euphoric about the egalitarian spirit of the old republic, I do note that these same documentary records clearly show that on the day of my Aunt’s birth in Salida my grandfather was present and voting in the State House in Denver.  The easier part of childbirth is probably the handing out of the cigars.

Headwaters of the Arkansas River at Salida CO