Dirty laundry, dead bodies and my past

Here in the waning days of Travels With Ace — it has been just about a year since we pulled out of Baltimore some 27,000 miles ago — our journey is going in a different direction.


We’re heading to the past, for multiple reasons.

One: Oftentimes you can get to the past pretty easily — without burning a lot of gas. Sometimes it can be a matter of letting your fingers do the walking through a dusty box of photographs, digging up that family tree your uncle once assembled, asking questions of your parents you never asked before, or getting in touch with a relative you’ve never met. While visiting the past we will, of course, continue to live in the moment (Ace insists upon it).

Two: We humans, in addition to getting too busy to live in the moment, also get so rushed to get where we’re going  that we fail to appreciate where we’ve been. And even though the pace of our travels across America was more full dawdle than full throttle, life before that, jammed as it was with deadlines and pushy editors, is in some ways a blur. Sometimes the only thing that slows us down to a reasonable pace — enough to appreciate life, smell the roses, all that crap — is our dog.

Three: Our travels triggered memories, many grown hazy. That, along with the return to the state of my birth, to the town of my birth, to the exact same house of my birth, has sparked my interest in how I came to be on the planet. Realizing that I probably know more about the heritage of my dog than I do my own, prompts me to put at least a little effort into investigating the latter.

Not long after I got Ace six years ago, I decided — because I was constantly being asked what kind of dog he was, and since almost everything about him was a mystery, from his age to his breed to how he ended up in Baltimore’s animal shelter — to find out what I could about his roots.

The result was a seven-part series in the Baltimore Sun about his heritage. In addition to being lengthy, it had a lot of those hanging thoughts set off between dashes — like in the paragraph above, and, hey, now this one, too — because that’s the way I think and because I like making dashes.

The investigation included searching records, pestering the shelter he came from, consultations with veterinarians, at-home DNA tests to determine his breed, wandering the zip code he came from in hopes he would be recognized, and even turning to an animal communicator — an attempt to get the story from the horse’s mouth, which in this case was a dog.

I learned Ace had been a stray, wandering the streets, spotted by a citizen who called animal control. He was picked up in southwest Baltimore and taken to the city’s animal shelter, where he was labeled a hound mix, and where he’d stay a couple of months.

I met him while visiting the shelter for research on a story about volunteerism.  Three days later, I was back to fill out the paperwork and adopt him.

I’ve had three DNA breed tests conducted on Ace — not so much because I was dying to know what he’s made up of, but for the purposes of that story, and subsequent ones that tested the tests that were hitting the market.

All three had slightly different results — but the breeds that showed up were Rottweiler, Akita, chow and pit bull (unless you are a landlord or insurance company or other form of breed nazi, in which case he is a, um … cat.)

Tracking down Ace’s heritage gave me more than just an answer for the dozen people a day who asked what kind of dog he was. By using methods scientific and spiritual — and neither of those is foolproof — the project gave me a better understanding of what made him him, convinced me that environment plays at least as large a role in a creature’s development as genes, and showed me that being pure of breed, unless you’re the AKC or a breeder, isn’t the most important thing in the world, or maybe even desirable.

The four breeds, all of at least some ill repute, joined together, in his case, to produce 130 pounds of gentle, mellow sweetness, enabling him to serve as a therapy dog for others, ward off evil humans by his size alone and keep me sane on the side.

I’m a mutt, too — the product of a mother whose roots are Welsh, a father whose are German and Irish, not to mention I’m a cross between a southerner and a Yankee.

Those are my parents at the top of this entry, youthfully frolicking it appears, in the yard of my father’s father’s house in Saugerties, New York.

Here they are again — not frolicking.

The photo of my father was taken while he was serving in the Army in Korea (and, yes, the typewriter is mightier than the sword, or at least it used to be.) 

The photo of my mother — though she appears to be multi-tasking before it was called that — is a staged one, shot to illustrate a 1950s era newspaper story about newfangled kitchen appliances. While homemaking was among her skills, she was not a stay-at-home housewife, but among those groundbreaking women who stepped into newspaper work when journalism was still mainly a boys-only pursuit.

My father’s parents met in Newark — the New Jersey one — when both were working at the laundry that my great grandfather, who immigrated from Germany, owned. They married and later moved to  Saugerties, N.Y., where they’d raise three boys in a big white farmhouse.

My mother, meanwhile, grew up in Asheboro, N.C., where her family dates back to Revolutionary War days. Her father owned a furniture company that, seeing how well coffins sold, made the transition to full-fledged funeral home and, later, a chain of them.

So, in one way of looking at it, I owe my existence to dirty laundry and dead bodies — those being the lifeblood of the industries that enabled my parents’ respective families to make enough money to send them off to college.

They both ended up at the University of North Carolina, studying journalism — a pursuit that traditionally draws its practitioners from those with egos too big and egos too small; people with a desire to change the world, or at least see it; the nosey, the gossipy, the terminally curious, the perpetually suspicious, and those who lack any truly marketable skills.

After graduation, getting newspaper jobs, getting married and moving to Winston-Salem — eventually into the apartment I have recently re-occupied — they had their their first child, my sister.

Here she is sitting on the front steps of the apartment in College Village I now sit on most evenings, writing on my laptop computer while Ace watches squirrels.

She was about three years old when my father got called upon to serve in Korea.

Upon returning from his stint there, pretty immediately as I understand it, I was conceived, in the room I now sleep in.

Not long after his return he was off again — one of  the journalists invited to witness atomic bomb tests in Nevada.

Unlike area residents and, possibly, him, I was not subjected to any fallout from that, for I was already forming in the womb by the time he left. While, in subsequent years, I would have to hide under my elementary school desk during bomb drills, I was otherwise unaffected by the Cold War’s psychological shrapnel, I think.

A few months after my father witnessed that spectacle, there came another one — me. For one year, I slept, peed, cried, spit up and crawled here in the apartment I moved into last month.

Being here hasn’t automatically rekindled memories. There is only the vaguest sense that I’ve been here before. The doorbell, and it’s actually a bell — you turn the crank and it rings — struck me as familiar. The first time it rang, I did a dog-like head tilt (but didn’t start barking). Was it stirring an infant memory, or just my imagination?

At the age of one, I’d be moved — temporarily — to Boston when my father was selected to be a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Instead of returning to North Carolina after that year, my parents moved to New York, where my father had gotten a job at Newsday.

After 10 years there — we lived in Huntington, where my parents would have another son — we moved to Houston, where my father would work at the Houston Post, and my mother at the Houston Chronicle.

Their marriage would implode about the time I was 12, After their divorce, I lived with my mom in Houston and later Raleigh, spending summers with my father in Connecticutt and Colorado.

I, like them, would end up at the University of North Carolina, and, like them, in journalism — and as a result I would see both dead bodies and dirty laundry, but plenty of joyous and inspiring things as well.

I, like my father, would have the privilege of getting a fellowship (a Knight Fellowship, at Stanford University), be involved in winning my newspaper a Pulitzer Prize (Philadelphia Inquirer, 1987), bounce around to a lot of different newspapers and get divorced twice.

From time to time, I’d wonder how much those similarities had to do with genetics, environment or simply coincidence — how far the apple fell from the family tree. (That’s it to the left.)

After about 35 years in newspapers, I left to write a book, and produce my own website. And a year ago, in a  rare show of spontaneity, I put my belongings in storage, moved out of my house and hit the road with Ace, to see America, and its dogs, and blog about it.

During those travels, we made some stops at places of my past — my grandfather’s house in New York, Houston, where our house in Raleigh used to be, and  Tucson, the site of my first real newspaper job — and doing so sparked a desire to remember more and learn more about my past, and about my family roots, whitebread as they may be.

Among the many things I learned, or had reaffirmed, on our trip were not to take my dog for granted, or my friends, or my family.

Since coming to Winston-Salem, I’ve been rummaging through old boxes of family stuff, reconnecting with relatives, learning more about my family history and trying too to better remember my own past — all those memories that got shoved aside to make room for new ones. For the next few weeks, we’ll continue doing that, including taking at least two more trips — the kind that do burn gas — before we wrap things up.

By the time you read this, we’ll be off on one — a camping trip in the mountains where I plan to reunite with two college roomates.

A little further down the road, we’ll be visiting a battlefield and a cemetery and seeking to shed some light on this question:

Why, on June 19 (which is also my sister’s birthday), 1771, was my great great great great great uncle hung?

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