Monday, June 29, 2009

Mormons VIII: Miss Utah, Swine Flu, Dead Babies

It is the penultimate day of my journey back to San Francisco. It has been a long, meandering trip.

Barranquilla by minivan to Cordoba, truck to Turbo, launch to Capurgana, walk to Panama, xx? to Colon, bus rides up the Pan Americana to Mexico, the Swine flu tour of Veracruz, Mexico City, Laredo. An old friend and a few Pogues CD’s on the car ride to Austin and New Orleans, a barge to Natchez, a bike ride to Nashville, a road trip to Richmond, New York City, and Middletown, Connecticut, and an Amtrak ride up to Rochester, over to Chicago, and on to Salt Lake City.

I have traveled over three months and 8,000 miles, and I am now so close to San Francisco that I can taste the California current in the cold rain which I am told is highly unseasonable for a Salt Lake City June. My body is worn down and I know my immune system must be on the brink of capitulation. But I have one day left for Salt Lake City, my last pilgrimage site where I will embrace the role of camera-wielding tourist. I even read the guidebooks for this one. My plan must be executed with a marshal pace, I’ll leave the Clark W. Griswolds in the dust, yet must be time for whoever pops up during the day. There must be characters here in Salt Lake City, and I must find them.

The people and the religion that founded this Zion have weaved themselves into my life story. If nothing else, I owe it to the story to have a look around.

After two days and a night on the train, I got in just before 1am. I was met at the station with a cold steady rain and not the hotel shuttle I had arranged to pick me up. I called the hotel to see what the matter was, and the midnight receptionist was so friendly on the phone it was impossible to be angry even though he had no trace of my reservation. Maybe they had checked the central database after I had booked the room.

A couple hours out of Denver I started calling Salt Lake hotels. The first was not yet open. At the second a honey-voiced receptionist named Pam offered me an exorbitant rack rate, yet before hanging up I asked if there were any cheaper rooms. She paused, then asked me why I was visiting.

“Well, I’m coming to see the sites. My family isn’t from Utah, you see.”

Two short statements both true, but she was free to see whatever she wanted was some deeper meaning connected with my visit, a search for roots maybe, or a return to the homeland. I wanted her to see that I needed a cheaper room. This pilgrim was not about to spend 185 dollars at the Shiloh Inn.

“How much were you looking to spend,” she asked.

“Uhh, a 100 dollars… maybe I should look for another place.”


“What about 104 dollars,” she replied, “It’s our introductory rate.”

Open Sesame, a nearly full hotel knocks almost 40% off a single night for a guy who has come to see the Temple.

But eight hours later there is no reservation, no record in the computer of my conversation with Pam. The Shiloh Inn was either full, or did not take guests after midnight. The night clerk found me a room at another inn without a shuttle, so I only spent a few more minutes in the rain before a taxi arrived.

The breakfast buffet at the Crystal Inn was a more auspicious start than my arrival. I had slept through my alarm and woke with 5 minutes to get down to the lobby before the end of breakfast. I was resigned to scraps, frozen bagels halves and frosted flakes, but there was a fully loaded hot bar, fruit, granola, yogurt, fresh juices, and of course, local honey, this the state of Deseret. A banner overhanging the lobby announced the Miss Utah Scholarship Pageant, and there were 25 contestants rearranging little bits of food here and there on their plates while their families and the rest of us tried not breath too deep for fear of asphyxiating on overpowering hairspray fumes.

I sit down to tuck into some eggs and hashbrowns and I notice what’s been following me, though we’ve been onto each other for a while now. From Veracruz to Mexico City, Monterrey, Laredo, Nashville, New York City, Chicago, and now Salt lake, for the last 5,000 miles it has been keeping a few days behind, or to keep me of balance, skiping a few days ahead. Today it has caught up with me in the Crystal Inn, while I breakfasted with anorexic, hairspray huffing beauty queens.

The headlines of the morning Tribune screamed Swine Flu, or least they should have. They’re now printing H1N1 in place of Swine Flu. This is a mistake, first because the pigs are clearly to blame, ask the Egyptians, though more so because acronyms aren’t nearly as frightening as the prospects of rogue farm animals. It’s as if the print industry has already given up, how else are they going to sell papers if they don’t even try to scare people anymore. The hospitals weren’t even testing for Swine Flu in Salt Lake City as they’ve assumed all the cases are of the porcine variety.

With a map in hand I set out for the Genealogy Center where the LDS Church sponsors one of the most comprehensive family research libraries in the world. Between the Center and the Granite Mountain Records Vault a few miles outside the city and beneath 600 feet of nuclear blast proof bedrock, the Saints possess over 3 billion pages of family records. They are now working to digitize this vast collection, but for now the records are available on microfiche.

Right beside the door of the Center there is a desk occupied by a Walmart-style greeter. “Hello! I can just tell you’re a first timer!” the woman with a white beehive hairdo said.

Beaming, she offered me a first timer’s-VIP name sticker and called another white haired woman who directed into a room with a surprisingly helpful introductory film.

The film even included a line that hinted, however obliquely, what the LDS intends to do with all of this genealogical work. In LDS Temples, the Saints conduct post mortem baptisms as a part of their sacred rites. This practice drew some scrutiny when it was reported the church was baptizing from lists of holocaust victims. I am impressed with the backdoor effort, though I wonder if they realize what they are getting into here. One of my ancestors was the last man to be ordered branded by the state of Tennessee, our long line of sinners might need any help they get with the celestial parole board. They might prove regrettable picks as eternal neighbors.

I climbed the stairs to the North America record hall where I sought some concrete connections to “Uncle” Walker. Three years ago, based on a conversation with a living uncle, I had pegged the Grey Eyed Man of Destiny as Grandpa Walker. It did not take genealogy to discover he had no children of his own—that was a matter of the historical record. But what about his brothers and his sister, or even his parents brothers and sisters, where can I find a Walker that fits into our tree? There is a great x4 grandma Walker who was born in Virginia. It’d be nice to have more than speculative ties. I have spent too much on this little tyrant to find out that my great grandfather made up the connection to add luster to his own legend.

After a half hour it sank in why I was the youngest person here by a solid three decades. Genealogy is slow, tedious work requiring geriatric patience even when the records are available. Going back the holes in the county records swallow entire generations. In the colonial period and the in early republic, churches were often the sole repositories of vital documents. Churches were also typically made of wood, and many burned. A burned down church in North Carolina had stymied my paternal grandfather’s pursuits of our family tree, though the Walker line supposedly ran back through my father’s mother’s line.

Even if I had the whole day, or week for that matter, I’m not sure what I would have found what I was looking for. There were no records for Davidson County births in the 1820’s, but I had the names of William Walker’s brothers and sister along with her husband with whom she moved to Kentucky. I checked both Paducah and Louisville, different accounts placed her in both cities, yet nothing jumped out. I searched the lines I suspected that might have linked us in Virginia, again no luck.

Genealogy is not just tedious old fart work, turns out it is also depressing. Where the church sees opportunity, I just found endless lists of forgotten souls. With a few names, locations and dates, one can reel the microfilm and squint through record after record of the reproductions of barely legible scrawl. Some of the poor penmanship had a morose quality. Instead of buzzing through the names, I stopped and read a few. There was a reason for the sad ink, many of the records were for babies that didn’t survive their first day. As a historian I should have realized that records were kept for living and dead births alike, and that infant mortality was extremely high in the time before antibiotics and the germ theory of disease. There was something about reading these records that hammered in both points, and after this little discovery I had a hard time just zooming through the records in search of a single last name with noticing all the dead babies, dead leaves on the family tree.

The sadness of the premature loss was not only evident in the wilted penmanship, but in the abruptness of the half completed records. Judged by the motley styles, these were probably filled out by the grieving fathers themselves. The yellowed reproductions are stuffed 8 to a slide and serve as the only evidence of a child who may or may not have taken a first breath outside his mother’s womb.

If William Walker is in fact a relation, I will have to slog through hundreds of more reels to prove the connection. I didn’t have the stomach for it, and it wasn’t the mission for my only day in Utah.

I crossed the street to Temple Square, which was geared something in between a tourist attraction and an establishment presentation of the Latter Day Saints. The skyline as viewed from the entrance to the square was an impressive juxtaposition of ancient and modern. The towering white granite of the six-spired Temple and the rooftop garden atop the matching granite of the LDS Conference would have been at home on the Mesopotamia plain, yet both buildings are framed by the vertical lines of Salt Lake’s modern skyscrapers that rise up around the square. The silver, turtle back dome atop the tabernacle might well have dropped down from outer space.

1 comment:

zoe goes racing said...

your writing makes me laugh