He Is Us

          Eons ago, a lot of jokes in this country dealt with The Other, people who were outside the norm, who had different clothing, different ways, and different language.  This became known as “ethnic humor”, and is now largely considered passe, if not downright evil.  I don’t have much interest in debating the question: some people regarded jokes about their ethnic group as recognition that their group existed at all, while others took the jokes as straight insult.  These postcards from Cavally’s portrait series seem rather genial to me, but I have been told I am incorrect.  I think it is no coincidence that the downfall of the ethnic joke came around the same time as the generation that had been born over here, and didn’t LIKE to be mistaken for those people who were funny, and awkward, and different (their parents and grandparents.)  One of my grandfathers, as a boy, disliked intensely being reminded of his ethnic background, and didn’t like visiting his heavily accented and over emotional grandmother.

     My grandfather grew into a staunchly conservative Republican, and had definite views about The Other, and how people who were different ought to be treated.  He regretted very much that he hadn’t been nicer to his grandmother, and, when fortified with strong coffee, would tell her story.  Sometimes he could take two hours about it, and I wish I had had the nerve to tale a tape recorder with me.  But I will tell the story of this ethnic adventuress in rather less time,. (I hope.)

     Once upon a time in Hesse (I have forgotten whether it was Hesse-Darmstadt or Hess-Casse;, but my grandfather knew) there was a family of farming Hessians comprising Mom and Dad and four children.  Jacob was the oldest of the children, the only boy, AND the tallest of them, coming it at around five foot one.  Not a tall family, the Ruppels.

     Mom and Dad died in an epidemic.  The children mourned, but there was a farm to run, and the cows need to be milked no matter who died.  Jacob and his three sisters worked the farm together until one day the Notice was posted.

     If you have heard of Hessians at all, you know that these were Herman soldiers hired by the British to fight in the American Revolution.  This was how the Hessian governments stayed solvent: they drafted their young men, trained them, and rented them out to other countries.    The Notice stated that all men of a certain age should report for duty: the government needed the money.

     Jacon didn’t especially want to go.  Hesse was filled with the damaged veterans of previous levies, and, anyhow, he didn’t see how he could leave his sisters alone to run the farm.  For one thing, he was the only one tall enough to harness the horse (not wealthy, either, this family).  Those of you from the city might think one of the girls could just stand on a footstool. But a horse is no dummy.  He knows all he has to do is take one step away from you and you have to get down, move the stool, and start over, whereupon he can move one step forward.  He can do this as long as you can: it may be tedious but it’s more fun than hauling a plow.

     Then, too, if news got out that the farm was being run by three small teenaged girls (The shortest and youngest was Magdelena, who at 16 was just four feet tall) this might give ideas to some of those veterans who, unable to find work, gathered into gangs to pillage and loot.  Killing three girls  would have been easy work for someone who had been off fighting in other countries’ wars.  And, after all, killing wasn’t exactly necessary: they could do other things which would make the women happy to marry them and let them loaf on the farm while the young ladies, between producing offspring, could do the work.

     So Jacob and his sisters resolved to get out of Dodge.  They sold the farm quickly got noy much money.  The neighbors were sympathetic about Jacob’s plight, but knew a desperate seller won’t haggle.  The four used that money to get transportation. They turned up at the seaside one jump ahead of the authorities (who had some experience finding draftees who didn’t want to go),  and completely out of funds.

     Next time: How the Kids got to America, though all Lena saw on the ocean trip was suds.

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