The Greatest Day?

June 6, 1944, just might have been the greatest single day of what has become known as the greatest generation. At least it has become one of the most widely discussed days of that generation’s involvement in World War II.

Individual soldiers and sailors, however, might offer a variety of other days that they consider to have been the “greatest,” depending on where they were serving and what they were doing at the time. For some, it might have been their involvement in the Doolittle raid on April 18, 1942. For others, it might have been the invasion of Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. Or it might have been the day of one of any number of many invasions, bombing runs, and other military actions across the numerous theaters of World War II. The soldiers who invaded Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians certainly thought that they were involved in a momentous event, although those invasions are little known or discussed today. It’s sort of like they say of surgery: It’s minor surgery when it’s performed on someone else; it’s major surgery if you’re the one going under the knife!

My Uncle Dillon’s “greatest day” didn’t come on June 6, 1944. He didn’t arrive on Omaha Beach until June 24, D-day + 18. He came ashore with the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 3rd Armored Division, that day and then entered the fighting in the bocage region the next day. A tank driver, he took forward observers to the very front edge of the front lines so they could identify German targets and call in artillery fire against them. The fact that he didn’t participate in the June 6 landings in no way minimizes the greatness of his contribution toward winning the war.

But June 6 has another significance for me. On that day in 1844, my great great grandfather, Joshua Peterson, was born. If not for him, there would have been no James Peterson, no Blaine Peterson, no Ralph Peterson–and no me!

Joshua was the son of Hiram Peterson and Nancy Mashburn and was the grandson of Tobias Peterson of Kjolen, Sweden, and Maria Silva of Portugal. Joshua’s grandfather Tobias reputedly was the first white settler along Poplar Creek in the Toe River Valley of North Carolina.

Joshua either enlisted or was drafted into the Confederate Army. In the mountains of western North Carolina, both the Union and Confederate armies enforced conscription. If one army didn’t get you, the other one probably would. Many men from that area, owning no slaves and being predominantly Whig in political sentiment, had “no dog in the fight,” so they often served briefly in whichever army had drafted them, then they deserted and hid in the mountains. To them, it was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” and they really wanted nothing to do with either side. They just wanted to be left alone to farm their steep hillside farms, provide for their families, and worship their God in peace. Such might well have been the case with Joshua.

Joshua survived the war, and in 1866, shortly after the war ended, married Martha Warrick. They had ten children, three girls and seven boys, one of whom was James, my ancestor. Like many of his own ancestors, Joshua was an active member of the local Church of the Brethren, a group of German Baptists that included a long line of preachers and elders among the Petersons. Joshua died on August 12, 1933, in Relief, N.C.

But wait! There’s more! Joshua’s son James, my great grandfather, died on June 6, 1941. He was born August 12, 1867, and died eight years after his father at age 74. I know perhaps less about James than any other of my known ancestors, except perhaps Charles Mathias Peterson, the farthest back I can trace my lineage. He lived in Sweden, and I’ve been unable to find anything about him.

Neither Joshua’s nor James’s life was something that history books mention even in passing. They were not involved in earth-shattering events at which future generations would marvel and discuss ad infinitum. They were not famous in the general sense of the term. They were just common people–common in their appearance, their upbringing, and their lifestyle–yet, they were anything but ordinary. Rather, they were of strong stock, and, as Jean Thomas wrote, they “held safe and unchanged the simple beauty of the song of their fathers, the unsullied speech, the simple ideals and traditions, staunch religious faith, love of freedom, courage, and fearlessness. Above all they . . . maintained a spirit of independence and self-reliance that is unsurpassed. . . .”

And their lives were crucial to my own life and the lives of others of their progeny. So June 6 has multiple meanings for me. Dig into your own family’s past and find a member of your own “greatest generation.”

 

A Momentous Hiatus

Some people who follow this blog might have noticed that it has languished a bit over the past couple of weeks. There’s a good reason: family.

First, over the Mother’s Day weekend, my wife and I spent an extended time in North Carolina with two of our daughters and two of our six grandchildren. We shopped, attended a rodeo, worshiped in church, played with the grandchildren, enjoyed fellowship with our sons-in-law, and allowed the daughters to lavish well-deserved praise and presents on their mother. (My souvenir from the trip was an expensive new set of wheel bearings on the car!)

After one day back home to repack and reload, we journeyed to Southwest Florida, where my wife and her three siblings had planned a big surprise for their parents. The convocation was an occasion to celebrate three milestones: my father-in-law’s recent ninetieth birthday, my mother-in-law’s upcoming ninetieth birthday, and the couple’s seventieth wedding anniversary. It was also the first time in ten years that we had all been together at one time.

My wife and I spent several nights with her Aunt Florence, who also lives in the area. We usually stay with Connie’s parents when we go down to visit, but the need to preserve the secrecy of the event allowed us to spend time with her aunt this time.

On Wednesday evening, we all traveled to my in-laws’ church, where my father-in-law was preaching for the pastor, who was ministering in Ghana. My father-in-law only recently retired after more than a decade serving as the church’s “interim” pastor. Between raindrops of a subtropical downpour, we all entered the church. My mother-in-law stood gaping in disbelief as each of us filed through the door. My father-in-law grinned from ear to ear to see his children but for none more than his son, David.

After about 15 minutes of breathless hugging and kissing and backslapping, my father-in-law struggled to conduct the service. He could scarcely gather his thoughts for all the excitement and surprise.

For the next several days, my in-laws had to do something they are unaccustomed to doing–sit back and be served. They usually are busy serving others or doing things for themselves and refusing proffered help. Fiercely independent and in amazingly good health, they still drive; mow their lawn; maintain their pool; care for trees, shrubs, and flowers; and work out at a local gym three days a week. They chafe at inactivity.

We “kids” (and none of us is a spring chicken at this point) spent those days trimming palm trees, mowing and trimming the lawn, preparing meals, battling ants, taking a generator for repairs, organizing the contents of closets and kitchen cabinets, and doing a host of other little things to help out our honorees. Between the periods of work, we found time to put together a 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Although we had surprised the Dietterichs by all showing up at once (allaying our fears that the sudden shock might trigger a heart attack with the knowledge that David had been a medic in the Navy), we left gradually over several days. Connie and I were last to leave, and the Dietterichs have now returned to their quiet but ever-active independence.

And now you know the reason for the hiatus of this blog. I think that what took its place, however, was well worth it. Family trumps personal and professional priorities every time. Those other things will always be there for us to deal with; family members will not. We were blessed to celebrate the patriarch and matriarch of the Dietterich side of our family, and we hope that it was a blessing to them as well.

 

A Call to Share Local History

IMG_0823There’s a saying, “All politics is local.” The same could be said of history. We tend to get so caught up in international and national history that we forget that all of that starts with local history.

Some people, however, are beginning to recognize the importance of learning about their local history as evidenced by the series of small history books about small towns and communities all over the nation that are being published by Arcadia Publishing. More people are tracing their genealogy. And local historical societies are being organized or revitalized here and there.

An emphasis on local history gives one a sense of place. It helps natives of a community feel a sense of pride in their ancestors and their predecessors in the community. It helps newcomers feel more at home to understand how their new community came to be and why things are as they find them.

I’d like to encourage each of you to share with our readers your own thoughts about your local history and how it has influenced you and what role you and your family have played in it. I look forward to hearing from you, and I’ll try to share some of your stories in subsequent posts.

To get the ball rolling, I’ll share a little about some of my own local history. Originally, “local” for me was Halls Crossroads, a rural community north of Knoxville, Tennessee. It was an area of small farmers, craftsmen, and small businessmen. It was founded by a farmer named Thomas Hall.

One set of my great-grandparents lived in Halls. My great-grandfather, Harvey Graybeal, was appointed by the governor to be justice of the peace. My grandfather grew up there and became a prominent grocer, farmer, and churchman. He also was for a while a streetcar conductor in Knoxville and during the Depression a machine repairman in the Standard Knitting Mills. But his main prominence came as a successful dairy farmer operating a TVA test-demonstration farm, conducting agricultural experiments and welcoming visitors from all over the world, most notably Albert, the Prince of Belgium.

My father partnered with my grandfather in the farm but later became a brick mason. The homes he bricked still stand all over Halls and surrounding communities as silent testimony to his workmanship. He and my mother were early officers in the Halls Community Club.

Some Petersons still live in Halls. In fact, my sister lives in the old home place, although the farm has since been subdivided and provides homes for numerous other families. Other Petersons became teachers, preachers, and business people and scattered all across the nation. But no matter where they now live, they still consider Halls home.

Your family’s local history no doubt differs from mine in many details, but it holds great value to you and others. Why not share some of that history with the readers of this blog? I look forward to hearing from many of you, and I’ll try to share as much of your stories as I can.