Saturday, May 14, 2011

THE RIVER JORDAN: A True Story of the Underground Railroad - Introduction, Part II

My grandmother Anna was the daughter of Cisley Curtis and granddaughter of "Rockingham" John Curtis (1830-1914), born on a plantation in Rockingham County, Virginia. Rockingham John was a legendary ancestor about whom I’ve written extensively. Due to Cisley’s death soon after giving birth to my grandmother, John Curtis raised Anna as his own child. He also had another daughter, Laura, and six sons. Both daughters and one son had long been dead when I came along, but five sons – Tom, Clem, Ike, Ed and John Henry – were still alive during the 1940s when I was young.

Clem, Ike and Ed all lived near Stafford, where my grandmother and I spent nearly every weekend and where, from the age of five, I spent every day of my summer vacation with my great-uncle Ed Curtis. I was very fond of a big ancient gray workhorse named Harry. Though at first I had difficulty getting on Old Harry, as I called him, I soon learned to maneuver him to a place where I could climb aboard; then I would ride him up and down the road, pretending to be my great-great-grandfather Rockingham John.

It was during these visits that I became aware of Underground Railroad trails leading northward to Stafford from the Ohio River. I thought that the Underground Railroad began and ended near Stafford; I had no real concept of slavery although I had heard it discussed. I knew that Rockingham John had been a slave. He had worked with the Stafford Underground Railroad, and the stories of his many exploits were told over and over – the most vivid during our winter weekend visits around a big fireplace in a cabin shared by Clem and Ed.

There was no electricity and since lamp oil was considered expensive even it was used sparingly, so the fireplace provided light as well as heat. This was such a special time, when the oral history of the Underground Railroad was passed down to me.

Then when I was eleven years old, tragedy struck. As usual, I had gone to Stafford to stay with my uncle Ed for the summer. He had mowed and raked some hay in a field above the house, and we loaded the hay wagon, which was hitched to an inexperienced new horse. Uncle Ed and I were sitting on top of the load. On the way to the barn, the young horse ran off.

Although I managed to jump from the back of the wagon, receiving only minor injuries, Uncle Ed fell behind the runaway horse and became entangled in the traces. Critically injured, he was taken by a neighbor to the hospital in Marietta, where he died a few hours later. My visits to Stafford and my childhood ended that afternoon.

I was lost back in Marietta. I just couldn’t cope with the loss of Uncle Ed. Nothing interested me. I was in a daze that made it impossible for me to concentrate. I had spent every hour of every summer of my life in Stafford with Uncle Ed. Today such a condition would probably be recognized as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. In 1951, we just called it "feeling low." This was when I first realized that death was final. Before the accident, I had more or less believed that everything would go on unchanged forever.

I finally decided to run away from home, for the first and only time in my life. (I’m still not sure how serious I really was.) The whole episode lasted only about ten hours and covered about twenty miles round-trip. Though geographically I didn't travel far, in a psychological sense, my trip took me to the other side of the universe.

(to be continued, Henry Robert Burke)

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