"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Bloodlines–Or Learning To Live With Uncle Herman’s DNA

“Why, you’re just like your Great Uncle Herman”, said Willy Kackler’s grandmother, a sharp old woman with an indelible memory. “Right down to the queer smile you get with indigestion”.

Willy had heard about Great Uncle Herman for most of his life. The man must have had a good side, but to hear the story from Willy’s grandmother, he was a liar, lout, and irresponsible ne’er-do-well who ruined his first family and so bedeviled his second that his relatives tried to expunge all traces of him from the courthouse, the family tree, and the Kackler Bible. Easier said than done, for removing even some traces of a life is next to impossible. As much as politicians talk of individual liberty and the right to privacy, in reality no one has any of either.  Even amateur genealogists, especially in this day of cyberspace, can locate the spoor of even the most elusive relative.

Willy’s friend, Magnus Burlingame, had researched his father’s side of the family because of its importance to American history.  Magnus’ forebears were no Jeffersons, Hamiltons, or Monroes, but they had come over with Walter Raleigh, owned large tracts of land in Virginia and North Carolina, and then moved West to establish homesteads in Ohio and Illinois. Magnus had been able to trace both his father’s maternal and paternal lineages and found that between the two families, the Burlingame seed had been spread throughout the Old Southwest, the Great Plains, and eventually to Sutter’s Mill. 

The Kacklers, on the other hand, had no storied history, no link to the First Families of Virginia, nor any claim to American patrimony.  Not even their name was certain, mangled as it must have been when it got mixed with Ojibwa and Mohawk.  Old Brentwood Kackler had been in the liquor business and was the chief purveyor to the Indians in the 1830s until he got killed by a mad Lakota renegade.  Before he was killed, the Union Army had branded him as the single most important reason why longstanding treaties with the Indians had been abrogated.  “The redskins were drunk”, wrote Maj.Gen. Custis Porter in his Fort Evans log. “Drunk, disorderly, and disgusting; and we had to kill them all.”

The stories of Kicky Kackler who serviced the horse soldiers of the 4th Vermont Cavalry were legion, but she was remembered more for her biscuits than her lovemaking.  “Anybody can open their legs”, wrote one homesick infantryman on the Ohio, “but not everyone can cook biscuits like Miss Kicky.”

The point is that Willy Kackler had a living genealogy, not the arid and geometrical one of his friend Magnus. Who knew if the Kackler family stories were true?  It didn’t matter.  Lore and legend are more important than facts and figures.  While Magnus was poring over Spencer County birth registers and land plats, Willy was proudly amused at what the family considered their True American Heroes.

The problem was not with the entire Kackler family, but just one member – Great Uncle Herman. What if the bad bits of DNA Willy seemed to have inherited through Herman and his reprobate ancestors who, according to family tales, had been up to no good for centuries, dictated his behavior?

There was the valet to the Secretary of Oliver Cromwell who had stolen state secrets, shared them with the French, and set back the course of English democracy by at least a decade. And the manservant of Count Vladimir of Rostov who infected the Count’s wife with ‘the sweating disease’ and was hanged in a snowy Russian courtyard in 1722. While Brentwood Kackler had kept his derelictions to selling firewater to the Indians, the European side of the family from which Herman and Willy were descended, was far worse.

“Who am I, really?”, Willy asked himself one morning after his grandmother had once again tediously reminded him of how much he was like Uncle Herman.  “If I have Uncle Herman’s DNA, then I have bits and strands of nutcases going back to the Dark Ages.”

Willy sometimes wished that he could be a Creationist and believe that God created the whole lot of humanity in one fell swoop.  No more of these twisted paths back to the monkeys.  However, if it was true, and God did create the world in six days and only recently, how did He decide who got what genes? Why was it worth his while to make personal decisions on the character and nose size of Og or Gagog?

Willy was far from an Evolution denier, but there were days when he empathized with Job and Ivan Karamazov who could not understand why God would choose to inflict so much suffering and pain on the world.  God had a choice, and by meddling in human affairs, he messed them up badly. It wouldn’t be so bad if Uncle Herman’s DNA had been the result of millennia of random evolution, happenstance mating, and bad luck; but God set the ball rolling with the genetic package he designed.

Tolstoy had posited a nihilist theory of history.  There are no such things as great men or particularly momentous events.  Every action, every decision, every whim is conditioned by the billions that preceded them.  Napoleon had no more control over his strategic decisions at Borodino than a cage full of monkeys.  Shakespeare wrote about the ineluctable, predictable, and repetitious cycle of history, all because every event was powered by the same engine – human nature.

What neither Tolstoy nor Shakespeare were aware of was DNA.  Not only was life a game of billiards, with aggressive, self-interested, and greedy players holding the cues; it was immensely more complicated by genetic sequences.


Which is why Willy Kackler began to search for the real Grand Uncle Herman.  He needed to know if the stories of his remarkable resemblance to him were just hearsay and the usual family gobbledygook which builds up over the years; or whether he indeed was carrying explosive genetic material.

His worst fears were confirmed.  Not only did Uncle Herman have two families and destroyed them both, he had four, two of them at the same time.  He was as notorious a bigamist as a Mormon.  He had the lusts of a Turkish pasha but did not abide by the rules of the harem. In fact he had been hunted by law enforcement in three states for the murder of two of his wives and had never been caught.  He died in the arms of a beautiful call girl in St. Louis from an overdose of morphine.

There was a well-known Harvard professor who undertook a genetic journey of discovery to find out exactly how black African Americans really are.  He disaggregated the DNA of famous black film stars, basketball players, and hip-hop artists and determined how much African blood was flowing through their veins. To the celebrities’ surprise, amazement, and disappointment, not that much.  Their slave ancestors had been so diddled and doodled by Southern grandees and overseers that in many cases they were more white than black.  Not just any white, mind you, but Simon Legree, Rhett Butler white people.  Solid white, slave-owning, miscegenating, white people who sold R.J. Kool’s people down the river.  What a revelation.

“How would you like it”, Willy’s friend Magnus asked him, “if one day you woke up to find that most of your blood was that of the plantation owners who owned your grandparents, and not the noble African tribesmen from Benin or Angola you thought?”.

Better not to ask, Willy thought, especially when the trail already has a bad smell.  Leave well enough alone, accept the roll of the dice, Uncle Herman’s nose, and a proclivity to excess. If it were only that easy. Herman was a bad man, and the more genetic research the Pentagon and GenTech do, the more ‘nurture’ fades as a factor.

“Disaggregation”, said Magnus. “You may have bits and pieces of Uncle Herman, but of just about everyone else who ever lived. Remember Lucy?”, he asked referring to the alleged one common ancestor of man. “You and Herman go back a long way.”

Logically, Magnus made sense; but what was one to do about the string of alcoholics in the Benson family? The schizophrenics in the Hurdles? The retards in the Millers? The clubfeet in the Darnings? These were inherited misfortunes that one could see as plain as day.  In fact, all the children at the Vincent C. Ballston Elementary School dragged their feet whenever Bradley Darning walked onto the playground, even though podiatry and orthopedic surgery had long since cured that particular deformity at birth.  Legend and lore have long lives.

The good news about Willy’s conclusions about his genetic ties to Uncle Herman was that he felt absolved for a lot of his antisocial behavior. “It’s a given”, he said to his wife, after she had caught him once again in a barefaced lie, this time concerning Mary Ann from Accounting. “I am a congenital liar”.

At the same time he could feel the moral circuits laid down by his Puritan ancestors come to life when he jumped a turnstile – his term for diverting funds to offshore Aruban accounts. “Where did that come from?”, he asked himself, assuming that Uncle Herman’s codes had long ago won the day.

“You blow snot just like him too”, said his grandmother over Easter ham pie. “Buggers, both of you.”

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so (Hamlet)

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