A Name Which Lives in Infamy
Randy Bechtel
A Name Which Lives in Infamy

My house—after dinner—Christmas Eve. Brother-in-law Gary Adams announces a genealogist will visit us in 20 minutes. Surprise all around—save on my face. My wife asks, “Did you know about this?” I reply I did not. Two scotches before dinner and wine during have made my face numb. Then too, I welcome anything or anyone which limits Gary’s chatter. 

“I got the idea because Ashley needs to document her ancestry for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution,” Gary said of his daughter.

Ashley chimed: “Joining the D.A.R. is just so nouveau-retro!”

“So we’ll be hearing about both the Adams and Bechtel family histories,” Gary said.

My 90-year-old Aunt Martha opened her eyes and said: “Don’t expect much from the Bechtels! Years ago Nick traced his family roots. Bunch of nobodies except one who went exploring with Lewis and Clark. Nick was so proud until he found his relative got the runs and went no farther than South Dakota.”

“What are the runs?” my daughter Susan asked.

“Martha’s word for diarrhea,” I said. “The truth is that our relative almost died from dysentery.”

“Not to worry, Aunt Martha!” Ashley said. “The Adamses will make up for any Bechtel shortcomings. Beginning with something I’ve been told since I can remember—that I’m a descended from President John Adams.”

“Don’t forget his son, John Quincy Adams,” Gary said. “Not to mention Mark Twain.”

“Oh my!” Aunt Martha said.

“Are we going to want the kids in on this?” my wife Jane asked. She was referring to two teen-agers and a 12-year-old who had sought refuge upstairs.

My son-in-law James said, “I doubt they’ll care. Interest in ancestors increases the sooner one comes to becoming one.” 

Silence. Whatever he said sounded too thoughtful to be wrong.

“So Gary, how did you find this genealogist?” Jane asked.

“Great story! I called Norm Hartman who was my producer when I anchored the noon news up here. Norm became head of public info for the state’s Health and Human Services before he retired. Knows everyone.  He says: ‘Remember Baby-Who??’ I said, ‘Duh. We made that story!’ Baby-Who? was the tag I gave a baby found in a dumpster behind the Frank Fats restaurant. Norm says, ‘Well, I think you were in L.A. by the time a Japanese couple adopted Baby-Who? and he became Shohei Fuji. About two years later—a good year after I joined the state—the Fujis went camping up around Silver Lake. The kid would later be discovered half-conscious in the car and Mom and Dad found in the forest mauled to death by bears.”

“I remember that story!” Jane said.   

“Thing was, no one realized Shohei was Baby-Who?” Gary said. “At least, not until the story was old news. By that time Shohei was in an orphanage where he would be raised by nuns. The Fujis had been Catholics. Japanese Catholics—only in California! Anyway, the kid would go to Notre Dame on a scholarship and end up with a Ph.D. in history from Davis. He now works for the State Library and moonlights as a genealogist—if moonlight is the word. Anyway, I gave him a buzz and said it was too bad I was out of TV news when his stepparents bought it. He probably would have been adopted again had viewers known he was Caucasian and not Japanese.”

“Just what does his being Japanese—or should I say Japanese American—have to do with it?” Susan said pointedly.

“Demographics, dear,” Gary said. “The Japanese are a very small demo even though percentage-wise they watch the news at a rate almost twice the average. Anyhoo, I filled Shohei in on his days as Baby-Who? and got so into it I almost forgot why I called. When I told him what I needed—and naturally mentioned John Adams and Mark Twain—he says, ‘Super! Count me in!’”

The doorbell rang.

“You are Mr. Fuji?” I asked the man on my doorstep.

“Shohei Fuji, yes sir,” he replied.

There is a theory that the features of people who are considered good looking approximate average in their sizes, forms and positioning. Shohei’s features did that, but with the result that he only looked average. His most distinctive feature was artificial—classic horned-rimmed glasses. These are known to make their wearers look bookish, an image appropriate for Shohei. But I sensed he chose the style—as I imagined I would, having entertained switching to it—because horned-rimmed glasses provide a kind of mask or shield to the world. I say this as a former newspaper reporter who was drawn to that profession because it forced me to meet people while sparing me any need to talk about myself.

We convened in the dining room. Shohei occupied one head of the table; Gary, Ashley, Ashley’s husband Montrose, and my sister Vivian were seated along one side; I, Jane, Susan and James were seated along the other. Aunt Martha sat at the end opposite Shohei. 

Shohei handed Gary a binder marked “Adams” and me one marked “Bechtel.” I slid my binder sideway to Jane, who would be more conscientious about using it to follow Shohei’s presentation. Ashley commandeered Gary’s binder, although like Jane, she awaited Shohei’s cue to open it. Shohei remained standing as he set two stacks of loose-leaf notes on the table before him.

“In the binders I’ve given you you’ll find information and scanned documents and pictures relating to your respective family trees,” Shohei said. “Mr. Adams asked that I discuss the highlights of both families here tonight, beginning with, if possible, the period during or around the American Revolution.”

Aunt Martha opened her eyes and said, “I hope your highlight isn’t about a relative who got the runs in South Dakota.”

“The runs?” Shohei said quizzically.

“Diarrhea,” Susan said.

“No, dysentery,” I said. “We’ve been told a Bechtel relative was with the Lewis and Clark expedition, but he never got farther than South Dakota.”

“Yes well, there was a relative who fits that description, but I wouldn’t consider him a highlight,” Shohei said. “However, let us begin with a Bechtel I do consider exciting—a Pennsylvania farmer named Fritz Bechtel.”

Gary snorted. “There’s a trio of words you don’t hear together very often: exciting, farmer and Fritz.”

“Gary, be nice!” Vivian snickered.

Shohei said: “Actually, Fritz’s significance lies with his second wife, a woman named Heloise Smith, who was the mother of Otto Bechtel, your direct descendent. Heloise was the daughter of John and Mary Smith, who immigrated to America in 1789 with their family, which also included sons Pierre and Andre. They were not your ordinary Smiths. For one thing, they possessed the wherewithal to purchase several hundred acres of choice Pennsylvania farmland. For another, the surname Smith seemed to me a bit incongruous for a family whose three children had French first names. It seemed likely that the parents changed their own names but thought it was better that their children retain their Christian names. So I explored ship manifests of 1789 until I discovered the Smiths came to America aboard the French ship Bretagne. Knowing that, the rest was easy. You see, the Bretagne made only one voyage to America that year, and all of its passengers were traveling incognito. The reason, as revealed by Adolphe Thiers, the great French Revolution historian, was that all the passengers were French nobility who had adopted aliases to escape the guillotine at home and prejudice in America. And among those passengers, Thiers tells us, were Jean Plantard de Saint-Clair, his wife Marie, and children Heloise, Pierre and Andre. The Plantard de Saint-Clair bloodline—which is plotted in your folder—dates back to Merovingian Dynasty of Frank kings beginning in the 5th Century. Their bloodline would later permeate European aristocracy. William “The Seemly” Saint-Clair, for instance, accompanied William the Conqueror on his invasion of England and would become the baron of Roslin in Scotland. And should you believe popular literature, including The Da Vinci Code, your Merovingian bloodline extends back in history to the Holy Grail, that is, to the child of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.”

Aunt Martha opened her eyes and said, “Well, that’s better than some nobody who got the runs in South Dakota!”

Ashley and Viviam popped up and circled the table to peer over the shoulders of Jane and Susan, who were marveling at the Merovingian family tree, complete with portraits, in the Bechtel binder.  “Oh my God!  Sigebert the Bald looks like Cousin Larry!”  Susan squealed. This was the last thing said before Gary interrupted:

“Could you look at that later? We need to toot on down the road to John Adams.”

Returning to her seat, Ashley said to her husband Montrose, “The Holy Grail! No wonder you worship me!”  

Montrose merely stared at her, the irises of his eyes seemingly rotating around their pupils. It occurred to me that Montrose had not said anything since he drank a second glass of single-malt scotch before dinner.

Shohei pressed his eyeglasses against the bridge of his nose. “Yes, John Adams,” he said, then reached for his water glass and drank. He said: “I traced your Adams bloodline directly to colonial Boston and a John Adams. However, this John Adams was not the lawyer and politician, but rather a fish monger.”

“What?” Gary said with a voice that sounded as if came from a well.

Shohei said: “As you’ll see, the first record we have of John Adams—that is, your John Adams—is a marriage license between he and an Abigale Cone in June of 1774.”

Peering down at her open binder, Ashley exclaimed, “He was 38 and she was only 13?”

Shohei pressed his glasses against his nose. He seemed relieved when James said, “Women married young then because childbearing was so problematic.”

“And Abigail was with child,” Shohei said. “In September of 1774 she gave birth to a son named John Q. Adams.”

“I take it the ‘Q’ didn’t stand for Quincy,” Gary sneered.

Shohei replied: “Actually, the middle name was spelled Q—B—A—L---L.”

Gary’s hairline jumped an inch. “Cue ball?”

“I can only surmise that his father was very fond of billiards,” Shohei said. “You need to understand that few people in those days could read, let alone spell.”

“Cue ball?” Gary wheezed.

“The important thing, Daddy, is that our Adams was a patriot,” Ashley said.

Shohei pressed his glasses against his nose. “Yes, well, I’m afraid not—as you’ll see beginning with a clipping from the Boston Gazette dated October 1774.  I quote: ‘The fish monger known as John Adams was arrested by His Majesty’s soldiers October 4 on a warrant issued in Charleston County, the Colony of South Carolina. A resident of Boston less than a year, Adams is alleged to be Cleetus Winkelbottom, a former peddler wanted for murder and abominable acts against children in South Carolina. He is being transported to that venue for trial.”  

“Cleetus Winkelbottom?” Gary wheezed.

“At least you can say Cleetus was a man of reputation,” James said. “It took a big one in those days to follow you from South Carolina to Boston.”

Shohei said: “According to records of the Charleston County Court—and I quote from an entry dated November 18, 1774: ‘Cleetus Winkelbottom, a peddler, was executed by hanging at 1:00 p.m. upon his conviction by jury of kidnapping, defiling, and murdering  Emily Patterson, age 10, of Charleston County; Agnes Stanton, age 12, of Georgetown County;  Rebecca Starkey, age 12, of Williamsburg County; Virginia Manders, age 11, of Charleston County;  Ruth Pearson, age 12, of Horry County; Mildred Barnaby, age 11, of ---”

“We get the picture!” Gary erupted.

“So what—what about Qball?” Ashley said. “I mean, did he fight in the Revolution?”

“Ashley, Qball wouldn’t have been two when the war started,” Susan said.

“But nine when it ended,” James added facetiously.

“Okay, weren’t there nine-year-olds who did something patriotic in the war?” Ashley asked Shohei.

Shohei pressed his glasses against his nose, then said: “A few. Unfortunately Abigail and Qball—meaning your ancestor John Qball Adams, for he and his mother retained the Adams surname—moved to Canada soon after Cleetus’ arrest. John would not return to this country until 1802 when he fled Canada wanted for horse theft.”

Ashley deflated in her seat and whimpered: “What am I going to tell the D.A.R.?”

“Tell them you’re the Holy Grail,” Aunt Martha said without opening her eyes. “That should count for something.”

Suddenly Ashley’s body re-inflated. “What about the exciting farmer Fritz? Was he in the war?”

“As a matter of fact, he was,” Shohei said. “Fritz Bechtel was present at the battle that followed Washington crossing the Delaware. Unfortunately, Fritz was a Hessian mercenary fighting for the British. I use the word fighting figuratively, by the way. It’s incredible how detailed and conscientious Germans were about keeping records. We know that during the battle—the Battle of Trenton—Fritz was bedridden in his barracks with dysentery. He was taken prisoner without ever leaving the sack. After he recovered and was released, he made a beeline to Pennsylvania where he homesteaded and fought only to gophers and crows.”

Aunt Martha opened her eyes and said, “Could someone please tell me what dysentery is?”

“It’s like diarrhea, Aunt Martha,” Susan said.

“What?”

“She means the runs,” I said.

“Now that makes sense,” Aunt Martha said. “This Fritz gets a chance to battle George Washington only to drop out with the runs. He was a Bechtel all right!”

Ashley’s finger poked a page in her binder as she said snottily to Shohei, “Why did you put an article about Lizzie Borden in here? I go from your 1774 court document about this Cleetus person to an 1892 article about Lizzie Borden. Are you sure you haven’t mixed things up?”

“You mean the short New York Times editorial,” Shohei said. “Did you read it?” When she shrugged, he said: “Maybe you should.”

Ashley read aloud: “As we await the verdict in the trial of Lizzie Borden, we have but one observation: Her case has borne more gruesomeness than a tale by Edgar Allan Poe. Whether Miss Borden is found innocent or guilty, we cannot help thinking that for Americans the name Lizzie Borden will live in infamy alongside those of Benedict Arnold, John Wilkes Booth and Cleetus Winkelbottom.”

James said: “Apparently since 1892 America’s abundance of psycho killers has lowered Cleetus’ stock.”  

“I knew I had come across the name Cleetus Winkelbottom as a student of American history,” Shohei said.“This editorial is one example. I first read it researching the influence of the New York Times on national politics. What struck me then were the words ‘live in infamy,’ which raises the possibility that Franklin Roosevelt read this editorial and those words stuck in his subconscious mind if not memory to be recast to describe the bombing of Pearl Harbor.”

Gary bolted up from his seat, snatched the Adams binder away from Ashley, and said: “I think I’ve had enough family tree for tonight. Thank you for coming, Shohei. Merry Christmas.” He gave Shohei’s hand a quick shake, then turned and, leaving the room without looking back, said: “Mail me your bill,” 

I escorted Shohei to the door and followed him outside.  “If it’s not too inconvenient,” I said, “could you send me half your bill?”

Curiously he removed his eyeglasses and inserted them into his jacket pocket. “I don’t think I’ll be billing anyone,” he said.

“Don’t be silly. You can’t be held responsible for Gary’s disappointment.”

Shohei smiled wryly. “Actually I can,”

I shut the door behind me.

Shohei said: “The thinking was that by the time I ended my presentation everyone would realize it was a joke—a put-on. Oh, much of the history was factual—just not how it relates to your families. My narrative becomes pretty silly toward the end—which you’ll see from the materials in the binders. What no one expected was that I’d be dismissed early, although, frankly, I’m glad I was. Gary and especially Ashley don’t seem people who can take a joke.”

“Who else was involved in this?”

“Norm Hartman, who Gary called looking for a genealogist. It was Norm’s idea. He called me and asked if I’d do it. But there were others involved in putting it all together and paying me. Gary has many friends!” Saying "friends" Shohei gestured to signal quotation marks. “I can see why. The first thing he said when he called was: ‘I need you to present my family’s genealogy on Christmas Eve. I didn’t think you’d mind since you have no family of your own.’”

I nodded my head in the direction of Shohei’s car and we began walking to it. I said: “Doing this, aren’t you risking your scholarly reputation?”

“What scholarly reputation?” he laughed. “I’m an actor—although I do have a B.A. in history. And my name is Jack Ranier, not Shohei Fuji. That was an invention of Hartman’s. He said there was a couple named Fuji who were killed by bears some thirty years ago, but no children were involved. As for this Baby-Who?”, no one knows where he is---or even who he is—or even if he’s still alive. I, on the other hand, have family in Chicago, where I’ll be flying come 9 a.m. tomorrow. I’ve found the easiest way to fly during the Christmas holidays is on Christmas Day.”

Jack opened his trunk and tossed a briefcase that contained his papers inside.

I said: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Gary is inside burning his binder in the fireplace.”

“Too bad,” Jack said. “I particularly like the part about Mark Twain. The story goes that a carnival owner sponsored the immigration of a man whom he renamed Mark Twain after his favorite author. According to the ship’s manifest, the man’s name was listed as ‘Borneo, Wildman O.F.’ Of course, the carnival billed the man as the ‘The Wild Man of Borneo,’ and the binder includes a photograph of an actual poster depicting such a person in a loin cloth and a bone through his nose. The poster’s teaser is, ‘See the Wild Man of Borneo devour a live chicken down to its feathers!’ Our story goes that Mark Twain married the carnival’s bearded lady and their daughter married Gary’s great grandfather. If all else failed to signal joke, we thought this would be the tipping point. No offense, but now I’m not so sure.”

I said: “That’s because no one had an incentive to question your veracity except Gary. That includes Ashley.  The D.A.R. is just the latest snobbish fad she’s always pursuing. Wishful thinking has probably already led her to conclude: Who needs to be a daughter of the American Revolution when you’re a direct descendant of the son of God? Gary was the only one deprived of wishful thinking. His problem was that you were his expert.  I’m sure eventually he would have discovered it was a joke, although by discover I mean Gary would have hired a second opinion. He is The Talent; doing research is for the help.”

Jack replied: “The power of wishful thinking registered with me when you volunteered to pay half my bill.”

I shrugged and said: “So you know, my wishful thinking had nothing to do with the bloodline of medieval kings. Compared to today, we don’t realize how relatively small the world’s population was 100 years ago, let alone 1,500. As far as I’m concerned, everyone is related to everyone else. No, my wishful thinking was that Gary had to face the fact that he was not an Adams but a Winklebottom, a name which lives in infamy.”

Jack bowed theatrically and said: “In the spirit of the season, then, I’ll leave you the gift of telling everyone whatever you wish. Merry Christmas!”

I’ve told all I wished to tell here. Maybe someday one or more of my relatives will finally do what I’ve long suggested: “Read my blog.”

Copyright © 2019 by Randy Bechtel

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