Morris: Genealogy the Old-Fashioned Way

June 8, 2020

by Leo Morris

My sister is hot on the trail of history, eagerly searching for a missing piece of our father’s life.

She was spring cleaning recently, and came across his separation papers from the Army. Written on the back, little more than a footnote, was the information that he had been a cook in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) starting in 1939.

We’d known he was a cook in the Army, and that he had been in the CCC before that, but this was new information. Now my sister is planning a trip to the National Archives facility in St. Louis where the pertinent records are kept. Some of them were destroyed in a fire, but visitors may view all available ones and, I think, take photos if they want.

Just imagine, she says, if we can find out where he served in the CCC. How amazing it would be to discover if he worked on a project that’s still around. In addition to planting 3.5 billion trees it was nicknamed Roosevelt’s Tree Army the CCC created 711 state parks.

Yes, it would be amazing.

Of course, there was a much easier way to find that out. We could simply have asked our father when he was still alive. We were stupid, stupid kids, my sister and I concluded.

Instead of knowing bits and pieces of his life, we might have learned the whole story, including what it was like to grow up during the Great Depression and serve as a solider in World War II. Come to think of it, our mother could have filled us in on the home-front challenges of the war.

And, good lord, our mother’s father lived with us a couple of years. He could have told us stories going back to before the turn of the last century.

Our family was a microcosm of the human story, each of us with our unique perspective on the larger world outside our door. If only we’d paid real attention to each other and asked questions slightly deeper than, “How did your day go?”

I don’t need to speculate on how many other families are like ours was, because I’m pretty sure it’s the vast majority of them,

But I do wonder how many have taken advantage of the great COVID-19 quarantine to re-examine their relationships. Not very many, I suspect.

People have been forced together in closer proximity and for a greater duration than they could have imagined. Are they using that opportunity to listen to each other’s stories? Or are they just looking for ever more creative ways to fill time while carping about the new family roles they suddenly have to fill?

Resistance to change, especially change requiring deep reflection, is pretty much our default position, isn’t it?

Just consider COVID-19. A common trope of science fiction is that humanity will unite to battle a common enemy. Think of the Martians in “War of the Worlds” or the ugly aliens in “Independence Day.” But the coronavirus, allegedly the biggest existential threat in the last 100 years, has only reinforced and hardened the stark division dividing us.

And pity the alienated crowds massing in the streets to give voice to decades-old hurts they believe aren’t being listened to. Their “peaceful protests” have been co-opted both by violent provocateurs and opportunistic charlatans, each with a cynical, media-driven agenda. We have been there before. We will be again.

We’ve been struggling, in these chaotic weeks, with how to deal with each other as groups. The human race is one big family that refuses to stop in the middle of the unexpected chaos and try to figure a better way out.

We’re resisting the simple truth that life is best lived one on one. We must start with doing the best we can with our most intimate relationships, then working our way out to larger and larger groups. Instead, we’re clashing as groups under the delusion that it will somehow make us more civilized as individuals.

That’s exactly backwards.

My sister and I will find the National Archives and Internet genealogical searches a poor substitute for the conversations we should have had with our father.

And we will all find sociological treatises and the history books a poor substitute for our collective missed opportunity.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at


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