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Nine Moons » Blog Archive : My Dad, the Family Apocrypha » My Dad, the Family Apocrypha

My Dad, the Family Apocrypha

David - September 23, 2008

Not long ago I read the entertaining memoir/biography of Hugh Nibley, Sergeant Nibley, Ph.D: Memoir of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle, covering his years in the service during World War II. A particular pleasure for me was that it was co-written by his son, Alex, whom I home taught while attending the U. of U. When I knew him, Alex would sometimes share interesting anecdotes about his father and family life, and spoke of animated, esoteric converations at their dinner table. In the memoir Alex interjects here and there, adding historical background to events his father recalls, giving each story a little extra scope. I envy the collaboration they shared, and I wonder how much Alex discovered about his dad that he didn’t know before.

Reading the book made me think of my own father, a war child from Estonia. He was also a colorful man and a survivor of the Nazi war machine. However, instead of being tempered by the tragedies he endured, he allowed them to consume him. It left him a wayward vessel of wanderlust, an alcoholic consumed by ulcers and nightmares that ultimately killed him when I was seventeen. Shortly after he died, I took his last personal diary to a woman in Provo who was also Estonian and a convert to the Church. As she translated the thoughts my father penned during his last days, her eyes filled with tears. “That war,” she said, “killed so many people… it’s still killing them.”

When Dad died, though, he left a lot of things unanswered. Under the spell of drink, he shared numerous stories with me when I was a kid. Some were wild and fantastic, others comical, still others just plain sad. Many of these stories my grandmother– a woman who had little patience for fiction– corroborated. For some others she just clammed up. She was a sometime compass who left us seven years before Dad, and when she was gone there was no telling what was real or not anymore.

Here are some of the stories.  I’ll note the ones that were confirmed by my Vava (grandmother):

My father was born in Estonia in 1930, the son of a strict music teacher born of royal lineage (he was a music teacher from a long line of music teachers and organists; the royal part I, as yet, have been unable to confirm). During the war my grandfather snuck information about Nazi activity to the Russians, was caught and subsequently shot (corroborated). At age 9, Dad killed a sleeping German guard so he and his mother could escape to Russian-occupied territory (not corroborated– they did escape, though). While practicing English he was caught by a Russian soldier who took him for a spy and arrested him. A Soviet officer who was fond of my grandmother ordered him released (the officer was courting Vava, that much was true). He saw Hitler give a speech (absolutely not true). At the end of the war, they fled back to Germany and were put in a relocation camp (corroborated). In 1948 they arrived at Ellis Island. While they pressed together with a herd of immigrants waiting to be processed, someone urinated in his coat pocket (unfortunately true). He became a member of the legendary street gang, the Bronx Tigers (absolutely not true). He was the head butler for William Fox, founder of 20th Century Fox. One Christmas old man Fox offered to buy Dad a house in New Jersey. Concerned about the man’s senility, Dad graciously declined and received a gold Omega watch instead. The chauffeur got the house in Jersey (All true. Dad was married to my mother when all this went down, and he was still employed by Fox’s widow when I was born. I now own the watch). Dad had ex-Nazi soldiers come to his home for cocktails & sharing stories of the old days (absolutely true– as a toddler I would drink from their glasses before stumbling into my room to pass out). He befriended an ex-SS officer who slipped into the U.S. and reinvented himself (absolutely true– one Halloween the man lent me his war medals after I swore I wouldn’t say where I got them). During a stint as a limo driver, Dad drove Sophia Loren, Hugh Hefner and Darren McGavin. Hefner was supposed to have given him a Playboy Club card, which Dad gave away because Mom didn’t approve of it. He harbored a dislike for McGavin ever since because the actor stiffed him on the tip (who knows– about any of it?). As a butler at another estate he met Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, and got his autograph (True. I was 9 at the time and saw the Duke & Duchess, myself. We also have pictures. As for the autograph, Dad gave it to me but I never authenticated it). Dad falsified a resume when we moved to Utah and became an engineer. The few college courses he took as a young man– and his affinity for math– covered him (absolutely true). He died a civil engineer seven years later.

Despite his flaws and penchant for the tall story, I loved my Dad. He was tender, gregarious and giving– and he DID lead a very colorful life. My experiences with him, though, certainly handicapped my perception of our family history– and history, in general. How much of it is true, how much fable, and how much distorted from memories of those sharing it? I think this is something progeny should consider when picking up their family histories and reading about their ancestors’ exploits. It’s probably all true (hopefully most progenitors didn’t embellish their pasts– can you say “Don Draper”?) . On the other hand, some of it might be the fancies of someone who wanted to be more interesting than they thought they already were.


  1. Väga huvitavad (kuigi ka kurbad) jutud!

    Comment by Owen — September 23, 2008 @ 3:51 pm

  2. Comment by Owen is pointless because not a soul here can read that. But, since many souls here want GAs speaking in their native languages at GC, I suppose that this comment is not only welcome, but celebrated here. Let’s all comment in a different language. We won’t have a clue what is being discussed, but “meaning” isn’t important anymore,anyway.

    Comment by sam — September 24, 2008 @ 7:13 am

  3. Either Owen is an RM writing in his mission language for kicks. Or Owen is indeed from a foreign country. Since Owen appears to have read the post and understood it, Owen could’ve obliged us all and responded in English.

    Comment by sam — September 24, 2008 @ 7:15 am

  4. Owen,

    Thanks for the kind thoughts (Owen replied in Estonian). They were indeed sad, but some stories were also very funny. Despite the pain, Dad could be a very funny man.


    I agree it would be nice to hear speakers– GAs & otherwise– to speak in their native tongues. Perhaps a compromise would be to deliver the message in English and then bear their testimony in their native language? I do love hearing someone bear their testimony in their first language– the tenderness and intimacy seems to project more clearly when they do.

    Comment by David T. — September 24, 2008 @ 9:16 am

  5. Ellis Island? After 1924 Ellis Island was not used much, except for detention or deportation processing.

    So, it’s possible that your father spent some time in Ellis Island. But not likely.

    (It is possible that Ellis Island was put back in use for processing of large numbers of Displaced Persons or refugees after the war, but I don’t know.)

    Comment by Mark B. — September 25, 2008 @ 7:23 am

  6. Mark B.

    After 1924, the only people who were detained at Ellis Island were those who had problems with their paperwork, as well as war refugees and displaced persons.

    As the first war after 1924 was WWII, it’s very possible he came through Ellis. Between 1945 and 1948 they were detained at a relocation camp in Europe and entered the U.S. in ’48. They could very well have been shipped with a number of others and landed on the island.

    Comment by David T. — September 25, 2008 @ 8:49 am

  7. David T.

    After reading your response I realized how unclear my comment was.

    I went to the Ellis Island website and found the following:

    After 1924, the only people who were detained at Ellis Island were those who had problems with their paperwork, as well as war refugees and displaced persons.

    That last sentence is the key, and explains why your father’s family may well have come through Ellis Island in the late 40′s or early 50′s, even though non-refugees, non-DPs would not have been coming that way. It appears that you can search their database at this site to try to find your ancestors’ names and entry dates.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 25, 2008 @ 3:36 pm

  8. Interesting post. Remind me not to share any war secrets with you.

    and sam: kopp machen zu!

    Comment by Peter LLC — September 26, 2008 @ 3:55 am

  9. Reminds me of the movie Big Fish (which I loved). My family has an apocryphal tale or two, but nothing as interesting as yours. Oh well. I think even the untrue stories tell us a bit about the tellers, don’t you?

    Comment by RCH — March 18, 2009 @ 10:02 am

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