Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Catalog – Why Write? (Precis)

Précis—Why Write?


Robben Island Prison, Cape Town, SA, where they held Nelson Mandela and others

A base reason for writing is to preserve – oneself, knowledge, ideas, experience – and in some way to change the reader. Change may occur by providing technical information such as how to develop a glass plate negative using chemicals in a darkened room, or a map providing guidance to a location down the road, or a pathway to the top of a complex mountain. More vastly, writing may change the way we think and how we feel.

Writing also serves the writer’s soul and mind, helping him [1] to understand, proportion, and organize. Writing and reading can engage so many responses: interpret, inflame, enlighten, entertain, relieve, inform, enrich, persuade, teach, memorialize, inspire, depress, defile, and many thousand more.

Catalog is here to capture, reveal, transfer, and inspire. This is an intertwined story of James Ricalton in Africa, destitute women and children of Ethiopia, and myself, James Ricalton Wilson.

Today, as written in 1905: “The public knows less of Ricalton, one of its obscure great men. He has gone through a long life, with his nose to his work, like a dog to a scent, heedless of fame and money. He is original, alone, and has done things no other man has done. It was he that Thomas A. Edison sent into all the tropical jungles twenty years ago [1885] to search for a vegetable fiber for the electric lamp… He has traveled through every country on the globe, exposing 75,000 negatives, and has photographed most of the great men of his generation … At the battle of Caloocan a soldier near him was winged; Ricalton picked up the useless rifle, grabbed the cartridge belt and went up with the skirmishers. At the siege of Tien Tsin he stood on the walls and photographed Americans as they were dropped by Chinese bullets. Little the public knows when it sees photographs of war how few of them come from the front. Ricalton is one of the few who gets the real things.” [2]

Ricalton's grandson, George Wilson, my father, a military reporter and war correspondent, was like this, too. George was at the front in Vietnam, in the trenches with mud soldiers in the A Shau Valley, in 1968. A young soldier at his side was shot through. (George was horrified and panicked; he unraveled a bit.) George was embedded with the Marines in Iraq at age 76, advancing from Kuwait to Baghdad, during the US-led invasion, in 2003. They called him ‘Canary,’ a detector for poison gas, because he slept unprotected on the ground, while the soldiers dug foxholes every night. George pondered destitution in Beirut during war with Israel in 1974; despaired high politics inside the Capitol and Pentagon; unraveled prior restraint by the military, saving Mrs. Graham, Mr. Bradley, and the Washington Post in 1971; and more. George would frequently say that he cared deeply about the ‘little people,’ those without voice; and he saw a core mission in giving voice to those without, cutting right, lighting truth, with his swift sword, the writer’s pen. George was reviled by a number, but he was loved by many more.

So many of my family, it seems, touched and observed trauma and mortality, and saw great moment and gave keen observation. Ricalton had a fascination with crude executions in India and China, war mortalities (the “opposite shore is lined with bloated human forms” [3]), and other scholarly detail and endings. He was a petulant and righteous Scot, soberly observing, bringing to light with his cameras, in writings, and public lectures, barbarisms and shocking tumult. Ricalton was cut down, himself, brought to his knees sobbing, as his beloved son of 24 years, Lomond, died before him, on May 26, 1914, stricken with jungle fever (typhoid pneumonia) over two weeks, in British East Africa, Kenya. (James and Lomond were working on a film project for Edison.)

Ricalton’s wife, Barbara Campbell, never spoke to him again. A man of thirty-nine Atlantic Ocean crossings and more than 500,000 miles journeying in 68 countries, and 100,000 photographs, Ricalton travelled abroad no more, after Lomond died. He walked his beloved Saint Lawrence River, many tens of miles a day, elongating his sadness, in Waddington, New York, where he died, angrily, on October 28, 1929.

Ricalton’s daughter Mary fell to her knees, too, 63 years after her brother Lomond’s death, when her grandson James Ricalton Wilson was gravely injured and not expected to live, after he was brutally struck by a drunk driver, on New Year’s, January 1, 1977. James’ brain was cut open by surgeons, and he lay in deep coma for days, before inching back.

33 years later, in 2010, James Ricalton Wilson, Jim, this writer, fell to his knees when a negligent truck driver struck down his beautiful 19-year-old son, Nathan, while he was training in Tucson, Arizona, for bicycle races in Europe and across the US.

Jim’s grandfather, Harold Ralston Gibbons (H.R.), who worked for Alfred Sloan, fell to his knees and begged God as he watched first his wife, Dorothy Francis, then his son, Junior, die, of influenza in 1918. H.R. was spiritually emptied and cast to zero. He married his son’s nurse, Dorothy (Dot) Binns. Subsequently, Dot herself mended as many as she could, and comforted those who did not mend (and died), as an infantry nurse during the Great War, in France, 1919.

What more of these people, our family catalog? How did they cope with tragedy, death, and loss? I learned and observed that they and we were many things. They grieved, they became furious, they mourned, they were derelict, they became spiritually vacant, and they cried and wailed. Some became drunk. Most were in some way extreme. Each was immensely deepened by their intimacy with loss, and in some way despondent. I sense each became painfully aware of his or her good fortune, to have not died or been wounded, and was thus drawn to charity and love, albeit sometimes with unformed vocabulary. Each found a need, new or sharpened, to make the world a better place. We continue to learn, and we try to better love, to “much love,” as the Gibbons meme impels.

Death and trauma can be cherished experiences, immensely enriching relationships, deepening personal knowledge; providing opportunities to nourish, comfort, and give; and awakening the survivor’s awareness of his good fortune. (The decedent also experiences great depth, but he ultimately can make no response.) One recognizes an immense gap between those who remain, and those who do not, between those who recover and those who fail. We observe a sense of inequity and are drawn with compassion to mend the gap, as we hope others will mend the gap, provide comfort, when we are afflicted.

Survivors of trauma may feel obliged to return the favor of compassion they received; they may have injured others in their broken recovery and experience guilt; and some may feel obliged to heal others in order to more fully repair themselves. I sense that members of the Wilson catalog carry these traits, some that are learned by unkind experience, others imprinted by family lore and behavior, and perhaps others made by epigenetic casting.

Let us look at their journeys and consider what is given. Let us also mind, but not deeply, contrary patterns, among those who flee, the avoidant. Perhaps we will find a bridge.



[1] My intent is to be gender neutral. Him/he/his can usually mean her/she/hers.
[2] Railroad Men, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, “An Intrepid War Photographer,” October 1904; p. 337.
[3] Ricalton, James, The Boxer Uprising, Underwood and Underwood, 1902; p. 193.



Ricalton in his Study, c. 1920


Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa

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