Chapter One: Birth of a Black Sheep
Most sheep are born white. But now and then, a sheep is born black. Whether that is fortunate or unfortunate is impossible to say, but it is certain to loom large in the life of a sheep. Suffice it to say, that on the twenty-seventh day of February in the year 1945, early in the morning, a black sheep was born at the Axtell Hospital on a hill just south of the business district in Princeton, Missouri. It was a small sleepy town of fifteen hundred souls. It was a cold and windy day, as would be expected in that latitude in North Missouri in late winter. The air spit wet snow from time to time. Blasts of cold wind buffeted the wooden buildings. There were piles of dirty snow from recent storms, not yet melted. The temperature was frigid but sometimes flared warmer. The unpaved roads in the countryside were unpredictable. In the event, deep in the countryside a quick thaw made them impassible for an automobile. After ten days, I was taken home in a wooden wagon with iron wheels pulled by a team of big work horses. This black sheep was me, of course. I was taken as far as possible in an old Ford car. Just off the road in a pasture, the team was harnessed and waiting. There were some bales of wheat straw for seats and high sideboards on the wagon. Whether this was an auspicious beginning no one could tell. Poor Black Sheep. I didn’t have a clue what was happening. But who does at that stage? I was in deep solipsism.
The Girdner Family:
I was the second in a family of four siblings. On my father’s side, the Girdner family, was an old family in America and this was the sixth generation from the original ancestor, David Girdner, who arrived from Germany in the eighteenth century. My sister, Freddie Sue was born on November 6, l943. I was born a little more than a year later and was named Eddie James. Mary Jane was born three years later, and my brother, Michael Roy in l952.
It seems likely that David Girdner arrived in America on the ship, The Duke of Wirtenberg, on October 10, l752. He was said to be illiterate and settled in Heidelberg Township, Northampton County, Pennsylvania. James Madison Girdner, his Great Grandson, wrote in l911 that “…he was a little old Dutchman and stood as straight in the back as a fence rail…he was so straight he almost leaned back…So far as I know he was the first Girdner that ever came to this country and he was a full blooded German…the little old straight backed Dutchman …certainly is the daddy of us all…”
The line of descent was direct from David Girdner. His only son, Michael Girdner, born in l755, had nine children, including Joseph Girdner. Joseph had eleven children including King David Girdner, born in 1830. He was my Great Grandfather. King David married Mary Ann Underwood, his second wife, and had eight children one of whom was my Grandfather Edward Girdner.
David Girdner, the original immigrant, fought in the Revolutionary War and served through the whole seven years up to the end of the War in l783. In 1777, he was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 7th Company of the 3rd Battalion of the Northampton County, Pennsylvania Militia.
That I am a genuine “son of the American Revolution” was well documented from this history.
Some of the family moved to Tennessee. Other relatives fought in the War of 1812. Another David moved to Missouri in 1834 and fought to drive the Mormons out of Missouri. His brother Joseph came to Missouri and settled in Mercer County in 1839 about three miles northeast of what is now the town of Princeton. He acquired 480 acres of land and was a mechanic, blacksmith, and wagon-maker. He was one of the first settlers in the county when there were about forty families in the area, other than the American Indians.
Joseph’s son, King David, was my great grandfather. The first circuit court in the county was held at King David Girdner’s residence with the jury holding their conference beneath the green forest trees.
Edward Girdner, my Grandfather, married Rhoda Sparks. The couple had five children, Mary Ann, Ray, Ralph, Roy Fred, and Marvin. Roy Fred Girdner was my father. The family purchased the farm south of Princeton in 1936 for around seven thousand dollars when it was repossessed by the bank.
Before I was born, my grandparents sold the farm south of Princeton, to my father and moved to Princeton. They lived in a small house which was next to the highway. My grandmother was small and thin like my father and had white hair. My grandfather was plump and jolly, like a heavy-set German with a ruddy complexion. If he had grown a full beard, he could have been a good Santa Claus. He had thin, white, hair.
My grandmother would always give me candy if I went to her house with my father. She kept sweets in a corner cabinet in her kitchen. I loved to go into her small pantry next to the kitchen and liked the musty smell. On the back porch facing the highway, there was a porch swing. I liked to sit there with my sister Freddie and watch the cars go past on the highway. It was also somehow fun being in town, as we were always in the country.
In front of the house there was a small wooden porch and an old hand pump which had a crank that one had to turn for water. My Grandmother’s house was much smaller than the house on the farm. But it was friendly and cozy, with colorful rag carpets on the floor and a homely scent. I loved going to my grandparent’s house.
My Grandfather would be sitting in his rocking chair. He would talk to me in a friendly way. He walked very slowly with a cane. When he came to the farm, he would go around the buildings, into the smoke house, old cave and wood shed to look around. Then he would remark that it might be the last time he would ever see them. He seemed relaxed, not worried about anything. He believed in God but was not very religious.
My father, Roy Fred Girdner, was born on February 4, 1900 on the Girdner farm north of Princeton. My mother, Mary Kathleen Garren, was born on August 1, 1913 in Spadra, Arkansas. My father grew up on the farm and worked on the railroad. His schooling only went up to the eighth grade. My mother lived in Paris, Arkansas. Her father, Jim Garren, was an Irish coal miner.
My mother was forced to work as a domestic servant in the home of the local middle class. As a child, my mother picked cotton. Her father was a coal miner. Later, she worked as a nurse in the Arkansas state sanitorium but there was little economic opportunity during The Great Depression. There were many cases of tuberculosis. This widespread disease was associated with poverty in America.
My mother appreciated Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and his programs to help the poor. Politically, she always identified with the Democrat Party.
My mother did not graduate from High school but later completed her high school through a correspondence course and got her high school diploma. She was partly American Indian. My parents had met in the church in Princeton before my father was drafted into the Army in World War II and stationed in Stockton, California. When he was discharged, in 1942, my father returned by train to Des Moines, Iowa. My mother worked as a nurse at the Princeton Hospital. My parents were married in 1942. My father returned to farming and she became a farm housewife.
My Uncles and Aunts:
I had three uncles and an aunt on my father’s side. The uncles were Ray, Ralph and Marvin. My aunt was Mary Ann. Ray was married to Aunt Lenora and was also a farmer. He lived two miles away on the main highway on a farm, but sometimes raised crops on my father’s farm. So he was the uncle that I saw the most. He was a gentle and kind person but not very bold and successful in life. He often seemed disgusted by the way things were as he shoveled ear corn into the old barn in the Fall. He seemed to always have bad luck. He did not have any children.
Ray was far more timid than my father. He seemed to have sort of lost hope in life and accepted things as they came. He moved from the old farm and lived near Highway 65 on a poor farm that he did not own. He made a poor living on the farm where he lived. His wife Lenora did not want children. Ray was closer to my father than to any of the other brothers.
My mother sometimes had conflicts with my aunt Lenora when my parents were first married and they lived in the same house. She saw her as selfish and always taking the best things.
The women made their dresses from feed sacks during the war when cloth was scarce. My mother said that Aunt Lenora always took the prettiest patterns for herself. She picked out the big potatoes and left the small ones. She saw her as selfish and greedy.
Uncle Ralph lived in a small town called Mill Grove three miles to the south of the farm and was married to Aunt Clara. He made a career of working for the Rock Island Railroad. He was a grumpy man, sour and indifferent, as if he just wanted to be left alone. His wife Clara was thin and somewhat attractive, and famous for her sweaters. She may have had more sweaters than Imelda Marcos had shoes. He had one son, Charles Ed, who was quite a lot older than me.
Uncle Marvin lived in Princeton, and was a master mechanic for the International Harvester dealer. He became well known around the area for his ability to fix farm equipment. He always seemed cross and didn’t suffer fools easily. He never came to church and seemed to scorn religion. But once he said that he had seen Billy Graham on TV and liked him. I was always a little afraid of him. He had one daughter, Carol Ann, who I liked and played with sometimes when I was a kid and visited their house. Marvin was somehow a natural genius in mechanics but was killed tragically in a car accident in Princeton.
Aunt Mary Ann was my Father’s sister. She lived in Princeton with her husband, William Rutledge, who managed the town’s electrical plant. They had two children, who were older than me, so that I did not get to know them very well.
My relatives on his mother’s side:
My mother’s family in Arkansas was poor. There were three sisters and three brothers in the coal-mining family. Her sisters were Rose and Violet. Her brothers were Ray, Troy and Dwight. I only saw them briefly during a visit as they lived far away. I only clearly remember Dwight who made a career in the Army and loved to sit for hours telling stories about military life. The two sisters had moved to California for better jobs when opportunities were scarce in Arkansas.