With stories, my dad was like a magpie. Anything flashy he took. Often he polished them to his own particular shine, too.
For example, if you climb up our family tree on Daddy’s side far enough, way back to the 1760’s and then hop over to a stubby branch that started in 1763 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and ended in 1808 in Natchez, Mississippi, you’ve found Lewis Wetzel.
My dad freely made his own the stories about Wetzel that author Zane Grey told in his novel Betty Zane, first published in 1903, the year of my father’s birth. (Dad’s mustache looked like a white caterpillar wiggled whenever he bragged that he “was born in the year of Kitty Hawk, but I lived to see men on the moon.”) Grey based his book on family stories about his ancestor—the brave, young Betty Zane. She saved the day for settlers sheltered at Fort Henry, close to present-day Wheeling, West Virginia, when she slipped through the enemy forces, ran home and fetched gunpowder and ammunition back in her apron. Both Grey and my dad described Wetzel as the heroic Indian fighter who helped turn the tide against the British armies and their Indian allies. Thus, he won the gratitude of American settlers near the Ohio River.
In my dad’s version of the biography, Wetzel became an Indian fighter after some Indians ambushed and murdered all of his family but him. According to other sources, real events didn’t fall out quite that way. Indians did indeed kill Lew Wetzel’s father, but Wetzel had become an Indian fighter several years before that. When he was just thirteen, some Indian scouts wounded and then captured him along with his younger brother near the family farm. The boys escaped, but this event turned Wetzel into a stone-cold Indian killer.
Events of my life have brought me close to Lewis Wetzel twice. For a few weeks in the autumn of 1971, with my husband and my infant daughter, I lived in the Western Panhandle of West Virginia a mile or two from Big Wheeling Creek. Two hundred years, before the Wetzel family farmed land along the same creek. The man who rented us half a nineteenth-century farmhouse ten miles east of Wheeling let us store David’s bicycle in the original house on the property, a long, low, stone building with a dirt-floored room on either side of a fireplace.
Lew Wetzel might have visited that very house, backed into a narrow valley with a clearing in front of it. So, primed by my father’s stories, I created a mental picture of him there. Wetzel wore buckskins and hid his long, blond braids out of sight under his hat, so “the Indians wouldn’t see his hair and go after him,” Dad said. (Indians longed to take that fair-haired scalp in revenge for his taking so many of their black-haired scalps, but none of them ever managed it.) My dad said Lewis Wetzel never learned to speak English well, but spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. Probably Wetzel didn’t say much at all as he leaned in a corner of that crude house. He squinted his eyes against the smoke from the fireplace and relished the hard cider the settler’s wife handed him in a pewter mug. Dogs lay at ease at his feet and the children stared at him, open-mouthed in awe from all the stories their fathers had told them about the legendary Lewis Wetzel. Maybe a brave lad sneaked up to touch the long rifle he reloaded and used with deadly accuracy, even while he ran, or his tomahawk that had killed countless Indians, or his scalping knife. The women in the house mostly stayed away from him at least until someone thought to loan him a violin. He was a famous fiddler, his reels and jigs speaking to pioneer folk in ways he couldn’t through words.
Regardless, he wouldn’t stay long in that low, two-roomed house before he took off running east through Big Wheeling Creek, that rushed then, as it did when I lived near it two hundred years later, clear and cold over rounded stones.
The other time I came close to Lewis Wetzel was downright eerie. Some friends of mine threw a costume party with instructions to come as “our favorite Revolutionary.” Naturally, because of Dad’s stories, I instantly thought of Lewis Wetzel. So I made myself some fake buckskins, bought a black felt hat and a blond wig for a few bucks at a local five and dime (gone now). I also donned moccasin-style bedroom slippers and a rabbit fur vest I happened to own. I stuck a rubber tomahawk in a hand-woven belt and went off to my party. Later, as I danced in that costume with that blond hair swinging over my face, I felt as if Lewis Wetzel was inside me looking out through my eyes, searching for Indians to scalp. It creeped me so much I broke into a cold sweat and I ripped the hat and wig off my head fast.
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As I said, Dad mostly stole his stories of Lewis Wetzel from Zane Grey, but some of his tales Dad acquired honestly. One of my favorites comes from the 1930’s when Dad was a surveyor up in the mountains of West Virginia. Dad is the short guy in the middle.
(From those days living in a two-story wooden dormitory at the camp, Dad got his insistence that the only proper surface for cards and poker chips was an army blanket, on a cot or on the kitchen table, depending on the circumstance.)
One time as Dad’s crew surveyed the routes for fire roads in the national parks up in those steep West Virginian hills, they found some old stone markers, leaning every which way, set by a surveyor who came through there in the 1760’s, back along those ancient pathways through the river gaps in the Allegheny Mountains, first laid down by deer. The Indians followed these tracks. Settlers in their lumbering wagons, pulled by oxen, called one of them the National Road. (Dad said that some of our ancestors–the Wetzels? I sometimes wonder–made the arduous journey from Long Swamp, Pennsylvania, across those mountains, probably on one of those roads, to settle in Clarion County near the western border of the state.) Nowadays eighteen-wheelers and automobiles hurtle east and west along the interstates built on these ancient routes.
Looking at those old stone mile markers, one of Dad’s buddies said, “This fellow sure was a lousy surveyor. Look how crooked these markers are. And they don’t line up at all.”
“Well, sir, you’re wrong about that,” my dad said. “He was a great surveyor. You’ve got to take into account the way creeks have eroded the land hereabouts and the hills have slumped in the past hundred and fifty years. When you do, you’ll see that surveyor had a true eye and did wonderful work, especially considering the equipment he used.”
Then Dad would briefly pause for effect before he delivered the kicker to this story. “That surveyor was George Washington, you know.” (Chill bumps would rise all up and down my arms whenever Dad told me this story.)
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But I know for a fact that Dad stole one of his best stories. Before I tell it, though, I have to lay in some background.
In 1936, Dad was still a surveyor, only for the water company instead of the CCC, when a pretty young nurse and her friend came down from New Jersey to the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia for a vacation. An old snapshot labeled “July 19, 1936, Mingo Mountain” in my mother’s small, neat handwriting shows Mom and Dad leaning against a waist-high tree stump.
They married almost exactly a year later on “Seven Eleven Thirty-seven,” which Dad, into numerology in his seventies, always declared his lucky day and a truly lucky number.
Sometime in the fifties, perhaps after a visit to a museum in New Jersey, Dad stole the story of Miles Smith and Sir Digby Legard’s two beautiful daughters from Mom’s side of the family tree. Of course, he proceeded to make this story so thoroughly his own that my daughter grew up thinking it came from his side of the family instead of her grandmother’s.
My cousin, Sarah Faye Meurer, our mothers’ family genealogist, and I have speculated about this yarn back and forth by e-mail and I’ve decided that the way my dad tells the story and the way it happened were quite different. My cousin discovered information about Miles Smith, Esquire, in a book called Journal of the Tour in the United States of America 1794-1795 by William Strickland who traveled with Miles Smith and his family from Britain to America aboard The Fair American in 1794. The Smith family’s departure from England seems motivated partly by Miles’ troubled relationship with his father-in-law, Sir Digby Legard. (The spelling of the last name, sometimes with two d’s and sometimes with only one, varies from place to place on the family tree.) Miles’ family included his wife Jane Legard, who’d recently given birth to a baby boy that died and was buried at sea on August 24, 1794, and five or six other children. (The records are unclear on that score.) In the fall of 1794, soon after their arrival, Miles traveled with Strickland who described him as “an interesting companion, whose good humour alleviated the fatigues of a journey.” But Smith had to return to his family “who under the new circumstances of a new country, might want his assistance,” a bit of an understatement, I think.
In fact, Jane died on September 11, 1795, a little over a year after coming to America. (Quite possibly, life here or caring for her kids that Strickland described as “Savages” was too much for her.) After Jane’s death, Strickland arranged Miles’ marriage to Sir Digby’s younger daughter, Henrietta Charlotte. Though she was thirty-eight, she and Miles had a daughter and a son together. Henrietta died before Miles, who didn’t marry a third time, maybe because Sir Digby was fresh out of daughters.
Of course, the way my dad told this story was a lot different. His Miles Smith, far from being a lawyer, family man, and gentleman sheep farmer, greatly resembled Sir Walter Scott’s young Lochinvar, come riding out of the West. As my dad told the tale (and I pictured it), Miles Smith, dashingly dressed, drop-dead handsome, his hair long and blond and flowing, sailed to Britain from a savage new world where single-handedly he’d fought off hordes of Indians and hacked a homestead from the wilderness. After Miles landed in England, he laid eyes on Sir Digby Legard’s beautiful older daughter, in a virginally white gown with a Juliet cap on her dark tresses, as she stood on a moonlit balcony of a grand mansion. Instantly he fell in love with her. Once he’d climbed up the rose vines to her, she fell in love with him. So he swept her up in his arms, carried her down the vines and set her in front of him on his horse. Embracing her with his brawny arms, he galloped away with her to the ship that sailed off into the sunset. When Jane died tragically (with no mention of the five or six savage children), Miles Smith sailed back to England to make off with Jane’s equally beautiful younger sister Henrietta (replay of virginally white gown, Juliet cap, moonlit balcony, etc.) much to Sir Digby Legard’s anger and dismay.
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Not at all surprisingly, my father and parts of his stories appear in my stories and novels. For example, Cinderella’s dad in my Cinderella, P. I. fairy tale mysteries for grown-up is a civil engineer like my father and physically greatly resembles my father. Ambrose Gibbs, a Kansas City police officer who appears in January Jinx, the first novel in my calendar historical mystery series, and Mischief in March, the third, looks like my daddy, too. It’s not at all by accident that the garment factory in Fatal February, the second book of the calendar mysteries, is named Digby, Ledgard, and Smith. In“The Barn Door,” a forthcoming prequel short story to the calendar mysteries, a character has a wiggly white mustache like my dad’s. Finally, and in a very real way, almost every time I write dialogue for the characters in my calendar mysteries, I hear the story-telling voice of my father, Homer Dale Willman, Sr., who was born on November 27, 1903, and who died on June 19, 1991.
Happy Father’s Day, Daddy
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The Cinderella, P. I. fairy tale mystery novels and story collections and calendar historical mystery novels are available as eBooks and trade paperbacks from Amazon.com. Here’s the link to my Amazon Author Central page: