Tuesday, August 18, 2015

"The world isn't a sad place, it's just big."  ~  Jean-Luc Godard

I never met my grandfather. He drown in the Caribbean Sea when my Mom was 10 years old. I have pictures of him, though. I know I got my eyebrows from him. They look just the same as his… not all styled and tapered, just thick, "Rogge" eyebrows. I would have liked him, I'm sure of it.

My Nana liked him, right off the bat, sort of... Nana and her step-mother lived in Flint, Michigan. She was about 18-years-old on this normal, old, Flint-Michigan-sort-of-day. Nana wasn't fond of her step-mother, but that lady had sent her to the grocer's for something she needed, and so Nana went, walking past the local hotel there somewhere on Flint's main street a long time ago. 

Nana told me that a man, a stranger to her, was sitting in a chair on the hotel porch with his feet propped up on the railing, his chair balanced on its two back legs. He had a hat pulled down to shade his eyes and a toothpick in his mouth. When Nana would tell me the story about how she met my grandfather, she'd never leave those two things out. Each time she'd tell me this, I could see him sitting there, too. In fact, even now, as I write this, I can see him, this man I never met.

Nana had nearly passed by him when she heard a low whistle… a wolf-whistle! She walked faster towards the grocer's and didn't look back.

On her way back home, the stranger was still sitting there, hat on head, toothpick in mouth. As she passed by, that man whistled again! My Nana was never very shy, I think, and so she turned and gave him a glare, and he laughed, gave her a wink, and doffed his hat to her. In a huff, Nana strode home. She said she was insulted, but maybe not... 

The stranger was a lumberman, a young foreman of some lumber-cutting project there in the forest somewhere in Michigan near Flint, back in those very olden days.

This sounds like every single John Wayne movie that Hollywood ever made, I know, but Nana never veered from this story, and, anyway, it was before the John Wayne movies. And, according to my Nana, my grandfather was far better than old John Wayne ever could be!

They were married fairly quickly after that, and it was good. He would shower her with presents for the rest of their life together, and for a young woman who'd gone without for a long time, it was thrilling. And then, after a while, she came to expect all the fuss and love. Nana told me that my grandfather loved April Fool's Day best of all, and he'd always play tricks on her on that day. His favorite was to fill the sugar-bowl with salt, and the salt shaker with sugar, and then watch what would happen at breakfast on that April 1st morning. 

But Nana said that by the time 365 days had passed, she'd always forget exactly when April Fool's Day rolled around, but Granddad never did. He would plan schemes for weeks before, sometimes very grandly foolish pranks. And Nana, who never had much of a sense of humor, would laugh and pretend that she was amused. She adored that man!

They had two children, my aunt, and then my Mom. All was well in the Rogge household in Michigan, and everyone was as happy as I suppose most American families were in those days.

But Henry Ford had an idea! Why let rubber companies sell their rubber to make tires for his famous automobiles? Why not send some men to the Amazon River in Brazil to start a rubber plantation there, one that he, Henry Ford, would own? How Henry Ford knew my grandfather, I'll never know, but my grandfather was sent up the Amazon River in Brazil to forge a rubber plantation out of the jungle in a place called Boa Vista.

When the jungle was cleared and the trees were planted and houses were erected, and Granddad's house was built, he sent for his wife and children to come from Flint, Michigan to live with him in Brazil on the banks of the Amazon River. This was before jet planes. It was a long trip to a place that nearly all Americans had only seen on a spinning globe of the world. 

Once in a while people would venture up the Amazon to stay with the family for a while. The one that I'm so glad for was a Russian artist who stayed with them for several weeks and painted. One day he painted that lovely vista across that wide Amazon River as a gift for the family. Nana gave it to me a long time ago before she died. It's my own treasure now.

Nana said that she would have her ironing lady press 3 white linen suits for my grandfather every single day. The jungle heat and humidity would quickly dampen and wrinkle that linen, so my grandfather would start each day wearing a cleaned, pressed suit in the morning, then change into another perfectly ironed suit after lunch, and, after peeling off that second suit, he'd put on a third freshy-ironed suit before dinner.

My Mom told me that she had a little pet deer that she loved. Since their house was built on stilts, they kept the deer in the open space under the house.  One morning when my Mom ran down the stairs to pet her little deer, she found a large boa constrictor with the deer half-in and half-out of his mouth. That snake's skin is rolled up and sitting on a shelf in our hall closet today!

Next to it is the bow and the arrows that my grandfather received from some of the native people. Nana, and my Mom, too, always, always warned Jack and I never to touch those arrows because the people who used them put curare on the tips when they hunted. The bow is large and heavy and strung. Often times my brother and I would try to pull that bowstring, but we could only ever get it back a few inches. Mom hid the arrows from us, of course, but she didn't need to. We were both fully afraid of those tips.

One day there on the Amazon, my granddad decided that he wanted to see if what he'd heard about piranah was actually true. Over my Nana's protests, he took a boat out onto the River along with a large, dead pig, and some helpers. They lowered the pig into the River, and he timed how long it would take the piranah to decimate the carcass. He wrote in his diary that it took a little under 3 minutes for the carcass to become just bones.   

After nearly 3 years of Amazon plantation life, someone somewhere invented synthetic rubber, and that worked very well for automobile tires. My granddad was told to close up the plantation and come back to Flint, Michigan. So Nana and my Granddad made a plan. Nana and my Mom and my aunt would fly to New Orleans and stay there for a short time until my grandfather could tie up the loose ends, and then they would all go back to their home in Flint, Michigan. 

Nana told me many times that they flew to New Orleans in a Ford Tri-motor airplane. And because she was the first woman to ever fly in one, the pilot asked if she'd like to sit in the cockpit for a bit. Well, of course she wanted to! And she recounted that long flight with all the stops in between. I forget how long it took, but remember, there were no jets then. That big bulk of a plane had 3 motors and a huge interior for that time. I know because when my husband had a little plane, and I went out to the field with him one day, there was an ancient Ford Tri-motor sitting at the Chino Airport! The owner let me look inside, and I could almost see Nana and her two little girls sitting there… almost.

My granddad closed the plantation down as quickly as he could, and then, when he got to Mexico, he hopped a boat to take him across the Caribbean to New Orleans. There was a bad storm, the boat sank, and my grandfather drowned. 

Somehow, his body washed ashore and was found. His corpse was put into a box and put on a train to Minatitlan.  Nana waited on that train platform in Minatitlan in the state of Vera Cruz, and claimed his body. My grandfather, John Rogge, who I never knew is buried there in that city in Mexico where I've never been.   


  1. What a wonderful story about your grandfather and grandmother this is. Your talent for spinning a story from precious recollections is outstanding.

    1. Wow! Thanks so much for those encouraging words, Linda. I didn't want to tell the whole ending of my Nana… but I will. She ended up marrying 4, or was it 5, more times. She never found another man like my Granddad.

  2. I loved reading about your grandpa. What a fascinating man! Your grandma sounds interesting, too. At least you have these wonderful stories to tell, even though you never met him.

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    1. Thanks so much for the kind words, Cindy. It was fun to look at his picture while I wrote this. I was trying to figure out a way to post the photos of Boa Vista, but it was too complicated for the likes of me!