Scoundrels, Sailors, and even a spy

Only in America would circumstances bring a first generation Polish-American Jew and a Scot-Irish Protestant together, fall in love and marry.   My parents met in New York City; I was born in San Jose, California. What little I knew of my father’s family, particularly my grandfather’s story,  began with his fondness for fisherman style caps, and a Russian phrase I later learned was a soldier’s response to orders given.   Only from clues from my aunt and searching the internet, was I able to tie a few of them together.

Since my Polish grandfather and his betrothed came to the United States through Canada in the early 1920s,  I can only imagine he learned the Russian if conscripted by the Bolshevik Army after the Revolution. They occupied part of Poland in those days.  He obviously escaped and made it to New York City becoming a U.S. citizen and finding work as a shipfitter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.    I am particularly grateful, as I might have been Italian-American and an Army veteran, as my mother was previously very smitten with an Italian-American soldier,  given several pages of photographs and a few old letters I found after her death.   Then how would I have ever obtained the wife I have and become a retired crusty Senior Chief?   Like my eldest son today,  I am not great at marching nor am I particularly suited to running miles in combat boots.

My mother’s ancestors in Northern Ireland were mainly merchants and businessmen in the flax or finished linen industry.  In Scotland, some were town leaders (burgesses), maintained order, were metal workers, or were in the ministry.  However, in almost every generation going back to the early Sixteenth Century an ancestor served in the military, was involved in combat or insurrection, or had some colorful story that was almost lost to history.  One fought the British Army in a late-Eighteenth Century uprising in Ireland.   Some forebears served in the British Army,  some died in Colonial America, and some went to Australia.   While the British Empire exiled folks there centuries ago, it probably was due to military service or to seek one’s fortune.  And some others went to sea.  There is a story of  James Blaw,  a ship’s surgeon,  who was shipwrecked in the South Pacific and subsequently rescued, whom I identified from accounts digitized and made available online.

While my mother’s family line spent three hundred years in Ireland, they came from  Culross and Dunfermline, Scotland.    It was only due to the second son emigrating to Ulster in the 1600s  (and changing the spelling of his surname)  since it was his elder brother who inherited property.    But James Blow, as Scottish printer’s apprentice and then in Belfast, partner, who was to make the greater mark in family history.   It was his firm that printed one of the very first English Bibles in Ireland.

But our family is not without its scoundrels – or spies.  While descendents of the Ulster Blow  family pursued careers in the military, or life at sea, or emigrated to other lands of the British Empire,  a Scottish curmudgeon,  the printer’s elder brother,  John Blaw, was a courier and spy for Bonnie Prince Charlie, who at that time was exiled in France.

After that attempt to mount a return of the Jacobites failed, it seems Blaw, who never was the businessman his brother was, ended his days as a mean drunk.  After a bar fight -he was in his sixties at the time – he was imprisoned and tried for murder of another pub patron.   He apparently was also a horrible provider for his family.   After his conviction and execution,  his widow sold much of the family possessions.   And his granddaughter and her husband – a descendent of the trial prosecutor – sold the family estate.

Another ancestor of my mother,  sent out to live with a relative, settled in the early Nineteenth Century South, eventually founding banks and railroads.  Even after the Civil War and ReConstruction,  he died a millionaire.   However, his Scotch-Irish relations from Ulster swooped in and “appropriated” investments.  News clippings detailed scandal, the deceased’s questionable marriage, and a missing will.  In hindsight some of my forebears were indeed scoundrels.   But others served honorably. There is one commemorated on a wall in the Belfast City Hall,  to those who died in combat.  Flanders, Belgium during World War I.

Other family branches came to America.  Two from different families served with distinction during the Second World War.  One’s service was shrouded in secrecy- probably in Army Intelligence – he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  Another relation, serving in the Merchant Marine, was awarded for gallantry during a fierce battle of Malta.   I never met him in person, but he wrote me a recommendation to attend the U.S. Naval Academy.  He is commemorated at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York.

My father was never in uniform, but he was a defense contract engineer on integral projects for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Department of Defense.  He helped design the C-5A Galaxy aircraft in the 1960s and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.   I may have found it easier to enter the Navy field that subsequently has given me a lifelong career due to a long family history of service.

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