I found my maternal grandfather’s Shellback Certificate this morning – re-found it, actually – and started reflecting on his life and his family’s. One earns or earned a Shellback Certificate by crossing the Equator upon the sea and being initiated into the Realm of Neptunus Rex, but I understand that this initiation, too, has fallen out of favor these days. Anyway, he was a sailor 64 years before I was and before air conditioning and most other creature comforts I enjoyed, and he was doomed to die of Huntington’s Disease. I don’t know whether or not he knew that.
His father and his father’s father had both died by the time Lawrence enlisted in 1901, both in state lunatic asylums (Iowa and Indiana respectively) because no one knew what else to make of Huntington’s. By virtue of his service, my grandfather would eventually die in Hines VA Hospital near Chicago.
His mother and father both appear in the 1880 federal census in Story County, Iowa, in June. In July, his mother stood up for her sister’s wedding in Kearney, Nebraska, and he was born there in December. Within two years, his mother would remarry and he would be adopted by his step-father.
For years I assumed that his father, Jacob, must have accompanied his wife to the wedding, but I haven’t found his track since June, 1880. Did Jacob leave her in Nebraska or did she leave him in Iowa? Did they know yet that Jacob had inherited the HD gene?
In my grandfather’s life, at what point did he and my grandmother learn that he had inherited the gene? I remember in early conversations with my mother that she had very little idea of how HD worked. She thought maybe it only affected males, and maybe it skipped generations. There was no test for it.
What must life have been like for “Shaky” Jake in fin de siècle Iowa? When he was admitted to the state hospital there was a reference to some time in or with the Army, but I’ve found no record. So far his hospital record is about all that I have. I don’t have even that for his father, Jacob Senior, in Indianapolis in 1854.
Can you imagine your ancestors’ lives?