My father had always said we had ink in our veins.
Many of his family worked in publishing, on both his mother’s and father’s sides. When I began to delve earnestly into my family history, I soon discovered that when your family works on the backside of the paper, they are more likely than likely going to have their stories printed on the front.
When I entered the family history center that stormy April afternoon, I had one thing on my mind; I had never seen a photo of my father’s father.
I was 46 and I had never seen my grandfather’s face.
I typed his name into the search bar on the site, Newspapers.com, “George R. Slighte,” the results came back instantly.
Under a photo, I read the words exactly as I had just typed: “George R. Slighte,” then the caption continued: “31, Pacific war veteran, surrendered to police as a driver of a hit-run car. -Tribune photo.”
I continued to read the story below his photo. It first detailed his surrender by phone, after striking an unknown object the night before. He was arrested and held that Christmas Eve day.
As I sat in the sparsely populated Family History room of the Stake Center, the hum of the computers and microfiche reader behind me and the constant quiet conversation of the volunteers on the computers to the right of me seemed to fade away as I was drawn further into my grandfather’s story. The bits and pieces I had been told as a small child hadn’t included anything about an accident. As I studied his face on the screen searching for similarities in my own and my children’s, I longed to know more about George’s life.
My grandfather’s sad tale played out like a soap opera in clippings from the Oakland Daily Tribune where both his brothers, Tom and Ray, worked. His father and he were also printers, working together at a private print shop at the time he enlisted in the Army a few years before.
The printers at the Tribune knew the story behind George’s brave service to his country and I felt it was a possibility they included his tale to temper the words that were so difficult to tell about another holiday drunk driving tragedy.
My memories about my grandfather were scarce and very confusing to my child mind. My father, in loud angry, insulting words, would describe how my brother was not named after his father, George, because my mother didn’t think George was the type of man you named a child after. My mother debates that statement. I grew up knowing this to be true.
No matter who had said it, my perception was that my family thought George was a bad man. As I continued to read the words about his service to our country, my attitude about the grandfather I never knew changed. My respect for the hero that had served our country began to grow.
Through the mouths of several generations, a phrase was highlighted in my memory, I knew that he was injured in World War II, “hit in the back of the head by a Jap rifle,” was always how it was told. I was never told where, although a recent trip to the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. found me on my knees at an impression of the words, “New Guinea” in the concrete. Here it was in black and white:
“Slighte, a printer, who enlisted in the Army five days after the Pearl Harbor attack, was partly paralyzed during the fighting on New Guinea in 1943 when he was struck on the back of the head by a Jap rifle butt.”
The results of George’s injuries, untreated, created a domino-effect of trauma that is still echoing four generations later. Although our family attempted to erase George’s death through disposing of his photos and forbidding to speak of him; that didn’t keep his own son, then a great-grandson from following in his footsteps in the manner of their deaths. Sitting in that Family History Center, I realized that my own post-traumatic stress disorder could be directly traced to my grandfather’s service.
“George and his wife have one child, Ronald, 1 ½, and expect another early next year.” The last sentence shuddered through me.
The other they expected, would be my aunt Peggy; My father was Ronald. Adversity hit the little family at it’s core before my aunt was born. Tragedy was to be her life for her first few years. The only years she was to share on earth with her father.
The one memory that was shared with me from the time I was far too young to comprehend its relationship to my abuse, was the memory my father carried about his father’s death.
I don’t remember how old I was the first time I heard the words from my dad, “he took off his watch [speaking about his father], gave it to me, then went in his office and closed the door. The next thing I heard was a gunshot.” My father was four years old at the time. His little sister was 2.
The man who was to cause my mental illness by his abuses, experienced the trauma that would be the undoing of at least two more generation’s psychological health on that day.
For the first 46 years of my life, one thing I knew about my paternal grandfather was the method of his death. I had no idea why, or who he was before he died. I had never seen his face.
The day I saw his face, I also found another article in the Oakland Tribune about George Ronald Slighte. This piece confirmed what I knew to be true as well. It ran twenty-one years to the day from his grandson’s, my brother Jason’s birth, on 6 June 1949. It was printed on page 7:
In the three years since discovering those clips about my grandfather, George Ronald Slighte, I have continued to search for more clues.
The newspaper clippings continued the tale backwards and forwards in time from 1932 to 1999. My grandfather’s and father’s tales and traumas wove through the press. The ink in our veins was in fact splashed upon the front pages.
A newspaper person, a journalist, printer, typesetter, editor and even the errand boy all know one thing: Everyone sees what is on top of the fold on the front page. It is the display copy in the newspaper boxes, it is what was shouted from the corner newsboys. In my children’s generation the term translates into the readable web page upon loading. Above the fold lies the news. Everyone and no one wants to be there.
On Christmas Eve day, George’s face fell above the fold. On the front page of the local section, his story ran in all it’s glory. The word in the black and white print that made me gulp, when I thought of the service the article delineated so well below it, was “surrendered,” I only could imagine how my grandfather felt at the same word.
After having his head literally bashed in by the butt of a rifle, then carried over a ragged mountain range for eight days by natives, I imagine “surrender” was the last word George would have ever wanted attributed to him. But there it was in black and white.
This 5’6” man, my grandfather, stood the same height as both my grandmother stood and now I stand. For a man that’s not too tall at all. But he stood those five feet six inches proudly. He stood up for what he thought was right. This time he knew he had done wrong and it was time to stand up and say that too.
In my immediate family, I have tried to teach my children the value of telling the truth. Sometimes that was difficult, withholding a punishment you thought well-deserved just because the child came forward. As difficult as it was, such actions proved to teach the lesson that my grandfather already understood: No matter what, it’s always best to tell the truth.
The Tribune went on to describe how his honesty was not rewarded. He was found guilty of vehicular manslaughter and the family sued for wrongful death. The legal results of those cases have since been lost to the annals of time, but the personal result was clear: George was a broken man.
What wasn’t delineated in neat black-and-white newsprint, was the toll George’s actions and injuries were to take on generations to come. Trauma is like that. One traumatic event in a person’s life can scar generations not yet conceived in ways never imagined.
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be caused by any trauma such as first-hand abuse, sexual abuse, witnessing any type of violence, car accidents, personal injury, or seeing death firsthand, not only in war. Although PTSD is commonly associated with veterans or other combat situations, this group in reality only accounts for around 40% of all diagnosed PTSD cases. The rest are primarily victims of abuse or violent crime.
When my four-year-old father witnessed his father’s suicide, my grandfather effectively handed down the PTSD one generation. When my father acted out in his own trauma and abused myself and my brother, this non-genetic disorder of the brain was to affect yet another generation: My brother’s son passed in the same manner as his grandfather, down to the caliber of the gun.
It is not uncommon for a family to have a tendency towards PTSD. There has been recent research that indicates susceptibility to a PTSD response to trauma is possibly up to 40% genetic. In 2012 UCLA geneticists discovered two genes that appear to be linked to the development of PTSD .
As I learned about my grandfather’s service, and his life before both the accident and then his tragic death, I learned to respect the man that he was. Upon realizing that our family probably carries at least one of the genes that make us all more susceptible to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder reactions to traumatic events, I realized that we have opportunities ahead of us as a family to help future generations by becoming more informed about this disorder.