The photograph above, taken in Brazil in 1936, is the oldest surviving image of my mother that I possess. Mom is the blond toddler in the lower right with the suspicious look on her face. The cheery-looking gent holding her is my grandfather, the missionary Albert Lehenbauer. Pictured in back, from left to right: Uncle Siegfried, Aunt Naomi, Uncle Ronald, Aunt Flora (who four decades later would teach me how to type), and Uncle Reginald. The infant is my uncle Tommy, and the woman holding him is Grandma Helene, whose expression of dismay may stem from a premonition that she’s not quite done having kids yet—one more uncle, Winfred, would be born in Argentina in 1939.
Last week I was in Detroit, Michigan for a family reunion, and while I was there I got to raid my grandmother’s cedar chest for old treasures. This is an advertising brochure for the electric milk condenser my great-grandfather invented:
“This machine will evaporate any desired percentage of the water; so as to concentrate the milk three to one, or to any consistency that may be required… IT WILL PERFECTLY SUPERHEAT PLAIN CONDENSED MILK… Owing to the desirable temperature at which the Ruff Process condenses the milk, it adds to the digestibility and highly nourishing qualities of the product and makes it an ideal food for infants and invalids.”
Thanks to a German fan named Kolja Böther, I now have a copy of my missionary grandfather’s memoir, Roughing it for Christ in the Wilds of Brazil. It’s short—more a pamphlet than a book—but does a good job of conveying what his life in South America was like.
The “roughing it” part is no joke. Traveling between his various mission posts, Grandpa sometimes spent as much as twenty hours at a stretch in the saddle (he rode mules, the terrain having proved too rugged for horses). And his home life, when he had time to enjoy it, sounds like something you might read about in a Matt Ruff novel:
The parsonage was well meant by Synod’s representatives. A large, two-story building of sixteen rooms, intended to house two missionaries, with the greatest number of large French windows that I ever saw in a house of that size. With the exception of my study, the windows were without glass during the war, and for some time after. There were no shutters. In Brazil it rains at times. We sometimes have the feeling as if it were always raining there. And with every rain the water would pour down through the ceiling on the windward side of the house. In some rains all four sides seemed windward, as the storm drove the sheets of rain through from end to end. But we were trained, like a ship’s crew, to stow all movable goods away on the driest side of the house. And when the wind changed, we would re-stow them on the other side. And sometimes we would be sitting on the leeward side and wouldn’t notice the rain coming in the windward, and would then find some books ruined or a bed wet through and through, or even covered with a layer of clay mortar from the unfinished wall. That, too, was hard on the nerves. But I can say that I always tried to find a funny side. One of the funny sides was this, that the floor was absolutely waterproof. We had to bore holes through it to get the water out. But after I had a wife, and before I got the idea of the holes in the floor, and whenever we would have stowed the goods away on a dry side, before the wind would have a chance to turn, we would join hands and dance around barefoot in the sea on the floors of study and dining room…
About the wife: in the stories my mother used to tell me, Grandpa and Grandma’s marriage was far from idyllic. Among other issues, Grandma eventually converted to Mormonism, which I imagine made for interesting dinner conversation. But at time Grandpa wrote Roughing it, the big theological debates were still in the future, and his description of her and their relationship is actually quite touching:
[S]he is a German Russian by birth, a Brazilian by adoption since her eleventh year, an American by sympathies and by marriage. Having had no school, she is a wonderful reader. In her confirmation days and after she memorized all of the synodical catechism, including most of Luther’s introduction. In her girlhood days, she made 14 miles afoot and back on the same day, in the rain and barefoot, of course, to hear one of our chorus concerts… We have been asked other questions, one or two of which I shall answer here. “Don’t you wear wedding rings in Brazil?” Yes, we do. At least those people do that have the money. We didn’t have it at the time. Later on we made up our minds that we would have a sweet revenge for this condition of affairs, by buying our rings at no other place than Tiffany’s in New York. Which we did. They are the usual gold bands, and contain the legend: “Urwahnfried — 1918.” Nothing else, but that is a volume. Urwahnfried is a word composed of old German word roots, and means in modern English, “Fulfillment.” Or, more explicitly: “The Place where my Fight for the Highest and Broadest Ideals of Life Came to an End in the Peace of Victory.”
Since blogging about my cousin Ernest, I’ve been on a family history jag. I’m not sure how interesting any of this is to non-relatives, but with Bad Monkeys‘ pub. date just four months away, I’m starting to get requests from publicists for biographical tidbits to feed to reviewers and interviewers, so maybe there’s something here that’ll qualify as “local color.” And, hey, I think it’s cool.
First, a couple corrections: in my previous post, I had originally written that both the Ruffs and the Lehenbauers came from Bavaria. Actually, the Ruffs were Prussian; my great-great-grandfather Johann Frederick Ruff was born in 1830 in the village of Badeleben, near Magdeburg. I think the reason for my confusion on this point is that my German publisher is located in Munich, so I regard Bavaria as my home base when I’m over there. But if there’s a Bad Monkeys book tour, I’ll have to see if I can arrange a stop in Badeleben, and maybe at the University of Berlin to look for J.F.’s old school records.
As for Mom’s side of the family, I wrote that the Lehenbauers worked as linen weavers in the town of Oettingen “during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.” Those dates come from The Family Lehenbauer, a privately published genealogy. What I’d forgotten until I started digging into my files is that I also have a set of addenda to the genealogy that pushes the timeline back even further. Turns out the Lehenbauers were in Oettingen from at least the 17th century. The ur-ancestor is a man named Johann Caspar Leonhard Lehenbauer, born in 1674.
Geez, 1674. I’m simultaneously awestruck and amused. I mean, the guy is my great-great-great-great-grandfather (one of them—I’ve got, what, 31 others?). At a remove of six generations, the genetic link must be getting pretty weak, and culturally we’d be aliens to each other. So to feel a special connection to him is, on one level, absurd. And yet…
Closer to home (temporally speaking), I also did some checking on my grandfather, the Lutheran missionary who went to South America. It seems he wrote a short memoir, Roughing it for Christ in the wilds of Brazil, that is listed on Amazon.com, though of course it’s long out of print. My wife Lisa is going to use her rare-book skills to try and locate a copy, but this is the sort of ephemera that is notoriously difficult to track down.
One thing I did find, though, is a street in Santa Rosa, Brazil that’s named after Grandpa—the Rua Pastor Albert Lehenbauer (Google Maps has the last name misspelled as “Lemenbawer”, but it’s definitely him). While I’m not sure how he came to rate a street sign, it’s probably got something to do with his role in Brazilian agricultural history. Grandpa was the guy who first brought soybeans into the country and convinced the local gauchos to start growing them; today, soy is Brazil’s second-biggest legal export crop.
And one more neat little discovery: if you fire up Google Earth and look at Santa Rosa from orbit, the town is disappointingly blurry. But if you track south-southwest, the satellite resolution suddenly gets a whole lot sharper (CIA must have had biz in the neighborhood), and if you look closely, about fifteen miles out you’ll find a dot marked Ipiranga next to a spot where two dirt roads meet at right angles. I believe this is Ypiranga Crossroads, where my grandfather and grandmother were married and where my mother spent her early childhood. The level of detail is high enough that I could easily pick out the house, if I knew what it looked like.
So again, a mixture of awe and amusement. Hi, Grandpa. Hi, Mom. Greetings from the future.
My family doesn’t have a strong military tradition. Although a number of the men, particularly in my father’s generation, have worn uniforms, there aren’t any career soldiers, and reference to “the service” has always meant religious service.
The Ruffs are typically pastors; the Lehenbauers, my mother’s people, incline more to missionary work. If you sense a fundamental difference in temperament here, you’re right. Lehenbauers tend to have—how shall I put this?—a healthy love of debate, and they are also more prone to wanderlust. Both sides of the family immigrated from Germany to the American Midwest in the 19th century, but while the Ruffs stayed put once they got here, Grandpa Lehenbauer got restless and decided to continue on to South America—first Brazil, then Argentina. Then in the 1950s my mother backtracked to the U.S., drawn in part, one suspects, by the nomadic promise of the new Interstate Highway System.
The reason I mention all this: as I say, we’re not a military family, so until recently I assumed that none of my relatives were over in Iraq. But if you’d told me that one of my kin had been spotted across the street from Abu Ghraib prison, or goofing around in the throne room of one of Saddam’s palaces, and asked me to guess whether it was a Ruff or a Lehenbauer… well, it’s not even a question, really.
A few months ago I was doing research on the town of Oettingen, where earlier, less itinerant generations of Lehenbauers worked as linen weavers. A Google search turned up the following photo:
This was the home of my great-great-grandfather, Johann Matthias Lehenbauer (the siding is a more recent addition, and of course in the 1700s only the wealthiest Germans could afford electricity).
The photo was posted in the blog of one Ernest Lehenbauer, a civilian engineer under contract to the Department of Defense to help bolt supplemental armor onto Humvees. He’d visited Oettingen while on leave from “Camp Warrior” in Kirkuk.
“Well that’s interesting,” I thought. “I have a long-lost cousin named Ernest, whose dad was an engineer for Ford, and not only is he a Lehenbauer, he’s one of the Mormon Lehenbauers, which means he’s way crazy enough to volunteer for work in a combat zone…” Sure enough, this was indeed my cousin Ernie, whom I last saw back when we were teenagers (as I recall, we spent much of the visit trying to convince Ernie’s younger brother Eric that the house was being buzzed by UFOs).
Ernie’s trip to Oettingen took place in 2005, and by the time I stumbled across his blog, his tour in Iraq was already over—he’d finished up his contract and headed home in March of 2006. His final blog entry was entitled “Moving on, I guess,” which I understood to be Lehenbauer code for “I’ll stay Stateside just long enough for my mother’s blood pressure to return to normal, then see if anyone in Afghanistan needs a mechanic.”
Big surprise, a couple days ago I discovered a new Ernest Lehenbauer blog called “Back to Iraq.” Seems that he reupped to help out with the surge, and now they’ve got him unclogging the Internet tubes at one of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad palaces. (Though it’s been many years since our UFO-spotting days, looks like Ernie and I still have the same sense of humor. I would totally do the “Saddam’s throne photo op with bad pun” thing, if you could get me within a thousand miles of the place. But I’m only half Lehenbauer, and somebody needs to stay here on the West Coast and watch for North Korean submarines.)
I’ve added Ernie’s blog to my journal links so I can keep track of his doings, and because, in case it’s not obvious, I’m proud of him. I’m worried for him, too, but another factoid about Lehenbauers is that they’re historically quite difficult to kill. Grandma Helena, for example—the original Mormon Lehenbauer—was hit by a truck at age 77 and survived to argue theology for another nine years. I’m optimistic that the same mojo will work against exploding trucks… and hopeful that this theory will not be put to the test.