My dad, George was a singular person. I don’t mean his personality, his intelligence or his heart, though he had all of those. No, I mean his name.
His full Name was George Gray Shannon. The Gray, I think a wonderful and singular name was his mothers maiden name. She was Annie Gray, no middle name or NMN as they say in the Navy.
She came from a long line of Irish as did my grandfather Jack. His name was John William Shannon and they called him Jack or Big Jack since my uncle, John Patrick was little Jack or Jackie. I’m John Michael and my eldest is John William, Will. You have to go to the backup names when there are too many Johns alive at the same time. The curiosity is, where did the George come from? Now we had some Georges around Arroyo Grande, George Kitchel, George Oliver, George Arita and George Carnes the barber, but they were all younger than my dad so it wasn’t any of them. My grandmothers brtothers, John, Thomas, Robert and David didn’t fit the bill either. On my dad’s side, beside his father and brother their was a Lester, a Bill and Tom; no Georges.
George is not a popular name in Ireland. They had some Kings named George, pretty famous if you’re from great Britian but not guys that are revered in Irish history. Matter of fact, they are seriously hated. The first one, actually named George the first if you can believe that, remained unpopular in England all of his life, partly because he couldn’t be bothered to learn or speak English. He was really a German, sort of a fill in King because no one in Britain wanted the job except a Scot. That guy was a Catholic and therefore was basically persona non grata, You know, two hundred years of war between Catholics and Protestants. It was so wild, a couple of Kings lost their heads over it, not to mention the scrumptious Anne Boleyn whose “little” neck was separated from her head by a French axeman. Anyways, the Brits thought George was greedy and so were his mistresses. He also showed his wife some “Rude” treatment, meaning he knocked her around a bit. My grandparents wouldn’t have liked that sort of thing so it couldn’t have been him. That English George died on 11 June 1727.
Ones kid, George II (1683-1760) was king of Great Britain and Ireland and elector of Hanover from 1727 to 1760. During his long reign the system of governing Britain through an oligarchy of powerful political parlamentarians took the reins and marginalized the king. No more power for him. Again the George just couldn’t do the job. He also had mistress trouble, the wife didn’t like them at all. The thing with a mistsress is that they are way expensive politically and financially even for Kings.
So Two kicked the bucket in 1760 and his kid, number Three, who was pretty smart in the beginning, he actually did some pretty spectacular math concerning the movement of the planets but he ruined it all by doing two other things. He tried to put down a rebellion in America on land he thought was his; he was wrong of course. Two generations of Shannons, who lived in western Pennsylvania at the time, took their Kentucky rifles and joined up with General Washington and then proceeded to pot a few Lobster-backs for which their country paid them a pension and they got a nice handshake from General Lafayette.
The second thing about Three was that he went crazy and had to be put out to pasture in 1811. His son George four was next but he didn’t like the job too much either and made the mistake of marrying a Catholic girl, Mrs Fitzheber which irritated his people no end. He tried to make up for it by taking a protestant mistress or two, kind of balance things out so to speak but he basically failed at his job and the British decided they’d had enough Georges for the time being and traded them in for Alexandrina Victoria, who took over and ruled for 63 years.
These guys were certainly not candidates for my dads naming. I though maybe Georges Suerat the painter or George F Handel the composer or even Lord George Byron of poetic fame or finally as a last resort George Eliot, who was really a women. I guess that would be a little too kinky for parents raised in the Victorian era though.
So dad was the only George, which is something. From 1735 onward the most common given name in my family has been John with quite a few Williams thrown in, a couple Davids and at least one Edward I’m the only Michael. Two Patricks, three Leachlainn’s (Lock-len) which is an ancient Irish name meaning “devotee of Saint Seachnall.” Seachnall is believed to have been a nephew of St. Patrick, arriving in Ireland from France in the fifth century. I can’t imagine my father being given that one.
It all seemed a dead end until one of my brothers said that dad told him that the name came from someone whom my grandfather worked with when they lived in Berkeley in the early 1900’s. He didn’t know anything other than that.
Curiosity will linger though and years after my father and uncles deaths while going through a box of old, old photographs I came upon one in which my young grandfather was posed before a storefront. The photo was printed as a postcard which was not an uncommon thing a century ago. The cards were handed to customers and friends as a form of advertising. We have a small collection sent to the old dairy my grandparents owned, some from salesmen hoping to sell things like Fly Bane or feed supplements or even just chicken feed. They always feature a photo on one side. This one features four men and a boy in a casual pose outside a storefront with the word Exchanges in large letters above a retracted street awning with a display window and doorway below. Jack is 28 and a real estate salesman. He’s even listed in the Alameda county directory as Shannon John W, real est, r 1927 Dwight Way, Berkeley. That happens to be the house my father was born in and I do mean in. My grandmother was attended by a doctor but my father was delivered in the family bed just like most people in 1912.
The two standing side by side are Jack Shannon and George John Lawson, owner of the business. They are the same age, 28, though you might not guess it. In the way of the early twentieth century they are already a little paunchy and dressed in three piece suits, button shoes with knobby toe caps and small heels, all shined to a mirror finish. They have all the appearance of successful business men which is what they need you to think. It’s the real estate business after all and looking successful is as important as always. The other two look like the kind of men who give real estate a bad name or they might be building contractors which is kind of the same thing.
My grandparents weren’t too flush, the house they lived in was rented as you can tell by the R in his directory listing. My grandmother received a small income from her fathers oil company stocks which helped but eventually, just a few years after this they packed up the family goods and motored back to Arroyo Grande where they lived for the rest of their lives.
As the story goes, George Lawson offered my grandfather fifty dollars if he would name his son George after him. Try to imagine the conversation they might have had around the kitchen table at the Dwight Way house. My grandmother listening to her salesman husband of three years explain why he thought George would be a good name for the little boy who would come in February 1912. Why they thought it would be a boy nobody knows. All the old “saws” about a woman carrying high or low or having, or not a protruding belly buttons were likely bandied about but, of course they couldn’t have really known. Just the same, she agreed.
The fifty dollars would have amounted to a months pay for Jack and surely the money was needed. So on February 1st 1912 my father came into this world and was dually christened George Gray Shannon and quickly baptized as such. In 1912 the “Infant Mortality Rate” for Oakland hovered around 18% so for devout mothers like my grandmother insuring the survival of the soul was as important as the child’s welfare. Pneumonia and influenza, tuberculosis, and enteritis with diarrhea were the four leading causes of death in the United States, and children under five accounted for 40 percent of all deaths. Scarlet fever, measles, diphtheria, mumps, and childhood diseases now practically unknown caused mothers and fathers to fear for their children. Dad was lucky. He was born at a time when a wide range of improvements begin the drive the infant mortality rate down. Central heating meant that infants were no longer exposed to icy drafts for hours. Clean drinking water eliminated a common path of infection. More food meant healthier infants and mothers. Better hygiene eliminated another path of infection. Cheaper clothing meant better clothing on infants. More babies were born in hospitals, which were suddenly being cleaned up as the infectious nature of dirt became clear.
When my dad was six years old Jack and Annie decided to chuck the up and down life of a salesman and moved back to their hometown Arroyo Grande. She owned a Ranch given to her by her Uncle Pat and they determined to try their hand at farming. Thats where my uncle Jack and my father really grew up. Starting as little boys and growing to men, they both took up the land, my uncle Jackie became a cattleman and my father a vegetable farmer. They both stuck with it to the end of their lives.
We all think we know much about life and its ups and downs, the reasons behind things, but there are always little surprises just around the bend. For after all, everyones life seems to follow a curve and around that bend you cannot see.
So it was in 1912. George is a boys name which comes from the ancient Greek name Georgos or Georgios. The name roughly translates as farmer. “Ge” for “earth” and “Ergon” meaning work.
My dad was all of that. He always wanted to farm. He always took pride in his work and a farmer he was.
Oh, and the fifty dollars, George John Lawson never paid up. He welched on the deal.