Thinking about my cross-country trek in 2000, I remembered, aside from gas station and convenience store parking lots in Philadelphia, Americans are generally a friendly lot.
This man wasn’t going to let me down.
He wiped his sweaty brow and threw his hand in the direction of aroad that lead up a winding hill lane.
“They live up there,” he told me, with a completely flat affect.
“Ah, I see,” I told him. I wasn’t ready to let this opportunity to talk to a local slip away.
“I probably shouldn’t assume they are engaging in commerce on a day like this,” I said, and smiled widely.
He just stood there looking at me, shifting his weight from one leg to another.
After an uncomfortable pause, I said, “Well, at any rate, I was wondering if you know anything about a graveyard being located on this road? You see, my name is Ed Hertzog. I believe my great-great-grandfather may have owned a lot of land around here a good ways back.”
Briefly imagining myself smoking a pipe, while wearing an ascot and a Phillies hat, and speaking with a mid-Lantic accent, I continued.
“I’ve been doing some family tree research and from what I’ve read, there might be a graveyard along this road. Do you know anything about it?”
Off in the distance another gunshot went pop-pop-pop.
“They. Uh. It was a drainage thing. I think.”
He just sort of seized up.
“There was a water flow problem. They bulldozed it. Its a drainage ditch now.”
Even the dead were gone.
“Ah, that’s too bad. Well, I thought it would be a stretch that it would still be …”
He interrupted me and said in an awkward fashion, “in Lincoln.”
It sounded like there was going to be a comma spoken after those two words. But he just stopped. “In Lincoln” was evidently some statement of fact, not a lead-up to anything.
Fine, I bargained with myself, there’s no graveyard with the origional Swiss’ graves. But he’s got something to say about a town I never heard of, which I assumed was in the area. I can work with this, I thought. In Linconln.
More gunfire from an unknown source and direction echoed throughout the valley. Pop-pop-pop. I couldn’t decide if I wanted my wife to assist me on this or not. She didn’t generally enjoy the site of a firearm. Indiscriminate discharges of large caliber ammunition nearby couldn’t be of much help right now, I reasoned.
I seized on the thread, rapidly, before my wife tweaked, looked for an angle, and I asked, “In Lincoln there are Hertzogs that you know?”
There are about 3,500 Hertzogs in the world from Cocalico Township, PA, to Philadelphia, to South Africa, to France, to Germany, to Switzerland and Austria, to Sweden, to Texas, Ohio, and California, and a handful of other locations. About 2,750 of them live within a two hours drive of where I was standing. Just because he knew a Hertzog in Lincoln, it didn’t necessarly anything, but I was willing to listen and experience the local color. And hoping for just about anything.
While he was taking a breath and psyching himself up for the next syllable, I started to manufacture an elaborate set of possible stories this guy was going to tell me: His grandpappy was a business partner with a Hertzog. The captain of his football team in high school was a Hertzog. The guy that owned a nearby gas station was a Hertzog. He remembered a story from an old-timer about a Hertzog family that farmed along this road. There was a heroic Hertzog during WWII. On and on. About a dozen possible scenarios played out. There were combinations of stories he was trying to remember, or maybe relationships he once had. He was so evasive and slow to speak, I thought for sure there must be something pretty profound coming.
He just sort of a looked to the side, quickly, indicating either peparation to lie, or an attempt to access a memory. I couldn’t remember what the article said. I was ready for anything.
I could hear the car door slam and my wife’s footsteps from behind. Thank god. Someone with some social skills to the rescuce.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” I could hear her saying and could, yes, hear her smile.
I was speaking slowly, and loudly, and had a large camera around my neck. I figured that gave me a free pass if I did something completely out of place. I was iterating through a list of possible faux pas I may have committed. I hadn’t imposed upon a religious practice; I hadn’t used any possibly politically incorrect terms; I didn’t take anyone’s photo; I made it pretty clear I wasn’t looking to hussle him for money, and at worst, I was looking for eggs. I grew up with a knowledge of Blue Laws — they were phased out in my very early youth in Philadelphia. I really didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. It was Easter Sunday, and he was weeding a garden on the side of the road. And that was good enough reason for me to talk to him.
He asked, “Are you local?”
“No, we’re from Philadelphia.”
Jeezus, what’s the difference, I thought. Was what he was about to tell me require that I need to find a hotel somewhere?
He still had this blank face and then my stomach turned. I thought, wow, just because we find out someone in our family was popular in high school, we all want to take credit for it and think its for the best reasons. That was it. My approach to this was all wrong. My name was Hertzog; I told him why I was there; and he lived on Hertzog Valley Road. It was all too much for him. He had a story to tell. Once he heard that Hertzog name, obviously something painful welled within him. His ex-wife, who disappeared with his kids, leaving nothing but aÂ damn note 15 years ago, never to be seen again — she was a long lost cousin of mine. Maybe. Or his grandpappy lost a bundle of dough to a Hertzog that was a swindler and a cheat. Or some notorious scoundrel in the country shared my name and blood. Yes, that was it. He had something horrible to tell me.
“Go up that road, up to the light. There’s a convenience store. I. Uh.”
“There’s a Turkey Hill”.
Yes. Finally. Awkward pauses and misunderstood facial expressions, followed by self-doubt, all gave way to the realization that this trip out here wasn’t for nothing. It was destiny. I was going to go beyond what information was on the genealogy web site. I was doing real research. Here it was. A guy that had a story to tell, something no computer could ever produce for me. It was someting real and tangible and true about my blood.
“Yes!” I exclaimed. “Go on!” I commanded. The annunciation of my words and my eagerness echoed the pop-pop-pop.
My wife was here for this as well, her feet silent at my side. She would share this with me. Here I was, a fellow who has seen several relatives pass of late after long illnesses, and a fellow hoping soon for new entries in the family tree, whether the branch be nearby or not. I was a fellow thinking about the past and the future. I arrogantly thought this land would be bare and meaningless, that I’d find nothing, except for just one more Sunday car ride with my camera and my wife. But here it was. A man that shared the earth with soil that was once of my blood. He had a story for me. This journey of self-discovery would either find some new doorway or some new wall. Whatever the case, nothing would ever be the same with regards to how I formed my identity or imagined my place in the universe. This was it.
“When you get there…”
Yes, turn there and find a church? The location of a different graveyard? The original Hertzog farmstead? What?! What is so important about the Turkey Hill?
His mouth opened and I readied for whatever wonders, or humiliations, or speculation, or reasons for laughter that would come as a consequence of the motion, position, and stress upon his tongue and lips and the pitch of his voice. Tell me what I can’t learn from a web site, or my father’s faded memories, or records from the county. Tell me something real and true and now.
“Uh,” he was holding something back. It was a laugh, a tear, some horror.
Yes, say it! Say it! My heart stopped.
The two hour drive was going to be worth it.
He drew in a breath, looked me straight in the eye for the first time in this conversation, and spoke with complete confidence.
“You can buy eggs there for 99 cents.”