Father burst upon this planet by way of Aberystwyth, Wales, in the bedroom of his father’s country home. Then five winters packed their soft snow in the forks of the apple trees, and five springs created gay green dresses for the boughs, and when fate grabbed hold of his coat-tails things began to happen.
It may have been the flight of birds or wild geese calling, that stirred unrest in his father’s breast, or perhaps the lure of blackened boats with their endless ropes and masts colored the dreams of Griffith Howels. Aberystwyth his home town lay within driving distance of the great port of Liverpool where at the docks, cargoes for ‘India’s coral strand’, for Hong Kong, and the new world were constantly being unloaded. What then could be more thrilling to a young man with a growing family, a zest for excitement, and a sprouting ambition than to board one of these ocean wanderers and set sail for fresh horizons? Once he had broken bread with the idea, it refused to let him alone. It gave a sparkle to his thoughts and his imagination took flights hitherto undreamed.
His plans were fairly organized before he shared them. Then one night as he and his wife were preparing for bed, without preamble he broke the news. “Mother, we are going to America.” “We? Who do you mean Griffith?” she asked, a hairbrush poised in mid-air. “You and I, Frances and Humphrey.” He said simply. “Have you forgotten?” she asked and then paused abashed at her own hardihood. “Have I forgotten what?” Grandfather was about to teasingly inquire. He thought better of it and without being asked added, “On the contrary, I have remembered. He shall be an American.”
Blessed events were seldom met with openness of speech in the eighteen hundreds, and while Grandmother no doubt secretly pleased that her husband had noticed her condition, his naked candour probably shocked her pristine modesty. As she tied the strings of her shirred taffeta night-cap under her chin, the possibility of a premature confinement aboard ship may have dangled fears above her, but if so she gave no sign. The excellencies of obstetrical experts, of baby clinics, and the virtues of didey-wash were not popularly exploited at dinner tables or in the boudoir in the early eighteen hundreds. Sex and its ramifications were left to the manouverings of the Almighty. "Trust in the Lord," and “The Lord will provide (whatever the exigencies) were blanket forms that covered all problematical questions. In case there was a slight miscarriage in execution, “It was the Lord’s will.”
Once the voyage was an open secret, Grandfather set about disposing of his house, his horses, and other chattels that must be left behind. His horses were the most difficult to relinquish. Grandfather had a passion for blooded horses and all his life his stable housed fast-stepping animals. It was imperative now that they be sold. Transportation would be steep and their sale would help to provide passage for his family. Once the farm and horses were turned over to new owners, the little family consisting of seven-year old Frances and five-year Humphrey and their parents, boarded the ship and set sail for America.
Transportation facilities in the United States were limited in 1844 and probably because it could be reached by water, Newark, Ohio became the destination of Grandfather. The route lay by way of the Atlantic ocean, down the St. Lawrence rive through the Great Lakes to Buffalo, New York. From there they were piloted to Sandusky, Ohio, then through the Ohio canals proceeded to their goal. The voyage was long and tedious but youth was equal to its demands.
Grandfather immediately purchased a farm several miles from town, and slowly but joyfully the children dug their roots deep in the soil of Ohio and became part of the homogeneity known as America. All too eagerly they repudiated the speech of their native Wales for English and very soon Aberystwith was merged in the land of memory.
The infant which had caused the fluttering in the breast of its mother arrived with proper celerity, and in conformity with past tradition was christened in ceremonial style in the Welsh church.
Jane Howels grew and throve and the escalater of time clicked by uninterruptedly. Three years later Grandfather Howels inscribed the name of Robert in the column dedicated to Births in the family Bible. That was the last inscription that his hand traced. Perhaps the pioneering had taken too great a toll. Seven years after embarking on his dreamed-of voyage, his friends laid him away in the Cymryc cemetery and a few years later his companion and mother of his four children was laid to rest beside him.
Father was only twelve when this happened, and I am sure he felt his responsibilities as the eldest son. Frances his sister was fourteen and capable but farming was a man’s job. I’ve tried many times to visualize Father as a child; but always unsuccessfully. For one reason when I knew him he seldom laughed heartily or openly. Experience had dealt severely with him and levity was not an integral part of his viewpoint.
Mothers spent more time with their children than is possible for fathers. That accounts perhaps for the fact that information on the distaff side is more easily obtainable.
“Tell us about when you were a little girl”, a child asks his mother and mothers being more gossipy and chatty than fathers, keep the ancestral tales alive, adding colorful stripe when the truth seems dull and prosaic, and filling the blanks with design in order to hold the children’s interest.
When Father took over management of the farming acres, I am sure that the corn-rows were straighter; the trees better pruned; the stock better bred; and that weeds hadn’t a chance in his garden. Father was like that. He could hardly sleep nights when the shrubs sprouted unevenly at home, or a growth of green crept in between the flagstones. He invented a tool to slice the edges of the grass; drove stakes in the ground at distant points; tied string to the posts and cut by the line. No barber did a better job of pruning and cutting than he.
His future was laid out with the same precision and attention to detail. It began with an examination of assets. The family name he thought might benefit by a few minor changes. With his parents gone when ides “cease from troubling”, there was no reason why he should not remodel it before he set out to ring it round with laurel wreaths. The process required merely the substitution of one letter for another in the surname. Then since society favored a middle initial, he presented himself with a capital ‘E’ and was happy. Before that proud moment arrived however, I am sure that Father wrote out and critically surveyed each of the twenty-seven letters in turn. Father was nothing if not critical. He determined too, that in case curiosity should prompt and inquirer to ask what his middle name might be, ‘E’ was the guardian of Edward. The re-conditioned name read:
Humphrey E. Howell.
Now that he had a fresh identity and a clean slate, he saddled his horse and galloped to Granville seven miles distant where he registered for a commercial course at Denison University, but the class was barely organized when he realized that nothing short of an eastern college could satisfy him. At that point, fate grabbed his coat-tails again and Dartmouth was the answer.
Hanover, New Hampshire was a circumspect college town when the country boy with his luggage stepped from the train that fall morning to become a four year resident. With the sole objective of acquiring an education Father decided that Dartmouth could best give him what he wanted, and serenely he inquired of the baggageman to whose custody he had entrusted his luggage, the best way to reach the campus. Father was a good walker. He wanted to familiarize himself with the town and he made a mental map as he covered the distance. He had already determined on a classical course and had a pretty clear idea as to the studies he would choose. Registration however was more beset with obstacles than he had anticipated. He had to interview several advisors and it was late afternoon before he was finally settled in a roominghouse.
The room he was shown was more expensive than he wanted. The landlady versed in the wiles of salesmanship polished her weapons and /said: “I really rented this room to another party a week ago but he hasn’t paid on it. You are in luck to get it at all.”
“And if the young man shows up, what then?” Father inquired.
“I could put another bed in and that would reduce your rent”, the obliging creature agreed.
On those conditions Father paid down his retainer and set out to collect his belongings. He had already made known his intention to work his way, and had signed up to do extra jobs about town.
Father was of medium height, rather gracefully built. His features were nicely grouped and neat looking. He was not a striking type (blue eyes and brown hair), but he gave the impression of being both good-looking and personable. His manners were probably old-fashioned for he had been taught to respect his elders. The faculty wives at once employed him and at a critical moment, the bread he had cast on the water returned well buttered.