Judge and Jury

“You’re about as easy as a nuclear war.”

           -- Duran Duran, 1981

He wandered around the planet for 75 years. He had at least three wives, one of them my grandmother. He fathered at least four children, one of them, my father. 

Jesse Ellsworth Matson II died alone of cancer on December 8, 1981 at Valley Medical Center in Fresno, California.

With the assistance of a friend practiced in the fine art of online genealogical sleuthing, I have been able to fill in many blanks in my grandparents’ timelines as I research and write a book illustrating the effects of an alcoholism gene that wreaked havoc through generations of our family.

I’m turning up more and more actual, real truth. This is important, since alcoholics tend to be really good at avoiding it.

Within days of this photograph, the family was no more.

This photo was taken in Anchorage, weeks or even days before my grandmother packed up my 9-year old father and boarded a transport ship bound for Seattle, just a couple months after Pearl Harbor. It was to be the last time my father saw his father.

Do the math. Jesse Ellsworth Matson II lives another 40 years. Zero contact with his son.

Does he compartmentalize his life? Wall off his emotions? Does he even feel?

From 1931 to 1956, he gets around. He voyages down the Mississippi River from St. Paul to New Orleans in a houseboat with his first bride, my grandmother (my father is conceived en route). New Orleans to Washington state on a motorcycle with a sidecar for his increasingly preggers wife.

During the Great Depression, he’s a surveyor with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers (Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, Shasta Dam in northern California, airfields near Anchorage).

He lived also in Spokane, Minneapolis, back to the Gulf Coast at Galveston, Bemidji, Minnesota, overseas working for Bechtel International Corporation in colonial British East Africa (today’s Yemen), back to the Texas Gulf Coast yet again, uranium prospecting on the Colorado Plateau near Moab, Utah.

As of right now, I have a big hole in his life from 1956 Uranium Miner in Moab to 1981 Stiff On a Gurney in Fresno (my caps – chapter titles, maybe?)

In writing this book, I can’t help but go back to what I deem as essential, baseline stuff. The injustice of child abandonment; what I hope is my own personal righteousness – especially as it relates to my grandparents.

Reviewing the treasure trove of material gleaned from the online sleuthing, one entry hit me hard. A job reference from a former employer:

“Biggest weakness – if this is a weakness – is his impatience with other men in his organization who do not move as fast as he does.”

His son was the same way. And his grandson. I was fortunate to recognize this defect of character and take conscious steps away from it.

My sense is Jesse Ellsworth Matson II did not. My sense is he was not given to introspection. He doesn’t strike me as the type of person you’d want to do nice things for.

These new-found stacks of truth are also expanding the universe in terms of the breadth of the book. The more facts I learn, the more the behavior becomes plausible. Check out this letter.

Walked away from a steady gig with the Army Corps of Engineers to get rich quick, searching for uranium at the dawn of the Atomic Age in the heart of a Cold War? There’s a chapter. At least.

Alcoholic self-obsession tends to color everything. Since I never knew him, I base my assumptions and conclusions on the evidence and then apply my own knowledge (read: experience, strength and hope.)

Judge and jury of a man’s life.

I hope and pray that I am worthy.