How much of myth was fact? How many of the feelings are history? After many decades, it can be a daunting task to dig and open up the stories. Since this is the story of my father in World War II, he is the center of the myth. While not seen as a “patriarch” of the family, he is the center of what I needed to dig into to find the man I never had the chance to know.
Harold Keller Lehman. He was known as “Red” to his friends, “Buddy” to his mother. Born in November 1905, he was the youngest of three children of William H. and Beula Keller Lehman. Bill and Beula grew up on neighboring homesteads in the Pine Creek Valley, north of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, along the edge of the Allegheny Plateau. Both families were of German background. Bill’s grandfather and Beula’s father were born in Germany and came to the United States as children. However, through the Lehman-Kline (Klein) family, we could trace back to pre-Revolutionary days. As best as I can discover, my brother and I were the 9th generation born in the United States. All branches I have found settled somewhere in southeastern and central Pennsylvania. Many even came from the same general area in Germany.
Bill and Beula were the fourth generation of the family in the Pine Creek Valley. Beula was one of five who lived, with one older brother, one older sister and two younger brothers. Bill was one of fifteen children, the second oldest to survive infancy. They married at the end of the 19th Century in 1899.
Beula came from a farm family; like many in his family, Bill was a railroad man, a brakeman on the New York Central. In the late 1800s the area was the logging capital of the world. By 1900 the logging boom in the area had slowed, but the railroads continued to connect the valley to the greater world. The Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads ran through the valley and the NYC had shops in Avis near where the Lehmans lived. Bill had a couple fingers on one hand shortened by getting them caught in the couplings of a freight. I never got the sense that the Lehmans were a close family, or were all that good at connecting with other sides of the family. All kinds of aunt-this or uncle-that were tossed around. By the mid-1950s their numbers were legion in the valley with more branches and leaves on the tree than I ever understood. I never met most of them. Even when they lived nearby.
The quintessential image for me is the family picture of my grandfather’s parents and siblings. At least one, my grandfather, is pasted into the picture. The story was that the whole family couldn’t stand to be around everyone at the same time. When I looked at the old family picture from the late 1890s I would chuckle at the story, the myth, of the family that couldn’t get along. It was my little family joke. Meanwhile, by the 1970s I left home and hardly looked back. Perhaps myth infuses us with direction or destiny? Perhaps we are predisposed to follow the old stories in whatever ways they may fit our lives.
True or not, though, myth is the story we tell ourselves. It is the “better story” as understood from the point of view of the wonderful novel, Life of Pi. Myth is the story that explains us- both our strengths and weaknesses. Myth gives order to the chaos of real life. It describes roots and explores meaning.
When we don’t have all the information, myth takes on more importance. Overheard data bits, oral tradition, pictures from an old scrapbook get enmeshed with what we feel about ourselves. They become as real as anything that actually happened. We can’t live well without myth. We can’t make sense of who we are without it. But at times neither can we see clearly what is right in front of us because of the fog of myth.
Harold shows up in a couple pictures I have from his high school days. In one he is a member of a record-setting undefeated football team. During his junior year the team went undefeated and set what is still a national record of averaging over 75 points per game in a season of less than 10 games. According to records every game was a shutout. In another picture he is sitting cross-legged next to a cousin in the front row of what is labeled as the “yearbook committee”, the only male in the picture, and in a third, his 1924 class picture, he sits to the left of the class banner. He appears in a couple other pictures with friends on a camping trip and another at a beach. In all pictures there is a certain self-assurance that I identify with my own memories of him. He has a slight, almost mischievous grin that I also find on pictures of his siblings- and sons.
He was apparently a good student as he went off to college- the Philadelphia School of Pharmacy and Science. His brother Carl by now was working on the railroad and his sister Ruth was becoming a teacher or whatever then led her to work for Williamsport Wire and Rope which eventually was bought by Bethlehem Steel where she and her husband moved to what would later be part of my story in Bethlehem, PA.
For Harold, a railroader’s son from the north woods heading into Philadelphia must have been a challenge; it would appear that he was able to handle it. In 1928 his senior yearbook shows a handsome, almost dapper, young man, same smile as before but now sporting the mustache that is, in my mind, almost a trademark. He never lost that mustache and every subsequent picture through his death shows it-including his military ID.
But more than the image is the description. They note two nicknames, “Shorty” and “Dutch.” He is called “short of stature but mighty in brain power.” They say that he has “enlivened many a session” with his “ready wit and can speak with authority on subjects other than Pharmacy.” He seems to have been the one to turn to when the “boys want to take in a show” as this is one of “the first things he looks into.” They refer to an easy ability around the labs but also note his shyness and humility around the opposite sex.
The summary ends:
He likes football, appreciates sports, shy at women, is keen on cars and knows what Pharmacy is all about. He will succeed.Between his college graduation in 1928 and the beginning of this story, Harold returned to his home became a local businessman and lived what may have been the life of a carefree bachelor. He lived with his parents in the house where he had spent much of his youth. It would be his sister’s house, and my home, when I graduated from college forty years later.
The myth here adds bits of data that give a slight shadow to the image. I remember one incident after his death when I was talking with one of his high school classmates who started laughing about how Red was somewhat of a “hellion.” Dad’s friend, realizing that he was talking to a high school student smiled and said something to the effect of “but you don’t really need to know any of that.”
World War II began in Europe on September 1, 1939.
Harold was two months shy of his 34th birthday.