Once, in Senegal

Once, in Senegal

This is a true story. An anecdote, really. A dot that can perhaps be connected to other dots to make something more impressive, but right now is just a dot.

My first long trip without my family was a research trip my university organized to Senegal. I was barely eighteen years old. Ostensibly I went to research the roots of American music in West Africa, but I had absolutely zero experience as a musicologist and no idea how to go about doing research or any scholarly work of any kind. The ‘unknown unknowns’ involved in the enterprise far outweighed the other categories of knowns and unknowns by a ratio of maybe thirty-to-one. So as a scholarly endeavor, my trip was a complete waste of money and jet fuel.

For the vague purpose of personal growth and spiritual/intellectual development, though, it was a total win, and the stories of my week-and-a-half have provided fodder for many a drunken conversation in the years since.

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The Bet

The Bet

This visitor, at least, looked normal, and wore with loose comfort a good education and reasonable affluence.

“How might I help you, sir?” the Congressman asked.

The visitor introduced himself with a professional-quality handshake and an affable smile. “John Brunn, from Denver.” He handed over his business card. He spoke with the flat accent of the successful. If he was originally from Denver there was no way to tell. “So I’m not from your district but I hope you don’t mind my meeting you here. I’ll only take a few minutes of your time.”

He did, actually, but social grace forbade him from saying so.

“I love Colorado,” the Congressman answered. “Vacationed there a few times with the family. Please, have a seat. Are you at least Republican?”

“Independent, sir,” Mr. Brunn answered forthrightly, still smiling warmly. “Actually I’m not very political at all.”

The conversation, then, would be quick and informal. The visitor’s entire demeanor put him at ease and the Congressman relaxed into his leather chair. The visitor took the sofa. It was comfortable. The Congressman slept there sometimes.

“Thank you for agreeing to see me. I feel this a bit unfair: I know why I’m here and you definitely don’t. Let me start by saying that, for whatever it’s worth, I’m not here to give you a hard time about anything.” He laughed at this. “And if I’m keeping you from something you can say so, I won’t be offended. But,” and here he hesitated, “just hear me out. I’ll be quick.”

The Congressman was curious but not alarmed. When Mr. Brunn said he wasn’t here to give a hard time, the Congressman believed him.

Mr. Brunn opened his suitcase and pulled out a small stack of papers that he separated into two piles. He didn’t hand them over, not yet.

“We’ve never met, you and I, right?” he asked.

“Correct,” The Congressman answered.

“These are genealogical records, for both your family and mine.” He slid one stack over. “They aren’t exhaustive, but they don’t need to be. Just enough to establish bloodlines and draw connections. Again, please just hear me out. I understand that this is unusual but I’ll explain it all in a minute.”

The Congressman picked up the papers and read. It was a photocopy. The papers themselves were handwritten. He saw his own name, and his parents, his sister, and his brother, with the annotation that the brother was deceased. The family tree flowed up through his father to his grandparents, and then up through his grandmother to his great-grandparents, noting some but not all of their children. He realized it only noted those who had had children of their own. Small annotations indicated on which pages he’d find those branches of the family tree.

“A few months ago my father passed,” Mr. Brunn began, “and left me these records. These are photocopies; the originals are held in a vault that I don’t have access to, at least not easily. That’s his handwriting on this page. If you flip through you’ll see other handwriting. The records are quite extensive.”

He flipped through and read. His great-grandparents, whose names he had heard. Great-great-grandparents. He’d seen their names once on the register at Ellis Island once. Their parents. The handwriting on later pages became less modern, with swirls and hooks, like from the Constitution. Birth and death dates from the nineteenth  century. He skipped an inch worth of pages and read names from the seventeenth century, all carefully annotated as on the first page. He flipped a large section. The handwriting was very different, probably in a different language, and the dates indicated the twelfth century.

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