From what I’ve heard, my grandfather, Vernon Black, didn’t get much from his biological father—not even his surname. Vernon’s mother, Catalina Edel, divorced Vernon’s biological father, Zyonia Ray Shearer, when Vernon was only 5½ years old “on the ground of gross neglect of duty.” On several occasions, my grandfather even denied that Ray Shearer (the name his father went by) was his father. In his later years, my grandfather was somewhat more forthcoming about his biological father, but it was clear that Vernon held onto a lot of resentment for Ray.
I’ve never seen a picture of my great-grandfather Ray Shearer, nor do I know of any items that once belonged to Ray. What little I know of Ray I learned from my grandfather’s sister, Anelia (short for her given name of Anna Cornelia) Shearer. She was just a little over a year old when Ray left the family, but she kept his last name and kept his memory alive.
I’ve been going through a stack of papers and letters from my grandfather’s teenage years, and I found one envelope that was particularly worn out and discolored (as compared to the relatively clean envelopes that contained letters from Vernon’s friends and girlfriends). When I removed the letter contained in the worn envelope, I was surprised to see that it was a letter from Ray to Vernon, dated July 2, 1932, when Vernon was 15½ years old.
The envelope is tinted red from prolonged rubbing against something reddish, and the paper is quite worn and split along its folded edges. While the top and right edges of the envelope are torn completely open (and the bottom is nearly completely torn open as well), it appears to have been opened originally by tearing off a portion of the right edge of the envelope.
The return address is “The Morland Garage, Morland, Kansas.”
The paler portions of the envelope represent areas where the loose top flap of the envelope had folded back on itself at some point during storage.
Dear Vernon ÷
I got your letter a Few day back.
Was supprised to gat it so soon. What are you doing nowe days?
I have been busy the last 3 or 4 weeks Should of writen you sooner. dont stop to get and answer just drop me a line when you can. You said you wanted and motorcycle they arent eny good they just reck your nervs. I Have owned lots of them. I am building you a car.
I have got the motor all together nowe. it will take me a month or six weeks yet. You know I have got to take care of my other work. how is your mother and Black gatin along nowe days? do you suppose you will gat to come up and go to School this winter? We have got a Fine High School here. You just Forget about that old motorcycle that to cheep to be eny good.
be a good Boy and drop me a line I will come down Some day befor long answer Soon-
You Father Ray Shearer
It’s simultaneously touching and sad.
I applied some modest image enhancements to bring out the pencil writing on the envelope, and found that the letter wasn’t addressed to Vernon. Instead, it was addressed to Chester Burgess:
The postmark, while difficult to discern, seems to be dated June 11—odd, given that the letter itself is dated July 2, 1932. Did Ray or the postmaster make a mistake, or were there multiple letters from Ray to Vernon, and this letter ended up in the envelope from an earlier letter? Hopefully I’ll find those other letters, if they exist, as I continue to go through Vernon’s letters.
On the left-hand side of the envelope, written vertically, is another note: “Hxxx by Chet”. I think it reads “Hand by Chet”, possibly indicating that Chet was supposed to hand-deliver this to Vernon after receiving it in the mail.
I’ve found three potential Chester Burgesses in the Lebanon area in the early 1930s:
- Chester E. H. Burgess (born 1911, so age 21 in 1932), living in Smith Center, KS
- Chester Burgess (born 1917, so age 15 in 1932), living in Lebanon, KS
- Chester V Burgess (born 1879, so age 63 in 1932), had moved from Smith Center to Stuttgart, Phillips County, KS.
Chester #2 seems the most likely, as he was living in Lebanon City proper, and he was the same age as Vernon. In fact, I’ve just found one of Vernon’s high school graduation announcements, and there is a Chester D. Burgess listed as one of his classmates.
My guess is that Vernon’s mother, Catalina, wanted to keep Ray away from the children he chose to leave a decade earlier. In response, Vernon wrote to Ray and told him to respond to Chester so that Catalina wouldn’t find out about the correspondence. Vernon seems to be trying to get Ray to help him get a motorcycle (or perhaps give him a motorcycle). Ray tries to atone for his past and current shortcomings by offering Vernon a car (which I’m guessing Vernon never did get).
Ray was not the father that Vernon wanted or needed, and it’s easy to fault Ray for making the conscious decision to leave his wife and three young children (that story will be in a future post). But as I will discuss in another post, Ray also had no idea what it was like to have a father; Ray’s own father died in tragic circumstances when Ray was 2½ years old.