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Uncle Anson


When I invented Anson Curtiss Tennant as my avatar in turn-of-the-century Agincourt–the naive young man infected with enthusiasm who would design its public library–I brusquely decided that he would be a “one hit wonder.” He would design an homage to Louis Sulllivan and then be safely swept from the scene by gypsies, harpies, or some natural disaster. If the solution to this design problem (which I had proposed for myself) were successful, I didn’t need the responsibility of a second act. Since the project was set in 1914-1915, young Tennant (aged twenty-five) would go in a noble way, however, as one of 1,500 souls who went down with the RMS Lusitania on the 7th of May, 1915.

You’ll be relieved to know that Dr Bob, my therapist, is O.K. with Agincourt. He sees this project as a therapeutic exercise and would only be concerned if I were to call United Van Lines and begin packing for the move. One day he asked a fruitful question; that is, after all, why he gets the big bucks. “Does Anson have to die?” he inquired. I honestly had no good reason; neither did I have an even remotely convincing bad reason for killing him off. In my mind, Anson had already set sail for Liverpool, so later that afternoon I had to contrive a rescue. The ship would sail from Pier 54 in New York harbor as it did on May 1st. And it would sink, as it did, six days later, but there would be one less casualty.

Bobbing in the North Atlantic, knocked unconscious and clinging by instinct to a hunk of jetsam, Anson would float undiscovered for several days and be saved by a Basque fishing boat. Read Mark Kurlansky’s The Basque History of the World and you’ll know from whence commeth help. The Basque people (Euskadi, in their language) are fierce seamen who have been fishing the Grand Banks and elsewhere in the North Atlantic since before there were written records. If anyone could save Anson, it would be them. Amnesiac and dehydrated, they took him home to Donostia (the port we call San Sebastian) to recouperate at a convent hospital. Suddenly Agincourt had a future. The fog had not simply cleared long enough at the outbreak of WWI to accommodate my creative ambitions and then as conveniently close in upon that world. Magically, doors had opened in both directions: Anson would require ancestors and now he could also have progeny!

Having lost his memory and all other identification (now I know why grandmother sewed those name tags in my shorts), Tennant recouperated slowly on Spain’s northern coast. His nurse would be a fourteen-year-old girl (ten years his junior) named Graxi Urrutia. My dim grasp of the Basque language had named her prophetically: “Grace, who doesn’t live here” or “Grace, the foreigner.” They would marry in five or six years and bear three children: Aitor, Alize and Mikel.

I could now look forward to a reunion. But, in the meantime, how would Anson’s family cope with what they believed to be his loss? And just as important, how could an amnesiac build a life without foundation?

Now you know why he has two death dates.

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