NEW YORK (Aug. 7)
The Evans family went to the Olympics this year to celebrate a family tradition.
My grandfather, Isaac Evans of Lithuania and later, Fayetteville, N.C., decided in the middle of the Great Depression that it was the “American thing to do” to go to the Olympics.
For a Jewish immigrant in the struggling South, without money or a previous encounter with the strange world of the American West, this was a crazy idea. But he got his 16-year-old son (my uncle) to share the driving all the way to California.
My father, his oldest son, was newly married with an infant son (my brother) so he could not go and was somewhat heartbroken.
Isaac came up with a daring scheme to finance the trip. They filled the back seat of the Model-T with razor blades and feenamint (a natural laxative) and traded them for gasoline and food as they naively chugged their way across the continent.
“The restaurants and the gas stations were glad to get it,” recalled my 80- year-old uncle, Monroe Evans, who still lives in Fayetteville.
“We’d convince them to put it right up in the window of the gas station, or beside the cash register in the restaurant and people would buy them up like hotcakes while we were standing there. It was a little unnerving as we drove and the gas gauge read empty. I had to learn salesmanship on that trip and self confidence, too, but people sensed we were honest and maybe even saw the humor in it.”
This was no smooth interstate highway trip to the West Coast. “The roads were narrow and bumpy and dirt in places, and we rattled all the way across America, trading our razor blades and laxatives at every stop,” my uncle said.
The experience was the great adventure of my grandfather’s life and he loved to recount it, relishing the sheer bravado of it, fondly recalling during a family meal a funny story or an impressive site he saw. It rivaled his tales of coming to America in 1880 from Eastern Europe and his early days peddling with a pack on his back.
I’m sure he told these stories, even into the 1960s when he died, as a morality tale or a dreamscape, to encourage his grandchildren to follow their stars.
My father always longed to make an Olympics trip, so in 1976, my brother Bob and I called him up and took him to Montreal. It was a great 10 days of male bonding, all of us together living the Olympic dream he had always yearned for.
When Atlanta came along, Bob and I decided to relive the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and close the circle with Isaac’s great grandchildren.
Together with my 11-year-old son, Joshua, who is named after my father, and Bob’s two sons — Jason of Atlanta, 29, and Jeffrey of Los Angeles, 27, and a daughter, Juliana of Washington, D.C., 25 — none of whom Isaac ever knew, we continued the family tradition he began.
It is mind-boggling to recall that Isaac was born in 1877 in a small Lithuanian shtetl 12 years after Lincoln’s death and by the time he was my son’s age, was a year from coming to America alone on a boat. By the time he was the age of my niece, the first modern Olympiad had taken place and at the age of the older boys, he was living in the administration of Theodore Roosevelt.
He grew to maturity before radio, cars, telephones, and all the modernity of the century we now see coming to a close. It had also been a terrible century. His shtetl and all the life he knew was totally destroyed by the Nazis in World War II, and America became the poetry of his life, the Olympics his symbolic hope for a better world.
Our children joined us to pay tribute to their great- grandfather’s memory and to the role of the Olympics in the legend of our family. And we tried to recapture together the thrill of this former Jewish peddler sitting in an Olympic stadium.
Both of his sons learned from the saga of his life that anything was possible. Years later, they were both elected and served as mayors of their hometowns: Mayor E.J. “Mutt” Evans of Durham, N.C. from 1951 to 1963 — who, incidentally, set the half mile record for the Southern conference in 1928 at the University of North Carolina, inspired, he once told me, by Harold Abrahams, the English Olympic runner portrayed in “Chariots of Fire” — and Mayor Monroe Evans of Fayetteville, N.C., from 1965 to 1969 — Jewish mayors of southern towns.
Isaac would never believe what happened to us our first night in Atlanta. We were walking by a noisy restaurant where the entire Lithuanian basketball team was signing basketballs and T-shirts. The T-shirts were tie-dyed in yellow and green, designed in 1992 by the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead band to help finance the team’s trip to the Olympics.
“This is bashert (destined),” I thought, as my son proudly explained to an astonished player that “my great-grandfather was from Lithuania.”
So now my son and I wave American flags while sporting colorful T-shirts with a large “LITHUANIA” across our chests and on the back, a new world map with the logo “live free or die.”
“Only in America,” as my grandfather used to say.
Eli Evans is the author of “The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner.”