I wonder if any local readers remember the Cotterman family? Benton Cotterman was one of the first settlers in the Petersburg area and served as postmaster there for many years. His son Charlie married my grandmother’s aunt Etta “Zet” Morehead and together they headed west to find their fortune.
Charlie did so well in the railroad mail service that he was appointed by President McKinley as Director General of Posts in the newly-conquered Philippine Islands (which had passed into American hands as a result of the Spanish-American War). His term was to be two years, but Charlie and Zet decided to stay, maintaining a home here in Albion, though, so they could return periodically for decades to “thicken their blood.” And with them would come exotic gifts from the Orient, some of which are on display in the museum’s Van Morehead collection.
Charlie started a shoe store in Manila that grew into a department store that grew into a variety of holdings, including a mine and an acetylene company. He held the longest term as American director of the Philippine National Bank and served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in both 1924 and 1940. He was an influential voice in Philippine affairs and did his best to prevent the islands from gaining their independence
With war clouds looming, the Cottermans held a family meeting in the Fall of ’41 to decide whether to stay or to return to the United States. Uncle Charlie was convinced the Japanese were our (or at least his) friends and there was nothing to fear. He therefore would not leave, and his family would not leave without him.
This proved a fateful decision. No sooner did the Japanese arrive in January of 1942 than thousands of “enemy non-combatants” – including all of the Cotterman clan – were imprisoned on the grounds of the Santo Tomas University (about four city blocks in size).
Life in the prison camp was a nightmare. Early on, a few young bucks escaped, only to be recaptured and ineptly executed. It was then announced that if anyone escaped, ten prisoners – including women and children – would be shot.
Rations were cut again and again as the Japanese lost more and more battles in the Pacific. Towards the end prisoners were trying to exist on black market rat meat. On average, adult prisoners lost 50 pounds each during their interment, and although the Japanese vaccinated them against some diseases, many prisoners died from tuberculosis, measles and asthma.
Santo Thomas was liberated in February of 1945. But since the battle for Manila was far from over, the prisoners remained in the camp. The Japanese began shelling it, and Uncle Charlie was struck in the head by falling debris. Though he did not die immediately, he never recovered from the wound and passed away just before a hospital ship arrived to bring survivors back to America.
The family lost everything in the war, but managed to rebuild. Tragedy struck again in 1971 when a child was kidnapped for ransom and her mother shot in the back with a shotgun (miraculously, she survived). Then in the 1980s the husband of Charlie and Zet’s granddaughter was assassinated by communist rebels for refusing their extortion demands.
The Cotterman’s newsy Christmas letters stopped coming in the 90s, but the descendents of two Boone County pioneer families no doubt remain prosperous and influential in that exotic tropical nation half a world away.
Poor Willyopolis – no matter how hard he tries to do the right thing, it never seems to work out. Take the time Willyopolis was sent to the pet store to buy an owl. Unfortunately they were out of owls. So Willyopolis decided to find one in the wilds.
He looked and looked but couldn’t find an owl anywhere. Finally he sat down on a rock to think about it. Owls are scary birds that fly around at night. So are bats, but bats are a lot smaller than owls. Willyopolis decided bats must be baby owls so he found a cave and filled his pockets full of bats. After that – just like the time Willyopolis mistook onions for apples when helping bake a pie — things just went from bad to worse.
Willyopolis’ bumblings have more than once led to his untimely demise. But sooner or later he’s messed things up in Hades so badly that they’ve sent back to this world. He’s been to Mt. Olympus too — he once delivered a pizza there by mistake.
While you won’t find mention of Willyopolis in Greek mythology, he’s been a part of our family mythology for close to 20 years now. Inspired by Disney’s fanciful retelling of the myth of Hercules, Willyopolis became our son William’s alter ego (to convert a modern name into ancient Greek one need only add the suffix “opolis” to it). Soon every night at the supper table we would collectively step back in time to remember the bizarre exploits of Daddyopolis, Mommyopolis, Angieopolis, Tommyopolis and a host of other ancient Greeks whose resemblance to people today was “purely coincidental.”
Telling these stories was a great way to carve out meaningful family time. And it gave us a way to illustrate the (often preposterous) consequences of poor decision making. Lori and I even managed to impart a little knowledge of history along the way. Yet it wasn’t just us telling stories to the kids – they have always participated fully in devising ridiculous plot twists for these ad lib epics.
I don’t know how many other families regularly tell stories like this (I do know of one in Omaha), but for me it was natural because that’s how I grew up. Some of my earliest memories involve hearing about the exploits of that fabled local insect, Albert Augustus Ant, who since at least the time of my great-grandfather has been remembered for both his incredible strength and his love of specially-blended ant coffee. Albert Augustus loved ant coffee so much that he would stop the train with his mighty strength rather than wait for it to unload a new can of ant coffee at the depot.
And then there was Adrian Hoggmeister and his friends Beasley Ortwingle, Queesly Grodget, Otho Twiggly, and Lancelot Fiddlehooper — the supposed childhood companions of my father. My brother and I learned not just some interesting things about life but also a good deal about the Depression from these nightly stories. The eternal bane of their elderly neighbor Elvina Crumbeagle, this gang of feral miscreants did better at living by their wits than poor Willyopolis.
Willyopolis has been part of our evenings for so many years that we still tell stories about him. Daddyopolis is content to spend his days sleeping in the meadow while “watching” the sheep. Angieopolis is shrewd and ambitious while little brother Tommyopolis is prone to taking advantage of people. Almost every night they manage to have a misadventure, and I hope that this who-knows-how-old family tradition of evening stories continues for many generations to come.