Friday, June 16, 2017

Rejebian series: laidback and cool, book reviews and more

If you’re in Dallas and hear the name “Rejebian,” you think, oh, those are the book clubs where you don’t have to read the books. Or maybe you think of oriental rugs, which have been the Rejebian family business since Ermance Rejebian and her husband Vahram landed in Dallas more than 80 years ago as members of the Armenian diaspora. And since the entertaining book reviews and lectures Ermance gave made her a favorite speaker for the ladies who lunch bunch.

Don’t hold entertainment against her. Or against the Rejebian Summer Series of book reviews and lectures her family has established at Highland Park United Methodist Church. After all, it’s summertime, and the living ought to be easy. Although, very often, you’ll really, really want to read the book, as was the case last Wednesday night as author Sally Mott Freeman discussed her debut book, The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family’s Quest to Bring Him Home.

Ordinarily, divorce might be expected to tear a family apart. Especially a divorce like that of Freeman’s grandmother Helen in the 1920’s when divorce wasn’t something “nice people” commonly did. Wouldn’t Benny and Bill Mott, Helen’s sons from her first marriage, resent her second husband?

And still more resent the status of Helen’s son from that later marriage, Barton Cross, “a spoiled child for whom no indulgence was too great,” as Freeman, daughter of Bill Mott and niece of Barton, told her audience.

Instead, the older brothers took him under their wing. Possibly it was the age gap – the Mott brothers were seven and 10 years older than their half-brother – Freeman guessed, that made sibling rivalry less intense than would have been the case if they had been closer in age.

And although he didn't do well initially in the schools his family tried, in what they considered attempts to improve his character, the older Mott brothers urged him to follow their own example, and attend the U.S. Naval Academy. But if Helen and the rest of her family hoped the Naval Academy would toughen Barton up, it didn't. He left after two years. Still, the family refused to give up on him.

The start of World War II saw one brother as a naval officer preparing to ship out to the Philippines, another soon to become a naval intelligence officer. But what was to become of Barton, now that a mandatory draft was looming? Why not a commission with the Navy’s Supply Corps?

The Mott brothers, not to mention their mother, must have breathed a collective sigh of relief at getting Barton in what seemed a relatively safe position.

Except that "safe position" put Barton in Philippines in early December 1941, just in time to be wounded when his ship was fired on by Japanese bombers. And as General MacArthur evacuated his personnel. All except a hospital ship of Navy patients and their doctors.

Captured by the Japanese, with all communications between the U.S. and the Philippines blacked out, Barton disappeared along with the rest of the Navy's sick and wounded. His family never heard from him again. His fate became the subject of endless and agonizing discussion by his family, a mystery until his niece, Sally Mott Freeman, made it her job to track him down. The result: nothing that any of Barton’s family had ever imagined.

It was a job, she said, that cost her 10 years of research and writing, producing a manuscript whose first draft was 700 pages long. Readers may be relieved to hear that the final version clocks in at only a little more than 500 pages, although her list of reference materials, including the Veterans History Project available through the Library of Congress may inspire readers to find their own stories as well.

The Rejebian Summer Series repeats Wednesdays through July 26, 7-8 p.m. in Wesley Hall of Highland Park United Methodist Church, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, Dallas. (Best parking is in the Meadows Museum parking garage on Bishop Avenue. The series is free, but see the site for details
and optional dinner reservations.

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