"If genetic diversity is the key to survival, then this boy's going to live forever..."My story as I know it began as a result of one of the most regrettable actions in the history of the United States government. It was shamelessly called the "Indian Removal Act". As a result of this barbaric and savage legislation, my great grandfather's tribe, the Cherokee Indians, were forcibly removed from their lands by U.S. Government troops and moved en masse across southwestern Kentucky. It has been accurately called the "Trail of Tears". Even after the first roundup of Indians occurred in 1838, it continued for decades as the government and local municipalities discovered dislocated pockets of indians who had escaped or hidden from the original forced deportations to Indian territory (now Oklahoma). Eventually, in the late 19th century, the government found my great grandfather's family among other scattered Cherokees and ordered them deported as one of the last movements of people as ordered by the vile congressional act. My great grandfather, who was a young boy at the time, was separated from his people as they marched. He quickly became lost in the Kentucky countryside. He eventually wandered up on a farm owned by the Wattenbarger family, an immigrant family of German settlers. The Wattenbarger family had been blessed with daughters, but no sons. The family held onto the indian boy until the next trip into town, when they took him to the sheriff. The sheriff told Mr. Wattenbarger that the tribe and soldiers were long gone and that the boy would be turned over to the authorities for adoption, or they could adopt him. The Wattenbarger family decided that he would become a part of their family, and named him Matthew. After raising him to college age, he was sent east where he achieved a degree in medicine. Following that, he returned to Pennsylvania and married one of the German daughters: Julia (called "Julie"). Since there was little acceptance of Indian medical doctors in the eastern United States, he and Julie moved to Indian Territory to practice (now known as Oklahoma). They settled in a community known as Stigler, Oklahoma. There he practiced medicine until he died suddenly.
Dennis Chamberland, 1980, at the birth of his first son, Christopher Donald Chamberland in Hawaii
Matthew was a physician by all accounts and faithfully practiced until he died. Julie then married Ike Workman and went on to have other children. Julia's mother, Margaret, outlived Matthew and died at 98 years, the victim of a kerosene fire. Julia is buried in the Old Miner's Cemetery in near McCurtain, Oklahoma.
Julie and Matthew had six sons together: Judge, Doc (Dockie), Esse (Essie), Al (Allen), George (Haskill), Matt (Mattie) and one daughter, Helen. Judge and Doc were not nick-names. It seems that, to the Wattenbargers, it was easier to confer titles at birth. Helen died as a child, one of the many victims of the great national influenza pandemic of 1918.
My granddad, Al, at 17 married a woman of Indian and Irish descent, Alice Kelly, was was 12 on her wedding day. Alice's father, Horace, was part Irish and at 12 had been totally blinded by a fireworks accident on the 4th of July. Horace managed to open a grocery store in Hobart, Oklahoma, from which he was able to make a manageable living for his family. Unfortunately, the store burned to the ground and Horace was forced to play the fiddle on the street for his living thereafter.
Al and Alice had four children: William, Eleven, my father, Don (Donald) and Betty Jo. After the onset of the dust bowl and the depths of the depression, the Wattenbarger family left Stigler for California. Stigler was literally ground zero for Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and California seemed to offer some hope of reclaiming some kind of dignity. Indeed, the characters of his book were broad-stroked by Steinbeck on those of my family and their friends. The book is a clear and accurate chronicle of their lives of desperation. Yet, as he headed west, the ever colorful Al Wattenbarger was to prove Will Rogers dead right. Rogers said that when the Okies moved from Oklahoma to California that it raised the IQ of both states. My granddad would prove him to be a true prophet.
On arriving in the sunshine state, the Wattenbarger's settled in a cardboard "home" in a settler's village in Hootersville, California, made up of a motley collection of other displaced Okies. There, Al set about to try and feed his young family by assuming the role of Chiropractor. To hear Al tell it, "Hell, if daddy could do it, so can I!" After successfully "fixing" a neighbor's back pain, he hung out a shingle and began fixing backs for a nickel. As the line formed, grandma Alice began collecting the change as Al popped the backs of the overworked laborers. It seemed the Wattenbarger clinic did not suffer from the same overhead as the local licensed practitioners and the authorities soon paid Al a visit. Although they shut him down, broke up the line and sent everybody home, Al and family at least had enough change for dinner.
In another memorable incident, the family was motoring around one afternoon in the family car when they pulled into a field to pick pecans. While Al picked the nuts off the ground, a man parked in an auto parked in the shade of a nearby tree made the unfortunate and ill timed mistake of winking at Alice. Always trying to test his love, Alice whined, "Al, are you going to let him get by with that?" Al's temper was never far below the surface, and he turned to face the shrinking man in the model "A" Ford. According to witnesses, the massive and towering form of the German Indian hovered over the man and the car. Al "opened" the door on the driver's side by ramming it forward, breaking it cleanly off the car, whereupon he tossed it in the back seat and pulled the man from the car. His son, Don, was on him in an instant, knowing his dad was only one second away from snapping the poor man's neck. Due to the quick action of Don, all escaped relatively uninjured. The poor victim of grandma's vanity and granddad's temper raced away in a cloud of dust, somewhat ruffled but still alive and one good deal smarter.
Finally, after the California dream wore off and the depression eased, most of the Wattenbargers saved their reputations as Okies and moved back to Oklahoma save brother Judge Wattenbarger who stayed until his death in 1990. Judge married and had a daughter, Bernice, who still resides near Oakland.
Meanwhile, back in Oklahoma, Al was ordained as a Holiness preacher, and faithfully served his congregation until his baby daughter, Betty Jo, ingested prescription medications and died. Deeply affected by her death, Al never returned to the pulpit. Later, the Wattenbargers opened a grocery store and became very successful. To make a bad situation even worse, they were forced to move William into a full time care facility for the mentally challenged, where he died.
Dad was a high school football star at an Oklahoma town called Broken Arrow. He inherited all of his father's temperament, but was somewhat small in stature. He more than made up for it by quickness and a frightening agility which earned him the nickname, "Tuffy" and an all star rating in football. He left there to play football for Oregon State University where he met and married my mother, Arlajean, who was from Yukon, Oklahoma.
But that is only a third of the story - my dad's heritage. My biological mother, Arlajean Tufford had a wonderful heritage as did no step-mom, Edwina Fern Clark. The ongoing social stigma is that we should claim only the biological heritage - but that is born of great ignorance. For the heritage of all families is vested not just the biology, but much more so the character that is infused by all parties that form the waking soul of the child. And in the end, it is the character that counts and it is the character, as much as the biology, that is passed down from parent to child.
B.C. (Before Chamberland)
I was born Dennis Dale Wattenbarger in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma at 2:00 AM, on Sunday morning, August 12, 1951 - the second child in the family and the last. My dad's name was Donald (Don), my mom's name, Arlajean and my sister's name was Donna.
I never knew my mother, not really. Dad and mom divorced when I was four and she disappeared, literally, when I was around eight. No one on earth knows what happened to her - she just disappeared.
My mother, Alrlajean, Donna and grumpy baby Dennis in 1952. Dennis in the sun-tan mode.
The last time I saw her was when I was five. There was no trauma that I can remember. I was not aware of the disappearance until I was in college. I just never heard from her again and no one had the heart to bring it up. There have been some attempts to trace her whereabouts including the services of a private detective. Unfortunately, there have been no leads beyond a contact in Houston in the mid 1960's.
My granddad Al Wattenbarger had managed to build a very successful construction company and had done very well for himself. Unfortunately, he inherited the addictive nicotine plague of the mid-century and was a heavy smoker. Emphysema set in and Al went to the doctor who told him it was both incurable and that he would have to stop smoking immediately. Always stubborn and ready to believe what he wanted to believe, Al took his business to a Cherokee Indian medicine man. The medicine man told him that what he needed was actually a special elixir made up of honey and whiskey. It didn't help his emphysema but it made him feel a whole lot better. Thinking he was on his way to a sure-fire cure, Al kept on smoking and drinking. The more he drank the better he felt, and soon he had sold his company to pay for more elixir and was fully caught in the depths of alcoholism. He remarried and assumed the role of handyman working out of his own shop in the early 1960's in Haskell, Oklahoma. It was during this period that I came to know my granddad personally. He still had some of the towering strength of his younger days. To me he was a man of great gentleness, joy and abounding love. I was stricken to the core when he died in bed in 1963. They said it was a heart attack. I knew better. It was the elixir. It was from my granddad that I learned about unconditional love and about the killing effects of chemical bondage's. My granddad asked to be buried with his boots on, and he was. One of his contemporaries, Mr. Henry Street, still living in Stigler, who knew him when my dad was just a boy, said of my granddad in 1998, "Al was a good man, always full of life and fun." I think that is a great epitaph and it was very true. He left me with great memories, in the end. I was too young to understand things like bondage's and stigmas - I only understood his hugs and his love which he could not disguise.
Meanwhile, Grandma Alice married a shade tree mechanic by the name of Ben Rogers. He loved grandma and took good care of her. They moved to his north Louisiana bayou parcel of land. It was grandpa Ben that built my first car from scratch and gave it to me as a gift.
I will never forget a visit to their Louisiana bayou homestead in 1971. I was a product of the 1960's university culture with all of its attendant preconceptions of life. At lunch in their well worn mobile home one afternoon, Ben looked over to grandma Alice and told her to "take a plate out to the boy". Curious, I wanted to go along. One, I wanted to know what boy, and two, they barely kept the rain off their heads as it was, so I was unsure of "where 'out' was". Grandma prepared a plate of food and headed outside with me in tow. She walked to a shed out back of their mobile home and opened the door. There on the dirt floor on a bed of hay and an old blanket was a black man she called "boy". She gave him his food which he gratefully accepted and we left. I asked her who he was, and she said he worked for grandpa. I know grandpa Ben did not have two nickels to rub together, so I asked what he worked for. She said in exchange of food and shelter. "Grandma," I said sternly, "That is slavery." She looked at me with some amusement, and said, "Oh, hush up, you silly boy." Even these many years later, I frequently ponder that culture which I truly never understood. It seemed to me then and now that deep in the swamps of Louisiana, time had never progressed at all, and history was not only relevant to one's perspective but also frequently an annoyance. So I hushed up.
Grandpa Ben was a wonderful, giving man who loved and cared for my grandmother. He accepted all of his grandchildren by marriage as his own and treated us with that degree of love. He always carried a nickle-plated 45 caliber pistol strapped either to his leg or the steering column of his pick-up. He showed me where he shot the deer they needed for food in the fields around their home. Often, he just dropped them with his trusty 45 sticking out of the window of his truck. Deer season? What's that? When Ben needed gas, he just pulled up to any nearby oil rig and topped off with "drip gas". The super-high octane ate his pistons up, but he fixed them as needed under his shade tree.
Ben died suddenly in 1972. Grandma Alice settled near her daughter Evelyn and she died of cancer in 1982.
Dad married my stepmom, Edwina Clark of Haskell, Oklahoma in 1959. She was my mother in reality and in my heart when she was 17 and I was five. She never tried to replace my real mom, but in her absence, I became Edwina's son and she my mom. There was no better mother on earth - she spared nothing to make sure I was raised right and that I was loved. When B.J. Thomas sang the song, "Rock and Roll Lullaby", I knew that it was our song. We grew up together listening to all the top 40 hits. The precious little song still brings tears to my eyes. She was the best of all moms - she used to talk to me and my sister for many hours about life and living and the essentials of the real world. She was (and still is) a Godly, disciplined and caring woman - my mom.
Dad was an aerospace engineering technician for Douglas Aircraft in Tulsa. He was (and still is) a loving, Godly, disciplined father who brooked no nonsense but lived a happy and content life. He taught me values and common sense and devotion to family. Like his dad, my father is the image of laughter and fun. To this day, I love to call him and laugh with him to tears on the telephone. While I was constructing all the evidence for this account of our family, dad said, "You's better be careful how much you look, you may actually dig up the truth!"
My dad is and has always been the quintessential projects man. No project too small, no project too large. In fact, the larger the project the better. The more projects, the merrier. I inherited all these traits. He out did himself in 1960 when he bought a 10 acre parcel of land and proceeded to build a two story, massive, sprawling dream home with nothing but a hand saw, a hammer, a hoe and a shovel. Like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, the neighbors stood in line to laugh at us as we labored over the project. We poured the first floor mixing concrete in a wooden trough and carried water up the hill in buckets from a local stream. That got old fast, so dad stopped and dug a water well by hand with a set of borrowed post-hole diggers. Then he installed a hand pump and we continued pouring the floors a section at a time. Nine years later, the project was complete and everyone was impressed, especially me. I just never got over what the human will can accomplish alone and with nothing but the barest essentials. My father has inspired me as no other can or will ever be able to do. As I watched his patient, self reliant, self confident work over all those years, I was changed forever. The love and respect I have for my dad is incalculable. He has since built three other houses himself and has retired, partially on the profits. He earned every cent.
We lived in Haskell, Oklahoma - on the great plains. But we were the lucky ones - we lived in the "green country" of northeastern Oklahoma right between Tulsa and Muskogee in the country. In front of our 10 acre "spread" was a "vast" plain of prairie that ran to the foot of Concharty Mountain that rose to the west. We lived in an area of sparkling streams and wooded hills. It was an astonishingly beautiful place, in my memory. After sunset, the stars of the prairie night would sparkle without any light pollution. The air was always crisp and wildlife was everywhere. Oklahoma boasted four clearly defined seasons and I loved them all.
I went to a small high school in Haskell, Oklahoma (2,000 population). My class had 55 members.
The story continues... so keep checking back!