One hundred years ago today Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie was born, a fact that has been memorialized recently on radio and television. One of the instances was a program on NPR with interviews of, among others, his granddaughter, custodian of his more than 3,000 lyrics, drawings and notes. Another was a show on “A Prairie Home Companion” where Arlo, one of Woody’s eight children from three marriages, sang songs his father wrote and performed while he was alive.
I was reminded that Arlo has been part of my life almost since 1967 when his father passed away, not because of his famous father, but because of himself.
1967 found Mary and me in New England, to be more specific, North Cambridge, Massachusetts, where a ship I happened to be on was undergoing repairs at the Boston shipyards. About that time Arlo was recollecting his Thanksgiving on a vinyl disc that was rapidly making its way towards number one on the charts. The cornerstone of the album was a talking blues, eighteen minute ramble of episodes surrounding his Thanksgiving dinner at Alice May Brock’s renovated de-sanctified church, resulting in a cleanup “Massacree” where Arlo was arrested and held with “mother-rapers and father-rapers” primarily because of his anti-Vietnam War position. Alice's house was less than an hour away.
The theme and the style of the song must have brought a smile to Woody’s face as he was lying in a hospital bed in New York, waiting to die from complications of Huntington’s disease. Woody had been a protestor for his entire adult life and his influence remains to this day through his influence on, among others, Bob Dylan, who left his Hibbings, Minnesota home forever on a journey that took him first to Woody’s bedside to pay homage.
|Family Legacy - 2005|
|Arlo - 2007|
We continued to run into Arlo though the ensuing years: Newport Folk Festival in 1969 and 1970, the 40th Alice’s Restaurant Anniversary Tour in 2005, the Family Legacy Tour in 2007, and a fairly recent appearance at the Cerritos Center nearby.
But, in addition to the music, Arlo became a familiar topic of conversation because a close friend was on the cusp of diagnosing and treating the disease that killed his father: Huntington’s disease.
Our friend began to show signs of dementia, well before one would expect Alzheimer’s symptoms. More careful evaluation of her family history showed signs of hereditary causes: and she began to show signs of tremors.
The tremors or chorea have been associated with the disorder for hundreds of years but the first definition of the syndrome, and its genetic roots didn’t happen until George Huntington described them in 1872, and a deeper knowledge didn’t occur until the mid-1960s when Marjorie Guthrie established a foundation in honor of her husband to find the genetic markers and look for drugs that would lessen the brutal effects. Our friend was diagnosed almost ten years later.
Suzie now lives in assisted living, seemingly no worse today than she was several years ago, beyond symptoms common to all of us at her age. Mary and I were discussing her diagnosis just the other day, and the moral dilemma it presented. At the time of her diagnosis she had three healthy, adult children, one of whom had twins. The younger daughter and son weighed being tested for the markers for, what remains an incurable disease against the possible relief surrounding a “home free” clearance, and agreed to be tested. Both were free from the markers. The older daughter chose otherwise, believing that the possible repercussions to her boys, such as insurance problems, or even their following their father’s footsteps into military life, would be put in jeopardy.
There was no test when Arlo was growing up and one can only presume he came to grips with the uncertainty of his fate by ignoring the problem. He even produced his own family, and from the looks of how they surround him, they bore him no ingratitude for his omission once a test was available.
I don’t know whether I would want to know about a potential health calamity or not. There is now a genetic marker for some types of breast cancer and in my field, dentistry there are salivary tests showing promise for diagnosing everything from Periodontal disease to ovarian cancer, so soon many of us will have to make choices of “to know” or “not know”. I am a bit of a fatalist and believe what God has in mind for me is what I should accept, and knowledge helps us prepare for those we will eventually leave behind so I think I would probably get the tests..
What would you do?
My next post will share with you an unlikely event that happened to Mary and me when we were dining the other evening. Check in and see.