What is it that drives us to search for ourselves in the photos and stories of our ancestors? I’ve always loved detective stories from the time I was a little girl in Mobile, Alabama. I would take the younger siblings and ride the bus downtown on Saturday mornings and we’d go to the movies for a quarter–usually westerns with cartoons and then afterwards go across the street to the Haunted Bookstore.
That’s where I bought all my Nancy Drew Mysteries. I loved those stories and I loved Nancy Drew. Since my own life was a mystery to me–my father and a whole other family to which I had few clues–I suppose it was only natural that I would become an amateur detective.
When I reconnected with my family as an adult some 30 years ago, I was still looking for clues and the more questions I asked the more I realized that there were missing pieces to the story. I was fascinated with my grandfather Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson from early childhood. I knew he was a writer and I knew he had some vague connection to Superman. At the age of 5, I used to demand to be Superman against the express wishes of my “boyfriend” Bren who insisted that I was a girl and therefore could not be Superman. We would safety pin towels to our shirts and jump off the picnic table in his backyard. I was determined to bring justice to my life, the justice of a child who could not understand the adult complexities of the missing father.
When I finally made my way back to the gene pool and dove in headfirst as an adult, at first there was the exhilaration of arrival like some salmon making it back upstream and then gradually there were all the nuances both fair and foul that are part of the reality of any family’s life. I missed knowing my grandfather, Nick. Oddly I was the only grandchild out of 20 who ended up being called Nick and that was because my other grandfather, Granddaddy Pickens called me the Wheeler-Nick from day one. Since he was doing the diaper changing and bottle feeding along with my grandmother Azolene, I guess everyone assumed he was entitled to call me as he saw fit.
Struggling through my own creative ups and downs I’m still jumping off picnic tables with towels safety pinned to my shirt. It’s just a lot further to the ground now than back then. But with Nancy Drew as a talisman things are starting to look up. At first my questions about my grandfather to various family members were simply curiosity about the family but the more I heard about him the more determined I became to get to the heart of the matter and to find justice for him as well. His story has a mythic quality–a fallen hero archetype. And what could be more archetypal than his connection to Superman. About 10 years ago I began to search more methodically, to record my aunts and uncle, interview respected comics historians and to read what information I could find and thus I embarked on the decade long epic journey that has finally reached some sense of a possible shore.
I’m not quite ready to close the case but after all the prowling about in graveyards and searching through the dusty bins of our culture, I feel like I’m almost there. Whether or not the moldy papers will provide enough clues to finally answer everyone’s questions is not yet certain. They may just spark more people into looking more carefully and that’s a good thing, In the meantime, it is more than satisfying to know that there are some friends out there who like, Ned and Bess and Georgie are willing to help Nancy along the way.
If ever there was a group of Neds, the guys at TwoMorrows Publishing fit the bill. Publisher John Morrow, Editor Roy Thomas and the intrepid Clark Kent of all times, Jim Amash, did a superb job in producing the latest AlterEgo magazine (August 2009) featuring my grandfather on the cover. The cover alone is worth the thousands of words. I admit to misting up when I saw it. They’ve packed the inside with a ton of information and many people contributed from their various collections including David Armstrong–good guy filmmaker and Mike Catron–good guy historian. The issue is getting rave reviews. See Tony Isabella’s “Tony’s Tips” for one and most everyone seems pretty happy. Those that aren’t, well…they can fall into the abyss of their own elipses.
I can’t thank these guys enough for helping to get the Major’s contributions back into the public eye. So far, my grandfather’s life story has turned out to be even more adventurous than even he indicated. His military exploits, his writing, his publishing, his romantic marriage to my grandmother, his involvement with the comics, all of it, so far, is as true as the facts that have now been revealed.
There’s lots more to be done so Nancy’s heading back to yet more graveyards.
Now if I could just get that roadster.