My chance encounters with chance

by on Wednesday, 11 April 2007 Comments
An "alternative" biography...

It is only the result of the wildest chances that I am alive today. I don’t mean the good fortune that I survived a terrible attack of polio (thank you, doctors), a cardiac arrest (thank you to the doctor who grabbed a knife, opened my chest and massaged my heart), and a serious head on automobile accident (thanks to the taxi driver who rushed me to the hospital). I mean it is only the result of trillions upon trillions to the trillionth power of chance encounters of mass and energy that the particular pieces of matter that would eventually produce me landed on planet Earth instead of somewhere else in the universe (thanks to God for the laws of astrophysics).

Billions and billions of years ago, according to the calculations of many scientists, there was a Big Bang. God initiated creation by concentrating all energy and matter in a single mass which exploded sending everything hurtling into space in every direction. Eventually a portion of the energy and mass got trapped in a solar system in which several planets evolved. On one of these the conditions were just right for forming seas and continents. Living things appeared and gradually developed into plants and animals. Finally, the moment came when some animals were ready for God to create in them human souls. And God created men and women in his own image, giving them consciousness, free will and immortality (thanks to God for creating humans).

As the original humans increased in numbers, they scattered around the earth, eventually speaking different tongues and acquiring particular racial identities and cultures. If circumstances were right, they managed to live relatively comfortably until they had to defend their territory from jealous neighbors. If circumstances were harsh, they had to migrate and fight to appropriate a share of what others claimed for themselves. Thanks to all the elements that enabled my forebears to survive those hard times.

The clever invented new ways to make life easier. The strong found ways to subjugate and lead the weak. The creative developed artistic expression. The gifted created crafts. Healers found ways to alleviate pain and cure ailments. Holy men and charlatans sought to contact and appease the gods. Merchants found ways to buy and sell, to create and satisfy the needs and desires of others. There were peace makers and war mongers. There were rich and poor. There were oppressors and the oppressed. And they spread over the earth bringing war and peace. People lived and died and were forgotten, save for a notable few whose achievements and exploits were immortalized in legends and myths passed from generation to generation.

I’m glad I don’t live in those ancient times nor even in more recent older times. But I am grateful to those times, because my roots are there. That is where I come from.

I would really like to know all the branches in my family tree. I am sure it would contain a vast variety of hunters, farmers, warriors, craftsmen, good people and bad people, leaders and followers, royalty and peasants, wise men and fools.

I wouldn’t be ashamed to find skeletons in the closet, or to discover I was descended from thieves or scoundrels or worse. On the contrary, I would find it fascinating. For better or for worse, they are my gene pool. To even the worst of my ancestors, I owe my life. I look forward to meeting them in the next life. I am disappointed that I have found no evidence of Hebrew blood or Negroid blood or Asiatic blood or of any of the present day indigenous peoples with their rich legacies of culture and humanity. I did not choose my forebears. The past is fixed. It is only the present and the future that are in my power to influence as I was influenced.

I am descended from several branches of humanity which eventually settled in Europe, specifically the British Isles and the Italian Peninsula. (Thanks to the conflicts, opportunities and migrations that scattered them there.)

(Photo: B.V.)

As being of both Scottish and Irish descent, the ancestors on my father’s side were mainly Celts with a few Vikings or Norsemen thrown in as well. The Celts were a powerful group of Iron Age tribes speaking Indo-European dialects first found in Southwest Germany and Southern France in the early part of the second millennium B.C. They were warriors who often made excursions into neighboring and distant lands. By the 4th century B.C. the Celts were being forced out of northern Europe or assimilated by the rise of the Germanic tribes, but their power continued to flourish in Ireland, Scotland and Great Britain though the Celts were eventually pushed out of England by the Anglo-Saxons.

The island of Ireland was separated from the rest of Europe after the last Ice Age. According to tradition it was successively invaded by four Celtic groups, the first the Filbolgs and Fomers, then the Tautha De Danann (People of the Goddess Dana) who brought skilled artisans in all the then known arts, and finally around 1000, B.C. the Milesians, who became the ancestors of the present Irish people. It is said the Milesians came from Spain and before that from the Middle East, but neither claim has been proven.

Until the 8th century A.D. when Ireland was invaded by Norsemen, the Irish enjoyed independence from foreign incursion and a rich culture and literary tradition developed there especially after the conversion of the whole island to Christianity by St. Patrick in the 5th century. The Romans never reached Ireland and this isolation from the rest of Europe meant that the Dark Ages, which descended upon Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, never touched Ireland. (Thanks to Ireland for being there and nurturing my ancestors.)

The first settlers in Scotland arrived probably from England around 7000, B.C. in the Mesolithic Age living mainly along the coasts. The Gaelic speaking Celts arrived around 1000, B.C. in the Iron Age and gradually pushed out and assimilated the original inhabitants. The Romans never succeeded in subduing the fierce Celtic tribes and built Hadrian’s wall in 122 A.D. to keep them out of Roman territory.

Christianity arrived in Scotland with St. Ninian in the 4th century. By the 7th century the country was settled by constantly warring Picts and Celts in the north, Norwegian Vikings in the islands, and Britons and Anglo-Saxons in the lowlands. (Thanks to those Celts and Vikings who made my Scottish ancestry possible.)

In 1844 my great grandfather Robert Ronald was born somewhere in Scotland and in 1866 arrived in New York after a sojourn in England. (Thanks to whatever circumstances motivated him to travel.) In 1873 he married Mary, an Irish lass only 18 years old, who had just arrived that same year in New York. (Thanks to the circumstances that brought them together or the person who introduced them.)

Meanwhile Ireland was undergoing very hard times driving thousands to migrate. Thus it was that another Mary, Mary Connor, left her home in Balla, County Mayo in 1895 going to New York where she married great grandfather Ronald’s son Robert Thomas in 1900. (Had there been no potato famine in the early part of the 19th century in Ireland, would I have ever been born?) My father Robert Anthony was born in 1901.

My Mother’s parents were both from Italy. There is evidence of human habitation in Italy since the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) 2.5 million to 200,000 B.C. Around 2000, B.C. the people of Northern Italy had established cultural links with racial groups north of the Alps.

The area around Bologna in Northern Italy where my grandfather Maximiliano Bergamini was born was first inhabited in the Bronze Age about 3000 years ago by a people called Villanovese, who were conquered by the Etruscans, who were in turn pushed out by the Celts, who had to finally give way to the Romans, who occupied the city for 400 years giving it the name Boronia. With the decline of the Romans came a succession of barbarian hordes, the Visigoths, Huns, Goths, and Lombards. So who knows what mixtures of blood flow in my veins? (Thanks to them all.)

My grandfather Bergamini was born in Crevalcore near Bologna to a prosperous farmer in 1855. He alone of his many brothers and sisters immigrated to the United States arriving in New York in 1884 and eventually reached Martinez, California near San Francisco where he opened a grocery store. In 1900, already 45 and unmarried, he was anxious to find a wife. Enter Martin Bonzagni, his close friend, whose wife Caterina had a cousin Adalgiza Lambruschini, only 25 years old, 20 years younger than Maximiliano. After a fortuitous introduction and a whirlwind courtship they were married the same year. (Thanks to Martin and Caterina for that fortunate introduction.)

My Grandmother Adalisa came from Genoa, an area of northern Italy bordering on the Mediterranean Sea. The Phoenicians originally from Tyre in Phoenicia went to Genoa from their settlement in Corsica around 2000, B.C. where they joined with the local inhabitants, the Pagu or Tribe of Ambrones, a Celtic people originally from Iberia. (Thanks to them all for making my grandmother possible.)

When she was fourteen, grandmother’s mother died suddenly while visiting relatives, her father remarried almost at once and life became very difficult at home, so Adalgisa accepted the invitation of her older sister Aurelia Lambruschini Molteni to live with her in San Francisco. Thanks to the cruel stepmother and the good fortune that it was her sister in California rather than her brother in Peru, who invited her to come, grandmother embarked on the path that led to her marriage and the birth of my mother in 1906.

So now my parents have finally entered the picture, but before I can chronicle the chance events that brought them together, there is a whole new set of circumstances to be introduced, any one of which might have prevented my being born in California.

California before the Spanish explorers arrived was a land flowing with milk and honey. Wildlife was abundant. The weather was moderate in the valleys which were watered by many rivers and streams. The local Karkinez Indians of the Costanoan Group were rather primitive, since necessity is the mother of invention and they had few needs to spark ingenuity and development. They were also cut off from the other Indians of North America by the mountain ranges in the north and the east. They lived and died as simple hunters and fishers and harvesters of acorns and local plants, undisturbed by the outside world until the European explorers came. The Spanish missionaries did their best to educate the Indians they came in contact with and put them to work as artisans, laborers, and servants, but they were quickly decimated by the diseases the white men brought, and left behind no buildings, literature or language.

I was born in California on land taken from the poor Indians, who had no way of defending their territory or protecting their lives when the foreign settlers arrived. In this day and age that pays such lip service to human rights, I find it hard to understand how supposedly enlightened Christians who professed to be guided by the Ten Commandments could so easily kill and steal with the blessings of their governments and the acquiescence of their churches. Had the Indians not been so easily overcome I might not have been born in California.

Christopher Columbus started it by sailing off and discovering the New World in 1492. If he had followed the wool weaving career of his father and not become a sailor, he would probably never have paid any attention to the rumors and tales that convinced him that the Indies could be reached by sailing west. In that case the Americas would only have been discovered by Europeans in a later century and the territory that is now the United States may never have become the safe sanctuary for immigration in the 19th century that welcomed the arrival of my great grandparents and grandparents. I owe my birth in America to the adventurers and dreamers who dared to venture into the unknown and to the cupidity and ambitions of the Kings and Queens of Spain who financed the explorations and colonizations.

In 1579 the Englishman Sir Francis Drake in the Golden Hind sailed along the California Coast along a vast unknown territory he called New Albion. He missed the opportunity of a lifetime by sailing past the entrance to San Francisco Bay without discovering it, quite possibly because it was shrouded with fog as it often is in late afternoons and early mornings. Had he entered the bay and seen what a marvelous harbor it was, it might have eventually become a British colony. Would it have rebelled like the thirteen eastern colonies in the Revolutionary War of 1776 or remained faithful to England like the colonies in Canada? Would the Italians and the Irish immigrants have been as welcome to come as they were by the Americans? In any case, thanks to the fog on that day, I was born on American not British soil.

On August 13, 1812 Russian fur traders dedicated Ft. Ross on the site of a Kashaya Indian village 18 miles north of Bodega Bay on the coast of California just above San Francisco. In those days Spanish expansion did not extend beyond the San Francisco Bay Area. The settlement lasted only 29 years. The lucrative sea otter trade was depleted by over-hunting and the trappers did not prosper when they set their hands to farming. Had they stayed and colonized as did the English and Spanish, the territory of Northern California might today be part of Russia or an independent nation, unless of course it ended up like poor Mexico who lost it in a war with the aggressive Americans. So anyhow thanks to the Russians who went home.

From 1769 to 1834 the Franciscan Friar Junipero Serra and his companions evangelized California from San Diego all the way north to San Raphael and Sonoma just beyond San Francisco. Their efforts extended and supported the influence of the Spaniards from Mexico which became independent of Spain in 1821.

In 1824 the Mexican Government presented to Don Ygnatio Martinez a 17,000 acre land grant called the Rancho de Pinole. It extended along the south side of the Carquinez Straight about 25 miles east of San Francisco on the other side of the bay. It included at its east end the present location of the city of Martinez where in 1849 his son Don Vincente Martinez built an adobe hacienda. He did not live there long, but the home remains today as a National Historic Monument.

California had Mexican Governors until 1847 when Mexico was defeated in a short-lived war with the United States and was forced to give up its California territory. At that time there were 150,000 Indians and 14,000 European and Mexican inhabitants. In one of his last acts before leaving office, General Mariano Vallejo permitted Dr. Robert Semple, a dentist from Kentucky, to initiate a ferry service from the waterfront near the mouth of Alhambra Creek (in present day Martinez) to Benicia a mile away across the water.

Then on January 24, 1848 John Marshall discovered gold in the South Fork of the American River at Coloma where he was inspecting a sawmill built there by his partner German-born Swiss Johann August Sutter by far the most prosperous European settler in northern California.

Dr. Semple’s ferry became very important as the only crossing across the Straight to the gold fields for miners and goods coming from San Francisco and points south. Warehouses and trading posts soon sprang up around the ferry dock and in 1849 an enterprising Col. William M. Smith who had married into the Martinez Family persuaded the Ygnacio Martinez heirs to capitalize on the business opportunity and accept his detailed plan for a township west of Alhambra Creek and the Welch Family expended it east of the creek.

So thanks to the Mexican Governor who gave a 48,000 acre grant of land to Johann Sutter in 1839 and to John Marshall’s sharp eye that noticed the gleaming gold, causing a population avalanche that descended on California eventually bringing my Italian grandparents and to the dentist who started a ferry and an army officer who envisioned a town, there grew up a community for me to be born in.

The ferry wasn’t the only thing that attracted people. The climate, the fertile soil with a long Spring and Summer growing season attracted farmers. Not only that, the waters of the Straight were rich with fish and by the 1870’s there were Italian and Portuguese fisherman. It is quite likely thanks to one of these that my grandfather was enticed to leave New York for California.

The availability in Martinez of a deep channel for ocean going ships as well as the presence of the railroad was undoubtedly an important factor that influenced the decision of the Shell Oil Company in 1915 to locate its west coast refinery and chemical plant on a big parcel of land right at the outskirts of the town. I am forever grateful to whoever it was who suggested Martinez as the site and to the board members in a conference room somewhere who eventually made the decision to construct the refinery in 1915. Without it my dad would never have met my Mother.

When my Mother graduated from high school in 1924, she was hired as a stenographer in the office of the Shell Oil Refinery. So thanks to Mother’s superior skills at transcribing short hand, she was now in place to meet my dad.

My father must have had a high IQ and good grades because he won a scholarship to the most prestigious Jesuit Regis High School in New York City. He is probably one of few graduates who never went on and distinguished themselves in college. His family was too poor, so he went to work for a trading company as accountant. Had my dad gone to college, he would probably never have ended up in California to meet my mother, so thanks to his humble origin.

Finally around 1926 my father decided to leave home and go west. Together with a friend they packed their few belongings into a Model T Ford and looked for jobs along the way to support themselves. Their ultimate destination was the state of Washington, but it so happened that as they approached Washington there was a huge forest fire somewhere ahead and when they finally saw the smoke on the horizon, they turned south because they did not want to be pressed into service fighting the fire. By the time they reached the San Francisco Bay Area, they were out of money and desperately looking for jobs. Someone told them that the Shell Oil Refinery in Martinez was hiring and my Dad got a temporary job as account clerk in the refinery office and ended up working there the rest of his life. So thanks to that forest fire and the Good Samaritan who gave him the tip about the job, my dad was finally in position to meet my mother who worked in the same office. Not only that, dad rented a room in the boarding house right across the street from my mother’s house, so their paths crossed even more.

Finally, in late March or very early April 1932, one of Dad’s millions of contending sperm penetrated my mother’s besieged ovum and a unique set of DNA began the complex process of dividing and growing until I was born. Thanks to that energetic sperm cell who prevailed over all the others so that I developed with its special characteristics and not some others. And thanks to the doctor who successfully delivered me without any trauma or cranial injury.

It would be impossible to enumerate all the subsequent chance encounters that have influenced the course of my life. But I am not the product of what they were. Who I am and what I have become are not the results of what happened to me, but the results of how I reacted to what happened, how I behaved, and the choices I made. On the day of final judgment, the Judge will not look at what I inherited from others, but at how I spent the riches I was entrusted with. So thanks, Mom and Dad, and thanks to all those whose paths have crossed mine, but it is mainly thanks to myself that I am where I am today.

It has been fun looking back at where I came from, but also very humbling. There are some things that I can take credit for, but so much more that could have been better if I had acted differently. And I am struck by the awesome responsibility that my passage through life carries with it. Just as the interventions of others have influenced my life for better or worse, so, too, my crossing the paths of their lives also leaves indelible marks for better or worse on their destinies. Thanks to life for this incredible adventure, this inescapable obligation of being a man for others and for all the opportunities to better myself and the world that nurtures me.



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