Even before I opened the letter, I knew it.
I knew there would be exciting news for me, Peter Gilstrap. After all, right there on the outside of the envelope it said this: "A remarkable new book is about to be published--and you, Peter Gilstrap, are in it!"
I'm sure you'll agree, that would be pretty exciting news for anybody. But when I opened the letter, I found there was exciting news on a level I had not even guessed. Here is how that letter began:
"I have exciting news for you and all Gilstraps!"
I exhaled audibly (exhaling, of course, for all Gilstraps) and glanced at the top of the page. There was a coat of arms involving a helmet of armor, a shape that I could not actually distinguish but took to be a crouching wildebeest, and the word "Gilstrap" emblazoned on a banner underneath. I had once seen a similar crest on a Worcestershire sauce label, but it did not have the word "Gilstrap" beneath it.
I read on. Any Gilstrap would.
"Extensive work has been done throughout the world on a project relating to the distinguished Gilstrap name. Now a new book, 'THE WORLD BOOK OF GILSTRAPS,' is about to be published."
The letter also told me that my name, Gilstrap, "is very rare as discovered in our research through over 170 million individual households using an International Network of computer sources . . ."
What an undertaking! I could just imagine a dedicated gaggle of lab-coated genealogists working around the clock on an International Network of computer sources. Which probably means they were paging through phone books from around the world!
Other topics were offered as well.
"Important, never-before-published facts about the Gilstrap population and where Gilstraps live today. A unique heraldic blazon granted to an early Gilstrap. How you [that's me!] can trace your heritage in the United States back to your homeland using the fully documented Gilstrap Directory. Each Heirloom Edition Gilstrap Directory is virtually handmade to order and is handsomely bound in a pewter leather-grained cover, imprinted in silver and gold."
Gilstraps, Gilstraps, Gilstraps. By the time I finished reading all this information, "Gilstrap" was a strange word to me, suddenly meaningless and very silly to look at. I could have been reading "uvulas" or "Martians" or "fruit bats."
But I wasn't.
This wasn't an offer for an Heirloom Edition Fruit Bat Directory; this was an offer for an Heirloom Edition Gilstrap Directory. Available at a SPECIAL PRE-PUBLICATION RESERVATION PRICE OF $34.50--A 30 PERCENT SAVINGS!
For me, just because I am a Gilstrap.
And then one day the postman brought my very own WORLD BOOK OF GILSTRAPS, a "numbered and registered limited edition." Apparently, not all Gilstraps are suckers like me.
I ripped open this unique package from Halbert's Family Heritage Publishing (surely one of the more prestigious houses in Bath, Ohio) and ran my hand across that handsome pewter and leather-grained cover made of cardboard. There on the cover were the words that assured me, Peter Gilstrap, that I was now finally holding THE WORLD BOOK OF GILSTRAPS.
Those words were, simply, "THE WORLD BOOK OF GILSTRAPS."
And talk about information. THE WORLD BOOK OF GILSTRAPS begins with a chapter on "The Great Migrations of Man." I read through this part finding tales of the Garden of Eden (no Gilstraps there), Homo sapiens dodging glaciers (Gilstraps not mentioned), Goths, Huns and Vandals wreaking havoc on the Roman Empire (Gilstraps apparently absent), rugged Nordic peoples taking to the seas (Gilstraps did not participate), Christopher Columbus landing at San Salvador (nary a Gilstrap involved), a royal charter company founding Jamestown (Gilstraps again not appearing), up to the Civil War, World War I, immigrations to Canada and New Zealand, and the Japanese engaging in hostilities that led to World War II. All notably Gilstrap-free.
Then there was Chapter 2, "How Names Originated and What the Gilstrap Name Means."
As I had always imagined, the name Gilstrap is "old and distinguished." It "can be associated with the English, meaning 'one who was short, heavy-set and had a beard.'" That took ten pages of non-Gilstrap-related blather to reveal. This chapter also offered the Soundex Code for the name Gilstrap, something developed by the government that I would need to know if I wanted to access U.S. censuses for 1900, 1910 and 1920. My Soundex Code is G423 (also shared by Gawlistas, Galoostians and Golightlys), and I have no desire to use this code. I thought I paid $34.50 for the pros at Halbert's to do that kind of grunt work for me.
By the way, the Gilstrap coat of arms did not include a crouching wildebeest, but, in fact, a "red hunting dog's head, jagged." I would expect nothing less than a jagged dog's head on the Gilstrap heraldic blazon.
Being an impatient Gilstrap, I skipped all the filler chapters about the "History of Heraldry," "How to Discover Your Ancestors" (simply write to The Guild of One-name Studies, Compu-Gen, or Ancestors Unlimited) and the "Pedigree Chart," and went right for Chapter 5: "Gilstraps Around the World."
Had my sister and I joined forces with a number of other siblings we never had to create a happy-go-lucky, acne-free, bell-bottom-clad singing group performing bubbly pop rock in the early '70s (instead of refusing even to hum along with hymns at church in order to get back at our parents for trying to make us sing), Gilstraps Around the World would certainly have been a great album title.
Instead, "Gilstraps Around the World" turned out to contain the Gilstrap International Registry, something again developed through "a highly sophisticated network of computer sources," blah, blah, blah.
Here was some stunning data. In the United States of America, in the Total Estimated Households category, there were 2,271 Gilstraps, distributed among 46 states (mainly in South Carolina; what that indicates I can't begin to guess).
And, throughout the 14 other countries that the sleepless genealogical statisticians of Bath, Ohio, researched, one Gilstrap household can be found in Germany. And another one in France. William lives in Germany, and Terry's over on Rue Champradet.
So these Gilstraps were a mysterious lot. A tribe strewn about the land like thistles on a nor'easter, a people small in numbers but large on lore. Information had trickled down to me through the generations, the voices of the elders echo in my head, whispering tales that outlined the human experience in the lives of the humble.
Stories that THE WORLD BOOK OF GILSTRAPS would never know.
Back in Bakersfield, there was my great-aunt Nadine, owner of some 39 poodles, all of them black. Once, while digging at Pismo Beach, she stuck a live clam in her bra.
Her brother Claude, my grandfather, rose from his deathbed to eat a steak.
In my youth, late one evening as the rains fell upon Sacramento, I had been shown a yellowed photograph of my late great-grandfather. He was lying on a couch.
Then there is my own father, a great man who once sang bass in a trio that opened for Frank Sinatra in Vegas in 1957. He went on to run the bus system in the city of Los Angeles.
I also own a record album of exquisite soul music sung by one Jimmy Gilstrap. Who, being black, is probably one of my more distant relations. He also sang back-up on a Ringo Starr record.
Such are the accomplishments of Gilstraps.
But what of all those other Gilstraps? The faceless 2,271 in this country, 1,622 whose names and addresses appear in THE WORLD BOOK OF GILSTRAPS? My keen Gilstrap eyes traveled down each row, seeing more Gilstraps than I had ever thought possible, listed state by state. Judging by the first names, these are the folks next door, the backbone of America. So what if the Gilstrap name isn't on the roll call of history's greats?
Ask Gwen, or Omer or Dickie, Buddie, Byra or Daisy; ask R.C., J.A., B.F., B.N., J.C., J.D., M.L. or F. if they give a hoot. See if Ida or Wint or Reverend Jewell or John, John, John, John, John, John, or Jon care if their last name means "short, heavy-set and having a beard." They're all in the directory, along with my sister in Philly (who I'm pretty sure does not know this) and my grandfather, who has been dead for eight years (and I guarantee you does not know this).
I looked up Arizona Gilstraps; there are only 17 listed. I called a bunch of them. Some had answering machines, some didn't and didn't answer, some were unlisted, some were disconnected. Then I got Grady Gilstrap on the phone. Actually his wife, via call waiting, who graciously got her mother off the line, and Grady on. Even by marriage, that's the kind of thoughtful, selfless, gracious folks behind the name Gilstrap.
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Grady seemed a little puzzled to hear from me. I asked if he had a copy of THE WORLD BOOK OF GILSTRAPS.
I asked him if he knew he was listed in THE WORLD BOOK OF GILSTRAPS.
I was going to ask him if he was proud to be a Gilstrap, but then I stopped myself from asking something so damn silly. After all, I'm a Gilstrap.
If you wish to praise, bury or simply compare inseam sizes with Peter Gilstrap in an electron-based format, modem up our online cousin at: http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com. The bonus: features so hot they can only appear in a digital bitstream!