The Viking Strain
By Bobby Neal Winters
This recent trip to England was for me an attempt to get back to my roots. A distant cousin of mine in Mississippi, who I have to this day never met, had traced the Winters family tree back some 9 or 10 generations back to England. We had been Winter then, having only acquired the “S” after crossing the Red River from Texas to Oklahoma.
This last fact I’d known most of my life, chafing under the shame of having ancestors too illiterate to spell their own name.
During grammar school, I’d thought the family might be German. Dad had remarked that when he’d entered Germany during the Second World War, he’d been approached by the locals saying, “Vinters, Vinters,” having read the Winters on his name tag. His remark had been, “They must be kinfolk because they are the poorest people in town.”
The knowledge that we were of English ancestry shouldn’t’ve come as a surprise, of course, given the part of the country we came from: the South.
The family tree painted a nice picture of our family. We’d settled in North Carolina and then every generation my branch of the family had moved west: Georgia, Northern Alabama, Northern Mississippi, Texas, and Oklahoma. And now a jog north into Kansas. Apparently we had a family trait of thinking that things would be better someplace else.
I suppose one reason for not realizing our English heritage is our image of the English being so refined. They speak with English accents for goodness sake. They are automatically smarter, better educated, and more refined than us. My family made jokes about bowel movements for goodness sake. Men would emerge from the toilet beaming with pride regarding their recent accomplishment.
Having learned our origins, an urge began to grow in my belly. Unconscious, at first, it began to make itself known with urgency. I must go to England. I must see from whence my people emerged.
The towns mentioned in the family tree were in East Riding of York, so it was determined we would go to York. We flew into Heathrow, and then took the train from King’s Cross Station into York. I’d bought us First Class tickets into York, so we drank proper tea like our English ancestors as we made our way north.
When you, as an American, think of England as it is now, it will help you to think of it as a historical theme-park. It is clean, well-kept, easy to get around in but you do a lot of walking, and while many things are free, they do make you pay theme-park prices for others.
This is in particular true for York. The center of the park--in this way of thinking--is the walled city. There are parts of the wall that go back almost two-thousand years.
First the Romans were there; then the Saxons; then the Vikings; then the Normans. The Normans were so damn vicious that settled that. They made the English call cow meat beef, and once that was straight history spun on like it should.
I noticed right off that all of the people around looked like kinfolks. I also noticed that most of them were tourists. Hmmm, maybe after two and a half centuries making a connecting would be hard.
We pushed on.
We visited the museums. First the Yorkshire museum where we learned York was founded by the Romans. It was easily defended and at the confluence of two rivers. They called it Eboricum. When the Vikings took over from the Saxons, they called it Yorvik. The Romans had built in stone, which the Saxons had inherited, but the Vikings had built in wood and mud. The image began to form in my mind that this was sort of a mongrel place, with many streams of the human river coming together. Maybe the English weren’t all Masterpiece Theater.
We next went to the Yorvik Viking Museum. Standing in line, I ruminated about the genetic mix of the people in the area. I wondered if the Viking strain explained two of my daughters’ blond hair. We were drawn into the bowels of the museum wherein there was a ride taking us through a mock-up of a Viking village. There were roboticized figured depicting people of the village in various everyday activities including one fellow straining in a Viking outhouse.
Upon exiting the ride, we went into an exhibit of archeological finds in the area. There were skeletons which had clearly been killed by violence. There were skeletons who’d suffered malnutrition. There was pottery, weapons, coins, campfires, all manner of the accoutrement of ordinary life.
In a way that is counter-intuitive to me, the wetness of the English soil allows the preservation of organic objects. This enabled the archeologists to stumble upon something I am sure made their day: Viking poop, a specimen of which they have preserved in the museum.
This, at last, was the connection with the place I had been looking for. I could imagined one of the men in my family, exhausted from his exertions, turning to look upon his creation, and upon seeing it’s magnitude having a wish to share this with others.
I can hear the words in his mind. If only there were a special building where people from all over the world could gather to take a look at this. And, yes, they should have to pay before entering. It is only right.
So, yes, I do now believe that my family came from this place. I believe there may be a bit of a Viking strain in us leaving blond hair in some and an appreciation of scatology in others.