Robert Haydon Jones and Diane Mayr

Diane Mayr

Inspiration piece

Robert Haydon Jones
Lord Jim’s Little Finger


Lord Jim’s Little Finger
By Robert Haydon Jones

The trouble started when Billy, his eldest son, dug into the family’s scrapbooks, joined and started posting annotated photos of Jimmy O’Hara’s many ancestors on Facebook.

Then, somehow, Billy found a long lost photo of Jimmy’s paternal, great, great Grandfather. He made a copy of it and drove over from the other side of town to present the precious photo to Jimmy.

It is a studio shot. James A. O’Hara is sitting in a coat and tie with John, his son, who is in his early twenties, also dressed up, standing there by him with his hand resting amiably on his father’s shoulder. The older man is in his late forties. He is a very big, rough looking man with huge fists and a florid brush mustache.

The note on the photo reads, “Sir James and son.”

Jimmy knew quite a lot about Sir James through the oral history the family had passed down, but he had never dreamed he would ever see his face.

James A. O’Hara was born in Cork, Ireland in 1810.  He served five years with the Irish Fusiliers with postings in Africa, India and Gibraltar. In 1835, he married Alice Cox in Ennis, Ireland.

In 1836, he and Alice emigrated to Brooklyn. After a few years, James O’Hara trekked west in search of gold. He was a ’49er. One of the very lucky ones. In 1850, he returned from the gold fields of California to his wife and children in Pottstown, Pennsylvania with $40,000 in hand.

They were rich beyond their wildest dreams. In today’s value, they had over a million dollars.

Just six years later, they were nearly destitute. Sir James had lost all the money because….”He crooked his little finger too much.”

This information was according to his grandson, Bert, Jimmy’s grandfather. Bert had the same problem with his little finger. So did all the O’Hara men. Jimmy included.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Sir James had enlisted straight away. He was an experienced soldier and welcomed into service. Five months later, at Fair Oaks, he was wounded in the stomach by shell fragments and given a medical discharge. It was a ghastly wound; he needed more than a year to recuperate.

Then in February 1864, at 54, James A. O’Hara enlisted again. He lied to the Recruiting Officer and swore he was born in 1822. He promised to serve until the war was won and the Union reestablished.

A few months later, he was captured at Cold Harbor. He was sent to Libby Prison, then to Salisbury Prison and finally to Andersonville in Georgia. He died there of starvation sometime in September of 1864. His grave is unmarked.

The photo of Sir James excited Jimmy O’Hara. His great, great, grandfather was a ‘49er, who struck it rich and then crooked his little finger too much… a veteran soldier…a volunteer. He looked like the sort of big man you would want with you in a fight.

Jimmy told Billy, “What really impresses me is that even though he knew what soldiering was really all about, he volunteered. Then, after he was wounded, he volunteered again. He must have really believed in the cause.”

Billy was a child of the 60’s. He was angry with Jimmy. “You don’t know. All you have is a photo and some old records. Maybe, he couldn’t stand his wife. Maybe he needed the money – they were paying a $50 enlistment bonus. Maybe they were offering free booze or cheap booze. You don’t know – but you want to make him a hero because he has your name.”

Jimmy was angry back. Billy didn’t know either — he was so tilted against service that he couldn’t see it as a right thing to do for anyone. “I do know, dear boy, I do. It is logical. If you weren’t so down on the military, you would see it too. Your great, great, great, Grandfather stepped up even though he knew the risks. He was a hero.”

Billy’s face flushed. “How is that possible,” he said. “How could he have been a hero? He wasn’t a Marine like you, Father. All we know is that he crooked his little finger too much. Way too much. Just like you did.”

Jimmy’s rage flashed up and out. “Just like you do now, Billy. Way too much.”

Billy spun around, walked out the front door, got in his car and drove away.

Now Jimmy was flushing. He had done wrong. “Restraint of tongue and pen” were linchpins of Recovery – but once again – his fear and pride had ignited a mouth off that was completely uncalled for.

Poor Billy. He definitely was not in Recovery — and his reward for his kindness bringing Jimmy the photo of the great, great grandfather he had never seen was a merciless taunt.

Jimmy looked again at the photo. Billy was right. Jimmy couldn’t be sure it was the photo of a hero. But what a life! Lord James had survived five years of service and many a battle with the English army.

He had sailed away to America with his new wife. He had journeyed to California and returned with a fortune in gold. He had lost his fortune and then gone back to soldiering at age 51. He had survived a grievous wound and then enlisted again at 54. He was captured and died of starvation in an infamous Confederate prison.

Jimmy had heard the biography before but now the story was different — now that he could see the man it was about.

When Jimmy had enlisted in the Marines, the world wars were over. When he got the chance to get out honorably, he jumped at it. Knowing what he knew now about the reality of soldiering, was there a cause he would reenlist for?

He liked to think he would have fought to end slavery. Would he have reenlisted? Today, the Civil War was still playing out. Millions of people in the U.S. were still in bondage to grinding poverty and bleak prospects.

Jimmy worked as a volunteer at an elementary school in a poor neighborhood. But he could be doing a lot more. Fear and apathy were limiting his efforts.

He suddenly remembered being on the point leading his squad across a clearing. He was half way across when he felt the eyes on him. He was in someone’s sights! He pressed on. He came on a large ancient stone bust lying there in the weeds. It was out of context. Where it shouldn’t be. Would the statue be the last thing he would ever see? Then he was through the clearing and back into the woods.

He would encounter greater danger in his life but he would never be more frightened.

He thought now of Sir James, who had come all that way – only to die quite slowly of starvation. Not the classic death of a hero. But, of course, there was no such thing.

Now the armed forces of the United States were no longer citizen soldiers but rather mostly volunteers looking to improve their lot. In the past, millions had enlisted to defend democracy – now serving in the armed forces was definitely not a cool thing to do.

Jimmy decided to drive over to Billy’s and tell him he was sorry for his snide remark. And to thank him again for bringing him the photo of Sir James. It was amazing how seeing Sir James’s face had infused his old, well known, biography with energy.

Jimmy couldn’t tell for sure – but he was certain Sir James was a hero, even if back in the day, he had crooked his little finger too much. When he felt the Union needed him, he had volunteered. Not once but twice.

Jimmy wouldn’t ever tell Billy – but he was proud of Sir James lying there in his unmarked grave in Georgia. He hoped his grandchildren were following Billy’s postings on Facebook.


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  1. Posted December 14, 2017 at 11:34 am | #

    The only criticism I could have of this vignette is that it left me wanting more. Bob Jones not only knows how to write; he knows when to stop–a very valuable gift.

  2. Posted December 14, 2017 at 11:41 am | #

    Another great Jimmy O’Hara nugget! Great job. Interesting photo, looks like aliens left it.

  3. Posted December 15, 2017 at 7:11 am | #

    Hail to our Hero’s and God bless our Settlers………….if not for Jimmy’s great great Grand Father we would be minus a hero in pursuit of the nest adventure……….a lovely probe into our ancestry and the lineage of the “crooked finger”.

  4. Posted December 17, 2017 at 10:14 am | #

    A picture is worth a 1000 words…but what the words say are in the eye of the beholder. Great story about clashes in perspective & how we can never really know what’s moved another.

  5. Posted December 20, 2017 at 7:51 am | #

    Love the ending. You’re the best, Bob!

  6. Posted December 26, 2017 at 4:19 pm | #

    A fascinating piece of history, from the Civil War to the dining room.