That was the question I received near bedtime. I never know what direction my kids are going to take me with their inquiries. I feel fortunate to have two inquisitive sons and daughter. Recently, I was doing my best Mr. Mom routine alone with the boys and as we finished dinner, one son asked, “If we are Danish and Scottish, is it possible one of our ancestors was a Viking who battled a Scottish knight?” Maybe, I replied. The kids then went on a journey through the past wondering if we could trace our family to Roman, Greek… even Egyptian times! The what-ifs regarding potential ancestors was driving them crazy.
To satisfy their questions, I pulled out a folder that included my one effort at genealogy. While studying in Copenhagen, Denmark I researched my Grandma and her family before they immigrated to Wisconsin in 1921. Although amateurish to most family sleuth standards, I was able to trace our family in Denmark back to the early 19th century. So even with my stories of hours in Danish archives, the struggle with translation and an amazing visit to the family cemetery on a Danish island, no less, my boys were unimpressed. I showed them a document from the Danish king that permitted their Great-Great grandfather to change his family name in 1914. “That’s interesting, I guess, Dad, but how could you not find out if we were vikings?” Freaking Vikings, I mumbled.
BUT… as I scavenged this folder for anything to save face, I found an envelope that contained a big wad of money! These bills were from the Philippines; brought back by my Grandpa who served in World War Two’s Pacific Theater. The boys perked up. I remember receiving these envelopes from my Grandma before she passed away. A quick online search showed these bills were Japanese Victory notes. The Japanese empire replaced native currency of their conquered nations with these bills. They hoped to create a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere that would be independent of western nations. Following the Japanese defeat, these bills became worthless and most likely a great souvenir for soldiers like my Grandpa, Corporal John M. Kelley.
An unintended lesson presented itself when my oldest son said, “Victory? The Japanese actually thought they would win World War II?” These bills are an excellent example how history is not pre-determined; that the people who participated in World War II did not have the advantage of knowing the results as we do now. Those people, both the Allies and Japanese, had to react as best they could at that time and both had plans for victory. I got a fairly enthusiastic, “Huh, cool.”
The younger one then stood with a bill in his hand and said. “Grandpa Kelley probably held this money while he was a soldier? Awesome!” I suggested that maybe he talked with his buddies about someday having great-grand children with those bills in his pocket. They both paused and smiled at that thought. I could tell they made a connection with my Grandpa through these notes. So although I could not confirm any Viking lineage, through a wonderful series of questions, we discovered some pretty interesting family and world history. It was a great night, even if I was asked a few hours later at bedtime to tell them again about the Japanese Vikings.
Can you think of other artifacts or pictures that show a side of history that did not work out as planned for a specific person or country? I can think of one right off the top of my head…