Familys Olympic tales spark new adventures

NEW YORK — The Evans family went to the Olympics this year to celebrate a family tradition.

My grandfather, Isaac Evans of Lithuania and later of Fayetteville, N.C., decided in the middle of the Great Depression that attending the Olympic Games was the "American thing to do."

For a struggling Jewish immigrant in the South who had neither money nor a previous encounter with the strange world of the American West, this was a crazy idea. But he got his 16-year-old son (my uncle Monroe) to share the driving all the way to Los Angeles, where the 1932 games were being held.

My father, Isaac's oldest son, was newly married with an infant son (my brother), so he could not go and was somewhat heartbroken.

Isaac devised a daring scheme to finance the trip. They filled the back seat of their Model-T with razor blades and Feenamint (a natural laxative) and traded these for gasoline and food as they drove across the country.

"The restaurants and the gas stations were glad to get" the blades and laxatives, recalled my uncle Monroe, now 80, who still lives in Fayetteville.

"It was a little unnerving as we drove and the gas gauge read empty. I had to learn salesmanship on that trip and self-confidence, too, but people sensed we were honest and maybe even saw the humor in it."

This was no smooth interstate highway trip to the West Coast.

"The roads were narrow and bumpy and dirt in places, and we rattled all the way across America, trading our razor blades and laxatives at every stop," my uncle said.

The experience was the great adventure of my grandfather's life and he loved to recount it, relishing the sheer bravado of it, fondly recalling during a family meal a funny story or an impressive site. It rivaled his tales of coming to America in 1880 from Eastern Europe and his early days peddling with a pack on his back.

I'm sure he told these stories as a morality tale or a dreamscape, to encourage his grandchildren to follow their stars.

My father always longed to make an Olympics trip, so in 1976 my brother Bob and I took him to Montreal. When Atlanta came along, Bob and I decided to relive the 1932 trip and close the circle with Isaac's great grandchildren. With my 11-year-old son, who is named after my father, and Bob's two grown sons and grown daughter, none of whom Isaac ever knew, we continued the family tradition he began.

Isaac was born in a Lithuanian shtetl 12 years after Lincoln's death; by the age of 12, he was en route to America alone on a boat. It had been a terrible century. His shtetl and the life he knew were totally destroyed by the Nazis in World War II, and America became the poetry of his life, the Olympics his symbolic hope for a better world.

Our children joined us to honor their great-grandfather's memory and to honor the Olympics' role in our family's legacy. And we tried to recapture the thrill this former Jewish peddler must have felt sitting in an Olympic stadium.

Both of his sons learned from the saga of his life that anything was possible. Years later, both served as mayors of their Southern hometowns.

Isaac would never believe what happened to us our first night in Atlanta: We were walking past a noisy restaurant where the entire Lithuanian basketball team was signing basketballs and T-shirts. The T-shirts, tie-dyed yellow and green, were designed in 1992 by the late Jerry Garcia to help finance the team's trip to the Olympics.

"This is beshert [destined]," I thought as my son proudly told an astonished player, "My great-grandfather was from Lithuania."

So now my son and I wave American flags while sporting colorful T-shirts with "LITHUANIA" across the fronts and on the backs, a new world map inscribed with the motto, "Live free or die."