Another factor that enabled us to become “first” was our ability to survive, combined with a propensity for risk-taking. I have to thank my implant dentist, Dr. Richard Niego, for this insight. He said he thought researchers would someday locate a gene for gambling/risk taking and for leaping into the unknown. Despite the fact that several of the women in the family died young of tuberculosis, our family certainly did survive.
Charley Houston, Anna’s brother, learned survival skills at an early age. The Civil War was still raging when he caught a boat to New York, walked into a recruiting station, and enlisted with the illustrious Lincoln Cavalry.
Charley told one niece that he was escaping cruel treatment as an apprentice carpenter. “How am I to get away without their knowing. Have you a bedstead in your room? I’ll be on the ground. You let down a cord. I’ll tie it to a rope. you tie it to your bedstead then down you come.”
My mother often repeated the story of how Uncle Charley changed his name from Houston to Hudson when he enlisted. What she didn’t say was that he also lied about his age – he was fourteen, not nineteen. And of course neither Mother nor Uncle Charley ever mentioned that he was a black kid riding with an all-white regiment.
People ask how he managed this feat. Here’s what I think. It was December 1864 when Charley walked up to the clerk in Brooklyn. The Lincoln Cavalry had seen combat since the beginning of the war. It defended Washington in 1861. Just weeks before it had come off a punishing campaign in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. So when Charley showed up – maybe a little young, maybe a little dark, and just barely tall enough, all they saw was a healthy, able-bodied guy who could ride a horse. He suffered a bullet wound to the thigh six days before Appomattox and received a disability discharge. Mother saved and treasured his enlistment and pension papers.