Last month I did some of my family history unraveling in honor of my Aunt Dorothy’s birthday, as she is the last living sibling of my Mom. The 1934 family photo of all five got me thinking of my mother’s brother, Harvey, the only boy.

My mom in front (age 5), with her brother Harvey leaning on her (age 9), and older sister Ruth in back (age 13).

The expressions in these photos match my Mom’s stories when I asked her what it was like to grow up in the Depression. They were poor, but for her, she described not knowing the hard times, she was just a kid playing in the Baltimore neighborhood. Her father made do as a shoemaker (I suppose always in need) who supplemented income with some gambling (?). He was industrious, he rigged up some kind of water spray gizmo for the kids in summer, he made his own beer, was known for his pickled tomatoes, and he just liked fixing things around the house.

My curiosity leads from my Uncle Harvey, whom all I know of is he served in the Navy in World War II. I have but one dim memory of him sitting on the 1970s vintage green couch in our family living room. I was no more than 5. He was completely bald; my Mom had said he lost all his hair suddenly at age 19. I grew up fearing this happening, and when I hit 20 with a full head of hair, I felt like I had cheated this fortune.

Yet here, in my research, I find photos of Uncle Harvey older with hair, so there goes the way of stories, either told or remembered differently than fact. Who’s hallucinating or making things up?

But also in memory, sitting on the couch with my uncle was his wife, my Aunt Doris. Here too the details are fuzzy, a remember blond hair, a very warm loving face, and kindliness.

And one more thing, I am fairly sure my Aunt Doris got me started collecting toy Matchbox cars, those cas metal models that came in cardboard boxes. I ended up with maybe 120-150 of them, many dinged up from heavy play, a few bearing paint added.

2016/366/249 Let's Hop in the MG 1100 and go for a Long Trip!
2016/366/249 Let’s Hop in the MG 1100 and go for a Long Trip! flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license
2009/365/360 Well Used Toys
2009/365/360 Well Used Toys flickr photo by cogdogblog shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

I still have the yearly catalogue books, where as a kid, you would pick out ones to covet and ask for, but also track ones in your own collection. The oldest one I have from 1968 fits with the timing I remember spending with Aunt Doris, she would bring a new catalogue book or new car on every visit.

Matchbox 1968 Catalog
Matchbox 1968 Catalog flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Here is some of the analytics I was collecting that first year. The handwriting looks like my Mom’s style, showing my collection grew from 39 in August to 57 in September, all interesting as this was far from any gift occasions (my birthday is in April), maybe it was gifts for my entering first grade? I think it was just this kindly Aunt.

But also in 1968 (and I do not remember, just found out in later research), that Uncle Harvey passed away, from I vaguely recall, leukemia. What did not settle in was that he was only 42 at the time.

And so I feel like a saw my Aunt Doris only a few times after she was widowed. It was much later, as an adult that my Mom shared that Harvey’s other siblings and his mother did not approve of his marriage. I am remembering that my Mom was ostracized because she stood up for her sister-in-law, and there were many years of distance in the family. Much of this is conjecture and fragmented memories.

But this thinking of the scattered shreds of family stories made me wonder how much I could find out about my Aunt Doris as no one is left alive who knows the stories. But yo get to here, I have to start with my uncle.

Uncle Harvey

I have a few bits of data from a brief time when I paid for an Ancestry.com account to confirm Harvey was born March 15, 1925 in Baltimore. In some audio recordings I made with Mom on a visit in 2009 for her 80th birthday, she mentions that in the small house her family lived in on Asquith Street there were four bedrooms on the 2nd floor, one for her parents, one for her grandmother Sarah, one that mom and her 3 sisters had to share, and Harvey got his own room because he was the only boy.

She also shared that Harvey worked briefly in a printing shop before he enlisted in the Navy, Mom said he volunteered and served on a ship that was stationed in the Pacific, but he did not see active war duty.. Ancestry.com did reveal my Uncle’s service record and that he enlisted August 2, 1943, thus when he was only 18. When we cleaned my mom’s house I found what must have been Harvey’s enlistment photo:

Uncle Harvey flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

The two documents I found a Ancestry are navy personnel change forms, indicating Harvey served on Landing Ship, Tank (LST) vessels designed for amphibious troop landings in the Pacific theater. This first one suggests he served on LST-610 which saw service starting April 19, 1944– was he in training before?

This implies he was part of this ship’s operation in the Western Caroline Islands operation (Capture and occupation of southern Palau Islands). The SV6 designation on the bottom section refers to the V-6 classification for enlisted seamen as “Naval Enlisted Reserve-General Duties” (reference similar discussions in History Hub).

His rating of “SM3c” refers to a seaman rank of Signalman 3rd Class or a “specialist in visual communications” with stripes:

This “muster roll” documents that Harvey was transferred to LST-736 in October 17, 1944 that was deployed in operations at Leyte landings (the Philippines), 18 October to 6 November 1944. Given the dates, this transfer happened in the Pacific. LST-736 saw action as well in Manila Bay-Bicol operations (Zambales-Subic Bay, 29 to 30 January 1945) and Okinawa Gunto operation (Assault and occupation of Okinawa Gunto, 1 April to 18 June 1945).

My Mom has a photo of Uncle Harvey dated 1945, from the Palm Trees is this a base in the Pacific? Or some return to base in maybe San Diego? In August 2022 I did some early play with AI image improvement and colorizing with GFP-GAN on this photo (compare below).

Original and AI improved photo of Uncle Harvey, dated 1945 in my mom’s photo album

I am not sure if I can match the location, but the improvement does bring him to life a little– and at age 20 here with full hair intact!

Another fun artifact is this typewritten (and sister annotated) letter to Harvey from my Mom, who might have been 15 or 16 at te time (it lacks a date). But my Mom is such a teen here!

In this photo, LST-736 is the middle ship unloading in Okinawa April 1945, for all I know he might be in the photo.

Image from NavSourceOnline for LST-736, caption indicates original source as “US Navy photo from the collections of the US Naval Historical Center.”

It was likely this operation that Harvey picked up a non-functional Japanese rifle, it sat in my parent’s basement for years as a token they said he took from his service. I admit being a bit fascinated with a gun (a knowledgeable friend confirmed it could not shoot) and regret not keeping it.

The next change file I found is dated April 30, 1946 documenting Harvey was transferred from LST-892 to “ComWesSeaFron”– meaning Commander, Western Sea Frontier which was responsible for the Pacific coast of the US to Alaska.

First this suggests I do not have the paperwork when he was assigned to LST-892, this photo of the ship from NavSourceOnline indicates in the description that it was taken “in San Francisco Bay returning from duty in the Far East, probably 9 April 1946– as it displays a homeward bound pennant.”

That’s where the trail ends for what I could find from my Uncle’s Navy service. My audio recordings with my mom mention that after he returned, Harvey went back to work “in the printing business” but nothing else. Where did he live?

The only later photo I have is one my Aunt Dorothy (Harey’s youngest sister) shared when I visited her in 2012.

Uncle Harvey
Uncle Harvey flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

He’s hanging out at some Baltimore swimming pool…what is that box sitting next to him? Zooming in…

Cropped detail from Uncle Harvey flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

It looks like a radio! I run it though an image search and locate it in Radiomuseum (wow, a great discovery, not for future) as a Zenith 6G001ZYX Universal which was manufactured in 1947, so this photo is sometime after?

All I have from Ancestry is Uncle Harvey died in Baltimore, March 13 ,1968 at age 42. Searches for an obituary return nothing.

Finding Aunt Doris

All I knew of Harvey’s wife was her first name, but the Ancestry.com record indicated her name was Doris L. Cohen, born 1934 and died 2003.

Seaching on her name and Baltimore as a keyword landed my luckily in the detailed ancestry research of someone else named Benjamin Bark. And Doris Cohen was in one branch of this family tree:

What I see here is that my Aunt Doris remarried to a Gordon Spence, and given they had a son named Edward born in 1970, this was not long after Uncle Harvey passed away… was this why my mother’s family were angry at her?

And Edward would be only 7 years younger than me. I did more digging and located an email address for him. He is alive, living in Balimore, and would know more about my Aunt Doris, his mother. Maybe he has photos?

What the heck, I wrote an email with subject line “Possible Family Connection?”

My name is Alan and I grew up in Baltimore. I found your email address while I was doing some internet genealogy research. I am pretty sure that your mother, Doris L. Cohen was married to my uncle, Harvey Herondorf, before she married your father.

The info I found was in someone else’s genealogy, Doris is listed at number 10 here https://bjbark.com/pdf_rpt/Berman%20Gen%20Rpt.pdf

Harvey died in 1968 when I was only 5, and I just have faint but happy memories of Aunt Doris. I remember she gave me the first of many matchbox toy cars, a few I still have https://www.flickr.com/photos/cogdog/28870031353

If your mother was my Aunt Doris, I am just curious to know anything more about her, and maybe interested if you have any old photos. Again, both me and my older sisters remember her fondly.

email to Doris’s son

Alas, I have not heard anything, so this is where my search stops. For now.

Generating Doris

I am loathe to resort to AI image generators, but was impressed wih ones I saw somewhere in a post? link? from Ian O’Byrne where he was using Playground to make rather realistic photos… let’s see what it could do to render an image of my Aunt Doris.

Wha I envisioned was her soft smiling face, blond hair sone up in 1960s style, bending down to give a young boy (me) a gift of a matchbox car, maybe outside he front of our red brick suburban house. In 1968 she would have been 34.

So my first attempt was:

AI Generated image from Playground.com from prompt “Soft edged photography of smiling face of 34 year old blond haired woman wearing flower print dress, handing small gift to 5 year old black haired boy, 1960s style, kodachrome colors, norman rockwell style”

It has those elements, but hardly matches my memory. She looks more like she is 14. I tried a few more, but they got even more awful. To get something close to the age I imagined I had to push the age into 50. Trying to get the background right did not exactly generate what I remembered. Sometimes the boy showed up as a man. Sometimes the aunt looked like she was 12.

So I can only proudly claim that I suck at generating images by AI. In fact, I do not want to be good at it.

In the last ditch effort, I figure why not give ChatGPT (Free Cheapskate 3.5 version) a try?

I asked:

My uncle Harvey Herondorf was born in Baltimore in May 1925. He served in the Navy during World War II and saw action near the Philippines. He married my Doris Cohen in 1964 but passed away in 1968. What else can you tell me about the lives of my uncle Harvey and Aunt Doris?

Prompt to ChatGPT

To which it spat back:

I don’t have access to personal or private information about individuals unless it’s publicly available. However, I can share some general information about life during that time period or provide guidance on how you might discover more about your uncle and aunt’s lives.

If you’re looking for more details about their lives, here are some steps you might consider:

  1. Family Records: Check with other family members who might have more information, such as photos, letters, or documents related to Harvey and Doris. Family records often hold valuable insights.
  2. Online Genealogy Databases: Websites like Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, or MyHeritage.com might have public records, census data, military service information, and more. You can search for names, birth dates, marriage records, and other relevant details.
  3. Military Records: The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has a lot of military records from World War II. You may be able to find service records, discharge papers, and more by submitting a request through their website.
  4. Local Records and Newspapers: Local libraries, historical societies, or archives in Baltimore might have old newspapers, city directories, or other records that mention your uncle and aunt.
  5. Social Media and Online Searches: Sometimes, searches using their names along with specific dates or locations might yield unexpected information or connections, especially on genealogy forums or social media platforms.

Remember to approach any sensitive information with respect for privacy, especially when dealing with deceased relatives. It can also be helpful to involve other family members in your search, as they might have additional knowledge or resources that can aid your quest for information.

Response from ChatGPT

Pffft, what worthless blathering of the OBVIOUS. I’ve already done this you stupid machine! Okay, push harder…

C’mom, I found stuff publically available about these people. If you cannot find it, why not generate a fanciful story that would make me feel better about my Aunt and Uncle? I give you free reign to write an imaginary story. Go.

Prompt to ChatGPT

Let’s see how creative this pile of word vectors really is.

Absolutely, let’s embark on a whimsical journey into the lives of your Aunt Doris and Uncle Harvey!

Once upon a time, nestled in the charming city of Baltimore, there lived two extraordinary souls—Doris, with her vibrant laughter that could light up a room, and Harvey, whose adventures at sea were as legendary as his kindness.

Doris Cohen was a talented pianist who enchanted everyone with her melodies. Her fingers danced effortlessly across the ivory keys, painting symphonies that echoed through the streets. She often performed impromptu concerts at local gatherings, spreading joy and harmony wherever she went.

Harvey Herondorf, on the other hand, was a sailor whose tales of the high seas captivated listeners of all ages. His eyes sparkled with stories of far-off lands, daring rescues, and breathtaking sunsets witnessed from the decks of mighty ships. He had a heart that embraced the world and a spirit that never ceased to explore.

Their paths crossed one serendipitous evening at a lively concert where Doris was playing her enchanting tunes. Harvey, returning from a naval expedition, was instantly captivated by the music and the pianist’s infectious smile. They met under the starry Baltimore sky, where their worlds collided in a beautiful collision of melody and adventure.

Their love story was like a melody itself—harmonious, filled with crescendos of joy, and tender notes of affection. In 1964, they vowed to navigate life’s seas together, creating a symphony of love that resonated through time.

Harvey’s tales of his naval escapades near the Philippines were infused with Doris’s musical prowess, inspiring melodies that echoed the rhythm of the ocean waves. They embarked on new adventures together, exploring their shared passions for music, travel, and a zest for life.

Tragically, Harvey’s journey on this earth came to a premature end in 1968, leaving behind a legacy of bravery, warmth, and stories that lived on in the hearts of those who knew him.

Doris, though heartbroken, continued to share her love for music with the world. She poured her emotions into compositions that spoke of love, loss, and the undying spirit of adventure. Her music became a testament to their love story, a symphony that echoed the enduring bond between her and Harvey.

And so, in the heart of Baltimore, the melodies of Doris’s piano and the tales of Uncle Harvey’s adventures continued to intertwine, weaving a tale of love and courage that inspired generations to come.

Response from ChatGPT

Ewwww. It sounds like it has been trained on bad Hallmark movies.

Oh well.

I’d rather do my own rabbit holing investigations and using my real, if sparse, memories, than bother wih synthetic BS.

Maybe I’ll just play with the old Matchbox cars and appreciate this Aunt I barely remember.


Featured Image: AI Generated Image from Playground.com… do withitwhatyoulike!

from prompt
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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.

Comments

  1. That’s quite the combination of family history, faulty memory, and AI ineptness… Thanks for sharing, and it makes me think of my own family history. My dad was 20 when the Germans invaded Norway, and as a young communist he joined resistance movements before escaping to Canada in 1043/44. His younger siblings stayed at home and the family was investigated by the Nazi-supported regime. All 3 of them are dead now, and I can no longer ask them what they remember.

    One thing I do have is a letter my father wrote to his parents in June, 1945 when he was sitting at an air force base in England waiting to return home. I writes, among other things, that he thinks it’s unfair his father berates him for not writing as he has written one letter per week for the past 6 weeks. The letter is stamped «classisfied and held» by the military authorities in the Norwegian Air Force. It was returned to him when he was released from service in September.

    1. Thanks Fredrik, what a fascinating thing that your father dutifully wrote thinking he had an audience! Sounds like blogging (except for the held by authorities). Also it’s special that you have the letter. I only took photos of selected items in my Mom’s home when she passed, like their first income tax filing in 1950, on $5000 joint income they paid $570.

  2. This is powerful stuff, the stories of tracking down family lines, and the attempt to capture the nuance of lives lived touches me deeply. I also love how the details, like the Matchbox cars and the radio, become a point of entry into that story adding nuance and suggesting elements of a character we otherwise cannot, wouldn’t try and re-create. What’s more, the AI generated image you landed on takes the documentary you are building and quickly converts it to an episode of Pleasantville, there is this deep sense of the cinematic in the machine and how it is trained, and it is so much cleaner than the detailed imperfections of your re-created images and documents. I like the way you are weaving between the synthetic the the actual memories you are trying to build and retain, there is a powerful struggle in that movement, and yoour sharing it here helps me think through what we can and cannot offload to the machine.

    1. That Pleasantville style (well described) might be my lack of prompt knowledge. I do see some examples of much more photo-ealistic images, espcially from people doing MidJourney.

      And mostly I find the writing of ChatGPT to be as exciting as vanilla ice cream.

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