The Mystery

My grandmother, Henrietta Ellis Case, wrote this poem in March of 1955. I recently came across it together with many of her other writings preserved by my mother, Barbara Case Gauntt, and her younger brother, Stanford “Sandy” Ellis Case.

TO RALPH CLAPP
Deceased January 2, 1955

Lost in the fog of what might have been
Torn by a cruel war then
Thrown into civil life again
What are the odds against such a foil
Plummeted from the battle’s roil
Into the drudgery of toil

Of ever losing the gnawing fear
Doesn’t fit and people leer
Into his soul they pry and peer
So he must hide himself and try
To call up courage hard come by
When all the world seems such a lie.

No time to do what he likes best
No time to think no time to rest
Just the role of unwanted guest
In a country where success the king
Leaves small poets no right to sing
Of joys that only reflections bring.

The battle to live to sleep to eat
To keep good shoes on baby’s feet
Do what’s expected then repeat
Hard goals we set for heroes unsung
And so the soul’s death knell is rung
The mold is set for driven young.

Some time I believe the old must pay
The debt we owe our young today
No boon we grant when first we say
You always must successful be
More gold must earn to flatter me
Never again can you be free.

Write not your tales we think it is wrong
No time to sing your poet’s song
Of what you feel, you must belong.
You must do as we do, strive and work
So you may at your neighbors smirk
Lest failure at your heels should lurk.

We must be wrong to hurry them so
Dark confusion becomes their foe
With no defense then they must go
So far within an escapist cave
We cannot follow cannot save
No comfort give no wounds can lave.

We pray forgiveness you driven young
For tales untold and songs unsung
Our poor starved hearts will e’er be wrung
That you had no time for heart’s desires
No time for inspirations fires
Your talent thrown on golden pyres.  

                                                Henrietta Ellis Case    March 2, 1955

Vern and Henrietta Case at their daughter, Barbara's 1946 wedding.

I was struck by the power and intimacy of Henrietta’s poem. Melancholy drips from her carefully chosen words. It was readily apparent, Ralph had a difficult time returning to civilian life. I assumed he fought in World War II, but it could have also been Korea. He wasn’t the only one; my father, Grover Cleveland Gauntt Jr. and so many other men came back changed, scarred. They saw the world, their fellow man and themselves at their worst. The exuberance and optimism of their youth were left behind on the battlefields.

But, who was Ralph Clapp, and why did my grandmother write a poem about him?

I wished I could have asked my grandmother and my mother about Ralph, but they both had already passed on. Interestingly, they share the same transition date: June 11. Henrietta died of a heart attack in 1976 at the age of 79, and her daughter Barbara lost her battle with congestive heart failure in 2012 one month shy of her 91st birthday.

Who Was Ralph Clapp?

I reached out to the patriarch of our family, my uncle Stan Case, for any insights he might have about the poem, Ralph Clapp, or his family. Initially, he did not.

For some reason, I couldn’t let this go. I was compelled to find out more about Ralph Clapp. He clearly had planted a huge footprint on the psyche of my grandmother; she a very tough minded woman. What did he do during the War? Did he have a family? Who were his parents? Where did he live? How did he die? How did my grandmother come to know him so well?

No doubt I was motivated by what a near stranger, Emily Sue Buckberry, had unwittingly done for us in 2008 three months after our 24 year old son Jimmy Gauntt was accidentally struck and killed by an automobile: Finding, holding onto and, 40 years later, getting to me THE LETTER my father wrote to me that summer in 1968 I spent working in Coalwood, West Virginia. That story is told in this ten minute film created by my good friend Steve Date. https://vimeo.com/132897727

Steve Date

I turned to my trusted sources, GenealogyBank.com and military records sleuth extraordinaire, Patti Johnson, and turned up some information. Ralph Gardner Clapp was born September 11, 1923 in Long Beach, California, to Charles Gardner Clapp and Christine Mills Chesnut.

His older sister, Marjorie, was born in 1921 in Wyoming.  Ralph registered for service on June 30, 1942 at the age of 18 while he was a student at the University of Arizona in Tuscon.  He enlisted in the Army on November 21, 1942 in Phoenix.

Long Beach Independent January 23, 1945

An article in the January 23, 1945 edition of a Long Beach paper reflected Private Clapp was wounded in the European Theater during World War II.

Ralph married Dorothy A. Koehmstedt on September 27, 1946. She was born in Los Angeles in 1924. She attended UCLA and was a member of the Theta Phi Alpha sorority. During her senior year Dorothy was president of her sorority and upon graduation in 1946 she received the prestigious Senior Bracelet as one of the outstanding senior women.

Ralph and Dorothy had two sons.   Charles was born in Los Angeles in 1947 and Donald in Denver in 1949.

On Genealogy Bank. com, I found an article in the January 3, 1955 edition of a north San Diego County paper. Ralph had been tragically killed the night before when the jeep he was driving on Highway 76, four miles north of Rincon Springs, overturned and he was pinned underneath.   

Escondido Times Advocate Jan. 3, 1955
Escondido Times Advocate January 4, 1955

As noted in Ralph’s obituary, he was a free lance writer and living with his folks in north San Diego County at the time of the accident. Dorothy and their two young sons were living in South Pasadena.

Ralph Gardner Clapp (1923-1955)

Charles Gardner Clapp

Ralph’s father, Charles, was born in Chicago on December 2, 1894. He came to California in 1912. Per the 1930 census, he was living temporarily in Oregon in a boarding house with several other men, and working construction.  Ralph was 7 at the time and he and his mother and sister stayed in Los Angeles. The country was mired in the Great Depression that began the year before, and their dad went there to find work.  

In 1945, Charles was working for the W.E. Callahan Construction Co. based in Los Angeles.  Callahan and the Gunther & Shirley Co. had been awarded a mammoth contract by the Navy to bore three tunnels through the mountains of Poway, San Vicente and Fire Hill as part of the San Diego Aqueduct project.  Upon completion of the tunnels and 71 miles of pipeline, San Diego tapped into 50 million gallons a day of desperately needed water from the Metropolitan Water District.  San Diego’s population exploded during World War II and outgrew its water supply based mostly on the meager annual rainfall.

San Diego Union Tribune, May 24, 1945

Charles Clapp was the general superintendent for construction of the tunnels.   His responsibilities included labor negotiations with the trade unions who ordered their men to walk off the job several times during the two years of construction.

San Diego Union Tribune February 1, 1947
San Vicente Water Tunnel in San Diego February 27, 1946

Charles Clapp died in 1957, two years after his son, also in San Diego. He was 63 years old.

Escondido Times Advocate January 11, 1957
Charles Gardner Clapp (1894-1957)

This was all very interesting, but I had not yet found anything that shed any light on a connection between Henrietta and Ralph or his parents. I searched through my grandmother’s other writings and journals–nothing.

My uncle Stan had sent to me a couple of years ago several documents and correspondence he and his late wife, Joan Westlund Case, had preserved over the years regarding the construction companies founded by Henrietta and her husband Vern Case. I figured it was a long shot, but I poured through several hundred pages dating back to the 1930s through the 1960s and…….Bingo!

I found a blue backed legal document prepared by the Case’s long-time legal counsel in Los Angeles, Hill, Farrer & Burrill. It was a Release of claims, dated June 12, 1952, in favor of Vern and Henrietta Case and the V.D. Case Company, and it was signed by Brian Bishop on behalf of his father-in-law, Charles G. Clapp. Brian was married to Mr. Clapp’s daughter, Marjorie.

Charles Clapp’s Release of Claims against the V.D. Case Company

Attached to the Release was the Power of Attorney, dated and signed by Mr. Clapp on January 25, 1952, appointing Mr. Bishop as his attorney-in-fact in the litigation.

This document pertained to a settlement of a lawsuit brought by Mr. Clapp against the Cases in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Case No. 581067. The documents did not reveal the subject matter of the litigation.

Hill Farrer & Burrill LLP is still in business in Los Angeles, and I know one of their partners. I reached out to him to see if, by chance, they might have retained the file on this 61 year old case. Unfortunately the files were destroyed years ago.

I sent the Release document to my uncle and it helped trigger a memory.

If I ever knew about a lawsuit brought by Charlie (my Dad’s name for him) Clapp against Vern and his company, I have forgotten about it. I do remember the man. In fact, here is a photo of Charlie and me in a boat fishing on a lake at Horse Mesa Dam in Arizona. It’s from around 1939. Maybe I was 10 or 11. Charlie wasn’t a regular employee, but I seem to remember him acting as the Project Manager for Case Construction Company’s on some projects including the Gibraltar Dam job that I worked on one summer in 1945 or 1946. I always felt Vern held him in high regard.

Charlie Clapp and Stanford “Sandy” Case at Horse Mesa Dam Arizona 1939

The pieces of the puzzle were beginning to find their place. Charlie and Vern had known each other since back in the 1930s. Before Henrietta and he moved the business to Chicago in 1954, Case Construction Company was based in Long Beach. Charlie and Dorothy lived in Long Beach at least some of the time, and perhaps that is where Henrietta first got to know Ralph.

Ralph’s mother, Dorothy, was remarried in 1960 to James N. Riley. They lived in South Pasadena with her sons, and her husband was a successful mechanical engineer. Dorothy passed away in 2007.

Dorothy Koehmstedt Clapp Riley (1924-2007)

I don’t know if Henrietta ever shared her poem with the Clapp family. I thought, ‘If someone wrote a poem like that about my father I’d want to see it.’

Before I learned anything about Ralph and his father’s connection to Vern Case, I found someone on Ancestry.com who had included Charles and Ralph Clapp in their family tree. I sent him/her a message together with the poem.

My grandmother, Henrietta Ellis Case (1897-1976), wrote this deeply moving poem titled TO RALPH CLAPP-DECEASED JANUARY 2, 1955, The poem is dated March 2, 1955. I’m trying to ascertain Ralph’s relationship to my grandmother. He’s not family, but she wrote so personally about him and his life during and after the war–they must have known each other. Thank you for any help you can provide.

I received a reply within a couple of days. Thank you for sending along this poem. I will try and get it to Ralph’s sons.

I continued my research on and off over the next several weeks, and when my uncle sent me the photo of Charlie Clapp and him I decided I’d try to reach out to Ralph’s sons directly. Patti Johnson was able to find some addresses for Charles II and Donald. I wrote them a letter, enclosed the poem and photo of their grandfather, and mailed them off.

You don’t know me, and I apologize if this catches you off guard.   A few months ago, I was going through some family papers my uncle had sent to me.   Among them was the enclosed poem written by his mother, my grandmother, Henrietta Ellis Case, titled TO RALPH CLAPP, Deceased January 2, 1955.   I believe Ralph is your father. 

Neither my uncle, Stan Case (89), nor I knew of a Ralph Clapp, or why Henrietta (who died in 1976) would write such a powerful and deeply personal poem about him.  It is apparent from her words that your father struggled to return to a “normal” life after World War II.  So did my father, who spent two horrific years in the Pacific Theatre, as well as I suspect hundreds of thousands of other men. 

I suppose I could have just let this go, but I felt a need to at least try to find out more about your father, the connection to my grandmother and get her poem to you.

I summarized what I found, offered to send it to them and enclosed the photo of my uncle and their grandfather. I closed with this:

It is clear that Henrietta was deeply moved and saddened by the death of your father and knew a lot about him; and Vern Case and my uncle thought highly of your grandfather.   I know you both were very young when your father was killed.

I don’t know if this is helpful to you.   I suppose I am partly motivated by the fact someone did something like this for me ten years ago (I’m now 69) involving my father who died by suicide in 1970 when I was 20.    If you like I can share that story with you sometime.

I have not yet heard back from Ralph’s sons; and perhaps I never will. I’m perfectly OK with that. I did what I was supposed to do: Blow dust off Henrietta’s poem, find the connection between Ralph Clapp and our family, and get the poem into the hands of the Clapps. Where it has always belonged.

Henrietta Ellis Case indeed wrote something beautiful.

Porterville High School Graduating Class of 1915

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Author Bios

Write Me Something Beautiful Authors - Casey and Jimmy Gauntt

Casey Gauntt

is a retired attorney and former senior executive of a major San Diego real estate company. He lives in Solana Beach, California, with his wife, Hilary. Casey grew up in Itasca, Illinois, graduated Lake Park High School in 1968, and received B.S., JD and MBA degrees from the University of Southern California.

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Jimmy Gauntt

was born and raised in Solana Beach and graduated from Torrey Pines High School in 2002.   A prestigious Trustee Scholar at the University of Southern California, he majored in English and Spanish. He authored six plays, five screenplays, and a multitude of poems and short stories. Beginning in 2010, the USC English Department annually bestows the Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award—aka “The Jimmy”—to the top graduates in English.  Jimmy passed over to the other side in 2008 at age 24.

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