“Don’t move.” From the passenger seat behind me, Bryan grabbed my headrest and pulled himself up. “That is one big bug,” he said with excess enthusiasm.
“Where?” I whispered.
“On top of your head, man!”
Manu, our guide and driver, looked up from his phone and leaned in over me. I sat motionless. “Ah, that’s the tse-tse.” Manu squeezed the insect between his thumb and index finger, lifted it from my scalp and brought it down in front of my face. About an inch long, the tse-tse looked like a horse fly on steroids. Manu snorted and casually flicked the bug through the open passenger window. “The bad tse-tse are in south Tanzania,” Manu said disinterestedly. “Not here in the north.”
Manu shifted the Toyota Land Cruiser into drive and gunned the engine. We were in Lake Manyara National Park, on safari. With me were my teenage daughter, and Bryan and his teenage son. We had traveled to Tanzania from Colorado to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro—for me, a mid-life adventure and father-daughter trip wrapped in one. Following a successful summit, we were taking a few days in the Tanzanian backcountry to see the wildlife.
As we continued on bouncing down the dirt road, the conversation in the car picked up. But I stayed silent. “There are still tse-tse flies in Africa,” I kicked myself. “How could I be so careless?” For me, the tse-tse fly was more than an insect. It is the stuff of family lore. As the Land Cruiser lunged forward toward a pack of wildebeests, I found myself being carried backward into the past, deep into the annals of London family history.
My dad’s father, E. Jack London (no relation to The Call of the Wild author), died before I was born. But I have early memories of my dad—also Jack London—telling stories of him. As a young man of 19, with a high school diploma, no great prospects, but a healthy dose of wanderlust, grandfather Jack enlisted in the U.S. Navy. The year was 1918. The U.S. had entered World War I the previous year, and was recruiting. On May 7, 1918, Jack reported for duty at the Pelham Bay Park Training Station, on the northern edge of New York City. Jack was administered a physical. His medical file listed him as 6 feet 1.5 inches, with a “sallow complexion,” and at 145 pounds, “24 pounds underweight.” Jack’s draft card was stamped “Eligible for Sea Duty,” and he was assigned a barrack and the rank of Seaman Second Class.
The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 struck while Jack was at Pelham Bay Park. The pandemic affected young people disproportionately, and 40% of the U.S. Navy caught the flu. History records that Pelham Bay Park was hit particularly hard, with more than 2,000 service men falling ill, and 145 losing their lives. But over a period of months there, through basic training and then gunnery school, Jack managed to skirt the virus. In the fall of 1918, Jack shipped overseas, and according to family legend soon found himself in East Africa. And then Jack’s luck ran out. Out on patrol, a tse-tse fly landed on Jack, and as he moved to brush it off the tse-tse fly bit him. Soon thereafter, Jack fell gravely ill with sleeping sickness.
At the time, sleeping sickness, contracted from a parasite transmitted through the tse-tse fly bite, was a major affliction in Africa. Once the parasite infects the nervous system, the patient becomes lethargic, or insane, and if left untreated slips into a coma and dies. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, sleeping sickness epidemics spread across equatorial Africa, including Tanzania and especially along the coast of Lake Victoria. By the time this area became a theater of battle in World War I, more than 200,000 Africans living in the region had died from tse-tse fly-transmitted sleeping sickness.
No one in my family knows when grandfather Jack was formally diagnosed with sleeping sickness. I’ve attempted to track his Navy unit, and curiously there’s scant record of American troops in Africa. But as told by my father, Jack was sent back to New York City, where he received a medical discharge from the Navy, and then embarked upon a life of disability. He was too weak to venture long from his bed, never mind hold a steady job. He married his sweetheart, my grandmother, shortly after his return, and they settled into a two-room apartment on West 72nd Street in Manhattan.
And then my father was born. My father never knew his father as other than an invalid. Their apartment was cramped. The living room, where my dad slept on a pullout couch, included a small kitchenette. The adjoining bedroom held the bathroom. As a young boy, my dad would stop on his way home from school to buy groceries, and then at the apartment the second half of his day would begin, with cooking and cleaning. There would be no other children.
Growing up with a stay-at-home mother and a disabled father, my dad’s early years were marked by urgency and duty. As a boy of 9, my dad was entered in a school contest—the assignment: to craft an original poem of 10 words, each word with two letters. My dad’s winning entry was, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” My dad literally raced through school, skipping grades when he could, and matriculated in college on his fourteenth birthday. He lived at home until he left for law school in Connecticut.
Just a few months after my dad graduated law school in 1941, the U.S. entered World War II, and my dad took a wartime assignment with the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., prosecuting members of the U.S. Nazi party. This experience nurtured an ambition to work in the Foreign Service, and my dad dreamed of one day becoming ambassador to France. But responsibility at home beckoned him back to New York City, and his dreams were shelved. He entered private law practice, and worked to support his family.
Meanwhile, my grandfather, ever weakened by his sleeping sickness, hung on into his fifties and then succumbed to his disease. I was born about a decade later. Even as a child I could sense how my grandfather’s illness continued to weigh on my dad. One day I came down for breakfast to find him sitting at the kitchen table, hunched and brooding over an old photo. From the doorway I could see my grandfather in the photo—shirtless, torso shriveled, rib bones protruding. And I connected my dad’s burden to his work ethic. He never missed a day of work. Each morning he would emerge from his bedroom at the same hour, with hat and briefcase, and we wouldn’t hear from him again until dinner. He typically brought work home, and after dinner would labor over paperwork for hours.
Raising his children, my dad leaned in heavily on the bromides. The one my sister and I heard most was, “If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” I took these matters to heart. I mimicked my dad’s ethic, born of his own dad’s misfortune, always striving to do my best.
My dad worked up to his death at the age of 66. I was a sophomore in college. His sudden absence left me disoriented, and I fought my queasiness by pushing forward, the heir to my father’s sense of duty and urgency. And as a result I’ve managed to end up with a resume oddly similar to my dad’s, right down to the same law school, and a career in private practice. Fair to say, the momentum I achieved from my dad’s example was strong, and I’ve ridden it my whole life, like a wave barreling toward an indeterminate shore.
Only recently, after my African safari and as I contemplated this essay, have I considered how a disruption that occurred a century ago—the bite of a single insect in a distant land—has impacted the generations that came after. It propelled my father inexorably, to great successes and sacrifice, which he passed on to his own children, a commanding but fraught legacy.
Yet when I think of my grandfather’s military service, and his own personal sacrifice, I am mindful that my father never fought in a war. Indeed, as a member of the professional class starting out in mid-century America, he was the beneficiary of an unprecedented peacetime and economic prosperity. Likewise, I along with many of my fellow Gen-Xers have benefited from an even greater peace and prosperity. And these great privileges have allowed me lately to lift my head, in a way that my grandfather never could, and my father never taught me to. And I have permitted myself, finally, to ask myself the question, When is plenty, enough?
There’s one more Jack London in this story. My son is now 17 years old, and like me, he never met his paternal grandfather. Jack recently shared with me his ambition to own a yacht. There is no plan to acquire the yacht. I’ve tried to steer his interest toward something with a lower depreciation, that doesn’t require a crew—maybe a Lamborghini. He’s having none of it.
And I’ll confess, I admire his gumption, especially as we navigate the current flu pandemic. In my middle age I’ve come to the view that goals, and the path to achieving them, may be best set in strict self-reflection, isolated from the prevailing winds. So I am intentionally careful about my own use of bromides around the dinner table. I want Jack to be able to connect with his own experience, to make his plans unencumbered by the patrilineal waves that overtook both his father and grandfather.
But I will also want Jack to understand how his ambition and opportunity were forged in a fire tended by those who came before him: how sailing on a yacht differs from cruising on a Navy vessel. How having a tse-tse fly plucked from your head in a Tanzanian safari park differs from being bitten by a tse-tse fly in a war-torn jungle, without healthcare in reach. That he understands that he is attached to a long line, and that line is firmly anchored in history—that as he beats on toward his future, his yacht against the current, he is, as we all are, simultaneously borne back into the past.
David London is a partner with the international law firm Hogan Lovells, where he specializes in intellectual property and corporate law. Born and raised in New York City, he earned his bachelor’s and law degrees at Yale University. His literary work includes essays and poetry and has appeared in literary journals and at Salon.com. He lives in Denver, and is a previous winner of the Colorado Bar Association’s prize for nonfiction writing.