"Strike the chords of Life's great autoharp whenever you may, and there comes forth the wails of misery and woe commingling with those of laughter and song"
[letter of Lucy Roberson to Ollie Roberson, from the Nevada Supreme Court case of Roberson v. Roberson, 41 Nev. 276, 169 P. 333(1917)]
Ollie and Lucy were two kids in Martin County, North Carolina. Ollie's dad was a bit of a wheel. They named the small town of Roberson for he and his two brothers. Roberson, North Carolina remains on the map today. I believe it has less than 2,000 residents. George Roberson, who was the father of George Oliver ("Ollie") Roberson, ran a general store there. I believe that George's own father had run the same store even back in antebellum days. The Robersons donated land to the town. They attended the Primitive Baptist Church. They were "good folk" in the view of their neighbors. History might judge less kindly, but History must stick to its own small claims court.
Ollie and Lucy fell in love when Ollie was yet a student. Like too many crazy, mixed-up kids in their time and ours, they decided to marry before Ollie or Lucy were in a position to support themselves. Ollie's Dad was a good fellow about it--he proposed to pay for Ollie's education during their newlywed years.
I can't tell you the parts of their relationship which involved roses and love poems and promises in the dark. I can tell you they were minors when they married. I can tell you that their relations crossed the expected boundaries of intimacy, such that Lucy bore at least one child. I can also tell you that the marriage did not work.
The couple talked it over, and decided to go their separate ways. Ollie moved from the piedmont of North Carolina to Reno, Nevada. Lucy moved in with her people, along with the couple's child.
In our current, better world of no-fault divorce, these kids would be split in simple fashion, Ollie would be assigned a child support duty, and the peregrinations I am about to describe might have been avoided.
Yet in this time, even as that time, people with funds generate legal controversy.
Ollie and his father apparently did not make arrangements for spousal or child support to flow to Lucy or their child. This was probably an unkindness on their part, but the history I have found provides scant factual basis for me to evaluate the situation. What I do know is that in due course a grand jury in
North Carolina indicted Ollie for desertion of Lucy and their child.
I found out about Lucy and Ollie's story when I ran the world "autoharp" through a computer directory of published cases, and found the quoted language above. This was actually the second appellate case involving Lucy and Ollie. Let me tell you about the first case.
In 1915, Ollie was arrested in Washoe County, Nevada on the North Carolina desertion count. Ollie elected to fight extradition. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ollie. It found that he had not really deserted Lucy, since they parted by mutual agreement. It also cast doubt on the couple's residency for the purpose of the desertion charge. Ollie was released from jail. I am not sure whether Lucy then pursued
child support in the civil system.
I am sure, though, that Ollie wrote to Lucy some letters inviting her to live with him again. The letters are unkind, casting negative aspersions upon Lucy, and pointing out, with some justice, that Ollie cold not return to North Carolina, due to the very real possibility of Ollie being jailed on that desertion charge.
Lucy, whose prose style bordered on the Victorian, wrote to Ollie that life is like an autoharp, in which no matter how you strike the chords, misery and woe commingle with laughter and song. I'd almost call this a stoic view, except that a stoic might then pontificate about controlling one's emotions. I might call it a Buddhist view, except that the imagery is a bit too literal for a proper koan. I'll call it instead a Primitive Baptist view. I like the Primitive Baptists, some of whom do not evangelize, as they believe that the saved are predestined to join them. Why preach to the damned? Misery and woe. Laughter and song. I do not share the Primitive Baptist view of a limited salvation, by the way, but it makes for interesting stained glass lens on the glasses with which they viewed the world.
The second Nevada Supreme Court case stemmed from Ollie's uncontested attempt to get a divorce in Reno.
While today a Reno divorce is easy to obtain, in that day, the trial judge read Ollie's somewhat whiny, critical, even sarcastic "come back to me" letters, and determined that Ollie was not in earnest. It is important to be earnest, to bowdlerize Mr. Wilde, and Ollie was not. The Nevada Supreme Court upheld the trial judge's denial of a divorce, finding that Ollie's letters were just "set up" letters for a divorce, and not a real attempt to reconcile. Ollie managed to lose a divorce case which Lucy did not appear to oppose. Till death do us part.
The third case involved Ollie's effort to sue the local newspaper for libel for its coverage of Ollie's
misfortunes. This case turned on a procedural point. Ollie's lawyer told Ollie not to answer some intrusive questions during his deposition. The trial judge disagreed with Ollie's lawyer. Rather than ordering Ollie to answer and perhaps finding him some attorneys' fees, the judge struck Ollie's entire suit. The Nevada Supreme Court did not tell us what the offensive questions were, but it reinstated his suit, so that he could answer the questions and go to trial. I do not know how the libel case came out.
I found this all fascinating. I wondered--what happened? When did Ollie and Lucy finally divorce? What became of them? I found little about Lucy, but here is what I learned about Ollie.
Ollie was featured in a magazine called "Personal Efficiency" promoting the La Salle extension education programs, and in particular its law school, a famous "diploma by mail" course of study that endured well into my young adulthood. Who knows? It may yet exist today. Ollie apparently worked as a law clerk in a law office in Reno. He studied the course, and passed the Nevada bar in 1917. Indeed, his libel lawyer turned out to be his boss. I did not find any appeals, though, in which Ollie was the trial lawyer. I think I know why.
In that day, as in this, commissions of officers in the military had to be approved by the Senate. In 1922, George Oliver Roberson was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Air Service, a precursor of the Air Force. I cannot say with certainty this is the same Ollie, but the timing seems just right. I also found a rather surprising thing--a bookseller on-line had on sale the 1928 edition of Stephen Vincent Benet's "John Brown's Body", featuring the inscription "George Oliver Roberson, first lieutenant, U.S. Army, Air Service". This book has a quote about young men and ennui:
"While he wasted his time in witty talk,
Or worse, in love with no minister handy,
Or feeding a spaniel on nuts and brandy
And taking a melancholy pride
In never choosing the winning side"
but I have no idea if this verse resonated with Ollie, or made Ollie think 'there but for the grace....",
with a shudder only one of primitive faith could fully enjoy.
If you've ever played the autoharp, then you know that it is designed to encourage laughter and song, as it produces clear chords with very little effort. I'm sure when Ollie and Lucy plotted their future together, they heard nothing but diatonic chords. So many of the human passions seem to be so diatonic
during one's first embrace of the sheet music, only to prove atonal when things get out of tune.
I share no further conclusions about laughter and joy, misery and woe, young love, litigation, lawyers and pilots and poets.
I'd like to know more about Lucy and Ollie, though I know a lot already. I am sure with time I will find out more.
I deal in secrets as a profession. They are rarely interesting. They are easy to keep, and often banal.
All the passions and most of the more domestic sins are bland beyond retelling. Tolstoi got it off a bit about unhappy families. He did better when it came to inequity.
Did Ollie's plane crash? Did Lucy remarry? Do the descendants of their child walk the Earth today?
I can't tell you. But their story speaks to me like the Tower of Babel, in words I should know but cannot decipher. They each make me feel human, and sadness and compassion, and amused.
I grew up in the story-telling South. I wish Ollie and Lucy the best of joy of the rest of their story. Perhaps, one day, I will know more.