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The Journey of Robert Monroe
FROM OUT-OF-BODY EXPLORER TO CONSCIOUSNESS PIONEER
By Ronald Russell
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Ronald Russell
All rights reserved.
On November 11, 1651, the sailing vessel John and Sarah left London docks. On board were several hundred Scottish prisoners, soldiers who had been taken by Cromwell's New Model Army at the Battle of Worcester. The English Civil War had ended with the defeat of the Royalists and the execution in 1649 of King Charles I. England was now a Commonwealth, with Oliver Cromwell at its head. The king's son, also Charles, refused to accept this. He assumed the title of king, was crowned at Scone, and raised a Scottish army with the hope of winning back the crown. The Scots had fought bravely under incompetent leadership. Many thousands were killed or captured at Dunbar in 1650, but the survivors persisted. Such was the state of Scotland at the time, divided and impoverished, that there must have seemed little left to live for.
Charles now led his army south, heading for London. They met surprisingly little opposition until they arrived at the outskirts of Worcester. For a few hours it seemed that the Scots might triumph, but the arrival of fresh English forces soon settled the matter. Charles was among the few who escaped. For the Scots this second defeat was a major disaster. Those of the clan chiefs who had not been killed were either imprisoned or exiled, and the wearing of tartan was forbidden. Among those taken prisoner was William Munro, twenty-six years of age, son of Robert Munro of Aldie, Aberdeen, sometimes known as the Black Baron, although he was neither.
(Robert, who had fought in the German wars and had died of wounds at Ulm in 1633, was the head of the nineteenth generation of Munros, a clan whose history stretches back to Donald, son of Occaan, prince of Fermonaugh. Donald had sailed from Ireland to help King Malcolm II repel invaders from Denmark and as a reward had been granted land bordering the Cromarty Firth, north of Inverness. This land, with headquarters at the castle of Foulis, remains clan property to this day.)
William was fortunate. After being captured at Worcester, he was neither executed nor imprisoned but instead sold to the plantations on the east coast of the New World. He was consigned to Thomas Kemble of Boston, who a few years later sold him as an apprentice at the Saugus Iron Works. By 1657 William Munro must have been a free man, as his name appears in the records when he and a certain Thomas Rose were fined for not having rings in the noses of their swine.
By 1660 William was settled in Cambridge Farms, now known as Lexington, Massachusetts, in a part of the town then called Scotland. In 1690 he was made a freeman, and he held several important parish offices. In 1699 he was received into the Communion of the Church. He married three times and fathered fourteen children—four by Martha George, who died in 1672 at the age of thirty-eight, and ten by Mary Ball, who died in 1692, aged forty-one. Shortly afterwards William married a widow, Elizabeth Johnson, who died in 1714 at the age of seventy-nine. Four years later William himself died, aged ninety-two. He was buried in Lexington, Massachusetts. Eleven of his children survived and are mentioned in his will. Thus began the Munro/Monroe line in the United States.
Among William's descendants was Ensign William Munro, who built the Munroe Tavern in Lexington, which later became a historical museum. He died at age eighty-nine, having fathered thirteen children, although few survived infancy. His grandson Lemuel enlisted in the Revolutionary War in 1776 at the age of seventeen and fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He served in the New York State Militia in the war of 1812 and in various other campaigns. In between times he was a farmer and boot maker. In a family known for longevity he exceeded all others, dying at the age of ninety-seven. It was probably during Lemuel's lifetime that the family adopted the Monroe spelling of their surname.
Lemuel's grandson, Robert Emmett, was also a farmer. He enlisted in the 6th Michigan Cavalry in the Civil War, being called up to take the place of a conscripted man who failed to show. His wife, Jane, served as a nurse during the conflict, acquiring a reputation as a healer. To treat wounds she used a poultice of bread and hot milk. On one occasion, when treating a soldier's badly cut leg, the bread she used was moldy. The leg healed very quickly, which was regarded by the local people as miraculous. It is suggested that the mold was producing penicillin, but in any event Jane always used moldy bread after that. The couple had eight children, two of whom died in infancy. Jane died in 1915 and Robert Emmett in 1921 at the age of eighty-three. They were the grandparents of Robert Allen Monroe.
In later years, Bob Monroe's childhood was closely examined for clues that might throw light onto what happened to him in later life. But only a ray or two of that light was forthcoming.
Bob's father, Robert Emmett Jr., was born on February 11, 1883, and brought up on the Monroe family farm in Webberville, Michigan. He was the fifth of his parents' six surviving children. In his early years he seems to have developed a particularly independent cast of mind, deciding that although he was a "farm boy" he had no desire to continue in the family farming tradition. He struck out on his own, determined to make his own way in life. It may be that it was the expectation of foreign travel that impelled him to study French at the University of Michigan, from where he graduated in 1908 with an MA degree. In the same year he married Georgia Helen Jordan, from Wabash, Indiana, whom he had met at university. Georgia, content to follow her own family tradition by studying medicine, had graduated in 1906, one of only six medical graduates in that year. After a year teaching French at Georgetown University, Robert Emmett obtained a junior professorship in Romance languages at Transylvania College, Lexington, Kentucky, where the family made their home. (It makes a neat coincidence that William, founder of the Monroe line in the United States, had settled in Lexington, Massachusetts.)
Robert and Georgia had five children, all born in Georgia's family home in Wabash, where she returned to live in the final stages of all her pregnancies. There were two girls to begin with: Dorothy, born in 1909, followed two years later by Margaret, usually known as Peggy. Robert Allen was born on October 30, 1915. His sister Dorothy recalled that he weighed twelve pounds at birth. The new baby was actually christened Bob Allen, but Bob was later changed to Robert by the school authorities on the assumption that this was really his given name. A younger sister, Georgia Helen, was born in 1919, but died when less than two years old. The family was completed in 1923 with the birth of Emmett Paul.
Bob's parents were both strong characters. Theirs was a household full of books and the sound of music. His father was vigorous and purposeful, with a restless, inquiring mind and a lurking sense of fun. As a parent he seldom displayed any signs of emotion, asking few questions and allowing his children a good measure of freedom, provided they did not interfere with the smooth running of the household. Georgia, described later by Bob as an idealist, held the family together with an air of quiet authority. Both parents accepted their children for who they were, despite the fact that Dorothy and Bob both at times pushed hard against the margins of acceptable behavior. Dorothy once described her father as a tyrant because he insisted that his children follow the school and college courses that he chose. He was suspicious of her boyfriends and threatened to withhold her pocket money if she did not conform to his wishes. It was a threat that failed to work, as she was blessed with a beautiful alto voice and could earn up to fifty dollars a time singing with a local choir. There was, however, concern for Peggy, a quiet little girl very much attached to Dorothy and quite different in nature and character from her elder siblings.
Lexington at the time was a small segregated town with a population of about thirty thousand and with tobacco warehousing the only industry. The Monroes had little to do with the town itself, Robert being a college professor and Georgia that exceptional creature for the time, a female MD. Robert was a strong, single-minded character; Bob later described him as "the authority figure in my childhood—calm and sure-footed, the one who made important decisions in the family, without even questioning the needs of other members." He refused to allow Georgia to practice medicine, insisting that her prime duty was to the family. The only time she was able to make use of her training was during the years of World War I, when Robert himself was overseas.
Apart from his job and his family—who seemed for the most part quite able to look after themselves—there was nothing in the locality to attract the lively minded Robert Emmett. He was drawn to the prospects of foreign travel, especially to Europe. He volunteered for war service and was sent to France in 1917. On the strength of his linguistic skills he was attached for a time to the French army. Although he saw no action in the field, he saw plenty of it in the boxing ring, becoming an army middleweight champion boxer and a boxing instructor. After the war he was decorated by the king of the Belgians for athletic coaching he undertook for the YMCA.
On returning to civilian life, Robert found his college remuneration barely sufficient for raising a family, and for some years they continued to live in apartments rented to them by the college. However, he soon found a way of increasing his income tenfold by organizing and conducting vacation tours to Europe for three months every year. His return from these visits were exciting occasions for the children, as with a ceremonial flourish he would open his portmanteau and distribute gifts to all.
What tensions did occur within the family were often relieved by Robert Emmett's sense of humor. He was also fond of a practical joke, as when he hid young Bob in his suitcase, producing him with much ceremony at a presentation to a group of prospective tourists, or when he terrified six-year-old Bob and his friends who were telling ghost stories in a graveyard by donning a white sheet and screaming at them from between the tombstones. He was something of an entrepreneur, setting up a small pottery and selling garbage collected from the college to a pig farmer. However, he was never much of a companion for his children, being deeply involved with his own concerns, especially in drumming up business for his highly profitable European tours. From these profits he was eventually able to buy a house for the family on Ashland Avenue in Lexington.
It was Georgia, described by her son Bob as "a doing person," who supplied the visible love and support for the growing children. She was the family peacemaker, seeking always to preserve harmony when disputes arose. Georgia was also a talented musician, playing the cello in a local orchestra. Both Dorothy and Bob inherited her musical ability, while her younger son Emmett followed in her family medical tradition. Peggy, however, was never able to pursue a career and it became clear that there was no prospect of her being able to live a normal life. It was not until she was about thirty that she was diagnosed as schizophrenic and had to be hospitalized for the remainder of her years.
Bob Monroe was a quick learner—he could read and write by the age of four. He was an active and adventurous child, eager to make his own way. He was left-handed, which concerned his parents, as they thought this would put him at a disadvantage. For a time they compelled him to put his left arm in a sling, but eventually they gave up trying. Generally, they allowed him to make his own way, provided that he did his chores as required and was home in time for meals. Still only four years old he was sent to kindergarten, but after one week he decided that it was not for him. He insisted that he should start school, to which his parents agreed provided he could get there by himself. This required him to walk sixteen blocks and cross a busy road, clutching three cents in his hand for his lunch—two cents for a peanut butter bun and one cent for a cup of watery cocoa.
Young Bob Monroe had several special interests at the time. The first of these was the cinema, and whenever the opportunity arose he would take himself off to watch whatever flickering black-and-white silent films were being shown. When talking about them afterwards, he would refer to the films as if they were in color. He also greatly enjoyed swimming in the recently opened local swimming pool and would talk about the underwater lights as if they were colored also. He was much surprised to learn in later years that they were not. It was as if he was interpreting imaginatively what he observed, especially when his mind was fully involved in what was going on.
Another special interest was music, and it was this that led to Bob's involvement with the church, despite the fact that his parents rarely attended services and there was no copy of the Bible in their house. His ambition was to join the children's choir, but this necessitated becoming a member of the church. He took himself off to consult the minister and, to his consternation, found that baptism by total immersion was compulsory if he was to be allowed to join. Having survived this experience, he was enrolled as a member of the choir. From time to time he also attended Sunday school, although he admitted to being more attracted by the oranges provided for refreshment than by the teaching he received.
Robert Emmett was not at all enthusiastic about his elder son's activities. Music, Robert Emmett insisted, was for sissies and girls, so Bob's requests to take piano lessons were firmly refused. Boxing was for boys, he declared, and he began to give his six-year-old son occasional lessons in what he thought of as the manly art. "I was a reluctant, then a willing student," Bob later recalled. This was just as well; as a contemporary of his remarked, "You had to know how to fight to establish yourself at the beginning of every school year." His boxing ability also meant that he could carry a girl's books on the walk home from school without being called a sissy.
Even so, boxing was no substitute for music. While Dorothy and Peggy were learning to play the piano, the only instrument available to their young brother was the harmonica. This he soon mastered; harmonicas became something of a passion for him, and in later years he amassed a large collection. He was also allowed to use the family wind-up Victrola that resided in a large mahogany case with a box of wooden needles. Although most of the available records did not appeal to him, he managed to borrow what he wanted from a friend, Harry Bullock, who shared his enthusiasm for such notables as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller. "Ain't We Got Fun" was a special favorite, as he recalled some seventy years later. Altogether his interest in music was so strong that when he attended junior high school he chose the music option, although this meant he was the only boy in a class of thirty girls.
Many of Bob Monroe's later concerns were prefigured in his childhood. In an early introduction to the entertainment world he was cast as Aladdin in a school production of Aladdin and His Lamp. Recalling this, his brother Emmett later suggested that the magic of the lamp may have been Bob's first contact with "the beyond." His chief interests at the time, however, lay in the world around him. Trains were a major attraction and young Bob spent much time at the local train yard, climbing on and under freight cars and locomotives and exploring the engine roundhouse. This interest was reflected later in his first successful radio production, Rocky Gordon, which ran for four years on NBC, with trains featuring in every program. Cars were another obsession for the growing boy, and by the age of ten Bob not only understood how their engines worked but he was also able to repair them. This was in contrast to his father, who when driving used only two gears—top and reverse. When his car broke down, which usually happened shortly after he had bought it, he would dispose of it and buy another one—any used car that was available. When Bob was thirteen his father at last acknowledged his expertise and agreed to follow his advice. From then on he became known as the professor who drove "hot cars with big souped-up engines," although to his son's despair he still preferred to drive in top gear.
Excerpted from The Journey of Robert Monroe by Ronald Russell. Copyright © 2007 Ronald Russell. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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