02/25/2013 04:04 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2013

The Reluctant Traveler

I love a good story. I especially love a good story if it's true. And most of all, I love a good story if it's true, and it's about my family. History comes alive for me when I can imagine my own relatives living in different times and places, connected to me, and yet unknown in so many ways. It piques my curiosity, and leads me to want to do more research.

Luckily, relatives on both my mother's side (Crocketts) and father's side (Daveys) have done extensive genealogical history, which is made easier because both sides came from Great Britain, where the records are meticulously preserved. I do understand that it can be annoying to some people to hear others go on and on extolling (and exaggerating) their illustrious family histories.

My own father, when subjected to such conversations, delighted in interjecting the fact that we are descended from a woman that was rumored to be the illegitimate daughter of the famous sixteenth century writer, Samuel Johnson!

The records on my mother's side go all the way back to the time of William the Conquerer, and the Battle of Hastings in 1066. But in case that sounds like a big deal, I would be willing to bet that many of you with British heritage can find the same thing. After all, the gene pool at that time wasn't all that big. Websites like and television shows (Who Do You Think You Are and Finding Your Roots) have enjoyed great popularity, perhaps because in such an uncertain world, we intuitively reach back in time for a feeling of stability and continuity.

Meanwhile, back to my family: it is supposed that the Crocketts came to Virginia from England with John Smith in 1607. I come from a long line of ancestors who served their country in the Colonial, Revolutionary and 1812 Wars. I like to think of them as explorers and adventurers, with wanderlust in their DNA. All, that is, except for one, whose story seemed to jump off the page of our family album, and wrap itself around my heart. His name was John Boise, and he's my only relative that I think of as a "reluctant traveler."

Before I tell you John's story, I have to tell you another amazing fact that I've just discovered. John Boise was my great-great-great-great-great grandfather (5 greats) on my mother's side. Richard Thomas Atkinson was my great-great-great-great (4 greats) on my father's side. Turns out that, in comparing their lives, I discovered that they were both with Washington in Valley Forge during the harsh winter of 1777-78, when one quarter of Washington's men either froze or starved. Boise and Atkinson would have had no clue about a future family connection, but could my forbears possibly have met? One can only estimate the odds.

At the age of 16, John Boise had enlisted as a soldier of the Revolution in March of 1777. He was engaged in several battles - and was even wounded in one - before finally landing at Valley Forge with Washington's army. In the summer and fall of 1779, he was with the expedition organized under the direction of Washington and commanded by General John Sullivan, against the "Six Nations of Indians." The troops did some severe fighting and marched over several hundred miles through what was then an almost unbroken wilderness, in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

It was in that fall of 1779 that poor John's luck finally ran out. Taken prisoner by the British, he was put on board a vessel and carried first to Limerick, Ireland, and then to the infamous Mill Prison in Plymouth, England. Like many such prisons at the time, it was a notorious hell-hole, where deaths and brutal mistreatment were a daily occurence. Stories abound in history about various ingenious ways Americans escaped from Mill Prison - such as burrowing out in tunnels, or wading through sewers.

All I know for sure is that John, along with a number of others, made his escape, stealing a long boat and heading out to sea. How relieved the prisoners must have felt when they were picked up by a French vessel on its way to America. At the young age of 18, John had made an unwanted journey to England, and suffered the indignities of prison life, but now he was on his way to safety - and home.

Or so he thought.

As the French ship passed Sandy Hook and was within sight of New York City, a cruel fate intervened once more. The vessel was captured by a British Man of War, and the soldiers were transferred to the ship Essex, enduring the long journey back across the Atlantic to be committed once more to Mill Prison. As a punishment for trying to escape, the jailors compelled John to wear sixty pounds of iron for sixty days.

To vary the monotony of prison life, John kept a diary and completed a book of sums. After the surrender of Cornwallis in October 1781, he was released and returned to America. Once back home, he was offered quite a lot of money for his collected diaries, which he called, The Mementoes of Prison Life. However, he refused to part with them, which turned out to be a huge loss to history because, sadly, they were destroyed by fire in a schoolroom in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Nevertheless, John went on to live a relatively happy and prosperous life. However, I'm quite sure he had no interest in venturing out across the Atlantic Ocean ever again.

Having been a Pan Am flight attendant for 20 years, I think of the hundreds of times I've crisscrossed the Atlantic, at times peering out of the Clipper cabin or cockpit windows, observing how slowly the tiny ships below were moving. For John, in shackles and malnourished, the journey must have seemed to last an eternity. For me, travel has always been an amazing adventure. But that's easy for me to say. I've lived in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Poor John Boise didn't.

There's a saying that "tragedy plus time equals comedy." If my 5-great grandfather could have time-traveled forward into Pan Am's glorious heyday, how different he would have felt about travel. I can imagine him settled comfortably in a Pan Am First Class seat, enjoying the sumptuous 7 course meal catered by Maxim's of Paris, served by a smiling stewardess and contemplating the fabulous cloud formations and tiny ships below from his window seat.

What a difference a few centuries make!