This is a eulogy for my father because his story should be told. Much of this story is rambling and hard to follow. This is because I’m grieving for the father I never had and because no one in our family knows what happened in this man’s strange life. If you’re confused, so are we.
And if you have any stories to share of Jim’s life, please share them in the comments. Corrections are also welcome because I’m quite certain that some of this is dead wrong.
My father, Jim Poe, has passed away. He died on the morning of June 26th, 2019 and this is the story of his life as I know it. I’ll try to be fair, but there are several unreliable narrators in this story, not the least of whom is me. Further, most dates in this story should be taken with a grain of salt because it’s very hard to piece them together. All of Jim’s known surviving children, and his fourth wife, Valerie, have contributed to this recollection.
This writing is an attempt to process my grief for a man I did not know, but who I always wanted to have as part of my life. And I have, to my astonishment, a plethora of heretofore unknown brothers and sisters who are similarly grieving. To all of his children who’ve survived Jim (Gayle, Greg, Lewis, Lynne and possibly others we don’t know about), I love you dearly and forgive me for airing dirty laundry. And for all our father’s lies, I do believe him when he denies being a Soviet spy. More on that later.
Jim was born in Texas in 1941. He has a surviving brother who lives in Colorado.
When Jim was 16 years old (though given his numerous “birth dates”, this is questionable), he married for the first time, to a 13-year old girl. This was legal at the time and given that she was with child, understandable. Their child, Randy, was my half-brother. I first learned about his existence when I was about 12 or 13, when my mother, Jim’s second wife, came outside to tell me that Randy was dead. Apparently he went into the woods with a gun and never came out. Hunting accident? Suicide? Murder? I don’t know. I just know that, at that age, I was confused I had never been told I had another brother.
After Jim had left his first wife, he talked wistfully about a woman named Janis who he briefly dated in Texas. Jim being Jim, they drifted apart and over the years, he said he wondered what happened to her. In 1967, the year I was born, he found out. Janis Joplin became a superstar. That being said, Jim is one of the many unreliable narrators of this story.
Jim met my mother, Caroline “Karee” Tom around 1961, in Portland, Oregon. They fell in love and had a quick, private wedding, much to the consternation of my maternal grandparents. In 1962, my sister Gayle was born. A couple of years later, our brother, James Lewis Poe Jr., was born, but he passed away at six months, due to a heart problem from birth. I was born in June of 1967, in Fort Worth, Texas, the town our father had fled from.
I use the word “fled” with care because I don’t know exactly what happened. Jim told me what happened, but he was very drunk at the time and later denied all of it. Other family members have shared variations of the story, but with it all being hearsay and drunken recollections, I don’t want to tar his name with a story I don’t know to really be true. I do remember, however, Jim being sober and telling me he joined the navy “one step ahead of the boys in blue” (the police). That would fit with every variation I’ve heard.
In the early 60s, Jim was a sailor and was briefly in Portland, Oregon, where, as mentioned, he met my mother. He had already left his first wife and my mother dropped out of college, at least in part to be with him. They traveled quite a bit and in 1966, while he was in the Navy stationed in Gourock, Scotland, I was conceived. My sister Lynne, née Charlotte, was also conceived in Scotland to a different mother, Eliza.
Lynne was conceived two weeks later than I. I like to describe it as an embarrassing exercise in familial mathematics. Lynne just says we’re twins. I think Lynne’s description is nicer.
Our brother Greg, same mother as Lynne, was born February, 1969. And later our brother Lewis was born April, 1978, to Valerie Poe, Jim’s fourth wife (between Eliza and Valerie was Janath, but I don’t know much about her). If you’ve been keeping track that makes seven children by four mothers. That we know of. Jim denied there were any more, but given that he’s often been less than honest with us, we’re skeptical.
Our sister, Gayle, was the only sibling I knew growing up. She remembers Jim as a wonderful father who would sometimes have strange people visiting our home in Scotland, including a man with one hand. My paternal grandmother, Birdie (who I didn’t know, but Gayle did), recollects that Jim had a solid career in the Navy and had received a commendation for helping to capture a Soviet spy onboard ship. This was the first of many strange “Soviet” stories surrounding our father. However, I can’t verify this because even though I filed a Freedom of Information request for Jim’s naval records, I was informed the US Navy had no records for him.
That being said, Gayle shared this tidbit:
I remember him picking me up like a sack of potatoes and putting me over his shoulder when he would come home. I don’t like peppermint lifesavers, but I loved them because he gave them to me.
She also said:
I remember dad coming home one night and a man was with him. He had a bandage on the end of one arm. I, being 4 or 5, thought he had lost a hand. I also remember mom throwing a metal file box at him and screaming at him. They left. I questioned him about that when I was staying with him in Idstein (Germany). He remembered that but said I was mistaken about the missing hand.
It was during this time in Scotland that the relationship between Jim and my mother deteriorated, as evidenced by my sister Lynne’s birth two weeks after my own. There’s much more I can say, but I don’t know what is true and what is not.
My mother returned to the US (possibly involuntarily) and I was born in Fort Worth. Jim left the Navy at this time and applied for many jobs in the UK, hoping to stay. But he had to return to the US and when he first saw me in early 1968, he picked me up and I vomited all over him. I was a precocious child.
As Jim tells the story, he was in the US, but quickly received a job offer in the UK and he was on the next plane back, never to live in the US again. I was told at one point that mom had been contacted by the FBI regarding Jim’s whereabouts, with instructions to contact them if he ever returned to the US, but I’ve no idea if this is true. Many years later Jim would return to the US to do some work, but he never lived there again and had no desire to do so.
And that’s when the story gets even more muddled. After he returned to the UK, he fathered Greg and, later, visited London for another job interview. When he returned home, he found his wife, Eliza, in a compromising situation and ordered her to sort herself out (I’m omitting some details). She did so by leaving Lynne and Greg with a neighbor and moving away. The children were then put up for adoption.
By one version of the story, he tried to claim his children but couldn’t since he was an American and not married to Eliza. But when I asked him about he said he gave them up because he didn’t have a lifestyle conducive to having children and he had no idea how to be a father. However, he was married again someone named Janath and, according to Lynne ...
[Jim probably gave Lynne and Greg up for adoption because] Janath instigated it, he paid maintenence to the local authority for our upkeep until we were adopted and sent presents at Christmas time.
Now, if you think the story was muddled before, it gets even weirder from here on out.
So Jim was with Eliza and our brother Greg was born early in 1969, but from 1970 to 1974, Jim was living in Moscow and met and married someone named Janath. Jim worked for a UK company, ICL (International Computers Limited) , as a computer engineer, but behind the Iron Curtain . This led to quite a bit of familial speculation about him. He was reluctant to discuss this and when he once sent me his “resumé for his life” (which I’ve sadly lost), he was fairly detailed about many of his jobs outside the Iron Curtain, but was quite fuzzy on what he did while he worked in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. I do know that in the US Navy, he held a top-secret clearance as a Polaris Missile technician. Given that he was working for a British company behind the Iron Curtain, that would certainly upset the US government.
By Jim’s account, he was persona non grata at the US embassy while he lived in Moscow. Despite being fluent in Russian, he couldn’t exactly hang out with Russians because the Soviet government frowned on fraternizing with Americans. Thus, Jim’s “watering hole” was a bar at the British embassy because there was no one else with whom he could socialize. Here are a few tidbits that I remember from my conversations with Jim (paraphrased from memory, of course):
I was in the British embassy, having a drink, when I asked the waitress her name. She said it was “Janeth”. I was surprised because that’s such an unusual name and I told her that I knew a woman named “Janath”. I thought she’d find that interesting but instead, she got very upset. Her name was “Janice” and she though I was making fun of her lisp.
Jim would also tell a story of being at the British Embassy in Moscow and George Best , was there. Best is considered to be one of the finest football (soccer) players in history and was also a raging alcoholic with a huge fan following in Moscow. He and Jim got drunk together, with Jim allegedly being the last man standing. Jim had many talents and drinking was one of them.
And then there was the late night “drunken” email, that I asked him about later. He sent it to Lewis, Greg, and myself—but not to Gayle or Lynne—in 2010. I assume he was drinking at the time (he usually was) because he rarely shared personal anecdotes like this:
This movie - “Quiet days in Clichy” was cult when I was in Moscow in 1970 to 1974. All of the embassies had a copy and played it regularly. I got the tape from my friends Tony Conyers of the Daily Telegraph and Dennis Blewitt from the Daily Mail. It really brought back some fond memories when I found this on YouTube.
It is from a book by Henry Miller. “Clichy” is a suburb of Paris.
The link was to a preview of “Quiet days in Clichy” and, from what I understand, even though they played it at the British embassy, it was banned in the UK. I was very surprised by the email because our father rarely shared anything personal. He would sometimes share a joke, but this was part of his life. So, since I work extensively with the Web, I tracked down the film and create a private link he could download it from. And I watched it.
It was porn. I was happy that my father was reaching out, unprompted, to share something about himself. And it was porn.
After I sent him an email with the download link he replied “Thanks Curtis, You can take it down.”
And that was it. He sent the email at 11PM his time, apparently drunk, trying to reach out.
I’ve no idea what to make of this, other than knowing that he had feelings, but didn’t know how to express them. I asked him later and his “fond memories” were watching this banned film, with friends, in the British embassy in Moscow. From what we can gather, Moscow was a fantastic time in Jim’s life, full of screwing around, partying, and generally being Jim. It was a time of his life he seemed wistful for, though he did seem to suggest that he only had the British embassy bar as an outlet.
You have to keep in mind that this was during the Cold War between the USSR and the USA. Given that Jim worked on Polaris missiles and was now living in Moscow, speaking fluent Russian, the US government was not happy. Jim said it was laughable the few times he was approached by someone for casual chitchat and it would be obvious that US intelligence was again trying to find out if Jim was a traitor. Jim swears he wasn’t a spy and his being there wasn’t political. It was just a job.
Lewis’ mom, Valerie, is an amazing woman and I’m happy to have met her. She was kind enough to share more details of Jim’s life.
A few years later, in 1975, Jim, still working for ICL, was living in Prague, Czechoslovakia, when he met Valerie, the mother of Lewis Poe. As Valerie tells it (and shared with permission):
I first met Jim in the British Embassy club bar in Prague and thereafter a couple of times in the Prague office of ICL for which UK company we both worked. We then ‘got it together’ and he arranged to work there on a more permanent basis so we could be together. After a few months we transferred back to the UK where he was sent on a training course and I worked in the centre of London. We lived together in north London and bought a flat in Harpenden before we moved to Germany. Lewis was born about 3 years later.
I was followed and stopped in Germany when I was with a friend as at that point my car still had Czech number plates. The Bader Meinhof gang who were active then were trained in Czechoslovakia, so I guess they were suspicious. A week or so later Jim and I were followed in Rudesheim by someone who made it obvious enough it was a warning of some kind. But I can assure you we were not involved in anything secret, underhand or exciting! We just fell into the category of suspicion as we had both worked in Eastern Europe and my politics were quite left of centre at that time. Cloak and dagger might have been fun!
She also writes:
One story which is possibly funny. Lewis was about 18 months old and we had been to see close friends in Holland who supplied Jim with a small amount of hash. Just before the German border (which we normally drove through without any check) we decided as an extra precaution to put the hash between 2 diapers which Lewis then wore. We got stopped and searched very thoroughly and just as I thought we were done for Lewis woke up and started to scream. Good old Lewis did the trick. They soon told us to go! I laughed all the way home.
So at this point, it’s 1979 and Jim is living with Valerie in West Germany. Jim sometimes had to work in East Berlin and he described passing through the infamous Checkpoint Charlie , the only gate between West and East Berlin that foreigners were allowed to use.
As an American traveling to East Berlin on business, it was natural that he was going to be questioned. He told of handing his passport over and explaining Ich spreche kein deutsch (“I don’t speak German”), but apparently he said it so well that the East German officer didn’t believe him. The officer started getting upset and raising his voice with Jim. So Jim turned to the Soviet officer behind the East German officer and said in fluent Russian, “Would you kindly explain to this man that I am not kidding and I don’t speak German?”
The Soviet officer said nothing, but he smiled. The East German, however, upon hearing Jim speak Russian, immediately stood back. Jim said his passport came flying back to him like a frisbee and he was waived through, no questions asked. After that time, whenever it was that guard, Jim would smile and wave and the guard let him pass, never stopping him again.
And then the story takes a darker turn, as it often seemed to do with Jim.
When Lewis was around 3, Brenda became Jim’s secretary and he started his affair with her. He made life untenable for us telling me one day on the phone to get out as he would not be responsible for his actions if he found Lewis and I there when he got home. I have to say that I did love him very much when we were together. We had so many good times and he was truly happy about Lewis and used to tell me how blessed he was to have us both. When he met Brenda he turned from a loving husband and father to a bit of a monster. Sorry this probably isn’t what you need or want to know but unfortunately it was very much part of him.
Brenda was much younger than Jim and, I think, a little over ten years older than myself. Remarkably, Jim stayed with Brenda from 1981 until she passed away in 2006 from cancer.
This is to honor Jim’s life, but doing so without saying a bit about Brenda would be to dishonor Jim’s memory, as she was the final love of his life. They planned to retire together in Greece, but she tragically passed away from brain cancer in 2006.
When I was living in Amsterdam in 2001, I took a train to Germany to meet Jim for the first time. We talked on the phone first, and he explained “Brenda isn’t much older than you and she’s very beautiful. When you’re here, I want you to think of her as your mother.”
This was Jim, being Jim. He was apparently so used to men chasing after any woman they wanted that he was concerned I’d make a move on his partner! I wasn’t happy he said this, but I wanted to meet the man.
When I arrived at their home in Idstein, it was a lovely, four-story home. And on one wall was a beautiful Keith Haring artwork. I walked up to examine it and realized, with shock, that it was a painting, not a print.
Keith Haring paintings can sell for millions of dollars. Here was my father and Brenda, living in a lovely four-story home, with million-dollar paintings on their walls.
Except it wasn’t. Brenda was a forger, but a legal one. When she saw art she liked, she would simply paint a copy. It turns out that she previously worked for the Bank of England and her team would investigate forged banknotes. If the notes were good and the forger was caught, Brenda’s team would interview the person to find out where they obtained their ink, their paper, how they made the notes, and so on. Then they would replicate the notes and try to pass them to banks—always with a “get out of jail free” card in their pocket if they were caught.
For ten years after she left, whenever there was a major forgery in the UK, she’d get a visit from British police, verifying that she was not involved.
Jim also wrote the following about her work on Lotus Notes:
Brenda is doing fine. She’s as bogged down with work as I am. Her Lotus Notes Domino system is taking Europe by storm. She’s sold it to a sister division here - Abbott International “AI” (they opened a tender and then blind testing on 3 selected vendors. Brenda’s system won on both performance and price). They are the pharmaceutical side of Abbott. It’s revolutionised the German Affiliate where she works. IBM, who own Lotus, are taking a big interest and have committed to support if anything should happen to Brenda’s developer and his company. They are really doing some pioneering work with Domino and have a direct line to IBM support for any issues which come up. The developer has been made an IBM approved 3 party provider with guarantees backed by IBM. He’s laughing all the way to the bank.
She was an amazing woman. Sadly, when she passed, she wasn’t married to Jim, so under German law, Jim had no rights to their shared assets unless he could prove what he paid for. A family member of Brenda’s claimed everything and Jim was left almost penniless. It was so bad at one point that Lewis was being sued for thirty thousand euro in “overpaid” child support because many payments were made from Brenda’s account. Fortunately, that was apparently dropped, but not before the lawyer suing Lewis tried to get Lewis to pay the legal fees.
Jim later was hired as a well-paid contractor for Abbott Pharmaceutical, alleviating his money woes for a while, but he never recovered financially, or emotionally, from Brenda’s death.
Brenda was indeed a lovely woman. And for all of Jim’s brusqueness, it was offset by her grace.
Given all of that and Jim’s penchant for walking away from relationships or contacting his children, you might wonder how we all came to know one another. As with all things “Jim”, it’s complicated.
In 1987, I was living in Washington state, in the US, and had an odd hobby, skip tracing . I did it for fun, helping friends find lost buddies and the like, but I realized one day that I might be able to find my father. It turned out to be remarkably easy and a few hours later, I was on the phone with a heretofore unknown cousin. Her father was Ron Poe, Jim’s brother. My cousin was telling me that Jim would send Christmas cards every year and she was kind enough to read off Jim’s address in Idstein, West Germany. Then Ron entered the room, asking his daughter who she was speaking to. He then took the phone and we chatted briefly. Ron wasn’t aware that I now had Jim’s address and told me that he hadn’t heard from Jim in years.
Though annoyed at the time, I later realized that Ron had no idea I was who I claimed to be on the phone. It’s only natural that he should protect his older brother. I’ve always wondered what he thought he might be protecting his brother from, though I have my suspicions.
Armed with an address, I was delighted to discover that West Germany also had an “information” telephone number to call to get the phone number for a given person and address. It was just after 5 PM local time, so when I called Jim, I managed to reach him just after 2 AM. Brenda answered the phone and after I explained, she handed the phone to Jim. I had finally found my father. His very first words are forever etched in my mind.
“How did you find me?”
He didn’t seem happy to hear from me, but I wrote it off to the shock of a long-lost child waking him up at 2AM.
After I got off the phone, I called my sister, Gayle, to let her know that I found Jim. I gave her his address and phone number and made her promise to wait until morning in Germany before calling him. Gayle promised. After we hung up, she promptly broke that promise, calling Jim immediately. It was not a good night for him.
Over the next few years I would call a few times, but Jim never seemed anxious to talk. It wasn’t until 1996 that I thought to ask an obvious question: do Gayle and I have any other brothers and sisters? Jim seemed very uncomfortable with this and finally said “David.”
At this point you might be wondering if you missed something because I’ve not mentioned David once, and for good reason. Lewis’ first name is David, but no one calls him that. Jim knew it because Lewis and Valerie lived with Jim and Lewis had gone to Germany and stayed with him on a holiday more than once. So me searching for “David Poe” wasn’t likely to turn anything up.
When I asked for more information, Jim told me about Valerie and where she might live in the UK: Southampton or Poole, on the southern coast. He claimed he didn’t have an address or phone number. This, I later learned, was a lie. Further, Jim did not mention Lynne or Greg.
I spent the next three years trying to track down Valerie and “David” and eventually found an address for Valerie. Unfortunately, her phone number was ex-directory (unlisted). Since I knew nothing about her, I was afraid that she might throw away any letter I sent, so I kept trying to find her phone number. And one day, in 1999, I was experimenting with software named Alphaworld (one of the first online 3D worlds) and mentioned my tale of woe to another Alphaworld citizen. He was from the UK and told me to stay online. Half an hour later, he returned with the phone number of Valerie’s neighbor.
Very excited, I called the number and immediately ran into a new stumbling block. The woman I spoke with knew Valerie, but her son was Lewis, not David. Further, the woman insisted that no, Lewis didn’t have any brothers or sisters. I had to explain a couple of times that we had the same father, but different mothers and Lewis probably didn’t even know about me (it turns out he did but couldn’t find me). Eventually she said she’d go ask and a short while later, I was speaking to Lewis on the phone.
I later obtained a passport and flew to the UK, meeting him for the first time. We got along fabulously. And it turns out that Valerie’s awesome and there wouldn’t have been a problem with me sending that letter.
While visiting them, they informed me that there were two more siblings, but they’d been given up for adoption. They didn’t even know the genders. So I spent a few years trying to track them down. British adoption laws are strict, so there was no way I could get the information that way. The aforementioned Freedom of Information Act request for Jim’s records was, in part, to find any clue of who else he had known. But I was at a dead end. I finally gave up.
And then in January 28, 2005, Jim forwarded an email to Gayle and myself (which I forwarded to Lewis):
Jim - Hello from the past. I came across this person looking for you while surfing the net(at least I think it’s you she’s looking for). I keep in touch with [REDACTED] so had your e-mail address. Thought I would forward this to you rather than give her your address. Hope I didn’t F.U. How have you been? Would like to hear from you. Don’t know if I ever thanked you for pulling me out of the water at Lake Marion as I was going down for the third time. - Wes
Included in that email, was Lynne’s name and email address. When she got home from work that night, she had email from Gayle, Lewis and myself, brothers and a sister she never knew she had. She said she broke down and started crying.
Though it was kind of Jim to share that with us, Jim was still Jim. In his first email to Lynne he asked “How do you feel your life will be enhanced by knowing me?”
By a strange coincidence, I was being recruited by several British companies to help fix their IT systems. About a year and a half later, I had moved to Nottingham, UK, about an hour’s drive from Stoke-on-Trent where Lynne and Greg lived. Later, I moved to London and Greg and I shared a house, and later a flat together. I live in France now, but all the surviving brothers and sisters get on quite well. It’s the best part of Jim’s legacy.
Jim wasn’t all bad. When Lynne needed her car repaired, Jim bought her a new one. When Leïla and I got married, he contributed nicely to the wedding. He never understood what it took to be a father, so when he had money, he spent it on us from time to time, perhaps to make up for his past.
I also know he left behind many friends in Idstein, Germany. They’re great people and many of them are heartbroken he’s passed. Jim was never a good father, and clearly he was often not a nice man. But he’s all I had for a father, even if I didn’t know him well. Jim, wherever you are, I hope you’ve found peace.
I would like to thank my sisters, Gayle Poe and Lynne Moore, my brothers Greg Baddely and Lewis Poe, Lewis’s mom Valerie Poe, and my cousin Naomi Clements for helping to fill in some details. Thanks to my wife, Leïla, for proofreading and suggestions. There are many stories left out, some by request and others because they would cast living people in a bad light. Any errors and omissions, of course, are mine.
Amongst other things, it appears that Jim lied about his birthdate. We the date as April 22nd, 1939. He was actually born April 22nd, 1941. There had been some earlier rumors that Jim might have lied about his age in order to join the Navy. If he was “one step ahead of the boys in blue”, as he put it, he might have had a compelling reason to lie, a lie he maintained for the rest of his life. Now that I’ve seen a birth certificate, albeit one issued in 1957, it confirms that he lied. It also raises some questions about his age when he was first married.
We’ve also found ourselves in the most delightful Catch-22. Germany won’t release a death certificate without a certified (apostille) birth certificate. Texas won’t issue that birth certificate because, now that they have been told he’s dead, the certificate can no longer be released unless it’s stamped “deceased,” for which we apparently need a death certificate.
We’ve resolved the sitation with Jim’s death certificate (the US Consulate in Germany was very efficient in helping us), and Jim’s ashes are now buried and a tree should grow from it in the years to come. And in a parting gift, it turns out we may have one or two more siblings in Russia.. Not, I should say, a surprise.