78yo man finds truth about his father - and that he is related to a famous Native American chief.
He was 78 before he found out who his father really was – and he has his online pursuits to thank.
An expat American who has lived in New Zealand for 45 years, Robert Feigel wasn't prepared for the shock when told his father was not who he thought he was. He had believed his father served in American bombers during the Second World War and perished while on a mission over Germany.
Feigel was stunned when the truth was revealed a year ago: "It turned that man was my birth mum's first husband," he says." My own dad was actually born on a Native American reservation in Oklahoma and is buried there. It was all a bit of a shock after years of searching and running into road blocks along the way."
Feigel today lives in retirement with wife Anne in Northland and, in his late 70s, is an enthusiastic adopter of digital technology. He relies on a quality broadband connection for apps like WhatsApp, Viber, Messenger, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Skype to keep in touch with family and friends in the US and other parts of the world.
That connectivity is also what he has to thank for discovering the identity of both his birth father and mother.
Ironically it came after he was asked to undergo a DNA test by the daughter of an old girlfriend from the late 1960s who herself was searching for her birth father – and who thought it might be Feigel.
"Sadly, it turned out I wasn't (her father) but I made my DNA tests public on AncestryDNA.com," he says.
That led him to the also previously unknown fact that he has two cousins still living in the US who revealed thee truth: "It was a shock all right but also a pleasant surprise because I'd been trying since the 1970s (to find out who his father was). Now I know, it's wonderful, and I feel very proud."
He was in for another surprise: he and his father are direct descendants of the famous Shawnee war chief Blue Jacket who in 1791 inflicted a severe defeat on United States forces at the Battle of Wabash.
"I've a huge family through my adopted parents but it has been incredible to 'meet' these birth cousins. One is in her 90s and lives in Oklahoma; I talk to her on Skype and also keep in touch with old fashioned pen and ink. The other cousin lives in Kentucky, is my age and we communicate mainly by email."
Born in 1941 – he says as the result of a wartime "fling" — Feigel was adopted out. As a young man, he would ask his adoptive mother about his birth parents: "She would say 'be careful about what you wish for', it was obvious she just didn't want to tell me anything."
In the US, Feigel lived in Malibu near Los Angeles, a place famous as home for Hollywood stars and its surf breaks. Writing for a surf magazine he also freelanced, penning many articles on some of the big rock stars of the day - the seminal folk-rock band The Byrds and duo Sonny and Cher among them.
But in 1974 he and a mate left Malibu for a "boys own" surfing odyssey to Western Australia - a trip he never returned from: "We had friends who had come to New Zealand and never came back and we wondered why," he says. "So I decided to visit them."
Finding them happily living in Northland, he too fell in love with the area and has remained there ever since. He met and married Anne in New Zealand (she has three children of her own, one grandchild and three great-grandchildren). Feigel has worked at many jobs – fencing, farm labouring and copywriting among them.
He uses technology to keep in touch with his and Anne's family, who are spread throughout the world; he is hoping soon to be connected on fibre. "We live in a rural area so it may be a while but it will come."
Research by Chorus shows that, in New Zealand:
- Over-60s are more connected to their friends, family and local communities than any other age group.
- They realise the importance of that connectivity – whatever form it takes – and balance a combination of online and offline tools to keep in touch and connected.
- Nearly two-thirds of 60-plus people are optimistic about the future with 61 per cent keeping in touch by phone, 53 per cent by email and 18 per cent by messaging.
He says keeping in touch with loved ones is so different from when he was first in New Zealand. "I had to go to the Post Office and book a phone call to the US ahead of time or write using pen and paper; I'm so glad for technology because my handwriting's bad now."
Despite the thrill of finding his long lost cousins, Feigel says it's unlikely he will travel to the US to meet them: "I don't think we could do that now, with the security involved and all the changing of planes. But you never know, God willing, we're still waiting for a Lotto win, I would love to see them.
"I've always been very aware of the Native American tragedy and the way they were treated right up to the 1950s and 60s, and even today," says Feigel. "I've since read a lot about Blue Jacket and discovered among other things he was a good friend of Daniel Boone (the legendary American frontiersman); I'm very proud."
Blue Jacket, who died in 1810, was known for his militant defence of Shawnee lands in Ohio and is considered one of the pre-eminent Native American leaders in the US northwest war.