Shaking out the family tree

You have to be careful whose name you drop online, especially if it's your own.

Observations

July 16, 2000|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

I talked with Rob Hiaasen on the phone the other day.

Naturally, I was surprised to speak with Rob Hiaasen on the phone. Surprised because I, Rob Hiaasen, thought I, Rob Hiaasen, was the only Rob Hiaasen on Earth. (Don't we all think we're the only ones in the universe?)

My discovery -- which may rank with the recent DNA-sequencing discovery as the two single greatest accomplishments of the new century -- began as all cosmic breakthroughs do: simply, serendipitously. I, Rob Hiaasen, was performing a search on Yahoo, an Internet service that, among other neat things, can find anyone if this anyone has a listed phone number. No, I wasn't looking up an old girlfriend (probably goes by her married name, anyway); I was trying to find a source for a story.

But soon I began considering the possibilities of this potent electronic tool before me. I could find anyone! I typed in the keywords "Meg" and "Ryan" and found 49 listings, including a Meg Ryan in Chevy Chase. No doubt this Meg Ryan is a fine person, but not the Meg I had in mind. I looked up "Sela Ward" and Yahoo rolled out 200 entries, including an "S. Ward" in Gary, Ind. Again, instincts tell me she isn't the S. Ward on the telephone ads.

Then, as with every endeavor, my thoughts turned to myself, Rob Hiaasen. So, I plugged the keyword "Hiaasen" into the great maw that is the Internet. I expected to see the usual suspects: the phone numbers for my mother and siblings who still live in Florida. There's only one Hiaasen family, after all.

In the 1860s, Knud and Mari Hiaasen bolted from the frigid, desolate country of Norway for the frigid, desolate country of North Dakota. They had babies, who had babies, who had babies who would all spend their lives spelling their last name for strangers. I am one of those babies. And I thought I knew every other baby in the family shrub.

So, I wondered: Who are these people listed on the Yahoo search? Douglas Hiaasen? David Hiaasen? Steven Hiaasen? Chester, Oscar, Donald, Erik, Betty, Camilla Hiaasen?

My God, Chester??? How can scientists explain the existence of a Chester Hiaasen? Any rational person knows the only Hiaasens known to me, Rob Hiaasen, are his wife and mom, his children, his sisters Judy and Barb, and his brother Carl and his two sons, Scott and Quinn.

Who were these other people? And why are they using my last name?

Breaking the ice

First, I called this Steven Hiaasen person in Phoenix. He's like a doctor or something. With that name, he sounds more like a soap opera actor. Young intern, Steve Hiaasen. Anyway, after spending the good part of the afternoon explaining who I was (as if he didn't know!), he explained to me our familial connection.

At the risk of boring non-Hiaasens, I will faithfully and briefly report that Steve is related to Oscar Hiaasen, my grandfather's brother. Growing up in Florida, I, Rob Hiaasen, heard infrequent bursts of stories about Hiaasens who went West -- Oscar's tribe. But Oscar died in 1964, and the East Coast branch of the Hiaasens never heard much more about these alleged Hiaasens out west.

It is one of life's freaky but wonderful feelings to meet up with unknown kin. The only question I could think to ask Steve Hiaasen was this:

"How tall are you?"

"6-foot-5."

"Me, too."

We are related!

Next, I called David Hiaasen in Oregon. Apparently, there's a nest of Hiaasens out there. David knew more about my extended family than I do. In fact, he recently organized a Hiaasen family reunion -- without us! They told jokes about Hiaasen men, how they have no rhythm and can't dance (true) and how if you teach a Hiaasen to fish, he will stay in the boat drinking beer (also true). I asked David how tall he was. Another 6 feet plus.

David is also related to Oscar Hiaasen (if you're playing along on the home version), as is Heidi Hiaasen. Heidi is a 20-year-old journalism student in Oregon. I told her I work at The Baltimore Sun. She became so excited that I fear she will have my job in about two years. She reeled off the names of other Oscar-connected Hiaasens: Jeremy, Amber, Trevor, Nichol, Jacob.

Amber?

To discover in one day I was related to a Chester and an Amber Hiaasen was too much to absorb. But it just got worse. There's also a Garth, Josh, James, Amanda -- and a Marci Hiaasen, whom I tried calling but thankfully no one answered. She probably would have told me I'm also related to a Biff Hiaasen.

My last call was to a Donald Hiaasen:

"Hello, may I speak to Donald Hiaasen?"

"He's not in," said a teen-ager's voice. "Who's calling?"

The question threw me. It is very strange to identify yourself as a Hiaasen to Hiaasens who don't know you exist.

"This is Rob Hiaasen," I, Rob Hiaasen, said.

"I'm Rob Hiaasen," the teen-ager said.

Silence. One of us was clearly lying.

"No, I'm Rob Hiaasen," I said.

And back and forth like that it went until we explained ourselves sufficiently. That Rob Hiaasen is a 16-year-old high school sophomore in Eugene, Ore., who is also related to my grandfather's brother, Oscar. He sounded like every other teen-ager on the phone with an adult -- in a hurry. Places to go and all that.

"Do people misspell your last name all the time?" I asked.

"Yes! I hate it!!!" he said. Together we laughed about that, that thing we have in common. There wasn't much else to talk about.

"Well, it was nice talking to you," I told Rob Hiaasen.

"It was nice talking to you ... Rob," he said, taking his time to say the word "Rob" slowly and carefully.

For a moment, he felt like family.

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