ON a muggy, sauna-like day, the kind that causes even the most ardent nature lover to run indoors screaming for air conditioning, the Claflin clan gathered on board the New England Star for its 133rd annual family reunion. The reunion is almost always held on the last Saturday of July, so that far-flung Claflins can plan a vacation around it. ``It is always the hottest day of the year,'' says David Claflin, the family president, matter-of-factly. Many families have reunions, but the Claflins believe that after 133 continuous (as far as anyone knows) years, theirs is the longest running. Usually they meet at the Claflin-Richards House, the family homestead, now a museum, in Wenham, Mass. Other years there is an outing of some kind.
The policy for admission to the outing is generous and inclusive: Mr. Claflin assumes that anyone with the name Claflin is descended from Robert Mackclothlan, a Cromwellian prisoner of war, who finished his indentured servitude and became a citizen here in 1661.
Since then there have been famous Claflins, mostly in the fields of politics and education.
``We had a Governor Claflin, of course,'' says Mr. Claflin. ``He served two terms in Massachusetts. And we have a young lady [Victoria Claflin Woodhull] who ran for president of the United States.'' There was also a Lee Claflin, who was one of the founders of Boston University, and there is a Claflin College in Orangebrook, S.C., founded by another Lee Claflin.
The reunion seems to give people a special feeling about being a Claflin. ``It gives a family a sense of belonging,'' says Sandy Altamura, whose mother was a Claflin. ``It's a nice thing to pass on to the kids. Everybody needs a sense of where they came from.''
Because the family is so old and many relations are now so distant, the same people don't come to the reunion every year. Some people look around and find they don't really know anybody.
``We've had people who've known about it for years. Then all of a sudden they pack themselves into their car and come,'' says Ms. Altamura.
For those who come from far away, it's a kind of pilgrimage. One of these is Avis Claflin Kautzmann, an elementary school teacher from North Dakota, here at the reunion for the ``first time ever. My father always wanted to come, but he died when he was 54. I'm his oldest daughter, and I finally made it,'' she says. ``I brought with me my son Dwight and my grandson Don. We'll do it again. The next time my daughter will come with me.'' She says her great-grandfather, Henry Claflin, was in the San Francisco Gold Rush. ``They were the adventurous ones,'' she says. ``They didn't stick around the old homestead much. We even have some over in Hawaii. We just keep on going.''
Another visitor from afar is Scott Claflin from Akron, Ohio. ``My name's Scott Claflin,'' he says to a redheaded man on the foredeck, as the Star chugs out of Salem Harbor. ``Red Claflin,'' says Red Claflin, shaking hands.
Scott Claflin sits dandling one of his small twin sons in his lap. He says that although this is the first time in 15 years he has been to the reunion, he sends money every year to Claflin College, sends his Christmas cards to Claflin, Kan. - ``the postmaster resends them for me'' - and is working on getting a historical marker for Victoria Claflin Woodhull in Homer, Ohio, her birthplace.
Red Claflin (whose real first name is Calvin) is sitting with his mother, Mary, and his sister, Harriett Atkins. All are wearing T-shirts that say, ``Claflin Clan Reunion, Vermont.'' In addition to this reunion, he says that 40 to 50 Claflins attend a Vermont reunion every year: ``I guess you could say we're the Vermont Claflins,'' he says with a laugh.
Mary Claflin, a sprightly 87, says, ``What do you keep telling my age for? I'm just a young chick having a lot of fun.'' One year all 14 of her grandchildren were present at the reunion. ``I always enjoy coming to reunions,'' she says.
``What I like about it is, the family gets together. Some people I don't even know,'' says Carrie-Lee Claflin Altamura, aged 7. ``I've been to lots - I've won twice.'' She explains that a highlight of the reunion is prizes, like an Indian belt or ice cream gift certificates.
``Old people and newborn people win things, but only sometimes,'' she says. ``We've never been on a boat before. I guess we don't have any prizes today because we're on the boat.''
People are sitting on benches on the top deck, watching the shoreline with its elegant houses, and the islands, crowned by the occasional tree, pass by in a blue-gray haze. A popular topic of conversation is visits to the family castle in Scotland. And someone is always looking at the worn red book that details the Claflins from Robert Mackclothlan to the turn of the present century.
Murray Little, whose wife is a Claflin, is putting the book on computer. The Claflins are trying to fill in the names of people born since the book was published (1903), but it's not always easy. Sometimes the book is pretty cryptic. For some entries, Mr. Little explains, the last reference simply says, ``They went west.''
Toward the end of the trip, the family business meeting is held on board, during which officers are reelected and minutes read. ``Anybody who doesn't like what we're doing, yell!'' says David Claflin genially, over the loudspeaker.
Ken Claflin King looks around the top deck. ``The common bond we have is that we're a Claflin,'' he says. ``I think that's pretty neat.''
Always room for one more More
If there were a prize for family cohesiveness, the More family would have to win, hands down.
They have been holding a reunion once every five years since 1890. Twice a year, each of the 6,200 Mores receives a More family newsletter.
There is even a book of children's stories about the founders of the family, John and Betty More, the first white settlers of Delaware County in upstate New York. This is read to many young Mores.
``John More gets attacked by Indians. That was my favorite story,'' says Eric More Marshall, family president.
One of the Mores was Jay Gould, 19th-century railroad mogul, who once said that any More cousin could ride on the train free of charge to come to the family reunion. This offer was heartily appreciated. ``Most of these guys were dirt farmers,'' says Mr. Marshall, laughing.
Marshall, a former high school history and economics teacher, is now traveling the country representing Better Homes and Gardens Family Network, which has as one of its goals the promotion of family reunions.
``Before World War I,'' he says, ``you were born, lived, and died in the same place.''
In those days, family reunions were just a natural part of life. But today, organizing a reunion is a massive project. Marshall has this advice for anyone starting up his own family reunion:
First, you have to come up with a master list.
``It's easy to do,'' he says. Write down the names of your closest relatives. If you need some help, contact a relative with an up-to-date Christmas card list.
Hiring a genealogist is expensive. ``I suggest you do it yourself,'' says Marshall. Courthouses have birth records. The National Archives has just completed a list of everyone who was ever in the military.
Sources for shipping lists - who came on what vessel - are the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. ``The Library of Congress doesn't have much original material, but they have published material,'' according to Marshall.
You might end up doing that first reunion yourself, but the next year you should be able to organize a committee to share the work.
Better Homes and Gardens offers a free booklet, ``Gathering the Generations.'' Write to Family Reunion Guidebook, Better Homes and Gardens, PO Box 10237, Des Moines, IA 50336.