Monday, October 27, 2008

Our Forgotten Duty: Preserving the Present

I’ve often heard people express the philosophy that as a history buff, family historian, local historian, antique collector, etc. that we are custodians of history. Basically, the notion is that we have a responsibility to future generations to “preserve the past.” The application of this credo might be in the form of preserving a historic place like a national battlefield, or presidential birthplace. It could be the act of digitizing photos that were originally taken on nitrate negatives that are now rapidly deteriorating. The collecting and preservation of antiques might be considered preserving the past. Recording the oral histories of our veterans and elder relatives before they leave us would top my list.

Certainly all of those things and more fall under the heading of being good custodians of our history and preserving the past. And in case you can’t read between the lines, I subscribe to that philosophy wholeheartedly. But what are we doing to preserve the present? Or more loosely defined: the history of your lifetime? It is amazing what we’ve seen during our lives. Some of us know first hand about the Great Depression. Many of us know what the Vietnam era was like on the home front. Most of us know what happened on 9/11. But what students of history want to know (and aren’t we all students of history?) is what your family did to make ends meet in the 1930s. We want to know that your dad supported the war while you protested for peace and how you both dealt with that. And future students will want to know where you were and how you felt on 9/11 and the days that followed. I submit to you that we, as lovers of history, know exactly what students in the future will want us to leave behind: your important possessions, your pictures, and your journal.

We all own something that really means something to us. Something that we acquired, not handed down to us. It could be a diploma or certificate. It could be a tool, or a dish. We have my mom’s first sewing machine. Still works, my wife Sheila uses it. I still have my Buck pocket knife that I bought with my first paycheck when I was sixteen years old. It was the same model as my dad’s and I’d wanted one as long as I can remember. I carried that pocket knife all through my time in the army and various jobs over the years. I never lost it. It’s thirty years old now. I don’t have anything else that I’ve owned "since I was a kid.” Maybe your important possession is your piano. It was bought brand new and you learned to play on it and you taught your children to play on it. It is an artifact of your family history with a story attached. That story will be passed on, and the story will help the piano to transcend from “old piano” to cherished family heirloom. Keep it. Care for it. Pass it on. Story included.

I remember volunteering in the photo archives of the Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I was scanning photographs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I was fascinated with the pictures of what must have been mundane to the people at the time. Street scenes and the insides of homes and stores are so cherished by us a hundred years later. There were so many unidentified people posing to have their picture taken. Taken so long ago, there was little hope of identifying them today. They haunted me; I saw their faces as I walked home and wondered who they were. I must confess that my collection of pictures from my army days is stuffed in a huge envelope in a filing cabinet. There is no writing on the back and although when I look at the pictures of some of those guys, I can remember the conversations we had and everything about them...except some of their names. I’m working on it, I swear. And I urge you to work on it too. Take pictures. Print them out or database them on your computer. Write down the who, what, where and when.

I think the most significant thing we can leave behind is our own story. What happened when, what was your part, what were your perceptions, and most importantly, how did you feel about it. Earlier I said it’s amazing what we’ve seen in our lives. Here’s an example. My dad is a Korean War veteran and I conducted a formal oral history interview with him. I asked him everything I could think of about his wartime experiences. Then one day, months later, in just a normal conversation the subject of the Cuban Missile Crisis came up. My dad told me about working in a grocery store in North Hollywood and how he could not come home for three days straight because everyone in the surrounding neighborhood had panicked and made a run on the store. They were stocking up for what they thought would be a nuclear war. My dad told me they couldn’t keep anything on the store shelves. But the humorous conclusion to the story was that when the crisis was over, many customers came back and tried to return the canned and dry goods they were hoarding. I found that story fascinating and if it had not come up in conversation I would not have known about that little facet of the crisis. We spend so much time studying Kennedy and Khrushchev that we forgot to ask what it was like for grocery clerk Bob Broumley and the people in North Hollywood, California.

Don’t wait to be asked. Record your own oral history. Keep a journal or diary. Write letters. Keep an audio journal using a tape recorder. Don’t be shy; you can even video tape yourself. Not when you retire. Now. Tell your story. Pass it on.