Monday, December 29, 2008

Telling It Right

First, of course, let me wish that everyone has had a happy holiday season so far. I enjoy the holidays because I can usually find some time to knock down my reading pile a bit. This is especially true this year with the snow storm we’ve been having in Seattle.

I have a theme that’s been running through my mind the past few days. I’m beginning to realize that there might not be one true version of a historical event. There is a fuzzy area out there that separates what is true and what is not, sometimes depending solely on perspective.

Of course we all know what is true. A known series of events, for example, or some other facts like names, numbers, etc. But how do we know it’s true? Well, we have to trust the source. But keep an open mind. Here’s an example:

I had posted on a history of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. One of the sources I used for this summary history had credited the coining of the Brigade’s nickname of “The Herd” to the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment. I was contacted by a veteran who was in the 1st Battalion, who credits Colonel “Rawhide” Boland, his commander at the time, with coming up with the nickname. (Read the quote and history here) There is no choice here. When the only sources you have are an undocumented article on a website and an oral history from someone who was there, go with the in-person witness.

On the other end of the spectrum you have people who make things up. Hopefully, we can catch the untruths before they get absorbed into the historical record. I saw a great example of this in today’s New York Times. The article is worth your time to read. Unfortunately Oprah has been fooled again. It seems that Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust tale of his future wife tossing apples to him over the fence is not true. Fortunately, in this case other survivors and Holocaust researchers outed Mr. Rosenblat. While he is a Holocaust survivor, he felt he needed to spice up his memoir a bit and, like these things are wont to, the story ran away with the Rosenblats in tow. My point is not to judge this case specifically, but to show how some stories just need another source. Somewhere between my two examples is that gray area.

I just finished reading Tony Horwitz’ A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World. (4.5 stars on Amazon, and I personally give it two thumbs up.) Part history and part travel narrative, Horwitz travels the country to learn about the founders of America from Columbus through the Plymouth Colony and Jamestown. It’s a fascinating and entertaining read. What struck me was how people around the country would usurp history to fit their political/ethnic agenda or even to simply further the local economy. Read the book and you might be amazed to find out that Ponce de León never looked for a “Fountain of Youth” but if you go to St Augustine (where the Conquistador never went) you’re likely to be offered a paper cup full of water. How many of us are dead certain that many of these types of historical mythology are true?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The State of Education

First let me give a shout out to Doug, who is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm with the 18th Military Police Brigade. He read a unit history that I had posted on the web and informed me that I had been remiss by not mentioning that units from the 18th MP Brigade had participated in the Gulf War. I appreciate the email, and a correction has been made. And I will say that there is not enough information on the subject on the web. So let’s see some writing from you vets who were there. People want to hear your story.

Warning: The following post is a rant that doesn’t have much to do with history.

My friend Paul Kurzawa posted on his blog over at History Delivered about a test put out by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute with questions on civics, history, and economics. Here are links to the press release explaining the abysmal results and the test itself. Basically the average score of a random sampling of Americans who were given the test was 49%, or an “F.” However, the average score for a person with an undergraduate college degree was 74.4%. See where I’m headed here?

While I agree with Paul that we are pathetic citizens when it comes to knowledge about our own history and government, our bigger problem is the overall decline of education in this country. Currently, almost 30% of our students drop out of high school across the nation. According to an article in USA Today, only 29% of Americans have a bachelor degree. The article goes on to tell us that of the 70% of students who graduate high school, 65% of them go on to college. But if that many students enroll in college why do only 3 in 10 of us have a degree? It is because somewhere along the way, from kindergarten to college graduation, seven of us gave up on formal education. In addition to that, they’ve given up on life-long learning.

Here’s my take on it: Public school started pushing ALL kids to go to college, even if they don’t know what they want to do for a career. So the kids who can go to college go without any clue of what they want to do with their lives. They then burn out on classes that they have no interest in and drop out. Meanwhile, the kids who aren’t able to go to college, for whatever reason, have received the implicit message loud and clear. They are worthless in this society for not going on to college. So they give up and drop out of high school. The kids who stick it out and graduate have no love of, or skills for, learning on their own.

My father went to “Technical High School” where he learned trade skills like welding and cabinetry. But he also was taught math through trigonometry and a love of poetry so strong that he carried a book of Robert Service poems to Korea. I graduated from college, but most of what I’ve learned about history was from outside of the classroom. Mostly through visiting museums, watching documentaries, and that’s right, reading books! And who taught me to read? Right again! My dad. He told me that reading was the most important skill you can have because anything you want to know about is in a book somewhere. Are parents today doing that for their kids?

Of course I’m ranting and of course I’m grossly generalizing. But how do we fix the declining state of education in this country? Let’s work on the weakest link. How about teaching every student in public school to a standard level of skill and competence? For the last several decades it seems like we’ve been putting all of our resources into teaching the most talented and advantaged while leaving the others to struggle. Why do we do this in public education? I’d like to see a public high school education mean something again. Let’s have that basic education be able to stand alone. Let’s get off of the “college is everything” kick for awhile. Because I really don’t worry too much about the upper middle class kid whose parents are involved and can afford to pay for college. I worry about the kids who don’t have those advantages. So should you. Because they both get one equal vote.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What are you reading?

I have a book problem. I never met a bookstore, library, or book club I didn’t like. I have stacks of unread books and magazines around the house, most of which are nonfiction, most of that, history. I'll get around to them all one day. Once in a while I pick up a work of fiction. As you might imagine, it's almost always historical fiction. The more accurate the better; I hate catching an author with a historical inaccuracy. It turns me off for the rest of the book. From then on I can’t trust any historical “facts” presented in the story. After that, it’s just brain candy. Admittedly, fiction is my guilty pleasure just the same. But I don’t feel like I’m learning anything.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. I picked up the book Faded Coat of Blue by Owen Parry in a used book store. It is actually part of a detective series set within the backdrop of the Civil War. I enjoyed the character of the heroic sleuth, Able Jones, who was a Welsh immigrant making his home in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Since I was living in that area of the country at the time, I saw that the author was dead on historically accurate with the history of the coal mining region of Pennsylvania. I really enjoyed the book, but I was upset when the author had the main character secretly meet President Lincoln, who asks him to work for him as a secret agent. Thus the stage is set for a detective series within the Civil War. Okay, so I read a few more books in the Able Jones series. It's a fun read, but as I said: brain candy.

One of the books that really turned me on to military history was The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. I read the book the first time as an assignment for a military history class when I was in ROTC. Since then I’ve read the book three more times and I must have watched the movie version, Gettysburg, at least a dozen more. One of the reasons I like the book so much is the attention the author paid to historical accuracy. All of the characters in the novel are historical personalities. The only thing made up in the book is the conversations the characters have with each other. Michael Shaara’s son, Jeff, has taken up the family business. Jeff Shaara writes with the same standard of historical accuracy and now has a long list of titles on Amazon. He has done a prequel and a sequel to the Killer Angels, and done works on the Revolution, the Mexican War, World War I and World War II. I just yesterday finished The Steel Wave, Jeff Shaara’s second volume about WWII. I liked it so much, as I do all of his work, I mailed it to my dad to read. It’s not brain candy, or even brain fast food. Think of it as a healthy brain sandwich.

The bottom line is that I think we can learn a lot from historical fiction, whether by reading a novel, or watching a movie. It doesn’t just have to be about military history. Movies (that are almost always books first) like Seabiscuit and A Beautiful Mind were box office successes AND historically accurate. Or at least these works are historically accurate enough to teach the story while entertaining. These works should not be discounted as a way to learn history. I find history exciting. It's unfortunate that many others don't. History makes for a good story. Why can’t we get people interested in, and excited about, history by presenting it as the drama that it is?

Monday, November 10, 2008

For Veterans Day

It’s Veterans Day and I have strong opinions about it. I hate that to most people it just means that there will be a sale down at the big box store. I come from a family where everyone joined the army. Not because of patriotism or nationalistic fervor. As my dad said, it’s just “what we do.” My service was mostly during the Cold War. My father’s was during Korea. I like the irony that he was in at the start of the Cold War and I was there at the end. I’m much more proud of his service than mine, so I’ve included several photos from his album here for you to see.

The way I look at it, every time a “great man” did something that they teach you about in public school, there was a little guy making it happen, or enduring the consequences depending on the outcome. Please use Veterans Day to do two things. First, take the time to listen to veterans in your family or those you know. Ask them what they did, where they were, and what was it like. Record, write it down, and remember it. There are many programs going on now to record and archive veteran’s oral histories. I have a bias for the U.S. Army Heritage Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Visit their website and participate if you can. There are of course other programs like the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.

Second, use this day to think about, and talk with your family, about our military and how we use it. Because we employ it. The people decide how it is used. I will not use this blog to promulgate a political debate. I want to only promote the study, appreciation, and enjoyment of history. But please be aware that you can and must have an opinion on how we use our military to advance our agenda around the world as well as provide for our nation’s security. And know that there are young people out there right now who are the instrument of our policies. Only a precious few choose to join the military these days. We need to use them wisely.

To honor the veterans in my family and those that I’ve known in my life, I’m including the text of a speech I’ll be giving at my local Toastmasters Club tomorrow. I hope you enjoy it. And please, sometime tomorrow go up to a veteran, shake his or her hand, and say, “Thank you for your service.” That honor was given to me by a World War II veteran one day a few years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. I couldn’t believe that this man who had seen and done more than I could ever dream of would thank me for my service. It meant the world to me.

Getting To Know Clyde
I was a cavalryman. And on Veterans Day it is my duty to impart to you a little bit of cavalry wisdom. Do you know the difference between a fairy tale and a war story? A fairy tale starts out “Once upon a time…”, and a war story starts out “Well, there I was…” But other than that, they’re just about same thing. That being said, let me tell you one of my war stories, of which I assure you, every word is true.

I come from what you might call an army family. It seems that every male member of my family had served in the army. My great uncles chased Poncho Villa and fought in World War I. My dad’s brother Clyde left home to join the cavalry when they still had horses. He later fought in World War II, and Korea. My father was in Korea with the 187 Airborne Regimental Combat Team. Cousin Ivy Charles was there with him and he went on to serve in Vietnam as a Special Forces medic.

As you might imagine, I heard a few war stories growing up. My father told me once that he joined the army because he figured that everything that could be explored or discovered had been explored or discovered and the only adventure left for a poor kid from Texas was going to war. So of course I joined the army. How could I not? Not for patriotism or love of country, but because I had to live up to the standards set by these men. And the fact that I needed a job had a little something to do with it too. I went looking for adventure…and I found it. But those stories will have to wait for another day. Today, I want to tell you how I got to know my uncle Clyde.

I had seen pictures of Clyde when I visited his widow, Georgia Ann. I saw that picture of him. Khaki tie and campaign hat. Riding boots that laced up to the knee. Holding the reigns of his horse. His story fascinated me.

Years later I was in the Aviation Officers Advanced Course at Fort Rucker, Alabama. In this school, one of our exercises was to travel up to the Civil War Battlefield at Chickamauga, Georgia and conduct a terrain walk. Study the tactics. Conduct a “staff ride” if you’re from the cavalry. If you’d been there you’d have seen about 80 captains walking all over the battlefield stopping at key points to conduct a class. You would have stood on the exact spot where Longstreet saw the gap in the Union line. He sent thousands of troops under John Bell Hood through the opening, turning the battle into a route and a victory for the Confederate forces. If I’d been there, would I have seen the opportunity and acted on it?

For this multi-day event, we swung a deal with the local National Guard that we could stay in their barracks at a training site called Fort Oglethorpe. In return we’d take the time to tour a museum that some folks had started for the 6th Cavalry Brigade. The 6th Cavalry had been stationed at Fort Oglethorpe back when they had horses before World War II. No problem, so off we go to the museum. Someone had donated an old G-model Cobra from the Vietnam days and they had it parked out in front of a rather plain looking building about the size of a Seven-Eleven. Inside they had a couple of uniforms, an old McClellan saddle, you know, the usual stuff. Lots of pictures on the wall. No kidding, it really was interesting there just wasn’t that much of it. Most of the guys did their duty and moved through pretty quick. But waiting for us in the corner were our three tour guides.

Now, to say these guys were old would be an understatement. They had to have been in the cavalry back when Christ was a corporal, or at the very least rode into Mexico with Black Jack Pershing. I didn’t really have any questions for them and quite frankly I was about to cut out to the parking lot for a cigarette when I heard one of the gentlemen say he had been in the Cavalry in 1941 and had been on the Texarkana maneuvers, which we all remember was the last mounted cavalry maneuvers that the United States Army conducted. Well, my dad had told me many times that his brother Clyde had been on the Texarkana maneuvers.

So of course I had to ask, “Did you know a Clyde Broumley?” The old guy scratched his chin and said, “Yes, I think I did.” Wow. John MacArthur said “Small world.” Rick Rowzee said, “Small army.” The man leads me over to a picture on the wall and points out a couple of the soldiers in the old sepia tone picture. He said, “I think Broumley was one of these youngsters in the recruit troop.” You see, back then, there wasn’t basic training for cavalrymen. They were assigned to the recruit troop until they had “won their spurs” and then assigned to one of the line troops. The old gentleman went on to tell me that as he remembered, private Broumley was a good trooper. Then he proceeded to tell me all about life at Fort Oglethorpe in the 1930s. He told me about how the officers were on the base polo team and played the officer teams from other posts. Enlisted weren’t allowed on the team, so they’d made up their own. The officers played them for practice but never could beat the enlisted team. I listened to that old man’s stories until my friends got tired of waiting and came and got me.

As soon as I got the chance I called my dad to tell him about the man who knew Clyde. My dad had quite a chuckle. He said that Clyde wasn’t in the 6th Cavalry, ever. He was in the 3rd of the 7th out of Fort Bliss at the time of the Texarkana maneuvers. So the man was mistaken. I thought about that encounter for years. I finally decided that in this case the facts are so important. I’m sure that life at that time wasn’t so different at Fort Bliss than it was at Fort Oglethorpe. The old man knew that he knew Clyde Broumley. And as a result, I got to know him too.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

All History Is Local

Paul, my friend from the Masters in Applied History program at Shippensburg University, posted on his blog an essay about the challenges in finding archival records for a project involving a local church. His post served as a reminder that all history is found locally. You might live where something big happened, for example Paul lives just a few miles from the Gettysburg Battlefield. Or, you might be where the history is not so evident. Every town and county in America has its own story to tell. Whether you live near the “big stuff” or not, history can be found all around you. Maybe you’ll find an interesting story in the local cemetery, or in the history behind a plaque on a building or bridge, or in Paul’s case study, the story behind a not-so-old church in a very old town.

My wife and I recently moved to the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. A short walk from my home is the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, known by the more common name of “The Ballard Locks.” I thought I’d share this with you because and my local NPR station did a segment on the Locks today. Take a listen to the show and soak up some local Seattle history. Also, Arcadia Publishing recently released one of their local history books about it, The Ballard Locks by Adam Woog. I own the book and it is quite good. However, the work is like all of the Arcadia Publishing books in their “Images of America” series in that it is picture rich, but textually it is only a summary history.

There is no museum or archive at the Ballard Locks and that’s a shame. There is nice little gift shop that shows a short film and a lot of great volunteers. The history is in the site itself. The Ballard Locks was dedicated in 1917 and has been in operation ever since. The site, managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, connects the Puget Sound to lakes Washington and Union. I stop by there with my cattle dog Sydney nearly every day to watch boats move through. It’s relaxing. However, looking at the 100-year old concrete structures makes me wonder what else they have to tell me in addition to what can be found in Mr. Woog’s book. So I started yet another quest. In a search of the National Archives online, I found some record groups pertaining to incidents at the Locks. And what do you know, they are housed right here at the National Archives Pacific Region Facility in Seattle. I’m planning my visit. I’ll let you know what I find out.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The History Behind the Patches

My primary profession since 1997 is in information technology. My wife and I are self-employed ( I’m the geek who works with spreadsheets and databases, consulting and instruction. My wife Sheila on the other hand is a graphic artist and website designer. Together we create t-shirts and gift items for veterans on another site called Military Vet Shop (

The reason I tell you all this is not in a gratuitous attempt to sell you IT consulting or a veteran’s sweatshirt. The designs we make almost all have a unit patch on them. The patch we’re talking about is the shoulder insignia worn on the uniform. A soldier wears the patch of the unit they are assigned to on their left shoulder, and the unit they have been in combat with on their right. The reason that the patch that a veteran had on his shoulder is so important is because each of those colorful patches has a story behind it. When you become a part of a military unit, you become part of its history, part of the story behind the patch. The unit’s reputation is your reputation. Today, since I wore the Blackhorse patch of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, it is like I made the last cavalry charge in 1916 with them. I had gone into Cambodia with them. Those who wear it today patrolled the East German border with me. The future soldiers of the 11th ACR will have gone to Iraq with the troopers of today.
To honor those veterans, I enjoy posting a summary history (usually between 1000 and 1800 words) for some of the unit patches found on the site. I’ve created 22 so far with many more to follow. Today is significant because I just put up the first history of a marine unit (the other 21 are for army units). If you are interested, and I hope you are, take a look at the history of the 1st Marine Division, From that page there are links to others. I’d like to hear what you think. I hope you’ll share them with others.

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.

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