Friday, October 19, 2012

My stages of history

A whimsical Friday post.  As we wander about waiting for tomorrow when our eighth grader returns from his Confirmation retreat, I thought I would use my Friday to reflect on some things that nobody in the rest of the world could care less about.  But for me, it's something.  I've often said that my love of history is one of the things that brought me first to Christianity, then eventually into Catholicism.  One of the main reasons is because of my love for Medieval history. But how did I get to medieval history?  How did the son of a railroad engineer with no real interest in that subject, and no particular books about the Middle Ages, come to a point of loving the subject enough to see through the Hollywood veneer and look at the Christian Faith of that period, manifested in the Catholic Church, in an entirely different way? Well, here's how.  For my amusement and anyone else this desperate for entertainment.

It all started back on State Route 42, outside of Mt. Gilead.  My family had moved there at the end of my 2nd grade year.  The house was on the highway  next to a couple other houses surrounded by fields.  The boy next door was what we called at the time mentally retarded, and his parents did what many did in those days: hid him from the world.  That was all I had.  There were a few kids a couple miles away, but nobody to play with that really meant anything to me.  So I was by myself.  I could play, but that was all.  There weren't many things on TV to watch, since we didn't have cable.  While other kids grew up watching Sesame Street or Romper Room on PBS, I watched old reruns of Hogan's Heroes or the old TV show Combat! on WUAB, channel 43, Lorain-Cleveland. Since we didn't have that channel, I was stuck making my own entertainment.

They're gone now, but their laughs are still around
The reason I liked those shows was that my family was chockablock full of war veterans  most of whom had served in the Second World War. My Dad, however, did not serve then, but rather joined the army years later during the Korean Conflict.  He served stateside at Fort Knox, and later Fort Hood in Texas.  Though he never admitted it, I learned as I grew up that he really, really envied his older brothers who served in the super colossal war that was the high point of the history of the United States.  I also learned that those who almost went to that war sometimes were a little more gung-ho about the glories of fighting it than were those who actually fought. This was reinforced because my Mom's brother Walt used to regale me with stories from the war - and he was the one who couldn't  go due to medical problems.  Mom's other brother, who served in the Pacific, seldom spoke about his experiences.

Years of fun as a child; and will you look at that price?
Still, the stage was set, and I grew up hearing tale after yarn about all that was World War Two.  Over the years  enough of the uncles and relatives who served tossed in their accounts to give me an appreciation for just what the war was all about - the good, the bad, and the ugly.  So it was that while other kids watched Romper Room and played with Hot Wheel cars, I watched Combat! and played with expansive sets of WWII toy soldiers.  And in that year that we lived out on 42, when all the country was awash in our Bicentennial Celebrations, I occupied myself in our basement, spending endless hours with my Navarone playset, or trying to catch whatever war movies I could without cable.

The forgotten Holocaust, prisoners who survived Japan
Because of that, one day for no particular reason, Dad brought home a large coffee table book titled simply The Second World War.  The cover sported a B&W photo of SS Troops in parade down a large flight of stairs.  Inside, the text was credible  but limited due to the large number of pictures, drawings, maps, and charts.  The sheer volume of pictures in a pre-VCR/Internet world was enough to hook me.  These were the real things!  From the amazing to the gory to the stunning, I spent hours and days and weeks pouring over the book.  Some pictures disturbed my nine year old mind.  I remember one of a hapless German soldier who was crushed by tanks on the Eastern Front.  Another of a Japanese soldier, victim of a flame thrower attack.  Of course the Holocaust and Japan's brutality.  Brutal stuff.  It made me realize that war was not Hogan's Heroes or fun and games.

Eventually, I turned to our Encyclopedia Britannica set.  Both the older version, and the Junior High version. So enamored was I with everything I was reading, that I actually stood up and read the encyclopedia article about Adolf Hitler to our 3rd grade class.  Soon, Dave Griffey and WWII were synonymous   Football?  Baseball cards?  Cars?  Even girls?  I didn't care.  I immersed myself in everything I could find about the subject.  I should also mention that this fascination would never be replaced by other topics, though I'd like to think it did mature.

This was my introduction to history.  It took what I had heard, the stories, the tales, and it filtered it through a growing appreciation for what really happened.  And this remained for the next several years, until 6th grade, when the next subject of interest hit.

It was 1978.  Star Wars was everywhere.  Disco was the soundtrack of the year.  Gas lines and inflation were the topics adults talked about around the dinner table.  I was in sixth grade.  For reasons unknown, our small town joined an even smaller town named Edison, and kids near that burg of a few hundred people attended their own elementary school.  In 6th grade, however, we were all joined together in the Edison Elementary building.  The school was one of those schools right out of A Christmas Story: Brick building, wooden floors, chipped green plaster walls, a coat closet with old, iron hooks.  And my teacher was Mrs. Roberts.  At the time I didn't like Mrs. Roberts, and was convinced she didn't like me.  Multiple decades have not changed my thoughts about her feelings toward me, but I have softened a bit, and realize she was actually one of my best teachers.  I learned quite a bit from her, despite myself.  In addition to teaching myself chess during the endless days I was held inside during recess, I also picked up the love she must have had for social studies.

Images of Ancient Greece sparked my imagination 
In addition to a stellar unit on China, in which I was responsible for drawing the Great Wall, we did a unit on Ancient Greece.  I was given the subject of Plato for my report.  Most of it, quite frankly, went right over my head.  I think I remember it mostly because of the obvious impact the name Plato has on any kid who first hears it. But one thing hit me square in the eyes, and that was our textbook's section on Ancient Greece.  In addition to a description of ancient Greek life that almost transported me back in time and placed me firmly in the Agora, it also had a sidebar that told the story of the Minotaur.

I had never heard of the Minotaur before - no bull!

Again, my parents - and I love them like the world's greatest parents should be loved - weren't too keen on a broad range of literary subjects.  Mythology?  I had never heard of it.  If it wasn't on Super Host's Mad Theater, or on some made for TV movie, I didn't know it.  No books in our house would have such subjects, and what you don't know, you don't know to look up.  But there it was, a quarter page retelling of the Minotaur myth.  The idea of a group of youngster taken from their moms and dads, and put in some form of a maze, only to be devoured by this hideous creature, captured my imagination.  Suddenly, I wanted to learn more about this age, and any other potential monstrous threats that lurked in the distant past. Though my love of ancient civilizations would often end where the hero slew the Chimera,  I still developed an appreciation for that period in early Western Civilization that would stick with me until the present day.

In addition to the ancients and their endless battles with the abominable monsters of old, I maintained my interest in the Second World War.  Dad would, every now and then, buy another book or two for me to read.  As I got older, and recreating faux battles with soft plastic soldiers ceased to be an acceptable option, I found myself looking for other outlets to keep my interest in the subject alive. During this time, another development occurred.

Perhaps because of the timing of the year, I had developed a growing interest in America's colonial past.  I always loved the holidays, and Thanksgiving was that great moment when, as a kid, you realized Christmas was just around the corner.  For me there was the added bonus of my birthday being at the beginning of December   Pilgrims, therefore  played large in my favorable category.  Plus, my Dad loved the fall, and we would often go as a family and walk through woods, or go to fun scary places  or watch football games around that time.  For me, there was just something about fall that always made things come alive.  And timeline-wise, it was during this time that any social studies unit would cover Colonial America.

It didn't hurt that, in 3rd grade, our school put on a major extravaganza celebrating our country's bicentennial   It involved skits, songs, more skits, recreations of frontier life, tales of the revolution, songs about George Washington ("The president on the dollar, that Yankee-Doodle dollar, the president on the dollar, George Washington's his name!"), and of course, costumes.  I was the narrator.  My closest friend was Uncle Sam.  Even if we learned about some of the treatment of Indians, or slaves, or even how women couldn't vote, the balance was still on how great we were as a country.  Somewhere out of it all, I slowly developed an interest in that period.

Napoleon meets his Waterloo, and again I was inspired
Plus, I developed an interest in that period's approach to warfare.  Part of me was beginning to focus on the military aspects of history.  By middle school, I was starting to become aware of the entire revolutionary period, and in addition, the period of Napoleonic warfare   Again, with no real resources at hand, I went to the encyclopedias, found what books I could, watched any movie that might involve that period of time, and even hounded my parents of the boardgame RISK.  Anything that I thought hearkened to that period of time.  So by the time I entered high school, I could add the Colonial Period to my growing collection of historical interests.

But it was the early 80s.  The long awaited sequel to Star Wars just caught my attention, though not enough to go see it.  Fantasy was all the rage.  Science fiction was buoyed by Lucas's space opera, and an obscure game invented by fellows in a garage somewhere in the Midwest called Dungeons and Dragons was catching the fantasy wave, and pushing it in an entirely new direction   On the heels of this fad, Hollywood obliged, and soon movies ranging from space adventures to swords and sorcery were inundating the market.   For my part, though I loved Star Wars when it first came out, I was never into either form of fantasy, science or otherwise.  I still preferred history.

Alas, it was lost in a move long ago
Nonetheless, there were still elements that were pushing me in a more fantastical direction.  My freshman year, I received - quite out of the blue - an electronic boardgame (then all the rage) called Dark Tower.  Complete with an elderly Orson Welles pitching it on a television commercial, it was the game of games, and just about everyone I knew, of any stripe or background, wanted to play that fascinating adventure game.  I admit, it did pique my interest.  In 1977, the same year of Star Wars, I saw the first broadcast ever of Rankin and Bass's animated version of The Hobbit. Though I didn't give it much thought then, the more I saw it in the ensuing years, the more it inspired me to finally read the books and see what the fuss was all about.

The fact that in the early eighties, before social stigmas would finally squelch the phenomenon,  everyone who was anyone I knew from every conceivable social group was playing Dungeons and Dragons, also kept the entire fantasy genre more or less in my face.  And of course, the fantasy genre as typically understood involved a pseudo-mythical rendition of Medieval European culture. Eventually, castles and moors, dungeons and knights, ancient monasteries and that special dose of European folklore, began to tweak my thoughts and imagination.

The cover of Beowulf
Then, in Ms. Johnson's 11th grade English class, we did a section on the epic poem Beowulf.  At first, I was no more interested than I was in the Canterbury Tales right before it.  But then one day, Ms. Johnson read to us from the book Grendel, that tells the story from the main antagonist's point of view.  She then went on to describe the setting.  She explained that it was a dark, cold time when people huddled inside this vast hall, while outside in the impenetrable darkness lurked the monsters and the spirits and the terrors that only the rising sun would vanquish.  I can't explain it, but all of a sudden I had to learn more about this period!  And so it was, I began to find what I could about anything to do with Medieval Europe.  If it mean buying a D&D book here, or a book on knights there, or even pining for an old Atari game called Adventure, if it was medieval looking, it made it into my hands.

From there, of course, the rest is history.  My love of each period of history set the stage to learn about others, or sometimes outside forces brought me along.  In each case, I approached it with the same attitude I learned from my first history book: what you hear in tales and legends may not always accurately reflect what really happened.  If my Dad or others loved to tell tales about what those brave soldiers did landing on the beaches, I noticed those braves soldiers, as often as not, were more subdued.  When I saw the photos and graphic scenes in that first war book, I could understand why.

So when I went into other periods, I was prepared to set aside the common narratives, the accepted versions of what everyone really says happened.  To that end, I would rail against the growing tendency to see all of American and European history in the worst possible light.  I would also be highly suspicious of the general narrative, by my days in college, of seeing the Christian contribution to Western Civilization as purely incidental, it's only value in giving us the horrible against which to measure enlightened secularism. And that's how, after all those weird and twisted years, a simple table book led to my ability to look through the standard Medieval narrative and see something there in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.  There's more, of course, when it comes to my historical theory and various approaches to the subject that I developed in college and graduate school, but those topics are for more serious posts.  This was, after all, meant to be a whimsy.

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