So, this post appeared hereabouts on the 21st of September, 2009, coming up on two years ago. Cool it is (only figuratively, unfortunately. it's wretched stinking murdering hot outdoors and promises to be so for the next week, hot as the inside of a fevered cow and every bit as humid), rereading this, having spent the last few weeks researching and writing about the westward movement, very much the big deal here in Independence, MO, my hometown, this jumping-off town, once upon a time. How brave they all were. Would I have gone west? Would you?
Ah well... in any event:
Stories are under me still, under the cellar, in the soil and animal-vegetable- mineral layers down, down, down. Stories all around me, here in this upstairs office, here in this house, Osage and other native peoples lived, farmed, and hunted hereabouts, long before the 1820s, when Easterners of an adventurous nature came to this Blue River country south of the Missouri. Those streams knew washed out banks, yanked out trees, bullboats, rafts, canoes, flatboats. Pirogues plied by French fur trappers. Keelboats, too, one of them a 55-footer, carried tough fellows dispatched by the President to go check things out. Bring back a report. Rough, colorful types with their mules, oxen, and trade goods came through here, bound for Santa Fe. Paddle steamers from St. Louis dropped off folks busting to outfit their wagons and head out just as soon as there was grass for their stock. Gone they’d all get in a smelly cloud of dust and racket, into the West. There were terrible troubles around here, too, in the Border War years, opening act for the main event back east, 1861-1865. Thousands scared, mad, killed, run out, burnt out, locked up. Widows and strangers walking down the roads, no home to go back to.
Long ago, some years after the bad times, there was a college right here on my block. Young men and tightly-laced women with tall collars used to stroll the leafy campus where now there are houses, including mine, built when Herbert Hoover was the President, when another sort of troubles were overtaking the nation. A couple of blocks south is the big white house where Harry Truman lived with his wife, daughter, and cranky mother-in-law. Two blocks north is a wilderness path-turned-wagon-trail that’d be a dirt road, a blacktop, then four lanes of asphalt.
Oh yeah, stories are all around me – and you. We breathe them in. History and memory infuse our surroundings with associations and meaning.
Not far away from where I’m typing is the library in what used to be the A&P Supermarket. On one of the shelves there is most certainly a copy of Little House in the Big Woods. Despite all that has happened in the world in the 75+ years since it was written, the Ingalls family and their dog, still live in its pages to a tune from Pa’s fiddle in that alternate universe where they lived, where we can never, ever go.
The places – Minnesota, Kansas, South Dakota.. . – I could visit and have done and imagine as I please. I can walk about Theo. Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill at Oyster Bay, avoiding the sightless glass eyes of all trophy animals that remarkable fellow blew out of this world into the next. I can peer down at Plymouth Rock or walk with the tour group through the rooms of the White House. Places I can visit and have done. And it’s a rich, essential deal, experiencing history, walking where others walked, armed with knowledge and associations. Looking through wavery window glass that who-knows-who looked through. Standing in a field where armies clashed; decades, even centuries later, loud silences still vibrate with the horrors and heroics of the dead.
Places are powerful, but the times – I can go where, but how do I buy a ticket to when?
We humans are capable of dreadful, marvelous, amazing things. A few of our kind managed to walk on the very moon that shone down on the Mayflower Pilgrims, Tecumseh of the Shawnee, the Roman emperors and the Egyptian pharaohs, but none of us can see the faces of those people or hear their voices. They’re as gone and as unreachable as last Tuesday.
Any old orange cat walking along a slate path in Washington, DC, in 1862, could cast its yellow eyes on President and Mrs. Lincoln riding in a horse-drawn carriaged through their un-airconditioned world of kerosene lamps, clipper ships, and Civil War. Not us, though.
At malls and airports, I find myself mentally redressing passersby in past-time garb. That stocky woman over there in the tank top and capris – perfect in 17th century Dutch garb as in a painting by Jan Vermeer. Pair of funky teenage girls? Total high-waisted Jane Austen. Or that hollow-cheeked fellow in the cargo pants and tee shirt: Black felt topper, black cravat, artfully tied. White linen shirt, tall collar, embroidered waistcoat (gold/olive/plum), bottle green frock coat, fawn trousers. Believe me, most people look a lot better when I get done with them. And in many a gym full of elementary school students I have had almost too much fun, pre-senting in my hoop-skirted gown. One tends to sway and swirl.
All that, of course, is the frosting. For me, history-wise, making books has been the cake. Really, it’s a sedentary, mental form of re-enacting, representing a horse-powered world of canalboats, carriages, stagecoaches and sailing ships. The people need to look as real as anybody who got up and got dressed – in the latest fashion? Not likely. In the end, it's only me, aiming to help the kids who experience my books to do their own mental-time-traveling so they can better understand their world. After all, our history = our heritage – and theirs.
“In what green valley of the Nile does Cleopatra still despair / For Antony, the debonair;
Time has washed them all away, / The good, the bad, the foul, the fair –
Where are the snows of yesteryear?” (…ou sont les neiges d’antan?)
François Villon, the vagabond, wrote that, not quite 600 years ago. He's gone forever, too, just as is the instant in which I began typing this sentence. Time’s flying like a runaway train, taking us all into the mysterious future and so it’s ever been.
“Mark how fleeting is the estate of man: yesterday in embryo, tomorrow a mummy or ashes. So for the hairbreadth of time assigned to thee, live rationally and part with life cheerfully, as drops the ripe olive…” Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180)
Here we are, more than two thousand years off in that Roman emperor’s unimaginable future in a world that would be as incomprehensible to him as his would be to us. But we have a lot in common with that emperor of Rome.
The world in which he lived was no more “ancient” than ours is to us. Like us, he felt time sifting through his fingers. He squinted up at the same sun that glinted and flashed on the bayonets of 18th Century British soldiers sweating into their red coats, that cast long shadows behind the emigrants tramping alongside their oxen and wagons, out on the Oregon Trail, that has us turning up our air-conditioning [and thank God for it].
So, if you’re at the store and $14.92 rings up on the register, do you think ‘Christopher Columbus’ or is that just me? I cannot be the only one who thinks ‘Battle of Hastings’ if the cashier says, “That’ll be 10.66, please.” Yikes. I probably am...but life is richer for the knowing.
Some years ago, when I had a lot fewer miles on my little car, I drove it up to Minnesota. Just past Bethany, a Missouri town just south of the Iowa border, 1836 appeared on my odometer and I remembered the Alamo. It was on March 6 that year, you know, that the Mexican Army finally got the better of Davy Crockett and those besieged Texans in that San Antonio mission. Twelve miles up the road: 1848, popping with revolutions in Europe and President Polk’s war with Mexico. Between the state line and Des Moines, with every revolution of my tires, I covered the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Civil War, the bitter ends of President Lincoln and the Sultana, Reconstruction, the Golden Spike, Edison’s light bulb, clear through to FDR’s first term. North a ways,1951; between there and Owatonna, Minnesota, the LED dashboard digits had to have formed the year of my death, if the actuarial tables are to be believed. So yes, believe me when I say that a sense, an awareness of history can fill your surroundings with meaning. Stories resonate all around.