The long and short of it

I grew up in the Stone Age of Research. It was before you could look up anything on your laptop whilst sittin’ in an uber-hip cafe, sippin’ your decaf macchiato with hints of sugar-free caramel and soy milk, researching was a lengthy, tedious and too-often fruitless process.

Because your only sources and the access to them were in print, the work was literally a hand-on. For example, say you wanted to learn more about Ancient Minoa? You had only a few ways to do it.

First, of course, was the Ole Standby — the Encyclopedia Britannica.

After that, it was the card catalog, hoping there was a book or two on it in that library.

Then you combed the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, looking for magazine, newspaper and academic journal articles. If there were articles, you then hoped the library had the periodicals.

Finally, if you found references that weren’t in your library’s holdings, you put in requests for Inter-Library Loan, to get them from other libraries. You also had to pray the stuff would arrive far enough in advance of the paper’s deadline.

One “trick” of finding out about a major historical event was to look for sources written on the event’s anniversary. For example, if I wanted to find out about the first expedition to reach the South Pole, Roald Amundsen’s on Dec. 14, 1911, I’d check all periodicals on Dec. 11, 1916, 1921, etc.

But since I knew material on Amudsen would be slim pickins, I’d have scrapped the project before I began, and switched to something I knew I could find material on — for example, the Hindenburg Disaster, the Stock Market Crash of ’29 or Lindburgh’s solo flight across the Atlantic. And if there was a lot of available material, it would still take days to gather it all up.

As I said, lengthy, tedious and too often fruitless.

Of course, observing anniversaries comes and goes. And while some will be observed or acknowledged longer than others, sooner or later they will all vanish into The Mists of History.

The focal news event of my parents’ generation was the invasion of Pearl Harbor. From the time I was hatched, every adult I knew told me where they were when they first heard it. The stories ran the gamut, and I regret I not recorded them because, as you’d expect, they were told in vivid and meticulous detail.

Anniversary remembrance ceremonies and writings about Pearl Harbor were ubiquitous and long-lived, but they too have pretty much died out with the last of their witnesses. The torch may still be there, but since its bearers aren’t, for all practical purposes, it’s gone.

My generation’s equivalent of Pearl Harbor is of course the JFK assassination. And, as with Pearl Harbor, it’s day has come and gone. Yeah, there’s a mention here and there, but it doesn’t take a news analyst to know it’s no longer the big deal it once was.

Predictably, a lot of my peers have trouble accepting this. Last week I ran into several of my peers who lamented that Nov. 22 had passed with hardly any notice. While that might be hard for many of us to accept, accept it we must, because it’s just a fact of life. A disappointing fact, or even a sad one, but nonetheless a fact.

Revelation …

In the mid-1970s I learned about the transitiveness of “earth-shaking” events through a piece of embroidery I found at a rummage sale. I’ve no idea why I picked it up, or even how I noticed it in the first place, because it was just a crumpled-up rag lying among a bunch of dish towels. But after I picked it up and straightened it out — Lo and Behold! — on the other side was an embroidery of the Pacific Theater in WWII.

It was handmade, homemade, and beautifully done. Obviously, someone had taken a lot of time and care to do it. After I washed and ironed it, I took it to school to show it to Charles Allen.

Mr. Allen was the English department’s assistant deptartment head, and was a friend and mentor. During World War II he’d been a flight engineer of B-29’s, based on Tinian island. But he was much more than that. Before the war he’d had his own contracting business, and he could build or repair almost anything. After the war he went back to being a contractor, till he decided to work on one of the Adirondack fire towers for a couple of years. Then he went to college — at the ripe old age of 40.

After college, he went in the Peace Corps and spent two years in Ethiopia. He came back to the states, taught for several years and then married at 50. Shortly after, his wife had their only child, and shortly after that, she came down with MS, and was confined to a wheelchair. So in effect, Mr. Allen worked full-time, was a husband, father and caregiver, all in one. And the whole time I knew him, I never heard him utter a complaint; in fact, he was always upbeat, level-headed, and just a delight to be around.

One of my coworkers labeled him “a perfect Victorian gentleman,” and it was an excellent description. He was always presentable in a somewhat formal way, and while I might have found some of his ideas old-fashioned, he wasn’t hidebound or narrow-minded (obviously, or we never would’ve been friends). Besides, even if I didn’t agree with his opinions, I knew they were well-considered: If he’d had an OED, I’d bet the word “impulse” wasn’t in it. He also had keen and dry wit and was an excellent joke teller.

Beyond all that, he never pontificated or talked down to me. On the contrary, he always treated me as an equal.

All in all, he had a lot of perspective and wisdom, and I loved visiting with him, which we did every Friday afternoon, at the end of the school week. For a couple of hours, we talked about anything and everything, from the news, to classroom strategies, from sports to his adventures exploring the Ethiopian bush, and on and on. It was a perfect way for me to decompress after a week in the pressure cooker. He, on the other hand, to use a non-word, was always “compressed.”

… and conclusion

On the Friday afternoon confab I showed him the embroidery, he looked at it and agreed how well done it was.

Then I said, “It was a fluke I ever found it. For all I knew, it was just a rag. And worst of all, if I hadn’t found it, it probably would’ve just been tossed in the trash.”

I took a breath and got to my essential point.

“And that whole piece of history would’ve been lost.”

Mr. Allen waited a moment, measuring his reply.

Then, in his usual gravitas, he said, “Bob, history gets lost.”

My first reaction was to argue with him. History was my lifelong love. It was my college major and it was my hobby long before then, and it’s still my hobby. To me, history was important.

After I thought about it a bit, as much as I may not have wanted to accept it, he was right. Yeah, sure, while some accounts of people and events survive, all the others don’t. And when they’re gone, they’re gone, baby, gone.

And, getting down to the real nitty-gritty, we will be gone and forgotten, too. So completely forgotten that in not many years, it’ll be as if we never existed at all.

There are, I think, two philosophic ways of looking at this rather dismal view of our place on the planet and in The March of History. They’re illustrated by two quotes.

One is the long view, as expressed by David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and author, who said:

“There are three deaths: the first is when the body ceases to function.

“The second is when the body is consigned to the grave.

“The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”

Then there’s the short view, as stated by that great American philosopher, Charles M. Schulz, in his comic strip, Peanuts. It’s a conversation between a melancholic Charlie Brown and the ever-aware Snoopy.

“Someday,” says Charlie Brown, “we will all die.”

“True,” says Snoopy, “but on all the other days, we will not.”

I realize there are multitudes, perhaps even millions, of ways of looking at this issue. But if it comes down to only two of them, I’m with Snoopy all the way.


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