Living History

This is a letter I might have never written, filled with things I might have never said. Out of all my life’s opportunities to share these thoughts, you see, in almost every version I turned away, found distraction and lost the thread. So these words are important. These are words given value by the sheer unlikeliness of their existence. But I overstate my case, because it is not even the words that matter. This is, you see, someone else’s story. Please just pretend you don’t see me. Instead, imagine a white expanse over a silver farmhouse…

The farmhouse has a porch, with three front steps leading down to a yard. The sun is invisible, but shadows lie black on the ragdoll patchwork of grass. This is the world of an old photo. The shades here are the colors of memory – not accurate, but true. And because this place is built on things that are not accurate but are true, at the top of the porch steps stands a figure from legend. 

The musket, the fringe, the determined scowl; most importantly, the coonskin cap. It is unmistakable. It is Davy Crockett himself. He has risen from Alamo dusts to once again heed the call of hearth, home, and country – never mind that the country is quite a bit larger now – here on the frontlines of 1955, Benton County, Indiana. 

Of course, they don’t tell you everything in legends. They don’t have to. Legends are, as everyone knows, true in everything but the facts. You can always find the facts yourself; just wander, for instance, into the silver farmhouse, and open any volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica you will find on the shelf there. A good story is a far different matter than a mere collection of facts. You don’t find, learn, or memorize a story. You recognize it as it roars (or sneaks or meanders) past, and you run to catch up and hold on, however you can, whoever you are. 

I only mention all this so you can make sense of what appears (to the untrained eye) to be a contradiction. That is to say: it is Mr. Davy Crockett, Esq., standing on that silver porch, all backwoods grit and defiance. It’s just that the figure is also a five year old boy, all homemade burr haircut and ears, and a bit too skinny to be much use on a farm, never mind the frontier. 

Yet – if you look closely – there is indeed a certain resemblance to Crockett. It’s in the eyes: the stare of someone who’s seen a good tale and isn’t about to let it go. The fact that the tale’s tail is striped and used to belong to a raccoon only makes it better, as both story and hat. 

Who is the five year old? Why does he share eyes with Davy Crockett? 

Let the farmhouse waver. Color now creeps in as the images change fast, jumbling like a Beatles album cover made of books, nuns, hobbits, and history.

Davy Crockett seems to grow up, and the burr cut grows out (about shoulder-length, in fact, as long as he can get away with). The figure from legend is becoming someone else, though “who” isn’t clear yet. He leaves the farm for art school, contracts folk art, and briefly considers becoming Bob Dylan. 

He acquires musical instruments and learns to play them (more or less): fiddle, mountain dulcimer, guitar (8 and 12 string), recorder, mandolin, and – on one memorable occasion – a bass. He learns to call contra dances. 

He learns to use facts in stories, shaping them to the times and stretching them to the edges of his listener’s disbelief. Eventually, he learns the much harder skill of seeing stories in facts; the hardest storytelling skill of all, the skill of Telling The Truth. 

He discovers the word “anachronism” – something out of its correct place in time. He begins to think like a historian. After a variety of jobs, he finds what he thinks is the rest of his life. It is a job in a museum: a living history museum. 

(Now some of you may be unfamiliar with the concept of living history. Indeed, much history as currently taught is mainly notable for time and manner of death. Due to my lack of Encyclopedia Britannica, I turn to Wikipedia: “A living museum, also known as a living history museum, is a type of museum which recreates historical settings to simulate past time period (sic), providing visitors with an experiential interpretation of history. It is a type of museum that recreates to the fullest extent conditions of a culture, natural environment or historical period, in an example of living history.”)

Back in 1983, he adapts well to the year 1836. Andrew Jackson is president, and Davy Crockett is alive and well, at least for the first couple months of the year; anyway, news travels slowly from south Texas to the small Central Indiana town. All the town’s residents have come from someplace else. They each have personalities, problems, and traditions. Many of these qualities have yet to be discovered; most of them have yet to be detailed in the museum’s biographies. Who am I, why am I here? That’s the question every one of these residents needs to have answered. How do I live my life, what do I do in the morning darkness and the midday heat? How do I prepare for winter, how do I prepare for a wedding; how do I lose or welcome a child, how do I lose or welcome a spouse? What do I want from my days – wealth, status, survival? When my health fails, who do I turn to? How do I make a home? 

These questions are hardly unique to fictional residents of a living history town. No one, in any time, is born knowing any of these things. Instead people absorb both the questions and the answers from the places they find themselves. The answers may be different for each individual, but viewed collectively the answers most common to a time will give a sort of picture of the period, the society. This is what most people mean when they say something seems “old fashioned” or “so 1920s” or “Victorian” or “outdated”. 

This appearance of social cohesion is a useful tool. It acts as a sort of mood ring; it gives you an overall tone for the time. But it is by no means comprehensive, and it can be very misleading. Within any population, there are always exceptions. There are the farm boys who would rather be Davy Crockett, for example. So the job of Mr. Davy-Crockett-grown-up is twofold: first, to find the facts, and second, to find the story within the facts. For the first time he must be both Accurate and True. 

He reads, of course. It’s what he’s always done. Whether it’s research or just how he lives is hard to say, but the books pile up and he takes notes, consults co-workers, experiments and tinkers. He lives each day as a different town resident.  

Do you wonder what this looks like? One of the town residents is a doctor. In order to talk about period medicine, the art school graduate reads about the medicines and surgical procedures of the 1830s. He learns about bone saws, tooth keys, and the different types of splint. He learns how to make bandages. He researches the use of mercury for syphilis and laudanum for everything else. 

He finds ingredients for the pharmacopeia: peppermint oil, charcoal, cinchona bark, and look-alikes for the foxglove, laudanum, and leeches. He learns about land speculation and how ice was shipped, the political geography of Europe, theories of the transmission of cholera and malaria, ladies’ finishing schools and the social life of the upwardly-mobile. He learns enough about horses to fake the conversation. He learns how to tie a cravat, wear a top hat, and put on a frock coat. 

One of his Father’s Day gifts is a pocket watch for his waistcoat. One of his birthday gifts is a reproduction of a 1830s cane. The head of the cane unscrews to reveal a small flask (“for tea or lemonade,” his wife informs him). 

He adapts stories of his own young daughter to fit the character of the doctor’s daughter, and tells them to delighted tourists. Every day he comes home to his family reeking of sweat and wood smoke, and his wife despairs of washing the historical clothes’ heavy layers of linen and wool.

For many people, he is “the” doctor. But he is more than the doctor. He is also the shopkeeper, the schoolmaster, the town philosopher/ne’er-do-well, and (once, in the most desperate of circumstances) the blacksmith. He, alongside many others, adds research and interpretation to each of these characters, finding the truths and the stories that turn them from textbook figures into human beings. 

And – like human beings do – these characters form a community. The small town grows, a building here and there. There are gardens and barns and fields, and an inn, with a taproom. There is a grove with benches, for weddings and Independence Day speeches and the visits of both the justice of the peace and the circuit preacher. There is a cemetary.  

As the town residents grow into their town, he draws maps and paints the pictures that hang in the inn. He helps with gardens, reluctantly. He milks cows, chops wood, and builds fires. He gives Independence Day speeches. And he plays the fiddle, held in the old Scots-Irish manner, low in the crook of his arm. He plays it for the weddings as he calls the dancing. And he plays it for the funeral, low and mournful, the sound more a haunt than a hymn: the sound of the sun going down as woodsmoke fades through the trees. 

He does this every day. Outside the town of endless 1836, changes come and go. There are re-brandings, new policies, new technologies; once, there is a board takeover. But he doesn’t worry too much. He knows history isn’t halted, because it’s happened before. So history goes on like this for quite a while, and suddenly – it’s gone on like this for 37 years. And he finds out that he is, in fact, retiring. He is retiring from the job that – in 1983 – was the rest of his life. And now he must discover the rest of his life. 

Who am I, why am I here? That’s the question he may need to find answers for. How do I live my life, what do I do in the morning darkness and the midday heat? How do I share my story, and tell a new one? How do I take part in the history around me, how do I pass on skills and knowledge of what is both accurate and true? How do I let the job that was my passion become part of my past?

Now, a brief sidenote: what does it mean to be “passionate” about a job? It is an ideal that is frequently touted. It sounds like a wonderful thing. It involves having a vision and a craftsman’s heart. But it also involves having a spark for something – that undeniable talent people call “a gift.” 

Here, of course, is the rub: a gift is also something freely given. And thus, for anyone with a job they are passionate about – a job that utilizes their “gift” – eventually there will come a day when they are forced to separate the person from the price tag placed by others. 

Such price tags seem miraculous at first. It is remarkable to receive income from “a gift.” But it is also dangerous. Price tags communicate value: a market-mediated agreement of worth. 

Yet the value of a gift comes from its sharing, the opposite of a market made for scarcity. There is an inherent friction between the two concepts. The most important thing to remember is that the price tag is not the gift. A gift’s value always comes from being shared.   

He will have to sort all this out for himself, of course, in the same way he sorts out the facts from the tall tales surrounding Davy Crockett. In order to do so, I suspect he will read; it’s what he’s always done. Whether it’s research or just how he lives is hard to say. 

Of course, as a narrator I am not as good at remaining invisible as I hoped. You see, this remarkable man is my father, and I am indescribably proud of him. I grew up always aware of his work, always shaped by it; I put my pennies towards the pocket watch and pitched in with my mother for the birthday cane with the flask. I remember the smell of sweat, smoke, and wool from every welcome-home-from-work hug I ever gave him, as he picked me up and my mother stood by holding a change of smoke-free clothes.  

I always saw his gift as something separate from his job. I hope he will, too, as he adjusts to retirement; as he adjusts towards the rest of his life. I hope he will discover that – although that job may have seemed like his life – it was not the whole of his life. In fact, it was never just his life. No life is alone; and, in fact, although it was accurate at the beginning of this letter to say this was his story, it was also not quite true. Instead, his life has been and always will be full of the lives and stories of others, constantly intersecting and crossing paths, distracting and influencing and enjoying and loving. His gift was always about recognizing a good story, and understanding that the heart of a good story is drawing in and sharing with those around you. 

In the end, I have nothing to close with. In a sense, that is appropriate: his life – and those around him – continues as irrepressibly as ever. But as each of you, my listeners, depart to go about your own histories, I would ask you to remember: 

This is a letter I might have never written, filled with things I might have never said. Out of all my life’s opportunities to share these thoughts, in almost every version I turned away, found distraction and lost the thread. 

In almost every version, this was a different letter. But I overstate my case, because it is not even the words that matter. Instead, imagine with me. Imagine – history. But not any history; imagine the idea of History. It is something neither dead nor past. It’s also (Shakespeare aside) not a play. There is no curtain, and no such thing as a passive audience. 

Instead, we are all living it each day. We live history in each choice and interaction. We create it through each gift shared, withheld, or received. In this way, my father is and always will be a part of History.

The truth is that “history” is a simple name for the stuff of humanity’s temporal dimension. And, like most simple names, it is certainly handy for everyday use. It is, also, not quite right. 

Most people say it as if it were singular. That is incorrect. “History” is, in fact, always plural. Always. 

It runs along every life, constantly paralleling happenstance and chain reaction and “what-if”s. From the perspective of history, there is no difference between a moment or a miracle. Any moment is either, and both. Sometimes, if you look at a moment just right, you can even see it blurring back and forth like Davy Crockett and a five year old on a porch the color of memory, making moments and miracles out of stories both accurate and true.

Published by Marushka

I dream curiosity and write words that change brains.

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