If any of my history teachers from all those years ago could catch a glimpse of where I’ve ended up, jaw-dropping, eyebrow-raising surprise would be their primary reaction. I was far better at math – where if you understood the concept, you could work your way through the problem. But memorizing anything was torture. Back then, in most of the classes I labored through, it seemed like there were always lists to be memorized: generals in a war, presidents of the US, major events in an era, or where and when treaties were signed. Back then history was old news, and I was still too young to appreciate the fact that what we don’t know about our pasts generally means making the same mistakes in our future. So, I left high school behind, happy to know I’d never have to labor through another history book.
But one thing I always did love was reading, and as a young adult, I discovered Georgette Heyer who at the time was the queen of the Regency romance market. Luckily for me, she was prolific and had been around for many years so it took me a while to plow my way through all her popular romances. Then I moved on to her other books, mysteries and historicals. And that’s when I discovered The Conqueror, one of Heyer’s historical novels based on real people and real events. Suddenly, William, the Bastard Duke of Normandy became a flesh and blood person to me and in all the years since I read that book, remembering his conquest of England on the battlefield of Hastings in 1066 has never been a problem. Nor were many of the other facts about that fascinating, powerful man. Soon, I was scouring the library shelves for other books about England’s history. At one point in my life, I could have reeled off the entire line of kings and queens from William I to Elizabeth II, and I can still probably come pretty close. How was it that this history-phobe had become a history nut?
By then I was a mother of four and very caught up in raising my family. Otherwise, I’d likely have gone back to school and become a history teacher because I thought I had the secret to making history relevant. Heyer had recreated the world that William lived in and made him come alive for me and suddenly I cared. I wanted to know when he became king and how and I wanted to know so much more. My personal heritage includes a large chunk of English ancestors, but the Scottish ones fascinated me more, so I began to delve into Scottish history. William Wallace and Roy Roy were my heroes along with the long line of Stewart Kings, even though many were anything but heroic. The sad tale of Mary Stewart and her treatment by Elizabeth I was the stuff of legends, but Mary was pretty much the author of her own fate and I loved reading about the Scots right up to their sobering loss at Culloden in 1746. It was only thirty years later that America plunged into her own war of Independence and it occurred to me at this point that studying and understanding my own American history should become my focus.
But since it was a hobby and not a course of study with attendant tests and grades, I was free to pursue it whatever way I liked and for me that meant reading dozens of historic “novels.” Novels because the authors had injected thoughts and dialog into the telling, but with thorough research and diligent adherence to the true facts. The American history my many teachers had once tried to pound into my head became a part of me without all the effort and endless rote of memorization that had turned me off before. I admit I am still very much a hobbyist rather than a true student of history, and I tend to jump from one interesting period to another skipping the boring parts in between, but now when I visited historic sites I viewed them differently. As a child, I had visited the Custis Lee mansion that sits on the hill above Arlington National Cemetery and giggled helplessly as I rolled down that hill with my cousins. Today there would be no giggling, rolling kids because the eternal flame that honors JFK sits at the foot of that hill, but now I can imagine the generations of Lees and Custises and descendants of George Washington himself living in that stately home and understand some of the anguish that went with the creation of that cemetery. I won’t bore you with the incredibly long list of places I’ve been where history has suddenly become very real for me, but one thing is certain, once that spark of interest was created, the rest all fell into place.
Now my focus is on creating that spark for my grandchildren. Following my own circuitous path to an appreciation for history, I give them age appropriate historical novels where historic figures become real people with families and friends and pets and favorite meals. Then I take them on a field trip to the places they just read about. Maybe none of them will become history teachers or historians, but I hope in some small way to make American history come alive for them. To make them care about the frightened farmers who stood their ground on Concord Green. To help them understand the despair George Washington felt when he knelt in the snow praying for his soldiers at Valley Forge. I want them to know the value of the things so many have struggled and fought for over our country’s 200+ year history. How else can we place a value on what our country has become today?
My grandson and I watched a re-enactment at Fort Ticonderoga and got up at 4:00 in the morning to see a handful of “colonists” face the might of the British Army at Lexington. We visited Old Ironsides and learned what it was like to be a sailor in the War of 1812, we hiked up Bunkerhill Monument and visited Paul Revere’s house, Old North Church and Faneuil Hall and dozen’s more neat places. Now I’ve a new crop of grandkids old enough to capture their fancy with the right book. We’ve visited Washington’s Crossing in Pennsylvania, Valley Forge, the Tea Party museum in Boston and Mount Vernon and Williamsburg. And we’ve only just begun.
Since I moved to St Augustine, Florida, I now live in the oldest continuously occupied European city in North America. At every corner there is something of historic importance here, from the landing of Ponce de Leon to the takeover by the British, to Flagler and his hotels and the African American struggle for equality. One simply can’t move around the city without noticing it. But even if you could overlook the brick and mortar remnants of history, St Augustine loves to re-enact and celebrate everything. We have Sir Francis Drake plundering the city and pirates looting it every year on the anniversary of those events in history. We welcome Pedro Menendez de Aviles ashore every September and have Spanish Night Watch and British Night watch annually as well. It’s pretty much impossible to ignore the history of this little city and I’ve got a section of my closet where garments more suitable for the 1600 and 1700s hang so I can participate instead of just watch. I’ve worked as a 1740s Spanish tavern wench, dined at British Night Watch as a Scottish lady and attended Mass with Aviles and his entourage.
American history is rich and diverse and full of stories of gallantry and sacrifice. If, like me, you came to an appreciation long after you left off sitting at a desk in school, what sparked your interest? What caught your attention and wouldn’t let go? Was it programs like the multi-part series on the Roosevelts on PBS, or was it a story like Killer Angels by Michael Shaara who made so many of those who fought and died at Gettysburg become real people with loves and lives beyond the war and those horrible four days of battle. Leave me a comment below – I’d love to hear what fascinates you about our long and incredible history.