Sunday, April 21, 2013

History's touch

Yesterday we took two of our grandchildren, Grace and Jackson, to Wild New Hampshire Day at the Fish and Game Department in Concord. The kids cast fishing lines, fired an air rifle, met a falconer, a furrier and many nature experts, and seemed to have a great time.

The wait to fire the air rifle was long. While Grace and my wife Monique went to watch retrievers show their stuff, Jackson and I held our place in line. As we waited, I recognized an old friend passing by and called him over. We had chatted earlier, but I wanted Jackson to meet him.
The friend was Russell Elwell, a Pembroke man whom I interviewed six years ago for a book called We Went to War. The book, which I wrote with my newspaper colleague Meg Heckman, compiled oral histories of many New Hampshire World War II veterans.

Russ had been a waist gunner on a B-29, flying bombing missions over Japan from India, China and the Mariana Islands. On a run to Omura, Japan, antiaircraft fire damaged his plane and wounded the pilot and flight engineer. The plane ran out of fuel over a mountainous area of China, and Russ bailed out with the rest of the crew. He landed in the garden of a goateed Chinese farmer who smoked a clay pipe. The oral history in the book tells the story of Russ’s long journey to safety.

As Russ shook hands with my 9-year-old grandson, I had déjà vu. The moment that came flashing back happened nearly 60 years ago, when I was a Cub Scout. One night at the log hut where we Cubs gathered for meetings, the guest speaker was one of the last men who had fought in the Indian wars of the late 19th century. The only thing I remember about his visit is that he shook each of our hands. His hand was large and gnarly, but his face was kind.

Often when I give talks on my books, people ask where my interest in history came from. The whole answer is complex, but part of it is the memory of meeting the Indian fighter. It was significantd because it involved actually touching the past. Also, perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but most of my work in military history deals with common soldiers, not generals. Certainly that is the case with Our War, and it was also true of We Went to War.

It troubles me that so few young people come to the talks I give about these books. Whether I speak to two dozen people at a town library in New Hampshire or hundreds in an auditorium, the vast majority of my listeners are 70 or older. If I were a local history teacher, I would give my students extra credit for attending such a talk, but I have given up on that idea.

Quiet Moment at Bull Run (by Monique Pride) 
I hope my own grandkids will be exceptions to this rule. As I related in an earlier post, Monique and I take them to historical sites whenever we can. 

Eleanor and Henry, our oldest son’s children, now live in Cairo, and their mom and dad have already steeped them in antiquity.

Last summer, on our visit before they left for Egypt, we took Eleanor and Henry to the battlefield at Bull Run. Accompanying this post is a painting Monique made of them inspecting a stone marker not far from the Henry House, which is in the background.

There is no way of knowing whether Jackson’s handshake with Russ Elwell will be meaningful to him – whether he’ll someday think of it as the touch of history. But I’ll nurture the idea as best I can. It was certainly a special moment for his grandpa.        

No comments:

Post a Comment