One of my earliest recollections is kneeling on the cold basement floor in our Spokane house, lining up plastic Yankee infantry against an equal number of plastic Confederates. My brother would narrate the battle that was about to break loose, building up the suspense and drama that was destined to follow. But the art and beauty of the exercise was in the meticulous preparations, lines crafted and lovingly placed by my brother, an expression of his deep reverence for the past. And our fascination wasn’t limited to the basement, but rose upstairs to the rest of the house.
Our childhood dinners consisted of meals cooked for quantity, not quality, my mother bending over backward to please her crew of picky eaters. One brother only liked tomatoes, no lettuce. Another wouldn’t eat onions, and I wouldn’t eat potatoes, (I’ll get fat!). My mother should have tossed a loaf of white bread and peanut butter on the table and said to hell with us. But in truth, our dinners weren’t ever about the cuisine. That table was a place of interaction, debate and information. And we, my parents and three brothers talked about all sorts of topics; politics, swing music, classical music, FDR, and JFK. My mother knew every actor and singer ever filmed or recorded, so popular culture also had a rich review over those dry, bland hamburgers. My younger brothers typically listened and chewed, passively soaking up the banter as a normal dinner conversation.
My childhood memories are mainly a potpourri of All-American road trips. Slides of Montana’s Lewis and Clark Caverns, the Little Bighorn Battlefield, Yellowstone Park, and Wall Drug, flash on the screen of my memory. These destinations were of such value to my folks; that they packed up a station wagon, replaced later by a truck and camper, crammed in their four noisy kids, and made many magical history tours. I especially remember standing on Calhoun Hill near Hardin, Montana, wondering how Custer missed the massive Sioux and Cheyenne encampments. Constructed in 1805 on the Pacific coast, Fort Clatsop, Oregon sheltered the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Visiting the site permitted me to physically touch this stockaded sanctuary of another time.
Wonder became permanently hotwired into my temperament.
A degree in American History came as no surprise to anyone. As in medical families, military families, or law enforcement families I followed my childhood path, nurtured in a family that treasured our nation’s history. As though I had been handed Diogenes lamp, illuminating past events became my present-day pursuit. I had to share this passion with others. This journey of discovery was not a solitary enterprise. So earning a secondary teaching certificate set my future into motion, allowing a way to disseminate the fire I felt for the past.
What a ride! I am now at the other end of my teaching career, and can honestly say that I even loved the tough days. I made a living out of being myself, constantly reinforced with a sense of liberation, and vindication. Magic happened after that tardy bell rang. And I knew then as I know now, that there was no cooler place to work than in my classroom. Who needed Hogwarts, I had Lincoln! Service projects came to life behind that door, efforts such as the Veterans Oral History Project in conjunction with the Library of Congress—fund raising for the World War Two Memorial—donations to support local history museums, and the yearly spray of flowers for the Vietnam Memorial each Memorial weekend.
And most gratifying of all was the connection students made to an earlier America. They grew beyond what they could see, feel and touch. They became more than just themselves. I can recall an essay on Richard Nixon where a girl ruled his desire to win at all costs, cost Nixon his place in history. Another student who pointed out that after Washington’s humiliation at the 1754 Battle of Fort Necessity near present-day Pittsburgh, later foreshadowed the President’s crack down on the 1794 Whiskey Rebels in the same location. The student pointed out that Washington would not be made a fool twice in the same place forty years later. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
Those voila moments transcend the past to a present relevance. How Washington used his few military strengths to undermine the military strengths of the British in the Revolution. How Ho Chi Minh used those same strengths to undermine the same American efforts in Vietnam. Likewise how British violation of American trade lead the US into the War of 1812. And later how German violation of American trade lead the US into World War One. The examples are vast and instructive, processed with the same reverence and regard as my brother and his toy soldiers.
Now, in retirement, an entire archive of historic primary sources have fallen into my lap. An original story has come my way detailing a young ambitious couple who challenged the Twentieth Century and left a notable trail. I have been handed a micro-history narrative, to add to the larger picture of America. What an unexpected gift for this history addict!
Writing River of January has fed my soul. It turns out that Chum, my main character, rubbed shoulders with aviators Howard Hughes, and Amelia Earhart, and even actress Kathryn Hepburn. And from his words and records, he barely took notice of their celebrity. Helen, the other main character, knew “Red Hot Mama,” Sophie Tucker, the dashing Frenchman Maurice Chevalier, and a very young Humphrey Bogart in his first film. Those people were her peers and she rolled with that crowd on an equal footing.
This story grips my heart. I’ve was groomed from my parents dinner table to craft such a book. This Saturday missive is perhaps my long overdue expression of gratitude. I am thankful for my hardwired passion for earlier times, and how vital a role the past eternally plays. I am grateful that I value ideals, ideas and vibrant lives over material possessions . . . I will never be poor. I thank the Lord my heart is enriched by remembering what came before.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the creative non-fiction work, River of January