Thursday, February 10, 2011

My Journey to History

Last month Mark Cheatem discussed his journey towards history on his excellent blog, "Jacksonian America." The link to the blog is here: I responded on Mark's site, but wanted to add a little bit on what first perked my interest in history on my own blog. Basically it was two things:

First, coming of age during the American Bicentennial Celebration. I was still young, but just becoming aware of what was going on. Our Cub Scouts troop made the Freedom Trail Tour through Philadelphia and there were many interesting historical shows on television as well. My mother used to remind me that every time she took us to the Forest Hills library in Queens I checked out or re-checked out the same book, Johnny Tremain. Once the American Revolution captured my curiosity, so did other events in American history, such as the Civil War. My parents bought one of those big hulking, 30 something volume mega encyclopedia sets around the time I was born and that was my first historical source. Perhaps, that is why I have had such an interest in writing for reference sets myself, having written over 100 encyclopedia and historical dictionary articles.

Second, my grandfather lived a life I found historically interesting. He was an immigrant from Ireland who came to the United States during the Great Depression. My grandmother, his wife, did so as well. It might seem odd, but they left a country that was always depressed. When my uncle offered to take them back to Ireland in the early 1970s, my grandmother pointedly remarked that she had taken her last piss in Ireland and was not going back, no way, no how. I think that answers why they emigrated to America during the Great Depression. My grandfather also served in WWII. He had some interesting stories about this. He was still single in 1942 and entered the service at the age of 38 or 39. He served in North Africa after the Torch invasion primarily as a cook. He did not talk too much about this except to say that he say  he saw an Italian tank once and thought it resembled a garbage truck. More interesting was his story about his discharge. He reached 40 at the end of the North African campaign. He was put in a unit that guarded Axis POWS after the Afrika Korps surrendered. On the way home he was only one of a handful of Americans on board a ship teeming with German POWs bound for New Jersey. He told me these guys were happy to be alive and glad to be going in the opposite direction of Russia. He was discharged soon after arrival and got a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. After the war he worked for Con Edison in NY. He told me that once in a while he would run into one of the ex-German POWs in NY City at a bar or on a bus or some place like that. I never imagined my grandfather a John Wayne style war hero charging pillboxes but I still thought his experiences interesting and exciting. He kept his army hat and I used to look at it a lot as a kid. As an adult it is one of my dearest possessions. Between his immigration and war experiences, I found myself drawn into history to better understand the world my grandfather lived in.

Oddly enough, however, I never followed either of these particular fields of history. I still read in them, but chose others for my professional work. By the time I got to graduate school I considered the American Revolution field too stacked with heavyweights to make even a ripple of notices. As for the Second World War, that would have required, or I thought at the time, mostly either a European focus or one on military history, neither one appealed to me. Instead, I gravitated to the Gilded Age-Great Depression period, with an emphasis on environmental history.

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