Saturday, November 6, 2010

History Buffed

It happens that I currently live in an area that is rich in Civil War history. Sadly, in spite of working for several years in various capacities with the local museum, it still has taken me a few years (okay, closer to 10) to fully appreciate this.

My new respect for Clarksville’s history is due to a couple factors. First, we are approaching the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War. Second, one of my bosses is involved with the local Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission. Third, the company I work for is part of the team developing exhibit content for the Fort Defiance Interpretive Center, and I was fortunate enough to be assigned the project.

I have dabbled in history before – American history in college because I had to, medieval European history because I could. The medieval European history teacher was pretty much what I expected – a relatively middle-aged man with a collection of tweed jackets with suede elbow patches (someone please explain professorial fashion to me!!). He didn’t enunciate well, tended to lecture facing the chalkboard he was scrawling notes on, and I referred to him (in my head anyway) as “Old Mush Mouth.” I remember that Reinhard was a scholar in Charlemagne’s court (because I wrote a paper about it) and that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066. Once upon a time in Massachusetts, when the phone company lady recited a list of telephone numbers I could choose from, I shrieked “1066, Battle of Hastings, I want that one!” That is pretty much all I remember about medieval European history.

American History I was a different story, because Ed Thomas at Fitchburg State was passionate about history, which was evident in his lectures. Maybe Old Mush Mouth was passionate once, too, before years of disinterested students wore him down, but it was hard to imagine. Thomas, on the other hand, made history interesting with nuggets of useful information like why dry cereal was invented, and who decided to refer to the Puritans as “Puritans.” If he had not taken Sabbatical the semester I could have enrolled in American History II as an elective, I am pretty sure I would have taken that class and changed my major to history. As it was, I was afraid another instructor would be such a disappointment compared to Dr. Thomas that I didn't continue. Years later, I don’t even remember much of the actual history, but I remember that the class was fun and I looked forward to being there.

Many, many moons later, I participated in a Passport in Time archeology dig at the site of the general store near one of the furnaces at Land Between the Lakes (on the Tennessee-Kentucky border). That was some serious physical work, and one of the most fun two weeks I can recall from my adult life. If it wasn’t for a blasted full-time job with minimal time off, I would be chasing Passport in Time projects all over the country.

And now, I am working on the interpretive center project and diving head first into history in the form of a 14 page (and growing) outline of content for the exhibit, and review of photos and artifacts for potential use. There is also a video script to be written as part of the package. And it is fun. For me anyway. Others might find it as dreadful and punishing as I find some of the other projects I've been assigned over the years.

In recent weeks, I got to read letters to a Clarksville woman that were written by her gentleman friends in the field during the war. Yes, there was more than one dude calling her “sweetheart” and “love.” And apparently, she kept her letters like trophies. (Not that I can talk, I still have the first love letter I ever received.) There are diary entries by a 16 year old Clarksville girl that are ocassionally downright hysterical with gossip, jokes, and moody adolescent rants. It feels like snooping reading this stuff. I wish this project wasn’t on such a short timeframe so I could relax and savor some of the material.

After learning that my home is located not too far from the site of a former Civil War training camp, I am itching to explore the woods of my back yard in search of a button or some other historic item. I imagine marking off a grid like we did at LBL and digging down an inch at a time, sifting dirt through a screen and pulling out fragments of interesting (to me anyway) daily stuff. Wielding the shovel and sifting the dirt was one of the most educational and strenuous upper body workouts I have ever done. In case you were wondering.

Almost daily, when I drive through the subdivision that I now know sits on the site of a former training camp, I wonder how many (if any) of the inhabitants know what the spot once was, and if they would even care if they did know. I wonder what treasures might be sitting below the foundations or in the yards.

One of the things that attracted an ex and me to each other was our shared feeling that we’d “been born 100 years too late” – that we belonged in another era; that we are displaced in this time and space. I almost wish I could call him and tell him about this project at work, because he would find it interesting, and maybe, just for one brief shining moment, I could feel like he was proud of me for something. But calling him would be so weird, as we haven’t seen or talked to each other in a couple years. Which, historically,  isn't that much different from when we were married.

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