Thursday, January 2, 2014

2014: A Time Travel Rumination on the New Year

Many years ago, when my youngest brother was a little boy, he attended a meeting with my father at the local historical society.  There, a man shook my brother's hand and announced, "You have now shaken the hand of a man who shook the hand of a man who shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln!"  My brother stared in amazement at his hand.
In high school I studied the Civil War.  A few weeks later, we tackled World War I.  Those two wars seemed to me ages apart, in entirely different eons.  In one, ancient soldiers rode horses and wore funny hats.  In the other, ancient soldiers drove tanks and wore funny helmets.  The distance in time between the two events was, to me, like that between the Punic and Vietnam Wars.
As I arise on this snowy morning in the new 2014, I am reminded that the death of the Archduke is only six months away and the guns of August eight.  I realize too that I was in third grade when the Civil War ended.  Said another way, my living memory has now spanned the period between the Civil War and WWI, and it turns out they were not fought in different eons at all but in a very short, very connected period.  Brad Pitt was born the same year as Gettysburg.  We saw Google launch when the USS Maine sunk in Havana and we declared war on Spain.  Americans lost President Garfield to an assassin when Raiders of the Lost Ark premiered, and President McKinley when Apple introduced its first iPod.
As I think about my older friends and neighbors on the eve of this first World War, I know that many are still nursing the physical and psychic wounds of an earlier war.  I understand, even after these decades of change, how one region of the country might resent and mistrust the other.  And, I understand how few Americans would have any interest in participating in another war, especially one overseas, after the heartache of the Civil War.

There is a sense I now have of historical "connectedness" that I did not when I was young, or even when I was studying history in college.  It is something, I suppose, that truly gifted historians can create in their writing.  Sometimes it comes upon us abruptly, as it did with my brother, and as it did for me last year when I watched the video of a man who witnessed Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theater appearing on TV's I've Got a Secret.  More often then not, though, this sense of connectedness probably just comes with age.
So, as I begin 2014 I think:  What if I had shaken the hand of Winston Churchill, who died in 1965 at age 90?  And Churchill had shaken the hand of Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt, who died in 1877 at age 82.  And Vanderbilt--well, he might have shaken the hand of Catherine the Great, or Immanuel Kant, or Joseph Haydn.  Or George Washington.
History seems very short and connected in 2014 when I know the guns of August are coming this summer, and when I realize that I could have shaken the hand of a man who shook the hand of a man who shook the hand of George Washington.  If so, I would certainly have to call my brother and do a little bragging.