About ten years ago I had the opportunity to visit Athens (Greece, not Georgia). That’s a story in itself, but for now I want to focus on just one impression: Athens is one vast archaeological site. Even the subways are museums—hurrying from one stop to another you pass glass cases full of artefacts found while digging out the Metro system. The friend I was staying with told me that digging is a major issue; even scraping up soil for a parking lot is bound to turn up loads of pottery shards and ancient tools and blackened silver. If they’re in a hurry they don’t even take time to label it all—just plow it in deeper and pave over it.
History is like that: wherever you poke your spade, you’re bound to turn up something interesting.
It was always my favorite subject in school and my favorite fiction genre, and the reason for that was probably—at least partly—my sister Melissa. While we were growing up, she was always going through some favorite history phase, and since she’s four years older than me (and didn’t consider me a pest or a pinhead) her influence was powerful. It’s one reason why four of my six published novels are historical.
One of her retirement jobs (are you old enough to know what that means?) is program director at a relatively new historical site in central Texas. Channel 5 New in Fort Worth did a TV spot on it, and I tried to embed the video, but the embed code wasn’t working for me. So I’ll have to provide the link instead.
See what I mean about archaeology sites? There are some good stories in that Robertson County soil, and I may even dig one out some day.
My writer/illustrator friend Cheryl Harness is one of the best history practitioners around: she showers her Facebook friends with famous-people birthdays, tasty tidbits, and fascinating relics every day. One of Cheryl’s “likes” on my news feed led me to the story of the coat—a 19th-centry frock coat hanging in the display case at a Maine High School. It was moldering away until a couple of sixth-grade students and their mother did some research and made a plan.
The coat belonged to Albert Bacheler, who served as a Union Soldier in the 12th New Hampshire Regiment. During the last year of the Civil War he was captured and sent to the notorious Libby Prison in Richmond. He was lucky enough to escape with only the clothes on his back, which happened to be a blue uniform. But several slaves helped him find his way to safety, including one family who gave him a civilian coat to cover his sitting-duck outfit.
After the war Bacheler moved to Gloucester, Maine, where he taught at, and eventually became principal of, the high school. The man is long gone but the school remains—and the coat that may have saved his bacon back in 1864, moldering quietly like John Brown’s Body. But the King boys and their mom are crowd-funding a project to restore the coat and provide a better home for it. The boys think it’s cool.
It is cool, to put your spade in the past and see what you dig up. Most of it—the vast bulk of it—is gone forever. We’ll never think, feel, or experience like our ancestors did decades, centuries, or millennia ago. But perhaps we can be a little more considerate about judging them. And we can run our hands lovingly over some of the artefacts. And we might not be so hasty to slab over their burial ground with the concrete of our premixed assumptions.