Wednesday, August 24, 2016

History Lessons of the Priceless Kind

When I was young, history bored the life out of me. Sitting through a history class or reading a dry, fact-pact account of some event that happened way before my time on this planet was, for me, worse than getting my teeth pulled without Novocaine. Why did we need to dwell on the past? Shouldn't we be focused on the present and future instead? What value is this information going to add to my life? Yes, I was like most youngsters, naive. But, I never had a teacher who taught it from the correct perspective, who bridged the gap from the event to present day and beyond. I never had a history teacher who knew how to make it relevant to me, to our community or to our future.

Now, in my forties, I am enthralled by history. But my interest in history was inspired by more tangible experiences, not from some thick, overly complicated book. I was inspired by the places I have traveled to and the incredible people I have met in my life. I have been extremely fortunate to have traveled the globe. Even more fortunate, my children have shared these journeys with me. We have walked the ruins in Rome, placing our feet on the same stones as Ceasar. We have climbed up and down the stunning and sometimes treacherous Great Wall in China, climbed through the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam and explored ancient temples in Cambodia. To touch history is more powerful than any book ever written. Just the feel of stepping back in time inspires us to learn more and to better understand its impact on our lives today.

But, you don't need to travel across the world to be one with history. You may have a history lesson living just down the street from you; a real, living, breathing piece of history to draw inspiration from. Your community is full of resources and stories that I encourage you to seek before it's too late.

Yesterday, I delivered meals to the seniors in my community with two of my children. One senior, in particular, who I had delivered meals to on a few other occasions, had a small piece of cloth with a swastika on it, prominently displayed on his wall. It was the first thing you saw when you entered his home. I couldn't understand the display, considering he was a black man, other than being a reminder of a past we wish we could forget. But yesterday, he wanted to talk and I wanted to know what the significance of the swastika was. His history lesson was one I will never forget.

He was a soldier in WWII and ran the communication lines in the trenches. The swastika on his wall came off of a dead nazi soldier whose body lain next to him while he sat and ate his dinner. He reached over and cut the fabric off the soldier's coat and stuffed it into his pocket. He didn't know why he took the piece of fabric, but he reasoned that the soldier didn't need it since he was dead. He went on to express the difficulty he experienced being a black soldier in a discriminatory world. Even though black and white soldiers fought in the same trenches, they could not eat together. And when they came home after the war, they were not given the heroes welcome that was poured on the white soldiers. He spoke of the black soldiers being referred to as the "monkeys in the trees," almost indicating they weren't humans, but rather, animals. The hurt in his voice made my heart ache. In 2015, seventy years after his return from Germany, he was invited to Washington D.C. to finally get recognized for his service. At the age of 96, he took the trip to find some closure from the past. But as he sat at lunch, with both whites and blacks at his table, he found it to be bittersweet. "It should have happened much earlier. It came too late," he said shaking his head.

He gave my daughter a hug and told her: "Always work hard and never give up." His story will probably never be found in a history book and yet his story, along with so many others, are what brings the past to life and allows those who didn't live it, to connect with it emotionally. Feeling the emotion pulls us in and allows us to view history more intimately. He's not the only senior I have met with an incredible war story. Red, whom I met a couple of years ago, told me of being on a ship in the South Pacific, taking in Japanese prisoners and surviving harrowing gun battles at sea. He has since passed at the age of 94, and sadly, his stories will soon be forgotten. Yet, these stories are an invaluable tool in inspiring the uninspired to care about the past and learn to not repeat the same mistakes in the future.

I hope this inspires you to seek out such stories in your own communities. If you can't travel across the globe, you can at least travel down the street and find living history lessons that far exceed anything pulled from a book. That being said, if you love to read about history or even if you don't, pick up the book UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand. It's a true story that reads like a suspense novel with a protagonist who is thrown into a journey of insurmountable odds. You will be shaking your head and be wondering how any one person could endure so much.