Confessions of a History Geek

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My first love was not named Jenny or Sandra or Kay or Jackie. My first love's name was 'history.' I first met this mistress long before I knew its actual name. As far as love goes, our relationship has been remarkably stable and predates any dealings I ever had with the opposite sex. Indeed, it was a full year after I began studying when I developed my first childhood crush. It occurred as I sat in front of the television and watched the program 'Underdog' with a girl named Francine. History as a paramour will never leave me. We are wedded for life. It will forever enrich my knowledge of the human condition while providing insight into the future. Santayana's words could not be more prophetic. I have found that those who forget the past never cease to repeat it.

This enduring affair commenced at exactly age four when I began reading and taking out books at the Southfield Public Library in Michigan . After my father, God rest his soul, spent endless hours getting me to master the child's Munster easy reading series, and whatever else he could find, I started to check out more difficult works even though I couldn't read them yet. On one occasion at the library, fate directed me to a shelf that contained Louis L. Snyder's The First Book of World War II. It could have been called The Little Person's Guide to World War II with its big print and light text. The work was amazingly simple but astoundingly accurate. On page 9 there is a picture of Mussolini, Tojo, and Hitler. Next to their faces in black print are the words 'The Dictators.' Yes, things really were much simpler back then. Do you recall the hullabaloo about the Enola Gay Smithsonian exhibition? I wonder if any of the elites today would deign to call Tojo by the accurate description of 'dictator.' Probably not, he'd be called 'military representative' or something like that, and it would be a wonder if he'd even be mentioned at all. I was not yet at the level of proficiency to read the book by myself so I begged my uncle to read it out loud to me. I spent many a summer afternoon on his lap listening to Snyder's free seminar on those years of infamy.

Perhaps it seems startling that I can still remember the book so well, but there is a shameful reason as to why. At the age of eight, I had not yet developed a firm sense of character, so I decided to abscond with the book when we moved. I had checked it out countless times before we left and could not bear the thought of never hearing those stories again.

About the same time, the wonderful 'World at War' series was released with narration from the impeccable Sir Lawrence Olivier. Many of his words and sentences I have permanently imprinted into my memory from countless viewings of those classic documentaries [on the Maginot Line''forlorn monsters today but in 1940 these forts were France's first line defense...']. If I should ever stumble upon an extra 200 dollars, I may one day buy the series on DVD.

In middle childhood, I recruited my friends into playing 'armymen' with me in the basement. There never seemed to be any clear rules behind the game, as it consisted of knocking a certain amount of the other fellow's men over and then whoever argued best was declared the winner. Our engagements usually ended with an irritable exchange or a wrestling match.

An interesting question is whether there is a genetic disposition behind a person's fields of interest. My mind is not made up on the matter. My father never directed or coerced me into studying history and English, but that's exactly what I decided to do. In college I was torn as to which one I liked better, so I played it safe by majoring in both. Later, I would do graduate work in psychology, but its historical context was also of great interest to me.

My love of history was the basis for my first serious vocational opportunity. It happened about a month before I was due to graduate from John Carroll University. The history department chair invited me to his office, which is something he did for all graduates, and inquired as to what I thought of the program. I spoke briefly about which professors I liked and which ones I didn't and about which texts were good and which ones were not. Then I spent 15 minutes telling him how wonderful our particular branch of knowledge was and how much it had benefited every day of my life. The professor was wide eyed and was very impressed with the sincerity of my admiration for the field, and asked me if I'd consider becoming a recruiter for the university. I declined his invitation but sometimes wish I hadn't.

Shortly thereafter I took a trip to the British Isles. It was there that I realized that my bond with the past is a spiritual one (although I hate using that word). I've always treasured old things, and when I was in Britain , I was unable to resist the temptation to collect various 'free' mementos that I stumbled upon during my stay. Before my flight back home, a customs agent in Heathrow pointed to the x-ray camera and asked, 'What are those things?'

'Rocks.' I answered. I began to feel rather guilty and added, 'But I didn't take them from any buildings or castles. They were strewn out along the lawn. The coloring of the rocks made me certain that they were once part of the structures though.' Surprisingly, he nodded and let me through with my precious cargo. When I got home, I showed them to all who'd see. Another artifact from my trip that I brought with me was a copy of Ulysses that was purchased at Trinity College Dublin. However, I was not content to consider this a real find, so I decided to partially dip it in the Irish Sea , and to this day, you can still taste the brine when you press your tongue to its pages.

The love of history has also been interpersonally influential. On one occasion, I was invited by my French neighbor, Fabian, to attend a party that he was holding. After knocking on the door, he whispered to me, 'Tonight, I have my German friends over so don't say anything to my real friends about who was here.' I promised that I would not. The crowd appeared to all be in their early twenties, and the atmosphere was rather relaxed. My neighbor handed me a fizzy drink of some sort and directed me to a chair. He introduced me as a sage who could tell them anything they wanted to know about World War II, which struck me as an odd thing to say to that particular crowd, but they paid me little notice. I then sat at the party and conversed with a frivolous Deutschlander who was telling me how easy American women are and that he never wants to leave our shores for that very reason. As I listened to his marijuana steeped blather, a very blonde and Aryan girl suddenly pulled her chair over to mine. She stuck her finger in my face and began questioning me like she was Klaus Barbi.

'Why do you like World War II?' she demanded.

'What?'

'What do you like World War II? What is wrong with you that you would like a war?'

Now, this is not an effective way to go about getting information from me, as I despise people I don't know disrespecting me like that (I'm not fond of friends doing it either). However, I politely explained myself to her. 'I didn't say I liked it. I said I liked studying it. It's a fascinating period of history.'

'No, it isn't. You must not ever say that you love World War II again.'

With that one command, I lost my temper. I cannot tolerate others telling me what I will or will not read. If only I had one of those historical dunking chairs at that point in time, but I digress. 'Oh, in that case Miss, I love World War II! I love it, love, love, love it!'

She said no more, but glared at me for the remainder of the night, and then when I tried to leave, she grabbed my hand and asked me to stay. As I walked out, I realized that an important iron law of life had been demonstrated: Those who oppose historical study are nuts.

Years later, I ascertained that for those completely politicized in outlook, it is impossible to value history independent of its ability to support their own individual agenda. The political animals usually are bored by history, but only like to use it to establish victimology claims or make one group of citizens seem more righteous than another. It's a sad and empty outlook that I am grateful not to share.

My first novel was a literary experience, but I found that the catalyst of history was never far from my mind, and that it kept thrusting its way into many a passage and exchange. A central theme of the work echoes Orwell, as the villains of the story were obsessed with cutting, pasting, and lying about the past until it became a montage of misandric hate, which they then approved. One chapter in particular was more fun to write than the others, and it will not surprise the reader to discover that it was called 'Ars Historica.' It consisted of the author's projection as to what the next 32 years of this new century would be like and what the future held for our nation. The depiction was not pretty and even included a long reign by a president named Hillary Clinton (now that's downright ugly in many diverse ways).

At present I still enjoy the roller coaster of thrills that historiographers craft. Biography is one of my favorite sub-areas in the field. For me, it is only now time to focus on the fall of the Soviet Union , as the historians have had time to sort through the KGB primary source materials and are able to enlighten us as to the real facts that transpired (that journalists skied over a decade ago). Today, like tomorrow, is the perfect time to exhume and rehabilitate the personalities that committed errors we may avoid. To those who wish to know about psychology and relationships, I echo the words embossed on the Lincoln Memorial: 'Study the Past'!

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Bernard Chapin's picture
Columns on STR: 33

Bernard Chapin is a writer from Chicago.