Helen Cox Richardson, whom I blogroll every week (Letters from an American) mentioned recently that she fell in love with history early in life.
History and I have a had a rocky relationship for 58 years. We’ve been friends, even friends with benefits, but I’m not sure the relationship ever rose to the level of love.
I kissed her first in 1962, a month after my tenth birthday, when, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, my mom put my brother and me to bed one night by telling us there might be nuclear war before morning. That dalliance continued for a decade of duck-and-cover, during which she was an overhanging presence.
Then we started going steady in my teens. I understand that it wasn’t uncommon in my generation for teenage boys to be interested in World War II. I read all the books I could find on the subject, but history and I went steady one summer when I found a box of old Reader’s Digests while tending my grandparents dump. They said the box was useless; recycled paper was almost worthless. “Go find some copper,” my grandmother said.
But in the long, warm, Salem, Ore. afternoons as I collected quarters from civilians and kept a tally sheet of Salem City garbage trucks, I read the entire serialization of the Reader’s Digest Condensed Book version of William L. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of theThird Reich. Even after passing through the heavy hands of the RD condensers, it was compelling.
We also spent time together in my high school AP U.S. History. It was taught by a coach (as all history classes were back then), but, lucky me, this one was good. I found her good company. Love? Not so much.
History was clearly with me the day I lost on Jeopardy!. My two best categories were milk (because, as I told Alex Trebek, “My dad is a milkman.” Grams never forgave me for not knowing how many tits there are on a cow) and the American Revolution.
I am still proud to this day that I remembered Patrick Henry’s speech to the house of Burgesses, which was interrupted by cries of “treason.”
The $1,000 question in the category was a Daily Double, on which I bet everything. It was an unusually convoluted question, even for Jeopardy!
“In celebrated speech, Patrick Henry reminded George III that Caesar & Charles I ‘had’ these 2 men.”
Today I wouldn’t have a chance. But back in 1985, within the seven seconds allowed, the speech flooded back into my mind. “Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First, his Cromwell; and George the Third may profit by their example.” Except the last few words were drowned out by shouts of “treason.”
I still smile when I see the face of my younger self light up with triumph as I put my answer it the form of a question.
And then, of course, History moved in with me for a decade when I taught U.S. history to 8th graders.
Intense mutual attraction? Great Affection? Good times and bad? All of these. Love? I’ve never been sure. Good on you, Helen Cox Richardson, for knowing your own heart in this matter.