Monday, July 4, 2011

This Machine Kills Fascists

What was the moment that history came alive for you and wasn't just a bunch of names and dates in a book?  Was it a field trip?  Was it a picture of your grandfather in uniform?  Was it finding all the letters he wrote home to your grandmother neatly bundled in ribbon?  When did you make the connection that the names in the history book were once flesh and blood?

For me that moment came in the fourth grade while learning about the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.  I was raised by my grandparents and great-grandmother and so I heard these stories all the time.  One of my uncles had attended a one room school house and told me about taking his rifle to school with him.  All of the guns would be stacked against the wall and when school was over the boys would hunt for rabbits or squirrels; if they didn't hunt they didn't eat.  Though I was familiar with these personal stories it was hard for me to translate them into what happened on a national or international scale and I just couldn't quite animate the picutres and words in my history book into living people.

We talked briefly in fourth grade history about artistic works about the Great Depression, specifically "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie's music.  We all knew "This Land Is Your Land," of course, but it was still something written by a dead guy.  There was a  photo of him singing in my book, carefully cropped so you could see the neck of his guitar but not the body.  The legend "This Machine Kills Fascists" might be a little much for a bunch of nine and ten year olds, you see.

Around this time there was a television show about Woodstock that I watched with my dad.  There was some nasally guy singing "Amazing Grace" mostly off-key.  My dad told me it was Arlo Guthrie.  "Is he related to Woody Guthrie?" I asked.  "He's his son."  Connection made.  I don't know what made it but suddenly I could imagine Abraham Lincoln moving.  Thanks, Arlo.


  1. that "past is a foreign country" feeling -- that it is simultaneously present and absent. Not sure when I got it. Always liked history.

  2. I'm cheating. Both my parents were history majors (Mom - American Revolution for her BS, Medieval Europe for her MA, Dad - American Civil War for BS and one local history book and WWII for hobby), so I grew up surrounded by it.

    When my brother brought home his first fiance, she listened to us debating...I think it was something like Caligula's foreign policy and the long term effects on Europe over dinner and she said, "My God, it isn't history to you people is it? It all just current events!"

    My Mother said, "Yes. There's archeology, and current events." Which if you figure that history created the world in which we live, so it is always pertinent, she's right.

    But if there is one book I always push at people to get them to understand how much fun history can be, it is this one:

    If you like that dry British-style humor, this is absolutely, positively the fumiest history book you will ever read, ever. And it is meticulously researched! (Debates one whether some of the detail are true, of course, but everything in it is backed up with research.)

    And you MUST read the footnotes.

  3. Oh, that did not linky. It's "The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody" by Will Cuppy. It is a great, easy, funny, informative, bedtime read. It's a series of vignettes on historical figures, and it is wonderful for getting people to see history as real people rather than grand figures and names, date, and places.

  4. BTW- Your dose of daily pure awesomeness:

  5. Even better....(From the man who pointed out you can sing any Emily Dickenson poem to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas"):

  6. Have you ever actually tested "The Yellow Rose of Texas"? Because he's totally right!



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