Monday, August 21, 2006

History is people

I'm a baseball fan, although not a typical one; my interests don't run towards how the Cleveland Indians are doing now, for instance, but I do enjoy talking about how the Cleveland Indians in 1995 won 100 games in a strike shortened season, won many games in the bottom of the ninth, and crushed the hopes of their fans by losing to the Atlanta Braves in the World Series. (Well, maybe I don't enjoy that last part.) I like discussions of who the greatest baseball player is, because even though 9 guys out of 10 may say Babe Ruth, I'm the guy who will stick up for Tyrus Raymond Cobb. When Hall of Fame voting time rolls around, I'm that geek who will argue the merits of one George Van Haltren, 2,532 hits, lifetime batting average of .316.

Yet statistics don't tell the whole story. The stats don't answer the question "why?" Ty Cobb hit a total of 117 home runs, with no single season total higher than 12. Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs. Does that mean that Ty Cobb sucks? Well, no, he's the greatest player of all time. You have to understand the conditions that the game was played under during Ty Cobb's career as well as the hitting philosophies of the two players. To understand the stats you sometimes have to uncover the story.

And therein lies my fascination with history- the fact that behind every hero is a homelife, behind every monster is a mother, behind every death there is a life. Everyone has a story. The facts don't always tell the tale; indeed, sometimes our preconceived notions interpret the facts for us. If I tell you that my friend Dr. Jeffrey Smale is a fundamentalist, you immediately have an idea in your head as to what he is like. Whether it is true or not, you still have that idea. If I mention that he's an evangelist your stereotype is probably reinforced. Does the label tell you that his daughter Hannah was born with Down's Syndrome? Does it tell you that she died at the age of four after open heart surgery, and through that tragedy Dr. Smale developed a love for special needs children and adults? No, it does not. And for some people it doesn't matter. Knowing the full story means that they would have to think of Dr. Smale as a living, breathing human being and not a stereotype, and it is certainly much easier to box someone up and file them away.

Jesse Tannehill. Does the name mean anything to you? He was born in Dayton, Kentucky; he died in Dayton, Kentucky. If I tell you that he was a ballplayer does that flesh out the picture at all? In 1894 he was a 19 year old rookie pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, a boy in the world of men. What was that like? He ended up having a pretty decent career. Did he ever feel like giving up?

Victoria Wilhelmina Morgan, my great-great grandmother. Born in 1867 in Sweden; died in 1945 in San Bernardino, California. Came to this country via a boat which landed in New York; was married in 1887 and had her first child seven months later, in Texas. The 1910 census has her living in Spokane, Washington with her three children; the 1920 census has her living with her two daughters in San Bernardino. In 1930 she was still living in San Bernardino, this time with her daughter Miriam, age 38, and her son-in-law, Elta K. Westover, age 57. What happened to her husband between 1887 and 1910? How did she make a living as a single mother in the early 20th century? Was she married before or after she got pregnant?

Elta K. Westover has a story too. In the 1900 census he is listed as living with his father, three brothers and three sisters on a farm in Kansas. In 1910 he is living in a boarding house in California. In 1920 he is working in a soda plant in California and living with 9 other people, all employees of a soda plant. in 1930 he is married to Miriam and living in San Bernardino with her and Victoria. Victoria owned the house since 1919 yet Elta is listed as head of household. Why? Elta died in 1957, Miriam died in 1966. Did the house stay in the family? Are their any pictures of Victoria, Elta and Miriam? Did they sit around playing cards? Did they attend church? Did Victoria cuss in Swedish when she got really mad? These stories are lost to the sands of time, but they make up the people involved every bit as much as social security numbers and census records.

Rod Stewart had a hit song with "Every Picture Tells A Story." The old saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words. But for every picture, every thousand words, there are a dozen pictures and 10,000 words left unspoken. History isn't just facts and places, dates and names. Those are but the skeleton upon which the muscles and sinews of history are strung.


Post a Comment

<< Home