Saturday, August 13, 2005


(Originally run 2/20/04 on our old site)

Tom Pry

When I first started this stewpot of a site, I thought my contribution to it would be limited, mostly, to editing other people’s recollections, and throwing in the occasional soupbone in the form of one of my thematic “Searcy ’46-‘56” series.

I mean, I already had my other site to get personal, to inject humor, to tell about my family … this spot, then, to stay away from my family personalities and quirks.

In making that decision, I unwittingly violated Pry’s First Rule of Historical Appreciation: “If it ain’t about people, it has no flavor.”

While I can’t speak for you, I found History, as a subject, bbbooorrrrriiiiinnnnggggg. All those dates I could rarely remember, and places that, in many cases, didn’t even exist anymore.

I can still remember my moment of primary epiphany on the subject: an October morning in 1956 when the bulb-nosed Dr. Lewis Dralle, history instructor at what was then ASTC, told our class, “Let’s face it: Nero was a first-class cuckoo-bird.” Until that moment, Nero had been, for me, another of history’s boring clichéd icons, a guy in a bedsheet, standing on a balcony, cheerfully sawing away at his fiddle (“There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” perhaps?), while his domain was being used to fuel the known world’s largest weinie roast.

You just DON’T refer to a Caesar that way! But Dr. Dralle did, and backed it up with more information, most of it just as irreverent as his first observation.

My second, and final, collapse of “I Hate History” came when I stumbled across the writings of Bruce Catton.

I despised references to (depending on where you were raised:) “The Civil War” or “The War Between the States” etc., ad nauseum In moving here from Chicago at age 13, I fell prey to the social attitudes that led to me later telling people, “I was 15 before I found out damnyankee was actually two words” (just as my Spell Checker is trying to tell me now). With my one year and many summers in rural Arkansas punctuating a life otherwise spent on the west side of Chicago – a blonde, freckle-faced kid with a vague southern twang, in a neighborhood filled with immigrants of Italian, Jewish, Mexican and Armenian extraction – I was inevitably called “Rebel” when I was up there.

Then came Bruce.

You can’t find references to Bruce Catton without also stumbling over such phrases as “eminent historian,” “insightful,” “Founder of ‘American Heritage’ Magazine,” etc. What’s buried way the hell down in the footnotes is the information that ole Bruce was academically unqualified (as modern thinking has it) to be an Authority on anything. I’m not sure he ever attended college (except to give speeches and lectures); he damn sure never got an academic doctorate, although he got quite a few honorary ones.

But he wrote books. Man, did he ever write books!

98% of my education has come from books, but NOT books I’ve chosen to further my fund of knowledge. The only selection criteria I’ve ever set on a book was this: will it entertain me?

Bruce did history; more, he did the Civil War (indulge me on that name, would you?), and not just throwaway quickies, either. He did a trilogy on the Army of the Potomac, a thick pair of books on the “Western Union Army” – primarily U.S. Grant – and a flock of single books.

And he was entertaining -- still is, in fact, even though Bruce himself has become history.

Bruce made his mark by going to the source.

Lamentably, most history tomes are based on OTHER history books. As Bruce put it, though, he grew up in a small town in Michigan, far enough back that there were still some Union army veterans alive. On the 4th of July, they’d don their uniforms and ride or stumble through the annual parade. The rest of the time, these veterans would sit on front porches, staring at events on a horizon “.. that only they could see.”

Bruce wanted to see that horizon and those events so, while he used the official history for points of reference, his primary source material were diaries, letters, regimental histories, personal journals, telegraph messages, and other things that gave the flavor of what the big events meant to the poor bastard lugging a rifle and living on hard tack fried in rancid bacon.

For instance, there was the young Union engineer officer who reached a sublime level of frustration after a month of coping with northern Virginia rain and mud so deep …. that finally, in frustration, he telegraphed Army Headquarters to requisition “.. twenty men 18 feet tall to work in mud 12 feet deep.” The record fails to show whether his requisition was ever filled, but we can be reasonably sure that he felt better after he got that off his chest.

Most of Bruce’s stuff is still in print, and still eminently readable. And he generated a couple more generations of like-minded historians. If you have not seen “Gettysburg” (or read the book on which it’s based, “Killer Angels”), DO. It might well be the best film ever made about the Civil War – and please note that the PEOPLE were emphasized, not the mind-boggling battle scenes, which were impressive enough.

(By the same token, AVOID “Gods and Generals,” the movie. While it was written by the son of the Gettysburg author and, as a book, is just as impressively outstanding, Ted Turner took a personal ego trip that made the movie 25% too long, and starting much, much too late in the story. Everybody involved, but the book’s author, missed the point entirely).

Well, I digress (send me more material and I won’t do it near as often). The point is that, for all of the above torturous rationalization, the lives of our parents and grandparents will continue popping up in here, as appropriate.

History is all about PEOPLE … and which ones do we remember best? This site is NOT “searcyhighschoolyesteryear” so, even though we’ll continue having fun with those halcyon (and unbelievably innocent, Bobby Scott) days, we’ll go a bit farther afield as material arrives. What and WHO do YOU remember? It need not have importance, seemingly, to anyone but you – but it’ll give some more flavor to this stew of ours.


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