I don’t know if I have the vocabulary to describe it, but one moment I look forward to each year is the day, typically sometime in October, when I walk outside and it is suddenly autumn. That day is defined by a combination of things, such as its look, with the leaves clearly changing color, to its feel, as the temperature is suddenly brisk, to its smell—somehow, for the first time that year, the day smells like autumn somehow. Every year I experience that day and it hits me like a ton of bricks each time and I feel that sudden sense of exhilaration. Some people call this the first football weather day and fair enough, but to me it presages not merely football but the totality of fall. What a day.
February 2016. How long ago that seems, and how innocent those times were. Children played and built snowmen, while a Trump presidency was a distant and unlikely proposition. Not so crazy about today’s reality? Journey back with me a glorious twelve months and let’s explore a bit of southern Ohio from those bygone days of 2016.
This is not your usual Unearthed Ohio blog entry. As I went on several excursions into rural eastern Ohio in October 2016, in the last weeks of the 2016 election, I noticed something very interesting.
A new employee showed up at a place I once worked and a veteran employee quickly came to the conclusion that she did not like the new employee. She began a whispering campaign about the new hire, attributing certain negative job-related qualities to him, and before you knew it, other people were repeating those aspersions when the new hire’s name came up—even though they had never actually seen any of those things themselves. The new employee was suddenly the victim of widespread preconceived notions, without even knowing what was going on, much less having an opportunity to do anything about it. He struggled his entire time at his job under the burden of those undeserved, preconceived notions. What struck me about this incident was how quickly others accepted the aspersions against him, with no proof or evidence at all. They were simply sheep following the lead of someone more dominant. It was a depressing but useful life lesson.
I never rode in a city bus until I was at college in San Antonio; sans car, I had to beg rides or take the bus. Luckily, San Antonio had a great bus system. As a child and a teen, I was too close to both my elementary school and my high school to take school buses, but I did occasionally go on field trips. The first field trip I ever took, which was when I was very young, was to a dairy. It wasn’t very exciting, but it got us out of school. When I was in the 8th grade, the entire 8th grade went on a day long field trip, first to the El Paso planetarium, then to a state park adjacent to the mountains that are such a big piece of El Paso’s landscape. The picnic at the state park was all fine and good but what my little geek self was excited about was the planetarium. Oh, was I excited about that.
We all got in the buses to go to the planetarium and one of the cool things about not being in school was that you could chew gum. Gum was not verboten in the real world. I have never been a huge gum chewer, but when I was offered a stick of gum by one of my classmates, I took it. Why not live the high life? We arrived at the planetarium and debarked. But as we were filing in from the lobby into the actual arium part, a pinched-face planetarium employee put his hand out to stop me. “Are you chewing gum?” he asked. Well, I was. I forgot to spit it out. I went to put the gum in a trash can but when I came back to the line, the employee would not let me in—he wanted to punish me for nearly having brought gum into his beloved planetarium (heaven forefend). No teacher intervened to help me, and so I was forced to sit in the lobby for an eternity while every one of my 130 grademates got to see a planetarium show. It would be another 10 years until I entered the doors of a planetarium again—although, in a belated soothing of my still-ruffled feathers, that second experience let me know I had not really missed anything with the first. Still, what a fucking mean thing to do.
I saw a UFO once. I mean that literally, as in an “unidentified flying object.” It was back when I was a kid and my family was getting up very early in the morning to go on some long trip. I went outside, to put something in the car or get something from my father’s truck, and somehow I noticed something extremely tiny and odd up in the sky—it is rather amazing I noticed it at all, so small and far away it was. It looked like the tiniest of circles hovering in the stratosphere. I went and got my dad, who came out and looked at it, and then went back inside and got his spotting scope—the closest thing we had to a telescope. Even through the spotting scope, we could make out very little, just a few appurtenances or gewgaws coming out of the thing. Eventually we decided that it had to be some sort of weather balloon, high up in the atmosphere. Sorry if you were expecting tentacles.
Over 17,000 years ago, on the dark, damp walls of a cave in Lascaux, France, a prehistoric artist left paintings of the animals of his or her time. Today those images still have the power to amaze and to transport those few people lucky enough to view them (access is extraordinarily restricted) back to an ancient bygone era, at least momentarily.
It would be thousands of years before humanity began to construct permanent buildings, at remote places like Göbekli Tepe in Turkey (9,000 to 11,000BCE), but when they did, they put images on the pillars and surfaces of those buildings as well, just as their forebears had done on caves.
Buildings and artwork have thus served, from the very earliest periods of humanity’s existence, as our most potent time machines. And they function as such even in the small-towns and back-country of rural Ohio.
A couple of years ago, I was inspired to see if I could find a house listing for my childhood home in El Paso. To my surprise, I found it on newspapers.com, a 1970 listing for a tiny (probably around 1,100 sq. ft.) 3-bedroom, 1-bath house listed at $13,750. That year, 1970, was the year my parents moved from Pennsylvania to El Paso, Texas, and bought the house. I was four years old. About 34 years later, after many years of rental living, I bought my own home. Just a few days ago, I mused at the fact, because it hardly seems I have been living in my home for a dozen or so years now.
I mention these facts because this excursion—actually the second half of a long excursion that took place on March 21, 2015, features a lot of houses, of many different kinds, and they were all homes to one or in some cases perhaps many families. Many of these houses now lie abandoned and ruined—at some point they ceased being homes and reverted to being mere structures again. For some reason, that makes me sad.
One of the cleverest things I have ever seen in a movie was how the movie The Wizard of Oz handled going from Kansas to the fantasy land of Oz. The movie began as a black and white movie, but when Dorothy’ lands in Oz and looks out of the house, the world is in color. Such a simple trick and yet so effective. So I think I will steal that trick.
One of the easiest ways to spot when a historian does not know something is to look for the language they use to try to hide that fact. For example, the sentence “Undoubtedly, George Washington was angry when he got the letter” actually means “I have no idea whatsoever how Washington felt, but I’m going with ‘mad.’” Undoubtedly is one of the most common ways historian admit ignorance, but they have many similar stock phrases, all of which basically boil down to “this is my guess.” The fact is, though, that it is hard to know stuff. Any historian worth his or her salt will be painfully aware of all the little (or not so little) gaps of knowledge in anything they write. Sometimes the line beyond the gaps goes pretty straight, so it is not too hard to leap the gap and still be on the right path. But sometimes you just fall into the gap.