“Being an historian, I am jotting down these notes out of habit; but what I saw and experienced two days ago I am sure no one else as civilized as I am will ever see. I am writing for those who shall come a long time from now.”
So began “The Prophecy,” a mock futuristic fantasy set after some great Cold War cataclysm, which several members of my high school graduating class collaborated on back in 1962. It was, of course, for our yearbook and made fun of the class, A to Z. It was also a classic document of the moment, written by representatives of the first generation of “teenagers” who, crouching under their school desks as the sirens of an atomic-attack drill howled outside, imagined that no one in their world might make it.
“First of all, let me introduce myself,” “I” continued. “I am Thomas M. Engelhardt, world renowned historian of the late twentieth century, should that mean anything to whoever reads this account. After the great invasion, I was maintaining a peaceful, contented existence in the private shelter I had built, and was completing the ninth and final volume of my masterpiece, The Influence of the Civil War on Mexican Art of the Twentieth Century…”
Okay, so they had me pegged. Not only, in those years, did I read whatever post-nuclear pulp fiction I could get my hands on — you know, the kind with landscapes filled with atomic mutants and survivalist communities — but I was a Civil War nut. Past disasters and future catastrophes, and somehow it all made sense.
I was, in fact, a nut for the American past generally, in part, I suspect, because the familial past wasn’t available. My parents, typically enough for second and third generation Americans, were in flight from their own pasts, from all that not-so-distant squalor and unhappiness, or just plain foreign-ness, much the way, once upon a time, so many other Americans had fled small towns for the Big City.
My father rarely spoke of his own life — his parents, his childhood, his years growing up, the Great Depression, and especially his experiences in World War II (and in this he was typical of a generation that did not come home from the grimmest of wars with the idea that they were “the greatest”). My mother acted as if her past were the proverbial blank slate. She told but three stories from her childhood: one in which she broke her nose in a softball game, another in which she jumped out of a second-story window to test whether a sheet would work as a parachute, and a third in which an evil but rich uncle humiliated her loveable but ne’er-do-well inventor of a father.
“Perhaps that very past-less-ness left me with a yen for roots, which I then found in the sole place available: American history.”
Perhaps that very past-less-ness left me with a yen for roots, which I then found in the sole place available: American history. Toss in the time an only child had in a room still surprisingly bare of entertainment, and it was hardly surprising that, as early as third grade, I started devouring the biographies — hagiographies actually — of assorted American heroes. They were little books focusing on Kit Carson or Clara Barton with memorably orange covers.
And not so long after, I graduated to the Landmark Books series, back in the days when history was still a series of accepted and acceptable “landmarks”: Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia, The Pony Express, Gettysburg, The Panama Canal, Custer’s Last Stand. By high school, I was ingesting every book the popular Civil War historian Bruce Catton ever wrote. I was, by then, a proud subscriber to the classy American history magazine, American Heritage, thought of the American past as mine, memorized famous speeches by generals and presidents in my spare time, and so was an all-too-inviting target for a little teenage fun.
Tomorrow, I turn 65, an age I simply never imagined for myself back in those youthful years. And the past, I must admit, now lurks somewhat closer to home, as of course does the future, my future. Sometimes these days, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror — the bald head, the mustache that’s gone silvery white, the little bumps and discolorations of every sort, in short, that aging face — I see my long-dead father staring back. Each time, it’s a visceral shock. Like an ambush. Like a sucker punch in the gut. I feel horror — not him, not in my face! — and love, but not acceptance. Not yet anyway.
I can’t begin to tell you how eerie it feels when the past resides not in some book, but like a still-developing snapshot, a blurry subway portrait of the dead, in your own face. It led me recently to pull down from the topmost reaches of my closet some of my old family photos, many of them now beyond meaning, the equivalents of inscriptions in the hieroglyphs of an unknown language. For this part of my private past, there are no witnesses left. Not a one. No one who can fill me in on the dramatis personae.
The oldest of the albums I have, my mother’s, I discovered only after both my parents were dead: two-holed and horizontal, a black cover with the words “Snap Shots” on it, each black page now loose of any binding, edges crumbling as if nibbled by mice.
Only several pages in do I first recognize, in an elfin child’s face, the woman who would become my mother and would die in 1977, so long ago that sometimes I hardly believe she existed…
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Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.