but laid upon its edge, the grindstone becomes a wheel.
My mother’s father watched as an early airplane crash-landed in a corn field near Canton, North Carolina about 1908, and he noted to me fifty years later how the dried stalks ripped the fabric of the wings. My Father’s father was a river boat captain on the Mississippi. As an assistant Captain working for the Steckfus Lines, he unwittingly hired an underage musician named Armstrong in New Orleans to work in the band on the return trip to St. Louis. The air age and the jazz age seem well behind us now, but I grew up with the stories of those times.
My mother’s great grandfather was a doctor to Confederate troops. That once seemed quite remote to me, mostly because she never knew him–but he had cared for my grandfather when the boy was stricken with polio, a great killer of the time, and saved him and then raised him as his own so that he may one day see that early airplane. I myself was part of the testing of the first Polio vaccine on Long Island in the Early 1950’s.
Time is relative, not only for the number of forebears you might recall, but because, the human history of things is really so short. As a boy I was fascinated with the Norman Rockwell painting of a family tree, depicting the generations from pirate of the Spanish Main to pirate of Wall Street. I especially liked the unhappy Indian in their midst, because my mother’s grandmother was said to be part Cherokee.
I was never terribly good with math, and so avoided the numbers involved. Now, it impresses me more to consider: it has only been about eighty generations-—80 times my mother’s mother or father’s father–since the blood in my veins bled from the whip of a Roman soldier on the back of a Celtic slave. To say a number like two thousand years makes time unimaginable. But, conjuring eighty of your relatives in a room is not so difficult-—I’ve actually seen that with my own eyes–and then projecting them back in time as if they were standing on each other’s shoulders is more than a great circus act. It actually makes the history that my family has survived more comprehendible.
Only forty generations ago, some of my family fought the invasion of the Normans in 1066, and others fought with them. Less than twenty generations ago a luckless relative of mine–likely indentured–died of fever in the swaps around Jamestown, Virginia. Only five generations ago a penniless Irishman first broke the earth around Lansing, Iowa and prayed for rain.
History is no longer taught in our public schools. The protests of erstwhile history teachers aside, the average high school graduate cannot answer the most fundamental questions about his own past. Social Studies has taken the place of history, and that subject being guided by political concerns more than fact, the comprehension of time has diminished to the narrow spectrum of a single life. I think the great growth of interest in nostalgia with baby boomers–arguably a sign of curiosity about the past–is more a manifestation of ignorance. What we have personal knowledge of is all that matters to a generation steeped in its own self interest.
The caricature of the British blue blood pacing the halls of his country house beneath the portraits of generations brings a another thought to me now. It was an awareness of one’s place in the scheme of things which once made everything possible. Our actions reflected upon our fathers, and our sons. Marriage was an act of blood union. Our carnal tastes had consequences beyond the moment.
The physics of history are still bound by the laws of relativity. This is more than pun and metaphor. Ignorance of the past makes for a more uncertain future. In a world of atomic power and demonic virus, there is no guarantee that we will get to repeat our mistakes as past generations have. The foolish emphasis in schools upon social gratification over fact and logic is appalling, as well as frightening.
Now, studies of mitochondrial DNA have connected all of mankind to a single woman who walked the earth only 200,000 year ago. That’s about 7000 generations. That is the memory of a little more than 2000 grandparents passed on. About the size of a small town.
Issues of cultural identity and heritage are not unimportant. The insistence on a disembodied multicultural awareness in a society quickly loosing its marrow in the rush of history cannot make us stronger. I am half Irish by decent, but American by nature. I take my freedoms to be more than a right to vote. A slave is free to serve. I am certainly a slave if all my freedoms are proscribed.
The overwhelming fact of our short history on the earth is that we have spent the blood of generations to finally achieve a sense of ourselves as individuals. The religious may argue for other definitions–still, the evidence of history surrounds us as much as it flows in our veins. From family to clan, to tribe, to nation to what?—in only a few generations. But if our species has any heritage, it is the will to be free.
Every gesture of familial care is an effort to safeguard the generation to come—the future. Every political deal wrought in smoke and sweat is an effort to preserve what exists—the present. And yet, every child sets out to reconquer the world as if it were only just discovered by themselves—regardless of history. All the pain of a 8000 generations cannot keep a single girl from falling in love.
The nature of us all–each a bit of fragile flesh–is to make the world anew. The tribal law may forbid, the king may order, the general may command, the religion may instruct, but in spite of these fences, we will always stop on our way to taste the apple of knowledge. Whatever God might have shaped us from the clay, he could not have mistaken this one fact. Whom ever judges us on our final day, we have only been what we were made to be.
What desperate or foolish parent of my blood would hire himself to the army of a Norman lord. What ignorant girl would take such a soldier for a husband.
When a thin Scots-Irish boy of my not so distant heritage left home that early morning to see what might be found beyond the mountain, did he comprehend the size of the bear he would have to kill in order to return a heroic provider instead of a fading memory to siblings with their own dreams.
My own children now set out upon the sea of history. They have a better knowledge than most in their generation of the past that is beneath and behind them, and of the power of the tides. And my own nostalgia will soon be flotsam to another generation.