During the past week, I’ve had to spend a good amount of my time at the University of Iowa Hospital Complex. I’ve you’ve never been there, it’s quite the place.
First off, it’s huge. The main building is eight stories tall, with the newly-constructed Stead Family Pediatric Hospital even taller than that. The complex runs probably about a city block long or better, and there are little hallways and side areas all over the place. If you have the time, it’s kind of fun to explore.
The other day I’m walking down the main corridor in the hospital. This is a long, long hallway that stretches from one end of the building clear to the other side. Now U of I hospitals are as busy as they are big, with people from all walks of life going through there. There are rich people, poor people, and somewhere-in-the-middle people. They’re of all races and religions there, and from several different countries. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least four different languages that were being spoken during my time there, and those are just the ones that I saw.
So as I’m walking along through all this humanity, a thought occurs to me: history is happening all around us. Now, I could get all esoteric and philosophical about that statement, but I’ll spare you all that. You’re welcome.
Pretty much everything has a history. Sports, politics, countries – you name it, there is a history of it. I remember several years ago talking to a graduate student, and he mentioned that he was writing his thesis on the history of the original Astrodome. I said something very polite, because it didn’t interest me in the slightest. Much to my dismay, he started to lecture me on the history of the Astrodome and a lot of the things that he had learned about it.
At first, to be perfectly honest, I was horrified as we started down into the Astrodome rabbit hole. It was like anticipating the impact of a tree when you lose control of your car. This was going to suck. Or so I thought.
As he talked about it, he told me a lot of things that I didn’t know, and that I never really thought about. And to my complete surprise, I found myself fascinated. I became wrapped up in his narrative. Suddenly something so alien was amazing. Now I knew what the Astrodome was, but I didn’t really think about it because it was something modern, something that I thought was new, or newish. Looking back at it now, I realize that it’s easy for us to think of modern things as not being really historical. And that’s just not the case. History can be a year, a month, or even a day. If something has any kind past, then it has a history.
So let’s step back into that hospital corridor for a moment. You look around and see students and doctors passing through, and an automated baby grand piano playing by itself over toward the main entrance. There’s patients waiting to be seen, or walking around pushing their IV stands. There’s a lot going on, but do you really think about it?
If you’re anything like me, probably not. We’re busy thinking about where we have to go, or what we have to do. We see, but we don’t really pay any attention or care about any of those things. Now let’s take a moment, put the situation on pause, and really look at some of this from a historical point of view.
Let’s start with the patients. You have a guy sitting down, wearing one of those wonderful hospital gowns that we all know and love. Now, first question: what’s his name? Let’s call him Bob Smith, because I’m really creative like that. He was born somewhere, he grew up somewhere. Where was he educated? Who were his friends? What does he do for fun? All of these things factor into helping us making a complete picture of who that person is.
Now, let’s look at guy with the IV tree. First of all, we’ll ask all the same questions we did before – who, what, where, why, and how. We’ll immediately receive different answers to those questions than we did before, as we will with everyone we apply them to in this scene. But what if we apply them to the equipment he’s pushing?
Who made the equipment? Who uses it? What is it used for? Where was it made? Why was it made? How did it originally look, or was it always like that? And on and on you can go, for every object that you see, including that piano.
I think that you’re starting to get the idea by now, so let’s just do one more thing – the building itself. Building histories are something that we all do to some degree. For example, let’s say that you have a house that you know your grandparents built. You probably know a little about them, as well as about when they built the house and maybe a little bit about the process. For example, my wife had an ancestor in Missouri who built his house out of old pieces of wood, like crates and things.
So now we take all of that and apply it to the hospital. Ask all of the same questions, and you’ll start getting answers. When you found out who built it, then ask the same questions about the builder. Suddenly, your history is a little more in-depth, more three-dimensional. If you keep going on like that, after a while you’ll have a book, or several. And you can do entertaining things, like write history blogs.
As you can see, history is all around us. Not only does everyone have a story, but every place and everything does, too. We’re virtually soaking in history, whether we know it or not.
So if you’re ever out somewhere and strike up a conversation with someone, and you start finding out about why they’re there and where they come from, just keep in mind that by doing that you are, in part at least, doing the work of a historian.