When I was a little boy, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I loved the Indiana Jones movies, and I wanted to be just like him. And like him, I wanted to go find mystical treasures in exotic locations, especially Ancient Egypt. Because mummies and magical pharaohs are cool, man.
Thankfully, my parents were very indulgent of me and they bought me all kinds of books and videos about Ancient Egypt. And I ate it up. I couldn’t quit. As I got older, Egypt got me into something else, and then somethings else, and so forth. Eventually, I earned my degree and became a historian.
But that initial desire had roots that ran deep. Clear back in my childhood, I got hooked on history.
Kitchen Table Stories
While Ancient Egypt was where I started, stories from my grandparent’s kitchen table kept that fire stoked in my soul.
In the days before smartphones and e-mail, talking was my family’s number one entertainment. While we talked about our day, and our jobs, and what the idiot neighbor was doing down the road, there were several conversations about the past
Through those conversations, I was introduced to my great-grandmother, who had died shortly before I came along. I learned of how she was born in Montana and later came east on the infamous Orphan Train. I was told how she married my great-grandfather and had seven children, and all kinds of other details about her life. Because of those stories, I’ve always felt that I somehow knew her.
I learned about the farm neighborhood that we lived in, and all of the interesting people that used to be there. One of those was a man named Bill Schultz. A prize fighter in his youth, he never married and lived with his two sisters on a farm near where my grandfather and his brothers had moved. With no children of his own, “Uncle Bill” took them under his wing and taught them about such things as woodcraft and horsemanship. Even all those years ago, I could tell that Bill was quite the father figure in Grandpa’s life.
My Aunt Helen, my great-grandfathers younger sister, told me about an apartment house that she ran on Brady Street in Davenport, Iowa. She told me that the former president of Palmer College of Chiropractic and son of the founder, B.J. Palmer, used to walk past her building every day and engage her in a little small talk.
And the stories continued. One built on another, and as I grew older, certain details that had been spared me because I was too young to understand them were layered on in the retelling, adding depth and richness to them.
And as the layers grew deeper, I started to form connections to other places in the world through not only the story of my own life, but also in the history of the surrounding world.
When I was a boy, one of my favorite things was to listen to my grandfather and his older brother, Jim, tell stories about growing up in Bettendorf, Iowa. In case you’re wondering, they didn’t move out to the farm until just a little bit later in their childhood.
Grandpa and Jim started out growing up poor on Bellevue Street. The family didn’t have hardly any money, and so the brothers often left to explore their surroundings and make their own entertainment. One of the ways they did so may not have been exactly honest, but it did make an unexpected connection to my own life.
Built in 1915 by industrialist Joseph Bettendorf, the mansion was a huge showcase that dominated the bluff overlooking the Bettendorf waterfront. Joseph loved to garden in his spare time, so the sprawling grounds surrounding the house were covered with all manner of plant life. Among these were several fruit trees, most notably apples.
Well, grandpa and his brother liked apples, and with the mansion a very short distance away from their home, they knew where to find them.
Using the ingenuity of youth, the brothers tied off the bottom of their very baggy pants, snuck onto the Bettendorf grounds, and filled their pants with apples. Their makeshift grocery bags full, they waddled away to enjoy the spoils of their labors.
Over time, the mansion became the home of a school named St. Katherines/St. Mark’s, a school that I attended for around seven years. Unfortunately for me, the fruit trees that my grandfather took apples from were long gone by the time I came along. Besides, I never had pants quite that baggy.
As I’ve said before, history is all around us. As many different facets are there are to the subject, there are just as many hooks to pull you into it.
For me, it was tales of Ancient Egypt and the stories that my family told around the kitchen table. For others, it’s wanting to know about their favorite sports hero, or more about their family tree.
Once that little tendril of knowledge has hooked on, you’ll find yourself in a rich new world that allows you to connect to both your past and to the world around you. Instead of driving past a little blue house on a gravel road, you’ll be driving past the house that your great, great grandfather and his wife built.
No matter what the hook is, no matter what the facet of history that really draws you in, I hope that you find as much pleasure there on your historical journey as I have on mine.