A love of History begins with a picture. The picture weds us to amazement — this action happened before I was born. Human beings as real as I feel saw this. What does it mean, we say? What else happened, we say?
Maybe it begins with a picture like this:
He somersaults, a startling act in these wrenching seconds. This image catches something inside the memory of the American bomber pilot who watches:
“A German pilot came out of his plane, drew his legs into a ball, his head down. Papers flew out of his pockets. He did a triple somersault through our formation. No chute” (480).*
Combinations of chemicals in the American’s brain registered this moment out of the flow of this one mission’s events — in the midst of his awareness of the other bombers in the formation, the geometries of contrails, the cold, the numbing omnipresence of engine noise — this German’s figure falling to a certain death but in a dream-like moment seeming to perform.
I wonder, did he know he had left his chute behind? And when I formulate this question, I enter his experience. My wonder leads me to try to bridge the decades and circumstances and understand. The picture ignites curiosity.
This love affair with History began for me in first grade, in a tiny grammar school library, in pulling down an old stained hardcover, in opening the pages and reading, “It rained for ten thousand years.” Even now I remember at 7 standing in a musty room and seeing the oceans fill and in my child’s eye every single thing turning green, and maybe that is where my love affair with the natural world finds its origin — and my love affair with the past, with images, with stories, with books of every type. In a way I do not understand, these “moments [snapped] together like magnets forged in a chain …,”** and thus when I read Seamus Heaney or the life of Crazy Horse or the story of Annie Dillard stalking Tinker Creek or when I walk a field, the individual links of the chain align, and I think I see that everything is connected.
*from All Hell Let Loose by Max Hastings
**the psychiatrist Martin Dysart in the play Equus by Peter Schaffer