I always enjoy Rick Steves’ travelogues on PBS, but I remained glued to the TV a couple of weeks ago when he took his viewers – and me – on a tour of Würzburg in southern Germany.
The crown jewel of this Bavarian city is the palace known as the Residenz, the very first palatial structure I ever visited in Europe. Tours of Neuschwanstein, also in Bavaria, Charlottenburg in Berlin, and Versailles, just outside Paris, still lay in my future that day I moved wide-eyed through baroque and rococo rooms featuring more gold and marble than I had ever seen in all my 21 years. The girl from River Road would never forget the grand staircase, the ornate ballroom, the sculpted gardens outside. Not for the last time, I pictured myself descending those marble stairs, dancing the minuet while clad in a gown of silk and velvet, strolling the grounds on the arm of a dashing suitor.
The TV-tour-turned-reverie defines my participatory approach to history. As Sarah Blake wrote in her novel The Guest Book: “Wars, plagues, names upon tombs tell us only what happened. But history lies in the cracks between.”
The description of another “crack” I copied from The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown further highlights my need to understand history by envisioning the lives people led. All good Ohioans know that in 1903 our Wright Brothers “flew above the sand for twelve seconds.” In the same year George Wyman rode into New York City aboard a motorcycle that “had carried him all the way from San Francisco,” completing the first cross-continent trip on a motorized vehicle. Just twenty days later, Nelson Jackson and his bulldog Bud did the same thing in a car. Also in 1903 Henry Ford sold his first Model A – in a shiny red color.
Merely reading about these accomplishments in an age that “spawned bold dreamers and audacious dreams” had me visualizing the excitement of the times. I could easily inform myself about the parallel events of the Teapot Dome scandal and Panamanian independence from the pages of a history book. But knowing that 1903 also brought the first Tour de France, the first World Series, and the first teddy bear in America – not to mention a severe drought that caused the Niagara Falls to run out of water – such were the “cracks” that brought the new century to life for me.
Yet another excerpt that I interrupted my reading to copy, came from The Forgotten Room, by Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig. Initially, I was confused by: “I scooped up my stack of change from the nickel thrower in the glass booth.” However, by the time I finished reading: “Hurrying over to the long wall of square compartments, I quickly selected my coffee, macaroni and cheese, cucumber salad, and tapioca pudding, sliding in my nickels and turning the chrome-plated knobs with porcelain centers,” I was standing in one of the 80 Horn & Hardart automats where New Yorkers once lunched. These luncheonettes provided fast service, inexpensive food, and stylish surroundings with marble counters and stained glass adornments as well as real china and silverware.
From the turn of the century until the 1950’s when new fast food spots replaced these once-popular eateries, history books detailed the battles and treaties of two world wars, seven American presidencies, the League of Nations, and the U.N. I, however, prefer to sit with shop girls and secretaries to watch the passing scene from my vantage point in a shiny Big Apple automat.
My favorite trip back in time, however, was prompted by an episode of Sewing with Nancy on PBS. Laurie Hild, a guest author on the show, related the story of the Webb Publishing Company, which early in the 20th century printed The Farmer’s Wife, a magazine featuring patterns and housekeeping tips. The editorship sponsored a competition in which children won prizes for selling subscriptions: cameras, bicycles, rifles – and the big prize of a Shetland pony with saddle or carriage. Over twelve years, the 500 grand prize winners were asked to submit photographs of themselves with their ponies, and many children also included thank-you notes.
All it took for me to slip into a 1915 moment was the letter from one new pony owner, who took Larry into all the stores, including the drugstore where both boy and pony received ice cream cones and chewing gum. Even as the Germans were sinking the Lusitania during all-out submarine warfare and the cornerstone of the Lincoln Memorial was being laid in Washington, another new pony recipient wrote: “I’m not going to ride Ray this summer, just let him enjoy life. Teach him to say his prayers and take him to Sunday School.” That is a “crack” I would surely love to occupy.
“Wars, plagues, names upon tombs” still tell us what is happening with our nation’s capital in constant turmoil and hotspots all over the globe threatening to erupt. But when I am long gone, I hope those after me will also remember what went on in the “cracks”: that two grandnieces went with Daddy to the racetrack in Charlotte to see the # 1 car, that another grandniece was inducted into the National Honor Society, that U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant Kenneth O’Brien made all of us here at home proud with his humble heroism. Now that is my kind of history.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.