In my travels I try and take the time to visit local places of history. Wherever I am, be it for work or play, if I have time I will explore. In my travels, I've stayed in places as exhilarating as the Rockies, as surreal as the desert, and as desolate as a corn swept landscape. Yet even in the most innocuous of places, there are discoveries.
I had a couple days in Hutchinson, Kansas a few years ago and went to the Cosmosphere. Yes that's right. A premiere Space Museum in Kansas. With a U.S. space artifact collection second only to the National Air and Space Museum and the largest collection of Russian space artifacts found outside of Moscow, the Cosmosphere's Hall of Space Museum is uniquely positioned to tell the story of the Space Race. In the middle of the plains you can actually touch capsules that went into space. Many of them look more like Frank Genry designs on crack. Or something my brother and I would have attempted to build with our erector set, giant tinker toy constructions, resembling bulky 1960's foil Christmas trees more than modern spacecraft, topped with antennas that could have been placed on top by someone,s drunken Uncle after a holiday evening of cookies and grog.
Yet I walked away in wonder, seeing it all and thinking that all of the things I built as a child and a teen, the weather radio, the rockets, could have become something like that, with no more imagination, simply more education. Museums are like that for me, a humanness of history that brushes you as you pass each display, clinging to you even after you leave. Guns, Germs and Steel as Jared Diamond coined the title of his Pulitzer Prize winning book; the genius, fixations and rage of humanity.
Some of it is sobering. Visit the Holocaust Museum in our nation's capital and you know, too well, the bromide of evil. The piles of shoes, obsessive compulsive logic of sick record keeping. Sit among the silent chairs, one for each life lost, at the Oklahoma City Memorial. You can't help but think that a good portion of our misfortunes arise, not from fate or ill health or the vagrancy of the winds, but from human rancor, fueled by innate stupidity, and those ever present justifications of the same, hell bent idealism and proselytizing mania for the sake of religious or political effigies.
Some are places in which you leave feeling as if the presence of those it immortalizes stand silently beside you as you solemnly take it all in. Such was the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum up in Whitefish Point. I was in the area on business and had a day off before heading home and got a rental car at my own expense to go explore. It was well worth the drive, with a detailed display of sights and sound that chronicled the many wrecks due to the furies of that vast lake. But with respect to all the lives lost on the Great Lakes over the years, I especially wanted to see the display on the Edmund Fitzgerald, the most mysterious and haunting of all shipwreck tales heard around my beloved Great lakes.
It was this bell I wanted to see. In looking at it, at the inscription of the names of the crew lost, it was personal. These weren't just numbers on a wall, or dates on a memorial, these were people living, these were people who like myself, loved the wind on their face, the draw of wild nature.
In looking at the artifacts of loss, the fascination comes from the step we take into connection. Strolling past the exhibits, pieces of wood and glass and rope, what we are looking for are familiar things, the small quarters where the crew gathered, the hall where the hungry and thirsty ate meat and beans and drank strong coffee. We know that when the ship sent down, there were people thinking and scheming, composing a letter to their families in their minds, the seas too rough to write; worrying, handling a task, dreaming of calm seas and the blue eyes of the one they loved. That knowledge, that thought, brought with it a chill, and a touch of familiarity. Like a hand from the vast waters touching my shoulder, what I left with was not a concern for the dead, for they are at peace now, but for the living, those people with me, now.
Such it is with history, and the viewing of its pages, finding darkness not only in one's world but within oneself. It is at such time, when we are truly solo, truly adult, that we accept responsibility for a soul that survives in a world of such anomaly. You make good decisions based on the bad ones others have taken before you, or you, yourself will spiral down into the blackness.
Others look only ahead, paying no attention to the past, the remembrances of brave men, the battles and freedoms we have fought for. My flag was at half staff today and I bet half the neighbors did not know why, seeing only what's going on in this moment, however useless, with no intention of availing themselves of the lessons of history that rattle around in our pockets like rare coins.
Not I. For me, I'll take the slow path, the closer look, the unseen poetry in a drop of melting snow, the land and soul that thirst, the blood and the tears that united a nation.
Like all things mechanical, all things living, what we look at is much more than a sum of its parts. Those early space ships, the eroded surfaces speaking of the intense heat of reentry, the thin outer skin belying the courage of the man that it cradled, just waiting to be blasted into the unknown. A Mercury wonder of heat and design and engineering unheard of in its day. Compare it with the Soviet ships, odd instruments with Cyrillic labels, foreign yet familiar. An animation can never give you that little surge of awe I got on seeing that warning stenciled on a Soyuz reentry module: “Man inside! Help!” -- words that are dense testimony to both the dangers of a landing and the human ignorance that may exacerbate it.
So today - give pause for those souls lost this day 20 years ago. And next time that you trave--l instead of going out for wings and a beer, take time to look at those places of history that often go undetected. Stop and look in a museum, stand in places where history stood still, the courtyard at Monte Alban in quiet sunlight you can almost feel the air shimmering with life, priests, victims, warriors, the ball court where to lose the game was to lose life. Those lives vibrate through you.
That which remains are all things, past, present, they make us what we are, everything the human mind has invented, everything the human heart has loved and grieved for, that bravery has sacrificed for. It may touch only a few, but it connects us all.
Remember those who have gone before us.
In the Cosmophere in Kansas I reached out and touched a spaceship that had gone to the heavens, and the cold metal felt no different to my hand than the cold forged metal of a lost diving bell. As my hands warmed it, I realized that there are not absolute answers to all of the great questions. I can simply persist to live through them, as I learn and remember.
On a small table at my home this morning, lies a simple crafted box in which contains the fired remembrance of pure love and loyalty. Each day as I leave, I gently lay my hand upon it. Remember me, remember this, from God's intricate creations of blood and bone and sinew, to our own divined dust, the distance is small.