When I was a graduate of the first grade, in the summer between primary school at St. Mary’s parish and second grade at St. John’s in Saint Francis de Sales Catholic School, my parents planned a summer vacation in the American Southwest to visit my grandparents, geological wonders and vestiges of ancient cultures. Before it was over, while visiting my mom’s parents in Albuquerque, my brother left us and flew to Colorado Springs, where he would begin his Air Force career, showing up for duty and his freshman year of college at the United States Air Force Academy. My brother’s subsequent absence in the following years influenced my life’s initial path, but perhaps no more so than the trip itself did to my long-term trajectory.
Growing up with my big brother in the Air Force, I was enamored with planes. My favorite movie after the Star Wars trilogy was Top Gun—I forgave them for being naval aviators. I wrote a short history of aviation for my first social studies fair in junior high—I ran well over the five minute-allotment for my oral presentation to the judges. In eighth grade, I joined the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the official civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, to increase my potential with the Academy. In ninth grade, my social studies fair project was the history of CAP (which is actually older than the Air Force, having been founded during World War II). My sophomore year at Morgantown High School, I wrote a project on the future plans of aeronautic and aerospace developments. For years, a certain emulation was my career goal. I logged more hours flying than driving until my mid-twenties. But, slowly, something began to change.
In the ninth grade I took Mr. Ingle’s world history class—not more social studies for the first time. We began with the city of Ur, a name that delighted me and my friends as we pictured roving cavemen deciding to settle down and build a city, “What else would they call it?” The enigmatic Harrapan culture tantalized me with its undeciphered script and sophisticated engineering. I wrote two projects that I still remember, today. One was about the origin of Chinese Taoism and the other about the Mongols. Perhaps more interesting than the subjects, was the process, what I called “doing the detective work”. I realized I had adapted the irritating, time-consuming, note-card process we’d been taught in English class, into a streamlined, equally effective system that allowed me to combine notes with my outline efficiently.
One could argue my committed relationship with history began there, but, truthfully, I think it was only the first flirtations with my love for the process—the active learning I engineered through research projects. Still, my goal remained the Academy for years; the back-up plan from eighth through tenth grades was to join Air Force ROTC and learn how to design jets at Embry-Riddle. But, I showed little natural aptitude for math and science, despite my interest, and balked at the necessary work to achieve genuine, long-term understanding. Indeed, even during my infatuation with the Air Force and flight, I tended to look backwards at the stories that brought us to our modern capabilities. Finally, in my senior year of high school, while taking AP American and European history classes (and jamming in two AP English courses because I was absent the year before), it clicked. I loved the past! I was going to study the past.
The year before, I lived with two host families in Germany as an exchange student. As a result, I missed much of the junior year courtship with colleges and universities. It was not until spring of my senior year that I visited the only school to which I applied, The Catholic University of America, where I would meet with the head of the history department in a basement office of a dormitory, down the hall from the laundry, in one of the oldest buildings on campus. I was candid with Dr. Poos: I was considering the anthropology department, as well, and its archaeology concentration; in fact, I was already scheduled to work for one of the archaeology professors that June. Dr. Poos assured me it was unnecessary; I would find everything I was looking for in history.
So, if that fall after my high school graduation my love with history was officially consummated, when was its genesis? It could have begun with my upbringing. My dad, born in the former Yugoslavia, remembers World War II. My mother remembers growing up in post-war Germany as an Army brat. Both had a respect for history which they shared with us. But, that’s pretty ethereal for a point of origin.
Because both of my parents were professors (at WVU), their schedules in concert with their natural curiosity often permitted lengthy summer vacations, which, with careful planning and budgeting, resulted in some great adventures. One of the first recorded in my memory, was the trip out west, during which my brother departed. In the late eighties, the opportunities to explore the ruins of the (politically ill-named) Anasazi were greater than they are today; and, I was enthralled. I played in them with a red bandana around my neck and a straw cowboy hat on my head, puzzled by mother’s answers about where their builders went hundreds—hundreds!—of years before, when the dwellings were abandoned. I crawled around the ruins of Mesa Verde and ogled those in Chaco Canyon. With equal vim, I gaped at the eerie abandoned ghost towns and U.S. cavalry bases. I was utterly captivated by the Navajo and Pueblo Indians we encountered and still have the painted pottery turtle and lizard my parents bought for me when I wasn’t looking in the cold, gritty wind up in the table-top town of Acoma. In one set of ruins, I was exploring with a plastic six-shooter holstered at my side when a stinging maroon sandstorm flew up driving me for shelter and forcing me to wrap my bandana around my face like an Old West bandit with sand between my teeth.
On later vacations, we visited my dad’s family in Germany, exploring castles and monasteries along the Rhine and in Bavaria. We visited Salzburg, Austria and Mozart’s house, with whom I was well-acquainted, as the only radio stations or tapes my parents played carried classical music. One year, we visited the Cherokee reservation in the Carolinas and explored the Smoky Mountains. Closer to home, we visited Fort Necessity, the doomed, thrown-together fort of a hapless, young George Washington. Another trip took us to New Orleans, where I saw the old Mississippi paddle-wheel, the Natchez and the French Quarter, under the close supervision of my parents. In short, we explored. It was not only the “old stuff.” It was the food, culture and geography, too—additionally, I also saw alligators in Louisiana’s swamps, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Dinosaur National Park, a Bavarian salt mine and so on; and, though not very risky then when it came to food, I was nonetheless exposed to a great variety of it (which I finally learned to appreciate the summer I graduated from college). But, history was always tied up with that “other stuff.”
That first trip to the Southwest, planted a seed that grew steadily in the fertile, imaginative top-soil my parents had nurtured between my ears. Imagine the sturdy tree that has grown for the last twenty-five years. That is history for me: many branches, all reaching to different areas of interest and curiosity, all providing a variety of insights and creating varying priorities and relevancies in my contemporary world. Today, I am still fascinated by the fate of the Anasazi and, almost equally so, in how learned interpretations about this people have evolved since I first encountered them. That first mystery, laid the foundation for uncovering and solving mysteries, doing the detective work. As a teen, I probably would have told you the most profound impact the trip had on me was my brother leaving—and emotionally it did—but looking back today, it is clear the trip also hardwired me intellectually. It introduced me to questions and concepts with which I have forever been both informed and consumed.