“Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn’t stop you from doing anything at all.”
― Richard Feynman
Take sustenance where and when you can. Mine came this afternoon during a phone call from a good friend, of the sort who know you all too well and yet remain your friend despite that. You know what I mean: The scales of give and take always seem imbalanced in your favor; how can you receive so much and feel so keenly the deficit of giving so little in return. Get over it.
My friend sent a clipping (from the New York Time, I think) showing a pleasant afternoon at a county fair in Colorado. Family groups scattered around the Ferris wheel looked either at the camera or admiringly at those in the gondolas over their heads. Absolutely nothing unusual going on—except for white robes and pointy hoods: nary a face showing among the lot of them. This was “Klan Day” at the fair in 1925; an ordinary family outing of no consequence. Ninety-plus years later, two observations come to mind: 1) we’ve come a long way since then, and yet, 2) we haven’t come very far at all. George Santayana got it spot on: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And we’re suffering a cultural amnesia like none other in my lifetime.
Knowing plays a huge role for those of us playing in the sandbox of history. Successful play requires three sorts of knowing: 1) what you do know; what you don’t know; what you can’t know, because it hasn’t happened yet. Anyone writing about the Roaring Twenties, for example, shouldn’t be tainted with an awareness of Black Friday. Likewise, public health concerns—pandemics that purge the gene pool periodically—ought to come as complete surprises while we negotiate the local historical narrative. Before 2020, the flu was merely an inconvenience; now it’s COVID-19.
At the same time, these had enormous consequence for each community, regardless of size or stature. The influenza epidemic of 1918, for example, influenced the project in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Who knew that “patient zero” was a returning World War One doughboy at Fort Dodge, another Iowa town only fifty miles east of Agincourt. How easy would it have been for the virus to traverse those few miles—given the inter urban railway we’d created only ten years before. What mechanisms would have spread it throughout the population and how high would the death toll have reached. Children and the aged were most at risk, so whole families could be decimated; history’s course shifted a fraction; the trajectory of survivors’ lives redirected. And for me, narratives rewritten or erased.
So what of the Ku Klux Klan? Until this afternoon, my familiarity with the Klan had been kept well beyond arm’s reach—both theirs and mine. I learned, for example that it’s name derives from the Greek word κυκλος (“circle”), innocuous enough but now tinged with evil. It reminded me of a local story, more than thirty-five years old, involving Frank Vyzralek, former curator at the State Historical Society (when I was on better terms), a story yearning for adaptation. Frank is gone but I believe he’d approve.