Last year, as Saturday afternoon began to wane, a 30-something woman and her two grade-school age boys paused at my tables. The kids looked as though they were suffering from sensory overload. (A Civil War show is like a candy shop for boys age eight to 80.)
Their mom appeared to be both bored and annoyed as she scanned the hall looking for her husband/boyfriend/date. My tables were near the entrance stairway, which had clearly been designated as the meeting spot. She had arrived early. He was clearly late.
I noticed the absence of a wedding band on her hand, and I thought: Mr. Missing Escort is in big trouble. Years of experience told me that he had assured her that this "date" would be a great time for her and her young boys. I could almost hear him using the words history, culture, and fun in a single sentence followed by "We wonï¿½t stay too long." I could see it all in her eyesï¿½the deception, the betrayal, the horror.
I said hello and asked quietly, "Your first Civil War show?"
Without missing a beat she replied, "And my last." The words were delived with a touch of frost that she seemed to immediately regret. She glanced at her fidgeting sons. "Sorry," she said, "weï¿½re all exhausted."
I agreed that it had been a long day, to which she smiled and nodded. "I guess this wasnï¿½t your idea," I said, which was as close as I could get to witty banter what with the frost still hanging in the air. Since she wasnï¿½t leaving and I couldnï¿½t leave, I figured Iï¿½d keep the conversation going and try to save her dateï¿½s bacon for him. After all, it was Christmasï¿½and besides, he might be a subscriber.
She was clearly frustrated. "I donï¿½t get it. Whatï¿½s the fascination with all this old stuff? I know all about the history thing, but it ended a long time ago and we already know all about it."
I smiled and turned to her boys. "Hey, guys, what do you think about all this?" I asked as I gestured to the huge hall surrounding us. They both looked at their mom, knowing she was not happy, but they couldnï¿½t control themselves. "Itï¿½s really cool!" they blurted in unison.
I pointed to a rack of small Riker cases that contained a selection of excavated bullets and buttons. "Take your pick, boys. One each. Christmas present." They beamed as they proceeded to carefully examine each one on the display rack.
I turned to their mom. She, softening a little, thanked me. I said that relics are a key to historyï¿½that the artifacts might lead the boys to think about what happened, who made the pieces, why they were made, what they were for, and where they were found. The boys might, of course, lose interest later on. But they might not, and itï¿½s worth giving away a few relics to chance opening a door to an adventure in history. I added, "At least itï¿½s real and not some made-up fantasy like Harry Potter."
She countered saying, "Iï¿½m afraid that doesnï¿½t prove much. Kids love free trinkets. How does getting caught up in this like Bill [doubtless the man on the lam] serve any purpose?"
I explained that history isnï¿½t frozen at certain dates that signify the start or end of a conflict, treaty signings, presidential terms of office, or any other markers, no matter how important. "History never quits," I said. "Itï¿½s a continuum." It seemed she was either pondering my words of wisdom or had decided I was another lost zealot like her errant boyfriend.
Taking another tack, I asked, "Were you tired of the presidential campaign this year, the endless commercials, the anger, the headlines?"
She replied, "Of course. Everyone was. So what?"
I explained that the emotion she had witnessed was not much different from what was going on before the Civil War. Both then and recently there had been a combination of rational discourse, heated debate, and screaming nut jobs. There were important issues at stake and tempers ran high. I said that her sons will probably remember the 2012 presidential campaign because of all the emotion attached to it. As they grow to adulthood, knowledge about the Civil War might help teach them about how our system works and about what happens when it breaks.
"After all," I said, "history does repeat itself, and the sooner people learn that, the sooner compromise can be reached and solutions found to solve problems. Viewed in that context, the war is still deeply meaningful in the present: Kids can learn that violence is the ultimate and worst solution to a disagreement. And the mood of the nation during the recent election was in some ways a duplicate of that in 1860.
She smiled, nodded, and said sheï¿½d never thought of it that way.
I realized that the boys had made their selections and were waiting patiently with questions. I was telling them about the relics in their Riker cases when the missing Bill approached. He looked suitably worried and sheepishï¿½he knew heï¿½d done a disappearing act and was in big trouble. To my surprise and his relief, she turned to him and smiled.
"Itï¿½s about time," she said teasingly while gently letting him off the hook. The kids were anxious to show him their treasures, and he grasped what had happened. The three "boys" bonded right before my eyes. She saw it, glanced at me, and mouthed, "Thanks."
I felt a little like Santa as they gathered their stuff and headed up the stairs, but not before they all wished me a "Merry Christmas" along with a "See you next year." Weï¿½ll see. Maybe Iï¿½ll get a subscription out of him next December. ï¿½ Stephen W. Sylvia
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