Thursday, December 23, 2010
Finding Stories in Unexpected Places
You know those random papers you have laying around your house? Tax forms, loan records, letters, paycheck stubs? That stuff is History. No, really. The everyday paper stash of our lives tells the story of our time, although it may not be all that apparent at first glance.
Recently I've begun volunteering for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as an archival assistant. I've just finished my first project--creating a database of WWI Navy enlistee records from Port Royal, South Carolina. This is the first time I've had the opportunity to process records like these, and I came away with so much.
Some things I've learned from the WWI enlistee records:
1) Everything you own can be listed on one page: When an enlistee deserted or died, a full inventory of his possessions was made. Items generally included military-issue clothing, toiletries, and a few letters. What stayed with me is this realization that what we leave behind physically is incredibly transitory and insignificant compared to the life we've lived.
2) Military tedium can teach us a little about how to run our business: Part of the records included a weekly and monthly report of strengths and weaknesses, and a detailed account of how many soldiers were present, sick, needed, and the general quality of operations at Port Royal. There was a system of perpetual self-assessment that nearly any individual or business would do well to mimic. There is this quote by Robert Brault that sort of summarizes this, "Know thyself, or at least keep renewing the acquaintance." Any institution or individual that ever made any real progress was willing to do the difficult work of looking in the mirror. A lot.
3) Self-descriptions are telling: Technically this is not a part of the records I processed, but it's worth mentioning. NARA is the official repository for the national collection of WWI draft registration cards. The cool thing is that they have the registration cards of some very famous (and infamous) people--Al Capone, T.S. Eliot, Rudolph Valentino, and Robert Frost among others. The way registrants describe themselves is interesting. Harry Houdini, godfather of magicians, listed himself as an "actor" under occupation. That's a revealing statement isn't it? Actor? Self-descriptions can be incredibly poignant, even if they are somewhat inaccurate; particularly in retrospect. How might Hitler have described himself? A painter and idealist?
4) After everything else is gone, stories remain: I've gone through approximately 200+ enlistee cards and files, but what stays with me are the stories. The deserters. The soldiers casted-off into government hospitals for the insane. The suicide cases. The nineteen-year-old enlistee who died in a bar fight. The immigrant enlistees who came to America and earned medals for outstanding service to the U.S. Navy. Through these seemingly banal records, letters, and reports--our collective American history unfolds like a beautiful hidden flower. Lives come off the paper for me when I find someone with my birthday, hailing from my hometown, or bearing a 'Death Before Dishonor' tattoo. The time between generations seems so much smaller, and I am inspired, having found so many stories in unexpected places. I think this is the reason why genealogy becomes so encompassing for many people, because of this sense of connection despite the continuum of time.
The WWI enlistee records I mentioned will be available to researchers and genealogists soon. If you're a History enthusiast or just a curious onlooker like myself, come on down to NARA and take a look. You may find much, much more than you anticipated.