Submitted by Susanne Bacon
A little while ago, I had a wonderful reading event at a yarn store near Lakewood Town Center. I was reading a chapter from one of my novels to a group of lovely, witty, and very sophisticated listeners. That chapter contained the story of one of my novel characters, including a short compilation of German 20th century history. At the end of the session I was asked how much of it I had had to research. I said “none”. And then it struck me why.
My life story has been one of hearing family history. My favorite picture books used to be family photo albums. And when my grandmother visited, she always told of her youth, but also of her life during and shortly after World War II. Basically, our family was so much affected by the war that this part of History became part of our family history. True, later on, at school, all the political details were filled in. And Germany was intense about this when I grew up. We heard about the Third Reich in the school subjects of German, history, religious education, art, music, politics. We were doused with facts in documentaries and Hollywood movies. We were aware of it at each and every step, reading explanatory street signs and the inscriptions of monuments. We encountered it traveling into our neighboring countries. My generation is still horrified and deeply ashamed about what a people can let happen.
But history lessons also involved so much more. We started studying it from grade 7 through grade 13 at grammar school – and it was fascinating what repetitive patterns were perceivable. What clever or crooked personalities created boon or bane for their nation. It was a fascinating virtual trip around the world, and today I only wish there had been even more of it and that I had listened so much better. I am still studying history at ever chance I get, and I feel it is like time and geographic traveling rolled in one.
When I came over here, the first time I came past those typical Western facades of houses like in the center of Roy or Wilkeson I was dumbfounded. Even more so when entering a pub and finding guys wearing Stetsons and cowboy boots. And then only it hit me. This is part of continued History, too!
I grew up around literature and movies that dealt with the Wild West. I knew about the Oregon trail and was wildly fascinated with it. I secretly envied those adventurous settlers who had dared to push the frontier farther and farther out west to the reaches of Washington Territory. I often thought I would have loved to be part of that. Little did I know that one day I’d actually live here and have to realize that the phantasmagoric stories presented by Western movies happened basically only a bit over 150 years in Western Washington’s past.
I might have learned a lot about world history at school, through family history, literature, or movies. But I still have to wrap my head around the fact that only 200 years ago this place was pure wilderness and that only native Americans roamed the prairies, the lakes, and the bays of what once would be South Puget Sound. That this place developed within record speed from log cabins to high rises, from canoeing as the fastest way of transport to Interstates, from clearing farmland with axes to crop dusters. That some people here are directly connected to those pioneers who settled this country. Meaning: I might have learned world history, but nobody ever gets taught the closer picture about another country.
In fourth grade we were taught Heimatkunde (pronounce: ‘high-mutt-coon-dah, meaning local history, geography, and economy). That is what I am reading up on these days – this area’s history. That is what I keep learning when being a docent for the Steilacoom Historical Museum. That is what I encounter when meeting friends and talking about their experiences. Of course, they know when certain events in their family’s past took place. Of course, they toss around names of people and places. It’s because it’s been lived history, not just studied history. And, believe me, it’s just as intriguing to me when you tell me your history as it might be to you when I tell you mine.