Living History

Every year until last year, during the Labor Day weekend, Civil War reenactors would take over the Huntington Beach Central Park. They had set up makeshift tents and booths while in costume. Many of them are avid amateur historians: some love that era of American history while others have connections to both sides of the American Civil War. I have talked to people who say that their grandfather’s grandfather fought with General William Sherman during the Georgia campaign or that they are a distant relative of Confederate General James Longstreet. For Californians, since there were no Civil War battles here, this was the most many will experience.

As a historian, I had a chance to have deeper questions with the actors. Furthermore, they were telling me about an upcoming event in November called “A March Through History” with presentations from the Roman Empire all the way to the Vietnam War, and maybe even Operation Desert Storm. In the course of conversation, this gentleman (a much older man) said that this was odd to help. For him (and me), Operation Desert Storm was not history but memory. I was 9 years old when the Berlin Wall fell and 11 during Operation Desert Storm.

9/11 – this coming Saturday – is also memory, not history, but there are now children coming of age who have never experienced the horrors of that day.

In April 2009, I was in NYC with my parents; they were attending a conference while I played tourist. However, it so happened we all had a day where we could visit all the key tourist sites: the Met, Wall Street, and a few other places. One of the places was the future site of the 9/11 Memorial Center. There was a place where we could see things that were salvaged and messages looking for the missing. It was moving because growing up on the West Coast, the events on that fateful day felt removed. We watched the news and all felt the horror. Worse, if you knew someone living in New York or working at the Pentagon, the level of anxiety is much, much, higher, and that’s an understatement.

The last survivor of the American Civil War has long died.

There are no more survivors of World War 1.

My grandfathers’ generation – those who fought in World War 2 – are dwindling in numbers. For Americans, that generation’s cataclysmic event was Pearl Harbor.

There will come a day sometime in the next century when all who lived through the 2001 and this Global War on Terror will have passed. I wonder how they will remember us.

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