Thursday, May 20, 2010
THE NEEDLE IN THE HAY STACK: FINDING LOST HISTORY
Captain Edward had a brother, Charles Louis Herman. I also met him once many years ago. It was my first trip to Washington D.C., a trip that changed my life forever. I was a child in grade school. It was long before the civil rights movement, equal rights for women, the assassination of President Kennedy and the Vietnam War. It was mid-summer and it was hot-a heat unknown to me growing up on an island in the middle of the Niagara River.
It was also the first time I witnessed segregation, molasses on grits, immense poverty mixed with opulent white richness and plantations. I had read about them in history books. And now, I was seeing those pages with my own eyes. Pale green plates in diners filled with cakes of grits, covered in molasses and half filled pale green cups of coffee were images that have stayed in my memories. And there was another memory. Signs. Signs that were posted over falling apart drinking fountains and shabby unclean public restrooms. The only thing well kept were the signs that read, "Colored only". While we were looking at a history past, I did not realize I was living a history present.
It was this summer that my parents took me to Washington D.C. and I met Charles Herman. I did not know then he had served in the Revenue Cutter Service, went to war in France during WWI, had suffered the effects of mustard gas and had been employed at the Washington National Monument.
What I learned that week stayed with me and influenced how I "saw" history. Not through my eyes, but through the eyes of a person who cared deeply about preserving and caring for our nation's heritage. The wall in his living room was filled from top to bottom with signed photographs. All of them thanking him for the personal tour of the Monument and "making history come alive" for the signers. History had never come alive for me. Certainly not in school books.
Then I saw Washington D.C, our nation's capital. Through the eyes of Charles Herman. There were no security checks, no guards to stand over us, just Charles and my family. Lines stopped so we could go to the top of the Washington Nation Monument. The Lincoln Memorial, Robert E. Lee Mansion, The National Archives and more, much more. He laughed, he talked with the guards and everyone seemed to know him by name. He pointed out little bits of history-sure to have been missed by my childish eyes. "Look there", he would say, bending down to point out some feature on a monument.
And then, the "creme da la creme". It came the final afternoon of our visit as we were walking down the National Mall. He asked me if there was any place I might wish to see. Never ask a child that question. I looked up and saw a man standing at the top of the Capital Building. I thought to myself if he was up there then I wanted to go below. So, I told Charles I wanted to go into the basement of the Capital Building. Down we went to a place filled with objects and a dank, dark musty smell. But it was also the smell of history and I remember it well along with the grits, molasses, plantations and "Colored only" signs. That day became "my history".
When the decision was made to attend the National Archives wiki planning meeting and to finish digitally photographing the muster rolls for the Revenue Cutter Service ship the Lot. M. Morrill, I knew I had to find Charles Herman's grave. The summer before a cousin mentioned he had been in D.C. many years before and tried looking up his grave in the Arlington National Cemetery. We had always believed Charles was buried there. Looking through the on line data bases now available I was not able to locate his grave. Charles' niece gave me photographs and information last summer and the confusion was soon learned. He was not buried in Arlington. To be sure it was a National Cemetery, just not Arlington and it was located in Virginia.
Armed with directions written 50 years ago by his now deceased sister, we decided to drive to to Virginia the day of our arrival and find Charles' grave site. I did not know I would find myself looking for a needle in a hay stack.
Much had changed over the landscape, but little had changed in the directions, for they were amazingly accurate. Driving through the immense rolling green cemetery looking out over the Virgina landscape I remembered my first meeting with Charles. Now, a different side of history was beneath my feet. In an odd way, he would still be telling me a story. Only this time, it would be one filled with sadness and humiliation.
The vast open site soon alerted us to the fact there was no way we were going to locate his grave. Doubling back to the start we headed into a freshly painted funeral home on the grounds. The woman behind the desk was impressed that the directions written down 50 years ago were so accurate. She looked up his name and gave us some idea of the "block" he was buried. Off we went. In search of the needle in the hay stack. Graves are marked by bronze markers flat into the ground. The grass obscures the plates, so it is by walking and looking at individual markers history is revealed. They are not in nice neat rows.
Plate after plate I walked. Soon in despair of ever finding his grave, I was hot and sweaty and tired. Tired of looking at names, death and history. Killed in action in wars, children of fallen soldiers, wives, daughters, all buried beneath my feet. And, all with a history and a story to tell that I did not know. "Let's go", I shouted to my husband at the far end of the site. "No, we are here now. We will find it", he yelled back. Then I heard my name being called. He had found it.
This was the beginning of my humiliation. It was partially covered in dirt and leaves, a nice bronze plate with the letters "HERMAN" across the top. To the right was Augusta B. Herman with her birth and death dates. To the left was nothing. There should have been a plate with Charles Louis Herman along with his birth and death dates. There were no visible signs there had ever been one.
Back to the funeral home. There must be a mistake. It would be rectified. Yes, there was a mistake. A very nice, helpful gentlemen came out to offer assistance. Unfortunately, my husband had told the woman behind the desk Charles had been the Head Custodian for the Washington National Monument. There was no turning back now. The helpful man disappeared to the back. We waited and waited. Then he returned. "Is he actually buried here?", he asked. There is no record that the bronze plate was purchased through us although that was not uncommon he told us. Furthermore, there was no evidence a plate had ever been installed. He checked again and came back out. "He is listed in our records as being buried in that site. Would there be any other family name to check to see who was responsible for the arrangements?" I gave him every possible name I could think of at the time.
Again, we waited and waited. He returned shaking his head. There was nothing. In all his years he had never had this situation happen. For fifty years a man who "had dedicated his life" managing one of the most important national monuments over-seeing every aspect of its daily operations was buried in a National Cemetery and not one of his family returned to check on his grave site. Until now. I felt my checks turn red. I tried making excuses. There really were no excuses.
"People who live in glass houses shouldn't through stones." How often had I been told that little ditty? History, preservation and its accompanying story had been my mantra for so many years. Yet here I sat with a history lost. Because a family hadn't bothered to preserve it. Not that Charles was an important historical figure, or that his name was chiseled on the top of a building or that he changed the course of history in any great way. No, yet he had "kept" a part of history alive and he had preserved it for me and my generation. And he was just one of many. But little histories are important for the big picture. And for those who lose sight of the trees and the forests, the big picture in time will also become lost. Our heritage is "ours" whether it is painful to remember or glorious to recount.
We cannot assume someone else will attend to its saving. For in the end its saving
is our individual responsibility. And it all starts within our own family. They are after all, an important part of the forests and the trees. "History is one generation and one story away from extinction." Perhaps it should be added "and one act of human intervention".
Post Script: For more information on the history of the Washington National Monument, one built to honor our first president, yet also surrounded by controversy surf the web. Controversy, it seems still abounds!
The position of Head Custodian was created shortly after the completion of the Washington Monument. It has nothing to do with janitorial services.