June/july 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 4
It is early on a June morning in 1934. My father has taken me by trolley car and on foot to the shore of the Hudson River under the new George Washington Bridge. The great armada of the U.S. Navy—eighty warships strong—rides at anchor in mid-river after a month-long passage from the West Coast via the Panama Canal. I am interested only in the biplane I see perched on the f oredeck of the battleship directly opposite us. My father explains that the plane is launched by catapult from the ship and it can return by landing in the water and being craned back up on board. I listen, then turn to watch a man farther down the strand who is repeatedly tossing a stick into the river for his German shepherd to retrieve. So much for my first memory of a historic event.
Eleven years later I am at the Hudson again. Now it is the victorious wartime fleet that is on display—including the U.S.S. Missouri , back from Japan. It is a clear, windy October day with Navy blimps and Air Force squadrons aloft; hundreds of thousands are crowding the embankment to watch Harry Truman take the salute from the deck of a fast-moving white destroyer. I think I see Truman wave his hat as he goes by. He is the second President I have laid eyes on. In 1944, on the final afternoon of FDR’s last campaign, his rain-drenched open car passed within a few feet of me, and I will never forget his exhausted face.
Does anyone ever forget seeing a President? In college I find myself sharing a Christmas eggnog with Ike, then head of Columbia, and a hundred other students, many of whom had served under him only a few years before. Kennedy (by now I am a professional journalist) speaks to reporters at a State Department briefing a month before his assassination. He ends with a speech from Richard III , delivered as well as any actor I’d ever heard, and he looks like such an ace, of course. I spot Richard Nixon during the Johnson years, with the expected sunken eyes and dark jowls but surprisingly slight in stature. He sits alone in an Italian restaurant on East Forty-ninth Street and then rises graciously to greet his party as it enters.
I am a boy in a little world; then I am a man in the great world. And when I find myself trespassing on an occasion of historic interest, I am both man and boy at the same time. At lunch with Dean Acheson he tells me that what he likes most in a magazine is a leavening of humor. I accidentally witness Churchill receiving an academic award and am struck by how much he resembles my father in build and in coloring. I am present at a huge press conference at the Elysée Palace when de Gaulle, years before Nixon, gives a major speech urging rapprochement with Red China (and I am so sleepy from an overnight flight I have to bite my lip bloody to keep from nodding, afraid that if I fall to the floor I will be shot by the secret police). I have an encounter at dinner with my editor-in-chief, Henry Luce, the most important publisher of the century. I have been told that he will question me severely about the figure I, as editor of the Life Atlas , will ascribe to the population of China. He thinks the official communist figures are inflated for propaganda reasons. Sure enough Luce asks me the question, and I reply: “Not as many as they say, and not as few as you think. ” Afterwards, someone whispers to me, “Thank God he didn’t hear a word you said. He must have had his hearing aid turned down. ”
But history, trivial or momentous, is revealed not only in encounters with people, places, and events. It is also found in those props that add such authenticity and excitement to the show: namely books, manuscripts, and documents. Consider a leather-bound volume of Graham’s Magazine that I buy for five dollars in Maine one summer. I scan the pages skeptically—this was one of the most popular American publications of its day—and I recognize that, beneath the superficial differences of typography and layout, it’s the same mixture to be found on any current newsstand: trendiness, service, earnest piffle, predictable thinking. Suddenly, on page 32 of the January, 1843, number, my eye catches the by-line on a poem: “By Edgar A. Poe.” And I remember he was the brilliant, contentious editor of Graham’s that year and I am reading his words exactly as they appeared to the American public for the first time. Now it’s not just a musty antique I’m holding—it’s a ghost that, Poe-like, seems to be a living thing.
There is undoubtedly something enchanting and magical about history. To be told what happened in the past, or how something came to be, is both a shield against and a solace for the distress of what Hamlin Garland called “the mighty pivotal present. ” At times the ghost of history appears before us like a screaming horror—but that is so we will be sure to pay attention. Most often it takes other forms: it can be heroic, inspirational, a muse of distant, thrilling voices and of “monuments of unageing intellect.” It can even be funny.
Such, at least, is my conviction and the reason why I am now sitting at a desk in the office of AMERICAN HERITAGE , writing and editing for an audience of readers much like me: in love with history, exulting in the ability to live simultaneously in the past and the present, and determined to stick around to see how the story unfolds.