Thursday, July 26, 2012

Don't Judge a Book - How I encountered 19th Century America, the Middle-East and England all in one day

(Interesting and unusual pseudonyms used - because it's fun.)

Yesterday was my first day of work at a local museum. Basically, it’s a restored 19th Century American farmhouse, school and pastures. It’s hard to describe what I was thinking when I hopped out of the car and walked up the path on my own. First, I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into – was it a real job, should I try to impress? Or was it just a volunteer thing, nothing to worry about? I wasn’t quite sure – I hadn’t even talked to the director, much less met her. I forced myself not to look back as I heard my mom’s car pulling out of the parking lot. That wouldn’t have been cool.
            Halfway to the Visitor’s Center I passed a little old lady and asked her if she was the one I was supposed to talk to.
            “I don’t think so,” she said. “You’re probably lookin’ for Agatha, she’s inside.”
            My thoughts on other things, my unconscious who-is-this-person-and-how-should-I-act-around-them feelers were reaching out. I immediately, from her soft-spoken country accent, labeled her as a sweet (if somewhat absent-minded) old woman. She walked beside me up the stairs and we stepped inside the Visitor’s Center. Like the farmhouse and school, this building had been built in the 1800’s and it was immediately evident. The rooms are small and square, the walls of plaster, the doors surrounded by thick wooden frames. A ragged rug lies on the floor, old-fashioned chairs and an ancient piano are the only pieces of furniture.
            Another elderly woman, Agatha, stepped from an adjoining room, smiling at me and saying, “I guess you’re Longish?”
            “Yes, Ma’am.”
Again, I tried to decide who I was dealing with. Obviously, I didn’t have to worry too much about being professional – she wasn’t exactly intimidating. She was just somebody from “round here”, and I could deal with that. If she’d been a Yankee….
            After introducing me to the other , (Sinead, her name was) Agatha led me through the door into her “office,” a cramped room stuffed with two desks, three or four swivel chairs, miscellaneous furniture and a distinctive old books smell. That came from the enormous bookshelf against one wall, packed with historical tomes, both biographies and actual old books. Agatha motioned that I sit, and I did, sitting across from her at the desk. She opened a notebook and started jotting something down, probably a few last-minute thoughts on how she’d hide my body. Yeah, I’ve been reading too many murder mysteries.
Surreptitiously, I noted some of the titles on the shelf behind her. Whenever I’m in a strange house, my interest immediately gravitates toward bookshelves. Maybe it’s just because I’m nosey, but probably because I always want to find a way to open a conversation about books.
John Adams by David McCullough caught my eye. We’d watched the HBO miniseries based on the book several times (and very good it is, surprisingly enough). Eric Sloane’s History of the United States. Foxfire. Something with “Scotch-Irish” in the title. Something else about Chinese history. Almost entirely historical books, all crammed in every which way on the overflowing shelf. That’s the way I like them. I sat back and watched Agatha write, turning my ball-cap over in my hands and hoping I looked tough.
            “Where you live, Longish?”
            “Just down the road,” I said, “five, six miles. Up Neo-Mayberry way.”
            “We don’t git many volunteers,” she said. “When are you going back to school?”
I slipped into auto-mode, explaining that I’m home-schooled, and very carefully examining her reaction. She didn’t seem perturbed – good sign.
She asked me a little about what I was interested in and then listed some of the things that volunteers did – lead tours (I was a bit worried), clean (I’m an expert there), and weed (I could be a world champion.) After that, we went through some orientation. The farmhouse was built in the 1890’s, being a one and a half story log cabin then, but it was eventually added onto, becoming a two-story building with siding.
She talked about the restoration work, which had taken two years. She talked about how to deal with Trail hikers, that it was always free for them, but that they’d have to have a self-guided tour. How nice the hikers were, “They’ll help us out when we have a project goin’, painting or cleaning or somethin’. We’ll let them stay overnight in the school, sometimes.”
She walked me through the museum proper, packing my head with facts about the German and Scotch-Irish immigrations in the 1700’s, showing me the Great Wagon Trail that the immigrants would have used, that even now Appalachian Trail hikers follow very closely.
By the time we were finished, it was near lunchtime, and while my head was full, my stomach was feeling rather empty, so we sat down to lunch. Sinead had come back in – she’d been cleaning the porch while we talked. I was about to learn that my swift assumptions weren’t quite as accurate as I’d supposed. After talking for a while, Sinead mentioned an interest in geography.
“She’s been all over,” Agatha put in.
“Really?” I asked, harboring a rather absurd hope of England. “Where?”
Sinead smiled shyly and then thought back. “Well, I’ve been all over the States.”
Oh, well.
“My husband went to Isrul about twenty-five times, but I only went twice.”
I sat up. This was interesting. I’d just written a paper on the whole Jew-Arab conflict. Or started a paper – I didn’t actually finish it. Sinead was not your every-day old lady. I asked an encouraging question.
“We were in Isrul for a while. I keep seein’ things on the news all a time today about Isrul,” she said. “Then we went through Syria up to Damascus.”
Wow. She actually knew the names of these far-away foreign places.
“I still remember going through Damascus,” she said. “There were military there, and they kep tellin’ us ‘Don’t make pictures.’ We saw ’em up on either side, dug in, the military. ‘Don’t make pictures.’”
It suddenly occurred to me that I, the worldly young teenager, had never even left the country, much less entered military zones in the most explosive (literally) political situation on Earth.
“I still remember seein’ a bunch of little boys – and girls,” she said. “About seven or eight years old. They had ’em out on a field drilling, this woman givin’ ’em commands. Marching left and right, like soldiers. It was funny, how they acted when they saw us. They knew we was from another country, and they run up to the fence and stuck their fingers through.” She mimed fingers hooked through a chain-link fence.
“These two women had some gum, and they started getting it out, and then suddenly everybody seemed to have gum. We asked the woman and she said we could give it to ’em, so we gave them the gum. But then that woman yelled an order at them and they just snapped back into drilling, left and right.
“I saw in the news the other day, how there’d been bombing and killing, and I wondered how many of them kids were still alive, y’know.”

Syrian refugees
 I sat entranced. Of course, ever since my great-uncle (whose father was born during the Civil War, by the way and is described by my mother as “country as cornbread”) Jeffro told me that he knew Japanese, Spanish and a little Korean and had worked in a nuclear facility in Japan, I should have lost my capacity for surprise.
Trying to be broadminded, I said, “Well, I know that Israel requires its young people each to serve two years in the military.”
“Yeah, they do,” she said.
“Of course, it seems the Syrians start much younger,” I said.
She laughed briefly. “Yeah.”
By this time, we’d finished lunch and Sinead and I were to go and do some dusting around the farmhouse. As we walked down the gravel path, our sneakers crunching on fine gravel, Sinead continued talking about places she’d been. I felt my mind wander slightly, in more crazy fantasizing about England. If I could go anywhere on Earth (after, perhaps, New Zealand – but that’s Middle-Earth), it’d be England, the land of Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton, Dickens, Austen, Christie, Sayers, Churchill and Suchet.
“Of course, in ’94 or was it ’95 we went to England.”
I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I stared at her, but she didn’t notice, and started talking about the crazy traffic. “They drive on the wrong side of the road,” she pointed out.
I laughed. “Well, I suppose they’d say the same thing about us.”
            She spoke a little of England, and then moved on into Europe, where they drove properly, apparently. She said that though everyone spoke their own languages, they could usually find somebody to speak English to them. Except in France.
            “They could, they just wouldn’t,” she said. “We were only there for one night…”
            “And they weren’t about to put in extra effort?” I finished.
            (Could it be that some Europeans don’t like Americans? Nah, not possible.)
            By this time, we’d arrived in the grassy drive of the farmhouse. Two hikers – a guy and a girl – had just emerged from the front yard, closing the picket fence behind them. Agatha had explained earlier that hikers would often walk around the buildings before going on ahead. Stepping out of the car, we introduced ourselves and offered to unlock the house and show them through.
            I hung back and let Sinead do most of the work – I hadn’t been given any information about the house. I noted the rough, furrowed woods floor as we stepped into the tiny foyer. They were hewn and planed over a hundred years ago. How many other feet (probably booted, not sneakered) had scuffed over these boards in the last century?
A 19th Century Farmhouse
            The small, dark rooms closed in around us, and the male hiker, Romeo from Indiana, made them look cramped. The low ceilings and cozy, simple interior let me imagine I was in a hobbit hole. I pictured families in flax-spun clothing, sitting around the small table, wrapped up in their own lives – people had lived, loved and died in these four walls. I watched the other hiker, Juliet, snapping pictures.
“I am a flower quickly fading, here today, and gone tomorrow, a wave tossed in the ocean, a vapor in the wind, still you can hear me when I’m calling, Lord you catch me when I’m falling, and you told me who I am…I am yours.”
            I tend not to be a Casting Crowns fan, but that’s a pretty good chorus. I don’t think we commonly apply it to people in period dramas. Did Elizabeth Bennet ever wonder about eternity? What was her relationship with God? At least Jane Eyre is the exception, there. But I digress.
            Once we’d finished the tour, it was time to leave. We chatted briefly with Romeo and Juliet, who told us about late-night hikes, snakes, bad food and weary miles. The Road goes ever on and on, I thought, down from the door where it began. What can we do but follow? We drove back to the Visitor’s Center and I spent the remaining time sweeping water out of the shelter, alone and listening to an audiobook (“Guards! Guards!” by Terry Pratchett, FYI) on my iPod. Amazing, I thought, how things had changed. The inhabitants of the farm, the kids that had learned at the school, were all dead and gone now. Here I was, just like them, trying to make my way in the world – but I had over a hundred songs in a little device made of glass and metal.
            Times have changed, I’m not sure for the better or the worse, but people are the same. And wherever they are, whether clad in handmade clothing and old-fashioned simplicity a hundred years ago, standing rigid and strict in a military drill on the other side of the world, or hiding behind a soft-spoken old-lady exterior, people are people, and you never know quite what to expect.

Neo-Mayberry, Middle of Nowhere, America

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