G.W. The Father of our Country

“G.W.,” our history teacher would shout as he pranced from one side of the room to the other. “Come on. You know this. G.W … father of our country … chopped down a cherry tree …”

“George Washington,” someone would finally respond and end the torture.

To drum history into those students who find the subject duller than watching cement trucks drag race, teachers have resorted to things like dressing up as Abraham Lincoln and reciting the Gettysburg Address, tying a cloth around their head and marching around the room playing Yankee Doodle on a fife, or standing on a desk rowing an imaginary boat across the Delaware River on Christmas eve, 1776.

I admit that sometimes when I’m researching for a book, the stuff I’m reading makes me sleepier than a bear in winter, but I’m always hoping to find that rare fact, that yellow nugget in a prospector’s pan, that autographed Mickey Mantle rookie card in the drawer of a ten dollar desk I bought at a yard sale, that tidbit of information that makes me want to jump up and yell, EUREKA!

Of course, it doesn’t have to be grand and glorious, something small and simple can also be rewarding (although maybe not monetarily rewarding like a Mickey Mantle baseball card!)

In my novel-in-progress, Night and Fog, for instance, I had written in my first draft about how Dédée de Jongh, the daring twenty-four-year-old Belgian girl who organized the brilliant WWII underground line, Comet, had been ambushed by the Gestapo while helping allied airmen escape over the Pyrenees mountains into Spain. All I knew from my initial source was that it happened one night in the fall. Then, while reading reports by the airmen evaders, I discovered the same incident told from the evaders’ points of view. Now I knew who was present, when it happened, what the weather was like and how they got away. I also learned that it wasn’t the Gestapo, but French police!

A historical writer discovering a new fact is like a detective finding a new clue in an unsolved crime. It’s not the dull history teacher prompt of “G. W.” It’s the guide at the Natural Bridge in Virginia pointing out the initials, G. W. carved into the rock by George Washington himself.

That prospect of discovery is what makes research fun. It’s like stopping at a yard sale of history on a fine spring day.

You just never know.

You just never know.

For quite some time, my only contribution to the local historical society was a check for my annual dues. This was an embarrassingly poor showing on my part. I resolved to do better and get more involved.

I don’t act, so getting dressed up in period costume to partake in skits or demonstrations was out. I don’t bake pies, so I’m pretty useless when it comes time for the fall apple festival. But when Jeff, the Board secretary, and I discussed the Society’s newsletter, an idea struck. We thought that by publishing a short nostalgic piece in the local newspaper, we might interest others in sharing stories of bygone days with the Society. Jennifer Amato, editor of the Suburban Newspaper, liked the piece and offered to run a periodic column by the Society.

In the meantime, an opportunity came along to meet Lt. Helene Cattani, a WWII army nurse who served at the Battle of the Bulge. I was thrilled to chat with this wonderful war veteran and my enthusiasm came out in my writing. Although the article, with its magnificent photos taken by Jeff, was twice as long as the normal column, we pitched it to the newspaper anyway. Newspaper space was hard to come by, Jennifer explained, but she loved it so much she not only published it in the Suburban, but subsequently in a number of other weekly newspapers.

Volunteering to help others is its own reward. But sometimes it pays surprising dividends, like when you get to share those unexpected delightful little nuggets of history with others.