The dream of landing a man on the moon

When Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin walked on the moon fifty-one years ago, it appeared that the world was beginning a new Space Age. Several more teams of American astronauts returned to the moon—one team, Apollo 13, suffered from technical difficulties and had to return without landing on the moon—but since that time, the space program has not advanced as expected. Space stations were formed, and shuttle missions were launched. Computerized machines were sent all over the solar system to record information and report back to Earth. But the science fiction stories that seemed ready to change from fiction to fact did not come true. Colonies were not living on the moon by 2001. No one has gone to Mars or to any other planet. Space stations remained tiny capsules orbiting the Earth—no vast city in space has been developed to launch travelers to the moon or Mars or any other destination out there in space.

Why has space exploration faltered since the grand successes of the Apollo missions to the moon? Noble talk of exploration being worth any cost and any risk has not led to glorious deeds. Explosive growth in computer technology has been devoted almost entirely to earth-bound endeavors, especially in the areas of communication and entertainment. Competitive juices of the Cold War no longer fuel programs to open new frontiers and to go where no one has gone before. Our dreams may be as big as ever, but our investment in those dreams has dwindled.

In the 1960s, Dick Tracy communicated to headquarters with his watch and Maxwell Smart kept in radio contact through his shoe. Now most of us carry or wear devices that facilitate communication, take pictures and videos, allow access to libraries of digitized information, and permit us to play games any time and any place. Our cars cannot fly, but we can start them from inside the house and have the heat or air conditioning running while we finish getting ready to leave. We know where we are and how to get where we want to go with exact precision—precision that everyone from government agencies to advertisers can use to keep track of us all the time and to know what topics we are researching and what questions we want answered. We can buy and sell at the click of a button, and our financial information is available to us (and to many other people) any time and any place.

Our hunger for space travel was fed, not by the Apollo missions and the space shuttle, but by the Star Wars franchise and its many companion stories. Faster-than-light travel is no more possible now than when Gene Roddenberry imagined warp engines for the Enterprise. Time travel is still limited to one day at a time into the future. Meanwhile, nature has not yet been conquered on this planet: it can still hit us with a storm or an earthquake or a plague, seemingly at will.

This is the future, or at least it was the future when Neil Armstrong recited, “That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.” What now remains in our future remains to be seen. We will face more challenges; we will encounter more adventures. New technology will surprise our children as new technology surprised our parents. The tools we use today will amuse museum visitors fifty years from now. No one can guess when the human spirit will rise again to look at the stars, to explore new frontiers, or to solve the problems that stymie us today. So long as there is a future, though, we still have a chance to dream. J.

Racism without race (part four)

Governments create and enforce laws that limit and prohibit discrimination based upon culture, gender, age, and other factors. Bigotry and prejudice are not so easily controlled by law. Laws are passed against communication which calls for violence against groups of people on the basis of their culture or other status. As free speech does not permit anyone to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater (although shouting “Movie!” at a bonfire is not as harmful and therefore not illegal), so free speech does not permit anyone to advocate hurt or harm to other individuals or groups of people. On the other hand, communication that expresses disapproval of certain cultures or other minority groups without calling for violence can and should be permitted as free speech. Bigotry is more easily recognized as harmful thinking when it is openly expressed in the marketplace of ideals than when it is driven “underground.” As past expressions of bigotry and prejudice can be shown to be illogical and silly under contemporary standards, so present and future expressions of bigotry and prejudice can be revealed for their failings in the same manner. Censoring present expressions and editing former statements that left their mark in history does not advance the process of justice and fairness. Open and honest conversations on such topics, conducted without malice or anger (as difficult as that goal might be to achieve), accomplish far more than restricting freedom of speech, altering the historic record, and demanding that every past and present communication meet certain arbitrary standards of justice and fairness.

Voluntarily and involuntarily, millions of people have migrated over the centuries, carrying their cultures with them. Sometimes people maintained their own cultures secretly while pretending in public to blend into the majority culture. Sometimes majority and minority cultures shaped one another, often in subtle ways. Migration will continue to happen, as people seek better lives for themselves and their families. They seek safety from enemies, better jobs, more access to food and to clean water, freedoms offered by certain governments, and many other good things that are lacking in their homeland. Governments exist to protect their citizens; opening the borders to all immigrants is not a responsible option for any government. But monitoring and regulating immigration, establishing and enforcing laws regarding immigration, is a responsibility of every government. Such laws are less the result of bigotry and prejudice than they are the result of the government’s duty to protect and defend its citizens.

Seeking equality does not mean making everyone the same. Culturalism can continue to convey pride in each person’s heritage. We can celebrate the differences that make each culture unique—differences in language, in food, in clothing, in music, and in many of the other elements of life and civilization. Saying “my way is good” does not have to be the same as saying, “My way is better than your way.” Saying “my way is good” can lead to saying, “Your way is also good.”

The bigger problem includes descendants of migrants who have not achieved equality—economically, politically, and socially—with the majority culture. Education of the entire population about diverse cultures is of some benefit, but education alone will not create equality. In the United States, we can use cultural holidays—including Chinese New Year, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Juneteenth—not as paid holidays nor as reasons to drink beer, but as times to learn about other cultures. Summer street fairs, cultural gatherings in parks and museums, broadcast specials about various cultures on television and the Internet—all of these contribute to a solution against bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination, but they cannot solve these problems on their own.

Our goal is to lift all ships, not to sink some ships for the benefit of others. Statistically and historically, white privilege has existed and does exist in the United States. Attempts to counter white privilege over the last sixty years include laws against discrimination, desegregation of schools, busing of students to distant schools, and “affirmative action”—legally setting quotas of minority representation in student bodies, work places, and other arenas of public participation. All of these practices have been controversial. They seem to work in some situations, but they seem to worsen bigotry and prejudice in others. Better answers include guaranteeing high quality public education in every school and every neighborhood, enforcing laws against discrimination without setting quotas for hiring, and providing opportunities for the poor (regardless of cultural background) to have equal opportunity for advancement through job training and community-strengthening programs.

 The problems of bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination did not appear overnight, and they will not disappear overnight. In some ways, hiding these problems under the label “racism” only makes them stronger and harder to fight. To affirm that all people are “created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” allows us to study our society, to identify inequalities, and to address them effectively. “Black Lives Matter” can be more than a slogan: it can be genuine work to make life in America fair for all Americans without disintegrating into class warfare, into the determination that, “to give this person more, that person must receive less.” By strict definitions, racism does not exist. Yet by greater awareness of bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination—all of which do exist—Americans can continue working toward the goal of equality for all people, a goal upon which our country was established from its very beginning. J.

Racism without race (part three)

All three problems—bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination—occur apart from cultural differences. Age, gender, and economic status also provide opportunities for bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination. But when those problems are associated with differences in appearance, language, or other cultural aspects, they tend to be lumped together as racism. Laws can be created and enforced that counter practices of discrimination—and this has been done in many countries, especially during the last sixty years. Bigotry and prejudice are much harder to outlaw. Public education and other means of communication can overcome some tendencies toward bigotry and prejudice; but these problems are connected to human nature at its worst, and human laws are not always able to overturn sinful human nature.

Bigotry stems from pride, from the attitude that, “I am right, and I am good. If you are different from me, you must not be as right, and you must not be as good.” Such bigotry already existed in the ancient world. Egyptians viewed their African and west Asian neighbors with scorn, acting as if, “If you aren’t Egyptian, you are unworthy of respect.” Greeks considered the use of the Greek language as a measure of civilization: people who spoke other languages rather than Greek sounded to Greeks as if they were saying nothing more than, “bar-bar-bar-bar-bar,” and so they were called “barbarians.” Ancient Chinese culture similarly viewed China as the center of the earth and everyone else as living on the barbarian frontier.

If each culture had its own geographic region in which to live under its own government, bigotry and prejudice and discrimination would be smaller problems. For the most part, only travelers would be vulnerable to these problems, and they would be free to return to their own homes. Historic reality indicates that people are always moving. The Bantu people began north of the equator in Africa; generations of migration made them the predominant culture of central and southern Africa. Indo-Europeans began in what now is Ukraine; some traveled south to India, and others traveled west to Europe, generating a plethora of cultures in these places. Xiongnu (Huns) and Turks began in east Asia; to escape the growing power of the Chinese Empire, they traveled west and south, bringing their cultures into south Asia, west Asia, and Europe. Many generations ago, Asians crossed from Siberia into Alaska and, over time, created five hundred distinct nations in the western hemisphere. More recently, Europeans and Africans and Asians have migrated into the western hemisphere. (Between 1500 and 1800, more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean to dwell in the western hemisphere. The European migration was largely voluntary, but the African migration was largely involuntary, caused by the slave trade.) Germanic tribes and Asian tribes crossed borders into the Roman Empire, not wanting to destroy the Roman Empire but wanting to enjoy its benefits. Later, the Norse (or Vikings) settled in the British Isles, northwestern France (Normandy), Sicily, Iceland, Greenland, and even a corner of Canada. Other Norse established a trading post in Europe which became the city Kiev; Moslem traders who met the Norse in Kiev called them the red men or “Rus,” beginning recognition of the civilization called Russia.)

People, and groups of people, move from one place to another. Diverse cultures encounter one another because of this migration. Sometimes they blend, forming a third culture. Sometimes one culture dominates and the other survives as a minority. Occasionally, the majority culture stifles and exterminates the minority culture. When domination of one culture over another or extermination of a culture takes place, the reason usually is bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination on the part of the prevailing culture.

If all people were good at heart, each loving their neighbors as they love themselves, cultural conflicts such as bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination would not occur. Culturalism would be beneficial, as each person learns and celebrates his or her own culture; at the same time, each person would be curious enough to learn about his or her neighbors’ cultures. Because human nature includes an evil trait of selfishness and self-centeredness, bigotry often takes the lead on both sides when two cultures encounter one another. Pluralism—when two or more cultures coexist in the same place without strife, without one dominating and the other being stifled—is historically rare. Yet pluralism—coexistence with mutual tolerance and respect, with interest and curiosity regarding one another’s culture—is an ideal. This ideal is worth struggling to achieve in a world in which rapid communication and transportation have made encounters of cultures more common and more likely. J.

Racism without race (part two)

The same textbook that insists that all humans belong to the same race and then uses the term “racism” also presents a complete definition of “nationalism.” Nationalism is a political philosophy of fairly recent origin. It contains the belief that people of the same nation should have their own government. “Nation” is further defined as common language, common religion, common customs, common history and heritage, and (usually) a large enough population in a common area to make self-government practical. During the nineteenth century, nationalism caused several governments on the Italian peninsula to combine, creating the modern nation Italy; nationalism caused dozens of German-speaking people under different governments to combine, creating the modern nation Germany. In the same century, nationalism tore apart the Ottoman Empire and the Austrian Empire, creating such nations as Egypt, Greece, Hungary, and Serbia. During the twentieth century, nationalism led to the independence of most European colonies that had been established in Africa and Asia. The most controversial struggle of nationalism in recent times is that of Zionism, granting a separate government to Jewish people. While the Jews share a common religion, history, heritage, and customs, they were scattered throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. Still, by the middle of the twentieth century, a modern nation called Israel had been established in western Asia to which Jews migrated from all over the world.

“Culturalism” is a label I use, though it is not found in the textbook. I created the term to describe people who continue to identify with a common culture, or nation, even though they do not place themselves under a single government in a single geographical area. Many Jews do not live in Israel. Many countries with a single government still do not consist of a single nation. The United States is an example of a pluralistic country with citizens who identify themselves by various cultures: Irish, German, Italian, Polish, Jewish, African, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and more. Even with their diverse cultures, all these people live as loyal citizens of the United States of America. Many of them vote, and some run for public office. Others serve in careers that benefit, not only themselves and their families and people of their own culture, but all of their neighbors regardless of culture. Frequently, people of a common culture will identify a holiday that unites their culture within a pluralistic society: Chinese New Year, Saint Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth, Oktoberfest. More often then not, Americans of other cultures will participate in these celebrations—sometimes as an opportunity to learn more about their neighbors and about different cultures, and other times merely as an excuse to drink beer.

Nationalism and culturalism can be good things. In the past, they have created new nations, whether through combination or separation of groups. They help individuals to form an identity within a community of similar individuals. They provide opportunities for people to learn about each other, to celebrate the distinct aspects of their language or religion or history or heritage, and to entertain one another by the diversity of human experience and expressions. They preserve cultural heritages and help them to survive globalism, the linking of cultures which erases borders but which risks turning the entire world into a homogenized McDonald’s/Walmart/Disney franchise.

But nationalism and culturalism become bad things when they are used to develop and reinforce bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination. Bigotry is the assumption that, because two cultures differ, one must be superior and the other inferior. Prejudice is the assumption that, because an individual belongs to a certain culture, that individual most possess all the traits of that culture (including those traits falsely applied to the culture under bigotry). Discrimination is action based upon bigotry and prejudice, denying opportunities to people of certain cultures such as jobs, freedom to live in certain areas, and even protection under the law of the prevailing government. J.

Racism without race (part one of four)

Biologically, all human beings belong to the same race. Although theorists over the years have tried to identify anywhere from three to twelve races, DNA evidence confirms what mixed families have shown all along—we are all one race. The holy writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all agree that every human being is descended from Adam and Eve. Nonreligious scientists also agree that every Homo sapiens sapiens living today has a common ancestor whom those scientists have nicknamed “Eve.” Various other theories about ancestry have been proposed, ranging from the thought that a small percentage of people alive today have Neanderthal ancestors (based on interpretation of DNA samples) to the thought that a percentage of people alive today have extraterrestrial ancestors (based on various blood types). Even outlier notions of the origin of contemporary humanity, though, concur that all humans today belong to the same family tree and do not come from different races.

The textbook I use to teach World Civilizations to college students mentions the unity of the human race more than once. Only on one occasion (surprisingly) has a student asked in the classroom why the same textbook refers to conflict between different groups of humans as “racism.” If we are all the same race, how can racism exist? The answer to this rather profound question is found in the history of labels and also in the still-common misperception that several human races coexist.

Humans can be sorted into different groups according to numerous differences: skin color, hair color, hair texture, facial features, average height, body build, and more. These physical distinctions are hereditary, so a mother and father with dark skin will generally produce children with dark skin, and so on. At the same time, though, differences between the DNA of two siblings (children of the same mother and father) might outnumber differences between the DNA of one of those children and another child whose physical distinctions, as listed above, are entirely different. Again, the existence of mixed families confirms the biological fact that all humans belong to the same race; inherited variations are not marks of different races, but only of different genetic backgrounds within the same race.

But, if we are all of the same race, how can racism exist? Racism is a combination of bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination, three terms I will soon (tomorrow) define. As a catch-all term, the word “racism” is unfortunate in its persistence, being inaccurate about what it describes. Although bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination can all be identified in ancient history (and can be found in all parts of the world, even in ancient times), the modern concept of racism is closely linked to nationalism and culturalism, both of which I must define first (tomorrow). J.

Tearaway stabilizer

Originally, I was going to call this post, “Things Other People Have Already Said.” But this weekend, while I was having a conversation with a member of my family who sews, when she repeatedly spoke about “tearaway stabilizer,” my first thought (in the spirit of Dave Barry) was, “That would be a great name for a rock band.” My later thought was, “that would be a great name for a post I keep not posting because it does not contain a single original thought.” So, here we go:

  • It is very strange to put on a mask to walk into a bank in order to deposit a check. Something seems entirely backwards about that procedure.
  • Social distancing is a fine idea, one which I wish would have caught on years ago. When I shop at Walmart, I would prefer to maintain a six-foot distance between me and any other customer. Of course, many customers do not even try to let that happen—especially in the produce section. Someone could devise a great video game in which a shopper tries to acquire five items from the fresh produce section without coming within six feet of other shoppers.
  • Walmart has tried to make their shopping lanes one-way by posting stickers on the floor and signs at the end of aisles saying, “Do not enter—one way” and “enter here—one way.” Many people fail to notice these signs; or, if they fail to notice them, they fail to obey them. My son pointed out that, if the problem were that some customers were not noticing the signs, no more than half of them would be going the wrong way. When—as often seems the case—roughly two-thirds of the customers are going the wrong direction in any given aisle, some other factor appears to be in play.
  • Self-quarantine and social distancing are not, as some people have suggested, the fulfillment of introverts’ dreams. For one matter, many introverts have been confined along with family members or roommates who have no understanding or sympathy regarding an introvert’s need for quiet time and personal space. Many introverts have been deprived of shelters outside the home which met their need for time and space reserved for themselves. For another matter, constant exposure to news items about the virus, about social distancing, about wearing masks, and about political connections to the virus and responses to the same exhaust introverts, particularly when seemingly every family conversation diverts within a few minutes to those same few topics.
  • Any grand conspiracy theory that tries to put blame on the virus, its spread, or the economic and political consequences of virus and response, overlooks the clear evidence that human beings as a whole are incapable of forming and maintaining such conspiracies. The Watergate scandal is a perfect example of how self-interest and incompetence combine to destroy any grand conspiracy. The virus is nothing more than a pandemic comparable to bubonic plague in Asia and Europe six to seven hundred years ago, smallpox and measles in the western hemisphere four to five hundred years ago, and influenza around the world one hundred years ago. The potential for pandemic exists every year, and the last fifty years have been remarkable for the ability to contain and control potential pandemics as they made their appearance in the world from time to time.
  • For Christians, COVID-19 is a pestilence like those described in the Bible, a call from God for sinners to repent and to turn back to him for protection and salvation from evil. Unfortunately, many Christians have been quicker to identify and repent of the sins of their neighbors rather than identifying and repenting of their own sins. One Christian calls this pestilence God’s judgment upon anti-life measures, anti-family measures, confusion of the two genders established by God in creation, and other “liberal” sins. The next Christian calls this pestilence God’s judgment upon racism, intolerance, failure to assist and protect the oppressed and the poor, and a power structure which continues to favor the rich and powerful while victimizing widows, orphans, and foreigners. In other words, even while identifying pestilence as a judgmental act of God, a great many Christians see the specks in their neighbors’ eyes and disregard the 2x4s protruding from their own eyes.
  • For atheists, COVID-19 is a mirror reflection of the human/animal’s reaction to infection. As we develop antibodies to resist bacterial and viral infections, so the world around us develops “antibodies” such as bubonic plague and COVID-19 to resist humanity and its scourge upon the world as a whole. When an animal population becomes too numerous in a particular region, illnesses combine with predators and food shortages to thin the population. The current pandemic is Mother Nature at work, and nothing about how it happens should surprise us.
  • In either case, basic compassion for one another and care for humanity as a whole call upon our brightest thinkers to seek immunizations and cures for this virus. Trying to resist the pestilence, whether natural or God-sent, is no worse than putting a broken arm in a cast or wearing glasses to improve eyesight. As people disagree among themselves about the details of a proper response—and many responses to the virus have been counterproductive and even harmful—we seek to work together and to communicate with one another for our common good. The enemy is the virus; we are dangerously mistaken when we turn against one another and treat our neighbors as our enemies.
  • Finally, removing and destroying statues because they depict people whose opinions were common in their lifetimes but are rejected today—including opinions regarding slavery, race, and justice for some rather than for all—misses an opportunity to educate ourselves and our children about history and about human nature. All our heroes (aside from Jesus Christ) have been sinners who were faulty in some areas. They were right about some things and wrong about others. Interpretative panels next to such statutes, panels that identify both the accomplishments and the failings of the people represented in these statutes, would accomplish far more good than removing these statues. And the panels can be updated from time to time as opinions about right and wrong, good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable continue to change.
  • J

Arkansas food traditions

The land now called Arkansas has been inhabited for many generations, and a good number of ways to study and examine the past help to cast light on life in Arkansas then and now. One of the newest subjects to be studied is foodways: what did people eat, how did they obtain it, how did they prepare it, and how did they preserve it? Contemporary Arkansas festivals feature some of the most interesting foodway traditions in the modern world.

Corn (maize), beans, and squash were the primary foods of the earliest dwellers of Arkansas, although they occasionally added meat to their diet. The first European explorers to enter Arkansas were led by Hernando de Soto, who crossed the Mississippi River into Arkansas in 1541 and died in Arkansas the following year. After de Soto came Jacque Marquette and Louis Joliet in 1673. These French explorers were responsible for the name of the state of Arkansas. After asking the Illini of the Mississippi River valley who they would meet in their travels south, Marquette and Joliet were told to expect the Ar-kan-saw, which was merely the Illini word for “people who live to the south.” Encountering the Quapaw villages where the Arkansas River meets the Mississippi, Marquette and Joliet applied the Illini’s label to the Quapaw, and the name went on to designate the river, the territory (once a county of Missouri Territory), and the state. The first permanent European settlement in the region was Arkansas Post, located near the Arkansas River not far from its confluence with the Mississippi. Arkansas is included in the land acquired by the United States by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and American settlers began to join the Quapaw, Caddo, Osage, French, and Spanish families who already lived on the land.

While some settlers established large cotton plantations in the flatlands of southern and eastern Arkansas, others took to the hills where they lived off the land as best they could. (This is called subsistence farming.) They planted various crops and raised chickens and hogs, but they also gathered berries and fruits from the forests and hunted deer, bear, and anything else that moved and might be edible. The hillbilly image of the Ozark Arkansan is largely shaped by stories (many highly exaggerated) told by travelers who met these hardy pioneers.

Even as Arkansas developed as a territory and then a state, memories remained of the early foods eaten by Arkansas settlers. Among the annual festivals still celebrated in Arkansas today are the Trumann Wild Duck Festival, the Gillett ‘Coon Supper, the Polk County ‘Possum Festival, the Dermott Crawfish Festival, the Arkansas Rice Festival, the Hope Watermelon Festival, the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival, the Camden Daffodil Festival, and the Malvern Brickfest, not to mention Conway’s Toad Suck Daze.

Actually, the ‘Possum Festival has a spotted history. Beginning in 1915 as a challenge to neighboring communities, the Polk County ‘Possum Festival had a long and honorable history through the first half of the twentieth century. However, during World War II, when much of the male population was out of state serving in the armed forces, remaining citizens re-established Prohibition, forbidding the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Although the festival was attempted in 1945 and 1946, it was cancelled in 1947. A brief attempt to restart the festival occurred from 1995 through 2001, but with little success. Evidently for a ‘Possum festival to succeed, more than the meat needed to be marinated. J.

Memorial Day

The history and significance of Memorial Day (or Decoration Day) is complex. For centuries, people have decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers, flags, and other tributes. Naturally, following the carnage of the Civil War, commemorations were made at the graves of soldiers, whether Federal or Confederate. At least twenty-five cities claim the honor of creating Memorial Day to remember all Civil War soldiers. By 1868, the custom across the nation had developed that May 30 was the day to remember soldiers who lost their lives on Civil War battlefields. Gradually, the custom expanded to include all soldiers who died while in battle, including all the wars and military actions in which the United States has been involved.

Beginning in 1971, Memorial Day has been observed on the last Monday in May. The three-day weekend has become, in the United States, the unofficial beginning of summer, which then ends at the beginning of September with the three-day weekend of Labor Day. Many communities still have parades on Memorial Day, and generally ceremonies are held at cemeteries to mark this holiday. (I remember marching in the high school band to two cemeteries each Memorial Day.) But for many families, the weekend is marked with outdoor gatherings and meals, generally with little thought of military matters. I grilled hamburgers and bratwursts for the family last Sunday as part of our Memorial Day observances.

Often people confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day (November 11) and with Armed Forces Day (the third Saturday in May). Memorial Day specifically remembers soldiers who died while serving the United States. Armed Forces Day salutes those who currently are serving in the armed forces. Veterans Day thanks those who served in the armed forces and survived their military career.

In my family research, I have discovered numerous veterans but no one who died while serving in a military force. Last weekend I used my Facebook page to honor three veterans—my grandfather, my uncle, and my father—and no one corrected me with the blurring of holidays. Here are two photographs I shared last weekend: the first was taken by my grandfather at Camp Hancock in Georgia. It shows Lieutenant G. M. Kuntz and Lieutenant Nygeberger with a World War I rifle and was taken in 1918. The second picture, taken by my uncle in Banneaux, Belgium, shows a World War II tank and an unnamed soldier. My uncle landed in France on D-Day plus 2 (June 8, 1944) and saw action in France, Belgium, and Germany.

We remember and honor those who died while defending our freedom and battling against the enemies of our country. We promise that their sacrifice will never be forgotten. J.

Genealogy–the study of your family tree

I’m an archivist, but the research room where I spend some of my hours to help the public (when the public is allowed to enter) attracts more genealogists than historians. In the past, when someone came to the research room and said, “I’m interested in tracing my family tree—how do I get started?” I would introduce them to our resources, get them rolling, and remain available to answer further questions. Among our resources is ancestry.com – the library has bought a subscription to the service, and patrons can use it for free. But, from now on, when someone says, “how do I get started?” I’m going to steer them properly. For ancestry.com and other library resources belong to the third step of genealogy, not the first or second step.

The first step is to write what you know about yourself. Genealogy always begins with an individual. In your case, that individual is you. Write your full name. When and where were you born? Are you married? To whom, when, and where? Do you have children? Write their full names and when and where each of them was born.

Many genealogists use a notebook to record this information. Some use index cards. Some use a spread sheet such as Excel. Most serious genealogists use more than one method, so the information they have worked so hard to attain will be saved in one form if it is lost in another.

After you have written all your vital information, you then write everything you know about your father. Answer the same questions about your father as you answered about yourself. And if he has died (and I’m sorry if he has) also say when and where he died and where he is buried.

After writing everything you know about your father, do the same for your mother. Then do the same for your father’s father, your father’s mother, your mother’s father, and your mother’s mother. The order matters! You are person number one on the chart; your father is number two, your mother is number three, your father’s father is number four, and so on. After number one, all the even numbers are men and all the odd numbers are women. But—this is even more important—every father’s number is double that of his son or daughter. So your father will be two, your father’s father four, his father eight, and so on back to Adam.

When you have written everything you know—which might include great-grandparents, but probably not every detail about them—is it time to go to the library? No, you’ve only taken the first step. Your second step is to talk with your living relatives to fill the gaps on your chart. Your parents, your grandparents, your uncles and aunts, and your cousins probably can answer some of the questions you needed to leave blank. As you talk with them, let them tell you stories about the family. Encourage them to share the stories. The other data is just a roll call; the stories make family history truly meaningful.

Once you’ve visited with your living relatives, you are ready to go to the library. Libraries have a multitude of resources for genealogy. These resources can help you fill the gaps. Increasingly, online services like ancestry.com have gathered these resources from various libraries and locations. They include official government documents—not only the Census, but also land sale records, military records, and court documents (especially wills and probate proceedings). Plus there are family records, church records, community histories, and the research of other genealogists. All this information tells the researcher about many people, and a few of those many people are your relatives, even your ancestors.

Several problems can occur when tracing your family tree. If you are easily frustrated, you might want to try a different hobby. Frequently several people have the same name. You have so sort through everything you know about your ancestor to find the right one. That’s why birth dates, death dates and places are important in genealogy—they help to distinguish your John Smith from the other five John Smiths who lived in the same general area around the same time.

Second, people make mistakes. Your relatives’ memory might be faulty. Even your memory might be faulty. You thought your grandmother was born in 1930—she always told people that—but actually she was born in 1924. To make matters more complicated, census takers, church secretaries, and even the stone carvers who made the grave markers all make mistakes. One person’s bad handwriting might cause another person to get a name or a year wrong. The information you record must be verified carefully among several sources. Just because it shows up in one book or on ancestry.com doesn’t mean that it’s true.

Genealogists often hit a wall. Scraps of important information don’t seem to exist. Sometimes, people disappeared on purpose. They didn’t want to be found. Some records have been lost to natural disasters. (Even the U.S. Census of 1890 was lost in a fire.) But, given persistence and newly found sources—a distant cousin, perhaps, or a library in another city—the story gradually unfolds. And the journey through that story is educating, exciting, and entertaining.

Who are you? Your family tree cannot fully answer that question, but it offers some useful hints. J.

A national tragedy

Yesterday, January 28, was the thirty-fourth anniversary of the space shuttle disaster. Seven astronauts died when their ship exploded seventy-three seconds after lift-off. The memory of this event gives poignant context to the tragic news from this past weekend, the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and several friends in a helicopter crash.

The death of a celebrity is always major news, especially when that celebrity is still young and active. Whether it’s a shooting, a drug overdose, a suicide, or a vehicular crash, the shock of the sudden loss becomes an international event. People come together in their grief, even though they never met the deceased. These heroic figures have become part of our lives. Their mortality reminds us of our own mortality. And, I suspect, we transfer the grief of our personal losses onto the larger event. If we are privately mourning the loss of a family member or a friend, or if we are living surrounded by troubled lives, the chance to join with millions in sorrow over death brings a cathartic relief to our hearts.

I’m a little too young to remember the assassination of President Kennedy. Most people over sixty can tell you exactly what they were doing when they heard the news of his death. Many of today’s college students are too young to remember the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For them, that event is merely one more episode in history, like Pearl Harbor and the Maine and the Alamo.

In my novel I Remember Amy, the main characters talk about national tragedy the night of the Challenger explosion. Here is an excerpt from that book:

“If only for a day or two, the world seems so different after something like that happens,” I commented.

“But it usually is only a day or two,” you reminded me. “Except for the family and the closest friends, most of us have gotten over it and gone back to life even by the day of the funeral. I promise you that, by the weekend, nothing will seem any different than it was yesterday or the day before.”

“You’re right, of course; and I guess that’s the way it should be. We can’t go on thinking about all the bad things that happen, or we’ll be overwhelmed by sorrow and loss. But it seems as though some of these things should change us more than they do.”

“Some of them are too big to change us. If they don’t happen to us, or to the people we love, they really don’t have any reason to change us, not even for a day or two. I think,” you added, with wisdom beyond your years, “that sometimes we save up the emotion of our big personal losses and hurts, and we let it pour out at a time like this, when everyone is shocked and hurting. Then we can hurt together; and then, after a day or two, we’re all allowed to feel better again. It’s our way of letting go of our personal pain, to be able to share it on a day like today.”

In 1986 I wrote a song—“Keep Flying High”—to commemorate the seven astronauts who died in the Challenger explosion. A few years ago, when my mother had just died, I found comfort in singing that song and dedicating it to her memory. However it happens, death remains the enemy. Even Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. But Jesus went on to conquer death and to share his victory with all who trust in him. Remembering Kobe Bryant, or any other celebrity we have lost to death, we find true comfort in the victory of Easter and in our guarantee of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. J.