Memories that make history real
An author searches the country for important but little-known history that deserves to be remembered, especially on Memorial Day.
Seattle Times staff columnist
On June 1, 1660, Mary Dyer was hanged to death in Boston for being a Quaker. She’d escaped hanging once but voluntarily came back to Massachusetts Bay Colony from her home in Rhode Island to demand the Bay Colony respect religious freedom.
Few know about her heroism, which is why Andrew Carroll included her story in a new book called, “Here is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History.”
Carroll is most known for his books, “Letters of a Nation,” and “War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from America’s Wars,” two books that grew out of his realization that history matters.
Carroll spoke last week at Tahoma High School in Covington, telling students his appreciation of history began with an old letter given to him by a relative who wrote about his World War II experience. It made that war real for Carroll. And that appreciation was deepened by a fire that destroyed his family’s home while he was in college. Losing the belongings that held family memories was painful and drove his desire to preserve history.
He came to Covington at the invitation of his friend Allison Agnew, who teaches literature and creative writing and shares his love of history. When she was teaching in East Wenatchee in 1999, her students produced a book of stories from military veterans, which came out at the same time as his first book and led to their meeting.
The idea for this new book came when Carroll learned that Robert Todd Lincoln fell between a train platform and a locomotive but was saved by a stranger who yanked him to safety. The stranger was Edwin Booth, whose younger brother would shoot and kill Lincoln’s father a year later. History might have been different if the president’s son had died that day.
Carroll went to the spot, but there was no marker noting the event, and thus began his quest for other unnoted bits of the past. He found massacres, heroic acts, inventions. Some of them people chose not to remember, others were overshadowed by other events, some just slipped into darkness. The ones involving veterans stand out as we mark Memorial Day.
The steamboat Sultana went down in April 1865 in the Mississippi River near Mound City, Ark. The Sultana was designed to carry 376 people, but held 2,400, most of them soldiers released from the notorious Andersonville prison camp and on their way home. A boiler was leaking, but the captain decided fixing it could wait. The boilers exploded, killing as many as 1,800 people, but the story was overshadowed by news that John Wilkes Booth had been caught and killed on April 26, the day before the explosion. A local historian who guided Carroll to the site speculated that after four years of war, Americans were also tired of death.
Carroll brought another friend to talk with the Tahoma students, Ed Hrivnak, who knows more about war than most. Hrivnak is a lieutenant and pilot with Central Pierce County Fire & Rescue, who spent than 20 years in the Air Force and served in both Iraq wars evacuating injured soldiers.
Hrivnak told the students, “There is nothing good about war.”
He said his grandmother used to take him every year to visit the grave of her brother, who’d died in World War II. “As a teenager, I didn’t get why my grandmother would cry every time,” he said.
Hrivnak and Carroll met years ago when they were both involved in Operation Homecoming, which encouraged recent veterans to write about their experiences. Hrivnak’s own stories have just been published in his book, “Wounded.”
When Carroll was researching his new book, he heard that during World War II six men died in the crash of a PV-1 Ventura on a training mission in 1943, but no one he talked with knew where the plane went down.
The wreckage wasn’t found until 1994 by hikers on Mount Baker, and only a handful of people knew where it was. Carroll asked Hrivnak about it and discovered his friend not only had heard about the crash but was on the recovery team.
The men whose bodies lay on Mount Baker were among 25,000 Army and Navy fliers who died stateside during World War II, Carroll writes, but who are rarely thought of when we honor war dead.
Hrivnak and another member of the recovery team, Mike Vrosh, took Carroll to the site, and they remembered handling the belongings and moving the remains of the young men. The families had never forgotten and finally were able to give them proper funerals.
Hrivnak told the Tahoma students, “On Mount Baker, I got it. I understood what my grandmother was trying to tell me. That was her brother.” Don’t forget or lose history, he said. At the end of the talk, he showed the students a bullet from the crash site. It wasn’t just a piece of metal. One of those men had touched it and loaded it into his gun. It had a burn mark from the crash. The bullet was an aid to remembering like the memorial markers Carroll would like to see at all the places he visited for the book.
Hrivnak gave the bullet to his friend for bringing all those people and events back to our attention, because history does matter.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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