“All history is local,” I recently texted.
He had reflected on the Revolutionary War and how the British, retreating from the Battle of Lexington and Concord under heavy fire for 15 miles to Boston, “went through what is now Harvard Square, crossing the Charles by today’s Harvard boathouses”. Led by Lord Percy, when the exhausted forces reached Porter Square, “he hooked a left and rushed home past Julia Child’s butcher” – Savenor’s Butcher Shop and Market in Cambridge.
It’s a wonderful image, and I love how, in telling this story, he merged different eras into one event – a clever anachronism.
It made me think of Rome and the day I first kissed the woman who is now my wife. We first held hands at the Circus Maximus, the site of Roman chariot races made famous by the movie “Ben Hur.” We walked by the Roman Forum, where the ancient city center once stood, then by Capitoline Hill, the place where legendary battles took place, where Julius Caesar knelt, then where Michael -Ange built a beautiful square in 15 centuries later. We strolled down Piazza Venezia and looked up to the balcony of the building where Mussolini gave speeches to an adoring crowd, then down Via del Corso, which had been a race track in the 15th century, then down the Pantheon, begun around the time Jesus was born as a Roman temple and completed about 100 years later by Emperor Hadrian.
At the time, going through all this history – conquests, wars, emperors, artists – what worried me the most was that I still hadn’t worked up the courage to ask Carla for a kiss. (I waited until the end of the day, on a bench in the seedy train station for this kiss – the most memorable of my life.)
I like to mountain bike through Merritt Farm in Groton to Fort Hill. It’s a wonderful mountain bike trail, and I sometimes remember that Fort Hill was once the site of the fortified village of Chief Pequot Sassacus, around the year 1630. I’ve heard there were sites finds in the woods, but I’m usually too preoccupied with trying not to hit a tree to look for them.
Every day in New London, I walk or drive by more history. Bank Street was set on fire by Benedict Arnold. Outside my office window is the wasteland that is Fort Trumbull, with a history stretching back from the Revolutionary War to the speakeasies during the Kelo c. City of New London which was decided by the Supreme Court. But I rarely have time to think about lives and stories, because there’s another consultation, another patient, another urgent phone call from the hospital.
Doctors are taught in medical school how to take “a story.” I’ve been a doctor since 1995. I’ve taken many stories from many people.
A man was dying in a hospital in Cheyenne, Wyoming, VA and told me he fought in the trenches in World War I. He couldn’t remember what he ate for lunch, but he could tell me how cold and wet he was in those trenches.
I met Holocaust survivors, great-great-great-grandmothers, war veterans, poets, murderers, leaders, truckers, professional athletes, men who took rails, political exiles, mob bosses, politicians and professional video game players.
Whenever I ask someone, even someone who has lived a century, what is the most memorable thing they have experienced in their life, I am usually surprised at the answer. Almost everyone, from rock stars to church pastors, whether born in 1898, 1922 or 1965, says the most memorable thing in their lives was something extraordinarily ordinary like the birth of a child or their life with their spouse or time with family and friends.
Which just goes to show that my witty friend, who happens to be a brilliant scholar in his own right and has lived his own life, is right when he says “all history is local”.