I must admit that even I—I, the researcher and writer of history--even I was startled to silence when I learned the other day that John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States (above), a man who was born in 1790 when George Washington was giving his State of the Union address, a man ten years older than John Brown and 17 years older than Robert E. Lee, a man who became president two full decades before the American Civil War began, a man who helped annex Texas and transform it into the 28th star on the flag, a man who began his life in the 18th Century . . . and a man who still has two grandchildren whose feet are firmly planted in our own 21st Century! Unbelievable!
Here’s the math: John Tyler had 15 children. In 1853, when Tyler was 63, his son Lyon was born. Lyon in turn had six children. Two of these kids, Harrison and Lyon, Jr., were born when their father was in his 70s, in 1924 and 1928 respectively. Both Harrison and Lyon, Jr., now in their 80s, still live in Virginia.
Incredible. In the span of three directly connected generations we go from the horse and stagecoach as the fastest mode of transportation to the space shuttle; from the penny newspaper and town crier as the best means of communicating news to the internet and Face Book; from powdered wigs to spiked hair and nose rings. It seems breath-taking. It IS breath-taking.
Something very similar happened to me a dozen or so years ago. I was working on a book about the Indian wars on the American high plains. After a neat tip from a friend, I one day found myself in a Kansas City assisted living home doing an interview with a lady in her 95th summer . . . her Kansas mother had been captured by Indians in 1874. A short time later, I had another meeting, this with Agnes Shrader of Topeka, Kansas. Mrs.Shrader was 92 at the time and her aunt had suffered the same fate in the same state in the same year as the other lady. Mrs. Schrader was as lucid and bright in her chat with me as most people half her age. She still lived in her own home and kept it neat and tidy. Indeed, it was immaculate. Mrs. Schrader even walked around the block every day for exercise. Although neither woman knew much about the ordeal of their loved ones, this to me was unimportant. Just sitting and talking to someone who was a single generation removed from Custer, Crazy Horse and the Little Big Horn was everything. It was something akin to time travel.
When most folks think of American history a certain disconnect unavoidably sets in. After all, much of our colorful history occurred well over a century ago and to most people anything that far back seems as remote and distant as the Bronze Age. I felt much the same until these two interviews. But that quickly, just as quickly as millions felt stunned after learning of the Tyler grandchildren, history went from something dark and dead to something now very, very close.
For me, from that moment, history lived!
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