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All history is local

"All history is local,” a friend texted me recently.

He had been musing about the Revolutionary War and how the British, retreating from the Battle of Lexington and Concord under heavy fire for 15 miles to Boston, “passed through what is now Harvard Square, crossing the Charles by today’s Harvard boat houses.” Led by Lord Percy, when the exhausted forces reached Porter Square, “he hung a left and sped 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 that story, he fused different times into one event — a clever anachronism.

It got me thinking about Rome, and the day I first kissed the woman who is now my wife. We first held hands at the Circus Maximus, site of the roman chariot races made famous in the movie "Ben Hur." We walked by the Roman Forum, where the ancient city center once stood and then by the Capitoline hill, the place where storied battles were fought, where Julius Caesar got down on his knees, and then where Michelangelo built a beautiful piazza in the 15 centuries later. We stolled by the Piazza Venezia and looked up at the balcony of the building where Mussolini gave speeches to adoring crowd, then down Via del Corso, which had been a race track in the 15th century, then onto the Pantheon, started around the time Jesus was born as a Roman temple and finished about 100 years later by the Emperor Hadrian.

At the time, walking by all this history — conquests, wars, emperors, artists — what was most on my mind 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 that kiss — the most memorable of my life.)

I like to ride my mountain bike through Merritt Farm in Groton up to Fort Hill. It’s a wonderful mountain bike trail, and I sometimes remember that Fort Hill had once been the site of the fortified village of the Pequot Chief Sassacus, around the year 1630. I have heard there were archeological sites 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 burned down by Benedict Arnold. Out of my office window is the wasteland that is Fort Trumbull, with a history dating from the Revolutionary War to the speakeasies during Prohibition to the Kelo v. City of New London case that was decided in the Supreme Court. But I rarely have time to think about the lives and histories, because there’s another consult, another patient, another urgent phone call from the hospital.

Doctors learn in medical school how to take “a history.” I’ve been a doctor since 1995. I’ve taken a lot of histories from a lot of people.

One man was dying in the Cheyenne, Wyoming, VA hospital and told me that he had fought in the trenches in WWI. He couldn’t remember what he ate for lunch, but he could tell me how cold and wet he was in those trenches.

I’ve met Holocaust survivors, great-great-great-grandmothers, war veterans, poets, murderers, chefs, truck drivers, professional athletes, men who have ridden the rails, political exiles, mafia dons, politicians and professional video game players.

Whenever I ask someone, even someone who has lived a century, what the most memorable thing they have experienced in their lifetime is, I’m usually surprised with the answer. Almost everyone, from rock stars to church pastors, whether they were born in 1898, 1922, or 1965, says that the most memorable thing of their lifetime was something extraordinarily ordinary like the birth of a child or their life with their spouse or time with their 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 storied life, is right when he says that “all history is local.”

 

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