A Professor’s Journal: Walking into the past

Two decades ago, we left Kentucky for Arkansas for me to teach in the history department of a small college. We returned after four years away; we loved the tiny school, but we terribly missed western Kentucky. If anything, our exile in northeastern Arkansas taught me the intimate connection between the past, present and future.

Each of you should also know how to make these connections. What is history? Why is it important to study history? How does someone study history? These are questions I have been wrestling with for some time.

When we left those many years ago, Ron Watson, a resident of Hopkins County and a very fine poet, gave to me a farewell poem that made the connections clear in language that a small town boy could understand. I love the poem “Walking Into the Past: For Duane Bolin.”

The poet described a father and son experiencing together the sensation of walking into the past. The experience took place in an old store:

 

“It’s Saturday

and we stop at the Dalton Store

before putting in on the river.

Oldtimers are holding down a bench

that hasn’t changed in 20 years

and somebody shot Homer Bailey’s dog

for running deer is what we hear

as the screen door squeaks open

and slams shut

and swallows us into the general store

that is always darker than outside.

 

A fading red Coke machine

is defining nostalgia against a wall

and kids we might have been

are standing on a footrail

at the counter. We hope

it is black licorice and Moon Pies

but they could be buying anything.

 

We try not to hurry

and for a moment begin to blend

as easy as shade into the slow scene,

to soak up the almost forgotten something

we once were.

 

Paid-up, the kids spill toward us

in a stream that we divide. We turn

to watch it reconnect down the dark aisle

that points like a chute in the cool dimness

toward a door that opens like a tablet of light.”

 

I have tried to picture a father standing with his son in the middle of the store soaking in “the almost forgotten something we once were.” In the present, the father and son gaze into the interior at “kids we might have been,” standing at a counter buying “black licorice and Moon Pies.” Those kids at the back of the store represent the past.

“Paid-up, the kids spill toward us in a stream that we divide.” The past comes hurtling into and through the present, just as it is at this present moment, whether we realize it or not. And then, the familial pair “turn to watch it reconnect” into the future, “toward a door that opens like a tablet of light.”

These connections between the past, present and future also link together an understanding of history and ourselves. “As far as we’re concerned, there’s no such thing as a dead past,” Kentucky’s late, great Historian Laureate Thomas D. Clark said. “You’re part of the past,” he said. Now, what can we – students, teachers, you, me – learn from that?

Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history.