Penman for Monday, January 8, 2018
LAST WEEK’S piece on my “passion for the past” apparently struck a positive chord with my readers—including a couple of friends who also happen to be professional historians, the eminent professor Bernardita Churchill and my UP neighbor Maris Diokno, who’ll be returning to teaching this semester after her stint with the National Historical Commission. Both messaged me to say that they enjoyed my column (many thanks!) and to invite me to speak to a group of history enthusiasts or to a class about my obsession and my forays into collecting historical memorabilia (I will).
To both friends, and to those who will be listening to me, I once again affirm that I am not a historian or a scholar. A true scholar of history will seek to palpate and to understand the full context of things—not just of objects but of actions, decisions, and ideas; he or she will be guided by some workable theory of human and social behavior, and a disciplined commitment to the truth; and the past could be important less for its own sake than as a window on the present and the future.
I appreciate and respect all these considerations, which is why I know and acknowledge that I can’t live up to them, at least not at the moment. For now, my most honest self-description would be that of a scavenger (“fetishist” also comes to mind), not unlike a dog who drags in interesting objects off the street—sometimes gruesome, sometimes delightful. I rummage through other people’s leavings (as an impoverished grad student in the States, I happily went dumpster diving), finding and retrieving objects of wonder. The material object is my prize; whatever else it leads to—some story, some insight, some unforeseen discovery—is pure bonus.
That’s applied to my vintage pens and books, some of which turned out to have been owned by famous or important persons. But some of my most interesting finds on eBay have involved the most common people and the most ordinary—and therefore the most plaintive and often poignant—revelations.
This is no truer than in the letters I come across on eBay, likely seen by many as the leftovers of estate sales, after all the valuable furniture, silverware, and knick-knacks have been carted away. I’ll admit that reading them feels a little voyeuristic, because there’s nothing more intimate than seeing into someone’s heart and mind, even when it doesn’t involve endearments or estrangements.
There were these letters, for example, which I saw last November, written by a teenager named J. R. Oyco (at least that’s what I can make of the signature, but I could be wrong) from Bacolod to Forrest J. Ackermann (1916-2008), whom sci-fi fans will recognize as one of the pioneers of the genre. What’s amazing is that the letters are from 1933-34, when Ackermann himself was no more than 18, so these were two teenagers chatting across the ocean in longhand about what today would be speculative fiction. “Three days ago,” Mr. Oyco writes, “I finished reading the April Astounding Stories and enjoyed the swell stories it had—from H. V. Brown’s cover to the advertisement on the last page…. As I noticed, Astounding was in the market for some years but stopped, and again covered the field just last October. However, from mere weird tales they published on that said issue, the editors, by the present time, have achieved a great if not astounding achievement by their thought-variant narratives. By publishing these kinds of stories, they give authors a chance to show their talents and imaginations and stimulate interesting reactions from the readers themselves.” Apparently Ackermann had responded to an earlier letter because J. R. thanks him for the gift of a magazine.
A letter dated June 14, 1898, comes from a soldier named Humphrey Sullivan, who’s in San Francisco on his way to war in the Philippines, to his brother-in-law in Massachusetts. He’s trained in Georgia and has more drills to do before shipping out, but in the meanwhile, he writes, “I don’t know when we will go it will be a long ride I guess the war will be over before I get there. I would like to get the chance of killing a few Spaniards as I come so far…. I am writing this letter where mass is celebrated every morning it is a blessing for the Catholic to have this society [the Catholic Truth Society in Camp Merritt] here. I am in a hurry I will have to go to drill.”
On Aug. 15, 1945, a WAC nurse writes “My Darling, Sweet” from San Fernando, Pampanga: “Happy V. J. Day!… Today is the 14th Aug. back home isn’t it? Have a grand celebration honey! Tonite is one nite I’m really going to celebrate—only wish it were with you!!!! Darling, do you realize what this means—what we’ve waited for so long…. So, Sweetie, “I’ll Be Seeing You” and we’ll have a “White Xmas.”… I’ll give you a run for your money, honey—won’t let you out of my sight—and I’ll see to it that the neighbors are out!”
And so on go the letters and the stories, many of which read better than fiction, written by the Parkers, Sheaffers, and Esterbrooks now lying still and silent in my collection. In many instances, I haven’t even had to buy these documents—it’s enough to read them online and save them for posterity on my computer. (But I’ll need some help soon with two letters written in French, from 1794 and 1798, coming my way.)
These objects affirm, for me, that the past happened, and more than that, that the past will be remembered. It may not matter to me when I’m gone—which, in my darkest musings, could mean that I will no longer have any sense of “me” or of time itself—but it matters to me now, to know that our words and deeds bear consequences, and that we will all leave some trail behind. And so I should write and act with that trail aforethought—so someone, a century hence, will be happy to find a book I wrote, or some note I scribbled, and smile at the memory.