So, it’s been a couple of weeks since I posted, and the reason is that the work I’ve been doing in my day job has been, frankly, a bummer.
It’s usually great fun to have my day job. That perfunctory pleased-to-meet-you question — what do you do? — gets less perfunctory quickly when you do something most folks didn’t know was a job; I’m not particularly interesting personally, but I can tell interesting stories about my job because I work on interesting things. Working on items of personal value is an honor; working on items of historical value is a thrill.
And working on items that tell the story of some of the uglier parts of our shared history, our American history, is a bummer.
This is a map drawn from an expedition that took place in 1849 and 1850. The map was published in book form in 1852; gold had been discovered in California three years earlier, so accurate maps of routes between the east and west coasts had become Top Priority for all kinds of would-be gold bugs. The railroads didn’t go all the way to the coast yet; to get your chance at gold, some part of the trip would have to be made in wagons or on foot, and you’re crossing a desert so a good map is literally the difference between life and death.
This map is roughly three by six feet and covers Stansbury’s route from Fort Leavenworth to the Great Salt Lake, depicting land north from Oregon down through Utah and to New Mexico. At the time, most of this was Indian Territory, and much of the land on the eighteen square feet of this map is labeled simply with the names of the tribes. In 1850, Utah is not yet the name of a state but the name of the tribe that lives there.
It’s not so far back, 1850; it’s not that long ago. I had a great-grandfather who was 108 when he died in 1992. How many square feet of the map would still have been labeled Pawnee when he was born in 1885, thirty-five years after this expedition? How many square feet of map would the Arapahoe have lost by the time he bought his first car? How much Cheyenne land was still Cheyenne by the time he married his first wife? None of this history is as long ago as it is comfortable and convenient to think.
But wait, there’s more!
This is Mary, and this is her senior photo from her high school yearbook. She was a member of the class of ’44, who graduated from high school in the Gila River War Relocation Camp, in Arizona. Mary was the editor of the yearbook, industrious and well-liked if you can judge by her personal copy of it; the book’s chock-full of her classmates’ signatures, written over photos of boys with shining Elvis pompadours and girls with bouncy side-parted perms. “Best wishes for a bright future!” they write, over and over. “Best wishes for the brightest of futures for a wonderful gal!” Uniformly optimistic, uniformly vague. What future? I was an introverted aimless crank in high school, but the (extremely sparse) annotations in my yearbook are nonetheless from kids with plans, wishing me various specific things for a future we believed we had some say in.
As it turned out, the class of ’44 was released from the camp within two years, and the Gila River camps were considered to be some of the most humane in that the security was lower (no barbed wire!) and people were sometimes allowed to have contact with amenities in Phoenix, some thirty miles away, but talk to any interned American — my step-mom, for example, who was interned in Manzanar, I believe, or was it Minidoka? — about how the experience has played out in their life and you will hear about four years of destructive isolation, of being labeled an enemy by the only country you’ve known, of not believing that you can determine any part of your own future.
I’ll just mention that I also did some work on a client’s Holocaust-surviving-mother’s Polish passport last week, and leave it at that. You’ve seen the movie(s).
I kept hoping I’d find something worthwhile to say about my experience working on these things, some interesting observation, maybe even some slightly optimistic insight? Nope. Just a dull, confused sense of shame; and a realisation that I don’t even know which camp my own step-mother spent her toddler years in. At least that very last thing, I can actually do something about. Is that the take-away of this sad week, ask your older family members about their lives? Perhaps it’s not wanting to hear the kind of sad history that I’ve been steeped in this past week, wanting to believe that we live somehow outside of these narratives, that these bad things happen solely to other people, people too far back to have any particular claim on us, that keeps us from asking.