I have sad news to report this morning. Last night my grandfather died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 97, or at least as unexpectedly as one can at that age. I find it difficult to eulogize my grandfather since, like so many men of his generation, he tended toward silence and stoicism.
The story he most loved to tell was about his experiences serving in World War II. The Army sent him from New York to California by train, and he felt that the experience proved that there was nothing to see in the United States except lifeless, flat land and whistle stop stations. They sent him to India, and he crossed the subcontinent again by train and felt that the experience proved that India was nothing but poverty and mud, with nothing to see but train stations and hovels. They sent him to Egypt, and he similarly found Port Said an uninteresting waste and Egypt an empty hell-scape of sand. As a result, he decided the world held nothing worth seeing except poverty and war, and he spent the next seven decades at home, rarely venturing much farther than two towns over.
But he was also the kind of person who strived to build a better life. In the postwar years, he and my grandmother started their family in a subsidized housing complex, and my grandfather saved up to buy a plot of land the next block over and built his own midcentury modern ranch house by hand, himself, in the hours after work and on weekends. Even into his 90s he still worked on making home improvements and repairs. On the other hand, he wasn’t keen on the idea of having neighbors, so he bought the adjoining lot as well, and it has sat empty and unused since the 1950s so he wouldn’t have to deal with anyone living next door.
It’s hard to imagine how much change has occurred since 1916, when my grandfather was born. Back then there was still a Tsar in Russia and Franz Joseph still sat on the Austro-Hungarian throne. Italians like my grandfather were subject to discrimination and prejudice—recall H. P. Lovecraft’s description of ethnic minorities in “The Horror at Red Hook”: “The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another […] this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence…”; or in “The Haunter of the Dark,” where Italian-Americans are superstitious, frightened rustics. And yet by the end of his life, my grandfather was able to watch Fox News (which he did daily, right up until the end) and complain himself about an ill-defined “those people” who were “destroying this country” and “outbreeding us,” the “us” being, of course, white people.
I have to blame Fox News for that; my grandfather had been a supporter of FDR in his 20s and JFK in his 40s and loved Bill and Hillary Clinton in his 70s and 80s, before age kept him inside more and he gradually narrowed his television choices to Judge Judy, Fox News, and TCM, especially after CBS fired his favorite news anchor, Dan Rather. Bill O’Reilly, he said, “tells it like it is,” just like Judge Judy.
But I won’t dwell on this more. Instead, let me finish by sharing an interesting passage I came across while doing some unrelated research yesterday afternoon. In 1986 Peter G. Stone conducted a survey to find out why people in Britain were interested in the past and how they went about learning about the past. He discussed the results in R. Layton’s edited 1989 volume Who Needs the Past?: Indigenous Values and Archaeology. His first finding was a distressing report that hundreds of interviewees refused to take his survey because they claimed to know nothing about the past. His second finding was that archaeologists are systematically excluding the less educated by focusing too heavily on an “academic” rather than an exciting presentation of material—which has yet to change! But Britain being Britain, Stone noted that fewer Britons watched archaeology-themed documentaries than televised snooker. Forty-two percent of survey respondents felt that Hollywood movies could be trusted to provide “reasonably accurate” information about the past, and many cited One Million Years BC (where dinosaurs and humans coexist) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (with its magical Ark) as “accurate” films. One of the most disturbing findings was that Britons felt that no one can really know what happened in the past; therefore, Hollywood’s conclusions were as likely to be correct as archaeologists’.
His section on book reading deserves to be quoted in full. In the following the parenthetical numbers refer to the assigned numbers of survey respondents, not to the total number of respondents making a claim.
Less than half of the respondents showed any real interest in books on archaeology. Of those who claimed to read about archaeology (or history), the majority found it difficult to recall specific authors or titles of books. The normal response was versed in a period or thematic manner – thus respondent (151) enjoyed reading about Egyptians and Romans, and (107) concentrated on New Zealand’s history and anthropology. When authors were mentioned, it was striking that the most frequently named was Von Daniken.
These results were all the more remarkable because by 1986, the 1960s-era ancient astronaut craze had already burned out, having fizzled in the late 1970s when too much fringe product entered an oversaturated market. The 1980s were the low ebb of fringe history, which is why it seemed like a shock when fringe history roared back to live in the mid-1990s. It is sad but not surprising that readers do not distinguish between mainstream and fringe history books.
I wonder what would happen if a similar survey were conducted today, either here or in Britain. I have a feeling that books would be all but eliminated as a category, and I have a sneaking suspicion that cable TV programs like Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed would show up as important sources for how people claim they learn about the past. One thing that wouldn’t change is Stone’s complaint that archaeologists are failing to make the past accessible and exciting to the general public in terms they can understand and embrace, leaving it to journalists and fringe figures to fill the gap between public curiosity and academic insularity.
5/30/2014 05:13:48 am
I'm sorry to hear about your grandfather, Jason.
Rev. Phil Gotsch
5/30/2014 10:39:01 am
I'm sorry …
6/1/2014 02:55:58 am
5/30/2014 05:15:01 am
Have you read any of the Rogue Angel series by Alex Archer (a pseudonum for many different authors). The main character is a female version of Indiana Jones and has lots of imaginary stuff. Some of the volumes do a really good job on the archealogy descriptions.
5/30/2014 05:28:35 am
Tomb Raider strikes again
5/30/2014 06:55:35 am
My condolences for your loss. As a 20 year veteran, I had experiences similar to your grandfather's, but thankfully, I didn't feel the ennui he did. I just hope I can get close to 97 before it's time to "pull chocks".
5/30/2014 03:26:03 pm
Personally, I think we should start an email campaign offering to teach "secrets the Smithsonian doesn't want you to know" for a fee of a couple dollars a month (just enough to come off as serious peddlers of esoteric wisdom). Then, to everybody who signs up, we just read anything by Oxford Press.
5/31/2014 03:24:42 am
Even the most rational people believe in silly things
5/30/2014 07:03:00 am
Please accept my condolences on the loss of your Grandfather.
5/30/2014 08:13:03 am
I'm sorry for your loss, Jason. Part of me is glad that my grandparents all passed before having their minds poisoned by Fox News, although I would have loved to have more time with them.
5/30/2014 08:31:58 am
he lived a full life, he survived his war.
5/30/2014 09:32:18 am
Sorry to hear about your Grandfather. My father-in-law turned 91 today and I am reminded, too, that he didn't talk about his Pacific war experiences much. He loved to travel and has enjoyed a fin, full life and family. However, he has also become suspicious of those who are different.
5/30/2014 09:46:12 am
5/31/2014 01:39:58 pm
Perhaps she watched freedom watch on fox business and saw the light. Classical liberalism...aka libertarianism is very attractive to intelligent folks.
5/30/2014 12:35:11 pm
6/1/2014 03:12:18 am
we are seeing the long lived noble souls of the WW2 generation
5/31/2014 03:26:03 am
Fecal Roster. A listing of individuals, companies, countries, etc. that have been found to be worthy of derision, or unworthy of attention
6/1/2014 03:28:01 am
i can remember when POTUS Richard Milhous Nixon's enemies
5/31/2014 01:34:43 pm
My sympathy to you are your family. Your story us very similar to my dad who passed away a few months ago at age 91. He was born in auburn, his parents both inmmigrated from Italy. His dad died in 1934, I actually visited my grandparents grave in that huge cemetery across from auburn high last week as we took my son to Hamilton college for a visit. My dad was drafted in WWII and sent to the pacific theater for three years. After he came back he never wanted to leave fairport ny where he relocated in 48. He was a new dealer but late in life moved to the right. I think he was never comfortable as the dem party moved to the left on social issues. In the late 60s we had hippies rent the house next door. They came down drunk or high one night and peed in my kids pool. My stoic dad who never said much grabbed a baseball bat and proceeded to chase the hippies to ther house and then bashed in their vw van. He got saved from getting arrested when the cops found pot on their house. Yes that generation was different. They hated spending money and did most things themselves.
5/31/2014 05:33:55 pm
5/31/2014 11:22:58 pm
I'm so sorry for your loss, but it sounds as though your grandfather had a good life as well as a long one, and that should be celebrated as you mourn.
6/1/2014 01:53:24 am
Sorry to hear of your loss Jason. I'm happy to hear that men in your family live to be very old because we need you around for a long time to challenge the dishonest programming on H2, especially America Unearthed.
6/1/2014 04:22:58 am
CFC--- i truly think AU has only five or seven more years in it,
6/1/2014 01:51:52 pm
One more season of AU is one too many. You're right, I should have said that I was glad he would be around to challenge any dishonest programming.
6/1/2014 04:27:44 pm
Syndication's magic number is usually seven seasons
6/1/2014 11:36:32 am
Jason, you have my condolences. My father watches Fox News a lot and he is only 69. I pray that he is still watching Fox News when he is 97 with his mental faculties intact. There are lots of worse things than watching Fox News, namely MSNBC, CNN, America Unearthed, Ancient Aliens, etc. Your grandfather sounds like a neat person, You were undoubtedly very fortunate to have been able to know him.
6/1/2014 02:18:28 pm
Jason, so sorry to hear about your grandfather's passing. He sounds like an incredibly hard worker and a man of his generation; I also appreciate his service to our country.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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