In my later elementary school years, my family spent a week every summer in New Castle, Pennsylvania, visiting relatives. In the evenings, while my siblings played with their cousins, my Great-Uncle John and I often sat in the backyard of my grandparents’ house at a picnic table beneath a canopy, where he, recognizing my interest in history, filled me with stories of my ancestors from the 19th century: farmers for the most part, abolitionists who helped run the Underground Railroad, others who fought for Lincoln’s army in the Civil War, and tales from his own boyhood.
Several times, Uncle John read to me family letters from the Civil War era. A Minick girl who had married a Bland visited her wounded husband in Washington, D.C., and saw Abraham Lincoln walking through the streets; a Union soldier wrote in guarded terms of the fighting he’d seen; others reported the daily news from their farms and small towns.
Uncle John left me those letters in his will, a kind and thoughtful gesture given that we had not visited in years.
Though much of my knowledge of the past derives from my education and reading—I majored in history in college and studied medieval history for two years in graduate school before deciding a Ph.D. was not for me—many docents like Uncle John added to my memory bank of history.
There were my father’s stories of his service in the infantry in Italy during World War II; the writer Lewis Green, now also deceased, told me of his hardscrabble upbringing in the mountains of Western North Carolina, the combat he saw in Korea, and his troubles with the law on his return home; there was the family lore shared with me by my good friend Allen from Boonville, North Carolina. These and others painted the past in vivid colors, populating it with the tales of flesh-and-blood characters and their participation in the tangled story of our country.
First and foremost of all these storytellers was my beloved history teacher at Guilford College, Dr. Edward Flud Burrows. Ed grew up on a large farm in South Carolina, working, like other family members, in the fields alongside nearly 100 of their tenant farmers. (The last I heard, one of Ed’s relatives who owned the land had expanded the acreage, and because of modern technology now operates with just two employees.) From there, Ed attended Washington and Lee University, earned his doctorate in American history from the University of Wisconsin, and began teaching history at Guilford long before I showed up.
World War II interrupted Ed’s education. Early in the war, he made headlines across South Carolina after registering as a conscientious objector, just one of two in the state. He was sent to work on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and then, wishing to make a stronger protest, left that post and was sentenced to time in a Florida prison for refusing to carry a draft card.
Following the war, Ed earned his doctorate and joined the staff at Guilford in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he participated in the budding civil rights movement and was active in promoting integration.
Though we differed politically—I grew more and more conservative, and Ed remained a liberal—we remained close friends until his death. Through his many stories, I learned much about the South of the 1920s and 1930s, about life in prison, about his religious faith, and how that had influenced so many of his decisions.
In addition, I learned even more about his story when Ed offered to buy me my first computer if I would edit and put his autobiography, “Flud: One Southerner’s Story,” onto floppy discs. Though I long ago got rid of the computer, “Flud” remains on my bookshelf.
Once when Ed was teaching me how to bake corn bread in an iron skillet, he looked at me and said, “You and I are so different politically. How is it we’re still friends?”
I shrugged and blurted out the first thought that came to mind. “Maybe because we can laugh together?”
He smiled, and then took another peek inside the oven to check on the corn bread.
Follow Their Example
Today, Americans in different political camps share little laughter, and I often wonder what the gentle-natured Ed would think of the cancel culture movement, the destruction in some of our cities, and the attempts to drastically change or eradicate completely the story of our American past and the traditions of our culture.
One way we can thwart these efforts is to follow the examples of the people I mentioned above. We can offer others the gifts my guides bestowed on me: their stories and family histories, many of which underscored the meaning of the American Dream. By sharing our stories about the past with others, we help keep that Dream alive.
In my case—in eight months I will, God willing, turn 70 years old—I must continue to relate to my children and children’s children the stories of my life. Like those who helped shape me, I can hand over the lessons I’ve learned and what I have seen so that they can absorb these things, make some of them their own, and pass them on to future generations.
Become Living Statues
I can tell them, for instance, of the magic of my Boonville childhood, of “roll-the-bat” played in the backyard, of firefly nights, of plays we put on for the neighbors, and of those Saturday afternoons in winter when Allen, my brother Doug, and I fought our “little man” wars with toy soldiers in the basement. I can tell them of the boy who in those years became enamored with history and heroes, and who first found those heroes in the series “The Childhood of Famous Americans,” men and women whose virtues he wished to emulate.
I can tell them what it was like to enter the U.S. Military Academy at the height of the Vietnam War, of the training I received there, the preparation for combat in a jungle, and why I resigned—honorably, I might add—in the middle of my sophomore year. I can tell them of the chaos of the early 1970s, the protests I saw, the decaying effects of drugs on American society, the rise of feminism, the implementation of abortion, the beginning of the shift from our pride in America to the shame some feel these days.
I can tell them of my varied work life, how and why I wanted to be my own boss, the joys of that freedom along with its tremendous stresses, the years of debt operating a bed-and-breakfast and several bookstores, and the years of teaching that followed. Whether I was up or down financially, I always regarded America as a land of opportunity that rewards hard work and initiative. I can remind my grandchildren—their parents long ago learned these lessons—that if we cast aside free enterprise, if we instead turn, as some demand, toward socialism, the independence and opportunities found in entrepreneurship may well be stolen from them.
Age may not confer wisdom, but it always endows us with experience, stories, and beliefs—a library of philosophy and personal history that we can share with the young and with others around us. Protesters, many of them ignorant of what they are doing, may topple or deface statues, but we who are old can act as living statues. What we have witnessed in our lives, when handed over to succeeding generations, can act as a bulwark for truth.
By sharing our past in this way, we help preserve our republic and safeguard the future of those generations walking in our footsteps.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.