Tuesday, September 22, 2009

New Jersey

Living in this modern world of cell phones and blackberries, GPS systems and talking cars, it is easy to ignore the "Things That Have Come Before." The deeds, the fights... even the tools. A wood-handled pocketknife, a metal flask, a steel revolver- these were the blackberries and PDA's of the past, these were the things that a man couldn't leave the house without.

It was a different world, of course; much less politically correct, much more violent, and without the room for the bullshit and whining that we have now. It was simpler then: those who did not work, starved. Those who did not build, froze. Those who would not fight, died.

As a newspaper reporter, my job revolves around History. It's very nearly impossible to write about something happening now without knowing the history of what happened before, be it a sewer plan or a road improvement. But we, as a people, overlook that history far too much.

The town I cover is a small one in the northern section of New Jersey. It isn't known for much, and doesn't contain the rich and famous or the upper echelon of the state- but it does have history. So much, that sometimes I feel that it rises up and floods the streets, as if one could not walk down the main thoroughfare without seeing the ghosts rise, without watching, through some hole in time, the rolling fields and rocky slopes long since demolished and developed.

The road that leads down the center of the town dates to the before the Revolution. It was heavily valued because it ran from the banks of a main river, all the way up to a road that led to the mountainous areas in northern part of the state. During the War for Independence, that mountain road was major road that wasn't controlled by the British, thus making this small, seemingly insignificant turnpike invaluable for the Americans.

In this town, where a school now sits, Washington's troops once slept; all those centuries ago, there were lines of white tents filled with hungry, battle-torn troops trying to forge a country. In the mornings, they made the groans and grunts of an army as it awakes, made coffee in the predawn hours; in the evenings, they played cards around a fire or wrote letters home. Which ones would die at lunch... that was for History to decide.

It is rumored that Washington himself once attended services at a white church a few hundred yards up from the site where his troops slept. It is hard to look at those floorboards and imagine the boots of the great general crunching over them once so long ago; sometimes it's hard to believe the man himself was real at all, and not just some mythical figure created so kids have someone to read about in the third grade. Some of those veterans of the Revolution are buried in that church's cemetery, which is also a final home for several Civil War veterans- even a Medal of Honor winner. They sit under tilted, barely legible headstones that vainly try to name the hero who lies beneath.

Some miles to the south, at the intersection of two major rivers, sits two bridges that connect towns and counties. They are open to car traffic now, and the river is murky and polluted. Once though, it was clear, pristine... the sites where the bridges are found are said to be old Indian fords for the tribes that lived along its banks.

Some miles to the north, another main road runs through a mountain pass. Even though thousands use it every day for their commutes, few know that the road there exists for the simple reason that it is the only way to get through the hills that form the beginnings of the Appalachians. Once, there was a fort that was designed to keep the Indians out of the plains below, where the first white settlers were gathering.

Now, all you can see is a small blue sign along the road that denotes that the fort once existed, as no footprint remains. By that sign, there is a closed down bar, an overpass for the highway, and tattered white houses with American flags on the porch.

I'm not saying that people should know everything... if they did, I'd have nothing to write about. But they should stop and take a passing glance every once in a while, and imagine these places as they once were. Look at them through the lens that history has provided us , and don't forget the monumental deeds that people no different than us accomplished. Look at a topographical map, and see why things were built the way they were- the land tells a story that you'd have missed otherwise. And if nothing else, it will put our own lives, our own time, in perspective, and tell us to enjoy those fleeting moments that we so oft look past.

1 comment:

Nelle said...

Damnit, you're good. And I'm curious to know which town you work in.

I think society today is so mesmerized by instant gratification and information that we tend to disregard the things that happen last week. It's almost too much information being thrown at us at once, and it just doesn't stick like it used to.

I agree with you, though. The lack of interest in history is sad.