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June 21, 2008 / howardmestas


Philly Skyline from U-Penn

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts”                     –Doris Lessing

First off, I want to extend a sincere thank you to professors Harris and Rees and to the “man behind the curtain” Scott Whited for their expertise in planning and coordinating such an awesome educational odyssey; and of course, for allowing me to be a part of the experience.  The quantity and the quality of our adventure proved that it took a an enormous degree of foresight.

Where do I start?  After so many years of studying and teaching the “facts” about American History, I now regret that I couldn’t have made this trip 20 years ago.  I feel like a college student studying Spanish and earning a master’s degree, then going to Spain and realizing that you really didn’t know anything.  More than anything else, I’ve learned that “reading” about something without “experiencing” it, falls short of the lesson.  And that is why this trip was so special for me, I experienced things on such an elevated level that I can relate them to many other events in history.  It’s like studying the history of the Nile River so intensely, that you can better comprehend the history of every other river in the world.

An important, and independently observed lesson for me, was the realization that there are so many heroes in our history who do not have their portraits on American currency, or their names on documents…and are essentially lost to history.  They were the ordinary people who made enormous contributions and remain nameless, probably because they were illiterate and couldn’t record their lives.  For example, who were the countless slaves and servants who built the nation’s economy through their sweat, or the cooks and washerwomen who saved more lives at military encampments than the better known physicians?  Who were the grunts that went on foraging missions, or the ferrymen who led the Continental Army’s horses and cannons across the icy Delaware River?  Who were the grave diggers at Valley Forge or the “unknowns” at so many burial grounds?  Each of them had a face and a story, and even though we do not know their names, the place we call America couldn’t have happened without their sacrifices.

Those “extraordinary” ordinary Americans are still with us today, like Pat Stallone and Ada Fischer who work less for their paychecks than for their love of preserving history.  Or the many citizens of Philadelphia who were so congenial in answering the many questions from a “wandering tourist,” or bus driver named Bob, who would buy Starbucks for a group of passengers he hardly knew.  And the teachers, who gave up their free time and the conveniences of home to become more informed for the benefit of their students. 

I can’t end this post without telling of an experience at the Kitchen Kettle Village in Lancaster County on the very day we visited the Amish in 100 degree heat.  After waiting in line outside a lunch counter for about 20 minutes, I was told I could not get my lunch because they only took cash and all I could show was a check card.  Suddenly a woman in line behind me presented a $10 bill and said, “I’ll get it,” and proceeded to pay.  I told her to wait until I found an ATM but she insisted, “don’t worry about it, it’s too hot, enjoy your lunch.”  I told her that it was such an awesome thing to do, and that I would “pass it on,” –and I will.  She was yet another great American who’s name I will never learn, but whose deed I will never forget.




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