My first love was with history. I remember the exact moment and occasion. I was in junior high and I was flipping through one of my older brother’s history text books looking for pictures of knights to draw. Then I stumbled upon a map of Europe in the Middle Ages and I saw something called “The Eastern Roman Empire.” But…it was after Rome fell and it wasn’t in Italy. What the heck? So I began to search around trying to find out what this Eastern Roman Empire was. Was it really some Roman Empire in the east? A pretender country? Misnamed? I couldn’t find anything and I spent the next several years finding out as much as I could. I swallowed any tidbit of information I could get my greedy hands on. This search for something that wasn’t commonly known began a love affair with history that lasts until this day. I found a powerful empire that lasted over a thousand years that was virtually forgotten and hardly taught in schools. What else was I missing? What else didn’t I know?
Keep in mind that this was before the Internet so my searching had to be done the old fashioned way, with books and going to the places when I could. I had the fortunate advantage of living in Virginia and if you’re going to study history in America, there is no better place. I grew up surrounded by history and when other kids went to water parks, beaches or where ever normal kids go, I went to historical sites like Martin’s Hundred or James Town.
Then I finally went off to attend college at Southern Virginia University where I majored in history and art. ( I couldn’t choose between them so I did both.) There, with the help of some amazing professors, my knowledge of history expanded more than I ever could have managed on my own.
All was going well for little ole’ me when suddenly the sound of record scratching could be heard and my life abruptly came to a stop. My National Guard unit was activated and I was off on a paid vacation to sunny Iraq. Now, I suddenly (and violently) found my self taking part in history instead of merely reading it. All my life I had read about the soldiers slogging through the cold and mud or suffering in sweltering heat. I now understood what it was like to be at war and I imagined how the Byzantine soldiers must have felt. Like them I found myself in a hot, hostile land doing patrols and wearing oven-like armor. (so, maybe I’m a bit of a romantic. Don’t judge me.) It didn’t help that the place I found myself in looked like a castle complete with walls and towers. Then we were attacked and I found myself defending our castle against hostile locals. Some things never change I suppose.
The one thing that changed my opinion of history by experiencing a war first hand was the surprising complexity of it all. However, the most shocking thing I discovered was the smothering hatred that covered everything around me like a thick mist. It seeped into every pour and infused itself into my bones. Everything I saw and did was filtered through an opaque haze of anger and hatred. It was like a poison or being constantly drunk, affecting every thought and action I did.
I came home from the war and without a pause went right back into school. There I was greeted with “So, did you kill anyone?” “See any action?” etc etc. Not only that, but I saw that all these young students didn’t have any idea what life really was. Their biggest concerns were stupid TV shows and vain gossip. I despised everyone and everything. I had hoped that being home would calm me down, but no, my anger and hatred grew and grew.
THEN, at the end of the semester I, at the suggestion of my art history professor, went with the school group to Italy. I had always wanted to go to Italy, loving art and history Italy was full of both.
What awaited me in Italy was beyond what I could have imagined. There I was, surrounded by Roman ruins, famous Renaissance paintings, art, culture, beauty, happiness and the best food I’ve ever tasted in my life.
And I felt my anger and hatred melt away. I began to remember that life could indeed be beautiful and good. It was worth living and people deserved to be happy.
So, if you may have noticed that I pay particular attention to Italy, there is a reason. It was where I found salvation and happiness. I forgave God, I forgave the world and I forgave myself there. The whole country was my church and my temple. Years and another deployment later I found myself in Italy again with a tiny apartment in Rome. For a short time I lived as a Roman and enjoyed fine food, art and beauty in all its forms.
So, history and in particular, Italy, hold a special meaning to me beyond the interesting stories. Besides, they’re not made up stories in books, they are the stories of real people who were as flesh and blood as you and me. They were real people and they deserved to be remembered. That is one of the reasons I search out the dusty corners and forgotten parts of history. Don’t forget to ask “So what?” Why are these people and events important? If something interests you, look it up yourself. Find out more. The more you look, the more you’ll find that there is even more that has to be discovered.