The stammering historian

Posted on October 23, 2011


I was over at the Eastport Market the other night buying treats for the Duo and BBQ ribs for my own supper when I ran into a neighbor.  We talked about dogs and the economy and raising children.  She told me two really good stories about secret siblings lost and found in her family tree.  I told her a story about one of the grandchildren of one of my Civil War veterans.  We scanned the shelves of rental DVDs, hoping to find something almost as interesting as real life.  She recommended The King’s Speech and I brought it home.  It was really good, wasn’t it?  As I watched it, I identified with Bertie’s struggle.  Some . . . days . . . that’s . . . just . . . what . . . it . . . . . . feels like . . . to write.

I keep telling myself that it will get better when every moment online is not like ploughing wet concrete.  It has crossed my mind that I might reach internet nirvana in November only to discover that I have nothing to say.  Or worse, that I have a great deal to say but still can’t get it out.  Then I believe I will just go to the Eastport Market in the evenings and tell my stories to the neighbors as we shop.

The risk to the historian in delving into individual lives is that it is easy to become attached to, say, a goofy grin in a high school yearbook. This is Harland M. Clark, age 18, a senior in the January, 1939 graduating class at Southeastern High School in Detroit, Michigan.

That handsome kid in the lower left corner is Harland M. Clark

Harland’s yearbook entry said he lived at 2541 St. Clair Avenue and had gone to Foch Jr. High. He listed his interests. House Track. Football.  Jungaleer. (Say what?) He planned to go on to college at Wayne.

I began to paw through the online images of the yearbook, trying to figure out what a “Jungaleer” could be, when I realized that the name of the yearbook was the Aryan. Say what??? My mind reeled.  I checked–it was still called the Aryan in 1945.  (It was still called the Aryan in 1966, too.)

Southeastern High School's yearbook, The Aryan, 1939

I don’t know if Harland ever enrolled at Wayne. Times were tough in 1939. I do know that on September 21, 1941–two and a half months before Pearl Harbor–he enlisted in the army as a private. The record says he was single and worked as a stock clerk. He was 68 inches tall and weighed 129 pounds. I contemplate the goofy grin in the yearbook. Think about the weedy young stock clerk. Wonder if he ever took classes at Wayne.

I know he spent a year in North Africa. I know that he went to Italy. I think about what a young guy from the east side of Detroit would make of North Africa and Italy. The trouble with getting attached to them is . . .

In December of 1943 Harland’s parents received a notice that their son was missing in action. A week later they learned that he had been killed in action on November 24, 1943, in the Italian campaign.  His memorial marker at Southern Cemetery, where so many of my Civil War veterans lie, reads:

Harland M. Clark
Feb 19, 1920 Nov 24, 1943

Knowing all that, there are so many things to ponder in those yearbooks.  The seniors wear suits and grown up faces in their portraits, but say the same silly stuff they’d say on Facebook today.  There are pages of faculty photos and names, complete with home addresses.  Can you imagine teachers putting home addresses in yearbooks today?  Of course, they wouldn’t have been able to imagine Facebook either.  Ah, those were Simpler Times . . . . then again, maybe not.  Climbing out of a Depression, looking into the chasm of another World War, it couldn’t have seemed simple to those kids.

I’m still thinking about Harland M. Clark, who went to war and died fighting Nazis–a kid whose goofy grin and dream of going to school at Wayne are immortalized in a yearbook called the Aryan.    Is everything complicated?  Seems so, seems so.