Obscurity Knocks

Earnest, empathetic, industrious, unpretentious, gay Virgo in Milwaukee with a great life, amazing friends, and a wonderful family.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

An essay I wrote in 1995

I recently came across this this essay I wrote in 1995 when applying to graduate school. I hadn't thought about it in many years, but found it when going through a couple of floppy discs I discovered in my desk drawer. I deleted most of the material on those discs, but am saving this. My grandpa died in 2002, and I think of him just about every day.

The essay helped me get admitted to Lehigh and score a full tuition fellowship and a teaching assistantship. I subsequently earned my M.A. in history from Lehigh in 1998.

Reasons for Graduate Study
by Steven [Last Name]

There is a house sitting in a grass-filled and rocky prairie approximately ten miles west of Sisseton, South Dakota. Actually, it's not much of a building anymore. The wood is weathered from too many frigid winters and sweltering summers, and it leans a bit to one side from the ruthless wind that never stops blowing across the prairie. But it's still there, even after more than one hundred years. My great-grandfather built this dwelling himself. It was the family homestead which my great-grandfather constructed on land that he claimed through the Homestead Act. It was in this structure that my grandfather, Garfield Landmark, was born some seventy-five years ago.

Alf and Josie Landmark were born and raised in Norway. Drawn by the shining image of America as a land of prosperity and the promise of land in the Dakotas, they decided to emigrate. Alf was a farmer who tried to grow wheat among the glacier-strewn boulders in the northeast corner of the state. Grandpa remembers his father telling him that he detested America when he first arrived; the land was so different from Norway, and it was a constant struggle to make a living from this harsh and infertile land. However, Alf became a citizen and joined the American cause in World War I. Grandpa has a letter that his father received from King George V of England when he arrived there as a private in the United States Army in 1917. The letter expresses the King's appreciation for the American assistance in the war effort, and welcomes my great-grandfather "back home" to Europe. Perhaps Alf was not particularly impressed with the King's letter, since on the back are numerous tick-tack-toe games he played with fellow soldiers. But Grandpa has kept the letter, proud of his father's participation in American history; it made him eager, he said, when it came time to enlist as an American solder in World War II.

My grandpa remembers the dust storms of the 1930s which characterized the depression era in South Dakota. One summer he worked as a farmhand, ten hours a day, and received $20 in a lump sum at the end of August for the entire season's work. While finishing up the day's work, the $20 bill blew out of Grandpa's pocket and to this day it is probably plowed under a field somewhere. He worked the entire summer for nothing. But now when Grandpa tells that story he laughs about it - seeing that as only one event in the three-quarter century sweep of his life in this country of which he is so proud to be a citizen.

The day he told me that story, I remember thinking how fortunate I am to have a master storyteller for my grandfather. While his anecdotes may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, to me they are a window through which I can better understand the past. The story about my great-grandparents coming from Norway to America helps me understand immigration in the nineteenth century. My great-grandfather serving in the Army during World War I and my grandpa subsequently serving in the Army during the Second World War helps me to grasp what these two conflicts were like for ordinary Americans. Grandpa's stories of surviving the Depression serve to strengthen my appreciation for the spirit that shaped this country.

This experience best explains my wish to earn a graduate degree in history. I want to learn and to understand the larger issues which stem from the kernels of truth contained in people's stories, the national and global trends and movements that were able to profoundly effect the lives of ordinary Americans. I am interested in making connections between national policy and individual experience. I want to understand what Americanness is, and how the individual spirit became, in the conglomerate, the national ethos. I want to investigate what "American" means and will mean in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Above all, I want to teach. I want to be a storyteller of history. As learning comes through experience, I hope to inspire students through narrative experience, to wonder and look for the larger understanding behind concrete detail. I want to teach through questions and suggestions and to respect the individual interpretation of historical events of an informed student.

It is because of the strong history department, particularly in American history, that I hope to be accepted for graduate work at Lehigh University.

Grandpa took me to see the old homestead a few months ago. The house is no longer useful, and it has been more than thirty-five years since anyone lived there. But its legacy continues. The link of that structure to Grandpa and to our family represents the essence of history, the influential connective tissue of generation to generation. I have come along way from Grandpa's roots in Sisseton, but I will always be part of that proud homestead.

There is a parable where one person builds a house without a foundation and another digs deep, lays a foundation on rock, and then builds her house on this foundation. My grandpa has helped me to dig deep and lay my foundation for my life on rock, so that the structure I build will be sturdy enough to last a lifetime. The foundation that Grandpa helped me to build is now finished, and I hope to construct a wonderful home on that foundation at Lehigh University.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Lesley said...

What a beautiful essay and such a great tribute to your Grandfather. Alf sounds like an amazing person and I love his perspective on things.

10:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How eloquent. Truly, well stated. - Boots

10:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderfully written and truly meaningful. Have you found a huasband yet? - An admirer

10:41 AM  

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