Thursday, March 3, 2016

Visceral History

It was an impromptu visit to the port yesterday that made me realize something about history. Not that dull, dry history you ran from, screaming, during your high school years, but the kind of history that hits you in the gut.

Though I'm a new member of our local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, I got to tag along yesterday with two board members as they checked out a possible meeting venue. The site we visited was the temporary berth of the only remaining United States Aggressive-class minesweeper, while it is being restored as a museum ship.

Despite not being rehabbed to the point where it would be a suitable location for the special event the DAR board members had in mind, our host was gracious to provide us an informative tour of the vessel. We got to see the work in progress—and there is much yet to accomplish before the museum can open its doors to the public—but more important than that, we got to hear the stories about this ship's seven deployments to the western Pacific for surveillance and minesweeping duties.

Hearing those stories told to us aboard the USS Lucid yesterday made me realize that history, like much of education, is communicated better when we realize there are two parts to its delivery: not only the content, but the process of how we share—and relate to—that history. And in thinking about that sharing, we need to remember that each one of us absorbs information differently.

While some of us take in facts visually or aurally, there is another realm we exercise in the learning process. Some call that third way kinesthetic learning. While it often refers to those who prefer to learn by doing, I contend there is a second pathway in that same modality. I like to think of it as learning by sensing—somewhat like feeling, but such a deep response that the best way to put it is a kind of gut reaction. It's a lesson kept deep inside that maybe even gets buried while you gloss over the head knowledge, but can be reawakened—along with strong feelings—when something triggers a memory.

What was interesting, while we toured the USS Lucid, was when our guide mentioned veterans of the Vietnam war—during the main years of the Lucid's deployments—returning to visit the ship here in port while it is being rehabbed. Though the ship had a second and third life after military service—and thus requiring so much more work still to be completed—just walking those decks and seeing those quarters brought back such vivid memories and strong responses that every vet who came aboard, here in this temporary port, left with tears in his eyes. That's a visceral response.

You can't tell me those vets knew the details of their cruises like a high school student knows his history. This isn't textbook learning. The Lucid's history is a living history, and those strong men who lived on board for those tours of duty still have those lessons stored in muscle memory. That's history they can relate to. That's history in their guts.

When it comes to the process of conveying history, we can learn a lesson from the response of those vets of the USS Lucid. While it is so vital to pass on the stories of our history, the lasting messages won't be those pat stories tucked inside dull, dry textbooks. The ones that will stick with us will be the narratives that can evoke the same kind of responses as those experienced by the returning vets: the feeling of memories re-awakened.

If the history we portray relates to strong experiences shared in common with our audience, we can connect on a much deeper, experiential level. Our message will become more meaningful and our mission will find open ears among those we hope to reach.  

Just as I realized long ago in my starving-student years when paying the rent meant taking any job I could get, including—can you believe it?—working for commission in sales, you can't just expect your customer to buy the steak because, well, steak. You have to sell the sizzle. What I realized yesterday is that history is not much different than steak. If we want to sell it, we have to sell the sizzle.

Above: The USS Lucid in the Pacific Ocean, February 1970; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. "That's history in their guts." You really know how to turn a phrase!

    Of all the Vietnam vets (I only know one personally) I have to wonder - what they think ... of the conflict and horror that they endured - and if ... it seems all so ... pointless (as it does to me).

    1. For all the life-risking sacrifices veterans have made over the years, at least they could expect to be treated with respect and appreciation upon their return home after service. Not so for the Vietnam vets. Drafted for a war some, themselves, did not agree with, they risked as much as any vet from any war, yet often found themselves returning home to scorn over a choice they did not make.

      Considering that, Iggy, it's no surprise you wonder what they think of it all. There are likely as many perspectives as there were veterans who were able to return home from their tour of duty there.

  2. I know many Vietnam Vets, it wasn't fun, it wasn't pretty but it was their duty and they did it well, if only the American People would have stood behind them. No one should come home to the welcome they had. Even though my husband was a Vietnam Era Veteran who never went to Vietnam we were treated like second class citizens. It wasn't fair. :(

    1. Yes, it very much had the sense of being a second class citizen. You would know, Far Side. After all the risk and sacrifice, it was a difficult position to be put in.


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