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On Dressing the Part
by Phil Jose


Missouri Iowa Nebraska Kansas
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On Dressing the Part
By
Phil Jose


It was my recent privilege to participate in a roundtable discussion with George Neumann, noted collector and writer of things Eighteenth Century. Preliminary questions attested to knowledge of both amazing scope and depth. However, the pinnacle of that day came when he was asked, "Mr. Neumann, how did you start collecting?"

He told us of how as a child, his father would take the family on marvelous annual vacations to historic places. He spoke of how his father had read of the place and breathed life into a long-past event with commentary. Epic battles and pivotal moments in history once more took part in a common destiny that has since become our common heritage. He emphasized the pricelessness of learning history in such a way, to understand our national identity.

Mr. Neumann elaborated, telling us stories from his own local history. He spoke of the New England of three hundred years ago and Indian attacks, of swordplay and expatriate generals.

I watched as he told the tales. I saw a semicircle of about thirty reenactors, none of whom ever reluctant to voice their own views and outlook, sit there like awestruck schoolkids. The attention we paid him started as a mark of respect, but became a mark of our own intensity.

By the time he spoke of George Washington, that attention was absolute. He spoke of General Washington, who, through the force of his own character, forged a Continental Army from the civil population of thirteen distinct and diverse colonies. With that army, and in spite of every conceivable adversity, he forced the mightiest power then on earth from their holdings in America. He spoke of President Washington, who took an assemblage of political theories and ideals that at the time was the U.S. Constitution and turned it into the form of government that posterity shall use as the standard.

He concluded with an admonishment. He warned us to pass on the stories and to get our inheritors started in the process of keeping our past vital. He wanted us to involve the upcoming generation in what we do.

In the silence and reflection that followed, I asked myself what I could possibly do to make a start in such a worthwhile enterprise. Some of the ideas that first came to mind seemed too small a gesture: Taking five minutes away from visiting friends to answer questions, forbearance when the questions are so very basic or so often asked, or taking time to be a bit larger than life for the wide-eyed eight-year-old who's just told me that I "dress cool." But then, small beginnings—for both student and teacher—are still beginnings.

Sitting there, I realized that Mr. Neumann had also reaffirmed an unyielding belief of mine, one that I shall proudly maintain unto the grave: Good and great people make a good and great difference in this world—not can make one, not should make one, but do make one. It is something we must keep telling our children and grandchildren until it becomes conviction.

We must tell it for their sakes. They are the ones immersed in a popular culture where nihilism and casual disregard for anything but the present is the norm. They must be told so that they understand that they are the recipients of something good and grand—an American birthright. That birthright must be protected and nurtured to one day be passed down to their own children. They must also know from the collective experience of our heritage that today's obstacles are not an ending, but a chance to triumph tomorrow.

We must tell it for our own sakes as well. It is we who are abandoning our heritage with every governmental diktat that we allow. In our complacency, we have led a treasured way of life breathtakingly close to extinction. If the conviction is deep enough, we can make our own difference.

I often think of the time I spent listening to Mr. Neumann, and the lessons of that afternoon. As a result of the encounter, do I ponder how to single-handedly preserve this country's heritage whenever I wear my historic clothing at an event? Of course not. I'm too busy looking forward to seeing old friends and making new ones.

But I have noticed that now I stand just a bit taller in them.

Copyright 1999, Philip Jose.


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