Saturday, July 9, 2016

Erica's Travel Log, And Why Every Young Person Should See the World

For the last three weeks, I've been traveling the East Coast and Midwest on a study abroad with Brigham Young University. It's a religious school and most of our focus is on religious historical sites, which I'll get around to blogging about later, but today I want to talk about Lincoln.
When I first saw the Land of Lincoln signs dotting Illinois highways, I thought they nicknamed themselves such because they didn't have anything else to brag about. So far as I could tell, Illinois is entirely made up of corn, and Nebraska took that nickname first. Then I got a chance to visit some of Old Abe's stomping grounds yesterday.
Lincoln's tomb is cooler than your tomb.
Since this a youth blog, I'm going to focus on the cool youth related stuff I saw. It's not hard. In addition to being the coolest and most dramatic museum I've ever seen, the Lincoln Museum has a lot to pique a child's interest. 
A few years ago I mentioned Grace Bedell, the eleven year old who wrote Lincoln a letter telling him he was ugly and could nab a few more votes if he just grew a beard. After hearing that story I've always had a special place in my heart for Cleanshaven Abe. 
Me and small, beardless Abraham Lincoln

Small, beardless Abraham Lincoln with a sword, guarding old, bearded Lincoln's tomb
Before and after
Here's Grace's letter:

Dear Sir
My father has just home from the fair and brought home your picture and Mr. Hamlin's. I am a little girl only 11 years old, but want you should be President of the United States very much so I hope you wont think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are. Have you any little girls about as large as I am if so give them my love and tell her to write to me if you cannot answer this letter. I have yet got four brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President. My father is going to vote for you and if I was a man I would vote for you to but I will try to get every one to vote for you that I can I think that rail fence around your picture makes it look very pretty I have got a little baby sister she is nine weeks old and is just as cunning as can be. When you direct your letter direct to Grace Bedell Westfield Chautauqua County New York.
I must not write any more answer this letter right off Good bye
Grace Bedell
Abe wrote Grace back with an "I'll think about it", but after he and his beard got elected, he arranged to meet her personally when his inaugural train stopped through her hometown en route to Washington.
Lincoln himself had no daughters, just four sons. His little son Eddie has his first tombstone (he's now entombed with his family) on display in the museum. When they moved him to be with his father and brother Willie, they didn't want a good tombstone to go to waste, so they flipped it and used it as a marker for some of Lincoln's relatives. Eventually it was unflipped and discovered in the 1950's. I've toured several disused graveyards in the past weeks, and it saddens me how many markers are lost to time. The last thing you ever get is a headstone. But we can't all have obelisks, so too many memories weather away.

Eddie's tombstone
Willie and other brother Tad had the run of the White House. Before that, the Lincolns had over eighteen hired girls quit on them during the seventeen years they spent in Springfield. Hired girls helped Mrs. Lincoln keep house and corral the children. They were young women between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, either African American or immigrants from Portugal or Ireland. In theory, this job would let them earn their own money and achieve some independence before they'd go apply their newly acquired domestic skills in marriage. In reality, they ran away and found better jobs. As the older sister of three brothers I can see why. 
Small Boy Fact: If it fits in your hand, it's a ball. If it's longer than your arm, it's a bat. In the background we have Wax Lincoln chilling while his sons play inkwellball. The older brother is on the ground with a broom. 

As a kid, I always loved the artifacts that weren't guarded by glass, and I guess I haven't changed. My favorite exhibit yesterday was one I didn't get a picture of: a metal cast of Lincoln's hands. I rested my own on top of them. They felt fatherly and strong, the kind of hands you'd trust a country in. A businessman in my community once told me that he trusts handshakes over background deals. Everything he needs to know about a man he can learn from his hands. If I could've shaken hands with Mr. Lincoln, I believe he would've had my vote. Well, aside from that whole female under the age of 21 thing. I'm in the same boat as Grace. By the way, Lincoln wanted votes for women, but he had bigger fish to fry at the time. Come back and run in 2016!
The Lincoln Museum has a lot more than old stuff and wax dummies. One of the most striking exhibits is a dark, crooked hall full of grotesque political cartoons drawn by Lincoln's haters. You can hear their whispered gossip from the ceiling as you pass through. That got me thinking. Another hall is full of angry retorts to the Emancipation Proclamation. Holographic faces spew criticism from every possible angle, and they're projected onto mirrors, so you see your own face between theirs. It made me think about the things I take a stand for, about the people who revile me past, present, and future. I want that. I want to be someone brave and bold enough to be worth the tides of hissing tongues. And I want the strength and dauntlessness to be able to stand in the face of those hissing tongues. What do I have today that's worth fighting for? 
Slave mother sold away from her child.
There's actually an entire family on that scaffold, she's staring at her husband. I couldn't get the father in the picture because a white mother and son were standing in the spot I'd need to be. The son couldn't read, he didn't know these were anonymous wax figures, meant to represent so many other families torn apart. He thought there might be some plaque nearby telling the end of their story.
"Mom, did those three people ever get back together?" 
"No, they didn't."
"What about after slavery was over?"
"No, they never got back together again." 
Several months ago, my nineteen year old roommate came home from class and announced that she'd registered to vote. I asked her why she hadn't done that at eighteen, and she said the last election wasn't worth her time. She then plopped herself on her bed and read an article about slavery for homework. When she was done, she sat up, horrified, and wondered aloud if she would have "done something" if she'd lived in the age of slavery. 
No, you wouldn't have opened your cellar as a station on the underground railroad. No, you wouldn't have stood on street corners distributing abolitionist leaflets. No, you wouldn't have helped newly freed slaves learn to read, or to gain other useful skills that would help them be financially independent. How do I know? Because you're not doing anything now.
I didn't tell her any of this, but I asked her what she thought was worth fighting for today, and she said there was nothing. 
I like studying history. It's the story of good people bringing bad things to an end. So many people talk about the present as a cart bouncing downhill, all the good old days behind it. But the world didn't end yesterday. There's still a long stretch of days ahead of us to make things right. 
Travel doesn't just get you out of the house, it gets you out of your everyday thoughts. One day at this museum halfway across the country from my home got me thinking. Thinking about freedom, families, youth, tragedy, memory, standing bold in the face of adversity, and about what I should fight for today. Any one of those topics could be enough for one post. Every young person ought to take some time to see new things and think new thoughts. So get out there! 
I've got another month ahead of me before Boring School starts up again. Let's see where I go next, 

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