The Past Is Always With Us
“He’s afraid of losing you. He keeps looking over his shoulder,” the old man explained as he looked toward my six-year-old grandson, Alex, who’d been pedaling furiously in front of me. The old man’s battered cap visor shaded intelligent eyes surrounded by wrinkles. “Pearl Harbor 1941” was sewn in gold thread above the worn visor.
“You were at Pearl Harbor?” I asked.
|Alex at his great-grandfather's funeral last December|
Arlington National Cemetery
“Yes,” he answered.
“You must be in your nineties now.”
Turning to Alex, I asked, “Do you know what happened at Pearl Harbor?”
He shrugged, so I explained that the largest war in history began for the United States when the Japanese attacked the US Navy there back in 1941, ten years before I was born. “This man was there when it happened.”
Suddenly shy, Alex only stared at the old man with wide eyes. The old man’s eyes silently conveyed that he understood how Alex was feeling and seemed grateful for our attention during our short interaction.
|Tankers offload at dusk in South Portland Maine|
The bicycle trail we’d been riding on was laid out along the Portland Pipeline right-of-way that stretched from where we stood straddling our bikes all the way to Montreal, Canada. There was a huge, ocean-going tanker tied up about three hundred yards from where we were talking as it offloaded crude oil from some other part of the world. Behind us were huge, cylindrical tanks that stored the oil until it could be pumped northwest to refineries in Montreal.
attacking Canadian shipping in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Canada needed a more secure method of delivering crude oil to Montreal refineries.
|Portland Pipeline Pier at sunrise last month|
As we pedaled back toward our South Portland house through what had been sprawling shipyards, I recalled reading the thousands of interviews I assigned my students to do over the decades I taught history. I’d send students out each year to interview someone over seventy years old. Most interviewed grandmothers and great-grandmothers, many of whom were women who had worked at the South Portland shipyard. On that windy Saturday afternoon though, huge kites flew over large expanses of green grass overlooking Casco Bay on what had been an enormous industrial site. I imagined being there seventy years before. Our bikes glided over old railroad tracks, barely poking up through asphalt here and there, remains of what had been.
|Moonset over Portland from Bug Light Park last week|
History teachers know the past is always with us, especially retired ones like me. Driving back toward our Lovell house in the western Maine mountains, my wife and I pass by other sections of the Portland Pipeline’s 236-mile route to Montreal. Images of men digging it went through my mind along with images of women whose lives were being transformed by their experiences doing what had been exclusively men’s work in the huge shipyard where the pipeline began. Most of them were underground now, like the pipeline, like the old man would be fairly soon, like all of us will be sooner or later.
Today, however, sun is shining. Let’s see what the day brings.