“What do you know for sure?” the old man would always ask me after letting me in and giving me a cup of coffee.
“Not much,” I’d answer.
“Neither do I.”
I was a twenty-year-old field supervisor for a private security company and Ernie was a guard. We worked the third shift and had many late night conversations. Ernie was in his sixties and spoke with a Tennessee drawl. He had been raised down south but left home early and wandered around early 20th century America. He always carving something between rounds and he’d push out little chips of pine while telling me stories. He’d worked with stone for a while helping Gutzon Borglum carve Mount Rushmore but pine was easier, he said. He went to Europe afterward and fought in the Spanish Civil War. Not knowing much then about what that war was about, I didn’t even think to ask what side he took, but I suspect now he fought with the Republicans. That was the side of anarchists, socialists, and communists.
Ernie was a young man then. As Winston Churchill is reputed to have said: “If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart. If you're not a conservative at forty, you have no brain.” That old man had a brain when I knew him.
During WWII he served as a crew member on an American bomber that was shot down over the North Sea. Rescued by Germans, he was a POW until the end of the war. Ernie was ethnic German and spoke the language and his captors treated him fairly well, but they did a lot of tests on him because they wanted to learn how he survived in frigid water longer than their own airmen were able to. Later, he took home a German war bride.
At the time, I was moving leftward in my own politics while Nixon was finishing his first term. Ernie was patient with me and listened to my utopian ideas about how the how the world should be run. He would ask questions, which now I realize were efforts to help me examine my ideas more deeply. He’d say sometimes that the more he learned, the less he knew and that’s why he asked so many questions. His was an interesting history and it left him with at least two things I found attractive: a sense of humor, and humility.
Of all the history I’ve learned, there’s not a lot I can be sure of because it’s written by human beings. Primary sources like Ernie are best, but imperfect. Things we see with our own eyes can be subjectively interpreted based on our preconceived ideas about how the world works. While I do believe objective truth exists, we humans never perceive it flawlessly. We should strive to, but be constantly aware that we always fall short.
Still, it’s helpful to read as many imperfect history books as we can. Biography is good because it’s one human writing about another, which produces a more objective account than autobiography. Others see our qualities and faults more realistically than we do.
Last week President Obama met with Pope Francis in Rome. I’m not sure who else was in the room while they talked, but at least two vastly different versions emerged about what they discussed. The Vatican issued a statement saying they focused “on questions of particular relevance for the [Catholic] Church in [the United States] such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life, and conscientious objection,” a clear reference to the schism between the US Catholics and the Obamacare mandate that employers provide abortion-inducing drugs and contraception. A lawsuit against the Obama Administration being argued before the US Supreme Court as the two men met.
When asked at a press conference after their meeting, however, President Obama said: “We didn’t actually talk a whole lot about social schisms in my conversations with His Holiness,” and Francis “actually did not touch in detail” on the mandate.
Interpretations of historical events by third parties are even more subjective. One of those accounts has much more credibility to me than the other, for example. Let’s just say I tend to agree with the Tweeter who described it as a meeting between “the pope and the dope.”
How will history record their meeting? Several historians will write it up, and each account will vary according to the individual historian’s imperfect understanding of how the world works.
What is the truth about what happened in that room? Only God knows for sure.
Labels: History, Obama, politics, Pope Francis, truth, war