Connections in History : Episode 1
Is history really more than a class in school to pass notes about crushes? I never thought so. One of my biggest and earliest complaints was the rehashing of content each year. We never explored recent history. Topics that may have held our attention and that we could relate to.
Photo by: James LaMantia, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
National History Day and Easy A's
That changed a bit in my junior year of high school. I was introduced to National History Day. Their motto is "It's more than a day, it's an Experience." For me, this proved to be true. NHD changed my entire view of history, and in a way, it changed my life.
Getting there wasn't easy, and my participation was far from noble. As I remember it, and this is going back aways, I only did it to avoid doing other work. If we participated at the local level, our teacher would give us an A at the end of the semester. We also wouldn't need to take the final.
I saw this as an opportunity to get out of a lot of homework. Also, pass some more notes about high school crushes! I decided to write a song about a significant historical event that we never covered in school; the Vietnam War and POWs.
I thought I was a rebel. I figured the judges would laugh me out of our town's regional event. Even disqualify me before I played a single note. It didn't matter. My participation was enough for my A. But then I began to have an After School Special moment.
After School Specials
Image form Wikipedia
After School Specials were made for TV movies. They appealed to teens and were broadcast after school. They often tackled socially-relevant or controversial issues. In most cases, problems were resolved as the second to last commercial break arrived.
The moral of the story is revealed, and all would be right in the world. The shows were often predictable and rarely seemed to mirror real life. But we were kids growing up without TikTok or even the Internet, so we watched.
However, one movie was particularly compelling, The Wave. In it, a teacher creates an experiment. Showing his students how the German people came to accept the actions of the Nazi Party during World War II. The study pits students against one another. Only the teacher knows the truth. I won't ruin it here, but it can still be found on YouTube.
With the intensity of The Wave and that Easy-A on my mind, I set about writing a song. One that would "burn down the Establishment" and the Bourgeoisie. Albeit from the point of view of a know-it-all 16-year old who was five years old when the Vietnam War ended. Also, I didn't know how to spell or what Bourgeoisie meant!
On the day of the event, many of the other entrants wore costumes. I did not. My teacher suggested during rehearsals that I turn down the distortion on my guitar. I did not. In fact, I added more. As I type this, I can almost remember how the tune went. I know that I partially stole it from a DOKKEN song. Yes, I was that cool.
As I entered the room, I still thought the judges would stop me. They definitely did a double-take as my guitar fed back a little when I plugged in. I began picking out the notes of my Dokeen based "It's Not Love" turned Vietnam War protest song. My tiny little Fender Champ Amp echoed through the hallways. I closed my eyes. I sang. I made noise, and I waited to get thrown out.
But then my After School Special moment happened. I won in my local division. Then again, at the state competition. Before I knew it, instead of less work, I had more. Several other winning classmates, boys, and girls were piled into the back of a rented van. Our history teacher drove us from Connecticut to Maryland for the National Finals.
Under a Blood Red Sky at the University of Maryland
Photo by: Bgervais, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The National History Day annual finals take place at the University of Maryland. The home of the terrapins. Yep, they have a turtle for a mascot! I loved everything about the campus. Not the least of which was their underground bowling alleys in the Student Union. Entrants were all lodged in dorms.
As a bit of personal history, my dad was a UMD student for a few months. Within a single semester, they suggested he might be better suited elsewhere. Apparently, "failure to achieve a GPA registering above zero to the left of the decimal point" is frowned upon.
I loved everything about the events leading up to the competition. There was intense energy. We even had a day off at an amusement park. The park had made a make your own rock video booth. It included terrible green-screen effects, instruments, and costumes.
We dressed up, posed, and lipped synch through Ratt's "Lay It Down." I may have stolen some of my song from Ratt as well. Or Dokken and Ratt were swapping riffs like many 80s Hair Metal Bands? We managed to convince our history teacher to join us on drums. A moment I'll never forget, thanks to the epic proof on a VHS tape that I keep in a vault.
The experience had me considering attending college for the first time. I even bought a t-shirt with a turtle on it, But I suspected they'd never let me in based on my dad's history.
In our dorm at night, we'd eat food from the cafeteria and listen to music. A girl in our dorm kept playing an album from some newer band called U2. The album was Under a Blood Red Sky. Recorded on June 5, 1983, in Morrison, Colorado, at Red Rocks Amphitheater. She played one song over and over — track one, side two, Sunday Bloody Sunday.
It opens with an Irish accented 23-year-old lead singer named Bono. Before the music begins, he states, "this is not a rebel song." This immediately cues the audience into knowing, "oh yeah, this is so going to be a rebel song!"
The drums come in like thunder. Sparse guitar arpeggios from The Edge followed. Then Bono returns to wail out the first verse with earnest. Captivated, I wanted to capture the sound for my History Day song. I later learned it was a performance from
Years later, I would call Colorado home and see dozens of shows at this legendary location. But in 1986, I was more worried about not vomiting during my debut at National History Day. I went back to my room and reworked a second song that I would be performing.
I had scribbled out new lyrics on the drive down to Maryland. My first song was enough to get me to the competition. But my teacher felt at Nationals I needed a second song and a costume. I wanted to win, so I agreed.
In my room, I set about incorporating the powerful sounds that I heard on the cassette. Bob Dylan said, and U2 singer Bono would later quote, "all I need is a guitar, three chords, and the truth." At that moment, I believed it was enough. Sure, I wasn't a rebel rock band from Ireland. But I had a guitar, I knew three chords, and I felt I was singing about something truthful.
National History Day National Finals
The next day I was still working on the song, up until minutes before my performance. My grandfather was going to be in attendance. He was a decorated World War II Veteran. A mountain of a man who boxed in the ARMY. I was more afraid of his presence than any of the judges.
When my time to perform came, I was nervous. My uniform/costume, acquired at a second-hand store, poorly fit. Still, I did pretty well playing through my first song. Then came the time for my second. I would be switching to my acoustic guitar—less distortion. I'd be playing chords and fingerings that I had only learned the night before.
I played the intro. I was ready for my After School Special moment. I imagined the headline, "Tough Guy wanna be kid wins national history day division with rock song!" I was stepping from a dream into my spotlight! Get through the song, the credits would roll, and I would be a hero.
Too nervous to start singing over such a sparse sound, I played the chords through a second time. The words in front of me scrawled on chicken wing stained notebook paper. I prepared to sing the first verse but hesitated, missing my entrance.
I played through the intro a third time. Sensing people shuffling in their seats, I started to sweat. I made eye contact with my grandfather. His steely eyes did nothing for my confidence. As the third repeat came to a close, I began singing. My voice cracked. After that, everything is a blur.
Well, not everything. I remember forgetting almost every word. My eyes were unable to see them written in front of me. I stopped singing. Then strummed as quietly as possible. My fingers attempt to arpeggiate the chords. Instead, they tripped over themselves and the strings. Then I just stopped and slinked off stage.
Afterward, my grandfather said, "good job." Then he excused himself to drive home before the announcement of the results. I knew he was just polite. We both knew I wouldn't be winning any awards.
My After School Special Moment did not happen. Or perhaps it did. Just not how I envisioned it. I went to Maryland to win. But in hindsight, I wasn't meant to win. My lesson was to take part and persevere in the face of failure and humiliation.
My showing up introduced me to U2. I got to make a rock video with my history teacher. A seed that, years later, would inspire a move to Colorado was planted. Since I have attended dozens of shows at Red Rocks. I owe it all to that night at the University of Maryland.
Even after feeling humiliated, I fell in love with history. Appreciating the life that exists within it. It wasn't something relegated to books. I was at National History Day, not merely to remember history, but to make it.
That week is a moment in My History that I will never forget, even after over 30 years! Less critical now, but more so then, I got my A in history class! I knew if I didn't, I'd have that video of my history teacher playing drums to use as leverage. Although that wouldn't have worked because he loved the invitation to join us.
One of my favorite hobbies is comparing things that happened on the same date in different years. In future episodes of Connections in History, I will look back at moments in time. The goal is to find strange and unexpected connections between different events.
Today, I had intended to link — Disney's acquisition of Pixar, the introduction of Canned Beer, and German General Friedrich Paulus, of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad, asking Adolf Hitler permission to surrender. Alas, that will have to be history for the future.