If we believe that studying the past will help us find meaning for our present then we must generate the will to respect those things we discover or uncover as we toil in the fields of yesterday. My decision to travel to Saipan grew out of respect and love for my father, who fought there in 1944. So I began my quest with a clear sense of obligation. As I prepared for the trip in 2005 my father sent me off with a simple wish. ” I hope you find what you are looking for.” At that moment, I confess, I did not know what I was looking for in that distant place. Moreover, in June of 2005 distance was a force of space, but it would soon become a force of time.
Landing on Saipan was substantially easier for me than it had been for my father. I did not have to wade several hundred yards in chest-deep water because the landing craft could not cross the reef separating the Philippine Sea from Laguna Garapan. The Japanese I encountered by the dozens were friendly and cheerful with no desire to drive me back into the sea. I slept in a fine bed; not on the sand. The rainy season was remarkably dry compared to its 1944 ancestor. Clearly my experience on Saipan would be separated from my father’s by time. On July 1, 2005, I began to wrestle with distance as a force of time, as the space had been conquered.
Wrestling with the forces of time is the stock in trade of historians. We strive to walk the edge between “thinking in time” and “thinking out of time” so that our conclusions generate meaning without doing violence to the people and events of the past. How well we walk the edge determines the quality of our contributions to the world’s historical vision. Saipan taught me that walking the edge is much more difficult than I had imagined. Time might generate a vast distance between my father’s experience and mine, but time also eliminated distance between me and my father. Fifty-four years of familial intimacy with my dad had generated a bond that made bridging the sixty-one years of space since he had walked on Saipan very difficult. Emotions soon clouded the walk-way between “in and out of time”.
Saipan is actually the summit of an underground mountain that rests on the floor of the Marianas Trench. Approximately twelve miles long by five and one-half miles wide it is a collection of hills, ravines, cliffs, and one 1560 foot high mountain. Driving and walking the landscape mirrored my thoughts and emotions–highs followed by lows. The up and down journey led me to an answer to the original question. What was I looking for?
My students might have been able to expedite finding the answer because I had been violating Byrd’s First Law of studying history. “Never overlook the obvious.” After numerous treks to the summit of Mount Tapochau , I found, like Luke Skywalker who entered the cave, I was looking for myself. As with most historical discoveries the realization that I was chasing autobiography emerged from putting many small fragments of evidence together.
The environment was a major piece of the puzzle. At 7:00 AM Saipan is bright, bathed in cool breezes, and straight from a travel agent’s brochure describing paradise. At 9:30 AM someone flips the switch and the island is nothing but a large microwave with instant heat. Growing up on the Gulf Coast of Florida the sun and heat brought a familiarity to my days during the two-week visit. Everything was green and bright like the world of northwest Florida. Salt air and fire-filled vibrating sunsets resonated deep in the well of personal experience.
The visual evidence of a time and set of experiences that I could barely imagine constituted another shard of the evidence. Standing on Tapochau and attempting to visualize the Hades of Death Valley sixty-one years earlier was an emotionally charged exercise I repeated four or five times in two weeks. How did my father survive? Why was I here?
Driving the island with the government historian took us to one of the many caves the Japanese Army constructed or enhanced as they prepared their defenses in anticipation of the American invasion. In one cave the pick marks left by forced Korean labor are still clearly visible in the walls and on the ceiling. Scratched reminders leaving hard evidence that the pain was not confined to soldiers.
During one of my soujourns at the summit overlooking Death Valley I met a Korean family on vacation. No doubt their trek to the top was an after thought to their vacation in one of the island’s resorts. They knew nothing of the battle which had raged around the mountain during a long-passed July. After I answered a few questions about the historical marker which briefly describes the view something nudged me to have the little girl write her name in both Korean and English in my journal. In retrospect this may have been a moment when my experience began to coalesce.
Out of time and years afterward I look back at the experiences which form a pile of evidence about my trip and realize that the environment, the attempts to understand the past, the confrontation of a variety of physical evidence, and the encounter with a family whose link to the island was quite different from mine constitute a mosaic. The mosaic is a flash image answer to the question of “What am I looking for?” Who and what am I?
Studying the past can lead us to find portals into realms of self-awareness and understanding because the evidence is often surprising and outside our control. Our search for a meaningful past often leads to revelatory experiences in the present which illuminate the true nature of our search. A chance encounter with a little Korean girl on mountain far from the Florida Gulf Coast has shed new light on why I study the past. I have little faith in my ability to move my autobiography and self-awareness beyond T.S. Elliot’s “heap of broken images”, but my understanding of the past, and why I study it is becoming more complex and nuanced.