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- 95 Theodore Kornweibel, Jr. d Prospecting the Past I ’m a historian, and a prospector. I dig for buried veins and pan for specks of the past which, when patiently collected, yield lasting treasures. If you Walter Mitty me, I wouldn’t choose to be a heart surgeon or a rock star. Too prosaic. Amazonian explorer or astronaut? Not exciting enough. For real thrills, give me history, raw history, unexplored history, history you have to dig out, dirt-under-your-fingernails history. The zenith of my prospecting has been to uncover the black railroad heritage in all its forgotten complexity and unrecognized drama, published as Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey (2010). So if you’ve got your pick honed and pan at the ready, let’s see how real gold, not iron pyrites, can be found. Having stated my case for being a prospector-historian, I readily admit there’s no perfect job. Everyone, Bill Gates and Magic Johnson not excepted, has to suffer obnoxious coworkers, going-through-the-­ motions associates, narcissistic clients (or interns, customers, students— fill in the blank), and just plain ornery people. Everyone has Dilbert experiences . But my profession comes close to perfection. (Close, but no cigar. For thirty-six years, lacking a teaching assistant, I read every essay exam, every research paper, every plagiarized student submission. Professor ’s purgatory.) I wouldn’t trade a day of it for anything else. But first the back story, starting with a cheap shot by blaming my father. Born in Victorian England at the end of the nineteenth century , he received and passed on to his three sons the virtues of a classical education (Latin was mandatory). He wouldn’t directly answer questions that had pedagogical potential. Instead, “Let’s look it up.” Four titles were essential: a dictionary, atlas, thesaurus, and encyclopedia. In our household, it was the World Book Encyclopedia. As a “Leave It to Beaver” family, we spent evenings together in the living room, reading everything from the Los Angeles Times to Raymond Chandler to Bruce Catton to encyclopedia entries on cattle ticks and the Caucasus theodore kornweibel, jr. - 96 Mountains . Plus the Reader’s Digest monthly feature, “How to Increase Your Word Power.” Bruce Catton got me hooked on Civil War history about the age of eight or nine. We lived then in Glendora, a three-block-long main street village exactly 26.21 miles east of Los Angeles on the Pacific Electric Railway, the self-proclaimed “Largest Electric Interurban System in the World.” (Only a passion for trains equaled my new passion for the war.) I discovered Catton’s popular trilogy, reading backward beginning with A Stillness at Appomattox and then every other Civil War book on the single shelf in our one-room public library. But I had to dig deeper. The prospector in me had been conceived. Catton only scratched the surface. Specifically, I needed Douglas Southall Freeman to tell me why General Pickett’s Confederate troops charged to such fruitless, bloody deaths at Gettysburg. And Freeman’s take on why Union troops failed to simply walk into Richmond when the Petersburg crater exploded. My first Civil War book purchase was a big one, a used copy of Freeman ’s three-volume, 825-page Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command. It was a huge investment for a child on a fixed income. Somehow I found it at a used book store (sadly, no longer in existence) in downtown Los Angeles. I was only barely into my second decade so of course wasn’t yet driving, but this shop was only a block or two from Pershing Square, where father parked the Hudson Hornet, and equally close to Clifton’s Cafeteria, famous for its façade of fanciful waterfalls and forests where birthday cake was always free. The bookstore was a classic, if not classy, literary emporium. High ceilings made it seem bigger than it was, and it smelled of antiquity and musty books. Compared with our humble public library, this was a child’s treasure chest of knowledge. Several months and all three volumes later, I returned to purchase Freeman ’s four-volume, 1,150-page magisterial R. E. Lee: A Biography. These were original editions, the biography bound in red covers, Lee’s Lieutenants in black. A hefty advance on my allowance was mandated for these purchases. With these acquisitions both a Civil War library and a young historian were birthed. Ironically, I absorbed Freeman’s...


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