Living Memory

A slightly off topic entry this time around, on how I’ve come to see Living Memory, as Living History, and my seeming fascination with capturing such memory so as to avoid losing these everyday unspoken aspects of our history.

The “fine grain” which is so often overlooked, but all the same, it is this intertwining grain, which holds everything together.

I was recently reminded of one of the main reasons why this easily lost grain is so high in my mind. A historical context movie brought to mind one of my early boyhood memories. A serious first grade bout with Scarlet Fever. Though, it is not being ill which is the vivid memory, but a post recovery reaction to me. I was both confused and stung a bit. By doors slammed in my face, (this was a different time, a world when six year olds could still roam the neighborhood) meetings were called demanding my removal from school, despite a doctors all clear, and an all around months long shunning.

My confusion was based in how children dieing was not a part of my reality, or a world I understood. It was only years later, that I came to know, just how recently (at that time) childhood mortality had been beaten. Most of the mothers of then young children in that neighborhood, had been born in the thirties or before, if it had not touched their lives, it had touched someone they knew. It was a part of their living memory, and Scarlet Fever had been a vicious taker of children.

I don’t believe any similar reaction would happen today, such memory is now faded. It is sometimes said “It is not natural, we are not supposed to bury our children” And this is so, here in the first world, for the past seventy or so years. But for most of time, it was simply part of the human condition.

When I think of those former childhood mortality rates, The Bridgewright I admire most, Nichols Powers, always comes to mind. Only one of he and his wife Loriett’s five children grew to adulthood, and outlived them. Knowing the demands of long and distant bridgework related travel, I can almost feel the painful tinge of regret he surly felt, over every missed day of each of his lost children’s lives.

Another reason living memory stays on my horizon, is the allied trades I practice. Timberframing & Bridgewrighting. Both were briefly lost, and in the fifty years which slipped by with few or no practitioners, vast amounts of information (everyday information so seemingly mundane that few thought to describe it in written words) slipped beneath the visible surface.

I’ve been practicing both now long enough, to have borne witness to a slow reawakening. In the last quarter century, much has been deduced, through both research, and with careful observation and a growing understanding of historic example. Some of the reawakening however is attributable to nick of time talk. Folks simply asking the right older folks, what they knew, what they remembered.

It is under realized, but this too, is part of the grain, the interwoven threads that bind the fabric which is our living history. The threads which tie us to those we follow, and in turn, bind us, to those who will carry on from here. There are holes in that fabric, but there are those of us who are always patching those holes, even as we continue to weave the same, ever unending ribbon.

And back again to bridges, as a team member a few years back, in the restoration of the Cilleyville, I was fortunate to also bear witness to how an oral folklore, not written down till long after the the bridges construction, proved to have more than a grain of truth to it. This revealed for me the power and the viability of the genuine information, the living memory, sometimes to be found in folklore.

The Bridgewright for The Cilleyville, a Town Lattice bridge, was Print Atwood, it appeared to lean upon completion. He seems to have blamed his help, Al Emerson and Charles Wilson, claimed they did it with full intention, because they were angry with him…

In truth it doesn’t so much lean, it simply has inconsistencies. The two trusses Top Chords vary slightly in length and height, even the raking angles of the last few lattice vary from side to side. The east truss does differ from the west. It added some extra challenge to re-trimming the north Portal, part of several job challenges to deal with real problems, yet stay true to the original.

North Portal in snowfall

It is possible, there might be some truth to the anger issue, Print may have peeled off for an overdue visit home, and left the boys the “boring” and physically demanding job of boring hundreds of large diameter trunnel holes in the layup of the multiple lamina in the second truss. It might just have been the blame game, either way it doesn’t shine so well on ‘ole Print. In irony (always these things hold some hidden irony) Al and Charles were probably less than happy to have been scapegoated, and to have had the finger pointed at them. Had that not happened, their names would likely have long since faded from known history.

Such everyday things, as the names of carpenters, are among those many things which almost always slip below the surface, to those places where light seldom shines.

Here’s to ya boys.


About Will Truax

I'm a timberframer and preservation carpenter, and regularly work on Covered Bridge restoration projects. Bridgewrighting can be a tough row to hoe, for a myriad of reasons. From scheduling issues to differing opinions and philosophies on what is appropriate in methods and materials, to multiple jurisdictions still not sufficiently vetting bidders resumes - Which is to say, just because a company is on that state approved list and capable of building that seven figure overpass, this does not mean they are capable of restoring a wooden bridge... So, I have much to say about all this and more - And despite my tough row observation, I promise not to whine. View all posts by Will Truax

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