For all time

Columnist : Albert Paschall

As Pennsylvanians approach March 4th undoubtedly most of the state will reflect on the importance of our history.  So much of what America is grew out of the Keystone State.  And yet so much of our past isn’t what it appears to be.  We look at history like Jimmy Stewart sitting in that wheel chair in Alfred Hithcock’s classic “Rear Window.”  History is what we think happened and imagine what might have happened if it weren’t for some accidents in time.
“Don’t give up the ship!” Commodore Oliver Perry’s battle cry in the victory on Lake Erie in 1813 is recognized as one of the cherished traditions of the United States Navy, except Perry never actually said them, at least in battle.  They were the dying words of Captain James Lawrence in command of the USS Chesapeake defeated by the British at sea off of Boston in June 1813.  Perry so admired the motto that he had it sewn on to his battle flag on the USS Lawrence.  Perry had to take it with him when he gave up the sinking Lawrence to transfer his command to the Niagara.  It was the only way to win the battle that destroyed British Naval Power on the upper Great Lakes in the war of 1812.  Yet traditionally the words are attributed to Perry and probably will be for all time.
The bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil that left over 54,000 dead and wounded was supposed to be fought in Maryland.  Confederate soldiers attempting to encircle Baltimore to close the harbor sent a squad north to forage for food in the countryside.   The battle began when Union Troops heading south, accidentally spotted the patrol at a farm close to the Pennsylvania/Maryland border.  The fighting in July 1863 changed the tide of the Civil War putting tiny Gettysburg boro in the history books and the tourist maps for all time.
Now 188 years after Perry’s boat sank and 138 years after the Confederate Army left  Pennsylvania, those historic places and others like them will be the object of another battle and politically it may be just as bloody.  Governor Ridge has announced plans to spend $100 million over the next 4 years on the state’s museums and historic sites.
For most of us “for all time” is a closed concept.  Obviously our species can only view the past from a fixed point – the present.  Like Jimmy Stewart in that wheel chair watching the apartments around him, so much of what we see in history is in the shadows, leaving our imaginations or other people’s interpretations to sort it all out for us.  However imagination costing $100 million is difficult to explain when school kids need textbooks and senior citizens all over the state can’t afford prescription medicines.
Until we get it all back.  National travel surveys show that right after shopping, historical sites are the second biggest tourist attractions
in the United States.  The tourism industry pays more than a half million Pennsylvanians more than $10.6 billion a year.  Last year more than 114 million travelers brought $26 billion into the state.
Still many will argue that the Ridge Administration is throwing $100 million right out the window.  Opponents claim that corporate sponsorship of historic sites; more philanthropic funding and higher admission prices are the future of funding preservation.  But if our historic places are forced to bow to the competitive pressures that are historically a natural part of private sector competition who will be the masters of our history?  No mystery there: whoever is paying for it.
March 4th will mark the 320TH anniversary of the date when William Penn received Pennsylvania’s charter from King James II.  Around that time Penn wrote: “He has now had some time he could call his own, a property he was never so much master of before…taken a view of himself and his world where he has hit and missed the mark.  And what might have been done?”
History is full of the question of what might have been done.  It is the lessons of what hit and what missed the mark.  Whether it’s Washington at Valley Forge, Perry at Lake Erie or the Commonwealth’s tribute to one of its favorite sons: The Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, Pennsylvania historic places let us look back through the window of history allowing us to judge the perspective of the problems in our time against another.  A perspective only the past can give us..
Taken in the long view of Pennsylvania’s 320 years Ridge’s historic preservation spending plan amounts to about $850 a day.  Undoubtedly there are other fiscal priorities but they are transient and will, given time, work their own way out.  But if we fail to intervene to preserve the touchstones to our past we will have missed the mark and they will be gone for all time.  Daring us to be judged by Penn’s most serious challenge: “what might have been done?”