I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately. I’m sick at heart watching Earth dying before our eyes. There’s a political cartoon showing climate activist Greta Thunberg dressed as Joan of Arc, her hand resting on a polar bear cub’s head. I’d like to get a giant poster of it and put it where I can see it every day. To give me courage.

Meanwhile, we have a president who has allegedly sought help from foreign powers to dig up dirt on a political opponent. This does not shock me, with this president. I despair more over the Republicans in Congress who blindly defend him, and those of my fellow Americans who apparently don’t understand or care about the gravity of his actions.

But luckily, I have found a distraction. History has always provided solace for me. Faced with minor medical procedures, I tell myself to buck up. I am not a Union soldier facing amputation of my leg without anesthesia.

My mental forays into the past aren’t always so grim. So it was last week. As a school librarian in Augusta, I sometimes go digging around in old yearbooks to find information for people doing genealogical research. Cony High School has an archive, a locked room containing yearbooks, Chizzle Wizzle memorabilia and other items.

I was searching for a woman who had graduated in the mid-1950s. When I flicked through the yearbook for 1956, the year of my birth, I felt an odd sense of déjà vu. Perhaps I was thinking of a photo of my mother holding me. She wore a full skirt, penny loafers and bobby socks, a woman of her times.

A young man with an impish look caught my eye. Sure enough, the caption said he liked to nap in class. The favorite saying of another young woman was “I’ll clue you.” Huh. I looked that up later, and, sure enough, it was common slang in the mid-20th century. I like it. I may start using it.

I noticed, while in the archive, that it needed tidying. There were some old computer cords in a drawer that we’d never use again. Perhaps we could find another home for a large set of DVD “jewel boxes.”

The cleanup was the perfect job for one of our student assistants. Really. Once he started moving things out, he found treasures.

One was a scrapbook of sorts that recorded the home-front efforts of Cony students during World War II. There were photos, for example, of the results of a scrap metal drive.

Students also sent copies of their school magazine, “The Cue,” to alumni in the armed forces. A handwritten letter from one of them was attached to a page in the scrapbook.

Harold was stationed in an Army Air Force training station in North Carolina. He had a subscription to the KJ (yes, that’s what he called it) and had seen photos of the “Chizzle Wizzle Fair” (as it was named at the time). He was disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to see the show that year, but Mother would send him a program, and that would “be next best to seeing the show.”

As I read this poignant letter aloud to my student, I think we realized at the same time that we had no idea whether this young man survived the war. I had to find out, and thought that I could. After all, using the genealogical tools available through the Digital Maine Library (a collection of free, online databases available to Maine residents through our state government), I’d found the draft registration records of my paternal grandfather and his two brothers. They’d only arrived in Massachusetts from Brazil a few years earlier, but they were ready to fight in World War I.

Indeed, I was able to verify that Harold came home. I hope to piece together more information about him in the coming weeks. His letter is a snapshot of life in another time; one that was scary and tumultuous, too. I don’t know how my maternal grandmother made it through her days back then. She had four sons serving in the Army and Navy, in combat zones.

My search for a girl who had been at Cony a decade after Harold was not successful. I was disappointed that I was going to have to report this to the man who was looking to fill in his family tree. Then I turned a page in the yearbook and saw a familiar face. I knew one of the mystery girl’s classmates! Maybe he remembered her. Maybe I’d have something to share after all.

Today and yesterday collided. I’ll clue you this — it was hard to drag myself out of the 1950s and back into the mess we’re in now.

Then our student assistant showed me his latest find: A souvenir collection of small replicas of China’s famous terra cotta warriors. The originals date to the third century BCE. More history to soothe the soul.


Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at [email protected].

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