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You Are There--Well, Virtually

The best history books or programs make one feel as though he or she is not merely reading about or looking in a rearview mirror at an event but is actually there while it's happening.

A few days ago, I was reminded of that fact when, for some odd reason, the name of Dr. Ruth Stephens came to mind. A noted history professor at the University of Tennessee, Ruth Stephens brought history to life for me in upper elementary school through the black-and-white educational television program she taught and that we viewed about once a week. About the only "technology" available on the program was a map and her ever-present wooden pointer. No fancy PowerPoint slides with facts zooming in or fading out. No fast-changing stream of images. No flashy videos. Just plain ol' black-and-white television and a map. But today whenever I read or hear the name Andrew Jackson, "Old Hickory," I think of Ruth Stephens. She also made the island called Hispaniola real to me, almost romantic.

Another program our elementary classes sometimes watched was the CBS series You Are There, which reported historic events as though they were just happening.

The series had begun as a radio program that aired from July 7, 1947, to March 19, 1950, and featured 90 episodes. I don't remember the radio program, of course, because I hadn't been born when it was airing. But on February 1, 1953, the series transitioned to television and aired the final episode on October 13, 1957. It was reruns of those episodes that we watched in elementary school.

The legendary Walter Cronkite narrated the TV version of the series. He opened each episode by setting the stage, hinted at what was going to happen, and dramatically announced the date, the event, and then declared, "You are there!"

At the end, Cronkite returned to close out the episode: "What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times. All things are as they were then, except you were there!"

But those visual dramatizations of history, as exciting as they were to me, were as nothing compared to reading first-hand accounts by people who had actually experienced the featured events. Such accounts were among the earliest history books I read, and they fired my imagination.

The first such book I can recall reading was one of the titles in the Landmark Books series by Random House: Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo by Ted W. Lawson. He had been one of the pilots in the famous Doolittle Raid in the early days of World War II.

That book cursed me with an addiction to first-hand accounts of the war that I've never been able to shake. Next was Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis, a war correspondent who was imbedded with the Marines in that and other battles of the war. Following close on the heels of that book came God Is My Co-Pilot by Robert Scott, one of the pilots in the original Flying Tigers of the American Volunteer Force.

Since then, there have been many others, several of which I've read as part of the research for my own books. There was Brave Men and Here Is Your War by Ernie Pyle. A Soldier's Story by Omar Bradley. War As I Knew It by George Patton. Death Traps by Belton Cooper. And many others.

There's nothing like being there as an eyewitness to history. But since we often can't be there personally because of the impossibility of time travel, the next best thing is to read the descriptions of the events by those who were there. And the best eye-witness accounts are by authors who can enable you to be there with them virtually.

I think I'll go back and reread some of those books, this time noting how the authors did it. Maybe I'll learn something that I can apply to my own writing of history. After all, I want my readers to feel as though they are there!

What about your writing? How do you put your readers inside a historical event?

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