Have you ever thought of what the shake of a hand means beyond the mere friendly physical connection between two human beings? When we embrace we make a connection that links us to history.
Several years ago I shook the hand of history. Through that grip flowed a connection to U.S. history back to the 19th century and before.
During a visit to South Korea, I had the opportunity to meet and shake the hand of South Korean General Paik Sun Yup, commander of the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) 1st Division during the Korean War, ROK’s Army chief of staff and chairman of the ROK chiefs of staff, and twice a recipient of ROK’s highest military award (as well as a U.S. Silver Star and four U.S. Legions of Merit). He also was the ROK ambassador to Taiwan, France and Canada, and served as the ROK Minister of Transportation. Undeniably, he’s quite a man in his own right. I was honored to meet him.
But by shaking Gen. Paik’s hand, a time machine was created. And that time machine, that human connection, linked me back in time to at least one period of history — to my American history. During the Korean War Gen. Paik shook the hand of U.S. five-star General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, commander of the United Nations’ forces during the Korean War and hero of both World Wars I and II. Gen. MacArthur shook the hand of U.S. Army Gen. John J. Pershing during World War I. Gen. Pershing shook the hand of Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman during a meeting late in Gen. Sherman’s life. And Gen. Sherman — the same general who offered a captured Savannah, Ga., during the Civil War to the president as a Christmas gift on Dec. 21, 1864 — shook the hand of President Abraham Lincoln.
Through gripping the hand of Gen. Paik, I was transported back through a human chain that connected to President Lincoln. Not only was I connected to Lincoln himself, but to his one-room log cabin where he was born in 1809.
I was reminded of this when I was in Sarasota, Fla., this past weekend. I was there visiting family in an assisted living facility. Yes, due to physical and mental limitations the residents here are assisted with bathing, room cleaning, and with their medications. But otherwise, they’re very — some fiercely — independent.
My family members in Sarasota are in their 80s. Through my connection to them I’m taken back to their younger days when not only were they fully independent change managers (as most of us are when we’re younger), but when they were international creators of change. I was taken back in my time machine to the D-Day landing on Normandy during World War II and further back to the mean streets of Brooklyn and Perth Amboy in the mid-1920s where German, Russian, Yiddish, and Hungarian words could be heard far more often than English.
Unlike international personalities like Gen. Paik whose histories are easier to trace, my own family members’ connections are hidden — more personal — but no less important. Oh, if I could only know the historical links I make when I take my family members’ hands into my own.
While riding my time machine in Sarasota, though, I was reminded of my connection with Gen. Paik and, through him, my historical link to President Lincoln. I once again shook the hand of history. I was introduced to Lionel. Born in Ottawa, Canada, Lionel recently celebrated his 102nd birthday.
Confined mostly now to a wheel chair, he stubbornly, independently, insists he move himself. He propels his wheelchair backwards, rhythmically pushing with his legs while holding up a ladies makeup mirror so he can see behind him.
Taking his hand in mine, I was propelled too, but back in time to 1912 and to the history Lionel has witnessed in his long life. New Mexico and Arizona were admitted as the 47th and 48th states in 1912. RMS Titanic sank off Newfoundland, taking 1,500 lives with her. Electric starters first appeared in cars. Boston’s Fenway Park opened. Paramount Pictures was founded. Arizona, Kansas and Wisconsin added their votes to the coming of female suffrage. The first west to east coast transcontinental flight was completed.
And then Lionel witnessed World War I. The Great Depression. World War II where, known as “Pops,” he served as a 30-year old pilot in the U.S. military. The industrial, atomic, information, and now communication ages have passed him by. Four loving wives, the last married in his 90s, have preceded him to the Great Beyond.
I wish I could, but cannot in a short meeting — if ever — know the historical connections I made by taking Lionel’s hand in my own. But I did get some great advice while in my human connections time machine with him. How to live to 102? “Don’t worry about things you can’t change,” he said.
Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.