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  • Brian Peterson

Memories (and other aspects of life you can’t touch)

I do not have, nor have I ever seen (that I recall), photos of my mother or her family before she reached 12 years of age. The reason? House fire. They lost everything.

I think of that nearly every time I see wildfires or house fires in the news. The preservation of life is the first priority for any person or family, but the avoidance of the loss of physical memories is high in importance, as well. Photos, letters, and items which are from our elders and loved ones are irreplaceable. Televisions, electronic devices, and items we think of as important can be replaced at a local store or through a website. Most people have insurance to cover such losses and, while no one wants to endure a house fire, most “things” in life are replaceable.

I recall a wildfire in San Diego County in 2003 in which a family died in their vehicle, in the middle of the street, in their own neighborhood. Fleeing neighbors last saw them loading up their vehicle with TVs and other electronic items. They died attempting to save the replaceable.

I bring this up because of the non-fiction novel I’m working on (I’m over 50,000 words into it and when finished will be approximately as long as Dead Dreams and Wager of Death). The story is about my grandfather and his brothers coming of age during the Great Depression and World War II. Two of the brothers went off to war; one came home, one did not.

While working on this true story, I have sought photos of my relatives, even the relatives I knew, so I could better describe their appearances at that time in their lives. Additionally, the photos have a way of bringing life to the characters (family members) in my mind.

I could write this story without consulting photographs, but not without the 303 letters I possess—and have read—between family members during that time period. If those letters had been lost, I would have been forced to take a different approach to the story because I would not have had enough information to proceed. The story would have had to have been largely fictional. Because of the letters, I am able to write a true story.

People take photos for granted—so much so that many do not bother to print out their pictures: they leave them on their smart phones. Given all my research over the years for this book, I shudder at the thought of my family not possessing and passing down printed photographs, and I’m doubly troubled at the thought of them writing emails and texts but not letters. Three generations from now, how much will your family know about you?

Thanks to the letters, I know, for example, the date my uncles spent a day together while they were training for the war. Through research, I could take that date and find the weather in the city they were in, and I could even tell you the headlines for that city’s newspaper. Imagine if those letters had been lost in a fire… or were sent via text when they told their mother about their afternoon strolling through the city, chatting.

Future historians will not have a difficult time writing biographies of presidents or other leaders frequently in the news; but, they will struggle with the day-to-day lives of “ordinary” Americans and others not in the news on a daily basis. It will be as though the house of the historian’s subject burned down and everything was lost.

Whether it’s a wildfire or an individual house that burns, large fires consume everything, irrespective of the items contained therein. I just hope people leave enough evidence behind so they can be celebrated or understood by their descendants.

We’re okay if they skip 2020, though. Few people wish to be reminded of this year. Stay safe and healthy.

* * *

During this whacky, strange time, I trust you have found and will continue to find time to read. Remember to leave a review online for every book you read, especially for indie authors—reviews are quite helpful.

Brian W. Peterson

Somewhere on the edge of the Great Plains

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