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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 3-04-22 – The Horse Hitching Posts of Time

“Memory is the diary we all carry about with us.” ― Oscar Wilde

The picture here is a horse hitching post at the top of the street that I grew up on in Bethlehem,

PA. The houses in the area, including the only one I ever lived in as a kid were built in the 1940s. I was always curious about this metal post and how it got there. It is just stuck there next to a stop sign. A vestige from a prior era. I recall hearing that the land my childhood home was built on had been an apple orchard at one point. I do know that a few blocks from where I lived, the Lehigh Shopping center sits on the site of Lehigh Country Club, built in 1912 and later lost in a fire.

My first connection to the horse hitching post was in 1971. Bike riding started here. I held it to steady myself before rolling down the gentle hill in front of my house. I learned to balance with it. I also remember sitting next to it looking for four leaf clover and trying to imagine what life was like for the people who hitched horses to it. I also tried to imagine life in the other direction, and I thought about the year 2000. I envisioned it would be like the Jetsons. My concept of the whole thing was fuzzy. Just like that time and that child is to me now. Last week, I drove by the post to say hello to that six-year-old boy learning to ride a bike. Before tech, kids lived at a slower pace. I am grateful I had that slow pace.

I have not set foot in the yard of that home I grew up in down the street from that post for many years. In the late 90s, my parents sold our home. The first thing the new owners did was cut down all the trees. They cut down a tree in the back yard that I would climb to the top of to look out into the world from the highest spire that could bear my weight. The new owners also cut down a massive oak tree in the front yard. It was well over 200 years old. It was the oldest, tallest, most grand tree in the neighborhood. It was healthy and vibrant when they turned it into saw dust. Julie’s parents sold their family home around the same time. My mother died within 6 months. The truth is that valuable things that seem constant can go away in a flash. It makes me cherish the things that remain even more.

I was thinking about this earlier this week as I was reading volume one of The Things Our Fathers Saw, accounts of people who had lived through WWII. The stories are all collected from the Hudson River region of New York. In the opening of volume I, there is an account of a Pearl Harbor survivor walking through his hometown of Hudson Falls with his grandfather when he was just a boy. He recalls his grandfather, a Civil War survivor pointing at the solider monument while wiping tears out of his eyes and calling it a tribute to confederate marksmanship. The author talks about feeling the electricity of that connection to the past when he recalls that account of that Pearl Harbor survivor, or when he walks past that monument. I can feel that in places too. Places are like memory bookmarks.

At 7 years old I asked my parents at the dinner table if anyone in our lineage had done anything notable in history. It was then I learned that seven generations ago, my ancestor John Jacob Mickley a farmer here in Lehigh County got the Liberty Bell out of Philadelphia in 1777 and secreted it away from the British. It ended up being hidden in Zion Reformed Church, less than two miles from where I now live. I helped honor what he did during the Bicentennial in 1976 on the Liberty Bell trek. He risked his life. I can touch that history. It seems so relevant now as we watch average people risk death for their freedom in the Ukraine. I can think about what fighting against a superior force focused on oppressing the people must have been for my own family, my bloodline. I can see how fighting for convictions runs so deep in me.

I am grateful I can still touch this horse hitching post. I think one thing I failed to appreciate as a child is how such landmarks can go away over time. My Junior High school is rubble. The iconic office building my father worked in Martin Tower is a field now. I watched it rise out of a hole in that same year, 1971. I also watched it being imploded in 2019.

According to this article, our brains experience memories in context. We associate memory with places. When we revisit these places, those memories come back more powerfully. The theory behind this is called Contextual Binding. Every year, there are fewer such places for me as time marches forward. That is probably why so many of us who grew up in Bethlehem would love just one more visit to the Boyd Theatre, the place I saw Star Wars in 1977. It is coming down in the very near future. One fewer place that is a touchstone of connection to our pasts.

I never imagined that horse hitching post as one of the few objects of permanence I could touch from my childhood. I am grateful for it. It still looks and feels as it did in 1971. I am grateful that my early life was not spent moving around like what my mom experienced in her childhood. I am grateful for those memories of learning to ride a bike down that hill after letting go of that post. I am fortunate to have so many good memories of that time and in that place. I am grateful that touching that post can bring back so many good memories of my youth. I am grateful for the freedom my ancestors fought for me to have.

This gratitude Friday, what are you grateful for?

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