My dad and I just finished our multi-week project of watching Centennial, the 1970s miniseries covering the history of a fictional Colorado town. Lasting over 26 hours, the movie follows the lives of people who influenced the area and help found the town. Native Americans. Trappers. Mountain men. Pioneers. Farmers. Cowboys. The list goes on and on. All of the people you can think of from the history of the West are represented.
As we watched Centennial, several ideas swept through my mind. First was the fact that this was a well-made movie, and, although it was based on a work of fiction, accurately portrayed the history of the West better than just about any movie I have seen. It showed the lives of ordinary people and the complexities they faced. After all, they were living in a hard land that was taken from someone else.
Once my mind wrapped itself around the quality of the movie, the storyline began to remind me why I chose history as a profession. In the final episode, a historian shows up to research the town for an article. When he arrives in the village of 2,000 people, he wonders why he has been given the assignment of writing about a town he had never heard of with founders who only the locals remembered. Then, he began to hear the stories of the characters that we had been watching.
I suppose that I am not making sense, but the historian discovered that the little town of Centennial had an interesting history of regular people living regular lives. That’s what history is really about. Sometimes, we get caught up in the deeds of famous people and forget that history is made by everyone.
My next thought – actually, feeling – was a sense of sadness that hit me on several levels. Centennial takes the viewer through several generations of families, which means we are watching their lives and their deaths. We see them starting life with youthful exuberance and ending it after triumphs and tragedies. History isn’t just about the lives of people but also about their deaths.
As I watched the lives of these characters pass before my eyes, I also realized that my dad, like the older men in the movie, has already lived the majority of his life. He is the rock of our family and has accomplished more than I could ever imagine. Yet, he is getting more feeble as time passes, and there will be a time when he will pass away. Then, it will truly be up to my brother and me to carry on the beliefs and ideals of our family.
My dad and I have done a lot of things together. He took me to my first University of Tennessee football game when I was 6, and we have been going ever since. It’s just that he doesn’t make it to as many games as he used to. Together, we have traveled through all 50 states because he wanted me to see historic sites and natural wonders. I saw that watching this movie is another thing that we could do together. As we watched, he would have me pause it to tell him the real history of what the movie was portraying.
As the last episode ended, I was sad because a movie that I enjoyed and invested in had come to an end. I was sad because this experience with my dad had come to an end, and I fear the time when I will not be able to have more experiences with him. I was sad because the movie reminded me something that I had forgotten as I teach about people in the pages of history books. As a line in Centennial says, “Only the rocks live forever.”