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A Research Surprise That Isn’t All That Surprising

As I contemplated today’s blog post last night, I realized I didn’t have any blog topics in my back pocket, waiting to be written. When you have a regular blogging practice, this happens occasionally and you’ve got to think of something fast to write about.

While Twitter is generally good for immediate blog post inspiration, what’s top of mind for me is research I’m doing at work on a guy who lived in my county and got to be famous for a discovery. I’m going to keep this purposely vague because I’m still working on the article and because I want to encourage support for my organization, the Morrison County Historical Society. If you want to know the story, become a member and you’ll get the newsletter (a real, honest-to-goodness paper one in the mail!) in which it will appear. The story will be multi-part because there’s a lot to say.

Because this guy got to be pretty famous (no, it’s not Charles Lindbergh), there were quite a number of articles written about him. Even though the articles go into some depth, there were many details missing, particularly about his family and dates for significant happenings in his life. This is not unusual in research and searching for the missing pieces is what makes research so fun.

(If you want to get away from the manufactured mysteries of conspiracy theories, I suggest digging into history and learning to analyze legitimate sources. History will keep you mentally occupied in a more wholesome way.)

As I was poking around on Ancestry.com, I noticed some military records for my research subject. Trying to leave no stone unturned, I checked them out. There were over 30 muster roll records showing where he had been stationed.

The research surprise was that he had been mustered into Naval Prison in a couple of different places. I thought, this can’t be right, so I kept digging. Maybe there were two guys with the same name. But, no, this was one guy’s records, the guy I was looking for (which I determined by enlistment day and his home location) and he was dishonorably discharged and court martialed for “BAD” character.

Wow. None of the articles that described his life leading up to his major discovery mentioned this. They did, however, go to great lengths to discuss his independent frame of mind. And this is where the research surprise feels like no real surprise.

The military doesn’t care for free thinkers, especially among the enlisted. They want people who follow orders. My research subject spent his whole life not following orders or the expectations of society. It’s no wonder his personality clashed with the military and they booted him out.

Incidentally, there were lots of other men on the dishonorable discharge muster rolls who were assessed to have “BAD” character (“BAD” being all capitalized by the military), so this guy was not alone. Being court martialed doesn’t seem to have affected his later success. Ironically, his discovery was something that was important for later military applications.

To this I want to say, “Hey, military, you might want to rethink how you treat free thinkers. Cannon, bullet, and IED fodder isn’t the only use of enlisted people’s lives.”

Yes, I know the military is more complex than that, particularly with all the technology nowadays, but this attitude of expendability continues. There doesn’t seem to be much recognition of the potential contributions of the enlisted who think outside the military’s prescribed “follow orders” regimen.

One of the benefits of being able to look back at the full sweep of someone’s life is that you get to see how they recovered after a setback. While this guy I’m researching was court martialed, which could have derailed his life, it obviously didn’t. And perhaps it gave him some of the grit he needed in making his discovery. This is part of why historians are just as interested in the negative aspects of people’s lives as the positive. It’s not about digging up gossipy details to share with others; it’s about showing how people in the past used adversity to further their dreams and goals.