Pine Valley Central School history teacher William Pylypciw made a promise that, when he was to retire, he would gather his students and open a rather innocuous-looking tin labeled “Civil Defense All Purpose Survival Cracker.”
Purchased at a garage sale about a decade ago for a quarter, the sealed tin was dated November 1962, just a month after the Cuban Missile Crisis when the country was at a peak of Cold War paranoia. If the Russians decided to nuke your peacefully patriotic suburbia, these crackers were offered by the government for your bunker-dining pleasure. Really; it was serious business: dozens of these tins were discovered in 2006, hidden within an emergency cache in the Brooklyn Bridge. Most remained intact.
The teacher’s tin looked in great shape as well and, following a brief reminder of the item’s historical surroundings, they began to cut into the top with a crank-operated can opener. A couple minutes — and some supporting stabs with a multi-purpose tool — later, the tin yielded its wax paper-wrapped contents.
There was no ghostly sigh of escaping air or cloud of ancient dust, but the musty, almost metallic odor of the crackers substantially screamed “We are old!” and kept some onlookers away. They still looked non-lethal, however, and the chance to literally taste history was enough for those either curious or foolish enough to venture a try.
Unfortunately, journalists are often both curious and foolish. It didn’t help that Superintendent Peter Morgante, the first guinea pig, has a poker face that could fool even himself if he looked in the mirror.
Trying to ignore the smell was insufficient, as the crackers tasted only a smidge better than their aroma warned. But to say I wasn’t tasting history would certainly be a lie, for as this unholy communion wafer died upon my taste buds, I could distinctly identify the decades-stewed flavors of fear, regret and Joe McCarthy’s gym socks. Somehow, the crackers still managed to break with a crisp snap; like the faint echo of Death’s finely-honed scythe severing the cord that binds you to this mortal coil.
Others among the initiates shared similar reviews.
“It’s like rotten cheese and cardboard,” student Kyle Ortel said. He later concluded, “I think I’d rather just die than survive on these.”
It may appear to be end-of-year tomfoolery on the surface, but Pylypciw, who began teaching at Pine Valley in 1982, has always favored elements of exploration and involvement in his classroom, which has more often than not doubled as an informal historical exhibit. That involvement has not only been reserved for the past but for the new history that unfolds each day. Classes lucky enough to hit on a presidential year (mine included) will remember late-night election parties, but discussion of current events was an important part of broadening views beyond the isolating aspects of small-community life.
“If you can just get them interested in something that comes on the news — that they want to talk about Obama or talk about the oil spill — they’re interested in something beyond themselves,” Pylypciw said.
Upon retiring at the end of the school year, Pylypciw plans to move east to the Finger Lakes region, but then travel west to visit friends and family around September — give him something to do when the next school year begins, he says.
It’s doubtful, however, that Pylypciw will ever stray too far from his love of history or trying to cultivate that spark in others. He has hopes that it will become an easier battle for teachers in the future.
“I would hope to see the day the state would get rid of standardized testing and allow us to teach history more for the pleasure of it,” he said, “so the kids would actually learn to enjoy it instead of learn for the tests.”
The “survival crackers” can’t be filed under the enjoyable part of history education, but I doubt anyone who tasted them that day will forget those retched flatbreads or the Cold War implications that created them. It’s a vital lesson that might just save the world someday: those who do not learn from history may be doomed to re-eat it.