scholars and rogues

History lessons

by Terry Hargrove
I love history, and I want my son to love it too. But I’m not a historian, so the parts of history I love talking about the most are the parts I know nothing about. Because I can just make it up as I go along. What Fox does for the present, I do for the past. Some of my friends view this as heresy, but I say I’m continuing an American tradition. A lot of the history you think you know is wrong. Besides, by filling in the boring parts with a little imagination, I can give our nation’s past a new vitality. And let’s be honest, parts of American history are boring. Quick, name something that happened in 1871? Drawing a blank? I’m here to help.When Joey was 2, I pushed his stroller all over the battlefield at Gettysburg. I told him how the Assyrians came down upon the Union left flank, but Chamberlain, with the assistance of a handful of pirates, held his ground. Out of gratitude, President Lincoln made Chamberlain a Lord who later formed a troupe of Shakespearean actors. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men first toured the country in 1871. Eventually, my lecture was ended by three park rangers who made us get off the grass and forced me to sign a statement saying I would never again talk of that battle. I scribbled my signature reluctantly, and pointed out that Robert E. Lee gave his life in defense of freedom of speech.When Joey was 3, I took him to the Liberty Bell. OK, it wasn’t really the Liberty Bell, it was a Taco Bell, but the stories I told him about how Ben Franklin forged the bell with a magic ring and his lighting-powered kite really made an impression. Up here in the Northeast, history is everywhere. So when I told Joey we were going to see the Statue of Liberty, he could hardly sleep.

“Is it the same Statue of Liberty that fought Godzilla?” he asked.

“Of course it is,” I said. “There’s only one.”

“Please stop filling his head with that nonsense,” asked my wife. “Joey, honey, the Statue of Liberty is a statue. It never fought anybody. It can’t move.”

“Mommy doesn’t like history,” I said after she left the room. “The Statue of Liberty does move. You’ll see.”

And so on June 22, the Hargroves boarded the train and went to New York City, hailed a taxi to Battery Park, and took the ferry to the statue. It was quite an adventure. The sky was a brilliant blue, and the clouds flew like banners across the sweeping New York City skyline. Joey was amazed at the size of the statue.

“Wow,” he exclaimed. “It’s so big! Look at the Statue of Liberty, daddy. It’s so big!”

“Yes it is, son.”

“Godzilla must be really big, too,” said Joey.

“Godzilla? Did he say Godzilla?” asked our guide. “What have you been telling him?”

“Umm… hey, look at that,“ I said. “The way the clouds are moving, it looks like the Statue of Liberty is walking.”

And it did. We stood at the back entrance to the statue, and as the clouds flew overhead, it gave the illusion that she was moving. It was spectacular.

But Nature can be easily misunderstood. Once we were on the pedestal 154 feet above the ground, Joey began to scream. He didn’t think the Statue of Liberty was moving, he thought it was falling.

“I want to go down! I want to go down, I want to go down!” he screamed as he tried to claw his way through me and a dozen park rangers. I have since learned that the torch in the Statue of Liberty‘s hand actually moves up to 5 inches on a windy day. Joey was somehow aware of this. The ability to sense the movement of tall structures must be a super power he was born with, but I can‘t see any practical application for it. He didn‘t breathe normally until we were safely on Ellis Island.

The whole event was so traumatic, I decided Joey needed more history, so yesterday we packed a picnic and headed north to Boston. My wife and I have a list of things we want to see in the area before we leave, and the Old North Church is at the top.

“Now this is important to me,” said my wife. “I’ve always wanted to see North Boston and Old Ironsides.”

“I thought Raymond Burr was dead,” I said. “He died after his duel with Alexander Hamilton. Burr wanted to put animals on American currency.”

“Not Ironside! Old Ironsides, the ship. You know, the U.S.S. Constitution. And it was Aaron Burr who shot Hamilton. You should know that.”

I guess I should have known that. But hey, I know it now. As we approached the old North Church, I told Joey what I knew about it and Paul Revere’s Ride.

“Joey, Paul Revere had lots of babies. 10 or 15 I think. And he had to let the settlers know if the British were coming, so he decided the best signal was a diaper. A soiled diaper. You know, number one if by land, number two if by sea.”

I could actually feel my wife staring into the back of my head.


“I don’t know why I even let you talk to Joey,” she said. “Joey, Paul Revere hung lanterns in the window. One lantern if the British were coming by land, and two if they were coming by sea. Longfellow wrote a poem about it and it explains the whole thing. Listen to the presentation, and that nice girl will tell you the truth.”

And she did. As it happened, we were both wrong. Paul Revere didn’t hang any diapers or lanterns at all. That job was done by Mr. Robert Newman, who was almost hanged himself for his efforts.

“Well,” signed my wife as we left the church. “I didn‘t know that. I guess we all learned something today.”

“We certainly did,” I replied. “I learned that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow loved history, just as much as I do.”

7 replies »

  1. I admire your creativity. And if we as a nation are going to be so damned Orwellian about rewriting the present, I see no reason why we shouldn’t have some fun with the past. The sooner the better.

    Maybe we need an American Idol-type show for historians, now that I think about it….

  2. To my mind, one of the things that recommends being a parent is answering questions like “Why is the sky blue?” any damned way you want. I’d approach history the same way. And when said, fictitious child questioned my outlandish stories i’d fall back on the way my parents handled these situations, “Look it up.” Then we could discuss whatever the matter was truthfully (if i know the answer), and hopefully the child would learn not to take anything on authority…even parental authority.

    But as far as i’m concerned, The Statue of Liberty did fight Godzilla…least that’s how i heard it.

  3. In Longfellow’s defense, Newman doesn’t rhyme with “hear.”

    My father’s answers were rarely as creative, but similar in nature. My dad, though, borrowed most of his material from the immortal Bill Waterson. See below for an example.

  4. “I don’t know why I even let you talk to Joey,” she said.

    Great piece. When she appears, your wife is my favorite character.

  5. This was a hoot, Terry.

    Of course, history is basically just one big fiction, anyway, so why not make up your own?