"Today is Columbus Day," M announced on our morning walk.
"What's Columbus Day?" I asked. To which he replied:
"In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus didn't know what to do.
He turned a flip, caught a ship,
And sailed the ocean blue."
"Thanks, M, " I said. "You cleared that right up."
He gave me one of his oh-I-keep-forgetting-you're-a-dog looks. "Christopher Columbus," he explained, "was the guy who discovered America."
"What's 'fourteen hundred ninety-two' got to do with it?"
"Hello-o! That was the year he did it. The poem is what we call a mnemonic device, something we used to say when I was a kid in school, to help us remember 1492."
"You needed a rhyme as long as my tail to remember a little four-digit number? Sounds like overkill. Besides, what if you accidentally started it with 'In nineteen hundred forty-two' or 'In eighteen hundred ninety-two'? The thing isn't exactly bulletproof."
"Okay," he admitted. "Everyone could remember the year. We recited the poem because it sounded cool."
"So you lied to me," I said. "But that's beside the point. You never answered my question. Read my big ol' lips: What is Columbus Day?"
"It's the day he landed in the New World."
"He landed today? But you said--"
"Of course not! It was on this date in 1492. We just celebrate the anniversary each year."
That M is such an easy mark.
"Let me make sure I've got this right," I continued, "so I don't need to memorize a special poem or anything. Columbus actually landed on October 11, 1492?"
My man looked a bit disturbed. "Well, actually it was October the 12th, but we celebrate it now on the second Monday of October. That way we always get a three-day weekend--or at least about ten percent of the workforce does. The second Monday happens to be on the 11th this year."
The mention of official three-day weekends rang a faint bell. "Like that Memorial Day thingy you told me about last May? And George Birthington's Wash Day in February?"
"Exactly," he replied. But his face told me something was still bothering him.
"M, are there any other liberties our government has taken with the truth?" I asked. "About Columbus Day, I mean."
"Um--well, if you want to split hairs--Columbus landed on the 12th under the old Julian calendar that was in effect in 1492. If we use the modern Gregorian calendar, which took effect in 1752, the real date is the 21st."
"And what year did the U.S. government take effect?"
"That would be 1776."
"So it's always operated with the Gregorian calendar?"
"Pretty much. Except for stuff like this."
"Incredible," I said. "Is there anything our political leaders are unwilling or unable to mess up?"
"I'll let you know if I find something," he said.
When we got home I asked him where, exactly, Columbus landed in 1492. He got a big map of the Western Hemisphere and showed me a little hangy-downy thing at the bottom of what he told me was the United States. "This is the State of Florida," he said. "Where we live."
"He landed right here in Florida? How exciting!"
"No, his first landing was out here to the east a little bit, on one of these islands, which he named San Salvador." He pointed to some specks that looked like spilled cat food but that were labeled "The Bahamas."
"Sweet," I said, trying to bury the pinch of disappointment. "Why did he call it San Salvador? Was he Spanish?"
"No--Italian. But his trip was financed by Spain."
"What did Columbus find at San Salvador?"
"Just a bunch of plants and trees that he'd never seen before--and some dark-skinned people that he called Indians, because he thought he'd found a western route to India."
My head was starting to spin. "So he was an Italian sailing for Spain who thought he was in India. Where else did he go besides San Salvador?"
"On this first trip--he later made some others--he visited what are now Cuba and the Dominican Republic."
"Where he found . . . ?"
"More exotic plants . . . and more Indians."
This whole "discovering America" thing was starting to smell like a dead mackerel. "Wouldn't you say that the Indians probably discovered America first?"
"That's fair," he replied. "I should have said that Columbus was the first European to discover America--though there's even some controversy about that." I raised an eyebrow as he continued his wild little story: "There's pretty good evidence that an Icelandic Viking named Lief Ericson actually made it to the North American coast up here in Canada"--he pointed again to the map--"a number of years before Columbus began his voyages."
"Oh? How many years before?"
"About 500." He changed the subject by showing me on the map that the capital of Ohio was named for Columbus and that there's a big Army post near the city of Columbus, Georgia.
"Did Columbus ever get to Georgia or Ohio?" I asked.
"Not so far as I know."
We did some quick Googling and made an interesting discovery of our own: In three subsequent voyages to the New World, Columbus made it to several other Caribbean islands, much of Central America, and a spot or two along the northern coast of South America. But he never once set foot on the North American mainland, let alone what is now the United States of America.
"You know what I think?" I said. "I think this whole Columbus Day thing in the U.S.A. is an overplayed hand. We oughta call it 'Indians Day.'"
Just before this went to press, I found that others share my conclusion. Two states and several localities on the U.S. mainland don't recognize Columbus Day, but instead celebrate what is variously called "Native American Day" or "Indigenous People's Day." And in Hawaii, in place of Columbus Day they have "Discoverers' Day," which celebrates the discovery and settlement of the Islands by Polynesians.
Happy [fill in your choice] Day, everybody!
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