Friday, May 9, 2008


I know that probably the first thing my friends think when they think of me is, "Man, that guy's a super-genius." Well, thanks, friends. If you DON'T think that, you're no friend of mine.

Well, the point of this e-mail is to debunk that ever-spreading notion. It's true, I can probably kick your butt at Trivial Pursuit, or Boggle, or Blurt or Mad Gab or even Twister. I know a lot of random things, and like to tell people about it. But there is one vast area in which I have a disturbing dearth of knowledge, and that is history. I really know next to nothing about it. You may have known me for years and never caught on to this, because I am very good at evading situations in which historical knowledge might ever prove useful. I've always been embarrassed about the fact that all my knowledge of history comes from an eight grade history class I took in 1994. But why should I be ashamed? It's the public school system's fault. It's my Deadhead 11th Grade U.S. history teacher, Mr. Smith, who would stand at the front of the classroom with pit stains spreading down to his nipples, cursing us under his breath, pulling on the sides of his mad scientist hair, and frantically, stammeringly threatening, "OK, you guys, be quiet! I'm going to turn off the video! I'm going to send someone to the Student Responsibility Center!" He never did either. One kid pierced his ear in class and didn't get in trouble. Another kid once yelled out, "Mr. Smith! You're leaking milk!" Another kid was selling pot to the man right before class. But the worst we ever got was threats. And that's because we all knew the secret that Mr. Smith didn't want us to know: if he turned off the video about the history of rock music in America, he would have no idea what to do with us. We watched a video almost every day of that class. If you want to ask me about the the Grateful Dead or Phish, I'm all over it. But I only recently learned that the Civil War wasn't fought between whites and blacks. Turns out that was the Civil Rights Movement. Totally different things. You can see why I was confused, though.

So, in the American spirit of deflecting responsibility for my own shortcomings, and in keeping with the Oprah/Temptation Island/Catholic ethic that reasons that redemption comes only through disclosure, I'm officially coming out of the closet as a history dunce. Here, then, for your consideration, is an e-mail I wrote last summer to a friend who was in on my little secret, in response to her accusation that I didn't even know which World War came first. I lay myself at the mercy of your judgments.

Here's what I actually do know about the history of American wars: I do know which World War came first. I even know that Hitler and Japan and Italy were the enemy in the second one (though I have no idea who we fought against in the first one), and that both world wars were before Viet Nam and after the Civil War, which was after the Revolutionary War. I don't know when the Korean War happened in all of that, but I think it wasn't too long ago. I know there was a War of 1812, but I don't know if we were in that one, and I don't know whether that was before or after the civil war, or maybe it was just what the Europeans called our Civil War, because they seem to have had plenty of their own.

There was a Spanish-American War, and I assume that was after the Revolutionary War, but whether it was 200 years ago or 25, I have no idea. Also, I'm not quite sure whether the United States was in that war, or whether it was a war between Spain and the Americas in general, which seems to make sense. Maybe that's how Mexico and Cuba and Argentina and all the rest got free.

There was also a French and Indian War. Was it French against Indians or US against French AND Indians? I guess I'll never know. I seem to recall that it took place in Canada, back when Canada had a military.

President Eisenhower (Eisenhauer?) was a general in one of the world wars. Or a president during one? The one President from "Annie" in the wheelchair (one of the Roosevelts I think, but not Elanor) was President during WWII. I learned this from the movie "Pearl Harbor," which is based on a true story. He was portrayed by Dan Akroyd. This war ended with us dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and one other Japanese city, which I think was called Nagasaki, but that might be an electronics or motorcycle company that I'm confusing it with. I think the European-holocaust part of the war was over at this point and it was just us versus Japan. We were allies with Russia in WWII, which was led by Stalin, who came after Lennon, who defeated the Czars and killed Anastasia's family and maybe Anastasia too. I don't know if there was a war involved with all of that. I know that Stalin was a really bad guy, and I don't quite understand why we were allies with him except for the whole common enemy thing. Maybe nobody understands that.

There were some boats called the "Monitor" and the "Merimac" that were the first warships with iron sides and they played a big part in one of these wars. I think the Civil. They fought against each other. There was also an important boat called the Lusitania that was sunk by a German Uboat (like a submarine, according to Das Boot) and that made us go to war then.

The Korean War was in one of the Koreas. I would assume the North one because that's the one the news says is the bad one, but maybe it was in the south one and they're good now because we won. I don't actually know who won that war. I know M*A*S*H* took place there. I know the Viet Nam war was against the Viet Kong, who were led by someone named either Ho Chi Min or Charlie something. Maybe the city or the road was Ho Chi Min. I am VERY confused as to who was president during Viet Nam. I thought it was Kennedy, or Nixon. Maybe they both were. I don't know which of those two was president first, but I do know they ran against each other, and Kennedy won because the debates were televised and he was more handsome.

The civil war was north versus south (The south is called the confederacy and I don't know if the other one had a name like that) and it was over a state's right to secede from the union. The southerners called the northerners yankees. I think. It also seems to me that the Brits called the Americans Yankees during the Revolutionary war, but I'm basing that on the fact that Yankee Doodle was written by British people, I heard. Lincoln was president during this one, and he freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation either during or after the war. France fought on our (North's) side. The line between the north and south was called the Mason Dixon line and it's between Maryland and Pennsylvania (I had to do a state report on Maryland in 5th Grade). There was a general Lee for one side (south?) and a general Burnside who invented sideburns. Lincoln was killed after the war by a man named John Wilkes Boothe, who when he was arrested, told the sheriff or whoever that his name was "Mud." no idea what that means, but it was turned into a song by Primus in 1993 (i DID learn that in my American History class). I think the Ghettysburg address was also after the war, and Ghettysburg was a battlefield. Despite its name, the civil war was the bloodiest we Americans have ever fought. Unless you count the bad guys' casualties.

In the Revolutionary war (which either started or ended in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence) the British were called Redcoats and we were fighting against King George the something, who wanted taxation without representation in Parliament, which is like Congress only they yell at each other more. Paul Revere had to warn everybody with his lantern on a horse whether they were coming by land or sea. I think this job is what they called a minute man, because they ony had one minute to respond and send out the signal. I assume this plan eventually helped win something, or why would there be a poem about it, right? Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner while he was held captive(?) on a ship during that war.

There was a battle at the Alamo and that may or may not have been part of a war. I think it was against Indians, but maybe Mexicans, and a lot of famous people like Davie Crockett, Jim Bowie (inventor of a special knife and also a spoon in a Far Side comic), and a man named "Custer," who had his "las stand at the Alamo before he was killed (Also subject of a far Side where he has a "last sit"). We may have gone to war with Mexico, but I don't know if we did or whether it was before or after California was part of the U.S. There was that Pancho Villa guy, and I think he tried to fight us, but maybe he was just a bandito, but we don't say that anymore because it's racist. Or maybe just Fritos isn;t allowed to say that. They have a poster up for Pancho Villa in Beto's, which is a really cheap and greasy Mexican restaurant here in town. Also, there is an Otter Pop named after him.

World War one ended on November 11, 1911 at 11:11 a.m. on a boat in the pacific. This was the first war to use trench warfare, which I learned all about in a Hemingway book I had to read in 10th grade, and it sounds muddy and horrible and HELLA boring. According to Hemingway, if you live in a trench, you have to describe everything to death. Like, you can't just dig a trench. You have to grasp the handle of the five-foot pointed tipped shovel, more firmly with your left hand than your right, and place the tip of the shovel on a soft spot in the brown dirt, and then gingerly raise your right combat boot up until it came to rest upon the back of the blade of the shovel, then transfer your weight onto that foot, as the shovel sinks two and a half inches into the earth before it encounters a layer of nickel-sized rocks that make the shovel reverberate in your hands with a metallic thud. From this book, I learned that I hate war and trenches. Or else I hate Hemingway. I can't tell which it is that is so boring and overwrought. Anyway, I really probably know the least about WW1, or the Great War, as it was called before WWII.

The end. Seriously, that's all I know about war. And probably some of that isn't even right. There might have been other American Wars, but that's all I can think of. And you'll notice that I don't consider something to be history if it happened during my tenure here on Earth.

If you can afford it, send your kids to private schools.

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