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Biting the ankles of history: Max learns about George Washington, and is bedeviled by children

Sunday was family day at the Minnesota History Center, which is not a day I would ordinarily be too keen on. Parents, bless their hearts, are forever looking for things to bring their children to, and children, bless their hearts, are forever scheming ways to irritate me. The less sophisticated ones will simply run under my legs, or sneeze on me, or start making some sort of deranged fire alarm sound next to me while hopping in place, turning their faces red, and releasing a torrent of alligator tears. More sophisticated children will explore subtler techniques of irritation, such as following behind me and asking me questions. "Where are your kids? Do you have any kids? Why don't you have kids? Aren't you married? Why aren't you married? Don't you like kids? Why don't you like kids?"

George Washington and horse rendered in wax
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
George Washington and horse rendered in wax

But my natural disinclination toward children wars against my natural inclination toward the stuff children get to do. For adults, visiting a museum is often a pretty straightforward undertaking. We go, we look at things, we read descriptions, sometimes we listen to a lecture, and we return home, edified into unconsciousness. Children, in the meanwhile, get to have fun.

So it was off to the History Museum Sunday to learn about George Washington. While most historical figures labor in obscurity, Washington suffered the opposite fate, and, in colonial America, that meant that people liked to make up stories about him. You probably all know the cherry-tree story and the silver-dollar story and the cannot-tell-a-lie story, somehow — these stories trickle into our collective consciousness in the way all questionable facts do, which I assume is through AM talk radio. Maybe they're true — as Wikipedia points out, "there is nothing implausible or fantastic about a boy confessing to have damaged a tree with his new hatchet." But these stories are unverifiable, and many come from a fellow named Parson Weems, who, to put it politely, isn't held in wide esteem as a biographer. Instead, they seem to emerge from a desire to tell tall tales about our Founding Fathers, an impulse that continues today.

The George Washington exhibit seeks, as it must, to rescue Washington from the clutches of our overactive imagination, although it is, as it must be, abbreviated. Even without exaggeration, he lived a big life, playing a defining role in not one but two of the wars that shaped this nation  (the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War), serving two terms as America's first president, becoming extraordinarily wealthy (The Atlantic recently estimated his personal wealth, in modern terms, to be more than a half billion dollars), and made it to 67 before he was felled by a combination of throat infection and the overeager administrations of his physicians (detailed, in rather ghastly detail, online).

How to fit that all into a few rooms? You can't, and so you instead represent various periods of his life and hope people will continue to educate themselves afterward and hopefully steer clear of talk radio. So we have a case that shows Masonic items that Washingtom may or may not have used, and we have a grisly diorama of the Battle of Fort Necessity, where Washington was captured during the French and Indian War. There are muskets and pistols, which are always crowd-pleasers, and China from the White House, and books from Washington's library. And there is an entire section dedicated to Washington's dental problems, which were legion.

Max learns how to be a town crier from John Neitz
Photo by Coco Mault
Max learns how to be a town crier from John Neitz

Washington was quite concerned with his dental health — he was a great one for tongue scrapers and toothbrushes and dental powders. But dental technology wasn't what it would eventually be, and so his treatments for toothaches included treatment with mercurous chloride and rather primitive extractions, both of which can do more harm to dental health than good. So it was that our first president suffered a lifetime of dental pain and eventually lost all his teeth, and was fitted with dentures that resembled devices of torture. There is one on hand at the exhibit, which drew considerable interest. There is also a lock of Washington's hair, which makes him the third president whose locks of hair I have seen, behind Andrew Jackson and John F. Kennedy. Oh, and I have seen Clinton and Obama live. So I have seen the hair of about 10 percent of all the presidents we have ever had. That's a surprising thing to realize.

There is also quite a bit about Washington's home, Mount Vernon, and three life-sized wax statues of Washington, which are a pleasure to see — I sometimes fear the American interest in was museums to be waning, and am happy to see they still have their place. I was also happy to discover that Washington was a whisky distiller, and had quite a lot of success with it. I drink a lot of whisky, and now may feel like a patriot for doing so.

And then it was on to the various activities the History Center had to offer, all announced by a town crier, who is Minneapolis' actual town crier, a friendly man named John Neitz, who has had the position since 2004. I asked him how you go about getting such a job, and he answered that you just ask your city council if you can do it. "They'll ask if it costs anything," he said, "and once they find out it doesn't, they'll give you the job." Alas, my city council is the Minneapolis City Council, and I do not wish to contest Nietz for the position (which, if I understand the city charter right, involves longswords in a deep pit.) Perhaps there is some other job that no longer exists that I can claim for myself. Perhaps corporate tax collector.

I participated in two activities, and enjoyed both very much. Firstly, thanks to a group called Dance Revels Moving History, I learned how to dance at a Colonial ball, or cotillion, or box social, or whatever the hell they had. Mostly this seemed to involve  trotting like a pony in a long line, and then bowing to people on either side of you, and then walking around them, and then having your date flutter her fan over her heart, or, alternately, if she didn't like you, twirl the fan with disgust. Then a woman, who I believe to have been Jane Peck, the founder of the group, went into a series of exquisite twirls as a fiddle and cello played "Follies of Spain," and the children looked on with unexpected interest, briefly abandoning their plot to irritate me.

Max and an army of ankle-biters
Photo by Coco Mault
Max and an army of ankle-biters

I also learned a series of military drills, which involved standing at attention with a fake wooden musket at my side as a man in Revolutionary military guard barked orders to move the musket to my left shoulder, now present it, now mime filling it with powder and adding a musket ball, now aim, now pretend to fire by shouting "bang." I had dozens of children to my left in what can only be described as a very loose formation, and they were sloppy at the drill, I must say, never managing to face left with the prop snap when commanded, and letting loose with an imaginary volley of imaginary musket balls without remembering to close their imaginary frizzen to protect the imaginary powder, which would have been disastrous in an actual imaginary skirmish. They all fumbled at this so badly that I think it is safe to assume they had all met beforehand to discuss doing so, knowing how terrifically annoying I would find it.

The faux Revolutionary officer seemed sanguine about the whole pitiful state of affairs, but it threw my humors out of sort, and I didn't return to my usual good mood until hours afterward, when I had been cut and bled, cupped, and had mustard powder rubbed all over my chest, causing all the irritating impurities to flow out. It seems like drastic efforts, but my usual balm, whisky, wasn't working.

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Comments (2)

Max - Please consider a move to Robbinsdale. There are many things to like about our small, friendly little town - great food, a charming downtown, you may even be able to find a neighborhood with very few ankle biters. While the bars may not pour the perfect drink (yet), many have a very enthusiastic hand.

I am certain we do not have a town crier. I will be happy to help guide you through the bureaucratic hurdles to make it a reality!

Bring it, Sparber! Bells and scrolls at twenty paces! Have your second meet with mine to arrange a suitable time for the duel.

Oh, by the way, please "like" me on Facebook: