Saturday, February 22, 2014

Honor Thy Father

Happy 282nd birthday to George Washington. I think it’s fair to say the “Father of Our Country” is given short shrift nowadays. Sure, he’s still on the dollar bill, but a dollar doesn’t go very far in 2014. When it can’t buy a cup of coffee in a diner, something’s seriously amiss. He’s got a lot of things named after him as well, but then the big enchilada, Washington, D.C., is probably something he’d be embarrassed to be associated with more than two centuries after his passing.

Alas, George has lost his birthday as a national holiday, too, which once upon a time was celebrated on the third Monday in February. While growing up, I remember the family’s wall calendars plainly listing that day as “Washington’s Birthday.” Now, the generic, completely meaningless “Presidents’ Day” has hijacked the date. Washington’s annual moment to shine is no more. It’s supposed to honor the whole kit and caboodle of presidents, I guess, including all those who succeeded the G Man—everyone from Martin Van Buren to James Buchanan to Andrew Johnson to Rutherford B. Hayes to Warren G. Harding.

As I recall from grammar school, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were the big cheeses of American presidents. And February was their month. Lincoln was born on February 12th, which is a state holiday in Illinois, where he was born. And mid-winter school recesses covered both Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays—yet another reason to appreciate our first and sixteenth presidents. 

In 1972, I saw the movie 1776 at Radio City Musical Hall at Christmastime. It was a fifth-grade field trip. And while George Washington wasn’t physically present at the Continental Congress, he loomed like a colossus as the secretary read the man’s missives from the frontlines, including this one: “As I write these words, the enemy is plainly in sight beyond the river, and I begin to notice that many of us are lads under fifteen and old men, none of whom can truly be called soldiers. How it will end, only providence can direct. But dear God, what brave men I shall lose before this business ends.”

I was only ten years old when I saw 1776 for the first time, and it inspired me to read various books on Washington and Revolutionary War, including—as I glance over at my bookshelf—Washington by James Thomas Flexner, Patriarch by Richard Norton Smith, and Angel in the Whirlwind by Benson Bobrick. I suppose it’s futile to importune those who make the laws in Washington to give Washington his day back, so I won’t bother.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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