A (cheap) date with history

It’s official: I am now the Most Annoying Middle-Aged Man in Vermont.
It all began innocently enough about two years ago when I was paying for gas at a convenience store. The young clerk handed me the credit card receipt and said, “$18.65.”
And I murmured to him, “Rough year for Mrs. Lincoln.”
And he asked, “A friend of yours?”
He was completely serious. Hadn’t the slightest idea what momentous events had occurred in 1865. He was probably 17 or 18 years old. And so I told him precisely why it was a rough year for Mrs. Lincoln, trying not to lecture him, but no doubt growing more animated than was appropriate at a Mobil mini-mart about three minutes before it closed for the night.
Ever since then, whenever I have purchased anything and the salesperson has been a young adult and the cost has been a year of some historical significance — 1620, for example, or 1776 or 1963 — I have used the transaction as a (gulp) teaching moment.
I try not to. But I am unstoppable. It’s become an addiction.
I do this, I imagine, because on some level I am a despicable know-it-all who can recall the year when John Winthrop died (1649). Sure, I can no longer remember what I had for breakfast most days by lunchtime, but I can tell you the year the Etch-a-Sketch was invented (1959).
But I also do it because I have come to the conclusion that dates matter.
Young adults often disagree. One time at a multigenerational gathering of family and friends, we debated why it’s important to know precisely when the First and Second World Wars occurred.
“Look,” a teenage boy said, “I know the First World War came before the Second. That’s why it’s called World War I. But who cares about the exact dates?”
I thought his grandmother was going to have a stroke. The young man was a sophomore in high school. If I needed any proof at all that I have morphed into something scary and old, I found myself agreeing completely his grandmother.
“Which came first?” I asked him. “The Beatles or Watergate?”
I might just as well have asked him to give me the chronology of the Peloponnesian War. (Just for the record, even I don’t know the dates of the Peloponnesian War or who the Peloponnesians were. There are limits.) The sophomore, who is an extremely smart kid and gets good grades, wouldn’t even venture a guess.
Last month I saw the revival of “Les Miserables” on Broadway, and I have two principal memories. First, the woman to my left did not stop sobbing throughout the show, and “Les Miserables” is a very long show. Very. Long. At one point I had to restrain myself from telling the woman, “This isn’t real. They’re actors up there — honest. For all we know, the barricades are made of Styrofoam.” Second, despite the fact that huge dates are projected onto a screen during the show — 1815, 1823 and 1832 — I am pretty sure that half the audience thought the musical was about the French Revolution, including, yes, the human watering can to my left. Twice she mumbled through her tears that any moment a guillotine would be rolled onto the stage. The French Revolution, of course, occurred between 1789 and 1799. “Les Miserables?” Different century. No guillotine.
Dates matter for the simple reason that they help us to understand cause and effect. Time is linear, and so is history. Everything makes a lot more sense if you recognize the order.
Consequently, for two years now I have been on my own little mission to teach a date — and some history — whenever I can. At the gas station. The pizza parlor. The bakery.
What will be the result of this undertaking? Someday, I am confident, someone is going to slug me for being the Most Annoying Middle-Aged Man in Vermont.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on January 21, 2007.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

3 thoughts on “A (cheap) date with history

  1. Sue L says:

    OK i relate, because Im also Middle Age .. wait im more than that ….i know what i have for breakfast for the simple reason i have the same darn thing everyday… OATMEAL!!! That comes with Middle age too .. I could never remember dates of History But ask me my grandkids BDAYS im there! The fact that you are way too smart Chris !! Is the problem.. Keep writing it will releve the pressure hahaha.. Oh and Keep me happy .. patience is a vitrue SIGH Double Bind !!!

  2. Historical Date Ninny says:

    Oh dear. (Gulp – I’d miss most of those significant dates, save for the Beatles). I’m middle-aged, myself, so what’s my excuse? Rank stupidity? (Okay, I’ll take it! Anything not to have to remember dates)!! But your points are well taken. As for Les Mis., all I can say is that I was, myself, perfectly miserable from start to finish when I saw it. It IS long. And all that singing. (Surely people did not sing so much back then – especially when they were about to die)? Sadly, I also thought it took place during the French Revolution (which took place in the…..1700s)??? Anyway, I hope I don’t sound proud of my ignorance. It’s more of a sad defense of it. Keep up your good work, though. I hereby annoint you: Captain History!

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