Dubious hero memorialized nationwide

Monday October 8, 2012


Columbus of Genoa and Jesus of Nazareth are the only non-Americans who get a national holiday in this country. Thanksgiving honors the Pilgrims, but we don't call it Pilgrim Day. Its nickname is Turkey Day.

In any case, it was Oct. 12, 1492, when Christoforo Colombo bumped into the Americas on his way to prove that one could reach the tantalizing east by going west -- the world being round, said he. We were taught that he had to face down the naysayers -- who believed the world to be flat, but today's wiser stance is that plenty of educated folks back then didn't think you could fall off the edge of the planet.

It's an idea to be reviewed, however, when you sit on a beach and look out there across the water and see a straight line that seems to have an edge about it and then watch the sun appear to drop slowly over that edge.

Columbus is an odd hero. When he landed in the Caribbean, he enslaved the natives, caused the death of hundreds of them and forced them to work in his gold mines. Still, we celebrate him on whatever Monday the commercial powers-that-be decide is the best one. In this part of the world, everyone seems certain that on the Columbus weekend, the fall foliage will reach its fiery peak in a blaze of red, orange and yellow. Mother Nature, of course, trots along with her own band.

Beyond the day, the nation has celebrated Columbus over and over with the name game. In school we sang -- Columbia is the Gem of the Ocean -- and the teacher explained that the title referred to America and to Columbus. Towns, cities, counties, the nation's capital, rivers and colleges bear his name. The list is nowhere near as long as that for places and things named for Ronald Reagan, but lots of things were smaller when the name game was focused on Columbus. And when the less palatable aspects of his life and career, no one ran around erasing his name, as we are wont to do today when someone falls into disgrace.


Like Columbus, we had an overall plan last March but unexpectedly found ourselves in a southern town called Columbia, another of his namesakes. After wondering if the GPS had failed us completely, we realized this place could not be in South Carolina. It was in North Carolina, a down-to-earth town with a short main street, a traffic light or two, a rustic restaurant with a swinging bar next door (at lunch time) and a visitors center.

About a thousand people live there. By politicians' standards, they are not middle class. The Bureau of the Census in 2000 put their median income in the $20,000 range, although it's thought to be a whole lot better than that now. They are in crow-flying range of the Outer Banks and just a few miles up the road from a town called Gum Neck.

We had come from Lake Mattamuskeet, a 10,000-acre body of water near the coast of North Carolina and a place where, in winter, they say you can see more waterfowl than you'll ever see in one place again. We were there out of season and had to settle for the bald eagle that circled low in front of our car when we were parked on a dirt road inside the refuge.

What amazed us was the sheer size of that body of water, apparent when we drove across it on a causeway.

It's only four feet deep, they told us, which made me wonder why there isn't one of those huge American athletic events there, with hundreds of people walking across the lake. Perhaps it's quicksand.

It's possible that Columbia, N. C., isn't as low-key as it looks.

The restaurant table displayed three bottles of Dixie Girl Swamp Sauce, made right there in town. A little dab'll do ya.

Ruth Bass, a former Sunday editor of The Eagle, lives in Richmond.


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