perm_identity Who Was The President Then?

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 141 ~ February, 2009

I’m not sure why but I’ve always felt more like part of the pre-World War Two generation even though I was born after the Korean War, which seems to have been forgotten by many. As a kid, I liked history, which led me to primarily read biographies, and inevitably different respective Presidents would appear before my eyes. I thought of history from a personal angle, remembering events and periods through anecdotes about individuals, or really the equivalent of little mini-stories or scenes.

So, that’s my opening, which allows me to move toward the other night when I went into a local CVS Pharmacy near closing time. In fact, the only ones in the store were myself, the lone customer, and two high school kids, though I’m sure an adult supervisor was on the prowl somewhere on the premises. The kids, a male and a female, were each behind a cash register. I was summoned over to pay by the guy, who obviously was attracted to the girl, who was taller than him and seemed to like his awkward flirting.

They were talking to each other, as my sale was being tallied up, gabbing about an upcoming history exam. I asked the guy what period of history he was studying and he shrugged, lowering his head, and mumbling, “I don’t know.” The girl jumped in and said, “American history,” and I again asked which period, and the guy, in an effort to impress the girl, attempted an answer, “Well, you know, before … not like today, but in the past … sometime before, you know, current stuff.”

“The girl cut in, “I really like history,” causing the boy to frown. “We’re studying the early century,” the girl continued. “The 1900’s, no really, the 1890’s, around that period,” she elaborated.

The guy handed me my plastic bag of purchases, and I don’t know why, but taking it in my left hand, I extended my right hand to shake his, only with my index finger pointing out toward him.

“President McKinley was assassinated in 1901,” I said, adding that a guy came up to him with a bandaged hand concealing a gun and when McKinley reached out to shake hands, he was shot twice.

That got the male cashier’s attention for a moment.

“If McKinley hadn’t been assassinated, Teddy Roosevelt might never have been President,” I said. “They wanted Roosevelt as Vice President to get him out of the way.”

I didn’t bother to try and explain who “they” were and both cashiers dismissed my contention that the Vice Presidency could ever be a form of powerless exile, but it didn’t matter, the assassination story, or anecdote, grabbed their attention.

“History can be interesting,” I told the male cashier, who seemed less than convinced. “What if your teacher told you what I just did? Do you think it would be more interesting?”

Of course, I’m not a history teacher, and I know how much I don’t know, and I didn’t mention the anarchist who killed McKinley, although I knew his name was Leon, but wasn’t completely sure of the spelling of his last name, which I looked up when I got home and I turned out to be right. And I remembered that McKinley was shot in Buffalo, but I also was aware that I would have to look material up if I was going to speak about President Garfield’s assassination in 1881 with any specificity.

When I was ten, for Christmas, my parents gave me a record named “Sing a Song of Presidents” by the Serendipity Singers, I think, in which each President was presented in order with a patriotic song, no small trick, given the facts surrounding many administrations.

It was useful, though, as I played the record over and over, and learned the words to most of the songs, except for maybe FDR, which sounded like an aria from an opera. Abraham Lincoln was hailed with new words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and I remember for Warren G. Harding, the most significant line was, “He was handsome and tall with a genial smile,” which I suppose was a positive attribute when there weren’t many amidst the Teapot Dome Scandal, and many said Harding’s best move was dying at the right time.

In college, most of the courses I took were either English or history, and one year, in particular, I was in a class on the Frontier in American History, starting from about the time of the Louisianna Purchase and continuing on through Manifest Destiny and the Mexican American War, with about twelve other students. The teacher was a nice enough guy, and he knew his stuff, and though my attendance was pretty good, I suppose, I felt bad I never took the course that seriously. But I was young and had no idea what I was going to do with my future, and I engaged in practices not exactly in my own self-interest, mostly drinking more than I should have on a number of occasions.

One day in class, no one was paying much attention, and it was more blatant than usual, and the teacher, in frustration, took exception. He glared at us and challenged us, stating, “You think you’re all so smart, I bet you can’t even name the Presidents of the United States in order.”

And, so we started. The teacher said, “One,” and the 12 of us replied in unison, “George Washington.” And everyone knew the first three Presidents, and then people started dropping out. We got to seven, and three of us said, “Andrew Jackson.” Then eight, and myself and another guy, said, “Martin Van Buren.”

The big moment came when the teacher said, “nine” and was greeted with complete silence, a smug smile of victory slipping across his face. I couldn’t help it, not only did I remember the record “Sing a Song of Presidents,” but I also recalled the exact rhyme extolling the virtues of the ninth President. I can’t sing, so I didn’t try, I simply repeated the words I had heard so many times as a kid.

“One short month from inaugural day, William Henry Harrison passed away,

But Harrison knew what democracy meant, he was our ninth President.”

I think I eventually received a B in the course, but on that particular day, I forget whether the teacher was amused or wanted to kill me. I do know, it’s a good two lines by which to remember William Henry Harrison, but I suspect no one in the class did.

A few years later, after graduating college, and working as an orderly in a hospital, I was in Sabino’s bar one night in northern New Jersey, not far from the George Washington Bridge, and the bartender, Glenn, a young exiled English professor from Fordham, was asking each patron, where appropriate, a trivia question about American Presidents. I sat at the bar with my mug of beer before me, preparing to verbally pounce and win the day.

Glenn, a cheerful, bulky guy, said, “There have been three Presidents whose last name has four letters in it. Name them?”

I immediately said, “James Polk and Howard Taft.” And then I was stumped. I kept running the list of Presidents through my head, using all the associative tricks to try and get me through them in order, but no luck, this was impossible, I couldn’t come up with the third. I finally accepted defeat, ordered another beer, and prepared for the answer, genuinely curious, and also confused.

Glenn laughed. “You’re the only one who got Polk and Taft.”

“Which President did I miss?”

“Gerald Ford.” Glenn’s face brightened with hilarity. “Our current President. The one everyone else got right away.”

I should add, since then, father and son, George Bush, could be added to the four letter list, but perhaps some would prefer to forget the previous Presidency before Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President.