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Tobias, We Hardly Knew Ye
More on Tobias Lear
Chaucer was right. When the sweet breath of April arrives, the sap flows -- and I mean big time. The whole bagel shop seemed to ooze liquid life. We were all ready to pop like tulips in a microwave. Good Lord Almighty, it was spring at last.
So it went. On the surface, just a couple dozen people eating circular bread, but inside you could tell they were all rumbling, ready to go Pompeii. Six months of cold New England weather has a way of doing that. Throw in a sharp ocean breeze, the last gasp of Hale-Bopp -- and stand back. It was a good feeling.
Like any hard-core Yankee, I get nervous when I'm happy. There's something not to be trusted about a smile. It can lead to open grinning, loss of composure, false hope and invite the inevitable crush of returning reality. Life is, after all, a veil of tears, and yet despite myself, I was practically buoyant, just sitting there sipping Earl Gray and passionately smearing my fresh baked bagel with Very Berry cream cheese spread. Dammit, I was happy.
This must be how Tobias Lear felt, I thought, when George Washington appointed him secretary at Mount Vernon. Here was Lear, just a kid from Portsmouth, selected to work at a 10,000 acre farm in Virginia for practically the most famous man in what was practically America. Tobias must have been downright giddy. Poor boy. If only he had known.
Lear is in my thoughts too much lately. His life rattles around in my brain like a bad tune from a musical comedy -- "The Checkered Career of Tobias Lear." The title comes from local historian Ray Brighton. It is the only book ever written about Lear. Without it, and a few character attacks in a novel by Kenneth Roberts, Lear would have achieved anonymity. Poor guy, all he wanted was fame, and wealth, and happiness. But Lear couldn't win for losing. That's why I like him so much.
Here are a few curves from the roller coaster life of Portsmouth's native son of the Revolution:
Now is that a story or is that a story? The man is part hero, part Gump, part Rosemary Woods, part Whitewater agent. While drunks like Paul Revere get inaccurate epic poems written about them, poor Tobias seems to hover half in and half out of the history books. His letters, some nicely written, are archived at the University of Michigan. His birthplace in town is open to the public just one day each year.
Can you hear the musical comedy now? It's a classic waiting to be written, something in the vein of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." Still Tobias had his fans. The Washingtons mostly loved him, trusted him, depended on him. George and Tobias toured the country together, the giant 6' 3' 210 pound president cut quite a figure on horseback. Here was a man as close to a god as America has turned out, and beside him, a smaller, lesser man, who did what he was told -- mostly -- and did it well. Yes, Tobias must have been practically giddy when he got that job with George.
The scene snaps back now to the bagel restaurant where Don Briand of WTSN is announcing snow squalls and a precipitous drop in temperature. The bagel crowd snickers -- no way. The sun is blazing. The sap is flowing. Good Lord Almighty, it's spring again.
Then the first flakes. They blow sideways up the street like imitation snow in a cheap movie. They pick up speed and multiply. Wait a minute, people say, and the New England weather will change on you. Tobias knew that in the worst way. Suddenly the sky is crazy. It's thick and dark one way, bright but cold the other, all visible through stinging hard flung pellets of ice. There is only one rational thing to do.
In five minutes of brisk walking I'm nearly there. At the Children's Museum past Strawbery Banke Museum I take a sharp left. Hunking Street is still so narrow that a tall man walking down the middle can practically touch the houses on both sites at the same time. It leads toward the water not far from Prescott Park and the little bridge to Pierce Island. George was here in 1789. John Langdon, a relative of Tobias, told Washington that this spot might make a nice US naval shipyard.
From his old bedroom on Hunking Street Tobias could catch a glimpse of the fading shipyard today, the country's oldest. I can see the top of the defunct Naval Prison from the Lear's front yard. I can see Geno's Coffee Shop, a bit of the first bridge to New Castle, the edge of Pickering Marine, a few lobster boats bobbing in the harsh tide.
In one short walk the wind has turned my face to cold leather. The street in front of the Tobias Lear House is all torn up. The city is putting in granite edging. Leaning against the white fence, I look into the back yard wondering if it was a day like this in October 1816 when Tobias Lear took his son's pistol into the garden behind his Washington DC house.
I'm wondering, like he might have wondered, what it is that makes one imperfect man a giant success and another a big failure. I get this funny desire to shout out across the snowy garden "We love you , man," like the kid in the beer commercial. For us, it's just another Tobias Lear-kind of day in Portsmouth. For him, I guess, it was just one Tobias Lear day too many.
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