Packing for the March to Quebec
Okay, which one of you is spreading the nasty rumor that I'm some sort of local "historian"? I mean, OUCH already. Can't a writer pen a couple hundred articles on a topic without getting branded? Real historians are grumpy dessicated people in rumpled suits who shuffle through dusty archives shushing people. I'm not like that; I have a life, sort of. Well, if the guy who cuts my hair can call himself a "hair designer," then I'm holding out for "history stylist."
To prove this writer is living full-throttle in the present tense, I proposed a trip to Canada and my companion Ann accepted. Other than a few college binges in Montreal and a long night at the slots on the Scotia Prince, I'm clueless about Canada. She speaks high school French, so we opted for Quebec. They say it's like a little piece of Europe, but without all that ocean in between.
"Marchin' off to Quebec, ay?" the guy in the camera shop said.
"That's a fact," I replied proudly, placing three yolk-yellow Kodak disposable camera boxes on the counter.
"Bring plenty a' rations," he warned. "It's a long canoe ride."
Being a local historian, I smiled like I was in on the joke he was having by himself, and wandered through town getting all that stuff you never need on long car rides.
I asked Tom at Congress Street News if he knew what the guy at the camera shop was talking about.
"Ya, there's a book, a classic," he said, scratching himself. "You know, the one -- about the guy?"
"Sure, that book! " I said. "Hey, give me about ten bucks worth of car candy and some French magazines."
I asked the owner of the video store if he know what Tom at the news shop meant, and he handed me a tape.
"Northwest Passage?" I asked.
"It's from the book, the one by that guy, " he said. I stared a bit too blankly.
"Kenneth Roberts. I think it's about that famous march to Quebec. But you tell me, you're the history dude."
This particular history dude has lived a long life without ever cracking the spine of a Kenneth Roberts historical novel. But on video, I'll read anything.
Darned if the movie didn't open smack in the middle of Portsmouth, NH. It looked a lot like a Hollywood stage set, but it had to be Portsmouth because the characters had names like Landgon and Hunking and Wentworth. It's the year 1759, and there's a scurvy Walter Brennan (alias Grampa McCoy) drunk in the stocks in Market Square. He hooks up with a youthful Robert Young (alias Marcus Welby) and they're tricked into joining up with Indian-fighter Robert Rogers, played by Spencer Tracey.
Now I may be dumb, but I've at least heard of Roger's Rangers. I know Rogers married a woman from Portsmouth and was a cross between Davy Crockett and Gen. George Patton. He drilled a bunch of backwoods soldiers into a Yankee commando squad that fought for the British in the French and the Indian War. His almost ridiculous courage in the face of impossible odds, made him the perfect pre-W.W.II role model in this 1940 film.
So, you're saying, what about Quebec? And that's exactly what I asked the video store guy after I'd watched the movie through. This flick was about a long deadly march to New York.
"You want Arundel," said a young multi-pierced woman who was poking through the video store selection at the time.
"A whattal?" I asked.
"It's also by Kenneth Roberts," she said reaching for a new-release video and exposing a nifty tattoo. "It's the story of Benedict Arnold's famous march to Quebec."
"Oh, that Arundel!" I nodded sagely, but the video store owner was wagging his head at me. No movie version, he said without speaking.
We were down to the final packing when Ann discovered the big brown paper bag -- cameras (check), candy (check) ... wait a minute! When exactly, she wanted to know, did I plan to use my laptop computer on a three-day romantic get-a-way-from-local-history trip? Fresh from a binge on the internet, I tried to dazzle her with my newfound knowledge.
Did she know that George Washington wanted to make Quebec the 14th original colony? Did she know that Benedict Arnold started out as an incredible American military hero? That he went right by Seacoast, New Hampshire picking up nearly 1,200 men for a surprise attack on the British at Quebec? That half died horribly on the march -- drowned, starved, diseased? That Henry Dearborn from Seacoast NH made the whole trek, and the soldiers ate his dog? That Arnold got his knee blown off in Quebec? That his crazy scheme came darn close to succeeding? That he ...
She knew it all, she said without words, but how?
"Didn't you read Arundel in high school?" Ann asked incredulously. "I though your were Mr. History?"
"I was sick that year," I countered.
In truth, I zoned out most of my history classes, pretty much from Plymouth Rock to the Moon landing, with a little more on either end. Back then, I thought history was all about dates, distances, demographics, and dollars. History was numbers, numbers were math. I was a word person. So, like Roberts and Arnold, I plodded through countless hours of calculation and came up with a big zero. Eventually Arnold snapped and sold out to the British. Rogers, who slaughtered Americans to save America, was turned out by British and revolutionaries alike. And I couldn't even get this column past the Portsmouth Traffic Circle. Failures all.
The truth is, every word I know about local history is right here on this web site. So tell your neighbors: Mr. History is a just a charlatan, a traitor. Still this web site is getting bigger every day. Two weeks ago, I'd never heard of Jenny Lind. Last week, I couldn't get enough of Daniel Webster. Wouldn't it be ironic, if after my tiresome trek through the long dry corridors of public school American history -- wouldn't it just be a hoot if the whole thing really is about people after all? What do I know? Hey, I'm just knocking off bodies, here. You do the math.
By J. Dennis Robinson
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