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Bye-Bye 375

"We can hardly stand to wait,
please Christmas don't delay!"
-- Alvin, Simon and Theodore Chipmunk

1873 Celebration I haven't felt this anxious about an impending holiday since I bought my first 45-rpm record back in the 50s. On the B-side of "Alvin's Harmonica" David Seville's famous singing Chipmunks pined in high-pitched anticipation of Christmas. Today I'm getting an equally fervent itch to see the hands of Father Time urge 1998 out the door, and with it, the final seconds of the Seacoast 375th anniversary celebration.

Don't get me wrong; I had a blast, but let's celebrate something else besides history next year -- maybe numismatics, dental implants or astral projection. You can get too much of a good thing. Given the chance to do it all over, like Bill Murray in the movie "Groundhog Day," I think I'd stay burrowed safely underground.

It's my own fault. In this very column a year ago, I taunted you readers for ignoring the anniversary of the arrival of our first European settlers. But really -- I was just kidding! So now, dozens of history events later, what have we learned. Here's my list:

Centennials are Sexier

The bottom line is that people prefer dates with lots more zeros. The 1923 pageant and the 200th anniversary in 1823 were giant parties in comparison to our efforts. We expect the same of the upcoming 400th in 2023 AD.. Anniversaries ending in "25" and "75" are simply harder to sell.

I hold in my hand a green hardcover gold-leafed commemorative book from the 250th anniversary celebration of Portsmouth in 1873. It cost me eight bucks at the used bookstore, but has more than earned its keep for the comforting words in the preface. It seems that, back then too, nobody much wanted to spend their precious time or money on a history celebration. In fact, apathy reigned right up until a month before the July 4 weekend. Then at the eleventh hour, the writer says, the "spirit of love" began to flow. Volunteers came out of the woodwork and the whole history celebration went off perfectly.

Start With a Parade

The media understands the world only in the most visceral terms. Reporters feed on superlatives -- the biggest this, the oldest that. So if you are going to call something a "celebration," you better darn well have marching bands, balloon vendors and floats.

Dover did it right with their 375th weekend parade and festival. So did our forebears at the first history celebration in 1823. Even John Paul Jones knew this in the 1780s when he celebrated Portsmouth's Independence Day with a fireworks display. He even rigged up a neat trick whereby the cannons on the ship America in Kittery would fire each time his dinner guests in Portsmouth raised their glasses to toast.

In Portsmouth, without time, volunteers or budget, we opted for a more subtle approach to our 375th anniversary: a full year of little history events tied together with an "awareness campaign." I think it worked. Literally hundreds of articles appeared in the media locally, regionally even nationwide. We had a road race, birthday cake, lawn parties, discount house tours, lectures, proclamations, dedications, birthed a new lager, released a history board game, had a dance, wrote a booklet, designed a logo, hosted a ship and tapped the world's largest keg.

Still, the media demanded: where's the beef? No parade, you see, no celebration. So yesterday Portsmouth held a parade with 60 floats. It was great. Can we all go home now?

Don't Put All Your Sailors in One Tall Ship

There's that old story of the hobo who asks a passerby for a million dollars. "A million bucks!" the man says, "why not ask for a quarter like everyone else." The hobo replies, "I prefer sir, to put all my begs in one ask-it." It was in that spirit that we awaited the historic arrival of the USS Constitution.

Mention "Old Ironsides" around here now and people still wince like jilted lovers. Okay, she didn't show up, so get over it, already. I spent a month combing through local archives for old photos of the famous ship twice rebuilt in Portsmouth, but I still love her. Does a little rejection negate more than 20 years of history in which Ironsides resided in Portsmouth Harbor? Maybe it does. Who wants to study an ex-spouse's family tree?

Some sources say the visit isn't dead in the water yet, that Ironsides may come to town during the Millenium 2000 festivities. Luckily we had a Plan B, and tall ship HM Endeavour drew a record-breaking 60,000 viewers. There was no discernable historical link between 18th century explorer Captain James Cook and Portsmouth, and no one seemed to care. A replica tall ship is better than none, and she stirred many souls as she moved regally down the Piscataqua. We proved that this region can draw mega-tourists. We proved that history, even one ship, does have an economic impact.

Time Capsules Give Instant Relief

I got a call from a woman in California this week. She read on the Internet about the time capsule we buried on the lawn of the Portsmouth Historical Society. She wanted a list of the contents for a book she is writing about time capsules.

The time capsule turned out to be a metaphor for the whole 375th celebration. At first people said "so what" and "why bother." But they slowly got intrigued. A good-sized crowd showed up for the burial, and I daresay everyone felt an emotional tug contemplating the thing being exhumed 125 years in the future. We'll all be dead then, you know, and people will be studying us. Time capsules, like history, inhabit that fine line between mortality and immortality. Even those who only understand parades took pause and wondered for a moment -- who am I? What am I doing with my life? What is my purpose here? What is my cholesterol count, anyway?

Those Old Pageant Days are Over

Somewhere in the middle of the anniversary year I went funny in the head, and suggested to the City Council that we throw a giant pageant. They must have gone funny too, because they agreed. We hoped to dramatize the whole history of the city on the stage at the Music Hall in a two-hour show. Louise Tanner did it in 1923 with a $12,000 budget. Back then a Coke cost a nickel, so we went searching for funds adjusted for inflation. There was interest, but not enough. We let the idea die quietly.

Journalism Ain't Exactly History

To round out the year and reach local kids, we then put together a commemorative booklet squeezing Portsmouth history into 20 pages. It took eight weeks, came out nicely and will be distributed to Portsmouth schools and libraries pretty soon. Like 19th century writer Charles Brewster, the late Ray Brighton and other journalist history-writers, I'm used to quickly researching topics and hammering them into shape for a fast deadline. But the whole deal changes when the words are printed on heavy stock paper and saved for the future. So we had a number of historians read the rough draft of the booklet. What I learned, pouring over their professional red-inked corrections, was that, when it comes to writing real local history, I'm still in kindergarten.

Serve the Right Beer

In the end, just like Portsmouth in 1823, we had a gala history dance. Over 300 people bought tickets for the 1998 celebration and the media finally got the message -- the whole thing wasn't just hype. Then somebody noticed that the beer from a sponsoring brewery was not on the menu. Ouch! Faux pas city.

Letters were written, apologies made, and now everyone seems to be friends again. The final lesson, though embarrassing, was perhaps the most important.

Promoting history, preserving our heritage, is a complex partnership. Governments, schools, chambers, corporations and historical groups need to work together like they've never worked before. I still think our souls and our economy depend on it, and this whole long year makes me even more convinced.

Learning from our mistakes, I predict the 400th Celebration will blow the doors off anything this region has ever seen. If you need me, send me an email. I'll be in Nepal.

For tons more information see the 375th Homepage from 1998

© 1998 SeacoastNH.com
All Rights Reserved

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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