Oct. 12, the traditional Columbus Day, is a day to reflect on the nature of celebrity. Columbus was a pirate and tyrant who sailed off and bumped into the Bahamas, had no idea where he was, and to his dying day believed he had reached the Indies. By the time he arrived in the New World, America was old news to the Vikings. They already had that T-shirt.
Five hundred years before, the Vikings had been sailing the Atlantic with confidence, making new friends and influencing people. Thorvald Asvaldsson sailed to Iceland in the 10th century with his son Erik the Red, after they'd been banished from Norway for manslaughter -- if you've ever been in an argument with Norwegians, you probably considered manslaughter too -- and from Iceland, Erik explored the icebound continent to the west, which he named Greenland, for promotional purposes.
In 986, Bjarni Herjulfsson and his men sailed along the coast of New England. Around the same time, Leif Eriksson, the son of Erik the Red, sailed over and may have landed on the island of Manhattan. Did he come ashore and try to buy it for $24 worth of junk jewelry? No. And do we celebrate Bjarni Herjulfsson Day? No, we do not. The Vikings weren't into self-promotion, and Reykjavik was not a world media center at the time.
The Vikings were not out to lord it over the Indians or bring democracy here or teach folks about Nordic gods. They were free spirits, sailors, explorers, so they left some carved stones here and there, relished the exhilaration of the voyage and the sight of new lands, and went home and composed sagas for the amusement of their friends and families. That arrogant fool Columbus, who demanded 10 percent of all the gold the Spanish stole in the New World, got the holiday, a town in Ohio and another in Georgia, a major river in the Northwest and a university in New York. But who cares? Scandinavians don't. They celebrate Columbus Day as we all do, by going to the sale and saving 30 percent on towels and bed linens. And by covering the roses and putting the lawn furniture away.
Their history after Leif and Erik and Bjarni has been tangled, of course. The Norwegians suffered under the Danes and then the Swedes. The Danes suffered under the delusion that they were French. The Swedes suffered under Strindberg and Ingmar Bergman, neither of whom was the life of the party. All of them suffered from the long gray winters with twilight at noon and the lunches of fried herring and potatoes and aquavit and the general prohibition against raising your voice or driving pink Cadillacs. But Lutheranism urged them toward kindness, industriousness and self-effacement, and this is not a bad strategy for contentment.
Look around today and you will find the Viking descendants, a calm and stoical and somewhat formal people, by and large, not given to extremes of fashion or chanting "We're Number One" or writing memoirs that hang out the family underwear. Walter Mondale is pretty much the prototype. He lost the presidency by one of the biggest landslides in history to an aging actor whose grip on reality, never firm to begin with, was becoming hallucinatory. Mr. Reagan was sort of the Columbus of our time, a better P.R. man than sailor, but so be it. Mr. Mondale is a buoyant man with a sense of humor who enjoys his life in Minnesota, where people are happy to see him, and when you do, you see that losing is far from the worst thing that can happen to a man. Far from it.
What's worse is the likely fate of the Current Occupant, who is contending with Pierce, Buchanan and Warren G. Harding for the title of All-Time Worst President. He's got a good shot at the title if only because he's had so much more to be worst with. (Any young persons who have been inspired by Mr. Bush to take up public service should be watched very closely.)
I propose that we change Columbus Day to Bush Day, a cautionary holiday, like Halloween, a day to meditate on the hazards of ambition. We could observe it by going through the basement and garage and throwing out stuff we don't want or need. Also by not mortgaging the house to pay for a vacation, and not yelling at the neighbors, and not assuming that the law is for other people. A day to honor kindness, industriousness and modesty.
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(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
© 2006 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.