« Previous  
 Next »

Swimming Through History

05/08/08 5:55PM By Kenneth Davis
 MP3   Download MP3 

(HOST) This Saturday is the anniversary of the capture of Fort Ticonderoga by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys. Author and commentator Ken Davis traces his interest in history back to a swim he took as a child near that historic site.

(DAVIS) When he tossed his five-year-old son into the chilly but shallow waters of Lake Champlain for a first swimming lesson, my father couldn’t have envisioned that he was "baptizing" a historian as well as a swimmer that summer day. It was 1959, and as I gamely dog-paddled to shore, I certainly gave no thought to Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold who had crossed that very lake some 200 years before I was so unceremoniously dunked.

On May 10, 1775, with independence still undeclared, the two patriots had led an assault on Fort Ticonderoga. Your schoolbooks might have included a brief mention of the capture of the British citadel perched high above the lake. Only your schoolbooks probably left Benedict Arnold out of the picture. As I later learned, there was more to the story than the bold "Braveheart" imagery of that brief textbook mention.

For starters, some of Ethan Allen’s Vermonters were missing in action. Dispatched to fetch boats to ferry the motley rebel band across Champlain from what is now Shoreham, Vermont, a group of Green Mountain boys had stumbled upon a well-stocked rum cellar and helped themselves. Their drunken exploits nearly sunk the expedition before it began.

Dueling egos and agendas were also at work. Allen, a combination of backwoods philosopher and braggart soldier, led a rugged collection of men deemed outlaws by neighboring New Yorkers. The dandified Arnold was a gentleman of rank; Allen and his men didn’t like or trust him.

And, of course, Arnold who later gallantly held off a British invasion on Champlain’s waters with a hastily improvised navy, would soon be reduced to a single word - "traitor." Few today know that he was a hero, a cunning strategist who at least twice saved the patriot cause before ego and greed got the upper hand.

But none of that mattered to me as I spit out lake water. Back then, I was on a family vacation, camping with my father, a world war two veteran who instinctively knew the power of place. My dad also knew that I would be encouraged by the experience of breathing the same air - and, in one case, swallowing the same water -- as the earlier generations who had sacrificed mightily for the birth of a nation.

I couldn’t have articulated it then, but that trip to Lake Champlain, and later ones to other national landmarks, helped me see that history doesn't just happen in books. History is often hidden and happens to real people - drunken boatmen and fallen heroes alike -- not just textbook caricatures.

Today, we remain mired in the controversy over "historical illiteracy," a shameful, dangerous ignorance of our past. So, when people ask me how to get their kids interested in history, I first offer one simple answer - get them to the places where history happened.

And, if we are going to reach people with all the tragic, messy but miraculous truth that our hidden history has to offer, more historians might benefit from an unexpected dunk in a cold lake.

Kenneth Davis' new book is titled, America's Hidden History.
comments powered by Disqus
Supported By
Become an Underwriter | Find an Underwiter