Happy President’s Day. All hail the aggregate clump of chief executives. I’m old enough to remember when they were but two such Presidents held up for celebration: the Father of Our Country, known for wooden teeth and inability to prevaricate when confronted with arboreal murder, and The Great Liberator, who sat around looking lanky and pensive until he freed the slaves, after which he was shot. Now these titans have been folded in among the mediocrities and place-holders and notable exceptions, and it’s all just a day off.

We also learned about McKinley, since that’s the man after whom our elementary school was named. He was also shot by a guy named Leon Colgate-garglesound, for reasons that were never quite clear. It did not seem strange at all that our school was named after him – perhaps because no one knew who he was until second or third grade, and by then his presidential attributes were a late claimant. McKinley was the name of the school first, and a man second.

Ben Franklin Junior high was different; him we knew about. Invented eyeglasses and electricity. As for North High – well, it wasn’t named out of some spineless desire to banish the old 18th and 19th century men in favor of earth-friendly concepts like “directions” – it was the high school for the north side, just as its identical counterpart on the south side was called South.

They replaced the old high school, which was Central.

Things made sense in Fargo.

It was odd to have a duplicate school on the other side of town; had that bearded-Spock mystique. On the few times I went there it was the differences that made the similarities look odd, and vice versa. If they’d built 12 at the same time they’d all look different now.

But I’m drifting. I wish we’d had Presidents with more interesting names – Eustace Hammurabi, or Thockmorton Jones, or Increase Tabasco, or Garrett A. Hobart. What’s that, you say – we almost did had a president Hobart? Indeed. He was McKinley’s veep in the first term, but died in office, paving the way for Teddy Roosevelt to join the ticket in 1900. He assumed office when McKinley took the lead pill.

A special commerative Fargoans for McKinley-Hobart pin can be seen here; don’t you love the internet?

A shot of the McKinley school under construction is here. This is the back view. The windows are made of glass block, like most schools of the era; they admitted light but not scenery, so you weren’t tempted to look up at the sky and wish yourself away from Mrs. Powers’ lecture on Chile. (Exports: tin.) They’ve been replaced with ugly boards, I think – so I recall from my last visit. Anyway: there are two classrooms in the picture, with bathrooms at the end. I remember these rooms quite well, or at least I think I do. The walls were done in glazed yellow tile; the desks had those strange round bottoms in which all manner of detritus would collect. Pencil stubs, erasers, Cracker Jack toys, Indian Head notebooks. (There was a blowhole on the bottom in case liquids got in the desk – which they did in the room you see in the middle of the photograph, when a girl in the next row threw up in her desk and closed the top, thinking perhaps it was over now and we could all move along.) The desks had a faux wood grain; you could write on it, but you weren’t supposed to. But we did.

The projecting structure perpendicular to the building is the gym. This was the K-3 wing, I think – when you got older you were graduated to the north wing, which even had its own entrance. Of all the teachers at this school, I remember Mr. Kahl – one of those energetic, cheerful fellows who loved kids and treated everyone like comrades, not charges. (It’s amazing sometimes how much authority you can assemble if you let it come to you over a few weeks instead of handing it out on day one.)

In grade school the principal sitteth at the right hand of the President himself, one of the great beams that hold up the sheltering roof of authority. The Principal, the Pastor, the Pediatrician. The League of Plosives. I wonder how many people’s attitude towards a President was colored by their experiences with the other three Big Ps.

As for Mr. Kahl: good for him.

Some of the other schools have interesting names – Carl Ben Eilsen (spellings seem to vary) was named after a North Dakota polar aviator; Agassiz, named after the scientist – not for his anti-evolutionary views, I suspect, but for his theories on glaciation, which we learned by studying a map of gigantic prehistoric lake that bore his name. The southernmost tip of the lake covered Fargo, and to a kid the idea that you city was once underwater, home to strange fish and maybe swimming dinosaurs, was too cool to consider.

Ah, you ask, but what did newspapers look like in President McKinley’s day? Why, interesting you bring that up; I have an Amazon recommendation – for you! “It’s called “The World on Sunday,” a collection of pages from Pulitzer’s turn-of-the-century color newspaper. Ads, comics, illustrations, all presented in full-page format. Nicholson Baker – a novelist whose work I can pretty much leave alone, but whose non-fiction stuff is always spot-on – collects old newspapers so that we may see them in their original format, not the blurry, scratched and bleached-out microfilm versions. He purchased from a London museum the only complete set of the Sunday World, and he photographed the best pages for this book. It’s astonishing stuff, and only thirty dollars.

New Match & Quirk, if they've updated the webpage; see you tomorrow.


c. 2005 j. lileks. Email, if you wish, may be sent to "first name at last name dot com."