By George, He's Still Here

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, October 30, 2005

George lives in my basement, amid the books, maps and tools. He's very quiet, very dignified, with an almost regal bearing. He disapproves of the chaos of the basement and the centrifugal forces within my life, the way I can't seem to get my act together. He's always grabbing me by the shoulders, shaking me, and saying, "For the love of God, be a man!"

George is my go-to guy on all matters involving early American history.

"What did it feel like to be alive in the 18th century?" I once asked him.

"It was itchy," he answered.

George is handy in the yard when it comes time to plant the garden or put a new handle on a shovel. I give him bags of fertilizer, but he puts them aside and hauls mud out of the river for manure. He won't use the mower, insisting on a scythe.

Many times I have come home from work, tired from a hectic and oversubscribed day, and retired to the back porch for a glass of wine or a cold beer with George. He's great in such moments, though the drinks always put him in an expansive mood, and he argues that my house needs two new wings, some outbuildings, some massive pillars, a cupola and a bowling green. He claims that you've not truly arrived in the world until you have at least 5,000 acres.

He's strangely obsessed with real estate prices. The other day he found out that a cottage in the neighborhood, a mere tear-down, is selling for $1.2 million. "In my day you could have bought Ohio for that," he said.

He can be impulsive. I gave him a dollar coin once, a Sacagawea, and he promptly marched down to the river and threw it to the other side.

He seems to think that cell phones are medical devices for treating earaches. He insists on referring to airplanes as though they are very large, noisy birds. He has what you might call selective sensing: He can smell an approaching storm, hears bees that are invisible to everyone else, yet somehow he doesn't really register oncoming automobiles, and I'm constantly yanking him from their path.

Of all the things that astonish him, the greatest is the fact that America is a multicultural society. To say that he is obsessed with African Americans would be an understatement. He is always peppering them with a million questions, and it can get kind of embarrassing when he tries to talk "hip," and says things like, "Your carriage is really quite phat." The only time he ever tried to use a telephone, he demanded to be put in contact immediately with Condi Rice.

Houseguests find him amusing, to a point. He drones on a bit about the need for an Interstate Canal System. When someone comes to the house and says traffic is at a standstill, he assumes it's because the road is too muddy and full of tree stumps. George has a terrible tendency to ask houseguests if he may inspect their teeth. Sometimes he will actually tap someone's teeth and say: "What are these made of? They look so real!"

We talk about politics a lot. He calls the war in Iraq a "dangerous foreign entanglement." He has no patience with the idea of spreading democracy abroad, possibly because he's not entirely comfortable with its existence here at home. He will prattle on endlessly about the indecencies of "the rabble" and "the squatters" and "the land jobbers." When he found out that the United States has thousands of nuclear weapons, he immediately suggested that they be used against what he calls "the whiskey rebels."

We're getting to be like brothers. Or maybe like an old married couple: We finish each other's sentences.

I'll say, "The thing about Jefferson --"

" -- is that he has no spine," George will answer.

"Had," I'll say. "He's dead."

"Supposedly," he'll say.

George has an odd way of looking at the past: Events that happened centuries ago are still in the present to him. And I'm coming around to his way of thinking. The great people of history never really go away. We hear their voices, read their words, heed their sermons. They live with us forever. And if they get too preachy, we can always send them back down to the basement.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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