The homework assignment came home Friday. That evening, my husband pointed it out and said that sometime over the weekend the 7-year-old was going to need help with it. I glanced at the paper on the kitchen table.
"No problem," I said brightly. I had learned long ago that there are certain kinds of homework assignments I could help with and certain assignments I could not. The second grade teacher of my son the teen-ager once quite specifically asked me not to help him with his math homework. But this latest assignment was a second grade paper about our community. I was bursting with confidence. He, of course, would do the work himself, but if he didn't know the answers, he knew where to come.
Saturday dawned warm and bright and by 11 a.m. we were off to the day's first soccer game. It was, essentially, the last time anyone thought about doing anything inside. Who on earth would remember such a thing as homework on the kind of November weekend we just had?
Sunday afternoon I walked into the kitchen and found my husband clutching the homework assignment.
"Look," he said, "he's still got to do his homework sometime today."
"No big deal," I said, "he can do it before he goes trick-or-treating."
My husband gave me a flinty look. "Have you looked at the questions?"
He handed me the paper.
"How," I said, with the first stab of panic, "in the world is he supposed to know that?"
There on the mimeographed paper, produced by some educational publishing service, were two questions that nobody living around here could possibly answer: When was your community begun? and Why was your community begun?
Students who live in East Nowhere can easily walk to the edge of town, look at the sign and find out. But our son lives in McLean, which has neither signs nor known permanent settlers.
"I suppose," I said to my husband, "that it began sometime around World War II when everyone came to Washington and started the suburbs."
He was not impressed. "We've got to do better than that," he said.
"Maybe the McLean directory has some historical information."
"I can take him to the library," I said.
The recording at the library announced it was closed.
Things started getting desperate. I went to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, which, of course, lived up to its name. Instead of having a couple of helpful paragraphs on McLean, U.S.A., it had a couple of useless paragraphs on Maclean, New South Wales.
"Lookit," I said, back in the kitchen. "Between the two of us we ought to know somebody who knows this."
"I'm thinking. I'm thinking," came the exasperated reply.
Suddenly, I cried out in glee. "I know who will know."
Bob Alden is as close to a pillar of the community as McLean has. Unfortunately, being a pillar of the community doesn't pay well and he works, as it happens, in the newsroom of this newspaper. While I know that a friend in need is a pain in the neck, the situation, as I mentioned, was getting desperate. I called him at home.
The phone rang. And rang. And rang. Hope can spring eternal only so long. I hung up.
My husband came back in the room. "What happened?"
"He refused to answer his phone."
"Well," said my husband, "Frank Forrester should know." Frank Forrester, before he retired, was the chief information officer for the U.S. Geological Survey. He also lives in McLean.
"Why should Frank Forrester know?"
"Because he knows stuff like this."
I wasn't about to argue with that kind of logic.
Frank Forrester said he thought he knew a little old lady who might know.
By trick-or-treating time, he hadn't called back. "This is really a ridiculous assignment for a 7-year-old," I announced.
We went trick-or-treating.
After we got home, the children got on their pajamas and the 7-year-old sat on the couch. So did my husband. Frank Forrester had finally called back. Slowly the weary 7-year-old filled in the questions: McLean began in 1907. It was a stopping point on the electric train between Rosslyn and Great Falls.
Where the electric train is now that we need it I do not know. But I do know where to go if we get any more local history questions. "Where," I asked my husband in amazement, "did Frank Forrester find this out?"
"He called Bob Alden."