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Celebrating With Pop

By Baltimore Writer  Charles Rammelkamp

I hadn’t seen Pop since summer, when Anita and I drove up from Ann Arbor for a vacation at the lake, in August, and to check on his recovery. I’d been there on my own for his bypass surgery in May, but this time my wife came with me.  We were there during the virtual conventions for the political parties, the Democratic one where Biden chose Harris as his running mate and the Republican convention, where they spoke about the Coronavirus pandemic as though it were already over, that weird Orwellian thing where saying something is true makes it true. Pretend it’s so and in fact it is so.

So driving up from Ann Arbor to spend Thanksgiving with him felt sort of like a victory lap. We’d be masking up when we weren’t in the car, and we’d really only need to get gas once, for the return trip, so I could square the trip with my conscience.  Michigan had certified its votes for Biden only the week before, though Potawatomi Rapids had gone solidly for Trump.

“Except for Leelanau, everything north of Grand Rapids and Flint went for Trump,” Pop noted, shaking his head. “Clint Marshall, of course, has bought into the conspiracy theories and has written his usual illiterate letters-to-the-editor. But yes, we delivered our sixteen electoral college votes to Biden, even though Trump tried to get the Republicans to somehow reverse it.” We clinked our wine glasses.

“So – this is something to be thankful for,” he commented.

“I love Thanksgiving,” I commented. “You might think it’s an endangered species, given its origin in the European exploitation of the native people. Or not. I mean, who doesn’t like it?”

“I’ve never heard that point of view,” Pop said.

“Neither have I, really. Columbus Day, sure, but not Thanksgiving.”

“Well, what we’re celebrating – if gratitude really is the basis, and it’s not just an excuse to overindulge – it’s something at the heart of all religions, really. Psychologists say it’s good for our health, too, feeling grateful.”

“I believe it. I wonder what Clint Marshall’s grateful for today.”

Pop laughed, and then, as was his wont, he launched into his favorite topic, Amerigo Vespucci, the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation and the topic of his research ever since. “I’m sure he feels oppressed. Trump’s ‘genius’” – here he used air quotes – “was to play on the sense of white victimhood.

“You know, originally the European explorers were simply interested in discovering new trade routes to the east. Columbus thought he’d found the orient.  He thought he’d landed in China.  He called the islands he found ‘the Indies,’ after all.  But Amerigo Vespucci, the man they named the hemisphere after, he called it a New World.  On the second of his four voyages, in 1499, he discovered Brazil and sailed down the coast of South America, the first explorer to cross the equator on the western side of the Atlantic, and that’s when he came to the conclusion this wasn’t the orient at all but someplace entirely different.  A new world.  Just consider that a second.  A new world.  That implies a fresh start, and it is in that idea that escape from oppression finds its genesis.”

“Think Clint knows this?”

Pop rolled his eyes, warming to his subject.  “Amerigo wrote a letter about his voyages to Lorenzo di Medici in 1502.  It’s called the Mundus Novus letter, and it’s one of the most important documents in history. He was talking specifically about land south of the equator, which he said the ancient philosophers never dreamed of.   He wrote, ‘I reached the region of the antipodes, which according to my navigation is the fourth part of the world.’ 

“Amerigo’s critics sneer at him for being a ‘mapmaker,’ but really he was a visionary with an interest in the dimensions of reality, not a gold-grubbing explorer like most of those guys were.

“He wrote another letter a few years later to Piero Soderini, the gonfalonier of Florence,

describing his adventures.  These were extremely popular and influential letters.  They were

translated into all the major European languages, French, Latin, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch.  A Parisian architect named Fra Giocondo translated the Mundus Novus letter into Latin.  This edition was read by a group in France who called themselves the Gymnase Vosgien.  They had a printing press and were writing the Cosmographiae Introductio, an ambitious work of geography meant to update Ptolemy’s Geography –”

            “I think Clint would be leaving about now.”

            Pop’s eyes glittered, amused, but he continued.  “The group included a mapmaker named Waldseemuller, who called the new continent America, after Amerigo.  Actually it was Waldseemuller’s colleagues, Matthias Ringmann and Basin de Sandaucourt, who came up with the name, America.  They thought that since the other three continents, Asia, Africa and Europe –or ‘Europa’ – had feminine endings, the fourth continent should have a feminine form, too.  So they coined the term ‘America.’  Ptolemy had speculated centuries before about the existence of a fourth continent, which Amerigo alludes to in the Mundus Novus letter to Lorenzo di Medici when he talks about the fourth part of the world and the antipodes.  Anyway, their book was published in April, 1507, but the name ‘America’ didn’t catch on for a while after that.”

            “Interesting,” Anita murmured. “I always wondered why the continent wasn’t named after Columbus.”

            “Well, here’s to America!” Pop declared, raising his glass.

            “Thanks, America!” I chimed in. “For a minute there I admit I was worried!”

            “Just don’t get complacent,” Pop warned, and we all clinked our glasses one more time.





Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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