I worked at a large outdoor event last weekend, just the latest in a long series of promotions and events where I joined an eclectic group of people assembled for a few hours to a few days.
My supervisor, Will, took a few minutes to introduce himself and chat with the 40 staff members assigned to work in his area. He is a friendly guy, and he naturally found a connection with everyone in a brief conversation, i.e., a college, a neighborhood or a sports team. He asked me where I was from, and I said "Lancaster County" because people outside the area know the county better than Elizabethtown. He followed up by asking me how many counties there are in Pennsylvania. I quickly answered (correctly) "67 counties."
He said I must have experience working for government or social services, so I explained I had worked for several statewide associations, groups whose missions varied so much that I visited all 67 counties for one association or another. (It turns out Will works in social services, and he has visited about 25 counties.) But there's another reason I know how many counties we have in Pennsylvania: I am a journalist.
I was reporter for a weekly newspaper, in addition to several years of freelancing for different newspapers, magazines and web sites. More importantly, when I worked for associations, I never lost being a journalist. I wrote and edited publications for the association members with the drive and mindset of a journalist.
If you visit curmudgeons with decades of newspaper experience haunting a newspaper copy desk, many are sure to scoff at the notion that an association's editor is anything but a public relations flack engaged in press agentry: some combination of that guy at the fair barking encouragement to visit the freak show display and the "secretary" who presidents and governors send out at a press conference to do anything but give substantial answers to questions.
That's not what I was interested in doing. I was looking for great stories for the association, its area of focus and its members. So, like many newspaper copy editors, I picked up a lot of knowledge that might seem useless, trivial and just plain weird.
I find all sorts of stories and tidbits interesting, and I easily remember them. I think this is why I rarely find anyone willing to play trivia games with me. But I like learning all sorts of things, perhaps because I am easily amused. One copy editor friend makes posts on Facebook, starting with "Today in my endlessly fascinating job, I learned ...."
I have even managed to infect my son with this, at least a little of my penchant for facts. In his written report about an animal, he noted that Shakespeare coined the term "alligator," as the first recorded use appears in "Romeo and Juliet." Sure, I know Shakespeare gave us "wormhole" and "puking" and "eyeball," but that was not a part of his report (See? I can't resist it). At least, not this report. Maybe high school.
Lists of trivia and odd facts have bloomed and reproduced like weeds in my front yard since the Internet made sharing them that much easier. These lists are not the sort of things I am talking about. Too often, they are simplistic, misleading or wrong.
Just recently, while I was reading about something else, I came across a reference to how 14 years ago, the National Park Service was spending millions on a site of the President's House, where George Washington (and John Adams) lived as president during the 1790s, yet not planning to mention that part of its history in the resulting site. Do you know where the former President's House was located?
To answer, you have to think about the capitals of the United States prior to its permanent move to Washington, D.C. Well, it's not in New York City, Baltimore or Princeton, New Jersey (really, of all places, founders?). Nearby cities York and Lancaster also served as the U.S. capital, but too briefly for the President's House (Sorry, does it seem like I am showing off now?). The actual site is the Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia. The discovery and confirmation of the President's House caused a bit of controversy when the Liberty Bell site was designed and built. The site includes not only where Washington lived, but also where his slaves lived. Adams did not own slaves when he lived at the President's House; in fact, of the first dozen American presidents, the only ones to never own slaves were named Adams. John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, regularly spoke out against slavery.
The Liberty Bell's engraving, "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof," had inspired the abolitionists starting in the 1830s. The notion of Washington keeping slaves on the site clashes with the image of the Liberty Bell and its history of the anti-slavery movement.
Public outcry led to the inclusion of the site's history in the Liberty Bell Center, although original plans were to focus solely on the Liberty Bell and American independence.
Now that's something I find fascinating: A link to America's tragic and troubled history is found on the site of a precious symbol of liberty. A patriotic update to the historic district of Philadelphia -- the cradle of liberty and freedom -- denuded an ugly pus-filled cyst on America's backside (or in its backstory, as it were), the hideous part of our shared history that was the antithesis of freedom and liberty.
I like knowing the full story of the site. History is varied: triumphant and cringeworthy, awe-inspiring and sad. The full story is "good history," to reference my last blog post.
What's the most interesting thing you learned recently? Tell me about it in the comments.