Vn66.1 Pre-History 8/16/77
For some unknown reason (“I just wondered,” she says), Miriam asked
me who was the first person to sail around the world. Remembering the
Straits of Magellan and that it must have been the major obstacle to the
western passage, I speculated that Magellan must have been the man.
Gretchen, drawing on her deep fund of facts as she brought the rest of
supper to table, said decisively that Magellan himself died on the first
circumnavigation but that one of the ships originally under his command
completed the voyage.
I explained to myself and any who might be listening that this fact
was one of many of which I was ignorant, but that such information could
be found in our encyclopedias, that it had been written down. I con-
tinued that there were other great achievements, great discoveries made
before people had learned to write and make books. The example I offered
was the discovery of fire, that this was one of the greatest milestones
in human culture, but that since no one knew how to write when fire was
discovered no one knows who was the first to control fire. Miriam, I
believe, asked how fire was discovered. I admitted no one knew, then
proposed a commonplace scenario: lightning caused a forest fire; roast
flesh was found to be good enough for early men to brave the danger and
experiment with coals as fires burned out.
Miriam said she thought she knew: holding her two index fingers
perpendicularly, she explained (and demonstrated) that they rubbed two
sticks together and made a fire that way.
Only Gretchen had a sensible idea — that one of those luckless
buffoons, our not so remote ancestors, while sitting on a soft pile of straw,
chipping flint, gave himself, most accidentally, a royal hot seat and made
man king of the material world.
This casual dinner conversation exemplifies the way we adults,
because we are who we are, even with minimal didactic purpose, draw
along our children into an intellectual space foreign to their initial
concerns but accessible by a few simple steps from whatever catches