Tale of Two Presidents

George and Abe and the Three-Day Weekend

THREE-DAYER: Hey, thanks, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Because of you, working stiffs of America get that great three-day weekend every February.

Turns out they’re the only presidents honored with holidays. Franklin D. Roosevelt is always listed at or near the top of those “best presidents” polls, but do we get his birthday, January 30, off?

No way. But if he’d been born two days later, maybe he could have been combined into Presidents’ Day, and we’d be thanking him, too.

Washington wasn’t born into great wealth, but his father did will him 280 acres in Virginia. At the age of 11, the first president found himself owning 10 slaves. (He owned 318 upon his death.) But he was a hard-working young man and good at making friends in rich families. And he married into major money. He retired from the presidency greatly respected.

Barney Brantingham

Lincoln was born into frontier poverty, read law rather than going to law school, and married a problem woman who ended up in an insane asylum after his assassination. Lincoln, of course, had a war on his hands from the day he took office and was widely hated in the South.

How could two presidents have been so different?

And, though Washington kept slaves, as did all the Virginia planters, according to the website for his Mount Vernon home, “Despite having been an active slave holder for 56 years, George Washington struggled with the institution of slavery and spoke frequently of his desire to end the practice.

“At the end of his life Washington made the bold step to free his slaves in his 1799 will — the only slave-holding Founding Father to do so.”

THIEVES: People have been asking if I ever learned who stole 50 or so books from our front-yard free library. The answer is no, but we’ve met many good people as a result, mostly while arranging the books in the morning and taking them in each afternoon.

However, a neighbor stopped a couple driving a late-model car from carting off the whole library bookcase. It was by the curb, wasn’t it?

A neighborhood Boy Scout came by one fine day. His Eagle Scout project is to make front-yard free libraries, and he offered to build one for us. We’ve decided we should accept and are looking forward to it.

I heard one story about another nearby free neighborhood library where a neighbor thanked the owner for helping solve her Christmas-gift dilemma: She just took books from the library.

The books, of course, are to be taken individually to read and replaced by another — not just hauled off en masse. Our best “customers” are the kids across the street, and their mom thanked us for not putting out the “glamour” nude books a well-meaning guy dropped off.

One day we got home to find two large boxes of airport-terminal-type thrillers, unread. We think they came from a sympathetic bookstore, but we haven’t verified that. Thanks, anyway.

Then a woman getting divorced offered to drop off her collection of paperbacks. We found two or three boxes out front one day and assume they were from her.

I say “we,” but it’s the loving project of my wife, Sue, formerly the News-Press librarian in happier days. There are at least two other free libraries in San Roque front yards, part of a growing movement around the country in a nation that’s apparently forgotten how to read.

We live on East Calle Crespis if you want to drive by. Feel free to take a book. We’d love it.

FATHER OF THE COUNTRY: One of the books that might make it into the little library is the one I’m reading as I write on Presidents’ Day: Washington’s Revolution: The Making of America’s First Leader by Robert Middlekauff, UC Berkeley professor of history emeritus.

Washington was the “father of our country” in more ways than one, even before his election as president. “All the time that he served as commander of the Continental Army, he was in fact also the leader of the Revolution,” Middlekauff writes.

“His unspoken and undefined responsibilities in this role transcended those of his assignment as commander in chief, and he became, as the war developed, a symbol of the freedom the young republic embodied.

“He was the political leader of the Revolution, though he drafted no legislation and signed no laws. But if he had failed, it was widely understood, the Revolution failed.”


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