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Columbus Day Observed Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

11 October 2021

Tierra! Tierra!" were the words we imagined that announced the sighting of land on the Santa Maria but also the first ones in the grammar school essay we submitted to the Knights of Columbus contest. We won the top prize with that essay and Cathy, a girl who lived a few blocks from us, came in second. It was usually the other way around.

Replica of the Santa Maria. From a 1904 Detroit Publishing Co. photograph at the Library of Congress. JPEG processed in Adobe Camera Raw.

We were feted at an awards dinner where Bob Simon, the ex-Marine who officiated our baseball and basketball games, gave us each a savings bond. It was difficult for us to believe he would not find some way to call strike three or a fifth foul on us before the evening ended, giving Cathy the top prize, but he remained smiling and proud as we posed for pictures.

Whether you celebrate the holiday as Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples' Day, it has become an ambiguous moment of reflection. Which is, however, no excuse not to celebrate it. Both ways, in fact.

In his proclamation on Indigenous Peoples' Day (a first for a U.S. president), President Biden noted, "Today, we acknowledge the significant sacrifices made by Native peoples to this country -- and recognize their many ongoing contributions to our Nation."

But he also issued a Columbus Day proclamation acknowledging Columbus as "the first of many Italian explorers to arrive in what would later become known as the Americas." He continued, "Today, millions of Italian Americans continue to enrich our country's traditions and culture and make lasting contributions to our Nation -- they are educators, health care workers, scientists, first responders, military service members and public servants, among so many other vital roles."

Cathy and I are both native people in the sense we were born here ourselves but our people were Italian immigrants. Still, we had our own ships to sail.

We can recall working up the courage to address her at the back of the classroom after clapping out the erasers* at the end of a school day to tell her we "liked" her. In those days, that was as serious a business as getting engaged.

She graciously acknowledged our declaration but explained she hadn't decided who she herself liked yet. And we, not having thought this through entirely, nodded and went home.

It would not be the last time something like that happened to us. You don't always find land every time you set sail.

But you don't always strike out. And you don't always foul out of the game either. We can report that both of us managed to eventually plant our flags and enjoy happy lives in our native land long after those savings bonds had matured.

And that, indigenous and not, is what we'll be celebrating today. The courage to set our sails and the luck of finding land, even if it isn't the place we went looking for.

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