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“Après moi le déraillement”

Off the Deep End: How I Discovered America

The Other St. Brendan 
The Second, or Maybe Third, Thanksgiving 
How I Discovered America 

The Other St. Brendan

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2002

Everybody can be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and everybody who’s Irish assumes that everyone else would want to be. In my case, I do have a little Irish blood, and it makes me proud of an illustrious member of our family tree, St. Brendan Dunham.

The British will cheerfully tell you that St. Patrick was Welsh, although they rarely point out that he moved out of Wales. St. Brendan Dunham was not fully Irish either, but that has not stopped the Irish from claiming him as one of their patron saints, the patron of confused travelers. Like the other, more famous, St. Brendan, he set off on voyages of discovery.

The first place he discovered was Ireland. Lured by travel posters that said, “Discover Ireland,” he set out to do just that, although he seldom receives credit for it today. He discovered, however, that the inhabitants were already Christians who knew all about the analogy of the shamrock and the Blessed Trinity, and furthermore that there were no snakes left. The glory-grabbing St. Patrick had stolen the show.

Saints are not quitters, however. “Discovery” and “Exploration” were his middle names. Like his more famous namesake, he set out to find the “Land of Delight,” and presently St. Brendan D. E. Dunham embarked on a new voyage of discovery that would take him to a new world, undeterred by the fact that, as in Ireland, there were already people living there.

Setting out across the Atlantic, he first came to an island that he named “Iceland” because it was covered with you-know-what. By the time of his next landfall he was homesick for the Emerald Isle, so he called the next island “Greenland.” (This is the explanation accepted by historians, because Greenland is definitely not green.)

When St. Brendan Dunham finally reached North America, the natives told him that he was in “new-found land.”

“That’s right,” he exclaimed; he had finally come to a place where he was, he thought, acknowledged as discoverer. He named the capital of Newfoundland St. Brendan’s, although the natives continued to call it St. John’s.

In Newfoundland, the natives told him of land to the southwest famous for the Boston Celtics, and informed him that there were more Irish in New York City than in Dublin. Realizing that the natives’ stories must be exaggerated, he concluded that he had sailed nearly all the way around the world and was almost back to Ireland. He could hear a voice saying, “Rambling boy, why don’t you settle down?” Rather than land in what is now the United States, he headed back the way he had come and so he did not get credit for discovering America.

Upon his return from the seven-year voyage, St. Brendan Dunham was greeted with rejoicing in Ireland. His discoveries rewrote the history books (a process that continues today) and inspired a brand of beer. (Since the feast day of St. Brendan Dunham has not yet made it onto the ecclesiastical calendar, I suggest that you honor him by having a beer on the feast day of the other St. Brendan, March 22.)

Satisfied at last that he had finished his divinely ordained discoveries, St. Brendan Dunham uttered a phrase that has echoed throughout the halls of history, particularly in Kansas: “If ever I go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.”

Steve Dunham discovered the United States and Canada.

The Second, or Maybe Third, Thanksgiving

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2002

You all know the story of the first Thanksgiving: how Elmer Fudd, in a Pilgrim hat, went hunting a rabbit for Thanksgiving dinner.

But I’ll bet you have never heard of the second, or maybe it was the third, Thanksgiving, celebrated on the other side of the world among the cannibals of what was known then as Plimoth Island.

My ancestor, Miles Standoffish Dunham, was one of the Scooby-Doo Separatists, fleeing Europe to get away from Scooby-Doo movies and other kinds of persecution. With likeminded emigrants, he chartered a ship named the Sunflower and set sail for a new life in America. However, he believed that if Columbus could not reach the Indies by sailing west, maybe his own group could reach America by sailing east.

The trip was very difficult, just like the voyage of the Mayflower, except twice as long, and by the time the Sunflower reached the Pacific islands, the colonists were ready to rename the ship the Skunk Cabbage.

When they finally dropped anchor in the bay of what they called Plimoth Island, the weary travelers were very hungry—hungry not just for freedom, but for dinner. As they stepped ashore, they were greeted by friendly natives who eyed them hungrily.

“We have come seeking religious freedom,” said Miles, and the leader of the natives assured him that the island was blessed with total freedom of religion.

“Not for everybody, just for us,” said Miles. “We didn’t like the religion where we came from, and we won’t allow any of that here.”

“I don’t think you know Squatto,” said the native chief.

“Oh, yeah?” answered Miles, but the chief wasn’t listening.

“This is Squatto,” said the chief. “He will help you prepare for dinner.”

“Thank you,” said Miles, impressed by the chief’s friendliness.

“No, thank you!” said the chief. “We have just survived our first winter. This is the tropics, and we never had winter before. Now we want to celebrate with a feast, and you have arrived just in time.”

Afraid that the pilgrims might high-tail it out of there, the natives waited till everyone was off the ship before approaching them again. Miles was a ways down the shore, carving the date, 1621, into a rock, when the natives offered the weary travelers a nice, hot bath in big black pots, the kind you have seen in cartoons.

Miles may not have been the brightest pilgrim, but he could figure out what was going on, and he decided not to join the other colonists on the menu. He swam to the ship, cut the anchor line, and drifted into the sunset until he was rescued by some sailors who knew the right direction to sail in order to reach America.

You can imagine how things might have worked out differently. The colonists might have purchased Plimoth Island for $24 worth of plastic jewelry and sent all the natives to live on a reservation. But they didn’t, and the Europeans never came back, and to this day the natives celebrate that fact every November.

Steve Dunham will be having friends for dinner on Thanksgiving.

How I Discovered America

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2002

“How would I get to India?” I asked a sailor friend.

“Sail east,” he answered.

“But didn’t Columbus sail west looking for India?”

“Yes, but look, there are mountains to the west. You would have to sail around America.”

“What about the Northwest Passage?” I insisted. “No one has found it yet. I believe that I could get to India by sailing west, just like Columbus.”

“But Columbus never got to India,” he said, and it occurred to me that my sailor friend had never been to India either. Every adventurer has doubters, thorns in the side, and I had mine. It was time to stop listening to well-meaning advice and start packing.

It was an auspicious day when I set sail down the Potomac River. I loaded the boat with plenty of beer, tasty snacks, and shiny balloons that I would offer as gifts to the natives when I arrived in India.

On only the second day of my voyage, the river emptied into a body of water so big that I could not see the other side. “So this is the ocean!” I exclaimed. I studied my compass for a moment and then steered north. Where so many others had failed, I knew I would succeed in finding the Northwest Passage.

Two days later, my wife called on the cell phone to ask when I was going to turn around and come home. She was rather insistent that I do so right away. “One more day,” I said, “and I will give you a new world.”

Then, providentially, I saw a river leading to the northwest. I hailed a boat going the other way. “What river is this?” I asked.

“The Patapsco.”


“It’s an Indian name.”

“Thank you! Thank you very, very much!” So I was on the right trail! India lay up this river!

Although technically I had not promised to turn around if I did not reach India within one day, I knew that time was running out. However, the farther I sailed, the narrower the river got, until I could see that I was approaching a great city, probably Bombay.

With growing excitement I entered the harbor, and I could see that the shores were full of natives wearing colorful clothing. There was a palace-like tower with the words “Bromo Seltzer,” which I guess was Sanskrit for “Welcome to India.” Maybe that building was the Taj Mahal.

When I stepped ashore, I noticed that all the people looked like Americans. This was odd. And there was a sign reading “Information,” in English! Then I remembered that the English had ruled India for many years, and this must be their legacy. I stepped up to the booth and said, “I would like to see the Indians.”

“Oh, you just missed them,” said a woman in Western garb. “They were in town yesterday. But you could see the Redskins play.”

Indians, Redskins: it sounded like the same thing to me, so I thanked her and hailed a taxicab, which was an automobile, not one of the bicycle taxis I expected. “Take me to the Redskins,” I said, carefully pulling my shiny balloons into the car. When we reached the home of the Redskins, there was a festival going on, with people partying and eating, all wearing the national colors of India: red and gold.

Then a man came up and took a balloon right out of my hand, and handed me a five-dollar bill. Someone else did the same, and it kept happening till all the balloons were gone. I had encountered the fabled riches of the Orient!

Then I went to see what I had come for: the Indians (or Redskins) themselves. The national sport of India is something like a bullfight without the bull, and unfortunately the Redskins lost. But I had already seen enough to write ten articles for National Geographic. When I began my voyage home, I knew that I had earned my place in the history books.

Steve Dunham is a world explorer but was cheated out of having his name on any of the maps.

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