"You can look it up," my grandfather used to say. This was usually about something rather bizarre, like his claims to have seen Steve Brodie jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. Brodie may or may not have jumped in July 1886, but Pop wasn't born until 1888, so looking it up wasn't the whole story here. He also told many other wild tales, many of which were spun in the tenements where he grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but the one that fascinated me the most related to Christopher Columbus: he said that one Giovanni Lana, a shepherd by trade as well as a fisherman, accompanied Columbus on his first voyage in 1492. After first hearing this when I was a little boy, I have been fascinated by the story of Columbus ever since.
As an Italian-American, I enjoyed thinking that the great Italian explorer "discovered" America (with my ancestor tagging along), following in the footsteps of another great paisano Marco Polo who "discovered" China. The truth is, as many have pointed out, that China was there all along, as was America. Polo didn't discover it, but he opened a door and that was the importance of his travels there, no doubt inspiring many others who came after him, including Columbus.
Even if Columbus didn't discover America, he did something much more important: he created a new world. He dared to do something that others before him would not: he crossed the forbidden sea despite rumors of sea monsters and the fear of falling off the end of the earth. When I think of Columbus, I always remember a painting of him I saw in a book: he was making his case for the journey as he stood before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. He supposedly produced an orange that was meant to show them that the world was round, not flat, and he explained how he would sail around the globe to reach India. He was so convincing that they believed him and financed the voyage, and Columbus set sail and faced the tempests and monsters in his quest for fame and fortune.