One day I asked my two youngest children what they had learned in school. This was years ago, but I still remember their replies.

My son, who was in middle school, told me there was no life during the Precambrian era. He said it with such conviction that I didn’t know if he was informing me, testing me, or kidding me. I was familiar with the Jurassic period because of a certain movie, but my knowledge of Precambrian was fuzzy at best.

Inspired, no doubt, by the uncertain look on my face, my daughter announced that George Washington was not the first president. John Hanson was.

I knew she was kidding – George Washington was undoubtedly the first president – so I figured my son must also be kidding.

But no. He said, “Precambrian makes up over 80 percent of Earth’s history. There might have been bacteria then, but there were no trilobites. Those came during the Paleozoic Era.”



And my daughter admitted that Washington was, in fact, the first president of the United States. (I knew it!)

“However,”  she said, “during the Revolutionary War when the Articles of Confederation were in effect, there was a series of presidents. John Hanson was the first.”


My children are now grown and out of the house, but my befuddlement continues. My 11-year-old granddaughter, who is learning to play drums, said that during the Revolutionary War, drummers used their instruments to transmit orders.

She’s young, I thought, so it’s okay if she’s confused about the role of drummers in early warfare. Everyone knows that armies used bugles for signaling, not drums.

“When armies were marching,” she said, “soldiers in the back couldn’t see or hear the officers’ orders, so drummers had special beats they would play to tell the army which way to turn or what was about to happen.”


I glanced at my wife, who gave me a shrug. What could I do but look it up? Our granddaughter, it turned out, was right.

One of the more interesting references I found was “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States” by Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, published in 1779. In Chapter XXI (Of the Different Beats of the Drum), it lists signals for 15 different orders.

It also includes this bit of instruction: “The drummers will practice a hundred paces in front of the battalion, at the hours fixed by the adjutant general; and any drummer found beating at any other time (except ordered) shall be punished.”

A good reference is a site called Historic Drumming ( It includes a page of instructions for becoming a drummer for Revolutionary War reenactments.

Because the drum was low in pitch, it could be heard even in battle. And it wasn’t just during the Revolutionary War that drums were used for signaling, they filled a similar role during the Civil War.

How did I get to be a grandfather and not know all this? I think I may be Precambrian.

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