Gifford Lemaster gave the lug wrench a final spin, let the nut fall to the ground and wiped his brow.
"Yeah, I can sing 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' " he said, turning away from the flat tire he was fixing. " 'Oh, say can you see, by the danserly light.' "
"Yeah, danserly," said Lemaster, 41.
"I think that was one of the battles they fought -- for freedom."
Standing above him, 78-year-old Ethel Eaton sighed: "Well, they don't teach them that stuff in school anymore."
While Lemaster and his buddy Paul Hawes joined others around Baltimore yesterday in displaying a somewhat precarious knowledge of American history on the eve of Independence Day, Eaton noted that they embodied true American spirit.
It was Eaton's flat tire the pair stopped to fix after it ruptured on her way home from church.
"They saw me walking and asked if they could help," said Eaton. "That's American."
Europeans have long lambasted Americans for not knowing the details of our nation's heritage. A new survey from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation found that only 29 percent of adults nationwide know that the Declaration of Independence guarantees inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Yesterday, residents of the town where "The Star-Spangled Banner" was born offered a plethora of excuses for such ignorance.
U.S. history is too tricky, one argued, with all those wars and all. Schools don't teach history they way they used to. Naturally, television is to blame.
"The war of independence was fought so that we could have free speech," said Linard Cherry, 18, out walking with his mother, Sharon Quarles, after buying soft drinks from a 7-Eleven in Brooklyn Park.
Quarles gave her son a quizzical look, seemed about to say something, then hesitated.
"Yes," he said assuredly. "Free speech from the British, or maybe it was the French."
"Life, liberty and justice," he said, tapping his finger on his red Big Gulp cup. "Oh, wait, and to be happy. Yeah, wait, it's life, liberty and the pursuit of pleasure."
With or without the facts, Baltimoreans said that while folks may not be able to discern John Adams from Benedict Arnold, they know an awful lot of history that rarely appears on a quiz.
Sitting in the leafy shade of Mount Vernon Place, 40-year-old Robert Joyner wasn't sure whether the first president was Lincoln or Washington, although he eventually picked George over Abe.
But he can tell you about the slave trade in early Baltimore and the Wild West's "buffalo soldiers" -- black veterans who fought with the U.S. Army against Indian tribes in the 1870s and 1880s.
"That's a part of history that wasn't taught to me in school," said Joyner, a homeless man who spends a lot of time in libraries.
"The Declaration of Independence? Technically, that was for y'all," he said -- white people who live in nice houses and have good jobs.
Asbestos worker Darrell Essex, 39, can't tell you that Thomas Jefferson wrote the famous phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence, but he knows what it means.
"That's the American dream, for everybody to be able to have a house, have a job, and who they want to share it with," said Essex, sitting on a bench near Baltimore's Washington Monument. "I think the opportunity arises for a lot of people, and they just don't take it. But it's there."
Social worker Lou Davis, 50, counsels young boys in trouble with the law at Baltimore County's Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, teaching them the history of his generation.
"Peace, love and all that," said Davis as he people-watched in Druid Hill Park. "The movement back then in the '60s. Malcolm X, H. Rap Brown, 'I'm Black and I'm Proud,' the big Afros, the daishiki outfits. That's what they want to hear about. They can't relate to the Boston Tea Party."
Davis' historical heroes are mostly African-American: Benjamin Banneker and George Washington Carver; the turn-of-the-century blacks who founded a small, African-American community in east Towson; the teachers at the tiny, two-story brick schoolhouse he attended there.
"History is the stick my grandmother sent me to get when I was acting up. You know what I mean?" said Davis. "My generation is the one that lost control of the children. That's our history."
John Starling, who lives in a stately Mount Vernon townhouse, is a history ace.
A former English major at the University of Baltimore, the 28-year-old acquired his history from reading novels and serving overseas as a military police officer in the Air Force.
"I've lived in America, England, Germany and Korea," said Starling. "It's taken me 28 years to figure out that America's the place to be."
Opening his arms to the shade-dappled square with its cobblestones and fountain, Starling said: "Look around you. It's beautiful. And you know what else? Walk down the street, you'll see women in long robes and veils, traditional Arab women. You'll see African-Americans, Pakistanis, people from Ireland, Catholics, Muslims, you name it. That's what makes this country special. That's our history now."
John Davis, 27, a former history major, also had his facts down.
He can recite Patrick Henry's famous words -- "Give me liberty or give me death" -- list the original 13 states and name the Founding Fathers.
Putting together a bag of beer and goodies in his Brooklyn Park yard for a picnic with his sister, Davis paused for the final test.
" 'Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light , ' " he belted out. " 'What so proudly we hailed at the dawn's twilight ' or something like that. You know it's no 'Stairway to Heaven,' but it's all right."
And if you don't know who sang "Stairway to Heaven," then you really don't know much about history.
Pub Date: 7/04/98