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Are You The Verb, Or An Adjective?

[I’m recycling this from a year ago. I am reminded recently that for a great deal of my life, I was pointed towards, and assumed to be, part of the Cadre of The Adjective. I know what it is to be a sort of human filing cabinet. But no man knows very much, generally. Knowledge is not wisdom. It’s great to be Shakespeare, but even he would tell you he’s not Hamlet.

Writing is, in a sense, Being the Adjective. Modifying a little perhaps, but only descriptive. I always bridled at it; I chafed in the intellectual harness. I longed to be the verb. It’s gotten me into all kinds of marvelous trouble over the years. I’ve decided that I’m now at least entitled to be an adverb.]

When I was a lad, and Johnson was president, most middle class basements were identical. The concrete was left exposed, the washer and dryer stood guard, one bare bulb illuminated the whole affair. Most men had a workshop of some sort down there. A venerable cast iron Craftsman table saw. Peg board, of course; pegboard was the ne plus ultra of the handy set. Kids, you’re officially old when you remember when pegboard was state of the art. A few dull hand planes, perhaps a drill press, a circular saw with the original blade, a jig saw about as sturdy looking as an electric carving knife. Screwdrivers, lots and lots of screwdrivers. And baby food jars filled with wood screws, all still there unused, because the drywall screw came like a horde out of the east and swept the landscape bare of flat headed screws.

And what was that basement shop for? Why, to build a boat of course.

The plans were everywhere in the fifties and sixties. Popular Mechanics, Outdoor Life, National Fisherman, Green Stamp Catalogs. You do remember Green Stamps, don’t you? You bought stuff, they gave you little stamps, you pasted them in their book, and redeemed them for worthless household stuff. It was the voluntary American version of the chit system that had its compulsory version in the USSR, with Russians standing in line for days to get a block of suet to eat.

The stories of the boat made in the basement, too big to get it out through the bulkhead, probably became cliche because because they were so true and so numerous. And many people succumbed to the siren song of the boatbuilding urge, only to founder on the Scylla of the lack of spare time and the Charybdis of lack of talent.

And why should I be any different? When I went to college for Architecture, on the first day of our design class, our teachers demanded: design your dream house. Right now. Before the end of the class. Now I thought I was there to learn how to design my dream house, with the help of these gentlemen, and then perhaps try my hand at it. But these fellows had other ideas. They seemed to have the same approach to teaching that modern singers have singing the National Anthem- I don’t know the words, the song is about me, and I’m starting on the last note and going up in volume and histrionics from there.

Anyway, I sketched what is essentially an accurate representation of the home I live in now, with a little handmade boat in the yard. The ocean in the drawing was a little closer then than it is in reality now, because each eighth of a mile towards the water adds another zero to the vapor trail of zeros houses cost anyway. But in all major respects, it was spot on, two decades in advance. And they said:

Philistine.

Only they weren’t that pleasant about it. My little dream was too, well, normal for the two men in clogs, and they told me so. With force.

As my classmates, who were wiser than me, scribbled furiously, designing concrete and steel and chain link and glass and stone monstrosities, with hot and cold running potato chips, I pondered my dilemma. What would make these guys happy? And then I hit upon it.

Thirty minutes later, I showed them my new castle. I was half a geodesic sphere, plopped down bizarrely in the mountains. It was the human equivalent of a fishbowl. There were no interior partitions. Anyone inside would be roasted like an ant with magnifying glass held over them.

They loved it. They showed it to everybody else in the class. How forward looking. How brave.

On the way out of the class, the light began to dawn on one of the teachers. He asked me, where’s the bathroom? It seemed to be the first time he had considered the second most fundamental human need.

I had my “A” in hand already. I could, and did, tell him: “There’s a hole in the middle of the floor,” and left.

From Nothing

People make nests of all sorts. It’s still possible to choose a wide array of living situations in the United States, and make yourself as happy as we imperfect beasts can be.

I don’t know exactly how to describe our place, and the place it’s in. Some would call our town a suburb. The word “exurb” came into favor while we were living here, and fits better, but not quite. Others would have called it rural a half century ago. It’s just a cottage in the woods to us.

Sprawl. McMansion. Development. These are epithets thrown at one another in permitting authority meetings nowadays. It’s getting harder to do what you want with your property. There is a very elaborate set of hoops that must be navigated if you want to build what we built here, on a miserable patch of poison ivy, ten years ago. Most of the hoops have been added recently, and essentially make what we did impossible now. If you managed to lawyer and engineer your way through the labrynth of government now, a fee would be charged, part of which would go towards helping keep housing “affordable” in the town.

Every thing offered for sale in this town sells in five minutes. By definition, that’s affordable — someone can afford it, and thinks enough of the town to pay it to live here. By “affordable,” they really mean there’s gotta be cheap housing. Well, my house was cheap, when I built it. All the restrictions put on what can be done buildingwise in the intervening decade have made the land it sits on fabulously expensive to the point of unavailability. And no one in their right mind is going to pay a third of a million dollars for a building lot and build a hundred thousand dollar house on it. And no bank will lend you money to develop a lot unless the finished product is worth three times the raw lot, minimum. It’s the law of unintended consequences– that which you’ve made impossible you try to subsidize. A town is not a zoo. People should not be kept as exhibits.

It’s not too long ago that most people were farmers. Subsistence farmers, at that. And a farm is not like what you see on Charlotte’s Web. Subsistence farms take up a lot of room, require Hiroshima style land clearing, and are famously bad for anything that lives near them that walks on four legs. An interesting conundrum for vegetarians to consider is that many more animals are killed when a farmer runs a harvester over a field than when a cow is slaughtered. Are not moles and voles and woodchucks and all their furry brethren a beating heart in a fur sack, just like that surly leather bag full of bones, the steer? Avert your eyes from the cats all farms have too; Chip and Dale appear in their mouths with astonishing regularity.

No one subsistence farms any more. Almost no one farms in any fashion in the Northeast anymore, compared to just fifty years ago. And the houses of the people that big time agriculture elsewhere can support, that dot the landscape and annoy the NIMBYs, take up far less land than the few farms that used to make a treeless brown corduroy patchwork quilt of the map. I live on what used to be a five acre pasture, once completely denuded of trees for grazing livestock, just 75 years ago. Three quarters of it is covered with dense forest now, and will remain so.

I look at that luminous black and white photo of a little homestead in Texas seventy years ago, with the baby in the pram, and the neat white cottage — nothing special, but an unbelievable luxury for the new occupants, no doubt — and see myself and my family. That little wisp of a tree that they’ve planted, probably with a little ceremony, likely shades that house now, and reminds its current occupants that some take the long view, and plant a tree; others pass laws against cutting them down. They work for the same ends, though they do not know it.

What Did You Know, and When Did You Know It?

An extraordinary, terrifying, and wonderful thing happened yesterday.

Sunday afternoon is generally pleasant. We tinker with projects around our house, in a desultory fashion generally. “I help! I help!” is welcome, of course, but it’s the harbinger of many attitudes, few of which look like efficiency. The trip can become all journey and no destination. Then again, the Sunday Drive of my youth was just the same. To wander with intent but not purpose — delightful.

My head was jammed inside a cabinet, trying to reconfigure the components to play more than Scooby Doo VCR tapes. Occasionally small feet would trod on my legs, and now and again the flashlight would be withdrawn, unwonted, and its gradually weakening beam would play wildly over the living room ceiling, herky jerky, and then be returned to me the way Jim Lonborg would “return” the baseball to Elston Howard. Like a Brobdinagian in Lillliput, pinned down and annoyed, I soldiered, and soldered, on.

My two sons are seven years apart in age, which elicits much conjecture about the compatibility of their interests. Let me assure you their interests are much the same; whacking on each other, stepping on their father here and there, and delighting and tiring out their mother. And the older looks out for the younger better than if they were more contemporary in age. We do not worry much, when they are together.

But a sound came from their room. My wife and I know all the sounds. Having children is like having a bowling alley installed in your head, said Martin Mull. He didn’t know the half of it. He spoke too soon, likely never dreaming that the older half of the bowling alley would take up the trombone to drive home the point.

But this sound fit in no slot in the catalogue of tintinnabulation we had stored in our heads — all the possible permutations of din available to two young boys. It sounded wrong, and desperate; we knew that immediately.

My wife sprinted up the stairs to the ten year old’s room. I couldn’t extricate myself; I struggled to get to my feet. I arrived maybe fifteen seconds behind her. We didn’t use ten stairs between us.

The little one, barely three, stood in the middle of the room, eyes glassy, hands at his neck, face darkening, and with his ten year old brother behind him, arms clasped around his brother’s chest from behind, trying to squeeze him — trying save his little brother’s life.

Your mind does not wander at such a time, exactly, but certain possibilities occur to you, so dark, so treacherous, so dreadful, that to picture them is to look into the abyss. Be careful of that, Nietzsche says; eventually the abyss looks back at you.

As I said, the mind does not wander. But your mind does become a sort of filing clerk — inefficient, disorganized, not lazy but hardly a help sometimes — and goes searching through everything in that dusty old heap of half remembered facts, prejudices, and habits we call our intellects.

Grab the boy. He’s limp now. Turn him around. Sweep your finger through his mouth. Far too late for that. Right hand, thumb cocked in at the knuckle. Place it beneath the breastbone, thumb knuckle in. Left hand grasps right wrist. Bend slightly forward. Then sharply pull up and in, hard enough to work, not hard enough to break him. One. Nothing. Two. Nothing. Three. Nothing. Four.

Hungry Hungry Hippos. The perfect white plastic sphere appears, covered in spit.

He’s upset, like a boy barely three often is, and wants a drink of water. His ten year old brother is upset in a different fashion, and is consoled by his mother. I — I’m grateful, I guess. The little one begins to eat crackers from his lunch plate, and watches Felix the Cat.

There have been times in my life when if I failed, I’d get a D on my report card, and a stern look from my father. Other times, if I failed, my leg would be broken or my tooth knocked out. Later, if I failed I could be booed and jeered in front of hundreds of people. Perhaps if I failed, people would have to look for new jobs, including me. I’ve failed ten times before breakfast, as the saying goes, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been faced with the life I pictured, just for an instant, in my mind’s darkling eye, with my boy in my arms — if I failed.

What do you know, and when did you know it?

We found the big brother in the bathroom late that night, weeping. I sent his mother away, and put him to bed. I asked him: how did you know how to help your brother?

I read it in a book in the library.

Who gave you that book?

I found it myself. But I couldn’t do it.

Your brother is OK. You helped him. You saved him. Just like you saved your father seven years ago, though you do not remember it. You found me, unconscious on the floor in my room, the stingers of the deadly bees still hot in my leg, found me gasping like a fish on the beach, and you got your mother and you saved me. You saved me, to help you to save your brother.

You are not a little boy any more. I can tell you now, that all any man wants is to be able to think, in a moment of repose, that his son is a better man than he. You are, and I am content. Go to sleep, and dream of your brother and you in the playground.

He slept soundly. I laid in bed for a long time, wondering: What do I need to know, and when will I need to know it?

Hardy Perennial

It’s my wife’s birthday again. I cannot explain it, but I will report it: I never get tired of my wife.

In many ways, I am a tiresome person. There’s something of the extrovert of biblical proportions to my makeup. As the saying goes, I want to be the corpse at every funeral, and the bride at every wedding. My wife is like the antidote to me. She is quiet, polite, and deferential, and is funny, but not music hall funny. Quiet funny.

We have children of course; the tie that binds. That idea — the tie that binds– is not as de rigeur as it once was. But the ties that bind my wife and I together are so strong, and so numerous, that I cannot picture them broken; and as time has passed, I’ve come to understand the elderly women who used to sit in the back of the Catholic church wearing black every day of their lives after their husbands had passed away. Would it be any different for me? There are holes that cannot be filled.

But no gloom today, please. She is radiant, and occasionally when we are all sated and content, she gets a moment at the table, alone with her thoughts. I see her and I know others settle for cut flowers, pretty, fresh, ephemeral. She is all that, but more too: she blooms daily, year after year, and will brighten the world long after she and I are gone, endlessly bestowing the solid good sense and grace she inculcates in her children, and through them who knows how many more.

I’m gratified she keeps me around. Like the cat, I do not understand why; I simply empty the bowls and purr.

The Prosecution Rests, Your Honor

Well, we told you earlier this week, and last year too, that Michael Jackson could sing. When Nixon was President.

Well…

Poor Jermaine. That’s him singing call and response with his little brother and playing that crummy Gibson bass. Plaid pants with cuffs and big flares were all the rage then, so be try not to be too hard on him. Jermaine was the original lead singer, and if he’s not actually playing that song, he could be; his hands are fingering the correct notes we’re hearing. It does at least have a cord plugged into it.

Jermaine’s like the swimsuit model that has a child and shows up for her first postpartum photo shoot and notices the catalog has a scrawny teenager with a pneumatic rack on the payroll now. Days. Are. Numbered.

Jackie and Marlon look like they’re gonna get a beating after the show.

Death to the Zancudos

Good day everyone.

First, some housecleaning. Commenter Reader_iam brought to my attention a script glitch about the comments doohickie gizmo. Bravo she. The rest of you suffered in silence. I am proud of my audience of stoics, and grateful to Reader_iam at the same time.

If you’ve been receiving an e-mail error message after commenting here, it’s nothing personal. Your humble narrator is of course unfit for polite society and lashes out, left and right, at almost everything that comes into his view, but it doesn’t manifest itself by me hurling a bizarre e-mail error message back at you. Yet. As they say in the Godfather, it’s not personal, it’s strictly business.

We believe we have corrected the situation, and as far as the fellow in charge of our technical side, let’s just say the swamp here is very large, and it’s unlikely they’ll ever find him.

Now, to the business at hand. If you read the headline today, you’re figuring I’m throwing in my lot with some Zapatistas, or I’ve taken to the hills to battle some caudillo. Not so. Zancudo is the word a south american native would use to describe what colonial europeans called a gnat, and we call by its Spanish appellation: the mosquito.

I write amusing commentary for the fine computer hardware website HotHardware.com, and this week’s installment is called Death to the Zancudos. Believe me, here in the swamp, I know about mosquitoes. But it’s about more than that, this story. It’s about using your noggin to solve your problems. It’s a clarion call for New Thinkers. Won’t you answer the call?

All Hail Micheline Bernardini

Author’s Note: I received several hundred extra unexplained visits to my Sippican Cottage Furniture page two days ago, and they were looking for Micheline Bernardini. Apparently Fox News did a little style info item about the 60th anniviersary of the invention of the bikini. And if you search google images for the lovely lady’s picture, Sippican Cottage Furniture comes up second. The Fox item was on the main page of Fark as well, a raucus and profane news aggregator and message board, which is the biggest thing of its kind on the Internet. If the link was direct to me, it would have melted the servers.

July 5th is the actual anniversary, and I wrote about it on July 5th, 2005. That was back when I didn’t have an official blog, I had invented my own, of sorts, as “What’s New” on my own webpage. But Blogger’s Free, so now we have both. The big newsies are so behind the blogworld. Their audience seems somewhat larger than mine, though. Anyway, I reprint it here now for your amusement, and as I said last year, Micheline looks quite fetching, doesn’t she?

July 5th, 2005-
Good day to you. I trust you all had a wonderful time celebrating the Fourth of July. The weather was extremely clement yesterday, and the yard beckoned, and we answered. Lovely.
But now, is the thrill gone? I feared so, and began to wonder- What is the Fifth of July an anniversary for? Anything? Bueller?

Well, I didn’t really mean anything. I meant something really notable, or fun, or important. I looked around, but it all seemed trivial, all the July 5ths through the ages:

In 1687, Sir Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica. But Einstein shot that all to hell and ruined it for the rest of us.

In 1830, France invaded Algeria, lord knows why.

In 1920, Algeria declared its independence from France, lord knows why. But they’ve got that going for them.

In 1954, Elvis made his first recording, “The Blue Moon of Kentucky.” I didn’t hear that being covered at Live8, so I guess he’s not noteworthy, huh?

In 1884, Germany, no doubt envious of the Garden of Eden the French had found in Algeria, invaded Cameroon. They must have lost interest in the place on one of the other 364 days of the year, July 5th calendars are mute on the subject.

In 1811. Venezuela declared its independence from Spain, but waited until 2004 to declare its independence from any form of work not based on oil receipts and warmed over Castro politics.

In short, I was going to have to think of something else to bore you with on July fifth. Until…
Omigod. 1946. THE INVENTION OF THE BIKINI. Hosannahs and ululations! Cinco De Mayo, Independence Day, gosh darnit, Christmas is nothing compared to that! Before 1946, ladies bathing suits were designed by the Taliban. And then- France, still stinging from their expulsion from Algeria, no doubt, decided to attract some attention to themselves the old fashioned way, by disrobing, and c’est magnifique! they gave us the most expensive garment per square inch in the world, and worth every penny, I say.

Now, to be a real bikini, we’ve got to look at that belly button. Various two piece swimsuits had been in vogue in Hollywood, for instance, before 1946, but It took Louis Reard, in Paris, France to get the girls out on the beach properly in a getup worthy of tanning in. Here it is, fashioned by one of the few women brave enough in 1946 France to model it. In 2005, we’re having trouble getting anyone to wear at least this much when sunbathing:

Click anywhere on the picture (no wise comments, you) and you’ll be transported to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, and read all about Monsieur Reard and ol’ Michele Bernardini, the model, and lots of other interesting stuff about the Bikini Atoll, the islet in the Pacific the garb is named for, and our now thankfully forgotten habit of dropping atomic bombs on it.

And for all you Haute Couture weirdos infesting Paris right now, here’s my two cents: That picture was taken in 1946. Miss Bernadini looks quite fetching in that rig, and comfortable to boot. A woman wearing that suit would feel feminine, and attractive, not exhibitionist. And men don’t really need to see any more than that to get the general idea. So the next time you people get the urge to reinvent the bathing suit wheel again, like you do every year, and make it look like your model is wearing a bag, or a couple of bottle caps, or a window screen, or little boy’s pants, or little more than postage for an undersized envelope, look up this picture, and repeat after me:

Quit while you’re ahead.

Let’s Play Two

Now when I was a kid, baseball was different. I’m not ancient, so you’ll be relieved to know there’ll be no talk of stickball in a Brooklyn street or Ty Cobb’s sharpened spikes. The players we admired on our playing cards are coaches now, not dead. And the playing cards we had were worthless, and the gum was precious, thank God, so we enjoyed them, and flipped them for Face up/Facedown on the bus seats on the way to school, or lined them up against the old brick wall in the playground and played Knockdown. And we gave shopping bags and shoe boxes filled with them to our cousins and younger brothers when we came of age, and laugh when we think of the fortune just one of those cards commands from memorabilia freaks now.

We did not have uniforms. We played with baseballs that looked much older than us, and cracked wooden bats with electrical tape holding them together, and had to mow the field before we could play on it. There were never enough of us, so we pitched to our own team members, and right field was an out. Period. And more often than not, right field went unmowed, too. We played in jeans and canvas sneakers, and a hole in the knee of your pants wasn’t yet stylish, it was a calamity when you had to face your mother, who knew what they cost. And we played until we heard our mothers yell our names for the second time, like a town crier, and hurried home to a scolding for tarrying, and dinner.

All of that is gone now, like so many things, changed by time, and prosperity, and other things. Our mothers thought nothing of turning us out of doors at daylight in the summer, though we were but small, because forty years ago, someone who would hurt a child would have more problems in this world than registering at the police station, and paying their lawyers. And we mowed the grass ourselves, with a mower that shot gravel out the unbaffled chute at our confederates, and we could barely reach up to the handle to push it, and we didn’t maim ourselves, and sue anybody, that I recall. And we settled the rules first and our disputes later among ourselves without the guiding hand of our parents, except what little sense they had managed to get into our heads, and rarely resorted to knuckles. Funny that. We had it sorted out in 1965, when we were but children, but forty years later we assault the umpires at our children’s games. Something was there, and has slipped away, I think.

I remember lots of things about that little diamond, carved out of the trees as an afterthought by the developer of our little neighborhood, long before the word “developer” became an epithet hurled at conservation committee meetings by people who live in houses made by a “builder.” The builder and the developer look identical to the unaided eye, but people who already have a house have a different perspective, and thesaurus, than those that need one.

And I remember Cookie. Now, our children should be collecting Cookie’s rookie trading cards, to put them through college when they sell them on ebay, and not community college either. But it was not to be. Because Cookie, although the greatest baseball player I ever saw, didn’t want to be a professional ballplayer. He wanted to be a barber.

Now that last sentence clanged to the floor at your house, and you thought: He’s kidding, or he’s nuts. Well, I’m not kidding, anyhow. Cookie wouldn’t have it if it was offered.

Now, Cookie was a little older than us, and that brought out the Paul Bunyan side of it a little I’m sure. Remember when you thought your father could lift a car, or paint the house by having you hold the brush while he moved the house up and down? Later you found out he was just another middle aged guy that emitted an audible gasp every time he sat down. Well, I’m sure that entered into it a little, that perspective from down where the little kids are, looking at big Cookie, but that wasn’t all of it. He really was a wonder, I think.

Cookie would show up when we had been playing all day, and to this day I don’t know his last name, or where he came from, or where he went to after he was done. But every time he came, we stopped whatever we were doing, and Cookie put on a Ruthian barnstorming exhibition. The biggest kid among us would pitch to Cookie, and the rest of us would scatter into the woods beyond the field, and wait for the balls to rain down on us. Because Cookie was a machine for hitting home runs. If the pitcher would wince during his delivery, human nature being what it is, knowing the ball might be coming back those 60′ 6″ in a big hurry- he’d maybe sail the ball wide and three feet off the plate. It didn’t matter. Cookie would step on the plate, and lean over, and flick his wrists, and it would rain down into the woods, every time.

And with Cookie, right field was in play for once, after a fashion. We’d grow tired of fishing our precious baseballs out of the oaks and poison ivy in center field, and beseech Cookie for a real show, and he’d get up lefty, his switch hitting a revelation to us, and hit it out over the unmowed grass. Right field had no natural end, so the balls would roll when they hit, like cannonballs that had missed their fortress, but occasionally Cookie would clear the whole distance, and hit the pavement at the foot of the road that entered the field. And we’d ululate like madmen, and didn’t care our precious baseball was no longer round. We adored him.

Cookie even sort of looked the part, if I recall correctly. The major leagues were filled with midwestern farmboy looking lummoxes like Mantle and Killebrew back then, and Cookie had the rangy frame, reddish blond stubble head, loping strides and laconic demeanor of our icons.
But with glasses. But not coke bottle glasses. Those wouldn’t have brought a billboard into focus for Cookie. Cookie had the sort of glasses that seemed like the windows on a deep sea submarine. It was disorienting just to look at him, and if the barbering trade didn’t fly, I imagine mesmerism would have been a cakewalk for him.

And perhaps Cookie knew what we, in our innocence, did not; that his eyesight would forever make him an also-ran, and it was best not to dream overmuch and better to make use of your gifts to amuse your neighbors and spice your life than to try to squeeze every drop of mammon from them. Maybe. But I really think that Cookie didn’t care if he became what was to us an exalted thing: A big league ballplayer. He wasn’t interested. He wanted to be a barber, and that was that.

I recall reading a story about Eisenhower when he was young and a cadet at West Point, and not yet the general who beat the Axis armies or the President who presided over my birth, though perhaps he did not notice it. He was no longer a “plebe” then, and was allowed to order the newcomers around, and haze them, as he had been hazed the year before. And for amusement, he picked out a goofy looking recruit, and made him stand at attention in front of his peers, and lambasted him, for no good reason, simply because it was expected of him. And he wrote in his memoirs, that he always remembered, to his shame, that as a capstone to his string of abuse, he asked the plebe what he did in his civilian life before he entered West Point, because he seemed such a numbskull that he couldn’t be more than a barber. And the man, showing no emotion, but feeling some, no doubt, answered that he was indeed a barber in his short pre-military working life.

Eisenhower wrote that he had never known real shame before that, and he remembered that moment for the rest of his life, when he had disparaged the honest toil and effort of his fellow man. And he said he owed that man a great debt, though he couldn’t remember his name, and he never again wanted to look down his nose on any man.

Cookie, if you’re listening. I’m sure you’re a terrific barber.

Silence Dogood Would Understand

1706.

  • A council of officials of uncertain importance decided that since Emperor Iyasus of Ethiopia had retired to a monastery, they could appoint Tekle Haymanot I to be the Emperor.
  • Over in Ramillies, the War of the Spanish succession had English, Dutch, and German troops defeating the French. They’d mix themselves up and fight one another in one form or fashion for 250 years or so.
  • George Farquar had gotten over stabbing another actor during a swordfight, and was wowing them on Drury Lane with his play: The Recruiting Officer. 
  • John Machin the mathemetician was getting a little notoriety for computing pi to 100 decimal places.

And in Boston, Massachusetts, Josiah Franklin wiped the tallow renderings from his soap and candle manufactory off his hands, and held his newborn son – his tenth: Benjamin.

He’d have seven more children, too. But it’s Ben Franklin we all remember, because he’s the most American man that ever lived.

Franklin did every damn thing, and did it well. He wasn’t educated formally much — his father only had enough money for one year at Boston Latin –but Ben became an autodidact, and read voraciously. When Benjamin was fifteen, his older brother James started the first newspaper in Boston, the Courant. Ben was forced to do menial work only; setting type, sweeping up, and selling the papers in the street, which bugged him. So he invented a nom du plume, “Silence Dogood,” and started writing editorial letters about matters divers and sundry in the colony, and especially how poorly a woman like her was treated.

Ben would slip the screeds under the door of the shop at night, and his brother would print them in the paper. They were a big hit, and everyone wanted to know: Who was Silence Dogood? Ben knew he had catapulted his brother’s paper to prominence, and figured he’d admit his ruse to his brother and claim his place as a writer for the paper.

His brother hit him.

Back to the compositor’s bench. Eventually James got thrown in jail for annoying the local clergy about smallpox vaccinations, of all things, and Ben got to run the paper until they let his brother out of jail. He did a great job, and asked his brother if now he could write for the paper.

His brother hit him.

This grew tiresome. So he ran away to Philadelphia, on foot, though it was illegal to do so at the time — it made him a vagrant. Eventually he found a job working at the local printer. But that first day, he spent his last money on a few stale rolls, and sat eating them –wet, disheveled, footsore, broke, in a strange city — and still managed to attract the attention of the woman he’d marry seven years later: Deborah Read. And all that was before his eighteenth birthday.

Benjamin’s 300th birthday anniversary is this year, and the rest of his life is being endlessly dissected and pawed over for the glory and good sense in it, and like a very few men, his life can take almost endless scrutiny without running out of things to look at. I’ll leave the rest to others. But I had an adventure with Ben, and I’d like to share it.

I grew up in the first town in America named for Ben Franklin. It was part of Wrentham, which originally was part of Dedham, Massachusetts, but in 1738, when they got themselves a Congregational parish, they decided to break away, and call the new town Exeter. Later, someone got the bright idea that if they offered to flatter the most famous — and one of the richest — men in America, Ben Franklin, by offering to name the town after him, maybe they could flatter enough money out of the old patriot for a bell for their church steeple.

“Sense is preferable to sound,” Franklin wrote back, and sent them a crate of books instead. And so the first public library in the country was born. The town had other benefactors over the years, and in 1904, the daughters of the most prominent family in Franklin, the Rays, dedicated a magnificent NeoClassical library to honor their parents.

I spent more hours in that library than all the Italian stonemasons the Rays imported to build it ever did, combined. I haunted it. It looked almost exactly like the picture you see above when I was a child. How could you not know that books and words and scholarship were a noble and important thing when you sat in that magnificent reading room under the watchful eyes of the semi-nudes in the mural? You know, the formerly nude figures that Tommaso Juglaris had to return to paint additional clothes on, to shut the old biddy Ray sisters up.

A book was an expensive and rare thing for us then. I could list every book in my house in 1964 right now; it wouldn’t take long. I read eveything in the children’s library by the time I was seven. I wanted to go upstairs, where the adult books were, when adult books meant something else than they do now. They told me I was too young and I’d tear the pages from the books or put lollipops in the card files or roller skate around in there or something; my mother had to go and explain to them that I needed to see more than the four newspapers my father would bring home every night. They relented.

The library had massive bronze doors with big rings you had to turn to enter, and at first I was too small and had to wait for someone to enter or exit, and I’d dart in. It was a temple, and I was a votary. And there, in the reading room, were Ben Franklin’s Books. The books were just stuck in a glass-doored cabinet in the reading room. I had read every damn thing in that library, including all the encyclopedias. I had walked past Franklin’s books hundreds of times, and watched others go past them without giving them a glance thousands of times.

Like the Spanish Prisoner story, one day I just tried opening it. It was unlocked. It was a wonder no one, including me, had ever thought of that before. I get the feeling Ben Franklin was cleaning out his back room when he donated the books. No matter. I don’t remember exactly what any of them were. They’ve blended together with all the others I scoured for the next thing I wanted to know, and the next, and the one after that. And I put them back without anyone ever knowing. But I knew.

The library’s still there, because stone don’t burn; most every other stately Victorian era house the Rays built in town has been burned down by the dissipated Dean College students who eventually used them as dormitories. I wandered through the library a few years ago. They’ve ruined it of course; it’s full of lousy books and rental movies I’d cross the street to avoid seeing, crummy furniture and computers no one needs in a library much. And Franklin’s books aren’t out where you can see them any more.

What gets into your mind? Where does the inspiration come from? What gave me the idea I wanted to look at those books like the damned want icewater? Beats me. Why do you walk to Philadelphia and buy rolls? I can tell you it was fun to hold them in my hands, all those years ago, and think about the man that sent them, through the ages, for me.

Silence Dogood would understand.

Month: April 2006

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