by FRANKLIN P. ADAMS
IT HAPPENS that I know almost everything, and one of the things that I know is that it just happens; it is chance, and chance alone. You know how it is. You are looking up a definition, or a quotation. What definition? What quotation? I was looking up a word that I had come across in reading, — I always stop when I strike an unfamiliar word, — and the word was nubility. I found that it meant marriageability, but that nubilation meant cloudiness. So I remembered from way back in First Year Latin that nubes, nubis was a cloud, and that nubility came from nubo, the verb from whose participle nuptial is derived. So, as the fellow says, what? Not only useless information, but also dull.
And once I was looking up to prove that it was Isaac Watts and not Reginald Heber who wrote “Little drops of water.” And that was the time that I came across “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” whose music I knew was Arthur Sullivan’s, but whose words, I then found out never to forget, were S. Baring-Gould’s. Better than that, S. for Sabine. Not that these facts, found by accident, are momentous to me. But most of the other things I know have stuck because I am easily diverted from the main search. Not that I am alone. Columbus was looking for India; Hudson for China. Nor did Marconi have an idea that he was going to be responsible for Jack Benny or “Information, Please!” — bless his (Marconi’s) heart! If it didn’t take so much research, I’d like to write a piece called “By-products of Research,” for I have a notion that many of the discoveries, inventions, stories, poems, and even paintings, have been come upon because the creator was trying to do something else.
I know hundreds of poems, if not all the way through, at least the first few lines. On the library table when the table and I were about ten years of age, there was a copy of Bryant ‘s Library of Poetry and Song. There were subdivisions, such as Poems of Love, Poems of Places, and Humorous and Satirical. It was this that I liked and read first, though why they should put the best poems last I couldn’t see.
I never committed anything to memory, but some poems I have read so often that I know them by heart. I think that the first poem that I read was Bret Harte’s “ Plain Language from Truthful James.” And years later, when I was reading Swinburne, I found that
And my language is plain —
That for ways that are dark
And for tricks that are vain,
The Heathen Chinee is peculiar:
Which the same I would rise to explain.
is the same as “Hertha ” and that Bret Harte was putting his poem into
To show light on thy brow
That thou sawest from afar
What I show to thee now?
Have ye spoken as brethren together,
the sun and the mountains and thou?
And I think what mischievous fun Bret Harte must have had when he burlesqued “Man, equal and one with me, man that is made of me, man that is I,” with “Yet he played it that day upon William and me in a way I despise.”
It is worthless knowledge; it helps nobody; it never did me any good; it’ll never help me; and I can’t ever forget it. I know hundreds of irrelevant and equally useless things. I have been at newspaper writing for forty years. What I recall, offhand, is that it is Grand Central Terminal and Pennsylvania Station; that it is Rea Irvin and Irving Berlin and Ervin Wardman and Irvin Cobb and Will Irwin and Hervey Allen. I know that my teachers in Douglas School, Chicago, were Miss Werkmeister, Miss Emily Freiberger, Mrs. Dreyfus, Mrs. Lester, Mrs. Kewley, Miss Pierce, Miss Shoemaker, Mrs. Swarthout, and, best of all, Miss Ellen M. Stowe. At graduation we sang “The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers.” Speaking of songs, I remember “ The Daughter of Officer Porter” because it was sung in 1896 by Lady Sholto Douglas who wore a diamond garter and skirts that showed her knees.
The first complete book I read was Davy and the Goblin, a book inspired by Alice. Yet I never considered Lewis Carroll comparable to Charles Edward Carryl, who wrote Davy, which had “A capital ship for an ocean trip” and “The night was thick and hazy When the Piccadilly Daisy.” Oh, I can go through both of them from memory.
I know many a mathematical formula, and could still arrive at one or two. The only one that I use is the one for arithmetical progression. And that only in rotation pool, as the balls are numbered from 1 to 15. Well, s the sum, n the number, a the first number, and ɭ the last.
s = n (a + ɭ) / 2
Then s = 15 (1 + 15) / 2
s = 240 / 2 = 120
So you know that you have to get 61 points to win.
I know a lot of Latin; and most of it I learned after I left school, though I had a good foundation. But for many years I had a newspaper column to fill, and I had read that Eugene Field, whom all Chicago boys revered, filled his “Sharps and Flats” with translations of Horace. So I did some. And it was fun, though it often took the best part of two days to do eight satisfactory lines, which doesn’t plug much of a columnar gap.
But this I know: what you learn when you’re not trying to learn, when your mind is relaxed, is likely to stick. Years ago I heard somebody say, “’Twas ever thus, from childhood’s happy hour.” People still say it, and I scream. I knew that was wrong, because “happy” made two extra syllables, yet I looked it up. Of course I found that it was “Oh! ever thus.” So I ran a series of Familiar Misquotations, such as “Shall fold their tents like the Arabs, And silently steal away,” when it should be “as silently.” So I developed a passion for accuracy, mostly because I always have hated sloppiness; I hate the person who, because he doesn’t know that the day Fred Merkle didn’t touch second was September 23, 1908, says, “What difference does it make?” None. You may be ignorant of most facts, and careless, and wise; you may have great knowledge and accuracy, and no wisdom. But oftener knowledge and wisdom, in varying degree, are in the same person. As the late Hugh E. Keough said, — I quote him often, and accurately, too, — “The race is not always to the swift, but that is where to look.”
I am a little ashamed when during a broadcast of “Information, Please!” I am able to sing, or recite, the words of some song that was popular in 1897. Well, in those days I went at least once a week to the variety shows then current. Songs lasted longer than they do now; and there was sheet music that everybody had, and nearly everybody played, instead of taking music vicariously on the radio. There were ballads that told stories, and no silly “Hutsut” something or other. Who could help remembering “Just Tell Them That You Saw Me”when it had lines like “‘ Is that you, Madge?’ I said to her. She quickly turned away”?
There seems to be mild astonishment that I should know many of the words and most of the music in the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. In my childhood my father played many of the melodies, and in 1934, when the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company toured the United States, I heard each of them many times. You don’t forget things that you like.
John Kieran was telling some boys at the Gunnery School, Washington, Connecticut, how he knew such a lot about art. “I covered big league baseball for eighteen years,” he said. “Ballplayers and baseball writers are lazy. They don’t do anything till it’s time for the game. I had nothing to do all morning, so I went to the art galleries. There’s at least one in every big league town. You can’t help sopping up a lot of admiration for certain paintings, and then you want to know about the painters.” And he learned French literature by failing to waste two hours a day on the subway for over a year.
Remembering something of what I learned at school makes me a hero to my children. I can explain the solution of a quadratic equation to one, and the ablative absolute to another. Can? I do.
And yet there are things that I don’t know, and expect never to know. I don’t know why I can’t get crisp bacon, strong coffee, or rare beef. No cook believes me. Cooks appear to think that I can’t possibly like it the way they don’t.
I don’t know why a wife says, “Hurry, we’re due at Rodgers’s in ten minutes. I’m all ready,” and you shave, take a bath, and dress, and still she isn’t ready. I don’t know what women do between the times that they are ready and are ready. Or why women hate to be at a station more than a few seconds before train time. I don’t know why anybody of any sex says, “I don’t get time to read,” except that such people simply dislike reading. For everybody throws away at least one hour a day. I don’t know why anybody who has lived in the United States thinks of Hitler as he might think of an unpleasant fellow, and why he doesn’t know that the Hitlerian ambition is so ruthless and cruel that there are still millions of us who can’t yet take in an idea so foreign to anything in our experience. I read about divorce, and I can’t see why two people can’t get along together in harmony, and I see two people and I can’t see how either of them can live with the other. I don’t know why I read so many things — books and magazine and newspaper pieces — written by those who know more about everything than I do about anything. I don’t know who, if not I, first said that —about whom.
I don’t understand the principle of the radio. Nor for that matter the telephone or the telegraph. Don’t explain it to me; I don’t get it.
I don’t know why people tidy up my desk so that I can’t find anything. I don’t know why I don’t slap the next person who asks me, “What’s the use of voting?” I don’t know why some stores or restaurants keep a loud radio going all the time. “Did anybody request this?” I ask. “Request what?” “That the radio be turned on.” “Why, no,” says the proprietor. “Well, I request that it be turned off.” “Sure,” he says, surprised that there was any noise. I don’t know why employers won’t pay those who work for them anything they ask, or why workers don’t believe that employers pay them enough. Why, I always have been overpaid, while I grind down the few employees I have had — and no longer can afford.
I don’t know why people, especially in war work, don’t realize that if nobody cared who got the credit for this or that, as long as the objective were gained, red tape would fade to a mild pink, and the output would at least double in quantity and increase in quality. This doesn’t go for peacetime or inspirational work. How many, for example, know who wrote that famous poem, “Tinker to Evers to Chance”? . . . I wrote it.