Gramps knew rocks

THE long-gone Austin & Stone Museum, which helped make Boston famous, had a sign on a door that said, TO THE EGRESS. (It's claimed that Phineas Barnum swiped the idea.) A great many people who had just paid to get in would want to look at an egress and would pass through the door to find themselves outside on the street. If they wished to enter the museum again, they had to buy another ticket, which the management of the museum considered a suitable penalty for ignorance. After a short time, the cultural level of the proper Bostonian included the meaning of egress, and even today the word is heard occasionally in that fine city.

This came to mind when I saw a little act on television. A man put a brick on a girl's head and then hit the brick with a great maul. Presumably I was meant to expect the girl would be driven down through the floor into the cellar, but only the brick was crushed and the girl jumped up in good fettle to take a bow. The reason for this miraculous deliverance is sometimes known as inertia, and it didn't wait for television -- the Austin & Stone Museum was doing the act away back when many Bostonians thought an egress was rather much like a camel. My grandfather was a victim of both the act and the egress.

Except for a few places like Gettysburg, my grandfather hadn't seen much of the world, being held down on his Maine farm by the routine of milking twice a day, and on the occasion of his only visit to Gettysburg the troop train had wandered by way of Worcester to Fall River, where the rest of the trip was by boat to New Jersey, so he had never seen Boston. Fact is, he hadn't seen Worcester either because the train passed in the night.

So when my father, at a tender age, left home to seek his fortune in Boston, Gramps was much interested in hearing about the city. Dad would take a weekend ride on the ``Boston Boat'' and come home a couple of times a year to see how his father was making out, and Gramps enjoyed hearing about life in the big city. My father told him one time about visiting the Austin & Stone Museum.

``I'd like to see that sometime,'' said Gramps.

The first visit of my grandfather to The Hub became a big chapter in the family history. First, he had to arrange with somebody capable and willing who would take care of his stock. Then he went to town by horse and buggy to buy a new suit, get money at the bank, and buy his ticket on the ``steam cars.'' The suit was $12.50, so he didn't need to take out too much from the bank because a round-trip ticket then was about $2. My father met him at North Station and they rode up to Bowdoin Square, where my father ``roomed and boarded,'' in a hack. During this visit my father took Gramps to the Austin & Stone Museum.

One of the stage acts at the museum was a ``strong man.'' Huge and well-muscled, the strong man originated in some far and foreign place, and came on stage in a tiger-skin loincloth which, the program said, he had wrested from its former owner in jungle combat. The strong man growled a good bit but was not otherwise competent in a recognized language. You could see that he had to be restrained to some extent, because guards came out with him and one of them cautioned the audience to stand well back.

But when the strong man, having bent iron rods and lifted anvils, was about to break rocks with his fist, Gramps moved down front to get a good look, because Gramps knew a great deal about rocks. He had inherited stone walls that were horse-high, hog-tight, and bull-strong, and he had added height, security, and strength to them in his time. The strong man picked up a rock and made a practice blow meant to have dramatic effect, and when the crowd gasped he made three or four more practice blows. By this time, Gramps had ``caught on,'' and he could see how the man would break a rock on another rock, and feign to do it with his fist. So Gramps said, ``That's enough, don't try again -- you've tried enough.'' At this, a guard took Gramps by the arm and led him to the egress, and it was comical to me to see the same old rock act done again in this great wonderful age of television.

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