Russell Vining's Old Bible

ABOUT 1910, the ``plantation'' of Taunton, Maine, took down the sign at the town line that said ``Pop. 11'' and had the number changed to 10. Of the lingering 10, one was Russell Vining, who read the Bible every day and was able to repeat the King James Version from memory - Old and New Testaments as you requested. This is a poignant story about the triumph of scholastic desire over limited opportunities.

Although Taunton itself had few residents, it was surrounded by prosperous adjacencies, so that within a 10-mile area some 6,000 or 8,000 people were customers of the Shuway & Blethen general store in Taunton, for none of the adjoining towns had its own store. The Shumway & Blethen business had been operated for many years by Lester Rankin, who had inherited it from his father, and nobody could now remember the least thing about either Mr. Shumway or Mr. Blethen. Their original sign was still sound and legible, and Mr. Rankin was a saving man. The sign said, ``Shumway & Blethen - Hay, Grain, Feed, Gen. Merch,'' but over the years the stock in trade added groceries and meats,men's clothing and ladies' wear, hardware and household goods, boots and shoes, hunting and fishing supplies, rugs and pianos, and (pertinent to this story) eyeglasses.

There was a cabinet supplied by a wholesale optical concern where customers could try lenses from little felt-lined drawers until they found some that were suitable. When Mr. Rankin sent your correct number to the factory, your spectacles would arrive by mail in about 10 days. Mr. Rankin was also the postmaster. So that is the background, and now we can return to Russell Vining.

Russell was accounted ``odd'' and even peculiar. Since Taunton was too small to have its own school, the scholars attended schools in neighboring towns and Taunton paid tuition. But Russell had been considered a heavy risk to the taxpayers and was excused from attendance. So when he was about 10, he began frequenting the Shumway & Blethen store for want of anything else to do, and he became something of a fixture. So much so that salesmen would ask if Russell went with the store if Mr. Rankin should decide to sell.

Sometimes, Mr. Rankin would ask Russell to sweep up or bag sugar. And Russell discovered the Holy Bible that was suspended on a chain with the optical display, meant for customers to try the lenses they chose to see if they helped. Russell spent long hours with the Bible, teaching himself to read and at the same time memorizing the contents. In a matter of many years, he'd repeat anything you asked for - a favorite Psalm, a snatch of the Proverbs, or perhaps a few generations of the begats. Russell became very much of a curiosity, and tourists would ask him to step out onto the platform where they could take his picture.

About that time, the ophthalmology business began to take on sophistication, and the old hit-or-miss eyeglasses of the optical cabinet, with Bible, became declasse. Informed folks began going down-state to pay as much as $55 for what Les Rankin made money on at $7.95. The company that had provided the cabinet of lenses went out of business, and nobody came into Shumway & Blethen for spectacles. Russell Vining, however, remained faithful and continued with the Bible as before.

Then one morning a gentleman came in, asked for the proprietor, and told Mr. Rankin he was a dealer in antiquities and would like to make an offer for the optical cabinet should it be for sale. He said he had a wealthy client who wished to buy such a cabinet and present it to a museum. Mr. Rankin promised to give the idea some thought, but said, ``Whatever would I do with Russell?''

When the man returned the next week, Mr. Rankin said he would give a quit-claim for $50, but for sentimental reasons he wanted to keep Russell's Bible. The man then removed the eyescrew, chain, and Bible from the cabinet, and replaced the eyescrew in the edge of the shelf that held the mustard, ketchup, and pickles, where it dangled for Russell. The man took the quit-claim, gave Mr. Rankin $50, and drove off with the cabinet and lenses. After that, people would come in to speak to Russell, who stood by the suspended Bible, now tattered and dogeared and ragged, assiduously attending to his unique fame as the only person ever to memorize the entire Bible. When he was well into his late 90s, somebody happened to think of another odd thing about Russell Vining. He had never required eyeglasses.

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