A Slow-Motion Answer To the Stone-Boat Question
THE boy on the radio who says "Right now!" with such persistent immediacy had finished with his erroneous thunder showers and told us the policeman who investigated the motorcycle accident had decided speed was a factor. This is altogether possible, and some recognition should be accorded that policeman for reaching such a conclusion between the time of the accident yesterday and the morning broadcast today.
Years ago, according to competent authority that was then and there in attendance (right then, that is), Miss Gilhooley, who was teaching all grades at the Fisher Brook School, was putting the fifth grade through some research in physics. The other seven grades were listening, and Miss Gilhooley had the rapt attention of all when she came to the word kinetics.
"What kind of vehicle," she asked, "would be least likely to be affected by centrifugal or centripetal force?"
Those were certainly the good old days. The scholars were all farm children and they walked to school every morning with a dinner bucket in hand. And Miss Gilhooley was fresh out of normal school and got 50 cents extra each winter day for coming in early to build a fire in the ram-down wood stove. This fire was not primarily meant to warm the scholars, as they could keep on their mackinaws and mittens, but was essential for keeping the dinners from freezing.
Anybody who thinks hot lunches are a modern invention of educational experts certainly never experienced a fried egg or baked-bean sandwich that was on the dinner bucket shelf behind the stove in a rural school from opening prayer to noonin'.
Miss Gilhooley was the teacher who liked to be warm, and because the superintendent felt she was burning too much wood, he suggested she consider woolen drawers. These were so very much the good old days that Miss Gilhooley didn't report this to a congressional committee, and it passed entirely unnoticed in the cultural annals of our backward community.
But what I was about to say is that in her inculcations about kinetics, Miss Gilhooley did ask the class what sort of vehicle would not be likely to tip over if operated at high speed. And she called on Worthington Willoughby Wellington, who was called Punky and whose father had the Hardscabble Farm on the Skunk's Misery Road and did blacksmithing.
Worthington, or Punky, rose from his seat, arranged his feet orderly in the aisle, faced Miss Gilhooley with his hands at his sides, and gave the matter thought with his head atilt. In this meditative posture you could see that every possibility was being considered. Punky grew up, graduated from Columbia, had his law degree from Harvard, and was chief justice of our state law court. But right then he was thinking about kinetics.
And having thought, he made an answer. He said, "A stun bo't." I have rendered it here in the vernacular as best I can. What Punky meant was a stone boat. "Stun" for stone is all right, but only along the tidal influences in Maine will you get the "bo't" for boat. It isn't quite "but," but it's closer to "but" than it is to "boat," and it rhymes with "goat" and "shoat," as in Curly Foster's evening remark at Pott's Point: "Well, I see it's time to put on my coat and mosey down the road to see the boat come in."
A stone boat is not a boat, and it is not made of stone. It is, and perhaps we should say was, a drag or scoot, as different from a vehicle with wheels or runners. Four or five red oak planks, some six-feet long, would be attached side by side, and a blacksmith would make a turned-up plate across the front. A chain ran from this plate to the yoke on some oxen, and as the oxen pulled, the stone boat was dragged across the field. Rocks, heaved up by winter, were picked up by the farmer, tossed on the stone boat, and taken to the end of the tilled field to be added to the "stun" wall. That's how New England stone walls got built, and every winter would heave up more rocks.
Oxen and horses were trained to verbal commands, and the walking farmer could start and stop his animals by sucking through his teeth. Rocks too big to lift or roll onto the boat were left for last, when the farmer "called on" and somebody came to help him.
There was never an instance, in the entire history of the stone-boat era, that speed ever came to mind in relation to a stone boat. There is nothing to support the whimsey that a stone boat ever tipped over. And there is nothing whatever in the long history of theoretical, practical, and imaginary kinetics to support any contention that Worthington Willoughby Wellington was wrong when he answered Miss Gilhooley as he did.
The fact is that Miss Gilhooley told all over town what Punky had said, and it was at once considered so apt that it became the established answer for any question, whether related to kinetics or not. Even today, children who have no reason to know why will go to the university and when confronted by a puzzler in an examination will set down, "A stone boat." This is known to the faculty as the Gilhooley question.
When I had my grandfather's old farm, back along, a water-power dam washed out in the spring freshet, and rocks in great quantity were needed to rebuild the dam. The contractor approached me, and I sold him all he wanted. He came with heavy equipment and hauled rocks for about two weeks. Every rock he took had been taken out of our 10-acre field on a stone boat. And not at high speed.