Are you sleeping, are you sleeping, Brother James?

A friend whose whimsicalities are no more droll than his judgments recently suggested I might like the TV quiz show that gives a million dollars to a winner. I did tune it in, and before I fell asleep a question was asked about what Frre Jacques means in English. The final answer was "Brother John," and then I fell asleep. It crossed my mind that a man ready to throw his money around might be prudent to look up the answers to his own questions.

The next morning I got up on a stool to reach our best authority on such matters and also an adjacent book on the shelf named "The John Book." As I expected, the French academy told me Jacques means James, and "The John Book" told me both Jean Jacques Rousseau and Jean Jacques Audubon are John James and not John John.

If you can find a copy of "The John Book," you will be in good company. It was compiled by two scholarly ladies who did much research and wrote entertainingly about nearly every John in history, legend, literature, and crime. I am not in it.

They were Hallie Erminie Rives and Gabrielle Elliot Forbush, and the book was published in hardcover in 1947 at $3.50. One of the Johns they missed was Friar John, called by his only friend "the finest monk who ever monked a monkery." Friar John was a rascal, and I suppose the ladies had to draw the line somewhere. Perhaps to atone for this omission, the ladies did work in John Lafitte, the French pirate, who was much worse than Friar John but had been officially pardoned.

When Lafitte was learning his trade, he mostly went for Spaniards, and this pleased the British. He got established in New Orleans, where his brother Pierre was a respected merchant who knew how to move stolen goods. John had many cutthroats working for him and a fleet for them to ride around on.

When our War of 1812 began to threaten, the English had a plan. Why not hire John Lafitte to eliminate the meager United States Navy? Give him some money and a commission in the Royal Navy, and - presto! - the war is over. But John Lafitte didn't care to play. He liked it in New Orleans. He told the English to go fly a kite.

Thus things were for some time, and then one of Lafitte's vessels made a big boo-boo and took a US merchant vessel as a prize.

President James Madison sent a gunboat to bring in John Lafitte. Lafitte was well aware that his activities over the years were capital in any court in the seafaring world, and he was very sorry things had come to this end.

His only defense was his refusal to join England in the War of 1812. But the War of 1812 was not popular in New England, where it was jeeringly known as "Mr. Madison's war." Then, although the privateer did what pirates did, one was patriotic and the other was not. M'sieu Lafitte was a pirate.

When Madison pardoned Lafitte, some said it would be better if Lafitte had pardoned Madison. The matter lost importance when Lafitte put to sea and was never heard from again. Lafitte is in "The John Book," and I, unblemished, am not.

Nor are the many fine John Coombses we have had at Skunks Misery in Maine. They have all been worthy gentlemen, deserving fame. They began with Tinker-John, a Lancastrian who arrived in 1602. He had a son named John who became known as "Tinker-John's John." Then the fun began. There were other boys, who became Tinker-John's Bill, Tinker-John's Jim, etc., but at the moment we are concerned with the Johns.

After several generations, Skunks Misery had a Tinker-John-Coombs's-John's-John's-John, and the line was established. There came to be a Housewright-John Coombs, a Miller-John Coombs, a Barber-John Coombs, and suchlike. With this system there was never any confusion in Skunks Misery about which John Coombs was which.

In the Civil War, there was a whole company of Maine volunteers made up of John Coombses. When the roll was called before the Fourth battle of Bull Run, the chorus of "Here!" from the John Coombses made the Rebels think they were surrounded and outnumbered, and they retreated in confusion. The battle was postponed and never rescheduled.

We have this on the authority of Lyin'-John Coombs. This was not in recognition of any mendacity, but an honorable title because he was a literary "stretcher," one who stretches the truth for entertainment purposes.

He was a great hand to tell pig stories, and always had a new one for Grange meetings. He never fenced his pigs, as it cost money and took time. Instead, he let them have the run of the farm, and he trained them to come full-tilt at feeding time when they heard him pound his slop-stirring paddle against the trough.

This worked fine, he said, until a flock of woodpeckers moved into his orchard and his pigs trotted around all day and didn't put on any fat. He said he had trouble roofing his barn. The minute the crew began to drive shingle nails, his pigs came at full speed and climbed the 30-foot ladder and began running about the roof looking for victuals. He said, "That's the highest we ever seen pork in these parts."

I wasn't about to speak in disrespect about a million dollars. I guess I got carried away. What I had in mind probably had something to do with curling up to read a good book.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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