How Harold Pulsifer got his laughs last

Capt. Gilbert Philbrick of the cruise schooner Nathaniel Bowditch stopped by yesterday to check us out, but said he had no time to mug up because he was on his way to the bank. We insulted each other in the usual friendly down-Maine coastal fashion. Somehow the name of Ding-Dong Bell came up.

Luther Bell, brother to the game warden, was the oldest of our old Rangeley guides and certainly the most quoted for his well-rehearsed offhand remarks. He's the one who said FDR made a first-rate president right up to the time he got elected. Everybody called Luther Bell "Ding-Dong." You had to be somebody for Ding-Dong to guide you, and he was booked up years ahead.

Cap'n Gibber said one time a sport asked Ding-Dong how come he never took him to fish Cow Pond. The sport said, "It's a beautiful little lake. Why don't we try it someday?"

Ding-Dong said, "Well, I'll tell you, since you ask. There must be an awful lot of beautiful trout in Cow Pond, for I ain't never seen nobody take one out o' there."

Cap'n Gibber said, "Do you know a better way to tell a paying guest that Cow Pond hasn't any fish in it?"

I said, "That's how it translates."

So then we talked about translating funny stories and witty remarks, and Gibber said he had that trouble all summer with the folks from away who come to sail with him. "They keep asking me what's funny. When I try to tell them, the thing isn't funny anymore."

I told Gibber I'd never had any success telling an American-style joke to a German, and I blame it on the position of the German verb. In German, they hold the verb up and drop it in at the end of the sentence. By the time a German gets to the punch line and finally hears the verb, he's forgotten what the story's about.

Cap'n Gibber said, "Oh, I don't know. Did you ever hear about the time Harold Pulsifer went to Sweden and made a speech?" I knew Mr. Pulsifer well, but I hadn't heard of that speech.

Harold Pulsifer was Harvard all the way, a close friend of Teddy Roosevelt, and he had been editor of The Outlook, a prestigious news, commentary, and literary magazine of its day.

Pulsifer and his wife were well-to-do. Harold liked to help young men without funds with college expenses, and he did this by hiring them to catalog his library. He had a good many books, and this made an after-class job of several months, for which Harold paid generously. And the boy was grateful. Then Harold would find another poor boy and hire him. Harold told me he had no idea how many times his library had been cataloged.

Harold loved to fly-fish for trout and was a member of the Megantic Fish and Game Club, a wealthy men's wilderness retreat in northwestern Maine. This considerable acreage included about 10 lakes and ponds, mountains and streams, and a number of comfortable camps, well-staffed. Harold Pulsifer was president of the Megantic and an activist for the barbless hook.

Fishing hooks, both commercial and recreational, have always had barbs so the fish can't easily escape. It has long been known that fish do not have nerve centers in the mouth and gill area, so Harold's opposition to barbs on hooks was not primarily a humane crusade. He proposed a hook without a barb so a captured fish could be easily released and returned to the water without fatal damage from a barb.

This activity gained him a place on the list of the world's seven best outdoor sportsmen, and he was invited to go to Sweden and tell his story to members of a national association, of which the very King of Sweden was honorary president. This was before airplane crossings, so Harold went by liner. He was asked to supply an advance copy of his remarks. (He would speak in English.)

Harold decided an outdoors group would be more comfortable with a folksy dissertation, and he labored studiously to prepare a light-hearted treatment of his somewhat serious topic.

He arrived in Sweden much subdued by the great honor and was received with every hospitality. On the evening of his speech, he was presented to the king, who was affable and had a rousing good handshake. Harold was seated at the king's right hand.

Cap'n Gibber told me all about this yesterday. He said the time came for Mr. Pulsifer to speak, and he was introduced by the king as "my old friend."

Harold began. And in no time he realized his effort was a failure. Nobody was paying attention to him. Nobody laughed at his carefully honed jokes. He sensed without a sidewise glance that the king was asleep. Desolate, he plunged on, and things got worse. He finished his speech, thanked all for kind attention, nodded at the king, and full of woe, sat down. It was just awful!

But now a man arose and began to talk in Swedish, and everybody sat up at attention. Next everybody laughed a little, then laughed a lot, and now and then burst into applause. Then they guffawed, slapped the table, and burst into cheers.

Harold said to himself, "This guy is good where I was not!" So Harold laughed when the others did, he slapped the table and cheered, and he cried "Bravo!" And then he turned to the king and said, "The gentleman is excellent! What is he saying?"

The king said, "He's not saying anything. He's our interpreter, and he's translating what you just said."

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