Every good story begins, 'Once upon a time'

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Once upon a time, there was a little white farmhouse with green blinds, and it stood not far from the road. Blessings on the wise one who observed, once upon a time, that every good story begins, "Once upon a time"! Maybe there are too few good stories these days, and it would be hard to comprehend a story that began with "Once upon a technological tomorrow...." Ah, me!

The little white farmhouse that had green blinds and stood not far from the road was the abode of Uncle Jack and Aunt Deborah, and in that long-lost book of my promising boyhood, every story began with the same words: "Once upon a time there was a little white farmhouse with green blinds and it stood not far from the road." And every story in the book ended like the others: "The oxen went into the barn, their yokes were removed, and they went into their stalls and went to sleep."

Meantime, you can be sure, Uncle Jack, Aunt Deborah, and other members of this enchanted family did something wonderful for a 6-year-old to know about, and thus I came to know a great many things.

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Do not show disfavor of the repetition of the doings in the little white farmhouse. "What I tell you three times is true!" – or so Lewis Carroll would have us believe. Don't forget that good Homer told some excellent tales so long ago that rubber-stamped such tiresome ideas as the well-greaved Acheans, the wine-dark sea, and how the prows of the ships grooved the sand. And how many times did Cicero say nihil in his first oration against Cataline?

I cannot say the author's name of my childhood book, and I know not the publisher. It was a retired schoolbook of the town of Fairhaven, Mass., and it had been lifted off the load for the dump by my father's cousin, Mildred Thompson, an "old maid" schoolmarm of that community.

Cousin Mildred came to see us now and then, and always brought me some discarded schoolbooks and a box of animal crackers. I suppose she was far and away the best schoolmarm Fairhaven ever had. During her visits she read to me every beddy-time about the little white farmhouse with green blinds that stood not far from the road.

That house was as real to me as my own hands, and when Aunt Deborah made cookies, my own mother never made better, or so many.

Wasn't it the lovely Huguenot maiden Priscilla who rode to her wedding on a white bull? I'm not so sure about that because I never knew so much about Priscilla as I did about Aunt Deborah. But I think it was Priscilla, the young Plymouth lady who was betrothed to happy John Alden.

And I well remember the day in school when I first heard about "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?" and the bitter face of poor Captain Standish. And with the little white farmhouse with green blinds socked away, I alarmed my own good schoolmarm by asking about this white bull. What were the pious Pilgrims keeping for livestock in the 1620s? How come a bull, and why was he white? What breed might that be?

Had she still been around, I believe Cousin Mildred would have known, because she knew without looking anything up, but now my teacher had no answer for me about Colonial dairy farming in eastern Massachusetts.

I was happy to learn, many years later, that early Plymouth didn't milk cows or keep bulls, and the first milch cow in American history came to Jamestown, Va. By that time, Priscilla would have been celebrating anniversaries. Did Plymouth have a herd sire and was he broken to a saddle?

That first American cow at Jamestown deserves better fame. She was not, as the "facts" suggest, from England. There was a respectable Englishman involved in this who was also a private named Argal. Later, he became governor of South Virginia, whatever that is. The French missionaries Biard and Massé had a settlement on Mt. Desert Island, in Maine, that was cutting fish at a great rate and was a threat to English prosperity.

Argal came with a British gunboat and shot up the French settlement, sacked it, and among all else, stole the cow. The cow spoke French; Argal did not, and presumably nobody then in Virginia did, either.

Of the two Roman Catholic missionaries, Fr. Massé had been wounded by a cannonball during Argal's unprovoked attack and was accounted expendable. So Fr. Biard was taken, against his will and all rules of decency, to Virginia to take care of the cow until she might become proficient in English. When France yelped about this theft and kidnapping, England backed off and Argal – or Jamestown – was ordered to return the priest (but not the cow) to Maine, and to pay Fr. Biard for his time and trouble.

The New World was not settled too much because of the solid and austere piety of the Christian pilgrims.

The childhood book that Cousin Mildred gave me once upon a time came to pieces and went its way. I ate the animal crackers. The information and understanding the book imparted did make a difference. There was great value to going by the little white farmhouse with green blinds. Great value, yes, but also good country fun.

Do they have molasses cookies on "Star Trek"?

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