Abortive ablatives

Not too long ago we wondered on these pages about my old toga, the garb of culture back when I was in high school and belonged to the Latin Club. Thinking thus, these days, isn't too complimentary to our public educators, as you begin to suspect you are the last remaining person in the district on friendly terms with an ablative absolute, so I was delighted, and eke amazed, to receive considerable mail from out yonder -- from folks who shared my memories and were glad to. For them, I now have a reward.

Some scholars have long surmised that the ten lost tribes of Israel moved on until they became the North American Indians. I now have a small bit of evidence to show that on their way, they paused in Italy long enough to acquire a smattering of classical Latin, as I shall explain:

Here in Maine we have a public television channel which originates a quiz show called "So You Think You Know Maine?" Four contestants line up each week, and the quizmaster asks questions about Maine geography, personalities, institutions, and the like. Somebody told me they took my name in vain, so the next week I turned in and joined what is called the "viewing audience." And up came the question, "Write down the Maine county names that derive from the Indian."

Well, that's not hard to do. Our three oldest counties were named for English shires -- York, Cumberland, and Lincoln. Washington and Franklin came from George and Ben. Maine is riddled with all manner of Indian place names, so as to counties -- there would be Androscoggin, Penobscot, Sagadahoc, probably Aroostook. And now the four contestants held up their lists and all four of them had included Piscataquis.m

"Correct!" said the quizmaster, and thinking again of my old toga I turned off the TV and began to shuffle the playing cards so my uxm and I might settle the cribbage championship of the world again. I lost, probably because I was preoccupied with thoughts of the devious route from Samaria to Northern Maine, and what must have happened linguistically on the way to the Forum.

Another thing: Why isn't the shift to wood as fuel a good thing for the humanities?We were four children, and I was the first to discover the ideal place and time to round out the Latin homework. There was the evening session before beddy-bye, but I found it useful to rise early, before the household moved, and run over the assignment one more time. In winter, this meant coming downstairs before daylight, and into the kitchen which was reasonably warm as the banked-up fire dozed the night. Behind the kitchen range was a copper hot-water tank which stayed warm, and by it was a chest of drawers in which Mother kept towels and other kitchen gear. So I would come down to the kitchen, pick up my textbook, kick open the damper on the front of the stove, and climb up to sit on the chest of drawers with my back against the tank.

There was never a better place to study. The tank kept me warm until the fire had burned up, and by the time I was satisfied with my lesson the kitchen was cozy and ready for Mother to appear and start breaking eggs. I used that perch, and so did my brother and two sisters, and we parsed and passed. And it is good to have this further memory. Do you suppose the energy shift back to good wood fires will promote new interest in the classic? Would Latin regain its place if students could be all that comfortable as they conjugated?

There was one bad morning. My younger sister tucked in some fresh wood, kicked open the damper, climbed onto the perch of culture, and was taking on Vercingetorix when the hot-water coil in the front of the range reacted. It had been a very cold night, and there had been a freeze-up in the pipe between the stove and the tank. Not knowing this, my sister was reclining and declining, and a red-hot Vesuvious was building up to astonish her. She was fortunate not to go through the roof, but when the thing went off she managed to escape into the dining room ahead of the burst of steam.

With real presence of mind she cranked the old magneto telephone, and when Gladys Mitchell, the operator, came on my sister yelled, "Gimme a plumber!" Gladys said, "Which one?" Is it not good to know that Latin may be had in a town with only two plumbers? Gladys could have rung Fred Taylor, who sang in the choir, but she rang Wildcat Smith, who didn't. When Wildcat came on, my sister shouted, "Our buster's boilted!" which Wildcat naturally took to be synecdochical accusative, and he came with a new buster.

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