THE trivia question asked if Brahms, Bach, or Beethoven wrote such-and-such, and I, who know full as much about music as a goose knows geometry, piped up with ``Beethoven!'' ``Now,'' said my wifeperson, ``how in the world would you know a thing like that?''
``I didn't,'' I said. ``I knew Brahms and Bach didn't.''
Long ago, in the early grades, I discovered there are tricks about examinations, and it may be time to reveal some of the special knowledge that has made me an expert. I am reminded of the time our teacher asked Hank Lowell how he spelled occupy. Hank was not our best speller, and he stood up and said, ``Occupy, o-c-o-o-p-i-e, occupy.''
``Oh, Henry,'' said the teacher, ``that's terrible!''
``No,'' said Henry. ``That's occupy; terrible is ter-a-b-a-l.''
Teacher was reminded by Hank that she had asked him how he spelled occupy; Hank said he didn't know how anybody else spelled it. Later, in college, I blessed Hank when I found on my major exam, ``When was Chaucer born?'' Fie on a professor who plays like that; I wrote, ``I do not know.'' Then, lest this be misunderstood, I added, ``And neither do you.'' There is no particular stigma about going through life in the ignorance of Chaucer's birth date, but I think a professor shouldn't amuse himself with that kind of question.
We had a physics teacher in high school that we called Mme. Gorgon Dufarge, but not to her face, and one day we came into the classroom to find half sheets of paper on each desk with the words ``Those who can spell the place where we experiment may pass there to experiment.''
It was the day of the Wheatstone Bridge, and Mme. Dufarge was trying once and for all to get her 15 lab pupils to spell laboratory. Four of us quickly wrote l-a-b-o-r-a-t-o-r-y and passed to the laboratory. There, Mme. Dufarge greeted us with a smile and said, ``I expected only three - Malcolm, congratulations!'' Three of us were Latin students; Malcolm had no classical help in this exercise. Labor Omnia Vincit. Malcolm shrugged and said, ``Nothing beats blind luck.''
In high school we had a Virgil for the early books of his Aeneid. For a Latin Club exercise, I was asked to translate a passage from a later book, which I did. That is, I knew it by heart, and blind luck put it in the college entrance exam, so I sat there translating something I had never seen before, ha ha, and I never said a word about this to the professor.
I knew a boy off an upstate farm, and he was just out of college when the war beckoned. He had finished his pre-med studies with highest honors, and the Army wanted to put him in a medical unit. But Rufus had a yen to fly, and he insisted as much as he could under the circumstances to be in the Army Air Corps - this was before the separation.
Rufus prevailed at least to the extent he was about to take the tests, and he found out that he was to be examined for colorblindness. Rufus used to wear the wrong neckties with a pink shirt, and we should have known he was deficient. But he was also determined, and somehow he got the 24 color cards the Army was using, and with the help of a sworn confederate he memorized the things. Each card was a hodgepodge of colored spots, but if you were able to see it, a numeral was lurking. Rufus was soon able to look at a card and call out the number, but he did this by the designs and not by the colors.
Confidently, he appeared to take the Army Air Force exams, and learned that just the day before the whole test for colorblindness had been changed and they showed him a new set of cards. Rufus served as a dental assistant in Hoboken, N.J., never flew, and finished at Johns Hopkins to go into research pathology.
When George (Dodo) Willard was taking his finals for a degree in mathematics, he had filled four blue books with figures when he realized that back in Book 2 he had interpolated a cogent cosine when he should have used a relaxed tangent, and instead of going back to do the whole thing over he simply reversed his method and after this correction he passed in his papers. That night, about 2 in the morning, a knock came to Dodo's dormitory door and he arose to find the math professor. ``I can't sleep,'' said the professor, ``will you please show me how in the world you did this?''
That, more or less, is the whole secret of Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach. To be sure.