Of Recitations, and Maine's Mysterious 17th County

Ruth Russell, friend, said one time that people in a receiving line never pay the slightest heed to things said to them as they shake hands. To prove it, Ruth went through the line at a big political howdy-do, and as she shook hands with each dignitary she said, "I just murdered my mother in the bathroom!" This, she said, generated no interest at all, and without exception she got a reply that amounted to, "Oh, how nice. So good of you to come!"

A great many things in this world lack wide public interest, and I suppose a great truth remains to be accepted: Namely, that nobody much is waiting around to hear what somebody else says about anything. I am equipped, for instance, to repeat the names of the counties of Maine in alphabetical order, yet I have never been asked to do so. (I can also recite the cities of Maine, the mountains over 2,500 feet, the minor prophets, and the Latin prepositions that are followed by the accusative case.)

Maine has 16 counties, but at one time had 17. The lost county was Carragomosquadooksis, which was pronounced "Cagosis" in the original Indian and means "place where two squaws saw twin bull moose while dipping water one day in July." Some say July 10.

Paul Bunyan was a young man at that time, and he had contracted to log off County Cagosis. But fierce cold weather delayed his schedule, and as time for the river drive approached, he had merely a token pile on the brow. So Paul attached Babe, his blue ox, and jerked County Cagosis from its established place 30-odd miles down to the west branch of the Penobscot River. This saved a great deal of time otherwise spent in loading and hauling, and they had the logs piled on the ice, ready for the river to rise.

But before Paul got around to dragging Cagosis County, so-called, back to its rightful place, the warm rains of spring commenced, and Cagosis County was washed downstream and out to sea. Since then, Maine has had only 16 counties:

















Today, high-priced educators advise against memorization, as it impinges on time a serious student will spend on useful matters such as sorting sawdust and learning to cope. It leads to attention arrest and disconcerting of the intuitive moderations, thus affecting the stipulations of the ambiguities. Surveys show this promotes implications and is a pretty kettle of fish. (That's Indian for "collymunkeag.")

My mother was educated at the Hermitage School at Millview, Prince Edward Island, a one-room edifice typifying architectural frugality, and completed the curriculum in three years. Her teacher was Catherine MacEachern, wife of the man my grandfather hired to come once a year and thresh barley. I mention this because when my mother gave me lullaby and I was supposed to go to sleep, she would sing me the "Ode" by Wordsworth about intimations of immortality as recollected from early childhood, set to the tune of "Annie Laurie."

You never know when something you have memorized will prove useful. My school-day contemporary Clifford Collins memorized "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and for years it lay dormant and Clifford found it a complete dud. Then World War II began, and Clifford was one day on a troop transport, surrounded by soldiers who had nothing to do, day after day, but endure the tedium of seven knots across the Pacific Ocean.

ONE day, while Clifford's contingent was on the sun deck, Clifford piped up, "It was an ancient mariner and he stoppeth one of three...." The sheer muscular effort of such memorization gripped the boys, but they also liked the story. Clifford was an instant hero, bringing literary manna to the starving men. The commanding officer made Clifford repeat the rime to the other contingents as they had their turn in the sun, and that was the only load of soldiers to arrive at the war in relaxed spirits.

I also remember with pleasure the time Chubby Linscott attempted the lovely lyric that includes, "When Greece her knees in suppliance bent" and forgot his lines. He kept shouting "Greece her knees!" until the teacher stopped him and led him to his seat. Nobody remembers anything else that was said that day.

There was a quiz-show on radio, well before television, with a host who gave away silver dollars if you could answer his questions.

When the show came to Boston it was hosted by station WBZ. The staff announcers selected contestants from the audience and presented them to the "doctor" who asked the questions. That was the night Carl de Suze, WBZ's senior voice, came out with his showstopper: "Doctor! I have a lady in the balcony!" It was also the night a gentle- man from Michigan lost 48 silver dollars because he couldn't repeat the counties in his home state. They'll never catch me on that one!

Would you like to hear them again?

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