What the Library of Congress called to ask me

A FEW days ago I remarked, not so much to gloat and be obnoxious but to state a cultural fact, that I may well be the only person in the county who knows the name of Sherlock Holmes's brother. And, I was not surprised when somebody asked, "Whose brother?" Thus it seems to be, and on the whole I suppose I know a good deal more than many folks, most of which is so.

So my telephone rang, and instead of the young lady who tries to sell me weed killer, it was another young lady from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. She said she was calling me because the library hoped I could supply certain information. The astonishment at this confused me, and I thought she'd said the Smithsonian Institution.

So I said I had the silver-plated porringer I had used as a baby when I took my pap, and would they like it for their exhibits? She straightened things out, and you can believe I was pleased to be honored by this call. I said, "Certainly! What do you wish to know?"

Then I smiled, for I had a sweet flashback to school days, when I was doing homework and went down to the living room to consult the dictionary. My father sat with his feet up reading a magazine, and as I climbed over him to get to the book he asked, "What do you want?" I said I wanted to look at the dictionary. And he said, "What is it you want to know?" My dad, also, knew just about everything.

I believe it was Voltaire who wrote, in French, that a true gentleman prides himself on nothing. He meant that a just and upright man would be so well-rounded that he would have no speciality and would pride himself modestly in knowing all things. That's the way my father was, and I'm like him. Yes.

So I asked this young lady from the Library of Congress what it was she wished to know. I was indeed curious about what I might know that the Library of Congress did not. She said somebody had left his papers to the library, and in annotating them for the archives they had found a reference to a Dr. Rockwell, and who was he?

Now, as Dick Nixon used to say, let me make this perfectly clear! Were I in need of information about the late Doc George Rockwell, the Library of Congress is the first place I'd ask. Yet here I was, the great authority on nothing! I said Doc was born in Providence, R.I., and began as a boy magician palming pool balls. This led to her inquiry as to how he became a physician. No, I said, he was never a doctor, just a doc.

She said something about a juggler calling himself a doc, so I told her Doc Rockwell was his stage name, and at times he was also a lawyer, and he also sold souvenir booklets in the lobby. He, too, prided himself on nothing, and played the 10-cent tin whistle in parades. Doc Rockwell was a vaudeville comedian, contemporary with Fred Allen and Perky Gilmore.

She wanted to know who Fred Allen was, and what did Perky Gilmore do? I said he didn't do anything; he had an independent income and whittled pinwheels for the summer gift shop of the Ladies' Aid. In this way I filled in the Library of Congress with many things they didn't know, including the book by Joe Laurie Jr. that says Doc Rockwell was the greatest monologist of all.

I told the young lady how Doc, making believe he was a medical man, would lecture on the human spine, telling his hysterical audience that dandruff comes from eating popcorn. That was still his basic monologue when he was the show-stopper comedian in Earl Carroll's Vanities. I realize this is tedious, but I want to show how important it is for a gentleman to be informed in so many directions.

Bill Nye, who was born in Maine and showed it, went to Wyoming where his total knowledge was a novelty. And when a journalism school was first proposed, he laid out a course of study for it. Nye was never so succinct as Voltaire, but he said about the same thing in his way. His studies for a newspaperman were inclusive, embracing everything from papering a room to the curious orthography of the English language. One whole semester was devoted to making a good adhesive paste that wouldn't sour in hot weather.

The infinite variety of Nye's themes show him a true gentleman, and when Queen Victoria wrote a book, he wrote her a helpful letter about what to do with her royalties. He did admit that his program for a journalism school would take 90 years of close application, but the candidate would have his think-tank so filled with everything that he could go right to work anywhere.

PERHAPS the best example of the way this works out and creates a true gentleman was offered by Nye himself. He and his competition down the street were politically at odds, and each paper lambasted the other with scurrilous calumny and contumely, as was common practice in those happy editorial days.

Mr. Nye, in his sanctum, thought his "esteemed contemporary" was adept at this and greatly admired his talent. He couldn't wait for the next issue to appear so he could read about himself.

Then he heard that his competition didn't have money enough to pay the express charges on his supply of newsprint. So Bill Nye walked over and paid the $3.85, and his competitor didn't miss an issue. Bill Nye, a true gentleman, read again that he was a scurrilous skunk and a depraved idiot. It made things worthwhile, and I found it fun to inform the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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