My champion catch

There hangs on my wall a picture of an ice-fishing scene. I often look at it, as it holds great personal significance. It was a gift from my parishioners at a farewell party held for me when I left my pastorate in Labrador some years ago.

My friend, Jamie, whose name has been changed to protect the guilty, invited our family to join him and his family down at the lake for an overnight ice-fishing expedition. I’m not much of a fisherman, but I was determined to impress my family and friends with the biggest catch ever.

Out on the ice, a considerable distance from the cabin, Jamie and I made two holes. I stood over the hole I had made, my line dangling in the water, and patiently waited for a bite. What seemed like hours passed without a nibble. I felt discouraged.

Jamie walked over to me and helpfully suggested, “Leave the line in place and come back to the cabin for a mug-up.” Never one to ignore good advice and not thinking for a moment that his kind invitation had an ulterior motive, I jumped on his snowmobile with him and left my spot.

Throughout the meal, I said things like “I wonder if I got one yet. What if he’s so big that he breaks my line? What if he pulls it out of the hole and swims away?”

Unnoticed by me, Jamie left the cabin. Shortly after, I heard him shouting in the distance, “Tell Pastor Janes he caught a big one!”

christopher-burton-fish-lab-city

On this trip, my son Christopher and I did catch a fish. Here’s the evidence.

I jumped up from the table and dashed from the cabin. Tearing across the ice to my fish hole, I yelled, “How big is he?”

“He’s some big, Pastor, b’y!”

When I reached my fishing hole, Jamie passed me the line, saying, “Be careful. He’s a big one. Don’t let him get away. Tug gently on the line.”

I tugged on the line – it was taut. This had to be my champion fish.

Stooping down, I peered into the hole. All I could see was the unmistakable colour of a fish, responding only grudgingly to my tugging on the line. Of course, I was screaming and gesticulating by now, to let everybody back at the cabin know I had hooked a monster of a fish.

When I figured I finally had the champion beat out, I slowly began to rein him in. But what resistance I encountered! Then the object came abreast of the hole, but would come up no further. This encouraged me to shout even louder. “Jamie,” I called in panic, “I can’t get the fish up through the hole. Help me, b’y.”

As quick as a flash, he grabbed the line and began tugging at it with determination. Moments later, though, he exclaimed, “Pastor, b’y, the brick is too big to come up through the hole!”

The brick?

I stared at him in disbelief. When I turned toward the shore, there were all my family and friends, standing at the cabin window, laughing that Jamie had gotten me, but good.

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Chewing on the pastor’s sermon

I have most of my teeth, and, at sixty years of age, I am mighty thankful for the molars I still possess. I know enough about teeth to suspect that those I no longer have are wisdom teeth or those at the back of my mouth which proved immune to periodic stints of confectionary consumption early in life.

Whenever I brush my teeth, I am reminded of a story which has circulated in pastoral ministry circles for some years.

A pastor had chosen for the text of his sermon a passage from the Gospel of Luke referring to hell. Approaching the end of his message, he wanted to make an appeal to his listeners to, in his words, “prepare for heaven and escape hell.” He exclaimed, “For the Bible says that in hell ‘there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ”

A minister is seldom interrupted by a parishioner in the midst of a sermon, but this time proved to be the exception.

“Pasteur!” a male voice suddenly called.

The pastor placed his hand to his glasses and focused on an elderly gentleman sitting at the back of the sanctuary. Rather than stifle the speaker and perhaps create hard feelings, the pastor said, “Yes, Sir, what’s on your mind?”

“Well, Pasteur, you was talkin’ ’bout ’ell h’as a place wid weepin’ an’ gnashin’ o’teet, right?”

“Yes. That’s what the Bible says.”

“Well, Pasteur, dat cain’t work fer h’all o’we.”

“I beg your pardon.”

man-with-few-teeth“Well, wha’ ’bout we poor ol’ people h’ain’t got nar toot h’in h’our ’eads?”

I’ve never heard that one before, the pastor thought, straining to keep a straight face, while his congregation erupted in raucous laughter. How to respond? In one version of the story, he replied, “I’m sure teeth will be provided for such people.”

He struggled unsuccessfully to recapture his congregation’s attention. Eventually, he brought his sermon to a close.

Incidentally, none of his parishioners responded to his appeal to “prepare for heaven and escape hell.”

Selling the professor’s library

In A Brief Autobiography, the Bay Roberts native, Samuel A. B. Mercer (1879-1969), stated that his most interesting article, written for a popular audience, had been “Joseph Smith as Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian,” published in The Utah Survey in 1913. By attacking the ability of Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-44), the founder of Mormonism, to translate Egyptian, Mercer unleashed a storm of controversy within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As late as 1958, the so-called “1912 Controversy” was a cause celebre for Mercer and, as late as 1970, an irritant for the Church.

The Episcopal Bishop of Utah, Franklin Spencer Spalding (1865-1914), was, according to his biographer, “the first missionary among the Mormons to make a serious effort to understand Mormonism.” Even Mormons regarded him “as eminently fair and true.” In his pamphlet, Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator, published in 1912, Spalding attempted “to show by the only original texts that can be tested that Joseph Smith wasn’t a reliable translator of ancient language.”

Spalding consulted a professor at Chicago’s Western Theological Seminary, Samuel Mercer, in his capacity as an Egyptologist. The latter suggested they send to some “of the world’s best Egyptian philologists” the three facsimiles of the original Egyptian text from the Book of Abraham, along with Smith’s partial translation, to test mercers-libraryindependently his ability as a translator. The jury members represented an impressive body of scholarship: Archibald Sayce (1845-1933), Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), James Henry Breasted (1865-1935), Arthur C. Mace (1874-1928), John Peters, Eduard Meyer (1855-1930) and Friedrich Wilhelm von Bissing (1873-1956). All of them were in practically uniform agreement that the meaning of the facsimiles’ hieroglyphics was completely different from Smith’s translation.

Mercer, in his article, “Joseph Smith as Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian,” formed his “judgment from the opinion of competent experts.” He blasted the Mormons for believing something that “required only a glance to find out that the interpretation and translation were absolutely wrong in every detail.”

In what can only be described as an ironic twist, in 1956, Mercer, despite his devastating attack on key Mormon documents more than four decades earlier, sold his personal Egyptian library to Brigham Young University!

Harvard University’s librarian, S. Lyman Tyler, knew BYU would respect and utilize Mercer’s Egyptology collection. Informed of the interest, the Newfoundlander decided that BYU would be a suitable home for his material. He seemed determined to permit nobody but the Mormons to have it.

The Mormons agreed to Mercer’s price, which was a mere fraction of what other institutions, including Harvard, had been anxious to pay. The collection was shipped to BYU.

The surprisingly large collection consists almost entirely of books, including a wealth of bound periodicals. Many of the items are now exceedingly rare and valuable. This put BYU in possession of nearly all the Egyptian sources Mercer had used in writing his many books.

Mercer’s library was not kept together as a unit. Fortunately, shelf lists were made as the books were being catalogued, and a label, identifying its provenance, was placed in each volume. This list was microfilmed in 1957. By late 1991, the Mercer collection was located in a single building, and was in the process of being re-catalogued and redistributed under headings such as History, Religion, Philology and Geography. Plans were underway to bring the entire collection together in one room.

BYU professor, Hugh Nibley (1910-2005), subsequently spent hundreds of hours among Mercer’s books. There are no personal papers, but Nibley felt the human touch was nevertheless present in comments Mercer had made on his books. His countless penciled annotations are a good indication of what he was doing and thinking. Nibley acknowledged in 1990 that he felt inclined to take it easy on Mercer, in view of the great favour he had done for the Mormons. In his personal dealings with Mercer, Nibley found him to be kind and unfailingly courteous. Dealing with him was a pleasure. In 1968, a year before Mercer died, Nibley wished him well.

An unusual song request

Soon after Dad graduated from Bible school in Toronto in 1947, he assumed the pastorate of a church in Ontario. As his first charge, it was an ideal opportunity for him to put into practice the things he had learned. At the same time, he would learn many lessons he had not been taught. One such lesson revolved around a parishioner’s unusual song request.

One Sunday morning, Dad asked his congregation, “Does anyone have a favourite hymn or chorus you’d like for us to sing?” Such requests were not unusual in public meetings. Congregants would respond with various titles. The choices were limitless, and Dad thought he was ready for almost any selection. It might be “Amazing Grace,” an all-time favourite, or “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” “Faith of Our Fathers,” “Near the Cross,” Just As I Am,” or any number of others.

A lady timidly raised her hand.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Dad said, looking in her direction. “What is your selection?”

“Pastor,” she began, “can we sing that wonderful little chorus, ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’?” Dad was taken aback. “It’s been going over in my mind all week,” she continued, “and I’d like for the congregation to sing it. It would really bless me.”

Thinking he had misheard her, Dad said, “Pardon?”

She repeated her request, “‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ pastor, if you don’t mind. That’s what I’d like for us to sing.”

mary-lambDad had spent four years in Bible school preparing for this? Appealing to his congregation for favourite hymns or choruses, he had been thinking in terms of selections chosen from the hymnal, not nursery rhymes! Not that he didn’t know “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” for he recalled it very well from his childhood. But as for being a parishioner’s choice of a chorus to be sung in a church service, well, it just didn’t seem appropriate. A litany of questions flashed into his mind, Where’s the spiritual content? How does it relate to God, to Jesus Christ, to the Holy Spirit, to the Church, to heaven? No, he decided, it doesn’t fit the bill. But how to handle the sincere woman’s unusual request?

Ever the suave one, Dad responded politely, “Thank you for your selection, Ma’am. But I don’t think it would be appropriate right now.”

Dad eventually left Ontario for his Newfoundland home, married, had four children, and spent his entire professional life pastoring in the province. He often told this story to his children, to their keen delight.

I often asked him what the woman in his first church must have been thinking when she had made such an unusual request. Dad didn’t have a definitive answer, but over time we concocted a reasonable scenario.

The nursery rhyme makes repeated reference to a “Mary.” Well, wasn’t the mother of Jesus also named Mary? A not insignificant detail. The rhyme also makes equal reference to a “lamb.” Ah-ah, we thought upon reflection. The New Testament refers to Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” Suddenly, it made sense in a reverse sort of way. “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” A clear reference to Jesus, the Lamb of God, and his mother, Mary! How else could she have understood the nursery rhyme?

How often Sherry and I regaled our young children with this nursery rhyme, “Mary had a little lamb, / Little lamb, little lamb. / Mary had a little lamb, / Its fleece was white as snow.”

At one point, I even added my own stanza, “Mary had a little lamb, / Its feet were black as tar. / It followed her to school d’day, / Gonna do it agin d’mar!” Apparently I wasn’t concerned about grammar at the time.

For some reason, my original stanza was never incorporated into the original composition.

Meanwhile, we as a family never cease to laugh whenever anyone mentions this unforgettable nursery rhyme.

Bibliomania

I’m afflicted with a condition known as bibliomania.

A syndicated book columnist, Nicholas A. Basbanes, describes a person who suffers from this curious malady as being “mad about books.”

Guilty as charged. Books are the bane of my existence. My home office, not to mention our house, both upstairs and downstairs, is awash in books. Those volumes that have been unable to find a resting place in shelves take up residence in almost every available nook and cranny.

My late father before me, himself a connoisseur of good books, left me his. I put his tomes on my bottom shelves. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the water in our basement rose six inches, most of his books were damaged beyond repair. However, I OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdidn’t break the news to him. He died in ignorance of the fate of his cherished books.

Others before my father and I have suffered from the same affliction, some worse than others.

Winston S. Churchill understood well the intimate attachment individuals have to books.

He suggests that, if you’re unable to read your books, “at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another.

“Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas. Set them back on their shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are.

“If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintance. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.”

My condition is less severe than Churchill’s.

Some books hold greater personal significance than others. High on the list are author-signed books, usually more valuable than unsigned copies.

Few of the books in my library hold author signatures.

However, I have a signed, first edition of I Chose Canada, the memories of Joey Smallwood. I also have a signed and numbered (#31) edition of 100 copies of a pre-publication press run of Harold Horwood’s Joey: The Life and Political Times of Joey Smallwood.

While I’m proud of those volumes, my greatest pride is reserved for inscription volumes. The author takes his time to inscribe his book to someone. In the wild and wacky world of used and rare books, such books are usually valuable.

One of the books my father gave me is Ten-Minute Talks on All Sorts of Topics, written by Elihu Burritt in 1874.

An American philanthropist and social activist, he was born in New Britain, Connecticut, in 1810. He died there 69 years later.

My copy of Burritt’s book holds a distinctive and intriguing inscription: “To Thomas Hardy Esq. A slight remembrance from America.”

Perhaps the English novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), is better known than Burritt. Who can forget Hardy’s masterful Jude the Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the d’Urbervilles?

I desperately want to believe the inscription is directed at this Thomas Hardy, but I cannot be sure at this late remove.

There is in Great Britain a society devoted to Thomas Hardy. Its aim is to promote his works for both education and enjoyment. It even has its own scholarly publications, The Hardy Society Journal and The Thomas Hardy Journal.

I emailed the secretary, Mike Nixon, about any known connection between Burritt and Hardy.

To my disappointment, he responded, “Having consulted a number of colleagues, we all feel there was no connection between the author Thomas Hardy and Elihu Burritt.”

I then emailed Nixon a scan of the inscription. After showing it around to his Hardy Council colleagues, he responded again: “Sadly we are still of the same opinion. It does not relate to our Hardy.”

I suspect that only a bibliomaniac can enter into the feeling of disappointment such a response brings.

Today I discovered there’s actually a medical condition known as bibliomania. Treatment for this form of obsessive compulsive disorder includes, among other things, psychotherapy, meditation and relaxation, hypnotherapy, cingulotomy and deep brain stimulation.

Yikes!

Note to wife: In case you’re wondering about what to get me as a gift, why not buy me a book or two? There are still a few spots in our house devoid of books.

‘There is no place like the outports’

Recently, a friend gave me some letters, removed from a dwelling which was being dismantled.

The letters speak of an earlier time … 1941. The one I am quoting from is dated 28 August.

It’s written by a young man – let’s call him Tom – who had left his Coley’s Point home to work in Grand Falls.

That evening, he sat in his apartment on Pine Avenue and wrote his mother. With a good command of language, Tom was obviously an able commentator.

The paper is mildewed with age. The smell of mould is all-pervasive as I read. The careful handwriting has faded with time, but it’s still decipherable.

Today’s reader is, in effect, able to sit behind Tom’s shoulder as he wrote, reading about the things that were on the mind of a son away from home.

letter“I received your most welcome letter,” Tom began somewhat formally.

“I am well, and glad to hear ye are the same….

“I am not working this evening, as it’s showery.”

He asked to congratulate those back home who had passed in school.

He inquired about a certain girl, wondering if she had passed, as well. I wonder, Who was she? His sister? Girlfriend? The possibilities are both endless and intriguing.

“Did any of the Grade Eight Class fail?”

Tom admitted, “I haven’t got my mind made up yet as to what I am going to go at. I don’t see anything that I could do, except that I go to summer school next year and go teaching for a while.”

He had a humourous streak: “I will have to do something before I forget what I do know.” He could have added an exclamation point.

He realized it was “no use stopping there because it is like throwing money away.”

Meanwhile, he also realized he would “have to wait until I come home and see what is best to do.”

The day before, he had received a letter from Pop. His father or grandfather? We don’t know. Tom planned to respond on Sunday.

He missed home. “I would like to be home now,” he admitted, “to go out in the boat sometimes fishing. There is no place like the outports.”

He informed his mother he “got a suit of clothes the other night. It cost a good bit, but it was the best I could do. There are two pairs of pants. Of course, it was not my doings. It got to stand me a good while now.”

Tom again mulled over his future. “I wouldn’t mind if I had to go to school another year,” he wrote, “because when I am finished school, there is no stop at all. You have to be working all the time.”

He asked about another young lady, wondering if she “got a school yet.” Who was she?

“I guess if I had stayed home,” Tom admitted ruefully, “I would have made almost so much (money) as I will down here.”

Board was costly. “It would be alright if I didn’t have to pay so much for board,” he complained good-naturedly. “That spoils it all. Anyway so I pay off what I owe this summer is all I care.”

His mother had spoken to her son about rubber taps.

“Well,” he responded, “I don’t think you need bother about that. So I was thinking about getting some leather in here and tapping my shoes. I think they have a last over to Gillette’s.”

Tom’s mother had sent him a parcel, but it hadn’t arrived. “The shipping bill for it is come, but we cannot find the parcel.”

Tom had to condemn his old shoes; indeed, he was now wearing a pair belonging to somebody else. He hoped to receive the parcel the next day.

“By what you said on your letter,” he wrote, “you had the storm Sunday harder than we had it. The lightening was terrible heavy, but we had no thunder worthwhile, and that was distant. I was out in all the lightening because when I came home it was all over. We didn’t have any rain with it.”

The end of August was at hand. “Summer will be over,” Tom added sadly. “It seems only a very short time since we were going to school, and now it is time to go again.

“Well, I think I have told you just about all the news for this time. So I think I must close.”

Tom wanted to be remembered to various individuals.

“With love, your affectionate son.”

I wonder, What became of Tom? Did he eventually come home for good? What course did he choose for his life? Did he become a teacher?

We are left wondering.

Piles and piles of remedies

I’d like to believe that I enthusiastically accept the advice of those who know better than I do. So, if someone offers me a remedy for an ailment, who am I to turn it down? I may be rejecting the very thing that will put me, and even my dog, Buddy, back on the road to recovery.

A friend recently sent me a lengthy list of remedies that are guaranteed to work.

First, my dog’s complaints…

How to eliminate mites in Buddy’s ears? All it takes are a few drops of corn oil. Massage it in, then clean the ear with a cotton ball. Repeat daily for three days. The oil soothes his skin, smothers the mites and accelerates healing.

How to kill fleas? Dishwashing liquid does the trick. Add a few drops to Buddy’s bath and shampoo him thoroughly. Rinse well to avoid skin irritations. Au revoir, fleas.

How to dry him off after he comes in out of the rain? Simply wipe him down with Bounce or any clothes dryer sheet. Buddy will smell springtime fresh.

Now, my personal complaints…

How to cure headaches? Drinking two glasses of Gatorade can relieve it almost immediately, without the unpleasant side effects caused by traditional pain relievers.

How to quell the pain caused by burns? Toothpaste makes an excellent salve.

How to clear a stuffed nose? Before heading to a drugstore to buy a high-priced inhaler, filled with mysterious chemicals, chew on two peppermints.

How to relieve achy muscle pain from a bout of the flu? Mix one tablespoon of horseradish in one cup of olive oil. Let the mixture sit for 30 minutes, then apply it as a massage oil. Voila.

Sore throat? Mix a quarter cup each of vinegar and honey, then take one tablespoon six times daily. The vinegar kills the bacteria. However, this cure doesn’t care for the screwed-up face caused by the vinegar.

Urinary tract infections? Dissolve two tablets of Alka-Seltzer in a glass of water and drink it. Instant relief. Oops, pardon the burp.

Unsightly toenail fungus? I personally haven’t had this ailment in a while. The remedy is mouthwash therapy. Soak the toes in a powerful mouthwash antiseptic. Healthy looking toenails will result. But don’t gargle the mouthwash once it has been applied to the toenail.

Undoubtedly all good remedies, but none of them take care of piles and piles of other complaints.

family-heraldSpeaking of piles, I’m reminded of a magazine my parents used to receive when I was a child, Family Herald. I have in my possession a copy from 1968, when I was 11. I feel like singing the gospel song “Precious Memories” as I peruse it, especially the pages of classified ads at the back.

One of the first ads that leaps out at me makes this promise: Piles eased in minutes.

“Don’t let sore, itching, burning piles make you miserable another day or night.”

How do you spell “relief”? Readers are encouraged to try the Chinaroid test: “Feel it help heal and shrink sore, swollen tissues. Feel welcome comfort while you sleep, walk, ride or work…. Feel relief in minutes. See how much better you feel tomorrow.”

How can I curb bowel cramping and gas pains? Hmmm, let me think about this one for a moment. Sherry and I used to tell our children to use the word “fluff,” but they picked up the word “fart” all on their own, without any encouragement from us.

Anyway, nobody wants to “suffer from dull cramping aches or burning pains in the side, gas, acidity, heartburn, biliousness, bad breath.” Not to mention sleep deprivation caused by gas pains.

A special medication like Kolade powders which, the ad emphasizes, “is not a laxative,” does all the following and more: relieves cramping intestine muscles, soothes sore mucus membranes, and checks acidity. It swiftly deals with colon and stomach discomfort. You gotta like it.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I’d like to believe that I enthusiastically accept the advice of those who know better than I do. My approach is strictly utilitarian, though: if it works, I’m willing to try it.

However, it’s easy to be taken in by quacks, those who knowingly sell worthless, unproved, and even dangerous remedies.

Thankfully, a few simple steps can protect us from being ripped off by quacks.

First, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Refuse to believe everything you see and hear in ads.

Watch out for such common ploys as promises of a quick or painless cure, claims of a “special” or “secret” formula only available by mail from one source only, and testimonials from satisfied patients.

Finally, question ads stating that a product works for a wide variety of ailments or cures a disease that isn’t even understood by medical science.

Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.

A hellish discovery

In the early 1980s, a group of geologists were working in remote Siberia. They drilled a hole some 14.4 kilometres deep into the earth. Suddenly, the drill bit began to rotate almost out of control.

Mr. Azzacov, the project manager, later said, “We decided the centre of the earth is hollow.”

The workers measured temperatures of over 2,000 degrees in the hole. They lowered supersensitive microphones into the shaft. To their astonishment, they heard the sounds of thousands, if not millions, of people screaming in torment.

Hell had finally been discovered!

Sound convincing? It’s quite the entertaining tale, if nothing else.

I vividly recall when this hellish discovery was made. There were sane and intelligent hellfirepeople who accepted it as the gospel truth. Indeed, I first read about it in a newsletter produced by a well-known group of evangelical Christians.

The truth is, those who swallowed this story hook, line and sinker had fallen for what’s commonly known as an “urban legend.”

An urban legend has been defined as an “apocryphal, secondhand story told as true and just plausible enough to be believed, about some horrific, embarrassing, ironic or exasperating series of events that supposedly happened to a real person.” It’s also known as urban myth, urban belief tale, contemporary legend and migratory legend.

Here are a few examples for your reading pleasure.

*Don’t use public payphones because a gang is applying skin-eating acid to the receiver and buttons.

*Getting your belly button pierced can cause cancer. This won’t happen to me, though, because it’s been so long since I’ve actually seen my navel.

*Check seats in a movie theatre in advance. A girl sat down and felt a prick. Ahhhh, perhaps I should rephrase this. Anyway, you get the point, pun intended. When the movie ended, she was bleeding. Sticking out of the chair was a needle with a virus on it.

*People put drugs in licky tattoos.

*A friend of a friend of a cousin of an aunt found a razor in an apple her child had received as a Halloween treat.

*There’s a kidney theft ring operating in New Orleans. People whose kidneys are stolen wake up in a bathtub full of ice.

*Never stick your finger in a payphone coin-return slot because some bad people might shove deadly needles up there to hurt you.

*A well-known department store in New York was selling cookies. A customer asked the cook, “What’s the cost of the recipe?” He said, “Two.” The lady, thinking he meant two dollars, said, “Just put it on my credit card.” Unknown to her, the man meant two hundred dollars. To get back at the cook and company, she threatened to reveal the recipe to everybody she met.

I will never forget a frightening story I heard about a family friend. Charles – not his real name – was traveling across the island when he spied a hitchhiker on the side of the road. Wanting to be friendly, he slowed down to take him aboard.

Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, the driver saw another man, scrambling up the bank to the road. In his hand was a large chain, which he was wielding wildly. It caught in the antenna. Charles gunned the motor and flew away.

Several miles down the road, he stopped to inspect the damage to his vehicle. Imagine his horror when he discovered the man’s thumb caught in the chain in the antenna.

“And that’s the truth,” I was assured. “I heard it from your aunt, who told it to her brother, who told it to his father.” In that case, who was I to question it?

It was an urban legend.

Which brings me back to the discovery of hell in Siberia.

In 1984, an article about an experimental well in Russia’s Kola Peninsula appeared in Scientific American magazine. The well was 12 kilometres deep and the temperature was 180 degrees.

However, once the real event took place, it was embellished into a captivating legend.

You can go online and download audio clips claiming to be the screams of the damned from this well-hell in the ground. I like what a commentator had to say: “all of them sound like they could be the noise from a typical bar on a busy Friday evening.”

Jan Harold Brunvand has made it his life’s work to debunk urban legends; indeed, he has written the definitive Encyclopedia of Urgan Legends. He suggests the most important features of an urban legend are “a strong basic story-appeal, a foundation in actual belief, and a meaningful message or ‘moral.’ ” His bottom line is that “any legends are ‘too good to be true,’ that is, unverified and too coincidental to be taken as literal truth.”

Now that we know where hell is, I wonder where heaven is.

My best friend

As a Christian, I suppose I should say Jesus is my best friend. As a husband, perhaps I should say my wife is my best friend. As a father, I might be expected to say our children are my best friends. And, as a grandfather, some would argue my best friend is our grandson.

I think I’ll dispense with all that, and just say my best friend is Buddy.

buddy-in-carHe’s a mostly black border collie, mixed with another brand. I am hopelessly devoted to him, and I suppose there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him. He’s my shadow – I’m his Pied Piper of Hamelin. He tries to follow me everywhere. He’s lying at my feet as I write.

When I get in the house, the first to meet me at the door and pine for human touch is not, as you might expect, my wife Sherry, but Buddy. Until and unless I reach out and pet him, he won’t leave me alone. Once I do, all’s well with his world.

All this gushing, sentimental fluff about my pet got me thinking about a story I read some years ago. It helps set the context as to why man’s – my – best friend really and truly is a canine.

George Graham Vest (1830-1904) was an American lawyer and politician, known for his skills in debate and oration. He is best known for his “man’s best friend” closing arguments from the trial in which damages were sought for the killing of a foxhound named Old Drum on 18 October 1869. Vest was the attorney for the plaintiff.

After the final witness had been examined and the counsel for the defense had given his closing argument to the jury, Vest rose to speak.

“Gentlemen of the jury,” he said, “the best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. Even his own son or daughter, that he has reared with loving care, may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith.

“The money that a man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall upon their knees to do us honour when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads.

“Gentlemen of the jury, the one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog.

“A man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may lie near his master’s side. He will even kiss the hand that has no food to offer; he will lick the wounds and the sores that come in encounter with the roughness of the world. He will guard the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. And when all other friends desert, he remains.

“When riches take wings and reputation falls into pieces, a man’s dog is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens. If fortune drives the master forth, an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him, to guard him against danger and to fight against his enemies.

“And when the last scene of all comes and death takes his master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by the grave side will the noble dog be found, his head between his paw, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even after his master’s death.”

The jury deliberated for only a few moments, after which it brought in a verdict for the plaintiff. This legal action became one of the very few instances where the amount awarded was much greater than the sum asked.

One of my early morning delights is perking my first caffeine fix of the day. Then, coffee in hand, while sitting on the chesterfield, I travel the world with a good book. Without fail, I am joined by Buddy, who wants nothing more than to snuggle beside me. He will stay there as long as I do. If I have to leave the house, he accompanies me to the door, where he sits and looks plaintively at me until I pass him the first treat of the day. Since rereading the story of Lawyer Vest, I understand much better the role Buddy plays in my life, and I in his.

A clutch of oxymorons

Please allow me to ask some deep and probing questions.

How many angels can stand or, for that matter, dance, on the head of a pin? Can God create a boulder too big for him to lift? Is he able to create two adjacent mountains, with no valley in between? Can he grab a baldheaded man by the hair of his head? (Please, no jokes about the follicly-challenged!)

There may be those who think I have too much spare time on my hands. Perhaps so. Still, I cannot help wondering about certain things. Oxymorons often grab my attention, creating a moment of levity and bringing a smile to my face.

For those unfamiliar with this term, an oxymoron is a figure of speech by which a locution produces an incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory effect. I will illustrate.

There are many brief examples of oxymorons, such as a fine mess, awfully good, baby grand piano, bright shade, calculated risk, conservative liberal, cruel kindness, dark star, dull roar, educated guess, eyes wide shut, fail safe, friendly enemy, genuine imitation, gunboat diplomacy, half empty, honest crook, ill health, inside out, joyful trouble, junior senator, and make haste slowly.

Of late, I’ve been enjoying other, more involved, oxymorons. I beg the reader’s indulgence as I list some of them.

  • Is it good if a vacuum cleaner “really sucks”?
  • Why is the third hand on a watch called the second hand?
  • If a word is misspelled in a dictionary, how would we ever know?
  • If Webster wrote the first dictionary, where did he find the words?
  • Why do we say something is “out of whack”? What is a “whack”?
  • Why do “slow down” and “slow up” mean the same thing?
  • Why do “fat chance” and “slim chance” mean the same thing?
  • Why do tugboats push their barges?
  • Why do we sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” when we’re already there?
  • Why are they called “stands” when they’re made for sitting?
  • Why is it called “after dark” when it really is “after light”?
  • Doesn’t expecting the unexpected make the unexpected expected?
  • Why are a “wise man” and a “wise guy” opposites?
  • Why do “overlook” and “oversee” mean opposite things?
  • Why is “phonics” not spelled the way it sounds?
  • If work is so terrific, why do they have to pay us to do it?
  • If all the world’s a stage, where’s the audience sitting?
  • If love is blind, why is lingerie so popular?
  • Why is “bra” singular and “panties” plural?
  • Why do you press harder on the buttons of a remote control when you know the batteries are dead?
  • Why do we put suits in garment bags and garments in a suitcase?
  • How come “abbreviated” is such a long word?
  • Why do we wash bath towels? Aren’t we clean when we use them?
  • Why doesn’t glue stick to the inside of the bottle?
  • Why do they call it a TV “set” when you only have one?
  • Christmas – what other time of the year do we sit in front of a dead tree and eat candy out of our socks?
  • Why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?

Intriguing questions all.

Oxymorons are especially useful to writers, in order to direct the reader’s attention to an apparent contradiction. At times, oxymorons, the more unusual the better, make effective literary tools. In other words, the idea being relayed by the writer is more vividly described when such a figure of speech is used. In addition, oxymorons can add depth, interest and creativity to a piece, resulting in a rhetorical effect by paradoxical means.

So what’s up with a grammar lesson on oxymorons?

Both life and language are serious business. Many people react to oxymorons by shrugging them off as humourous or inconsequential. In a world in which bad news is the order of the day, perhaps there are times when we should take a breather from the demands of life, sit back, and reflect on something as simple as the pleasurable aspects of language.

We all need lighthearted moments, to counterbalance the more solemn realities we face daily. If we can draw a moment of levity from figures of speech such as oxymorons, then so much the better.

Carpe diem. Enjoy the present.

An awfully good idea, don’t you think?