|W. J. Sidis
Billy never spoke of "women drivers," "women lawyers," but always accorded the ladies equal rights. To offset innumerable anecdotes printed concerning the foolishness of females he once sent me a story about a school teacher who was giving an oral test in geography.
"Can you tell me," she asked, "what island there is off the English coast which, from its name, you would judge to be inhabited by members of the male sex only?"
"Please, ma’m," said a little girl, "The Scilly Isles."
Billy did think certain predatory females tried too hard to hook almost defenseless males, and welcomed it when the men were given a chance for escape and repartee both. There was the story about the girl who was introduced at a large party to a former suitor who had managed to get away, and thought she would punish him for his presumption by being distant. "I'm sorry," she said, "I didn't get your name." "I know," he said, "but you tried hard enough."
Billy believed in reasoning by analogy, particularly in historical situations, where frequently the plan of a present-day political party could be predicted from a knowledge of its past history. But you should not always expect analogies to be identical or you will be like the little boy whose teacher asked him to give the principal parts of the verb "swim."
Jimmy: "Swim, swam, swum."
Teacher: "Good! Now give the principal parts of the verb "dim."
Jimmy: "Teacher, I'd rather not."
Although Billy always claimed to be "neutral," he did not care much for the welfare of the dictatorships. Like the Quakers during the Revolutionary War, one knew where his sympathies lay. In spite of his distrust of England for her taking ways throughout the centuries, he still favored England.
After the fall of France he sent me the story of the meeting of two Germans in Paris. Said Karl to Fritz: "Have you a good job here?"
"Yes, I have a fine job. I sit on the Eiffel Tower and wait for the English to wave the white flag," said Fritz.
"Good pay?" asked Karl.
"Not much," Fritz answered, "but it's for life."
Both before and during World War II propaganda was one of Billy's pet subjects, or pet peeves, if you prefer. Since all is fair in war the spreading of lies by one side about the other is an effective means of breaking morale. Newspaper censorship can backfire. Understatement of losses may lead to having a feeling of false security in the face of danger.
There is the story of the fifty German flyers who applied to the pearly gates of heaven for admittance.
"Sorry," said Saint Peter, "but I can let only five of you in."
"How come?" the fifty cried, indignantly.
"Because," Saint Peter explained, "the official Berlin communiqué says only five German flyers were shot down last night."
Billy felt much time (and money) was being wasted in endless diplomatic negotiations, to which no one paid attention, anyway. He thought the League of Nations would have succeeded "if anyone had ever given it a chance," but that most diplomats were velvet-faced tools of aggression. And he mentioned Isaac Goldberg's quip: "Diplomacy is to do and say the nastiest things in the nicest way."
Another analogy from the mathematical field concerned the professor who said: "Arithmetic is an exact science. Figures can't lie. For instance, if one man can build a house in twelve days, twelve men can build it in one day."
Student: "Then 288 men can build it in one hour, 17,280 in one minute, or 1,036,800 in one second."
And from the WPA days when work had to be created for many people there was the problem of the long trench that had to be dug. In order to employ the most men, how? The suggestion of a steam shovel was turned down because more men with old-fashioned shovels (whether they leaned on them or not!) could be used. Then one man exclaimed: "Why don't you employ a thousand men with teaspoons?"
From the days when we discussed the world's strongest poisons I remember a definition of the strongest of all. An airplane--one drop and you are dead.
And the outstanding contribution that chemistry has given the world--blondes.
Here is another comparison--from the realm of human relations.
"A friend is like an umbreller. He’s never there when you want him and if he is he's broke."
Billy did not drink but was occasionally amused at the antics of those who did. He thought that they were in the same situation as the man who started to make an inventory of a house. The first thing he noticed was a cocktail cabinet. When the lady of the house came in some time later she found the inventory taker on the floor. There was only one entry in his notebook: "One revolving carpet."
Concerning the general notion of pacifism, Hilly once sent me a news item concerning the members of a tribe in India who decided to suspend all marriages for a year, as a protest against the government. The comment accompanying it by the editor was that perhaps the tribesmen thought they were contributing their bit towards non-violence.
Speaking of the army's appreciation of those with linguistic ability, Billy sent me the story of the man who knew six languages required in his business. When drafted he put in a request to be assigned to either Intelligence or Communications. Communications accepted him and put him in charge of a squad of carrier pigeons. (About a month or so ago I read of the appointment of two high school teachers who, during the war, had been in the pigeon breeding department of the Army, so it might be that reading messages would adequately utilize the services of a linguist.)
But Billy realized that the army could be the salt of the earth when he spoke of "seasoned troops as those mustered by the sergeant and peppered by the enemy."
That an army always marched on its stomach was proved by the following piece of vigilance.
Sentry: "Halt! Who goes there?"
Voice in the Dark: "Cook, with doughnuts for breakfast."
Sentry: "Sentry Pass, Cook, Halt, doughnuts!"
Billy's opinion of war (any numeral--I or II) is given in the following story.
"Be more careful!" roared the colonel to the Army clerk.
"What do you mean, sir?' faltered the Army clerk.
"Why," instead of addressing this letter to the Intelligence Office" you have addressed it to the Intelligent Officer. You ought to know there's no such person in the army."
In both wars Billy was a conscientious objector, a complete one. An incomplete one, although he may not shed blood, may take a desk job furthering the cause of war. This Billy did for a time unknowingly, in the first World War, when he worked on plans for a submarine.
He promptly and indignantly resigned when he found out about it, because his "principles" did not permit him to do what he considered highly unethical. Many possibilities came up during the second war for everything from translation to defense work, but nothing fitted in with Billy's ideals of pacifism, and he did civil service work where there would be no possibility of his becoming enmeshed in war problems. He rarely, in later days, referred to his "principles," but they were as strong, I am sure, as in his early twenties. These ideals carried him from tetotalism to pacifistic totalism. (But he was no totalitarian!) Those who did "war work," he said, while refusing to fight, put the fist" in "pacifist." They were traitors to human brotherhood.
Billy peaceably answered the request for examination by his draft board. Some "conscies" refuse, but he said it was not contrary to his principles. He was rejected. I thought it was his excessive overweight, but it was his heart. He did not say anything about his heart condition at that time" nor did he ever mention it later.
Concerning military discipline, Billy quoted the story of the girl who remarked:
"As soon as my fiance has completed his military service we be married." "Ah yes. He will be better able to stand it then.
Billy felt that a man never escaped from his wife until he had passed into the Great Beyond. Even when literally at death's door he is still under the rulership of his wife, because he is then even and more helpless to protect himself.
"And can you tell me his last words?" inquired a reporter who was collecting material for the obituary notice of a local celebrity. "He had no last words" was the reply. "You'd better just say his dear wife was with him to the end."
Billy's increasing girth was never a subject of concern to him. He insisted: "A layer of fat acts as an insulator. I'm more comfortable than when I was thin. I don't mind heat as much in summer nor do I mind cold as much in winter as before." He thought it might be a good idea to lose a little weight, so like the very fat man who asked his absent-minded wife; "Have you seen my belt around the house?"
The wife replied: "I don't know, dear. Did you put it around the house?"
Shortly after the draft board issued ultimatums Billy told me about the business man who was told to report to his draft board, but who returned to the office the next day, saying, "I'm classified 5-B: baldness, bifocals, baywindow, bowlegs and bunions."
I suggested taking more exercise, although Billy walked much more than most people, hiking miles up and down hill in all kinds of weather, where the average person rolls along on four tires.
This time Billy told me what the baronet said to his butler.
"James, the doctor has ordered me to take more exercise, so in future I'll wind up my wrist watch myself."
Billy had contempt for the self-made man who bragged about his own accomplishments. The story of the conceited young man makes one feel kindly towards the girl who had to sit and listen to him boast about himself until she felt she could endure it no longer.
Said the man: "It costs a great deal more than one would, think to become a broadminded and intelligent man of the world."
"I suppose so," said the girl, "and I don't blame you for saving your money."
Billy's opinion of the faithfulness of women is shown in the following story.
A woman approached the pearly gates and spoke to Saint Peter.
"Do you know if my husband is here? His name is Smith."
"Lady, we have many Smiths here--you'll have to be more specific."
"Lots of those, too--you'll have to have more identification."
"Well, when he died he said that if I was ever untrue to him he'd turn over in his grave."
"Oh, you mean I Pinwheel Smith!"
Billy preferred the freedom of bachelorhood, telling the following story of a man who had surrendered the coldness of independence for the warmth of companionship.
"When this vacuum flask is filled it will keep things hot for you indefinitely," remarked the salesman to the tired-looking little man at the counter.
"No, thanks," he replied, retreating hastily. "I married something like that."
Billy maintained that marriage was a difficult adjustment for men all over the world and in every rank of civilization. As an illustration:
"See here," said the missionary to the African chief, "it is wrong to have more than one wife. Tell all your wives except one that they can no longer look upon you as their husband.
"After a moment's reflection, the chief replied, "You tell them."
He thought the anecdote concerning the test a trifle exaggerated, but that none the less it proved that what passes for bravery is often cowardice.
A king who wanted to know how many men were afraid of their wives, sent for all his married male subjects and commanded those who always obeyed their wives to stand on one side.
Seeing, to his surprise, that a very small man was the only one who did not do so, he asked him why such a puny individual as himself had a mind of his own.
"When I left home, Your majesty," explained the man, "I promised my wife I would not go in any crowd."
Billy resented the tradition whereby Boston was supposed to always state things the longest way around, and in proof, cited a Boston sign for its brevity--brevity in syllables as well as in words.
A motorists' warning sign should always be brief, and the briefest sign of its type was a Boston one, at an intersection near a school "Slow. Kids."
Billy enjoyed finding instances where residents of other states except Massachusetts were unduly long winded. The following story held double interest for him, both for the above mentioned reason and for the reason that he had once written an article on sunspots for the American Journal of Abnormal Psychology--and he was always interested in any phenomena concerning the sun.
A Georgia paper reported an eclipse of the sun in this manner:
"An iridescent glow, pale purple and almost eldrich in its delicate, sun-gleamed coloring, enveloped Augusta Saturday afternoon as the adumbrations from earth's satellite, the icy-crenate moon, then edging its atrous disk across the face of the Great Luminary, partially obscuring the light of nascent day."
From the heights to those who keep their heads in the clouds to those who keep their feet solidly on earth, we have another story:
"Pedal habiliments artistically lubricated and illuminated with ambidextrous facility for an infinitesimal rumuneration."
Note--I made the change in the last line--five cents seemed so dated, when a nickel is not worth a cent now.
I have much more to come concerning long-winded modes of expression, but want to catch the 7:15 mail.
Billy and I often discussed how people were influenced by their early conditioning. He told me the story of the Eskimo undergraduate at Harvard, who (at the time Billy attended there) during the long, cold, Boston winter, sat out on a park bench on the Cambridge Common in a Palm Beach suit. About March or April he could no longer cool off in this manner, and returned to Greenland!
Billy never thought much of politics, and gave this story as a proof of his derogatory opinion.
A surgeon, an architect and a politician were arguing as to whose profession was the oldest. Said the surgeon: "Eve was made from Adam's rib, and that surely was a surgical operation."
"Maybe," said the architect, "but prior to that order was created out of chaos and that was an architectural job."
"But," interrupted the politician, "somebody created the chaos first!"
Every time someone brags about the present given to him by the office force upon leaving his job I think of Billy's story of the man with the inflated ego who misinterpreted the actions of his fellow employees.
After six months at a new factory the superintendent developed a feeling that he wasn’t popular, so he called aside an old worker.
"Bill," said the boss, "how is it that the men can't seem to like me? Why, at the last place they gave me a silver teapot when I left."
"Only a silver teapot?" asked the candid worker. "If you'd only leave here we’d make it a whole silver tea service!"
Billy felt that the elaborate learning of vocabularies and grammars often left the language student unable to figure things out for himself. He cited the instance of the American in Paris who wanted to order horseradish with his dinner, but did not know how to ask for it. "I know the French for "horse' is 'cheval,' he said, and 'red' I suppose is ‘rouge,' and if I only knew the French for ‘ish' I could ask for some."
However, grammar has its irregularities, and one cannot be too precise--even though it may not seem logical. Billy used to tell about the conversation of the Englishman with the logically minded Frenchman.
Frenchman: "Ah, you climb the Matterhorn! That is a foot to be proud of.
Englishman: "Pardon me, sir, you mean "feat."
Frenchman: "So you climb it more than once, eh?"
When foreigners tried to pronounce English Billy's sympathy was with them, for few languages can rival English in inconsistencies, but he thought the man became too easily discouraged who gave up English lessons when he saw the news headline: WOMAN PRONOUNCED DEAD.
Once, for dinner, we had a new word. It was not an East Indian dinner, even though the word might seem to resemble Hindustani. The word was "ghoti," pronounced" fish."
The "gh" is from the pronounciation of "laugh,"--and is "f."
The "o" is from the pronunciation of "women"--and is "i."
The "ti" is from the pronounciation of "temptation" --and is "sh."
Thus "ghoti" is "fish."
Billy had just returned from a trip out west. He mentioned that he had had an embarrassing experience on the train. "I tore my trousers," he said. "Where?" I asked. "In Arizona."
It was Billy and not my father (although he was present) after I grew up who told me of a case where the joke was on him, but it was as mirth-provoking to him as though it were the other way around.
He said he had been teasing me, saying" "You little monkey!" From the height of offended three-year-old dignity, I replied, "Remember you're my budur!" And, after a pause, "My big budur!" Perhaps this story" although intended to illustrate Billy's good sportsmanship, might also reveal the fact that all the Sidises" even at an early age" had a sense of family solidarity!
My progress through school and travel in work was accompanied by a regular batter of jokes enclosed in each letter. When I received my first teaching promotion and went to a small midwest town" population five thousand and the smallest community in which I had ever lived, Billy sent me a cartoon showing a man and woman in a car looking at a sign, "Slow Down Here." The woman was saying to her husband: "You'd think they would have more pride in their town than to advertise the fact!"
Billy was always on the watch for Smith College jokes. He said he always felt conspicuous whenever he came to Northampton to visit me, merely because he was a man in a woman's community. (The neighborhood included Mount Holyoke College" several factories employing nearly all women, and a couple of girls' preparatory schools thrown in for good measure.) Therefore he was in complete symapathy with the writer of the following story.
It was on a Hollywood quiz program that a housewife was asked, "Which would be the most likely to succeed at Smith College--a man or a woman?"
The housewife hesitated. "A man," she said, finally.
The announcer sighed. "I’m so sorry," he said. "But you see, Smith is a woman's college."
"I know," said the housewife. "That's why I said 'A man.’"
She got the sixty-four dollars.
To be censored??
Who said the modern college girl is getting thinner and thinner?
The Herald Tribune yesterday headlined: Smith College Expands Its Facilities for Riding.
The student-teacher relationship interested Billy--from both sides. When you asked him whose side he was on, he always laughed and replied,"I'm neutral."
Here is one side of the teacher-pupil sparring relationship.
The little boy had been getting obstreperous, whereupon his parents reminded him that he was not so smart; that he narrowly had escaped being kept in kindergarten a second term.
"Yeah," scoffed the youngster. "Well, you remember the teacher who didn't want to pass me? Well, I'm in the first grade and she's still in the kindergarten."
Billy did not forget the point of view of the older generation. Here is the other side of the picture. Or a picture of the other side.
A small child on her first day at school was found in tears by the teacher. When the teacher asked what was wrong the child sobbed: "they say I've got to stay here until I'm fourteen."
The teacher smiled and said: "That's nothing to cry about. You're lucky. I've got to stay here until I'm sixty-five."
And sometimes the young have better manners than their elders or else are equally sharp at repartee.
Teacher: "My, how dirty you are, Bob! What would you say if I came to school as dirty as that?"
Bob: "Please, maam, I'd be too polite to mention it."
As fond as Billy was of children, even, as I previously mentioned, acting as interpreter between the child and the parents--he understood the parents' point of view when they had a difficult child to handle. He told a story of the evacuation of children to the country in London at the outbreak of World War II.
Telegram: Am sending Willie. War here. Mother.
Telegram: (week later): Sending Willie back. Please send war. Auntie.
Not often did Billy stoop to punning, but his opinion that infants of all races were lung brothers under the skin is reflected in the story of the teacher who said to her pupils: "Yes, children, an Indian wife is called a squaw. Now what do you suppose Indian babies are called?"
Bright Child: "I know--squawkers."
In fact, some children are such problems that they are shunned by their own age groups, to the extent where they may become a trifle wistful. Billy told the story of the hostess who was too polite to tell little Tommy to leave, so instead she asked: "Now, Tommy, why don't you go and play with your little friends?" Tommy replied, "I’ve only got one little friend, and I hate him."
Billy had many stories to tell" even as Lincoln had, but he did not lay claim to their originality. He even had a story about plagiarism.
A professor was discussing plagiarism with a friend.
"In the case of the first man to use an anecdote," said he, "there is originality. In the case of the second, there is plagiarism. With the third man, it is lack of originality, and with the fourth, it is drawing from common stock."
The other professor smiled. "Yes," he said, "and in the case of the fifth man to use it, it is research."
Billy considered all ethics purely a matter of relativity. He quoted the story of the customer who asked the little girl who had been left alone in charge of a bakery shop: "Don't you feel tempted to eat one of those cream tarts, my dear?"
The little girl appeared quite shocked. "Of course not. That wouldn't be right. I only lick them."
But Billy knew that most men have consciences--even though they may be guilty consciences. He spoke of the man who was asked why he named his dog ‘Swindler.' The man replied: "Just for fun. When I call him in the street, half the men almost jump out of their skins."