tom swift in the academy, or winning out by pluck

by Charles Bowen
May 15, 1959, Scholastic #23

I'm always hearing, or at least it seems that I am, although I would be hard put to quote sources, that American scholarship is accused of having nothing to contribute to the progress (or perhaps it was the decline) of Western Civilization. Well, whichever it is, the charge has been completely confuted and its proponents put to rout by a piece of news that has had local academic circles buzzing for the past couple of weeks. Word has arrived that one of our own professors, on leave of absence in Vienna, where he has been pursuing sophrosyne, Weltanschauung, Gemutlichkeit, and other academic virtues, has made a monumental discovery that has set the learned societies of two continents on their collective ears. (Note to investigators: no ideological reference intended.)

This discovery consists of a manuscript in ancient Aramaic which contains many startlingly accurate predictions of historical events that could not have taken place until centuries after its composition. The age of the manuscript (tentatively designated Codex BS) has been established at no less than sixteen centuries, and it is conjectured to have been written in an Anchorite monastery somewhere in Asia Minor during the 4th century (unless, of course, there weren't any Anchorite monasteries in Asia Minor at that time).

At any rate, several recognized authorities have professed their faith in its genuineness, including Dr. Mauritius Schvonk, the noted Aramaic scholar, who flew directly from Palestine (leaving the Dead Sea Scrolls more or less up in the air) to begin the task of translation. This is, of course, not completed yet, for Aramaic is a very difficult tongue, and the manuscript is quite long, running some fifty pages when the table of contents and the bibliography are counted. But enough has been deciphered to bring to light some very strange and history-making results.

The discoverer of the manuscript, well-known to students for his course in Antique Philosophical Systems and Creeds Outworn, is Canon Prately S. Phootnote, D.D.T. Many will remember Father Phootnote's commanding presence as he would lumber across the campus of a morning, puffing on a Corona Corona and playfully tossing his breviary at the heads of such students as were least expecting it. He did not find Codex BS by rooting in any musty Turkish cavern, but came on it between the pages of a first edition of The Ship of Fools on the reserve book shelf of the University of Vienna library. The manuscript was un-accompanied by any clues as to its age or origin, being alone except for a pressed gardenia and a scrap of parchment bearing the words "Marcus Patriciam Amat." The latter is considered to be insignificant, as it dates from a much later epoch, certainly not before the twelfth century.

The manuscript divides into several distinct parts, possibly the work of different authors. The first part seems to be copied from a paperback abridgement of a poem from the Golden Age of Philistine literature. A sample of its rich style follows:

"There arose in those days out of the country of Sor-enn, Alumnai, and Fish-ur, a mighty son of the hills, who, being thirsty and finding in the land of his Fathers no means of satisfying his thirst, went down unto the land of the city-dwellers, which is called Jerimadeth, that is, Valley of Promise. And finding there a wine-merchant, he spake unto him, saying, 'Give me to drink of thy wares; whether it be golden Bud, from beside the mighty river, or foaming Hamm-eth, from the land where the waters sparkle, or mellow Schlitz, so that I might know the real joy of good living, I care not, for behold, the weather is hot and my throat is dry. Therefore only give me to drink of thy wares, and verily thy reward shall be great.'

"But the wine-merchant rose up and answered him, saying, 'Behold, I have that which will satisfy thy thirst, but first thou must give proof of thy maturity, after the custom of the Fathers.' And lo, he could not give proof, and the wine-merchant demanded that he go out from his house. But he would not go, calling upon the heavens to curse the wine-merchant with plagues and pestilences and rusty pipes, until the wine-merchant was roused to anger, and called upon his manservant, who smote the young man sorely, until he went out from that place."

The second section is prophetic in nature. It predicts, among other things, the birth of James Joyce, the Trendex rating of Maverick, and the firing of Terry Brennan. This latter item is still obscure, owing to the difficulty of a long passage in which the Aramaic word "schlepp" appears 44 times in as many lines. At this time it is not yet decided whether to translate the word as "excellence" or whether its alternate meaning, "affluence," is to be used. A well-known local authority has suggested that this entire section throws the validity of the manuscript in doubt, as it is well known that the word "Brennan" does not exist in the Aramaic vocabulary.

The third section is a pedagogic treatise, setting forth in remarkably accurate detail the conditions for attaining a full professorship. A quick check with the Office of Academic Effulgence verified the document to the last detail.

The fourth section, which should settle once and for all any disputes about the genuineness of Codex BS, is a mystical work, presenting in what at first seems to be random and meaningless succession a series of strange symbols. At first very little could be made of it, but at last young Geoffrey Lochinvar, special assistant to Dr. Schvonk, provided the missing key and suddenly everything fell into place. The document reveals itself, word for word, symbol for symbol, item for item, as a perfectly detailed schedule, complete in every particular, for the 1959 home and away games of the Chicago Cubs.

Section five is the biggest enigma of all. Teams of scholars have been working night and day on it, but so far only a few fragmentary phrases have been deciphered: ". . .residence hall before 10 p.m. . ." "failure to will result in. . ." "under twenty-one years of age a letter from parents to. . ." It is felt that it will be better understood as soon as the meaning of the constantly recurring term "More Grave Penalty" is established.

It is hoped that next summer the work of translation and copying will be completed, so that the manuscript may be brought to the University, where it will be housed in a special room in the library (to be created by throwing out the sociology and economics departments) and guarded day and night by its discoverer, who will sleep in the same room and have his goulash and kielbasa delivered there three times a day. If translation continues at the present rate, it will probably be possible to plan a presentation ceremony for Homecoming weekend, with numerous luminaries of the academic, ecclesiastical, and financial worlds in attendance. Let's hope so.

* Next week: Chapter XXVII of "The Bobbsey Twins in Cuba."


Commentary

Bowen: The basic idea for "tom swift in the academy" came from the same Father Quinlan who suggested the Dalai Lama caper. This time he had his sights on a large, burly priest whom I knew only by sight, one Fr. Boris Papin. He had an Eastern European accent and was said to be Bulgarian. As far as I can recall, he, like many visiting priests (i.e., priests who belonged to orders other than the Holy Cross Fathers) taught a few sections of the basic religion course, and was said to be a terror in class, which I found easy to believe. He looked like a bear and had a ferocious scowl.

Anyway, during the spring of 1959, Fr. Papin was on leave and doing research in Vienna, Fr. Quinlan told me. He had recently sent back word that he had discovered a rare and important manuscript. Fr. Quinlan suggested that I call this "codex BS" and explain that it contained a list of the requirements for a full professorship -- this being, in Fr. Quinlan's view, the object of Fr. Papin's announcement.

I had nothing personal against Fr. Papin, and knew nothing about his academic ambitions, but since I could make up the contents of the MS (relegating the full-professor dig to a minor role), I was happy to accept Fr. Quinlan's suggestion.

Since the column was about an academic adventurer, I used a "Tom Swift" title -- Tom Swift being the hero of a series of books for boys that were popular at the turn of the century and probably somewhat before that. They were ancient stuff by the time I was reading books for boys -- "Dave Dawson with the R.A.F." was more my speed" -- and I never read a Tom Swift book or knew anyone who did, but everybody seemed to know about them, at least enough to recognize the name in a title.

As for the subtitle, I remembered it from one of the ancient baseball books I read some of when I was a kid. They dated from the same era as Tom Swift, and some of my older relatives had copies that I read -- possibly they were still being sold, as were the Bobbsey Twins. I remember reading several books about a school baseball team called "The Clarksville Nine." The style was laughably archaic, but when I was 9 or 10 I could read anything about baseball and love it.

One of the features of these series books is that the last few pages always had lists of similar books that the publisher was inviting you to buy, and it was in one of those lists that I saw a book with the alternate title "or Winning Out by Pluck." It must have been written at least fifty years before I saw the ad for it, which would put it in the 1890s, and I always tucked things like that away in my memory, perhaps subconsciously hoping I could use them one day for comic effect. (John seems to have done quite a bit of that his own self.)

OK, so much for the title. This message may set a length record for commentary.

"sophrosyne" - the ancient Greek virtue roughly translated as "nothing in excess." "Weltanschauung" = "world view, outlook on life." "Gemutlichkeit," as you may know already, is a Germanic virtue popularly associated with high life in taverns.

I cleverly disguised the victim's ethnicity by giving him a British name and ecclesiastical rank (there are Canons in the Roman Catholic Church too, but they are much more common in the Church of England). The picture of the priest lumbering across the campus and puffing on a cigar was, however, pretty much my impression of Fr. Papin. I never saw him throw a breviary (or anything else) at a student's head, but he looked as if he might like to.

"The Ship of Fools" (Das Narrenschiff) was a 15th-century satire by a German named Sebastian Brandt. (Mentioning it got me invited out to dinner by the head of the Medieval Institute, who thought I was a rare student indeed to have heard of this work -- but that's another story.) Note my feeble attempt to keep the "Mark loves Pat" gag running by translating it into Latin.

Part I is a simple-minded bit of college humor; the main thing that interested me was writing in a Biblical style. I assume that you are quite familiar with Bud, and may even have heard of Schlitz (my favorite brand in my student days). The other was Hamm's, which was brewed in Minnesota and sold throughout the Midwest. Their TV theme song had a tom-tom beat and a typically "Indian" tune, and began "From the land of sparkling wa - aters" (waters had three syllables).

Part II refers to the firing of Notre Dame's football coach, Terry Brennan, which had taken place around Christmas, and brought the university a lot of negative publicity. The administration defended itself by insisting that Notre Dame was dedicated to Excellence, and this had to extend to the athletic as well as the academic program. There was, they insisted, no conflict between the two; it was all of a piece. This probably went down with the most devoted alumni, but nobody else took it very seriously. You may also note the reference to Maverick, as well as the one to Gunsmoke in the previous column. This was the period when the most popular shows on TV were westerns. (Trendex was a predecessor of Nielsen.)

Part III was my attempt at following Fr. Quinlan's suggestion. Notre Dame did not have an Office of Academic Effulgence, of course, but it did have an Office of Academic Affairs.

Part IV is pretty much self-explanatory, and you may have guessed that Part V is a reference to the notorious student handbook, which contained all the rules and regulations students were required to follow. On the cover were definitions of the three levels of penalty: Grave, More Grave, and Most Grave (basically, being "campused", being suspended, and being expelled), and each rule in the book had one of these levels associated with it, so you would know how deep the shit was before you got into it. The levels were a rather silly literal translation from the Latin of some Church regulation or other: gravis, gravior, gravissimus. The translation violates the common English rule that adjectives must have three or more syllables before you use "more" and "most" to compare them instead of the "-er" and "-est" endings.

Besides these ominous definitions (and the title, of course) the cover bore, in very large letters, the warning "IGNORANCE DOES NOT EXCUSE." (In other words, better read the rules, buddy, because you're going to be held responsible whether you read 'em or not.) I took all the 'fragmentary phrases' from this repulsive document.

As you can see by the reference to goulash and kielbasa in the last paragraph, I had very little idea of what Bulgarians eat. I may not even have known at the time that goulash is Hungarian and kielbasa Polish. (Living in Pittsburgh greatly heightened my awareness of Eastern European ethnic matters, diets included, but that was a later chapter in my life.)

I don't know what the footnote at the end is all about. I don't remember writing it. I might even suspect that interfering typesetter except that putting the Bobbsey Twins in Cuba sounds like something I might have done -- this was just after Castro's takeover and Cuba was a controversial place already. The most likely explanation for this "footnote" was that I originally put an asterisk on the title, and figured the Bobbsey Twins as a natural followup to Tom Swift. But memory is dim, alas.