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Rock-ribbed rejoinder

The news story told us that the Burlington Northern Railroad offered Mt. St. Helens volcano to the United States, to be preserved for ''the contemplation and enjoyment of future generations.'' The story also explained how-come the railroad owns a mountain: by merger, it had been included in the land grant of 1864 to help finance the Northern Pacific. There is ''something'' about owning a mountain, and this news made me think of Mortimer R. Proctor. At the time, some forty years ago, Mr. Proctor was the lieutenant governor of the Republic of Vermont. He was also of the settled Vermont family whose name means marble, and a resident of the town of Proctor. He could be likened to Cal Coolidge, except that it would be better to say that in some ways Mr. Coolidge would put you in mind of Mortimer R. Proctor.

After the week at the capitol in Montpelier (munt-peel-ye) Mr. Proctor would drive to Proctor in his Cadillac, a ride through the lovely Green Mountains. At one place a vast expanse of incomparable scenery opened, with spectacular Pico Peak in prominence, and Mr. Proctor always pulled his automobile off the highway to sit a moment in awed respect at the beauty. It restored him after the problems of state, and cleansed him for the coming weekend at home.

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It chanced that he paused one time on the outskirts of Montpelier to offer a ride to a hiker, and into the front seat with Mr. Proctor came a fine-looking young man with a packsack and the New Philosophy. Never the twain should meet. Mr. Proctor, conservative and entrenched capitalist, and his guest a free-thinking revolutionary. The boy was a crusader, and taking his cue from the magnificent vehicle in which he rode, he began a profound lecture on the evils of wealth and the virtues of sharing it. In a moment Mr. Proctor was sorry he had been kind, but being a gentleman, as well as a Vermonter, he made like Brer Fox - he lay low and said nuffin. The boy ranted on, how the time was coming when wrongs would be righted. Socialism and communism would save the world.

When the place in the highway was reached where Pico Peak lifted itself into splendor, Mr. Proctor did as usual, and set the emergency brake on his Caddy. He was irritated that the young man seemed not to notice the view, and continued his harangue. Here was a vital moment for silence in anybody's philosophies, and the chap kept mouthing his absurdities - in this presence they were even obscene. What good, thought Mr. Proctor, to be so glib and so sure and so eager, and lack a proper gasp at Pico Peak? Thinking to hush the flow, Mr. Proctor spoke.

''Isn't that wonderful!'' He swept a hand to indicate the panorama.

The boy looked and said yes, and then, ''but the Russians don't permit, etc., etc., etc.'' He was not to be stopped.

''That's Pico Peak,'' said Mr. Proctor.

The boy talked on.

''It's mine.''

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The boy stopped.

''What did you say?''

''I said it's mine. I own it. It's my mountain.''

The lad was stunned. In his heady contemplations of ownership and his schemes for dividing the wealth, there had been no allowance for such an improbable property. For a little space of time he was silent, and Mr. Proctor was glad, and looked. Then the boy said, ''I didn't suppose mountains were owned by anybody.''

''Oh, yes.''

''How would anybody come to own a mountain?''

Mr. Proctor started the motor, eased off the brake, and looking both ways with extreme caution he brought the Caddy back onto the highway. ''Several ways, '' he said. ''Every so often one will be for sale. This one, it so happens I inherited it. It's been in our family.''

This kept the boy quiet for several miles. Then he said, ''What do you do with a mountain?''

Probably the Burlington Northern Railroad says the same thing about Mt. St. Helens. Mr. Proctor said, ''I pay taxes on it.''

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