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Milk Cart of Destiny

A COUPLE from away paused in passing, and the goodwife asked where I get all these stories, anyway. Long ago I swiped the answer John Coggswell used to give his SatEvePost readers - he'd tell 'em he worked no more than two hours a day while the world kept busy for 24, and he'd never catch up. Did I ever relate the amusing story of how my father almost killed Admiral George Dewey? I think not. Dad left home when he was 15, and offering his experience on the rocky Maine farm as his full recommendation he had little trouble getting a position on a dairy farm near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. His duties were much the same as those he'd pursued at home, so he advanced rapidly until he was in charge of washing milk pails and supervising the pasture bars. He became Executive Sales Manager and drove the cart that delivered fresh milk.

This would be in the Gay Nineties and Dad was doing all right. Queen Victoria was approaching the end of her reign and William Randolph Hearst was about to start the Spanish-American War. George Dewey (above) was arranging his affairs to become a national hero. Born in Vermont, he opted improbably for the Navy, and had been graduated from the academy in 1858 - just 30 years before my father was born with an ingrown determination that regardless of all else he would never go to sea. Applying the considered predestination principles of Thomas Hardy (the iceberg and the Titanic) suggests that my father and Admiral Dewey would have an inevitable confrontation.

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Dewey, as a light commander, served well in the Civil War, and his engagements included the Mississippi caper with Adm. David Farragut. During the succeeding peacetime he had several promotions, and as commodore he was given command of the United States Navy squadron in the Pacific. Those were the times when absolutely nobody paid the slightest heed to the silver-voiced oratory of William Jennings Bryan, who said we'd get nothing but trouble by foolin' around with the Philippines.

Dewey and his squadron set out from China when the battleship Maine made an excuse, and my father had nothing whatever to do with the Maine. Dewey's May Day attack in Manila Harbor made him a hero, and six days later the Washington brass gave him his admiralty. Dad knew next to nothing about all this, since he was just coming up to his 20th birthday and he always went to bed exhausted right after supper.

Besides my father and Admiral Dewey, famous New Englanders include the Wentworths. You can look them up. Benning Wentworth was a colonial governor of New Hampshire, and his nephew Sir John was another. They made good money, too. If you speak the name Wentworth in New Hampshire, true loyalists will tip their hats, and the family fame is admired as far west as Indiana.

It is accordingly both appropriate and a fact that a lovely resort hotel just outside of Portsmouth has been called Wentworth-by-the-Sea for generations. The buildings are surrounded by the ocean and many acres of wooded tranquility, and over the years the place has offered genteel hospitality to its discerning guests. It was my father's daily privilege to deliver fresh dairy products to Wentworth-by-the-Sea in the dawn's early light, being careful by request not to clink the 40-quart cans of milk so the sleeping guests would revile him. This, you understand, had nothing to do with Queen Victoria, Admiral Dewey, and William Randolph Hearst.

The vehicle used was the customary dairy cart of the day, with a single horse and a driver's seat over the animal's rump. A real Napoleon rig, and if somebody yelled ``Milk!'' the horse stopped. Wentworth-by-the-Sea was reached by a winding road through solemn cathedral pines, and although guests strolled at times, nobody would be out at daybreak during my father's delivery. So after he set off his cans, and his butter and eggs, he would jump to the driver's seat, slap the reins, and the horse would take off and knowing he had been ``given his head'' trot at breakneck abandon toward the barn and his oats. Dad would come erupting from the Wentworth-by-the-Sea grounds, his morning stint over.

My father was completely unaware that Admiral Dewey had taken time from his naval affairs to gain a bride, and that he was at Wentworth-by-the-Sea for the honeymoon. So in the quiet of sunrise, the admiral and his comely new wife were strolling hand-in-hand along the roadway, lovey-dovey and mindful of naught, when my father's milk cart approached. She went one way into the puckerbrush and the Hero of Manila went another, and my father kept on going with what might as well have been a runaway horse. The proprietor of Wentworth-by-the-Sea drove over to the dairy farm later that day and spoke with spirited expostulation.

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