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Why Memorize? Just Look It Up Later

This time I gave the young man a chance. The clerk in the paint store where I have bought all my paint for 30 years had again asked for my telephone number when I offered him my usual check.

''Tell me, friend to friend,'' I asked, ''just what my telephone number has to do with cashing a check?'' I well knew regimentation would leave him unprepared to answer, and was not surprised at the shrug of his shoulders. He seemed to grope. He shrugged again and said, ''Boss's orders!''

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I made reply exactly thus: ''That was a rallying cry at the Nuremberg trials, but some of the folks present were not impressed by it. May I have a word with your talented, if overrated, boss?''

''He's in Pittsburgh.''

''That makes sense,'' I said, ''and as to my telephone number: 'Me no know him.' ''

This is true. Long ago a wise man, eager to help me along in wisdom and judgment, told me never to memorize anything I could look up. Agreeable to that advice, but also because I expect never to call and talk to myself on the telephone, I have refrained, and the only inconvenience about not knowing my own telephone number has been the annoyance of saying, ''I don't know,'' when I cash a check. However, and praises for that, the banter and absurdity that ensue are rich recompense for such a trifle.

But consider my situation. Here was a handsome gentleman, genteel of manner and well turned out, having a bank balance sufficient to pay the paint retail, knowing his history and able to quote ''Befehl ist Befehl'' in some foreign tongue, and he's wandering around in public without his telephone number! Not only that, but he asks to speak with the boss! What next?

There was an amusing incident early in my pleasant career, and nobody can say the word ''preposition'' in my presence but I think of it and meditate again. It was during my first year in high school. Our Latin teacher, whose name escapes me, had asked our class to memorize the Latin prepositions that are construed with the accusative case, and we had done so.

At that time I was a barn-boy and had a black Jersey heifer that had just freshened in my charge, and I enlisted her for assistance with a good part of my schoolwork. I would sit on my milking stool, and in this instance we repeated Latin prepositions until we had them down pat.

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We found that the accusative prepositions can be sung to the tune of a rollicking song popular in Maine at that time, ''The Boston Boat to Bangor is Twenty Minutes Late.'' Molly, the black Jersey, loved that. And in the next few Latin classes our teacher had us recite prepositions, and we were proficient.

And then our teacher asked us to memorize the Latin prepositions that are construed with the ablative case. I started, but I couldn't find a tune that satisfied Molly, and she was not cooperative. Then I thought, ''Gracious! This is a matter of one or the other, why memorize both?'' I suggested this to my classmates, and the teacher said, ''All right, let's see how this works out.'' It worked out fine. If we didn't know it, we'd give it in the ablative.

Long afterward somebody told me the story of the admiral who taught a class in navigation at the Annapolis Academy. He kept a little index card in his locked desk drawer and consulted it before every class. His cadets were curious about what the card said, and finally jimmied the drawer to see. It said: Port = left; Starboard = right. My Latin class was satisfied that if 'tweren't one, 'twas t'other.

I have failed to memorize many things that have never turned out to be important. I do not know the first names of the Marx Brothers and I can not recite the names of the wives of King Henry VIII. (I wonder sometimes if Henry could.) But I can name the masts on the seven-masted Thomas W. Lawson, which I am thoroughly satisfied can not be done by any clerk in any paint store in Boston.

It was customary in Maine primary schools to have the pupils memorize the cities, counties, and often the mountains of Maine. I can still do the counties. But the cities bother everybody. After making the pupils memorize Auburn, Augusta, Bangor, Bath, and so on, the state added new cities, so today any octogenarian who runs off the list of his youth is obliged to explain, ''And I guess it's either Caribou or Presque Isle.'' I think that's right.

I've been told that one of my high school classmates took a college entrance exam in Latin and was momentarily baffled by the question: ''List the prepositions that demand the ablative case.'' But she was equal to that. She wrote, ''All those that don't,'' which I hope and trust will amuse a great many people who presume a right-thinking person, intent on buying five gallons of paint to paint his house while the weather stays propitious, should be able to rip off his foolish telephone number.

Sorry about that. I can do the books of the Bible, but not the 14 points of Woodrow Wilson. There were 29 pilgrims going to Canterbury, but I don't remember the date of Chaucer's birth. One cup sweet milk, one cup sour, one cup corn meal, one cup flour, and you're on your way to a johnny cake, but I have no idea how to start a Danish Yulekachen.

The chorus of that song you asked me about runs: ''Keemo Kimo, daro war, me-hi, me-ho, me-rump-sump-pummy diddle, soup-back piddiewinkle, nim pom nim cat, sing-song city-once a kigh-me oh!''

How could I ever forget that?

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