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As Loony as a Coot

While the nittle-picking controversy rages 'twixt us and Mr. Jeopardy about the social standing of "a," "an," and "the" in the adjective quarter, I burst in with glee to report that I caught him again! On the 28th of March, on Channel 8, Professor Trebek accepted as correct, "What is a loon?" as the bird to be crazier than. This brought me from my post-prandial doze and caused this gaudy intellectual smirk that I can't seem to wipe off. I had never heard anybody speak in a derogatory manner about the mind of our much-respected loon.

I can see readily enough what happened as the "Jeopardy!" people carefully arranged another program. The double O in "loon" and in "coot" confoosed them, and they mistook the sapient loon for the dull-pated coot. It's the coot that anybody is crazier than, figuring in a far-Down-East simile that will be heard every day in Pugwash and seldom in Culver City. Our sea-flying coot of adage and precept is the American scoter. The loon is a beautiful and stately freshwater migratory fowl, almost the size of a Canada goose, that eats fish. I think maybe the coot does not, but feeds mostly on vegetation as do the mallard, the black, and the sea or eider.

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And the word "loony," as applied to a person of unbalanced intellect, does not derive from the feathered loon, but from the fair goddess Luna of the Romans. Superstition said she had influence on reason and sanity. A loony was a nut. To be "as crazy as a loon" means nothing; to be cuckoo as a coot is the supreme metaphorical definition.

This is a lot like Tobias Goddard, once of our town, who stood all afternoon at Greenback Corners disputing with a milestone over the distance to Lewiston. Tobias, they said, was lackin'; crazy as a coot.

The loon (the bird) has been advertised as declining, as man has intruded into the wild. But game wardens have told me this is not exactly true. They see more loons than ever, but in other places. Loons used to nest in pairs, each to its own pond. The nest, at water's edge, had two eggs, and because a loon is almost helpless on land, the hen must come directly from water to her nest. Accordingly, the use of speedboats for man's amusement began to wash out loon nests.

But the wardens say the loon is smart, and instead of giving up, the loon began living in flocks and nesting where boat wakes wouldn't be so harsh. I myself saw a flock of 11 loons a few summers ago in flotilla where, 10 years earlier, I would have seen a pair with possibly a loonlet piggybacking on Mom. Anybody who has ever heard the wild, witchlike, midnight cry of the loon from far up the lake will never forget it, and will credit the loon as a fine chap to have about.

In Canada, their one-dollar coin is called a loony because it has a loon on it. Maine has used the loon on automobile license plates. There is no reason to couple the word "loon" with the daft and the impaired.

On the other hand, take the coot. And I mean the scoter, which all Down-Easters call a coot. He is duck-size, and will fly with ducks, particularly the scaup or bluebill. But while all ducks are wary and suspicious all the time, a coot is not. If you are moored offshore in a boat and see a flock of ducks coming toward you on the wing, and you are desiring meat to salt for winter, it is well to sit small and appear not to be there. But when a flock of coot appears in the same manner, you can stand up, wave your hat, cheer and shout, and run up a flag.

The coot will come to fly around and around your gunning float to find out what is going on. Back in Colonial days when any food but fish was hard to come by, Down-Easters liked to salt sea birds for winter reference. And while most ducks cooperated to some extent, the coot remained indifferent and was hard to render palatable for the table. But cooks devised ways to help a coot taste better, and a good coot cooked by an understanding mother will make as fine a Sunday dinner as anything else you want to name. There is much soaking and draining, and many a trick with spices and herbs, and you must definitely be brought up the right way.

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IT was common enough, back along, to hear somebody say, "I just can't take a coot." The answer was, "You ain't had one that's rightly cooked." Then would come the usual query, "So how do you go about cooking a coot so he's good to eat?"

Then would come the standard Down-East recipe, in any of many versions:

"Well, you soak him three days in sody-water with a mite o' vinegar, and you rub it with mustard and onion juice, and you do this and you do that, and you roast him two days on a slow fire, and you put an ax blade in the roasting pan and baste it, just-same's you do the bird. And when you can stick a fork in the ax, the coot is done."

In another version, if you don't care for that way, the instructions go: "Well, I always cook a coot the way I do conchs. I trim off what I should, and arrange them in a roasting pan with two cans Campbell's Mushroom Soup, with garlic, thyme, pennyroyal, tansy, mint, pieces of cut-up apple, cranberries, a pinch of ginger, and some peppercorns. That's for flavor. Next I roast and baste, and then I throw it away."

When rightly prepared, a coot is delicious. If a coot is sitting on the water east of a peninsula 10 miles long, so he can look 15 yards across the peninsula and see the water on the other side, he will fly 10 miles out to sea, come around the end of the point, and fly 10 miles back to get to the place he could see 15 yards away 20 miles ago. He will not fly over land.

The full simile is, "As crazy as a coot in a west wind." Something there is about a west wind that makes a coot moonstruck.

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