AND THAT SPELLS GLADIOLUS
“G-L-A-D-I-O-L-U-S,” said 11-year-old Frank Neuhauser with just a bit of apprehension. After all, eight of the final nine competing super-spellers had crashed and burned before Frank faced his inquisitor. His spelling was right on; he was the winner of the first ever National Spelling Bee, the last kid standing out of some two million competitors. His victory earned Frank $500 and a meeting with President Calvin Coolidge. Fortunately, the President did not ask him to spell “executive privilege.”
It was a big time for a little boy. Folks in his hometown Louisville held a parade in his honor. Schoolmates gave him a new bicycle.
That was back in 1925. Today, the bee, now known as the Scripps National Spelling Bee, features 11 million children in local contests throughout the United States and abroad. The field is reduced to some 270 finalists who convene in Washington for two days of competition.
Frank Neuhauser who was born on September 29, 1913, went on to become a successful patent attorney. During his later years, he was frequently a guest of honor at the spelling bees. He died in 2011 at the age of 97.
The National Spelling Bee has certainly become more challenging over the years. One might argue that Frank Neuhauser’s “gladiolus” was a piece of cake — or, for that matter, “cerise” in 1926 or “knack” in 1932. Try “syllepsis” from 1958 or “esquamulose.” There’s “vivisepulture” from 1996 and “appoggiatura” from 2005 — words our spell checker couldn’t handle.
Sing Cowboy, Sing
If you were a cowboy with the name Orton Grover, you’d probably change your name. Orton did, and became a legendary singing cowboy with the more melodic name Gene Autry. Born September 29, 1907, Autry became a major presence in the movies and on radio and television, beginning in the 1930s and stretching into the 1950s.
He was the ultimate straight-shooter — brave and honest with impeccable manners and good posture. He distilled his philosophy into the Ten Cowboy Commandments:
- The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
- He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
- He must always tell the truth.
- He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
- He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
- He must help people in distress.
- He must be a good worker.
- He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
- He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
- The Cowboy is a patriot.
Autry was also influential in the evolution of country music, his movies bringing cowboy music to a national audience with hits such as “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “South of the Border,” and “You Are My Sunshine.” He also owned such Christmas classics as “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
And no, we did not forget his signature song:
Aunt Nancy’s Burden, Part 4: Helping Uncle Ed Along
On Tuesday, Uncle Ed sat alone next to the pool, drinking his morning coffee and reading his Daily News. Aunt Clara watched him from the shadows near the house, watched him all the way through the comics, the sports section and two gossip columns. Then she began to tiptoe purposefully toward him. As she picked up speed and began her lunge, arms extended in shoving position, her glasses slipped from her nose, and she just barely overshot her target. Her target looked up to see her sailing over him into the pool. He thought about trying to rescue her as she thrashed and screamed in the deep end of the pool but instead shouted: “Nancy, your sister’s in the pool. She may be drowning.”
After the lengthy resuscitation, performed with aplomb by the village rescue squad, Aunt Clara went to bed and stayed there.
Until Wednesday. On Wednesday, Aunt Clara watched Uncle Ed from her upstairs bedroom window. Aunt Joan and Aunt Nancy sat at the picnic table hoping she was all right after the ordeal of the previous day. Aunt Clara was just fine. She had found Uncle Stan’s old rifle down the basement, had figured out, over several cups of coffee, how to put bullets into it, and now gleefully aimed it at Aunt Nancy’s Burden. Having never held a gun, much less fired one, it isn’t surprising that Aunt Clara’s aim wasn’t the best.
Her shot rang out. Aunt Joan screamed and clutched her foot. Once again, the rescue squad performed admirably, scurrying poor Aunt Joan off to the emergency room, the other two aunts along for the ride, doing their best to convince all concerned that it was just a stupid accident and not worth reporting to anybody official. Aunt Joan was treated and released.
Thursday afternoon, the aunts sat sullenly and silently at the picnic table. Uncle Ed worked at his crossword puzzle. A new chill in the air said that summer would soon come to an end. Suddenly they saw Uncle Ed’s head list lazily to one side. The puzzle fell from his lap. His arm hung limply at his side, fingertips just inches from the pencil that lay on the ground.
“It’s happened,” whispered Aunt Joan.
“You mean . . .?” whispered Aunt Clara.
“Oh dear,” sniffed Aunt Nancy, a little knot in her stomach and tears in her eyes, even though a great burden was being lifted from her shoulders. Aunt Clara walked over and shook him a few times. He didn’t respond.
The village rescue squad was there in less than ten minutes hovering over him, employing their life-saving techniques. The aunts stood a few feet away, watching. Then from within the cocoon of paramedics, they heard Uncle Ed bellow: “What the hell are all you people doing on top of me?”
The chill in the air had been an accurate harbinger of summer’s retreat, and during the next few weeks, it became steadily more pronounced, so much so that Aunt Nancy went to the back closet to haul out winter blankets and wardrobes. Aunt Nancy prided herself on looking for the silver lining in the gloomy gray storm clouds of her pitiful existence. And staring into her closet she could at least be thankful that she already had Uncle Ed’s winter coat.
That was 2008. Aunt Clara joined Uncle Edwin in 2010, and Aunt Joan followed in 2011. Aunt Nancy is still fetching beers.
Aunt Nancy’s Burden is included in Naughty Marietta and Other Stories.