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                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry Sept 2015   Allegro ma non troppo #10  (original pub. date, Lion Magazine, Jan 1989)


Once Upon a Tine              


My numerologist friends, believers in the power of sequences and combinations of numbers, insist that 1989 is a special year. After all, they reason, the last two digits of the year may not occur again for perhaps another century. And what's more, they ask, wasn't it Galileo, himself, who conclusively showed by his famous "fingers-and-toes" experiment on the Tower of Pisa that some numbers actually "add up" to other ones?

It was, therefore, in this same spirit of scientific enquiry that I hied me to a library recently, hoping to discover that 1989 is linked to the other "someteen" eighty-nines throughout the centuries in a chain of great events, happenings of unmistakable magnitude, great and shining historical metaphors of eighty-nine-ness!

1889 was somewhat of a dud. There is a registered patent for a new clothespin design and also a disputed (with 1888) claim to the invention of cotton candy.


1789. Ah-haaah! The beginning of the French Revolution! Liberty, Fraternity, Equality and multiplying inches by 2.54 to find out how tall you really are. Hmmmm. Close, but no cigar.

But, then, as mine eyes wandered through the cracked vellum tomes of great and near-great dates, they fell upon 1589 and my soul was filled with one-part joy of discovery and one-part wistfullness (if you have never been full of wist, take my word for it), for I had come to the end of The Quest. "It is finished. I have found the Holy Grail of History," I murmured to myself and it was just as the Old Ones had prophesied: "You will murmur," they said.

Just think: a mere 97 years after Columbus sailed for the New World and only 3,404 years after Orville and Wilbur Plough invented agriculture by the insight that they could use the corkscrew on their Swiss Army knife to gouge furrows in the ground, these were but voices crying in the wilderness, preparing the way.


1589 was the year the fork was introduced to the court of France!

Big deal, you may scoff, in your Trekkie techno-arrogant hindsight. You look at a wheel and say: sure, it's round and rolls downhill; put a hub, spokes, axle, and differential gears on a couple of those babies and you might make it around a corner. You look at a fork and say: sure, some sharp tines on the end of a piece of metal
jab it in a bockwurst and you could probably pick that sucker right up.

No such assurances awaited Louis XI  in  1580, when he practically stapled his tongue to his collar trying to engorge  escargot with a fencing foil. "Aanngghh!" he is said to have cried. It was widely interpreted as a signal to the kitchen to get cracking and develop a new Royal Eating Implement, if they knew what was good for them. Shortly thereafter Louis died of self-inflicted spoon wounds, but the young dauphin Charles VIII made good on his promise to fulfill The Dream. The French Academy was galvanized into history's first sustained research project, made all the more remarkable by the fact that Galvani would not be born until 1737.


The multi-pronged approach to stoking calories was not at all evident to engineers of that period. A prototype fork was developed, however, after only two years in the laboratory and held early promise. It consisted of a handle fastened to a single sharpened edge to be brought down flush against the surface of the food and resembled what we today would call  an "axe". Food historians still refer to these devices as "the tines that try men's souls," for while it effectively solved the down-stroke, the retrieval up-stroke was fatal.

Help arrived near the end of the decade in the person of the grandfather of the great philosopher Renè Descartes, Grandfather Descartes. Little is known about his early life, except that he was almost certainly called "grandfather" even as a child. In any event, in the winter of 1588, he was out riding in the woods. At a certain point he came to a fork in the road (aw, forget it
that's a sucker-punch) and Grandfather reined in, dismounted, left his steed behind and approached the snow-covered road sign to read it more easily. It was then that he had his intellectual epiphany, one of those Gedankenexperimenten that Einstein would later try to grab credit for with that malarkey about riding on light beams. Staring at the road branching out on separate paths, it came to him, virtually in the same form that children still memorize in school today:

Bisecting a triangle ABC from vertex A to the base BC and then kind of prying off or something the base and sharpening the three thingies, you maybe could tie them to the end of a spoon and stab your food with it.

All hail 1589! Indeed, we have enshrined in our very language the fortuitous circumstances surrounding this great discovery, every time we speak of putting "Descartes before the horse."


In this space next year, look for the exciting sequel:  "Toilet Paper Comes to Stonehenge!"


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