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TRAVELING COMPANION : A Vest-Pocket Dictionary That Was There at Every Turn

October 06, 1985|JOHN SMITH

You inspired my love for the printed word, and you didn't cost a single penny. I can't remember the merchant who gave you to me in 1920, though I remember the place. It was in Yazoo City, a Mississippi town at the bend of a river. The river had the funny name, too--the Yazoo--and it flowed lazily by, brown with its load of rich Mississippi Delta soil. How could I have known then that you'd be largely responsible for my perfect spelling score on a teacher's examination there in the Deep South, and later, for the highest ranking on a civil service test in Los Angeles; that you would serve me faithfully for 65 years?

The Coca-Cola Co. of Atlanta published this little dictionary--a mere 2 3/8 by 5 3/8 inches and only 214 pages--in 1917, and I've always been grateful to its advertising department for distributing thousands of them. I wonder how many are still around. I'm sure no other copy has been more used or more cherished.

It was a gem indeed for me as a teacher in that town. Despite its small size, it had spellings and definitions for almost 25,000 words, and a wealth of other information. My students used it constantly. I enjoyed my years of teaching in Yazoo City. But the floods came one spring, and the Yazoo--the name means "river of death"--spread far, wide and high, drowning livestock and washing homes away. Bad times fell upon the Delta. And one day in the mid-'20s, the dictionary was tucked away in my valise on the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles.

For the next 30 years I kept it close at hand, either in a drawer of my desk in the old L.A. Hall of Records, where I worked as a secretary to a division head (the building itself is now torn down), or on a bookshelf in my home, a white cottage near the University of Southern California.

World War II interrupted this routine, and the dictionary spent 27 days on a troop ship, stuffed into a heavy duffel bag, and then three long years on South Pacific atolls. The other soldiers and sailors discovered its helpfulness; parents, wives and sweethearts remarked on how well their loved ones could spell.

And I remember a day in London in the early '50s. I entered St. Paul's Cathedral early one Sunday and stood alone in its vast, sacred beauty; a little later, I came upon Petticoat Lane, with its stands and stalls and throngs of peddlers and shoppers. While the memory of the contrast was fresh, I sat down in a small park to write a note to a friend--but I couldn't decide whether petticoat should have one or two t s. I scribbled the word with two t s on a scrap of paper and it looked wrong. Then I felt for my dictionary in an inside coat pocket.

Eventually, the spreading university acquired my home. Moving to an apartment after 40 years was disheartening, and deciding what to keep and what to discard was traumatic. I kept a magnificently colored bowl of Venetian glass, a gift. And the dictionary, of course, which evokes so many memories.

So, my old friend, both of us now are the worse for wear. Your brown cover is as glossy as a just-shined boot; your embossed title, illegible. Your pages are brittle and torn from constant turning. Your binding is broken. But I could never throw you away. Other hands will have to send you to the city dump.

We will continue our journey, side by side.

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