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Bubba and the Mnemonic Device

I worked in a cabinet shop for a brief while. I was teaching Tuesdays and Thursdays and so had some time on my hands on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I had recently finished my PhD, and it was a pleasure to do hand-work after so many years of almost exclusively head-work. As it turned out, I wasn’t very good at cabinetry. I’ve wondered how many hours Scott, the cabinet shop owner, devoted to fixing my mistakes after I had left for the day.

The only other employee at the cabinet shop was an old boy named Bubba who lived in the neighborhood. Bubba was a miracle on two legs. I’ve never known a grown man who could talk like him. He could talk for an hour uninterrupted as easily as you or I could eat an ice cream cone—long, involved anecdotes about family reunions that disintegrated into bottle-smashing brawls; diatribes about who all thought they was better than Bubba and how and why they wasn’t (with copious examples); oral histories of local feuds, byzantine in their involvements and complicated by step-siblings and half-siblings with split loyalties, all related with a loving attention to detail that you might expect from an archivist at the Daughters of the American Revolution.

I have forgotten nine-tenths of the remarkable things that Bubba told me. If I had only kept a pen and notebook handy, I don’t suppose I would ever suffer a slow day of writing. I do remember his coming to the shop one Monday and announcing that he had gotten married over the weekend. No small part of Bubba’s pride and pleasure derived from his conviction that marriage represented a significant step toward the respectability that, in his mind at least, seemed always to elude him. His narrative of the weekend’s happy events was frequently punctuated by the declaration (or was it an imperative?), “I respect you, you respect me!”

One of Bubba’s favorite themes was his own commitment to hard work. Usually he started embroidering this theme shortly after arriving (an hour late) and sometimes kept at it until he had to leave (an hour early). Bear in mind that Bubba never really mastered the skill of talking and working simultaneously. He’d rest an electric sander on his thigh and wax eloquent. The sander, of course, was turned off. It would be hard for us to hear him if the sander were running. Scott, the boss, didn’t mind as much as you might think. “At least Bubba can’t put a gouge in a door panel if his sander’s turned off,” he said.

One day Bubba had been going on about how he wasn’t afraid of hard work, and a day’s work for a day’s pay had always been his motto. “Not me,” I said. “I try to do as little as I can get by with, short of getting myself fired.” I was just trying to get a rise out of Bubba, who, frankly, had lost some of his rhetorical fire. And didn’t it send him? “Whooooop!” he said. “Scott, you ain’t going to believe what Jonathan just said! Said he didn’t care about the work! Said he was just getting by! Half-stepping!” He shook his head at the boss. “That’s what comes of hiring PhDs.” It had recently come out that I had a PhD. Bubba wheeled on me. “So, Mr. PhD. I reckon you know everything.”

This was shaping up nicely, this break in the monotony. I decided to keep things rolling along. “That’s right, Bubba,” I said. “I know more or less everything.” Bubba thought on that a minute, wheels turning. “All right, then,” he said. “What’s the firing order on a Chevy 350?”

He had me there. But I hoped I could get partial credit just for knowing that the answer would be a combination of the digits one through eight, with each number used once and only once. I made an educated guess: “1-8-2-7-3-6-4-5.”

“Hah!” Bubba barked. No partial credit. “Gotcha! It’s 1-8-4-3-6-5-7-2.” He strutted around a little bit, but he soon took pity on me in my ignorance. “I’ll tell you the secret to remembering,” he said in conspiratorial tones. “It’s just a old-timey date–1843–and then 6572. 1-8-4-3-6-5-7-2. Easy as that.”

I’ve never since needed to know the firing order for a Chevrolet 350. But if ever I do, I’ve got Bubba to thank for the mnemonic that will get me through: an old-timey date–1843–then 6572.

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