Friday, March 23, 2012

News of an Encyclopedia's Demise Prompts a Wonderful Memory.

The Encyclopedia Britannica will soon be no more, just one more print publication falling victim to the internet, I suppose. While that may give rise to some vague feelings of regret, I can never think of an encyclopedia without recalling a wonderful story related by Jim Becker, one of the great journalists and raconteurs of this or any other time.

Jim was a writer/reporter traveling the world for the Associated Press for many years. On numerous occasions over all that time, he had wished for access to a good encyclopedia. But of course it was completely impractical to think of dragging a set of 20-25 volumes around the world as he traveled from bureau to bureau and assignment to assignment.

But once he settled down in Honolulu, Becker promised himself that the very first time one of those door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen appeared, he would buy one.

Some months after he had settled into his apartment, the inevitable occurred. Jim answered a knock at his door to find a young man representing the Encyclopedia Britannica. The young fellow immediately launched into his memorized sales pitch, but Becker held up his hand.

“Never mind that,” he said. “I’ll buy one. How much is it?”

The kid gaped, and finally stammered that it would be so-many dollars a month.

“No, no,” said Becker, “I’ll write you a check right know for the full amount. How much is it?”

Telling the story years later, Becker howled with laughter. “He was completely rattled because I never let him get started on his memorized spiel, which always ended with payments of so many dollars for so many months,” Becker said. “The kid had absolutely no idea what the damn thing really cost.”

If I had to name the single most interesting -- not to mention funniest -- people I’ve ever known, Jim Becker would be right at the top of that list. He wrote about his experiences in Saints, Sinners and Shortstops, a terrific read. For instance, as a sportswriter, he covered Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. And he escorted Marilyn Monroe on a 10-day tour of forward Army bases during the Korean War.

Is that interesting enough for you?

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