Curtis Dahlgren
Forrest Gump meets his Maker, and a corset maker (2 "best of"s)
By Curtis Dahlgren
September 27, 2010

"These are the times that try men's souls." — T. Paine

[Note: I'm taking the week off with a gathering of friends in Wisconsin Dells. I'm giving the brain cells a break, so the other night I watched "Forrest Gump." I'm also watching the "John Adams" series, so I think I'll combine the stories of Tom Paine and Gump into one column. I'm reposting two of my more "creative" columns below. The first one was "Ashkelon in da Moonlite: Humor from the terrorist world" (8/30/06).]

WHERE DO COLUMNS COME FROM? Some weeks it's a great mystery. I woke up a bit groggy this morning, and while pouring my first cup of coffee, a question came to mind. I ask myself lots of questions, and sometimes the dumber the question, the better the answer. This morning's question was a doozy:

"I wonder what terrorists do when they're not praying, building bombs, or attending classes on terrorism? Do you suppose they ever take a break — like we would — and hire a stand-up comedian-terrorist? Or, I wonder if there are any Hamas or Al Qaida versions of the Beverly Hillbillies, I Love Lucy, or Green Acres? I guess that's three dumb questions, but I have an idea, for the first episode of their "I Love Lucy" show:

The "head of household," Luculda, screams at her husband, alriki Mohammed-Mohammed Machtardo, "AL!" [She calls him Al or just 3Ms for short]

"Al! Your son Riki, the kindergartner, just blew up 52 kids on a school bus! How do you explain that?"

"Wal," says Al, with a Spanish accent, "I guess he's just living right!"

Luculda, however, is not in a good mood today. "NO ONE around here is living right anymore; that's why heaven has run out of virgins. Little Riki would have had a better chance of getting a basketball scholarship to M.I.T. or Princeton than finding a virgin in heaven. Then he could have had a dozen sons of his own. AND BESIDES THAT — "

Her hubby puts his head in his hands and says, "Lucy, Lucy, Lucy — GET OVER IT!"

"Where do you think you're going?" she screams.

"I'm going to the office," he says. Al works as a numbers-cruncher at Bombs-Are-Us, and to make ends meet for his 29 — er 28 — children, he moonlights as a photographer and liaison official for Reuters news service.

In future episodes, the family strikes oil and moves out west, to the Virgin Islands, and al Jazeera spins off a new show called "Organic Farming 101."

Well, that's the column for today, folks. But speaking of three dumb questions, I just now received a common Internet joke we westerners are prone to send around, and I think I'll conclude with the joke. When I wrote the column a couple of weeks ago about Thomas Paine the corset maker/bartender, I was struck by some similarities between Tom Paine and Forrest Gump; both met all the greatest world leaders of their time. Therefore the following story is not only appropriate, but overdue:

The day finally arrived. Forrest Gump dies and goes to Heaven. He is at the Pearly Gates, met by St. Peter himself. However, the gates are closed, and Forrest approaches the gatekeeper.

St. Peter said, "Well, Forrest, it is certainly good to see you. We have heard a lot about you. I must tell you, though, that the place is filling up fast, and we have been administering an entrance examination for everyone. The test is short, but you have to pass it before you can get into Heaven."

Forrest responds, "It sure is good to be here, St. Peter, sir. But nobody ever told me about any entrance exam. I sure hope that the test ain't too hard. Life was a big enough test as it was."

St. Peter continued, "Yes, I know, Forrest, but the test is only three questions.

First: What two days of the week begin with the letter T?

Second: How many seconds are there in a year?

Third: What is God's first name?"

Forrest leaves to think the questions over. He returns the next day and sees St. Peter, who waves him up, and says, "Now that you have had a chance to think the questions over, tell me your answers."

Forrest replied, "Well, the first one — which two days in the week begins with the letter "T"? Shucks, that one is easy. That would be Today and Tomorrow."

The Saint's eyes opened wide and he exclaimed, "Forrest, that is not what I was thinking, but you do have a point, and I guess I did not specify, so I will give you credit for that answer. How about the next one?" asked St. Peter.

"How many seconds in a year? Now that one is harder," replied Forrest, but I thunk and thunk about that, and I guess the only answer can be twelve."

Astounded, St. Peter said, "Twelve? Twelve? Forrest, how in Heaven's name could you come up with twelve seconds in a year?"

Forrest replied, "Shucks, there's got to be twelve: January 2nd, February 2nd, March 2nd... "

"Hold it," interrupts St. Peter. "I see where you are going with this, and I see your point, though that was not quite what I had in mind....but I will have to give you credit for that one, too. Let us go on with the third and final question. Can you tell me God's first name"?

"Sure," Forrest replied, "it's Andy."

"Andy?" exclaimed an exasperated and frustrated St Peter.

"Ok, I can understand how you came up with your answers to my first two questions, but just how in the world did you come up with the name Andy as the first name of God?"

"Shucks, that was the easiest one of all," Forrest replied. "I learnt it from the song, "ANDY WALKS WITH ME, ANDY TALKS WITH ME, ANDY TELLS ME I AM HIS OWN. . "

St. Peter opened the Pearly Gates, and said: "Run Forrest, run."

Peter looks to see who's next in line, and it turns out to be a graduate of the Harvard Law School. Peter looks at the guy and says "Don't even think about it. You don't even get to take the test!"

-------------- [The second "re-run" column was "Tom Paine: Bartender, corset maker, and king breaker"] ------------------

"ENGLAND WAS THE WORLD'S LONE SUPER-POWER, but King George III of England eventually went a little bonkers. You'd probably go mad too if your mighty army had been defeated by the pen of a corset maker, a loser the likes of Tom Paine."

Now that's the way history should be taught — and it's not overstating the facts, since the American Revolution was the biggest "upset" since David v. Goliath. Paine was a major factor in the American victory, but today most people have never even heard of him!

Generation XYZ thinks that history began with Elvis, Marilyn, and the Beatles, so let's go back to that little town in Norfolk, England where Thomas Paine was born in 1737. His father was a staymaker (a stay being a strip of whale bone that was used in women's corsets). Young Tom worked in the business, and that was his trade on and off in his 20s and 30s, but he was never very good at anything (especially not good at handling his money, spending a lot of it on books, and getting fired twice as an excise tax collector).

After his first wife died in childbirth, he married the daughter of a pub owner, and to make a long story short, the business went belly up. Paine was soon wanted by the debtors' prison (they didn't fool around with deadbeats in those days). To begin the twists in his life's story: Paine had been corresponding with Ben Franklin in London about science.

Paine escaped imprisonment in England twice in his lifetime, thanks to a letter from Thomas Jefferson, later, and this time with a letter of introduction to Franklin's son-in-law in Philadelphia. Paine would later escape the guillotine in France by a miracle, and the dungeon there with the help of future President James Monroe, but . . . [I could go into detail how his lowly jobs and "trials" had miraculously prepared Paine for his "next life," but I want to finish this column some time today].

Anyway, the perennial failure landed in Philly at age 37 with just the letter from Franklin, the shirt on his back, and his pants, plus he was sick with the fever. This homeless Brit's first home in America was as a guest in a doctor's house, an omen that everything was about to change for Paine — and FAST.

Had he arrived here in any year other than 1774, we may have never heard of the guy. But here was a guy who thrived on crises, and America was in a crisis. Tom Paine's timing (or that of his guardian angel) was impeccable.

The newspapers in England had been censoring news from the colonies, so it was only in his conversation with Ben Franklin that Paine had learned much about the possible rebellion by the colonists. He was starting from scratch in more ways than one, but with the help of Franklin's letter, Paine soon found himself editing the Pennsylvania magazine — even though he had never written anything professionally in his life!

Within about one year, he published Common Sense, the little pamphlet that would turn King George III's world upside down. It sold 100,000 copies in three months. It was to the newspapers of the day what talk radio and the Internet are to the mainstream media today: big trouble.

Within six months, the Declaration of Independence had been signed, and some of Paine's concepts made it into the Declaration itself. Not bad "selling" for a bartender who couldn't even sell booze to drunks in England!

There is in liberal circles the myth that the American Revolution was just the action of a bunch of aristocrats who, if anything, used the farmers and common people for cannon fodder. Not so. Paine's unique perspective — rubbing shoulders with both the common man and the "greats" — enabled him to read all the people, and to see the shadows of coming events. Outside of Paine and Patrick Henry, not many people in 1774 had thought it REALISTIC to even think about independence from Britain, but Paine knew what was bubbling beneath the surface.

"Common Sense" had changed a lot of hearts and minds, and not with demagoguery but with logic. To the argument that America was "growing" — even under the Crown's thumb — Paine responded:

"We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat, or that the first twenty years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty years."

He was speaking from experience — and understating it! He was almost 40, and had only been successful for a year or so (and even now he was donating all profits from "Common Sense" to the cause of the Revolution). Business had never been his bag, but in matters of the big picture out there, his forte was foresight.

He said it wasn't logical that an island across the ocean should forever govern a whole continent when it took 4 or 5 months to communicate back and forth. "We have it in our power," he said, "to begin the world over again.

"A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion from the events of a few months."


During the war with England, Paine wrote a series of pamphlets: "Crisis I" (which was read to the troops as they boarded boats to cross the Delaware to fight the Hessians), through "Crisis XIII" in 1783, at war's end. His concluding remarks included this one:

"It was the cause of America that made me an author. The force with which it struck my mind, and the dangerous condition the country appeared to me in . . made it impossible for me, feeling as I did, to be silent . . . "

Never suppress the urgency of one individual in standing up and speaking out. Never underestimate the power of the pen, and don't get discouraged by "hustling while you wait" for things to happen. The bartender from Thetford ended up being an adviser to Presidents, kings, and emperors. The Presidents and Napoleon sought his advice. The Presidents took his advice, but the kings and Napoleon didn't — and look where they ended up: George III in a virtual strait jacket and Napoleon in exile on another island.

P.S. Yes, I know that Forrest Gump was fictitious, but his story was probably more believable than that of Tom Paine. Fact is stranger than fiction, (AND MORE TO COME).

© Curtis Dahlgren


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Curtis Dahlgren

Curtis Dahlgren is semi-retired in southern Wisconsin, and is the author of "Massey-Harris 101." His career has had some rough similarities to one of his favorite writers, Ferrar Fenton... (more)


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