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Awful handwriting.

"Be back at six," I had written on the note I left for Sandy. "Bats bark at sex," is what she unfortunately read.

Sandy is not all that concerned with the mating habits of flying mice; she's merely another lost soldier in the endless parade of those unable to read, even in a vague kind of way, my handwriting.

Such is life for many of us clawhanded scribblers of the world. But I can at least take comfort in knowing I'm not alone in possessing what Jonathan Swift described as a "hand like a foot."

Thomas Carlyle's writing, for example, was described as contain. ing "eccentric and spiteful little flourishes darting about in various odd ways, as if attempting to somersault and destroying the entire word from which they sprung. Some letters slope one way, and some another. Some are halted, maimed and crippled, and all are blind."

And Sidney Smith--whom you owe it to yourself to find out more about --once described his peculiar brand of writing as if "a swarm of ants, escaping from an ink bottle, had walked over a sheet of paper without wiping their legs."

But the all-time master of inky idiocy has to be Horace Greeley. Sidney Harris tells the story of a note Greeley once wrote and its subsequent interpretation. The actual message was this:

"I have waited till longer waiting would be discourteous, only to find that I cannot attend your press meeting next June as I would like to do. I find so many cares and duties pressing on me that, with the weight of years, I feel obligated to decline any invitation that takes me a day's journey away from home. Greeley."

What the recipient of the note decided on, after much frustration and several intuitive leaps, was this:

"I have wondered all along whether the squirt has denied the scandal about the President meeting Jane in the woods on Saturday. I have hominy, carrots and R.R. ties more than I could move with eight steers. If eels are blighted, dig them early. Any insinuation that brick ovens are dangerous to hams gives me horrors. Greeley."

There's a similar Greeley story, from Mark Twain. Twain tells of Greeley writing a note to a Widow Beazley, whose son William had a dream of "making the turnip a climbing vine."

Greeley's note to the widow was interpreted as: "Polygamy dissembles majesty; extracts redeem polarity; causes hitherto exist. Ovations pursue wisdom, or warts inherit and condemn. Boston botany, cakes, felony."

My personal favorite in the trembling vault of cacographic lore is the letter of Thomas Bailey Aldrich to his friend Professor Morse: "My Dear Morse: It was very pleasant to receive a letter from you the other day. Perhaps I should have found it pleasanter if I had been able to decipher it. I don't think I mastered anything beyond the date, which I knew, and the signature, at which I guessed.

"There is a singular and perpetual charm in a letter of yours: It never grows old, and it never loses its novelty. One can say every morning, as one looks at it: 'Here's a letter of Morse's I haven't read yet. I think I have another shy at it toand maybe I shall be able of years to make out what he means by those t's that look like w's and those I's that haven't any eyebrows. '

"Other letters are read, and thrown away and forgotten; but yours are kept forever--unread. One of them will last a reasonable man a lifetime."
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Author:Quarteroni, Bob
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1993
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