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One Mississippi

Hudson Cooper - Columnist
Posted 8/12/20

Like many of you, at least once a day I ask somebody “what day is it today?” It is a shame that they still do not make underwear imprinted with the days of the week. Every day seems to blend into …

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One Mississippi


Like many of you, at least once a day I ask somebody “what day is it today?” It is a shame that they still do not make underwear imprinted with the days of the week. Every day seems to blend into the next as we do the same routines to keep busy. I open my eyes every morning feeling a little like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.”

I wake up and brush my teeth. Then I wash my hands as I sing aloud the “Happy Birthday” song twice so that I know I have scrubbed my hands for the recommended 20 seconds. I follow the 20 second rule with blind allegiance even though I do not know how the scientists decided on that time limit. I happen to be an overly cautious person so just to be safe I tack on the ‘how old are you now?” coda.

The “Happy Birthday” song was created in 1893 when the Hill sisters, Patty and Mildred, changed the lyrics to “Good Morning to All” and sang the new version to Patty's kindergarten class. The song became so popular, it led to many copyright lawsuits. Lawyers, wanting a slice of the birthday cake, inundated the court system with legal actions.

Eventually the Warner/Chappell company got a copyright that allowed them to charge a royalty to use the song in movies, concerts and other public venues. They missed out on the real big money by not being able to enforce the copyright at private birthday parties. Eventually the courts ruled it could be sung at private birthday parties.

In 1962 Marilyn Monroe sang a lustful version of “Happy Birthday” to President John Kennedy at a big gala at New York's Madison Square Garden. It is probably the most well watched version of “Happy Birthday” far exceeding the handful of elementary school friends who reluctantly sang it at my backyard party under my mother's threat of “no song, no cake.”

With all that time on my freshly scrubbed hands, it got me thinking about how often counting time was a part of my childhood. Methods such as eeny meeny miny moe and red-light green-light 1,2,3, are still used in childhood games to count. I used the traditional “miny” although as a child my friends used “mighty.” Whether you used miny or mighty it pales in comparison to the champion of all verbal counting devices, Mississippi.

Saying that river's name aloud to count the seconds made games like Hide and Seek or Tag possible. Many years ago, Lewis Baumgartner of the Institute of Coincidental Oddities discovered that saying aloud “one Mississippi” closely approximated the length of one second. This came to him after years of trial and error that eliminated such attempts as one basketball, one porcupine and one rutabaga.

It should be noted that rutabaga, although verbally close to the duration of a second, was discarded when it was discovered that most children never heard of that root vegetable, let alone pronounce it. In that way Mississippi was declared the winner and will always be remembered as the major counting device. Years later, Lewis Baumgartner was assigned by the Institute to mathematically determine the odds of winning a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors and has not been heard from since.

Years before advances in calculators and adding machines ancient civilizations developed systems for counting. One of the earliest systems used a pile of pebbles or wooden sticks. Sitting around a campfire as they roasted some wooly mammoth meat, a prehistoric tribe noticed that one of their clan was missing.

The leader of the group took a pile of pebbles representing the number of members of his clan and handed them out to those gnawing on mammoth thigh. When he had one pebble left in his hand, he knew that the blood curdling screams they had heard earlier from the swamp meant that Ogg was not attending the evening meal. A brief moment of silence was replaced with smiles and laughter when they realized it meant more wooly mammoth meat for all of them.

The first notable advancement in counting devices was the abacus. Used by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Chinese it improved on the loose pebbles idea. An abacus uses beads arranged on dowels representing numbers starting from single digits and then multiplied by tens.

The Chinese advanced the manual machine by creating upper and lower rows. The earliest relics of an abacus date back to 300 B.C. which, for my millennial readers, does not stand for Before Computers.

The Chinese are still very much involved with counting. They have discovered, using counting and mathematics, many interesting items in the calendar. Let us examine what they found about the current month of August. This year, the month of August will have 5 Saturdays, 5 Sundays and 5 Mondays. Using their calculators, abaci, fingers and toes along with other counting devices they figured out the triple 5 event happens once every 823 years.

I imagine that many of you will run to your calendars to verify this event. So, if you do not want to miss it again, feel free to circle the month of August in your 2843 Hallmark calendar.

Hudson Cooper is a resident of Sullivan County, a writer, comedian and actor.


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