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The Idle American
"Is There a Doctor in the House?..."
Wednesday, June 6, 2012 • Posted June 6, 2012

Back in the 1970s, when trails leading to doctoral degrees were longer and more treacherous, candidates danced to the tunes chosen by their dissertation committees. With few exceptions, this tribunal scowled, seemingly in a state of ongoing discontent. (One particularly ornery member bragged that his stern countenance was enhanced by his gray hair and hemorrhoids—the former for the look of distinction and the latter for the look of concern.)

We approached them with whimpers, hoping to fall no further into their disfavor. It was they who signed on—or off—proposed research projects into which candidates would pour most of their lives for the following year or so.

I’d have chosen to have bamboo strips shoved under my nails—fingers, thumbs and toes—than to propose a dissertation topic which might be considered frivolous. But, then, I didn’t attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology nor did I see a need for new catsup bottles….


That’s what happened up there, deep in Yankee country. It would be interesting to know more about the committee members or overhear their conversations. “By Jove,” one might exclaim. “Americans have been bamboozled by stingy catsup bottles far too long.” (There is the possibility, of course, that these are all tenured faculty, nearing retirement and/or are friends of MIT’s major donors.)

Or maybe the candidate himself is awarded for his courage. Or whose middle name is “Heinz.”

Anyways, the dissertation topic was approved and the project duly completed. Now, the world has bottles treated with some sort of “slick-um” that allows catsup to flow like Niagara, first blob to last. And Dr. Dave Smith has a patent, with a projected payday in the megamillions….*****Don’t rush to judgment. Is this really what we want? Who among us has not passed along “tricks” to dislodge stubborn catsup lodes? We might have inferiority complexes, but by Hokies, we knew ways to coax that catsup out!

If Ogden Nash and Dr. Richard Armour had come along a century later, the poets would have had less to write about. Both of these guys could “rhyme up” the trivial, brightening the dark days of the Great Depression.

They did, in fact, “collaborate” on a poem, though Nash may not have known about it until years later. Nash, credited with “candy is dandy but liquor is quicker,” penned a two-liner in the 1930s entitled The Catsup Bottle. It reads: “First a little, then a lottle.”…


Dr. Armour, whose doctoral study was in Shakespeare, “doctored” Nash’s poem a few years later. Keeping the same title, his lines went this way: “You shake and shake the catsup bottle, nothing comes, and then a lot’ll.”

Chuckles wedged their way onto the faces of folks saddened by the Depression’s bleakness. The response encouraged Dr. Armour, whose poetry included indignities similar to the ones Spike Jones took with music. (Remember Beetlebomb?)He squeezed another poem from condiments: “Nothing attracts mustard from wieners as much as slacks just back from the cleaners.”…


Perhaps hopeful to be viewed beyond four-liners, he took on prose. Tongue cheek-implanted, he created quite a different background from history books concerning the composition of our national anthem.

He wrote: “In an attempt to take Baltimore, the British attacked Fort McHenry….Bombs were bursting in air, rockets were glaring, and all in all, it was a moment of great historical interest. During the bombardment, a young lawyer named Francis “Off” Key wrote The Star-Spangled Banner, and when by dawn’s early light the British heard it sung, they fled in terror.”So, expect no more humor about catsup. It will go the way of mustard, about which humorous poems are few. Come to think of it, maybe I should have tackled a humorous dissertation. Mine was a scholarly study of institutional relationships with the mass media. When I’m in Denton, I drop by the University of North Texas library to see if anyone has checked it out. It was written almost 40 years ago, back in the days of frozen radio dinners. So far, check-outs are “zilch.” It languishes on a dusty shelf; no publishing paydays are expected. Maybe I should have hit the bottle, but dissertation purists would have accused me of pouring it on….


Dr. Newbury is a speaker in the Metroplex. Email: Phone: 817-447-3872. Web site:

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