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- Jon Carroll
Monday, January 8, 2007

Glory be, there were not that many quibbles and niggles for the 25th Annual Xmas Quiz. Just one stupid misspelling, one judgment call and one cool but unknown-to-me fact. And then there was some huffing and puffing by the Clampers, but we'll get to that.

First: The real name of Paul of the singing group Peter, Paul and Mary is Noel Paul Stookey, not Stokey. When Albert Grossman put the group together, he decided that "Peter, Noel and Mary," while vaguely Christmassy, didn't have that "instantly memorable" thing going for it.

Noel Paul Stookey was a stand-up comedian before he joined the group. When the group broke up in 1970 (they all probably got tired of answering the question, "So is that dragon song really about smoking dope?"), Stookey formed Bodyworks, which performs songs that reflect his Christian views. Bet you didn't see that coming.

(The author of the lyrics of "Puff the Magic Dragon" was Lenny Lipton, who always maintained that the song was about the loss of childhood innocence and nothing more. Lenny Lipton went on to become a big name in independent films and wrote the apparently indispensable "Foundations of the Stereoscopic Cinema." He is not to be confused with the Southern California poet Lawrence Lipton, author of "The Holy Barbarians" -- the beatniks were not low on self-regard -- and father of James Lipton, the unctuous host of "Inside the Actors Studio." None of these men has anything to do with the manufacture of tea.)

In the quiz, I asked how many presidents were named James, and I gave the answer as "five" -- Madison, Monroe, Polk, Buchanan and Garfield. I omitted Jimmy Carter, because that's the name he went by, and in so doing became our only president named Jimmy. His birth name was James, however, so it's equally true that we had six presidents named James.

The Xmas Quiz is not an academic exercise. There are no grades; no one's economic future hangs in the balance. Thus, as in life although not as often in quizzes, there can be more than one right answer.

I also asked how many presidents were named John. I said four -- the two Adamses, John and John Quincy, plus Tyler and Kennedy. Ah, but wait. The following cool fact was first brought to my attention by Chris Folger of Albany, the racetrack one, not the "Ironwood" one. Calvin Coolidge was born John Calvin Coolidge and went by "John" until he graduated college. There's a good bar bet, if you inhabit bars where betting on presidential names is common.

I also asked a question about the meaning of "E Clampus Vitus." ECV, as it's called, is a group dedicated to historical preservation and mischief, not necessarily in that order. Some self-identified Clampers, as they're called, claimed that the group's name did indeed really mean something, but they would have to be very drunk, or I would have to very drunk, or both, before they could reveal that meaning. I still suspect that the secret is that there is no secret, but then, it's a secret. What do I know? Indeed, the origins of the group are shrouded in mystery, most of it generated by the members themselves. They cling to their outlaw past, assuming that they have an outlaw past at all, and are given to various sorts of mumbo-jumbo that everyone pretends to take seriously but no one does.

Here's a representative paragraph from Wikipedia: "Clamper meetings were held in the Hall of Comparative Ovations, generally the back room of a saloon. Some chapters even built their own Halls of Comparative Ovations. ... The Clamper flag was a hoop skirt, with the words, "This is the flag we fight under." Meetings were held "at any time before or after a full moon." New members were called "Poor Blind Candidates." They were required to present a poke of gold dust, although the value of the poke was left to the discretion of the brotherhood, and was frequently waived entirely if the prospective member could not afford it."

The truth, in my experience, is that E Clampus Vitus is rather more earnest than it pretends to be, and actually does try to rescue overlooked historical places and incidents from the river of forgetfulness. Its main preoccupation is the Gold Rush, but they'll slap a plaque on pretty much anything they consider worthy. In other words, it's an upstanding and honorable group pretending to be a raffish bunch of ne'er-do-wells, unlike, say, the Senate of the United States, where the reverse is true.

Cheap joke, I know. I wish I had the cash for expensive jokes, but for the money they pay me around here ... don't ask. You're lucky I'm not using material from old Smothers Brothers shows.

This year we had an Xmas Quiz virtually free from controversy, which means I can regale you with stuff you may not want to be regaled with.

All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go; I'm standin' here outside your door; I hate to wake you up to say goodbye. But the dawn is breakin', it's early morn; the taxi's waitin', he's blowin' his jcarroll@sfchronicle.com.

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