He's got enough useless data to fill a book

May 20, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Don Voorhees is like a kosher butcher with a great por barbecue sauce, or a palace eunuch with Paul Newman eyes.

He is the master of his domain, peerless in his specialty, but the culmination of his life's work, published this spring, brutally sums up his sad situation: "The Book of Totally Useless Information" (Carol Publishing, $7.95).

Why is North Carolina the "Tar Heel" state? Don knows. In the Civil War, North Carolinians stood their ground so stubbornly it seemed they had tar on their heels.

Why are strikeouts in baseball referred to as K's? Don's got it. Because when baseball box scores were invented in the 1860s, S was already used for sacrifice.

Who is the Mercedes of Mercedes-Benz? Don has his hand up. She was Mercedes Jellinek, daughter of a valued customer of Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz, co-founders of the German car company in 1926.

All this knowledge cluttering Mr. Voorhees' brain results from an addiction to PBS programming, a lifetime of "World Almanacs" as birthday presents, and untold thousands of evenings staring at "Jeopardy!"

Not a single nugget of it has he been able to use in his profession as a building contractor in Easton, Pa. "I sit around with this stupid information," Don says woefully, "and it comes in handy only when I play Trivial Pursuit."

But troublesome as it may be, Don follows his own star.

Despite 34 years of self-doubts and misgivings, he has sated the cravings of his misdirected curiosity, plowing through library stacks, seeking answers to some tempestuous inner voice that nags him:

* Why are beer and soda sold in six packs? (An arbitrary number popularized by Coca-Cola.)

* Who coined the Maxwell House coffee slogan "Good to the last drop"? (President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1907.)

* Why are piggy banks shaped like pigs? (In ancient times, bowls were fashioned from lumps of clay called "pyggs.")

* What do the initials OK stand for? (They were popularized in 1837 by President Martin Van Buren, whose nickname was "Old Kinderhook.")

* Why did the Chevy Nova bomb in Latin American countries? (The Spanish words no va mean "no go.")

Don says he's been bothered lately by a new nagging thought . . . a notion that pops into his brain at 3 a.m., forcing open his eyes. . . .

What are the origins, he asks himself, of all those weird names for Japanese cars: Lexus, Tercel, Sentra, Corolla, Cressida . . . ?

Don vows to find out.

It's a useless job, he says, but someone's gotta do it.

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