Now that you mention it [July 17], why does she sell seashells by the seashore? –Agate, Washington, D.C.

Because if, by way of alternative, she simply did seashell shucking whilst she sat, we’d all be in big trouble.

I was in the fourth grade when the first Kennedy half-dollars came out. My friend Dominic Riccutti (who supposedly knew everything about everything) told me those little markings on Kennedy’s neck were there because some Communist agents had broken into the mint and engraved the hammer and sickle on the original mold and it hadn’t been caught in time before the new coins were struck. Well, that was over 20 years ago and I recently got a new Kennedy half-dollar at the 7-Eleven and the markings are still there! In all this time they’ve kept changing the dates but they’ve never cleaned up Kennedy’s neck. Is this all part of some pinko plot to subvert America by secretly marking our coins? –Andy Hoh, Arlington, Virginia

I think after 20 years, Andy, the hypothesis might have formed in my mind that maybe this Riccutti kid was putting me on. The alleged commie graffito is really the initials of the man who designed the front side of the coin–GR, for Gilroy Roberts, former chief engraver at the U.S. Mint. Gil’s monogram looks like two stylized G’s set back-to-back, and under the influence of liquor or bad companions I suppose you could make it out to be a pair of hammers and sickles. The other side of the coin was designed by Frank Gasparro; his FG can be found just under the eagle’s left thigh–not the place I’d choose to put my monogram (when was the last time you saw an eagle take a bath?), but I guess Frank isn’t one to make a fuss. You want a real scandal, check out the “3172” in the bushes on the $5 bill. If that isn’t the handiwork of the Illuminati, my name ain’t Cecil Adams.

Is it true that Thomas Edison’s last breath is preserved in a test tube at the Henry Ford Museum outside Detroit? –Listener, Mike Murphy show, KCMO radio, Kansas City, Missouri

What’s with you guys in KC? Einstein’s brain (July 24) wasn’t enough? As a matter of fact, Edison’s last breath is preserved at the Henry Ford Museum. Ford was a great admirer of Edison’s, having once served as chief engineer at the Detroit Edison Company; later the two became fast friends. Ford re-created Edison’s Menlo Park workshop in Greenfield Village, the collection of historic buildings next to the Ford museum, and it’s possible he wanted to re-create Edison himself, after a manner of speaking. Supposedly Ford asked Edison’s son Charles to hold a test tube next to his father’s mouth when he breathed his last in 1931. Ford’s motive for this odd request is obscure. He is known to have been interested in reincarnation, and some say he thought the spirit exited the body with one’s last breath; ergo, what he was collecting was essence of Edison, no doubt for reconstitution at some later date. Others say he just wanted a souvenir of his departed buddy. Whatever the case, it’s likely that any Edisonian vestiges, if in fact there ever were any, have long since leaked out. The tube was discovered in the Ford family home in 1950 after both Henry and his wife had died. It’s now on display at the Ford museum, just in case you wanted to make any last-minute amendments to your vacation plans.

In elementary school I remember the teacher telling me that the vowels were AEIOU and sometimes Y and W. But I can’t think of a single word where W is used as a vowel. Are there any? –Michael J. Schell, Baltimore

Sure. Try how, which is phonetically equivalent to “hou,” as in house. Ou and ow are diphthongs–that is, two vowel sounds that kind of slide together when you say them. W and Y are often called semivowels because they go both ways, as it were, depending on the company they keep within the word. (Low morals are obviously a problem at every level of our society.) In cow, for instance, W is a vowel, but make the word coward and you can hear W working as a consonant. Similarly with Y/I in copy and copier. I could also expound on the vowel-likes, yet another class of letters with an identity crisis, but I think we’ve had enough angst for one column already.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.