Real America

Posted October 31st, 2008 at 3:00 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment
This fellow’s All-American. Wonder where he lives?

Suppose you could come to this country and spend a day or two somewhere – one single place – that would fairly represent “Real America” a community that’s a microcosm of the whole, complex nation.

Where might that be?

The notion of a “Real America” has been in the public eye of late. A couple of weeks ago, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, speaking to supporters in Greensboro, North Carolina, drew cheers when she said that “America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America.”

‘Why, We’re America in Miniature!’
Small towns certainly have a Real America feel. But is any one you come to typical of the nation any longer?

This sent political pundits, opposition operatives, and tourism officials across the nation into in a dither. “Now listen here,” they grumbled, or found words to that effect. “Our little jewel of a community is Real America, too.” People took great umbrage at even an implied hint that just North Carolina, or just little towns, might have a monopoly on patriotism or Americanism, whatever that entails.

Palin backtracked. “If that’s the way it came across,” she told CNN, “I apologize.” And that was that. Political spin doctors moved on to other subjects.

But wait. If you remove the politics and emotionally charged words like “patriotism” from the equation, could there in fact be a place that’s an exemplar of the entire country?

In the Interest of Research, You Understand

This conundrum applies to any country, of course. To experience the “Real France,” would you make a whirlwind trip to Paris? Or to a provincial center like Toulouse, away from the tourists? I wouldn’t mind searching for French authencity on the Riviera.

Hey, Washington’s just like any other place in America – once a year on the July Fourth Independence Day holiday.

But I digress. Where might we find the embodiment of today’s America in one locale?

I’d be happy to start with dinner at my house were we not such a far cry from Real America. I live (barely) inside the Capital Beltway, the 106-kilometer highway loop around Washington. If you’ve ever heard the expression “inside the Beltway,” you know that we who live and work here are far too obsessed with government and politics and power to be typical. Since we don’t epitomize much of anything, when our editors want to “take the pulse of the nation,” they send us as far outside the Beltway as possible.

No Bite of the Big Apple
This is impressive America, crowded America, bustling America. But is it Real America?

So you’ll have to take a rain check on dinner. And much as you might like to soak up the dynamism of a great metropolis, New York City or Los Angeles won’t do, either. They’re too gargantuan, too frenetic, too quirky. And, truthfully too rich to be representative. How commonplace could 370-meter-tall New York skyscrapers or 14-lane L.A. freeways be?

And I can’t get you a fun trip to the Disney World theme park in Orlando, Florida, either. I can assure you that wherever Real America is, the people there don’t ride roller coasters and pose for pictures with stuffed mice all day long. Maybe you imagine Texas cowboys when you think of America. Come on, we’re talking typical, representative of the whole nation. There aren’t too many cowboys in Alabama or West Virginia. Texas is entrepreneurial, swashbuckling, cocky, but it’s also five or six different places all in one. There’s not much that’s typical about it.

We can toss out places like New Orleans (too spicy) and Boston (too smart). And towns high in the Rocky Mountains (great views, too far away). Hawaii? Please. How typical could any place be where the locals wear flowered shirts and hang fresh orchids around their necks?

Exotic Won’t Cut It
This place has the requisite white picket fence. Is this Real America?

I’d love to take you sponge-diving off Florida’s west coast (if I could swim), or saunter with you from coffee bar to coffee bar in rainy Seattle, or drink in antebellum history around Savannah’s moss-draped squares. I know that you’d love a hike up to America’s windiest mountaintop in flinty old New Hampshire, and have a blast chasing tornadoes in Kansas or Oklahoma. You’d adore ice fishing in Northern Michigan. OK, maybe not that. These are bracing activities all, and in fascinating places. But their locations are hardly typical.

One of my colleagues insists that pinpointing Real America is a snap, no big deal at all. One need only toss a dart at a map of the Midwest – the “heartland” as we romanticize it – and then rush to the spot where it lands. We’d be sure to find tidy homes with the proverbial white picket fences, and fall leaves skittering past paperboys and girls on their bicycles. What could be more quintessentially American?

A movie about a Christmas angel reinforced Americans’ idea of what the perfect town looked like

Maybe it was – 60 years ago – when we watched a shy, small-town “building and loan” manager, played by Jimmy Stewart, help his neighbors buy new tract homes in the beloved Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But a whole lot of the idyllic towns like the movie’s Bedford Falls, if they existed at all, have frayed, lost industries, and seen their downtowns decay as shoppers migrated to the suburbs. Many of the homes and picket fences aren’t so gleaming any more.

Besides, many Bedford Fallses were so incredibly white, demographically, as to be odd in the America of today, just as predominantly black southern towns, or largely Hispanic communities within hailing distance of Mexico, don’t mirror the racial mélange that our immigrant nation has become.

Odyssey Ad Infinitum
St. Paul, the capital of the Northern Plains state of Minnesota, is a lovely, lovely place. But do you see what’s on the roof and ground here? Today’s Real America prototype is probably a tad warmer

Onward, then, to . . . Nevada? Booming, but too empty and deserty, and too glitzy in the gambling enclaves. Arizona? Abnormally hot much of the year, abnormally irrigated, abnormally populated by retirees, and abnormally awash in salamanders. Utah? Changing, but still heavily influenced by a single religious sect, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The wide-open Northern Plains? Any place where the lights of the next town are so distant that you can ponder the Milky Way can’t be typical. Besides, it gets so cold there, and in Wisconsin and much of Ohio and Indiana and Upstate New York and the like that millions of people have just up and left them for warmer climes. While there should be some hardships associated with Real America, it should probably also have a Sun Belt feel.

Virginia? (too gentrified). Arkansas or the rural Deep South (too poor). Sarah Palin’s Alaska? (too rugged – and dark much of the year). Didn’t I say something about the Sun Belt?

There are places with beaches (California, Delaware, New Jersey, the east and Gulf coasts of Florida), craggy hills (Kentucky and Tennessee and West Virginia), old mill towns and Early American attractions (Pennsylvania). But life, even in our miniature Real America, is not a beach, and a lot of the people who live in these places are older than average as well.

Doesn’t Real America Have Bratwurst and Beer?
Chicago’s a logical candidate as the center of Real America. But after a closer look, maybe not. By the way, that windblown fellow in red is our own Mr. Ted

Just a second, my dartboard buddy interjects again. Turn right around and head back to Middle America. How about Chicago, the energetic “City of Big Shoulders,” as Real America? It’s hard-working. Its old ethnic neighborhoods have held together, and new ones that are home to Koreans and South Asians and others, are growing fast. That certainly mirrors what’s happening nationally. The north side of town is largely white and suburban in outlook, the south side mainly black and citified. Chicago, like the nation, is nuts about sports, and its legacy of civic corruption is not an atypical American tradition.

So, we have found Real America!???

Nope. Chicago’s one of those teeming places, not ordinary at all. There’s not much solitude there, or connection any longer to the land that’s still a key node of the national character. Chicago’s ambitious architecture is dramatic but highly unusual. And the city is another of those frigid spots. Blizzards off Lake Michigan and Sun Belt don’t compute.

So?

Yeah. So?
This could be it! Greensboro: right size, right temperature, right amenities, and a lot of the characteristics of a changing nation as a whole

With a reminder that real Americans live everywhere in the land, and that every one of them has its charms, I would submit that America in microcosm – Real America – was under Sarah Palin’s nose after all. I’d stick a push pin right where she spoke that October day – in Greensboro, North Carolina. Consider:

At a vibrant but comfortable quarter of a million people, it is one leg of North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad (the other two are High Point and Winston-Salem) in a prosperous plateau between the state’s steamy lowlands and nippy Appalachian Mountains. Greensboro is big enough, small enough, high and low enough, warm and cool enough, urban and suburban enough. And it well fits that American mosaic: white (53%), black (36%), Hispanic (6%). Four percent is even American Indian. Greensboro is football country, too. It’s home to basketball tournaments of national renown, and it’s loaded with top golf courses. How loaded? If I see one more pair of yellow slacks in town . . . . Still, when you combine “golf” and “warm” – rarely oppressively hot – you’ve got a magnet for corporations and well-heeled retirees.

In 1881, General Nathanael Greene chose the area that is now Greensboro to fight the British in the American Revolution. He lost, but the town took his name – minus the “e”

Greensboro is historic: a vital Revolutionary War battle was fought there; it became the North Carolina’s “Gate City” as a railroad hub; and now Interstate highways cross every which way through and past town.

And the area has more colleges than you can shake a stick at, including one still run by Quakers, one of the interesting groups – German Moravians were another – that first settled the area.

And although Greensboro made an unfortunate name for itself in the turbulent years of the civil-rights movement, it has owned up to its shameful, segregationist past.

Notoriety of the Wrong Kind
Racial lines were drawn, and sides taken, during the turbulent times of the Greensboro sit-ins

Some background: On February 1, 1960 in Greensboro, black students employed a civil-rights protest tactic called the “sit-in.” They sat in previously all-white seating areas of lunch counters in the Woolworth and Kress variety stores, were denied service, and were ordered to leave. When they quietly refused, police were called, and the students were arrested on charges of trespassing and creating a public disturbance.

The sit-in was not a new form of protest, but the one in Greensboro inspired a wave of similar tactics throughout the South. College students and other civil-rights activists, black and white, crowded the jails of southern towns rather than pay fines for trespassing. In September 1961 alone, there were sit-ins in stores and restaurants in more than 120 cities throughout the South.

The Woolworth store where students were arrested for trespassing in 1961 now serves information rather than meatloaf or ice-cream sundaes

Many restaurants were desegregated in the aftermath. Ultimately, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which included a public accommodations section that barred racial discrimination by hotels and restaurants.

The Greensboro Woolworth’s store is now an international civil-rights museum; and the city’s mayor, police chief, and school superintendent are all African American. That is hardly typical, but Greensboro’s transition from ethnic intolerance to racial cooperation is an increasingly familiar American story.

Here and There – or Near
Greensboro’s White Oak Cotton Mill, named for a 200-year-old tree nearby, was plenty busy in 1928, when textiles and tobacco were king that that part of North Carolina

Whatever Gate Citians (I swear: that’s what they call each other; what did you expect? Greensburrowers?) don’t have right at hand is a hop, skip, and a jump away. They’re three hours from Atlantic Ocean beaches; two from beautiful mountains and ski runs and art colonies; four from Washington, D.C.; and five from Atlanta, Georgia, the bustling “capital” of the New South.

But what, in my mind, makes Greensboro a strong Real America nominee is its evolution through despairing economic times – something millions of Americans can relate to today. Greensboro once hummed with textile mills and furniture factories. It was such a swaggering tobacco center that 125,000 cigars – cigars, not cigarettes – were once rolled each week there. Then, late last century, most of those plants closed as their owners moved operations to Mexico or overseas. If you needed boarded-up windows and empty stores for a painting, Greensboro was your palette.

Greensboro’s not a perfect city; no place is. But is has an awful lot of the characteristics of the growing nation

But the city dug in and dug out. It sold companies and families and retirees on the area’s amenities and easygoing way of life. Now, Greensboro is a headquarters for Dell Computers among other high-tech companies; many of America’s gasoline-station pumps are made there; two enormous medical complexes serve the area; the Tri-Cities airport is nearing the end of a nine-year expansion to accommodate a mammoth new hub for the Fed-Ex shipping giant; and old factories and flour mills have been reborn as distinctive apartment and condominium residences.

As Americans are doing and have forever done, Greensboro has re-invented itself.

I’ll Take Two (or Three)

Carol and I have driven through several times, en route to her family reunions in the nearby town of Madison, North Carolina. As much as anything, I remember the stops for yummilicious Carolina diced-pork barbecue sandwiches with cole slaw and hot sauce, and sweet tea. (Yes, I made up “yummilicious,” a word too wild even for Wild Words. To be Real America, you’ve got to have good eats.)

Edward R. Murrow called Greensboro home, but only for the first four or five years of his life. Later, he smoked like a North Carolina tobacco grower, and it killed him

And there’s one last reason why I like Greensboro, though I didn’t know it until a few days ago! It’s the home of legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, renowned for his dramatic coverage (“This . . . is London”) during the Germans’ aerial blitz of World War II. Murrow later directed the United States Information Agency of which the Voice of the America was then a part.

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Conundrum. A difficult problem or dilemma. Nobody seems to know the origin of this curious word. An online sleuth called “The Word Detective” concludes that the most reasonable theory “is that ‘conundrum’ originated as a joke among university students in 16th century England, probably concocted as a pseudo-Latin nonsense word.”

Dither. A confused state. One who dithers is flustered, agitated, all a-twitter. The word comes from a Middle English word meaning “tremble.”

Rain check. A sports term. When a baseball game, especially, must be halted and then postponed because of inclement weather, patrons are issued a “rain check” entitling them to free admission when the game is replayed. I may regretfully decline a social invitation but ask for a rain check – a chance to enjoy another such opportunity down the road.

Spin doctor. “Spin” is the fashionable political term for putting one’s own, highly partisan, interpretation on events. You spin them to suit the best interests of your candidate or cause. And a maestro of spin is a “spin doctor.”

Swashbuckling. Pirates are swashbucklers, and others can swashbuckle, too, thanks to the evolution of the word. The “swash” comes from an old word for tapping one’s foot on the ground, as fencers (and sword-wielding pirates) do when they attack. The “buckle” doesn’t fit around one’s pants; a “buckler” was a small shield, worn (by right-handers) on their left arms for protection. Somehow, this got all smished into a word describing the flamboyantly daring.

Share and Enjoy:

co.mments del.icio.us digg Furl Ma.gnolia NewsVine Reddit

Please leave a comment.

Texians

Posted October 24th, 2008 at 6:03 pm (UTC-4)
2 comments
President Bush has frequently vacationed at his Prairie Chapel Ranch near Crawford. Like former President Ronald Reagan at his Western White House, Bush relaxes by clearing brush.

On the January day that he becomes our former president, or soon thereafter, George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, will leave Washington for their ranch near tiny Crawford, Texas, outside the city of Waco. By some accounts, the Bushes are pining for that day, not just out of relief after eight years of crushing responsibility, but also because they “just love the place to pieces,” as exuberant Texans would say.

Love it beyond reason, it can seem to others, since Texas is home to killer bees, biting red ants, ill-tempered rattlesnakes, flying cockroaches the size of dirigibles, raging blizzards, blinding dust storms, a coastline routinely mauled by hurricanes, thorny cacti, smelly oil and gas refineries, and entire counties where temperatures average 37 degrees Celsius for two or three straight months each summer. They topped 38 degrees 10 days in a row one year that I lived in Texas, and “I like to have died,” as Texans and southerners sometimes say. Yes, yes, it was “dry heat” up by the Oklahoma line, but Texas endures sponge-wringing humidity anywhere south of San Antonio (or San Antone, as old cowboy-movie heroes liked to call it).

And the cuisine is even hotter. Who wouldn’t hurry back to such a place!?

A Desperate Start
American settlers in the Mexican state of Texas turned the old, limestone Alamo mission into a fortress where they made a heroic but fatal stand for independence in 1836.

The people of this state were called “Texians” back in 1836, when 200 or so besieged Texans died inside the Alamo mission in San Antonio fighting the 5,000-man army of Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna. That heroic, though doomed, standoff helped spur the region’s ultimately successful war of independence from Mexico. Texas’s nine-year run as a republic before it decided to join the United States in 1845 still resonates in the Texan character and feeds an almost nationalistic pride you’ll find in those parts. To this day, Texans have a remarkable ability to tune out the drawbacks and latch onto what’s enviable about their whopping state.

Burgeoning Houston, the nation’s corporate energy capital, has bounced back from many devastating recessions in the oil economy. It also features the world’s largest medical center.

This was easier once, before cities like Dallas and Houston exploded into clusters of gaudy skyscrapers. And it was easier to find Texas charm before the state capital of Austin turned into a trendy technology and nightclub scene, and before Texas went nuts building superhighways. More about that in a bit.

Just as bobbing pumpjacks dip into the earth, up and down, day and night, night and day, hoping to suck oil from the West Texas prairie, let’s drill into Texans’ love affair with what a lot of them still stubbornly consider the country’s largest state. (Dismissing remote Alaska, which is twice as large, they snort, “Daggone it, some place that’s one-half ice and th’other half moose bogs don’t count.”)

On the Road – Forever
West Texas is hot and dry in the summer and endures fierce blizzards each winter. And as you see, it can be unforgiving to humans and beasts alike.

Texas is big enough by any measure. Enter it at Port Arthur on Interstate Highway 10 at the Louisiana border and head to El Paso, which is stuck between Mexico and New Mexico way out west – way out west – and you’ll pass 828 mile-markers. Again, that’s 828 separate mileposts on the same highway in the same state – 1,333 mind-numbing kilometers from the first to the last.

That’s no big whoop to a Texan. Thanks to those “westerns,” the state is world-famous for open spaces. (“The prairie sky/ Is wide and high/ Deep in the heart of Texas.”) All by its ownself – another Texas expression – one South Texas cattle spread, the 334,000-hectare King Ranch near Corpus Christi is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. It’s no coincidence that just about every Texas town sports a business with the word “big” in it: The Big State. The Big Texan. Big Red’s…

And then there’s the entire city of Dallas: “Big D.”

Funny, though. Despite Texans’ fondness for welding first and middle names into a single identity, I don’t remember seeing “Big Jim Bob’s” or “Big Janie Sue’s” in my Texas travels.

A Place Unto Itself

Journalist and fiction writer Pete Hamill once observed, “There is a growing feeling that perhaps Texas is really another country, a place where the skies, the disasters, the diamonds, the politicians, the women, the fortunes, the football players and the murders are all bigger than anywhere else.” But what does he know? Hamill is from Brooklyn.

Breeders did not fashion the exotic longhorn. The breed developed on its own in rugged territory. Crossbreeding nearly wiped out the species, but longhorns are now carefully preserved.

The big goes on in bid’ness deals, as Texans call them, in gushers of oil, lumbering longhorn cattle, and at the nation’s biggest state capitol building. And soon you can add the biggest room without columns in the world: the new Dallas Cowboys’ football stadium, which will seat 100,000 people for certain events. Like the ’Boys’ current home, Texas Stadium, it will have a hole in the roof “so God can watch his favorite team.” Texas brag.

Now let me tell you about what, in the words of the Associated Press, “sounds like another tall tale told by a Texan.” The state has embarked on an audacious project to build superhighways so big and so complex “that they will make ordinary interstates look like cow paths.” Here’s just how adventuresome and outrageous one of these roads, the new Trans-Texas Corridor from the Mexican border all the way north to Oklahoma, is projected to be: Picture a concrete ribbon as wide as five soccer fields, with extra lanes just for trucks and freight trains and commuter rail. The plan even sets aside space along the road for oil and gas pipelines and broadband voice and data cables.

Allow me to reiterate the width of this blacktop beast: five soccer fields. Driving along, will one even be able to see the houses and barns on the other side of the road?

Bird Dogs and Pickup Trucks
Pickup trucks have been a part of the fabric of life in the American Southwest – and especially in Texas – for a long time.

What you almost certainly will see when that mega-highway gets built are lots of pickup trucks. Even though more Texans are city slickers than cowpokes these days, they love their pickups. Each year – at least in the years before the current national financial unpleasantness – they bought more than 300,000 of these small trucks with enclosed cabs and flat, open beds in back. Japanese automaker Toyota even opened a production plant in San Antonio with an annual production capacity of 200,000 heavy-duty Tundra pickups. But in the face of record gasoline-price rises and sluggish demand for gas-guzzlers, even in pedal-to-the-metal Texas, Toyota cut the output sharply. Still, out in the Back 40 – a term I’ll explain in Wild Words below – Texans still haul a lot of barbed-wire fencing, hay bales, bags of unshucked pecans, and hunting dogs.

So Texians find a lot to love about Texas. “Loved is a better word,” says my friend Bob Blachly, an Austin native and former VOA colleague. “Now it’s homogenized, not much different from anyplace else.” “But once,” he adds with a wistful sigh, “we were our own breed: independent, optimistic, self-reliant, friendly as all outdoors.”

Howdy-Do!
Galveston Island is – between hurricanes – Texas’s playland and antebellum retreat, reminiscent of the days when the city was known as the “Wall Street of the South.”

Friendly, indeed. “Texas” traces to Tejas, a Choctaw Indian word meaning “friend” or “friendship.” Texans touring New York or L.A., or Djibouti for that matter, might be detected by the trace of a twang, but they’re even more readily spotted by their outgoing nature. Texans practically own the “howdy” word, accompanying it with a crushing handshake and a hearty slap on the back. For a century now, “Howdy” has been the official greeting among “Aggies” at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Ah, Texas A&M, the onetime agriculture and mechanical school that bears the brunt of “Aggie jokes.” These were all the rage when I lived in Texas. (They’re less politically correct now.) Sample: “Did you hear about the Aggie at a stop sign? He’s still there.”

Antebellum Victorian mansions in what’s left of hurricane-ravaged Galveston may remind one of magnolia-draped Mississippi, and it’s hard to tell North Texas and western Oklahoma apart. But somehow you know when you’re you’re in Texas, perhaps because you’re sure to be addressed as “sir” or “ma’am.”

***
Down at the end of Texarkana’s Stateline Avenue, shown here in a historic postcard, a federal post office and courthouse straddles Texas and Arkansas. So do lots of tourists, for their vacation photographs.
Well, maybe it’s not so easy to tell when you’re one place in Texas. Up in the northeast corner, the city of Texarkana is actually a twin of another city in Arkansas, also called Texarkana, which butts right up against it along Stateline Avenue. They’ve even drawn the state line down the middle of the post office and federal building used by both towns. Upstairs, the judge’s chair is bolted to the floor so he or she is always sitting in two states.

Texarkansans consider it all one place, where eight railroads and four U.S. highways once converged. Yet the “beer joint” side of town, where it’s legal to sell liquor, wine, and beer, is “wet.” And the other side is “dry.” Shockingly, given the state’s saloon-and-gunfighter image, the dry side is in Texas.

And the Skies are Not Cloudy All Day

Tejas. Friendship. As the song goes, Texans are at “home on the range,” where “seldom is heard a discouraging word.” Their history of relentless entrepreneurship would confirm that Texans are doers. Work now. Work hard. Talk later. After, all, on the open range, far from town, neighbors still need each other’s help stringing fences, raising barns, or mounting posses to chase outlaws. (Well, maybe not the outlaw part so much any more.) Water, long before oil, was precious, and when a stranger stopped at your well after a long, hard ride, you welcomed him and offered a meal. Glad to help. No questions asked. Nothing expected in return.

Texans knew all about “diversity” before it became a buzzword. The flags of six nations, including France, Spain, Mexico, the brief American southern confederacy, and, for nine years ending in 1845, a sovereign Republic of Texas, have flown over the land. The state and the Dallas football team get their Lone Star symbols – and Texas its nickname – from the star on the Texas Republic’s flag.

At one time in Texas, one could count 25 distinct tribes of American Indians, including fierce Comanche and Apache raiders, as well as thousands of African slaves. “Seminole Negroes,” the product of escaped black slaves and renegade Seminole Indians who hid together in Florida swamps and later settled in Texas and Oklahoma, became legendary scouts for the U.S. Army during the western Indian Wars of the late 1800s.

We’re Rich! We’re Rich!
When Anthony Lucas, an Austrian-born mining engineer, struck oil on Spindletop Hill, the gusher spewed for nine days until the well was capped.

The “discovery” of oil with the eruption of the 60-meter-high Lucas gusher, at the Spindletop oil field near Beaumont on January 10, 1901 at 10:30 a.m., turned Texas into a boom state and changed it forever. I put “discovery” in quotation marks because oil had lain in plain sight in pools, under the very noses of Texans, for decades. Indians used it for potions, and it annoyed settlers who, searching for water, had to drill through it. But “black gold” would bring fortune, international fame, and larger-than-life characters to cities like Dallas and Houston, which became shooting stars in the exploding Sunbelt.

Spindletop ushered in an Energy Age, a population explosion, and a dramatic spike in Texas’s political power. Texans soon ran big energy companies (that “big” word again), the Congress of the United States, and the White House after Lyndon Johnson succeeded to the presidency following John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in 1963. And in 1992, H. Ross Perot, a billionaire Texas businessman, ran the most successful – in percentage of popular votes – third-party campaign for president in American history. (Gasp! He is a Texan who is not so big. Perot stands just 1.68 meters tall.)

You Want Variety?
Each spring, “bluebonnet trails” in Central Texas attract thousands of wildflower enthusiasts. The flower (or its cousin) also pops up in a cheery red in some places.

One could certainly carve up Texas on a map the way we draw the cuts of meat on a steer: piney woods in the humid northeast, tallgrass prairies along the Oklahoma border, flatlands and mesquite-scrub plains west of the Pecos River and in the “Panhandle” that reaches northward to the Colorado Rockies, enchanting hills ablaze with bluebonnets each spring in the hills around San Antonio, Louisiana-like bayous to the southeast, brush country and vast rangeland in far-south Texas.

Out of graduate school, I lived for two years in Wichita Falls, across the Red River from Oklahoma. It’s a sister city of Fürstenfeldbruck in Bavaria. That’s apropos of nothing, but it’s fun to write “Fürstenfeldbruck.”

Wichita Falls is a military town (Sheppard Air Force Base) – kind of down on its luck andrough around the edges – but God-fearing. Lubbock, to the west, may have the most churches per capita in the nation, and Houston the largest church, but Wichita Falls holds its own with the Lord. Its nickname is “The City That Faith Built.” And it’s a good thing, since some of the meanest tornadoes in U.S. history have dipped out of roiling black clouds to level parts of the town. One twister in 1979 left 20,000 people – one-fifth of the city’s population – homeless. When I lived there in the 1960s, we got only hot, relentless winds from the west, carrying what seemed like half of the Panhandle’s gritty soil. These red-dust “blows” turned our car and house and hair a hideous salmon hue. Wichita Falls was also the first and last place in my life where a fist-sized tarantula spider walked across my kitchen counter.

Flat, Dry, and Far Away
A quirky sight on the Cadillac Ranch along historic U.S. Highway 66 near Amarillo is a graffiti artists’ delight called the “Ant Farm.” Beyond it is nothing but Panhandle flat land.

A quick word about the Texas Panhandle. As big as the entire state of Indiana, it remains unabashed cowboy country. Cowboy hats, trophy belts, and boots are as thick as grasshoppers in Amarillo. In the logo of the city that calls itself the “Real Texas,” two boots take the place of the double-L’s in Amarillo’s name. And little wonder: In 1893, its population was officially listed as “between 500-600 humans and 50,000 head of cattle.” One-fourth of the nation’s beef is shipped from Amarillo, and at the city’s Big (what else?) Texan steakhouse, diners eat free if they can finish a two-kilogram steak the size of a small roast, plus bread, a salad, and a small dessert in an hour.

The historic sign outside, and the steaks inside, the Big Texan in Amarillo live up to the name.

Almost no one succeeds. I’m a big guy, was plenty hungry, and had deliberately skipped lunch the day I gave it a shot. I got about halfway through the hunk of steer before capitulating with a groan. It was little comfort to learn that it’s little old grandmothers and tiny young women, mostly, who have polished off the whole slab of meat. My internist will have to explain that one to me.

So the Panhandle is cowboy-real. For cowboy chic, you’ll need to hit Dallas or Austin or the Fort Worth line-dancing clubs I mentioned a couple of posts ago. The only similarities between today’s edgy, pulsating “alternative cowboy” music and the gentle old western yodels of Gene Autry or the Sons of the Pioneers are the boots and hats.

Playin’ With the Big Boys
Shimmering Dallas is the economic hub of a 12-county “Metroplex” that also includes the legendary “cow town” of Fort Worth, about which I wrote a while back.

Today’s Texas cowboys have plenty of company when they get to town. Six of America’s top-20 cities are now in Texas: Houston (4), San Antonio (8), Dallas (9), Austin (16), Fort Worth (18), and El Paso (20). And three of them – Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso – regularly rank among the nation’s fattest cities as rated by Men’s Fitness and other magazines.

They have large Latino populations for whom homemade tamales and enchiladas prepared in lard and covered in cheese and rich, fatty gravy are everyday, irresistible fare. Irresistible to gringos, too, I can attest. And there’s a paucity of public parks for exercise. Little wonder: these are stifling-hot places where a “run in the park” has a great deal less appeal than a brisk trot through the Boston Common.

The River Walk provides a respite for conventioneers. A full story beneath street level, the enclave was created over several decades along the San Antonio River.

Word from the U.S. surgeon general that 30 percent of San Antonians are obese prompted that city’s director of health to launch a “Don’t Super-size San Antonio” campaign. (Super-sizing is a term for ordering Texas-big portions of fattening fast food.)

The beautifully shaded River Walk, San Antonio’s biggest attraction save for the historic Alamo, looks like the ideal, relatively cool strolling paradise at which to get some weight off. But it’s more of a fairyland – a Venice of the American West – festooned with lounge chairs and umbrellas.

Mexican mariachi bands serenade as tour boats glide past its cobblestone walkways, and tourists sip Shiner beer and stiffer drinks,

Space Center Houston is a showcase for America’s space program. This interactive visitor center for NASA’s Johnson Space Center includes this shuttle mock-up.

including prickly pear margaritas made from the fermented juice of the cactus pear. In times like these, who wants to jog?

Texas leads the nation in oil, beef, and cotton production. And you surely know about its vital role in the space industry: doesn’t every astronaut’s call from space begin with “Houston . . . .”?

Look under “Texas crops,” and you can hardly see an end to the list: Beets. Spinach. Oranges. Pistachio nuts. Marijuana. (Just checking to see if you’re still with me.) Texas has more floral varieties than any other state, and a greater assortment of reptiles than anywhere else in the land.

Meet Dasypus novemcinctus
In San Angelo, “Jalepeño Sam” Lewis raises armadillos for racing. Not that they move very fast. One wag called the little burrowing animals “anteaters on the half shell.”

That brings me back to my friend Bob, who grumps, “They’ve commercialized everything in Texas.

Even armadillos are tourist attractions. We knew them as road kill.” (Some, even more unkindly, call them “Texas speed bumps.”)

Stop! Don’t write to remind me that armadillos are not reptiles. They’re homely little mammals with pointy snouts and leathery skin.

(Their scaly likenesses do make cute stuffed animals, though, Bob.)

***

And getting back to the Bush family and their love of the Texas lake country: Just as Lyndon and

Big Bend National Park includes the most scenic portion of the Rio Grande River, which forms more than 1,500 kilometers of the border between Mexico and the United States.

Lady Bird Johnson could not wait to get home to the LBJ Ranch on the Pedernales River down hill-country way, it can be noted that Texas has not a single snow-covered peak, no incredible waterfalls, no rain forest or particularly memorable babbling mountain stream. There are striking red-rock canyons down along the Rio Grande River in Big Bend National Park, but that’s forever from anywhere. Carol and I found it once and photographed it, and I think we’re still paying for the gasoline it took to get there.

No doubt the Bushes and the Johnsons, and even my friend Blachly when he’s in a better mood, have been drawn not to the grandiosity of Texas, but to its “small packages,” as photographer George Oxford Miller wrote in 1991. He found “fields of flowers unblemished by footprints, air unadulterated with human additives, stars undimmed by city lights, and the uninterrupted sounds of nature.” Simple pleasures in a brash, beautiful – and big – place.

***

Did you ever read a Zane Grey western novel or see an American western movie? What impressions did it leave?

***

On my last post, Giang commented:

“Dear Ted,
“I like your blog. I also like to make blog but I don’t know some technic to make a nice blog like yours. So, would you like to show me some technic.
Thank you.”

Here’s what I told her in reply:

“Thanks, Giang. I created my blog using Blogger.com. Creating a blog using Blogger.com doesn’t cost money. You simply need to set up a Google account and choose a name for your blog. Blogger.com offers several templates for you to customize your site. You can pick the color, theme and layout of your blog. You also can add extra features like photo slide shows – check out my wife’s photos of Texas on my current homepage. We have modified the basic Blogger template using HTML code. This takes some time to learn, but you can find out about HTML by searching the Web or checking out the Blogger.com help center for suggestions. Good luck with YOUR blog, and please tell your friends about MINE!”

Keep those questions and suggestions coming!

–Ted

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Back 40. Undeveloped land next to a cultivated spread. The “40” refers to acres, though the actual size is often smaller or larger. Why 40 acres – about 16 hectares? The use of that figure may trace to the “40 acres and a mule” promised to freed African-American slaves at the end of the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s. Very few former slaves ever got such land or mules.

Dirigibles. Slow-moving, lighter-than-air craft filled with a lifting gas and steered by rudders and small propellers. Those without skeletal frameworks are called “blimps.” Rigid, hydrogen-filled airships such as the massive Zeppelins of the mid-20th century all but disappeared following several terrible explosions. Today’s dirigibles are filled with inert helium gas.

Festooned. Lavishly decorated. The word traces to the noun festoon: a garland of leaves or flowers. So if you want to literally festoon something, string a pretty chain of petunias or pine branches along it.

Paucity. A scarcity. Usually people understand you better if you just say you don’t have very many of something.

Posse. A group of citizens called together, usually by the local sheriff, for a common cause like chasing down desperados on the run. The word derives from the common English law posse comitatus, or the right to conscript male citizens 18 years and older to assist in keeping the peace.

Share and Enjoy:

co.mments del.icio.us digg Furl Ma.gnolia NewsVine Reddit

Please leave a comment.

N’Awlins

Posted October 17th, 2008 at 5:47 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment

It’s been 23 years since I left New Orleans, and still, to quote the Eddie De Lange and Louis Alter song of half a century ago, I know what it means to miss “New Orleens.” Oh yeah, I know.

This old postcard view captures the Pontalba Apartments, built by Baroness Michaela Pontalba, who also convinced city officials to turn Jackson Square into a European-style pleasure garden

Louis Armstrong sang it more soulfully than I can tell it:

“I know I’m not wrong… this feeling’s gettin’ stronger / The longer, I stay away.”

As have others across the generations who have dashed under the block-long balcony of the Pontalba, North America’s oldest apartment building (1850), to skirt a Jackson Square downpour, I was smitten beyond redemption by languid, decadent New Orleans. Even one-time tourists commonly fall in love with the Crescent City – so named because the Mississippi River wraps so outrageously around it that the sun actually rises on the west bank, and South Rampart Street finds itself upriver of North Rampart.

Those downpours – which can be a mere block long while the sun shines brightly down the street – have carried sorrows ever since, in a death roar, the breached levees of Hurricane Katrina drowned the city two Augusts ago.

Town of Tribulations
Strip-club lights illuminate Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. In the distance, Hibernia Bank tower lights approximate the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold.

But sorrow was no stranger even then. New Orleans knew it well from yellow fever epidemics and Civil War occupation and mournful “jazz funeral” processions, when brass bands en route to the cemetery would play the St. James Infirmary Blues, then cut loose with joyful, high-stepping riffs on the way back home.

On the streets of the French Quarter, and in a few clubs like Preservation Hall, they still play Dixieland jazz, but, to my ear, with not quite the conviction of old. The musicians, and the wounded city, are going through the motions for the tourist trade.

Legendary Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain is not a national landmark, but comes close. Now 78, he still performs but no longer leads his “Half-Fast Marching Band” in parades

The St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, one of only two U.S. National Landmarks that moves – San Francisco’s cable cars are the other – is running again, and visitors mill anew among the cemetery mausoleums in the New Orleans’s creepy, above-ground “cities of the dead.” Habitués of Gallatoire’s Restaurant (founded 1897) are busy buttering crunchy French bread to dip into their sauce rémoulade over shrimp. Others agreeably wait their turn for a table at Antoine’s (1840), gaily sprinkle Tabasco sauce onto eggs à la hussarde and sip brandy milk punch during breakfast at Brennan’s (1946), guzzle sweet and potent “hurricane” drinks in plastic souvenir glasses at Pat O’Brien’s bar (1933), and warily check out gris-gris dolls on Dumaine Street at New Orleans’s Historic Voodoo Museum. (I’m not sure when that place opened; I’ll let you go in and ask.)

Cursed Katrina
This was what the floodwaters loosed by broken levees during Hurricane Katrina left behind in the Lower Ninth Ward

But sadness hovers still. A third of the people who fled in a hurry after Katrina remain elsewhere and are not likely to be back. Businesses by the hundreds, large and small, are gone as well, especially in the Lower Ninth Ward – the city’s poorest district – which Katrina floodwaters obliterated down to cinder blocks and a few staircases that lead to nowhere.

As my middle daughter, Juliette Landphair, dean of Westhampton College at the University of Richmond, wrote in an article about “the Forgotten People of New Orleans” in the December 2007 Journal of American History, “As the weeks passed and the water drained away, rotting corpses, shattered houses, and muck-caked tricycles rested in the silence.” A Tulane University graduate in history, Juliette, like the rest of the family, had lived in and loved New Orleans, which we all likened to America’s Paris, or at least Marseilles.

The Lower Ninth Ward is a wasteland still. Relief tents remain all over town, and you see kindhearted volunteers from across America still hammering and drywalling and whistling optimistic tunes. New Orleanians parade and stage festivals again, but not more of them than there are days in the year as they once did. But the City That Care Forgot may never again be the place where laissez les bon temps rouler – let the good times roll! – was a way of life. Cares blew in with Katrina and stayed.

Infiltration of Influences
Ronnie Virgets prepares to indulge in a favorite New Orleans activity – eating, in this case oysters (he pronounces it “ER-sters”) on the half shell – at Casamento’s Seafood Restaurant

Nor, any longer, does New Orleans “simmer in its isolation” as my friend, the legendary New Orleans raconteur and racetrack regular Ronnie Virgets, once put it. Ronnie lost everything in Katrina, most poignantly a lifetime of wonderful essay scripts and TV commentary tapes, and barely escaped with his life. He was among those rescued from the Interstate-10 highway overpass above the deluge.

New Orleans has been changed in other, subtle ways. The arrival of northern transplants like me, the imposition of syndicated radio formats and TV anchorpeople from Illinois and Oklahoma and the like, and the influx of contractors and aid workers – including many Latinos into a city that had known very few of them – have overwhelmed many of the city’s cherished idiosyncrasies, including these:

  • Nicknames like “Moon” (Landrieu, a mayor), “Pud” (Jones a legendary jazz musician), and “Ruthie the Duck Girl,” (a French Quarter wanderer). In New Orleans, “You don’t want your friends’ children to call you by your first name, but ‘Mr. Marrero’ or “Mrs. Schexsnaidre’ seems too formal,” writes S. Frederick Starr in a book I will describe later. “So you become ‘Mr. Pud’ or ‘Mrs. Banana.’”
  • Strong coffee laced with chicory – an herb so bitter that New Orleans’s brew must be served with frothy milk to be palatable.
The elegant Garden District, where many sugar plantation owners built homes in the 1800s, came through Katrina with relatively minor damage

“Yat” accents (as in “Where Y’at?) that sound more Brooklyn, New Yorky, than French or deep southern. In the blue-collar West Bank across the Mississippi from New Orleans’s elegant Garden District, people “woik” rather than work, change the “earl” in their automobiles, and “make groceries” at the Piggly Wiggly store, sometimes on the day that they pronounce as “Sundi.” They don’t call it New ORR-lee-uns, as does the Uptown crowd, or New ORR-lins the way tourists and I do, or N’Awlins, as many black folks in town prefer. In Harvey and Gretna and Marrero on the West Bank, it’s “New-WALL-yunz.” And by the way, nobody anywhere in town, save for some executive chefs and university dandies, speaks French any more. Nor is New Orleans “Cajun” French. Acadian French is spoken well to the west, cher, in the bayou country of Southwest Louisiana.

The long causeway between New Orleans and the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain used to be more of a commuter route than it is today.

Those streets that wind so crazily with the curve of the river that, try as you might, you can’t go east or south or north or west. You can get somewhere only by heading river-bound or lake-bound – the lake being Pontchartrain, a brackish body second in size among America’s saltwater lakes to Utah’s Great Salt Lake. The world’s longest causeway over water runs 38.5 kilometers from New Orleans to Pontchartrain’s woodsy North Shore, to which thousands of people from Orleans and St. Bernard parishes scrambled ahead of Katrina. Many, many stayed put, congesting highways and shopping centers and schools.

Spearmint is one of the best-selling flavors of New Orleans sno-balls, not to be confused with sno-cones. Sno-cones are made with crushed ice; special machines shave the ice for sno-ball

A cardiac disaster of a diet, including fried-oyster “po-boy” sandwiches slathered in mayonnaise; praline candy that is little more than crystallized sugar, and “sno-ball” shaved ice cones doused in sticky-sweet flavored syrups.

*** 

(Gastronomic aside: Elsewhere in America, people talk about the weather. In New Orleans, people talk about food. There’s an old saying in town: “When you go to breakfast, you talk about lunch and think about dinner.” Even basic peasant food like slow-cooked red beans and sausage over rice is so delectable that people travel hundreds of kilometers to taste it. I know that I do, every chance I get. Ask me about muffulettas sometime.)

***

And as long as I’m interrupting myself, I should note that that jaunty chapeaux that you see in my photo is no “cowboy hat.” Having stuck a fleur-de-lis, the lily-flower symbol of New Orleans, smack in the front of it, I prefer to think of it as my “Louisiana swamp hat.”

A Piquant Gumbo

But bruised, diminished, and dejected though it is, New Orleans is still seductive, still a mélange of international backgrounds and tastes and sounds, still a “checkerboard city” where blacks and whites and now Hispanics live cheek by jowl, often eying each other warily but mixing like long-lost relatives at a family reunion any time there’s a festival or parade.

The Queen City of the South seemed destined to be colorful. Peaceful Choctaw Indians eked out a living on the little high ground they could find above steamy, mosquito- and gator-infested swamps until the remnants of a Spanish expedition passed by in retreat from the upper Mississippi in the 1500s. More than a century later, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, sailed the length of the river from the Great Lakes, came upon the fertile land near the Gulf of Mexico, and claimed it – and all the territory drained by the Mississippi clear to Canada – for France. He named it all “Louisiana” in honor of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Two other sieurs (sirs), Bienville and Iberville, founded and named the first settlement, La Nouvelle Orléans – New Orleans – for which they are remembered with street names in the French Quarter.

The Vibrant Vieux Carré 
Fire destroyed much of the French Quarter during the 38 years of Spanish rule in the late 1700s. Rebuilding ushered in the Spanish style, including ornate wrought-iron balconies

That little quadrant of narrow streets; lacy, wrought-iron balconies; beer halls and imitation-jazz joints; fine-art galleries as well as topless/bottomless tourist traps is less French today than Spanish in architecture, owing to the days when Spain ran the town in the 1700s before turning it back to France. Then in 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte gave up on his colonial Louisiana outpost as well. For a territory that instantly doubled the size of their young country, Americans paid $11 million in U.S. bonds.

So you see, New Orleans drips with history as well as plump drops of tropical rain. And a lot has transpired since rowdy Americans moved in: the rise to prominence and wealth of mixed-race “Creoles of color” despite the thriving trade in black African slaves at Congo Square; Yankee occupation during our civil war; the growth of brazenly corrupt political machines – white and black; an oil boom more than 160 kilometers downriver, out in the Gulf of Mexico, for which Orleans and surrounding parishes supplied most of the boats and crews and gear.

Cotton was king in the Deep South in the 19th century, and New Orleans was a boom port. In the first half of that century, one of the imports was human beings during the slave trade

Eventually someone figured a way to sink pilings into the city’s soupy soil. That made possible office towers and chain hotels and the mega-enormous Superdome stadium, whose squalor as the Hurricane Katrina evacuation site in 2006 earned the city worldwide disdain.

Jazz was a back-o’-town New Orleans creation, too, though most artists had to go to New York or Chicago or Nashville to find someone with the money and studio to record it. Jazz began as music of the streets and small clubs. The first sensational personas of the sound were Buddy Bolden and his African-American ensemble in 1895. But plenty of white musicians, especially Italian and Sicilian immigrants, also played “ratty music,” “gut bucket,” and “ragtime,” as they called it, with flair and distinction.

New Orleans Dixieland-style jazz used to be a fixture in clubs through the French Quarter. But as tastes change, one can find everything from country to heavy metal there as well

This improvisational, unscripted style of music, where musicians often do not read from a sheet but memorize their parts and embellish them in wild solos, was quite different from the intricately scripted ragtime of W.C. Handy up the Mississippi. Many Dixieland-jazz musicians were and are superb readers of music, but the “faking” style became so popular that some skilled players had to “unskill” themselves and learn to improvise.

And let us not dare to omit Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” the culmination of New Orleans’s month-long Carnival, a phantasmic celebration unmatched in North America. That Tuesday is “fat” because it’s the last day before the forty-day Christian Lent, with a thin tie to the ancient times when a fatted calf was slaughtered and everyone feasted while the feasting was good.
In New Orleans (and Mobile, Alabama, and Galveston, Texas, which stage smaller Mardi Gras fests), this thin pretext for a party morphed into amazing pageantries and spectacular overindulgences that end precisely at Mardi Gras midnight, upon which the city turns magically somber – and clean – for the Catholic Ash Wednesday holiday.

This photo gives you a good idea of the time and expense involved in preparing Mardi Gras floats and costumes. Some floats become crowd favorites and reappear almost unchanged every year

Anyone who has absorbed America’s greatest free show will describe the elaborate New Orleans Carnival parades and floats – some of them three decks high and blindingly illuminated – with fanciful themes such as “Gypsy Revelers”; masked riders throwing cheap beads and doubloons and other trifles; elegant coronation balls; several degrees of naughty and flamboyant displays of French Quarter nudity; a separate “gay Mardi Gras,” also in the French Quarter, where it’s not unusual to see such creative triumphs as a marching box of Crayola crayons; and “truck parades, where ordinary folk deck out flatbed vehicles in their neighborhoods, putter along behind the official processions, and toss out used beads and trinkets from yesteryear.

The organizations, called “krewes,” including Bacchus, Endymion, Zeus, and Orpheus, that sponsor the most lavish Carnival processions, love to flaunt Homeric symbolism. They fund every shred of their extravaganzas, down to paying the marching bands and flambeaux carriers whose torches brighten the path for the nighttime parades.

Masked riders prepare to toss trinkets to the crowd from an elaborate Carnival float. In the early days, mules pulled the floats. Now, tractors or small trucks do

My particular fascination with Mardi Gras stems from the make-believe aspect of it all – the suspension of ordinary mature reason and refinement, and the eagerness of grown adults to engage in dress-up childs’ play. Almost from the moment that next year’s Mardi Gras ends, at midnight February 24, krewes will set to planning, building and redecorating floats, and picking their fantasy kings, queens, dukes, and masked parade captains and riders for the 2010 month-long Carnival season. And every detail will be eagerly recorded in the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper and in broadcast reports. Recession? Foreign wars? Who cares?! Muses – one of the few all-female Krewes – is announcing its parade theme! (It would be hard to top “Muses Reach the Terrible Twos” from 2002).

One prominent citizen, usually a wealthy businessman, gladly slips into tights and a crown and a bejeweled jacket to ride the streets of New Orleans as Rex, King of Mardi Gras. The exact date moves around between early February – when even a rare snowflake is possible in New Orleans – and springlike early March. The fluctuation is due to the wanderings of Ash Wednesday, which falls 40 days before the ever-moving Easter Holiday.

A New Orleans business leader may be a reserved and private person. But if he’s – and it’s always a man – chosen to be Rex, King of Carnival, he leads the city in revelry for a day

“Hail, Rex!,” the masses will shout. And, more cravenly and often, “Throw me somethin’, mistuh,” with arms held high in hopes of snagging beads, doubloons, a cheap plastic cup, or a prized Krewe of Zulu painted coconut. The time-honored best strategy for bringing home booty is to plant an adorable toddler or a busty beauty on a ladder along the parade route.

If you thought you had business in New Orleans, Louisiana, next February 24th, you don’t. Half the city will be out on the streets in colorful masks and bizarre costumes, parading and picnicking and drinking – it’s allowed from plastic containers, any day of the year – and hollering for beads. The other half will be out of town, avoiding the tumult.

Mass Catharsis

“Mardi Gras is the best thing for the psyche since the long defunct but now partially resurrected local soft drink, Dr. Nut,” wrote Frederick Starr in New Orleans Unmasqued, a series of insightful vignettes that is one of my treasured possessions. Already a fine clarinetist in Cincinnati, Ohio, Starr was riding the riverboats and playing his horn at age 16, all the way down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. He ended up there and was writing New Orleans Unmasqued as a Tulane University vice president when I was there in the early 1980s.

Check out the rest of his paragraph about Mardi Gras:

“Is it not vulgar and tasteless nonetheless? Some learned professors of revelry answer yes, yes, a thousand times yes. They wallow in the sleaziness of the streets, the tawdry masques, the drunkenness. All vulgarity is not equal, they say. Mardi Gras is the genuine article, true-life vulgarity rather than the fake and sanitized version dished up to American homes by television. It’s real, and therefore good.”

Or if not good, still a useful release from the daily woe in a city that care forgot but has lately visited too often.

***

Have you seen a street spectacle comparable to Mardi Gras? Carnival in Rio, perhaps? Tell me about it.

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

 

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Gris-gris. Voodoo charms or talismans. They are usually small cloth bags, sometimes made in Voodoo rituals when the bags are filled with herbs and spooky stuff like hair and bone bits. Louisiana Voodoo is a folk religion, steeped in the traditions of Africa and French Haiti, and full of mysterious rituals. Having a gris-gris handy is supposed to keep evil spirits and bad luck away. However, “putting on the gris-gris” is said to have just the opposite effect. It casts a spell on the unsuspecting.

Muffelettas. Pronounced muffa-LOTT-uhs, these are tasty, often toasted, sandwiches in rounded bread loaves. Invented by a New Orleans Sicilian grocer, they are filled with authentic Italian meats and a spicy olive salad. Note: While New Orleanians spread mayonnaise on just about every other sandwich, including roast-beef po-boys, they recoil at the thought of mayo on a muffuletta.

Parishes. The French divided Louisiana into parishes, in the fashion of the Roman Catholic Church. When Americans took over, they never bothered to change the arrangement. So Loo-see-anna is the only U.S. state without counties.

Phantasmic. Dreamlike, illusory. If you see a phantom, you’ve had a phantasmic experience.

Share and Enjoy: 

co.mments del.icio.us digg Furl Ma.gnolia NewsVine Reddit

Please leave a comment.

Old 11

Posted October 10th, 2008 at 3:14 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment

Eighteen years ago during a short stint in management here at the Voice of America, I sent a superb reporter named Bill Torrey on a journey that I longed to make myself. As it turns out, my photographer-wife Carol M. Highsmith and I would later retrace a good deal of his route, to our deep delight.

Accompanied by two young geographers, Bill traveled the length of one of America’s great U.S. highways. These are not the high-speed, multi-lane, numbingly monotonous Interstate superhighways on which we scoot across the country today. They are aging, mostly two-lane national roads that tied the country together soon after Americans got the itch to go exploring in our horseless driving machines.

A New Beaten Path
One of the early “named” highways, begun in 1932, was the “Going-to-the-Sun Road” (later part of U.S. 2), which cut through spectacular Glacier National Park in Montana

Beginning in 1925, numbered U.S. highways replaced a web of “auto trails” carrying names like “Dixie Highway” and “Mohawk Trail” chosen by civic boosters and driving enthusiasts. The Old Oregon Trail auto route, for instance, ran from Independence, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon, along roughly the original Oregon Trail on which pioneers had walked and driven oxen teams westward almost a century before. But sticking to these auto trails was no easy task for motorists. Signs and colored bands on telephone poles that were supposed to show the way were there one day, stolen or knocked over the next. If they weren’t careful, travelers would find themselves 50 kilometers down the wrong road.

So the nation switched to numbered routes that were better marked and crossed state lines. The U.S. government helped build them, tacked up thousands of shield-shaped signs with the highways’ numbers, and instituted modest standards of safety. At last you wouldn’t need 20 different maps to get from Ocean City, Maryland, to Sacramento, California. Maybe just one newfangled “road map” put out by Pure or Esso or Gulf Oil. Or no map at all: you just got onto U.S. Route 50 and headed west.

Even-numbered national highways ran east-west – and of course, west to east as well! Odd-numbered ones cut north and south, just as Interstate highway numbers work today.

The ‘Highway That’s the Best’
It’s a dark day, in more ways than one, at the Siesta Motel on U.S. Route 66 in Kingman, Arizona. America’s most famous national highway still has passionate devotees, however

You may have heard of our most-acclaimed national road: historic U.S. Route 66, which started in Chicago, zigged and zagged southwestward to Oklahoma, then slithered across the dusty West before ending abruptly at the Santa Monica, California, pier on the Pacific Ocean. Crusty tales, evocative photographs, and snappy songs like “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” still celebrate Route 66, which its devotees call “The Mother Road.”

Backers of famous named roads like the Lincoln Highway, which wended from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Astoria, Oregon, 4,900 kilometers away, grudgingly gave in to the numbering system. You still see commemorative Lincoln Highway signs in Pennsylvania, especially, but the road officially became and remains “U.S. 30” on maps and markers.

Border to Border (Almost)
One of the benefits of the new national highway system was the establishment of uniform signage from coast to coast. Or in the case of U.S. 11, almost from northern to southern borders
Bill Torrey and his companions did not follow any of the roads I have mentioned. They ventured down a more obscure and meandering national road: U.S. 11, which begins in upper New York State at the edge of Lake Champlain, just below Montreal, Canada, wiggles southward 1,700 kilometers down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, and cuts through Deep South bottomlands to an ignominious ending at a merge point with another U.S. Highway, U.S. 90, in eastern New Orleans, Louisiana. Ignominious? You’d expect a haughty national highway to conclude triumphantly at the door of New Orleans’ fabulous French Quarter. Instead, Old 11 dead ends at a merge point with another national road, U.S. 90, outside of town.

Metaphorically, though, Route 11 does connect French Canada with French Louisiana, even though not much of New Orleans except its rich, saucy cooking is French any more. French Quarter architecture is Spanish.

Swell for Scenery, Not Speed
Still on U.S. 11, you still see a few vestiges of the kind of roadside stands that used to beckon to weary travelers. And who wouldn’t want to see the world’s largest snake?

The national highways were narrow, winding, and often punctuated by treacherous cross traffic from lesser roads. And as I told you recently in this space when discussing the state of Iowa, at least one national highway – old U.S. 6 – actually had curbs along the way, supposedly to guide slipping cars back into line during fierce Midwest snowstorms. All the national roads led drivers right through cities and towns, past radar “speed traps” in which sneaky constables hid on their motorcycles behind billboards.

Business leaders wouldn’t hear of diverting traffic around town. Roadside attractions – many of them “tourist traps” like snake farms, pseudo-scientific fossil collections, and spooky caverns – lured tourists off the national roads out in the country. Motor courts, “greasy spoon” restaurants, souvenir stands, and independent repair shops beckoned in every little town. So did elaborate neon-gas advertising signs, which had been introduced in the United States at a Packard automobile dealership in Los Angeles in 1923.

Places to Stretch Your Legs a Spell
In the early days, motor courts and tourist cabins lacked today’s frills. The word “motel” was coined in California in 1926 but not used much Holiday Inns came along in 1952

The early lures of the national roads bore little resemblance to today’s outlet shopping malls, fast-food chains, gargantuan theme parks, and capacious motels with pools, workout rooms, and mints under your pillow. Some of the little tourist cabins were barely wider, and no more comfortable, than your car.

Every stop along the old roads could bring adventure. Carol remembers annual trips from her home in Minnesota to her granny’s North Carolina farm. Every year, it seemed, the old family car would break down on U.S. 52, deep in the West Virginia hills. Carol, her mom, and her sister Sara would be stuck for several days and nights in a dingy rented room above the repair shop, waiting for the right part to be trucked in.

Folks along old U.S. 30 in Pennsylvania have outdone themselves with creative artwork

Because it missed all of America’s really big metro centers, U.S. 11 never got the attention that routes 30 or 50 or 66 attracted. Besides New Orleans, 11’s only cities of note are Birmingham, Alabama; Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tennessee; Roanoke, Virginia; Harrisburg and Scranton, Pennsylvania; and Syracuse in New York State. Route 11 was no Mother Road – not even a Little Brother or Sister road. It was a workaday Canada-to-Gulf of Mexico route, often choked with trucks, that drivers took for granted, then pretty much deserted once Interstates 81, 75, and 59 opened along its path.

Y’all Come – Right Through Town
This rusted steam shovel is one of the remnants of the old ironworks along U.S. 11 in Birmingham. Everything else, including huge ovens and conveyors, is rust-red, too

I remember crawling along Route 11 through Birmingham. Before the Interstate super roads were completed, our family often traveled between Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. Each time through Birmingham, the shimmering Alabama heat and dripping humidity overwhelmed our VW Beetle’s pitiful air conditioning. But we weren’t eager to roll down the windows. Route 11 may have been bird-chirpy bucolic in the countryside, but no tourist brochure would ever tout the tough, shabby neighborhoods through which the highway ran in town.

A couple of years ago, Carol and I drove along 1st Ave. North, which carries U.S. 11 through the heart of Birmingham. We were off to photograph the defunct, eerily silent Sloss Furnaces. This was once a bustling iron-mill complex whose web of pipes and blast furnaces turned out more than 400 tons of pig iron each day. You see, Birmingham was no sleepy southern town of magnolia trees, fireflies, and old coots whiling away their days on a bench in the town square. It was the vibrant “Pittsburgh of the South” – a gritty city of steel and bright-red iron forged from ore pulled from the Red Mountain Ridge near town. Today the rusted, vivid-red ironworks are a national landmark and a City of Birmingham museum.

In the Interstate’s Shadow

In the countryside, monster interstates have obliterated much of Old 11, plowing it under and paving it over. In Virginia, for instance, you tool along on Route 11 through dots of towns like Rural Retreat and Glenvar and Chilhowie, only to be shunted up onto I-81. Then the very next Interstate exit will drop you back down onto 11 again. The old road wraps around the superhighway like a snake on a beanpole.

One of the most engaging attractions along U.S. 11 is “Steamtown” in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Chock full of old steam-train exhibits, it’s a train lover’s delight

After businesses, developers, and most drivers deserted the tired old roads, the action shifted to Interstate highway interchanges. These days on the national roads, sad remnants of better days appear around every turn: sagging barns, long-shuttered restaurants, busted-up gas stations, chunks of old drive-in theaters, faded historical markers of little-known battles and people, and obscure museums where there’s not likely to be a wait to get in. On Old 11, you’ll find museums dedicated to handweaving, American presidents, steam trains, even the legendary magician and escape artist Harry Houdini.

You don’t have to drive and drive and drive some more to an exit if you want to take a photograph on Route 11. Just pull off the road the moment you feel like it. Later, you can file your shots under “authentic Americana.”

U.S. 11 crosses the Erie Canal, which, in its heyday, was thought to be the transportation corridor of the future
Lots to See, If You’re Into Old

On their U.S. 11 excursion, Bill Torrey and his companions found deserted forts and military gravesites dating to the French and Indian War of the middle 1700s; sturdy covered bridges; homesteads of obscure luminaries like Joseph Priestly, who discovered oxygen; the Erie Canal, which tied the mighty Great Lakes to New York’s Hudson River; a 63-meter-tall stone arch called the “Natural Bridge” in Virginia; a crossing of the Appalachian Trail, the world’s longest footpath.

The Natural Bridge in southwest Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, was once owned by future U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. It’s higher than Niagara Falls

You’ll also find what’s left of burley tobacco barns; roadside stands still selling fireworks; clusters of house trailers that we call “mobile homes”; tables of trinkets at “flea markets” (“One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure”); twirling, tinkly carousels; rows of factories in “America’s Sock Capital” of Fort Payne, Alabama; and that final, forlorn end point on the edge of New Orleans.

Their journey took twelve days.

Roads of Wood Not So Good

Years later, Carol and I enjoyed a stop on a stretch of Old 11 in central New York State, just above Syracuse. It had been the nation’s first plank road, made of squared wooden logs laid side to side. The folks who built it in 1846 figured anything was better than rutted mud. Wagons could rumble so expeditiously on the plank road that its investors set up tollbooths to charge teamsters for the privilege. But travelers soon found that rain rotted the timbers, steel horseshoes and laden wagons beat the wood to splinters, and spillage from one of the prime local cargoes – salt, mined in swamps outside Syracuse – didn’t do the wood much good, either.

The town of North Syracuse, New York, has preserved and displayed some of the artifacts of the old Plank Road what became the U.S. 11 route. This is an old tollhouse

So boom turned to bust on the plank road. Today, there’s a dandy little outdoor museum of artifacts, including a tollhouse, in the village of North Syracuse that recalls the road’s brief heyday.

“It is a melancholy route,” Bill Torrey wrote of Route 11 in 1990. “For long stretches, it connects one abandoned, derelict, deserted, forsaken, shabby, commercially comatose downtown to another, and in between are fields gone to weed.” And years later, when Bill worked in the college town of Ithaca, N.Y. – one of the few economically healthy communities on the northern part of Route 11 – he found that nothing much had changed from the days of his adventure on the old road.

Seen Better Days
A lot of business buildings and barns along U.S. 11 were simply abandoned and left to the elements and vandals when high-speed, limited-access interstate highways came along
In Appalachia and much of the South, too, Old 11 has pretty much gone to “rack and ruin.” Technology passed it by. Farms played out. Once-viable businesses were abandoned to the vandals and graffiti artists. Like stretches of other national highways, Route 11 slid out of our daily lives.

Still, just as there’s poignant dignity to be found in a rouged gray lady, there are fragile and decaying reminders of unhurried times to be savored on Old U.S. 11. Its accents are French-ified up top, Yankee-clipped in the rest of New York and Pennsylvania, twangy-hard along the mountain ridges, and drawly-slow down South.

Along interstate highways, there’s no chance of pulling over for apples, cider, or “sider and appels.” But plenty of such stands remain on U.S. 11

Smells range from crabapple to road apple – the latter being a term you should research. Sights turn from soot to rot to rust, sounds from crickets to the clatter of a broken barn door banging in the wind. Some folks along the old road still wear suspenders and ruffled dresses for square dancing. Sure, over those 1,700 kilometers of Route 11 you’ll get your fill of used-car dealers, railroad slag piles, overgrown corn cribs, dark and beery taverns, and shuffling old-timers. But for some of us, there’s nostalgic charm to it all, a fast-unraveling thread to our past, and a feast for the eye and lens and pen.

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Burley. A light-colored, relatively mild tobacco, lower in nicotine than darker varieties. Burley tobacco is grown extensively in the mid-South state of Kentucky. Not to be confused with burly, which is an adjective describing men, primarily, who are brawny and strong. Burly lumberjacks often smoke burley cigs.

Grudgingly. Extremely reluctantly. Doing something, going along with what’s asked of you, but with zero enthusiasm.

Ignominious. Shameful, disgraceful. Ignominy comes from the Latin, meaning “without a name.” Ignominious behavior brings one great discredit. Ignominious places are lowly, ruder or humbler than what might be expected.

Luminaries. Prominent people or stars. Big shots. The bright lights, or luminescence, shine on these famous people.

Share and Enjoy:

co.mments del.icio.us digg Furl Ma.gnolia NewsVine Reddit

Please leave a comment.

Featherisms

Posted October 6th, 2008 at 8:49 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment

The other day I needed an aphorism, a nourishing nugget of wisdom, ideally couched in wry wit. I found some by the usual suspects:

  • In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes, by the brilliant statesman Benjamin Franklin, who slipped apt adages into his yearly Poor Richard’s Almanack.
  • Always tell the truth. That way, you don’t have to remember what you said the work of legendary homespun humorist Mark Twain.

Then, to my astonishment, I came upon an entire column of zingers by a fellow whom I once knew (through his work), and whose droll contributions to American letters I had completely forgotten.

Here’s our mystery man. He cuts a dashing figure, eh?

But I remembered now. This man could, it seemed, churn out twinkly maxims as easily as you and I tie our shoes:
Nothing makes us so sleepy as the bell of our alarm clock.
A good time is seldom had by all.
Flattery must be pretty thick before anybody objects to it.
The most difficult jobs look easy until you try to do them.
Experts never seem to tell us what we’re up against until we’re up against it.

  • Let’s not have any more wars to end all war. And
  • A tinfoil wrapper doesn’t make a bum cigar taste any better.

Just who was this fellow who could so effortlessly pluck the essence from everyday daily life? I’m here to tell you!

Philosophy by Placemat

When I was a lad, my mother would treat me to lunch at a prim restaurant in our hometown, adjacent to Cleveland, Ohio. We never lacked for conversation topics, for staring up at us, right from our paper placemats, were more of this man’s epigrams, updated monthly.

  • Wives who quickly forgive and forget the follies of other women’s husbands might have been one of them. (How would Mother have explained that?)

Or

  • When the gardeners are praying for rain, the picnickers are praying for sunshine. So what is the poor Lord to do?

What this mother did for my 18th birthday was to present me with an entire book of our mystery man’s pithy philosophisms. (I made up that word up and rather like it. Philosophisms!) The book was The Business of Life, a fitting title, since the author – also a Clevelander – had made his mark as America’s “business philosopher.”

His name was William Feather.

“Anyone who can think clearly can write clearly,” Feather wrote in The Business of Life. “But neither is easy.” That’s for sure. It’s akin to wringing an ocean out of a washcloth. (That’s my own weak attempt, miserably short of a Featherism.)

A Keen Eye on the Human Condition

Feather had all of Franklin and Twain’s power of observation:

  • A single fact will often spoil an interesting argument.
  • Many of us are dull, but not as dull as the grandchildren think we are.
  • The kindness lavished on dogs, if evenly distributed, would establish peace on earth.

Did I catch you nodding in agreement?

But Feather also had an edge to his writing that was indicative of the, shall we say, less-enlightened times. When he wrote The trouble with a man who takes his time is that he takes your time, too, for instance, he reflected the custom – as old as “all men are created equal” in our 1776 Declaration of Independence – of lumping the entire female sex into “mankind.” Nonetheless, he was a distiller of the human foibles the likes of which I have not found in a generation.

Reporter, but Hardly an Ink-Stained Wretch
College kids like Bill Feather, circa 1909, were a more distinguished bunch than today’s hang-loose generation. At least Feather certainly was.

This Feather fellow’s father was an English millworker who ended up as a traveling wool buyer, based in Cleveland. His son, our man William, was a voracious student and dapper dresser who breezed through Western Reserve University and then honed his writing as a Cleveland Press reporter. And not on the overnight crime shift. As another Cleveland daily newspaper, the Plain Dealer, would report half a century later, Feather “established a lifelong habit of mixing with important people by capturing most of the assignments to interview visiting V.I.P.s.” He accomplished this simply “because he was better dressed than most reporters in those days.” Clothes were making our man!

Feather trotted down to Dayton, Ohio, where he spent an unhappy year at the elbow of a very, very important person, John H. Patterson, the egomaniacal titan of the National Cash Register Co. Of Patterson, for whom he tried to craft public-relations campaigns, Feather would write, “Visitors were often aghast at [his] seeming extravagance, which was exactly the impression he desired to make upon them. . . . His expense accounts sent needles into the spines of minority stockholders.”

William Feather and his son, William Jr., partnered for years after the older man turned mostly to writing. Junior had the business acumen, even though Senior wrote about business.

Tossed aside by the “cash register king,” Feather hightailed it back to Cleveland, where, with money borrowed from his wife, he bought part interest and then full ownership in a printing company. Feather had craved a sole proprietorship, growling that minority partners only “attempt to protect their own little corners of the business in an effort to take as much money out of the company for as little effort as possible.”

William Feather knew next to nothing about printing, and never really learned. He relied on trusty subordinates, including his son, William Jr., who one day would take over and build the business into Cleveland’s largest commercial-printing operation. Early on, the company’s first big job – a 16-page booklet titled Hints for Store Clerks – netted William Sr. all of $150. “I had never made so much money in my life for so little work,” he said.

Wisdom of the Month
The William Feather Magazine had a following of its own, but it reached its greatest circulation via other companies’ in-house magazines, which appropriated Feather’s contents and paid him handsomely for them.

Once a month for an incredible 75 years, the Feather Co. turned out the tiny William Feather Magazine.

Each was the size of a paperback book and, at just 24 pages, no thicker than your big toenail. That was plenty of space for Feather’s touches, such as A clear conscience doesn’t mean anything if you haven’t any conscience.

Companies across America soon paid the wily printer handsomely to slap their own covers on the Feather Magazine. Eventually 300,000 copies of these “house organs” made their way around the country each month. Apparently placemat-makers liked Feather’s work, too.

Feather was a bit of an imp, linguistically. The more someone or some group took umbrage at what he wrote, the more he poured it on.

Once he was wealthy and secure, William Feather provoked paroxysms of outrage by writing about women, whom he delighted in aggravating. He’d had plenty of practice at home, having married Ruth Elizabeth Pressley, a demonstrative actress and suffragette (the accepted term today for those who fought for women’s right to vote is “suffragist”). She could not have been more different from her aloof and aristocratic husband, and after 29 years of marriage, the couple separated. “It’s just a matter of temperament, I guess,” Feather said. No doubt his daggers like these hadn’t helped:

  • A girl may have a mind as keen as a razor’s edge, but if her stockings wrinkle at the ankles no one will listen to her.
  • Before speaking to your wife, ask yourself, “Will I regret what I am about to say?”
  • The trouble is that women want to keep what they’ve got and make the men give up what they have.
Keep Up the Good Work
Everybody at the Feather Printing Co. knew William Feather, and he knew them, even though the printing business had mostly moved on to huge jobs far more complex than his little magazine.

Each day for 35 years after his son took over the business, the elder Feather still toddled into the office. With the bearing of a suave English actor – he was tall and trim like George Sanders – Feather arrived about 11 a.m., ever natty in suit and tie, thrusting his walking stick.

First thing, he’d stroll through the plant, greeting each worker (his assistants kept an updated cheat sheet with their names). Then he’d retire to his office to compose a few dollops and short essays. Later, others would type the pearls onto small index cards and file them by subject in a large wooden cabinet from which the contents of the William Feather Magazine would be selected.

Sometime after noon, Feather’s driver would whisk the old man to the Union Club downtown, where he would take lunch at the same table with the same cast of companions for as long as they lived. All were well to the right of him politically. On a Monday, say, over martinis, Feather would passionately argue one side of an issue. On Tuesday, with a glint in his eye, he’d espouse the other side with equal conviction, just for the devil of it.

Back home at his apartment in leafy Shaker Heights, he would take his evening meal prepared by a housekeeper, and then read philosophers of the ages and thoughtful magazines of the day.

Get to the Point, Then Leave

The master epigrammist to whom you have now been introduced was an accomplished, if impatient, listener. Feather’s grandson, William III, who would one day sell the printing business and is now a general contractor, remembers family gatherings at the old man’s apartment. “Half an hour in, he’d say to all of us, ‘It would not displease me if you left now.’” This was not the crotchetiness of old age. Years earlier, when he and Ruth were throwing cocktail parties, William Sr. would place an alarm clock on the mantel and set it to ring loudly, precisely at midnight.

On his farm outside Cleveland to which the family would repair more than 15 summers, Feather drew this conclusion:

  • After a man has tried to lead a calf he has more patience with human beings. And on 10 trips to Europe and two across America, he took mental notes on the human condition. Dreams are fine, Feather concluded.
  • But bread must be baked today, trains must move today, bills must be collected today, payrolls must be met today. Business feeds, clothes and houses man. (There he went, mankinding again.)

Feather loved to make mischief. He once wrote a Cleveland paper, suggesting that pigeons on the public square be shot and fed to the poor. The response, he reported with glee, was “instant and devastating.”

A close friend of the acerbic Baltimore newspaperman H.L. Mencken, William Feather noted in The Business of Life that “readers of plain writing say they could have written that themselves, and belittle it. Fancy writing fools the highbrows, even the editors. None understand the stuff, but all insist it sounds profound and must be superior.”

Business in His Blood

Feather’s son wrote that William Sr. was not a church-going man but had strong beliefs. “His religion was anchored in the law of compensation,” William Jr. wrote in 1981. “Capsulated, the law holds we receive from life in exact proportion and kind to what we put into it.”

William Feather became a Cleveland “man about town” – a celebrity in refined circles. He even got a lot of ink when he was named foreman of a grand jury that was looking into corruption in city government.

William Feather died that year at age 91. But he had thoughtfully written his own epitaph – half a lifetime earlier, in 1934! Never comfortable talking about himself, he wrote it in third person. The advance obituary read, in part, “He was known to some people as a writer. In his writings he espoused thrift, industry, promptness, perseverance, and dependability. . . . As far as was possible, the subject of this sketch practiced what he preached. Some of his enemies point to this trait as his foremost weakness.”

The latest Feather, William III’s baby son “Little Bill” (William IV), knows nothing of William Feather Sr., of course. Nor do many others any more. But Little Bill will at least have drawers full of William Feather Magazines to get a feel for the man, and his uncanny ability to wring truisms out of daily life, when William IV grows up.

***

William Feather might be called the 20th century’s Benjamin Franklin. What do you think of him and his modern proverbs?

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

 

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Crotchetiness. Ill temper and crankiness. The word is often applied to old, eccentric men, in particular, for reasons that escape me, since I’ve known lots of old, eccentric women as well. Note that the root word, “crochet,” is identical to the hook or barb on the instrument that one uses to crochet – pronounced cro-SHAY rather than CROTCH-it – a sweater. The connection may be the barbed, prickly nature of a crotchety old fellow.

Dapper. Up to date in dress and manners. And there’s an extra quality to the word, too, a sort of jauntiness or even raffishness, reminiscent of the movie star Cary Grant. A dapper fellow – and the word is more often applied to men – is not just well appointed. He’s a sauve charmer.

Pithy. To the point. Getting to the heart of the matter in a few words. The word comes from nature. Pith is the central core of a plant stalk. You may have heard of a “pith helmet” – the lightweight, bowl-like headgear that African explorers wear in the movies. It’s sometimes made from pith.

Toddle. To walk with short, slightly unsteady steps. Infants and old folks toddle. And what do we say to an oldster who’s about to toddle off? Toodle-oo! Toodle, not toddle!

Zinger. A “gotcha” or “ouch” line or retort. A zinger is pointed, like the tip of an arrow that’s humming toward an unsuspecting target. Often everyone in the room, except the zingee, laughs when a sharp zinger strikes home. (Don’t search for “zingee.” I made it up. But that’s how words like “zinger” get started.)

Please leave a comment.

Ioway

Posted October 2nd, 2008 at 4:25 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

A while ago I walked down the hall and sprung a word-association test on three colleagues, chosen strictly by whom I ran into first.

“I’ll name a U.S. state,” I told them, “and you tell me the first word that pops into your head.”

The state was Iowa, and here’s what they blurted out: “Fields.” “Corn.” And “corn.” A trend was brewing!

‘Here, Piggy’ on 20,000 Farms

Indeed, our 26th-largest state – Iowa is is about the size of Nepal or Tajikistan – is one American place that everyone associates with farming. It ranks first in corn and soybean production, and in swine raised as livestock. No wonder people in eastern Iowa joke about liking their neighbors but staying upwind. The Hawkeye State also rolls out more eggs than any other state, so there are lots of chickens, too.

(What’s a hawkeye? It’s not the eye of a hawk, even though the logo for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes sports teams shows a menacing close-up of a sharp-eyed hawk. Back in 1838, a Burlington, Iowa, editor named James Edwards suggested the state nickname as a tribute to Chief Black Hawk, a Sauk Indian warrior who was a friend of his even though Black Hawk had led a war – later named for him – against whites across the Mississippi River in Illinois.)

Where’s the Beef – or the Pork or the Corn?

Yet Iowa’s tourism Web homepage pictures a windmill, a train high on a trestle, two canoeists and an unidentified building. Nary a barn or plow or sunset over the cornstalks.

Iowa’s tourism Web site includes lovely photos, such as this fall shot from high above little Lansing, on the Mississippi River. But there aren’t many showing farms in America’s most famous farm state

The same is true of the tourism homepages of some other Farm Belt states. Indiana’s shows speedboats, a beach, two guitarists, rowboats, horsetrack and Indy car races, and a guy on a motorcycle. Minnesota’s features bicyclists, summer anglers and winter ice fishermen, a kayaker, dancers boogieing, a baseball field, a family with a big stuffed animal and a car driving past some flowers. Kansas, very much a farm state, tops its homepage with a stunning banner of urban Wichita at dusk. Below the Wichita photo are four small photos of “scenic byways,” including one of the unplowed countryside. The official “Visit Nebraska” site is topped by an ever-changing flash of rugged green hills, an elk, an airplane in a museum, a scary bird silhouetted against the sun, an ice climber and a family laughing with a gorilla. There is also a photo of a remarkable windmill array.

Farm states apparently don’t think that livestock, waving grain or combines and tractors scream “vacation destination.” But why? One of my most savory, relaxing, inexpensive and memorable holidays featured days of reading on a farmhouse porch, a stem of tallgrass insouciantly stuck in my teeth. Two goats, a nuzzly goatdog and a suspicious cat, and a fluctuating breeze kept me company. Tourist sites like to plug “adventures.” Mine was an ambling walk down a dusty road, kicking pebbles.

Sweet Life in the Country
One person’s monotonous farm scene is another’s portal to nature and tranquility. You pass thousands of these scenes in Iowa, but you appreciate them a great deal more in a quiet moment, up close

Recently, Verlyn Klinkenborg, an editorial board member of The New York Times, who was raised on an Iowa farm, wrote on the paper’s editorial page, not about politics or world strife, but about “the rural life.”

“The last couple of nights I’ve stood at the edge of the pasture watching the fireflies,” he began. And he closed by noting that every bird on that farm, “except for the insectivores, carries a secret knowledge of the ripeness of the cherries. I will know when the cherries are ready by their absence.” You could almost hear the crickets, smell the new-mown clover, and picture the diving birds.

For sure, there are more than silos and meadowlarks in the farm states. In Iowa, someone has turned the baseball field built for the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams” into a permanent tourist attraction. To corrupt the film’s famous line, “If you build it, they will come to buy souvenirs.”

Nowheresville?

Iowa and Iowans also take some shots from time to time as unremarkable, sheltered, boring or as the expression goes, “white bread” – white bread being bland and predictable compared with pungent rye or crunchy wheat. The sardonic comedian Fred Allen once scoffed that “Hollywood is a place where people from Iowa mistake each other for a star.”

Strawberry Point, in eastern Iowa, was named for wild berries in the vicinity. It boasts the “World’s Largest Strawberry,” which stands outside city hall

But Ioway, as one old-timey song calls it (Our land is full of ripening corn/ Yo-ho; yo-ho; yo-ho) boasts an eminent collegiate writers’ program at the University of Iowa, the nation’s third-highest high school graduation rate, fanatical girls’ basketball programs and fans, the world’s largest (fiberglass) strawberry, a transcendentalist university, a house museum that commemorates an ax murder, and America’s most famous kosher slaughterhouse.

Maybe we should ignore the slaughterhouse. In May of this year, immigration authorities raided the place. They detained two-fifths of the plant’s workers as suspected illegal immigrants. And then PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – published secretly shot photos of apparently abhorrent animal cruelty there.

Short Timer on the Prairie

Here’s what I remember from my year in Iowa:

  • Enduring a required graduate course in statistics, which I understood even less after taking the class. I know that this has nothing intrinsically to do with Iowa, but purging myself of the memory brings comfort, closure.
  • This photo was taken in Ontario, Canada, but it gives you an idea of just how nerve-racking it is to drive in a blizzard down an ordinary highway, let along one that has a curb along it
  • Winter driving on old U.S. Route 6, then a cross-country main highway rimmed by cement curbs. A highway with curbs! Not just in town, but even out in the county. Having seen enough wrecks of cars that slid off the road in Iowa’s fierce snowstorms, some engineer must have thought raised edges would safely direct drifting autos back into line. In my case, they served only to dislodge my Beetle’s right hubcaps and ravage the tire alignment.
  • Iowans’ “rugged individualism.” In rural America, that’s a suspender-snapping term of pride. It celebrates success on one’s own terms without much help or interference. “Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps,” if need be.

This was made manifest in a curious way: My first wife was one of four carpool members who took turns driving from Iowa City to teaching jobs 40 kilometers away. The other drivers were native Hawkeyes. On the return trip when it was their turn to drive, they would insist upon dropping their passengers at a central point, rather than spending a few extra minutes to take everyone home. I had to go to that point each afternoon to pick up my wife. This was not because the Iowans were cheap or in a hurry. If you ask others to bring you all the way home you’re imposing, they explained. It would make them feel obligated to you. Best to take care of oneself and not depend on others.

Rugged individualism.

Now we rest, we’ve stood the test;
All that’s good, we have the best;
Ioway has reached the crest;
Yo-ho; yo-ho; yo-ho.

***

Does the “mind your own business,” don’t-rely-on others mentality make sense to you? I’d like your thoughts, and any other points or questions you have about America, Americans and our peculiarities.

***

Also, I came across one of my “Only in America” VOA essays that I’d written three years ago. It was entitled, “Are Bloggers Journalists?” While Web logs had been around for some time, they were just coming into widespread view. The concern was whether first-person stories by reporters would violate the unwritten credo that journalists should be as objective and unopinionated as possible in print. Since I have a long career in newspapers and am now doing this blog, I guess I weigh in on the affirmative, that bloggers can still have enough of a detached look at the world to be journalists, as the word is evolving. What do you think?

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Insouciantly. Nonchalantly, in a lighthearted, carefree, or even careless manner. From the French for “not worrying.” People sometimes flaunt their insouciance, in the way many young Americans today, confronted with a serious situation, dismiss it with a casual, “Yeah, whatever.”

Nary. Not one. Nary – or as we sometimes see it in Old English such as Christmas carol lyrics, ne’er – a sound was heard. Or, as it’s used in a popular cliché: nary a word was spoken.

Sardonic. Sarcastically, even snidely or sneeringly, humorous. William Morris’s Dictionary of Words and Phrase Origins notes that the word may trace to a Sardinian plant, the sardane, which was so bitter that it caused convulsions or facial contortions in those who ate it.

Transcendentalist. One who practices transcendental meditation, or “TM.” Introduced in the 1950s by the Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – who for a time was the spiritual adviser to the Beatles – it involves seated contemplation, with one’s eyes closed, for twenty minutes a day. In the early 1970s, the people of little Fairfield, Iowa, were surprised to find a number of transcendentalists (many in eastern dress) in their midst. They had purchased the buildings of private Parsons College, which had gone out of business, and began setting up a transcendentalist university in the midst of Iowa corn country. Now called Maharishi University of Management, the school teaches students what it calls “pure consciousness within themselves as the source of all knowledge.”

Please leave a comment.

Almost Heaven

Posted September 29th, 2008 at 5:01 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment
Coonskin caps were warm accessories in the cold southern mountains. The raccoon’s tail, hanging down one’s back, might have been a fashion statement.

Back when Hector was a pup, as my mother used to say in one of her imponderable expressions, I went spelunking — cave exploring — for the one and only time, somewhere in the hills of West Virginia. I well remember crawling into the blackness beneath the earth, but another image stands out more.

Along the road outside the cave, a couple of unkempt entrepreneurs had set up a table from which they were selling “authentic hillbilly goods”: moonshine jugs, fake buck teeth, goober-pea (peanut) pies, toy long guns and coonskin caps of the kind actor Fess Parker wore in an old television show about frontiersman Davy Crockett. Crockett was from Tennessee, two states away, but to these fellows, one hick with a raccoon tail hanging down his back was as good as another.

Hicksville, W.Va.
Grand Ole Opry superstar Minnie Pearl exaggerated her hick-ness for comic effect. Note her trademark store-bought hat with its dangling price tag still attached

They laid the backwoods routine on thick, scratching their heads, peppering their patter with phrases like “them boys thar” and blowing on the jug spouts to create “real live mountain music.” I told my caving guide that I wasn’t impressed by these yahoos and didn’t think they were doing West Virginia’s reputation much good, either.

“They’re smart guys from good families,” the guide told me. “They do better with this than they’d do at a factory job in town.”

Those were the days when a frumpy woman who called herself Minnie Pearl strode onto the Grand Ol’ Opry stage in Nashville, Tennessee, attired in a dime-store dress, sagging socks, cloddish shoes and a floral hat with fake flowers and a $1.98 price tag still attached. “Howdeeeee,” she would screech.

In this CBS-TV series, Jed Clampett strikes oil in the Ozark Mountains, then moves his “hillbilly” family to posh Beverly Hills, California.

In the early 1960s, descendants of the Scots-Irish settlers of Appalachia were just beginning to unite in disgust at their stereotype as “rednecks,” “ridge runners” and “trailer trash.” Mainstream culture was also rife with tasteless jokes about the supposed rash of inbreeding back in the hollows. Then along came a TV show called The Beverly Hillbillies that became a nine-season hit. Its bumpkins-turned-oil tycoons were said to hail from somewhere in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri or Arkansas, once home to a comic-strip hayseed named Lil’ Abner and the early film yokels, Ma and Pa Kettle. Ma gave Minnie Pearl a run for her “Howdeees.”

Enough Cornpone, Already

This Beverly Hillbillies nouveau-hick eruption really galled West Virginians, whose natural isolation already fed the mythology about their backwardness. Like many others who ventured there, I remember endless ordeals following coal trucks — the hillbilly comics would have said they were turnip wagons — as they inched their way up narrow, corkscrew mountain roads. West Virginia was so remote that it was said, believably, that no whites had yet stepped on many of its ridges long after Daniel Boone and other explorers had broken through the Appalachians and fully settled the flatlands to the west.

A coal miner’s statue stands outside the courthouse in Madison, West Virginia, in the heart of “coal country.” But the number of mining jobs in the state has dwindled from 120,000 to fewer than 15,000.

In a recent story about the importance of Appalachia in the 2008 presidential campaign, Newsweek’s Steve Tuttle wrote: “In the western Virginia county where I grew up” — next door to West Virginia and just as hilly — “there wasn’t a single traffic light.” Not one in an entire county, and there were counties just like it in West Virginia coal country across the line.

“The voters of Appalachia (a) are hicks (b) are hillbillies (c) are rednecks (d) don’t appreciate where you’re going with this,” read the headline on Tuttle’s piece. It’s clear where he came down on the matter, taking to task even U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney for his remark at a fundraiser that there were Cheneys on both sides of his family, “and we don’t even live in West Virginia.” Another incest joke. And Cheney’s not the only standup comedian still twanging the backwoods banjo. In books, and on audio and television, Jeff Foxworthy, a college graduate from Georgia, fashioned a lucrative career around one incomplete line: “You might be a redneck if . . .”

One answer: “. . . if your parents met at a family reunion.”

You’re Where, Exactly?
Fascinated with the work of the 18th-century engineers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, civil engineer Robert Doan Hutton Sr. found and photographed many of the Mason-Dixon Line’s stone mile markers, including this one.

Not only does West Virginia bear the brunt of these putdowns, but the state is also a little hard for most Americans to place. It lies almost wholly below the Mason-Dixon line, the old surveyors’ boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland that loosely separated North from South. Yet how can a state that broke away from Virginia to cast its fate with the North in the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s be a southern state? From a satellite, West Virginia looks sort of mid-Atlantic, but saltwater is 100 kilometers away. And West Virginia isn’t very midwestern, either; its flinty old spines don’t allow for much farming.

So most West Virginians simply say they live “in the mountains,” about midway along the Appalachian Trail that runs from northern Georgia all the way up to Maine. West Virginia is officially “The Mountain State,” and the sports teams of its big state university are “Mountaineers.” Those mountain images are brisk and bracing, but they also stir the old hillbilly pot. To the dismay of many, West Virginia University’s mascot is a fellow in a fringed buckskin outfit with the requisite coonskin cap. And we told you where the Davy Crockett image got the state.

The Good Life
This 1894 Victorian house, called “Highspire,” is one of many beautiful homes and shops in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, also home to the nation’s first hot-springs spa.

Fortunately, proud West Virginians have made some progress in buffing the state’s image. The uptick began in 1971, one can argue, when folksinger John Denver sang about “Almost heaven/West Virginia” in his smash hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” “Life is old there,” he crooned, “Older than the trees/Younger than the mountains/Growin’ like a breeze.” We’ll pass right by his line about the “misty taste of moonshine.” Almost heaven was a good place for West Virginia to be for a change, and tourism officials made the most of it.

The state’s long-serving, and thus powerful, Washington congressional contingent — notably Senator Robert C. Byrd, affectionately known as the “King of Pork” — steered billions of federal public-works dollars West Virginia’s way. The state went from near-impenetrable to one of the easiest and most pleasant places in which to drive.“Yuppified” antique shops, bed-and-breakfast inns, and trendy restaurants turned little towns like Berkeley Springs and Shepherdstown into tourist attractions.

West Virginia is a fall paradise, as the photo, taken from Seneca Rocks in the Monongahela National Forest, attests.

Pastoral settings, a modest cost of living, and low crime rates attracted retirees. And even the state’s intelligentsia concede that the grand successes of West Virginia University’s men’s football and basketball teams — the footballers crushed perennial power Oklahoma in one of the nation’s prestigious postseason games this year — have pumped up the state’s visibility and hubris. So much so that West Virginia began calling itself “Wild and Wonderful” in its promotions.

All in all these days, West Virginians have a lot more to sell than peanut pies.

 

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

 

 

 
 
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Bumpkin. Another disparaging word for an unsophisticated, dimwitted backwoodsman, often written as “country bumpkin.” Apparently the term originated with British settlers as a derisive term for the Dutch, for whom they had low regard. Boomken in Dutch means “a little tree.”

Cornpone. A colorful synonym for cornbread, a simple bread made from cornmeal in a hot skillet. Poor mountaineers often had little beyond cornpone and a bit of bacon to eat. Lard or pork drippings served as the skillet oil. Because cornpone was associated with humble people living back in the “hills and hollows,” the term became yet another unflattering adjective, as in “cornpone humor.”

Frumpy. Decidedly unfashionable, even shabby. But people who look frumpy are not slovenly or unkempt, just drab and old-fashioned, almost amusingly “clueless” about their appearance. They are the opposite of “fashion statements.”

Moonshine. Home-recipe distilled alcohol, concocted in secret apparatuses called “stills” back in the woods, hidden from federal agents or “revenuers.” Batches of this potent drink are often produced at night, illuminated only by the moon. According to some accounts, moonshine more often approaches the quality of paint thinner than elixir, and such stories as losing one’s hair after consuming impure moonshine are not exaggerated.

Pork. In a political context, pork or “pork barrel” appropriations are a slice of fat off the government hog, directed specifically to a single state or congressional district. Shrewd members of Congress are skilled at directing projects such as new highways, bridges, and factories their constituents’ way. The pork is often quietly appended to totally unrelated bills that are so popular that they easily pass. Either the pork goes unnoticed or nobody says anything, since “everybody does it.” (Not really, but to critics, it seems that way.)

Yuppified. Appealing to “yuppies,” or young, “power suit”-wearing, Gucci-briefcase-carrying, upwardly mobile urban professionals. Yuppies were idealized in what is often looked back upon as the self-centered “me” decade of the 1980s. The term became widespread with the 1983 publication of The Yuppie Handbook, a sort of guide to conspicuous consumption and wealth. To say that a community has become “yuppified” is to observe that it has gone trendy, with upscale shops, restaurants, and spas.

Please leave a comment.

Where the West Begins

Posted September 25th, 2008 at 4:52 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment
A family poses before their Custer County, Nebraska, sod house in 1886. A “soddie” was one of the few options on the plains, where trees were scarce.

In “The Ballad of East and West,” Rudyard Kipling wrote what may be his most quoted line: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” The son of a teacher during British colonial rule in India, he was writing about the gulf between world cultures. This was 1889, three years before Kipling and his wife, Caroline, would move to her homeland and settle in a house they built in Vermont.

The East is East/West is West line fit the American experience of the time. Whole families — not just young males — had responded with elan to Indiana editor John B. L. Soule’s admonition of 1856: “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.” New York publisher Horace Greeley more famously captured the “Go west, young man” part of the quote nine years later, but the genesis belongs to Soule.

The Wild, Wild West
The main channel of the Mississippi River stretches from Minnesota to Louisiana. The other tributaries shown, including the Ohio River to the upper right, flow into the Mighty Mississippi.

While Kipling was writing “Jungle Books” in his “Naulakha” mansion in New England, the American West was rip-roaring for real. It was the height of a cowboy and outlaw and Indian-killing period that Zane Grey would immortalize in internationally popular novels. The big-city East, or “Back East” for those who had dared to build sod houses “under starry skies above” on the western prairie, had been thoroughly explored.

At least it was easy to tell where Back East began. As Christopher Columbus’s lookout discovered, the American landmass commences at the Atlantic shore.

But where does the West begin?

Though it’s only one-third of the way across America where the Mississippi River snakes its way southward nearly all of the way from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, “Ol’ Man River” once filled the bill. And it was fitting that the “twain” of East and West actually did meet there, since humorist Mark Twain and his fictional characters Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer hung around that wide river. Nearby, outside St. Louis beginning in 1803, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark pitched the staging area of their epic exploration of the Northwest.

Arc de St. Louis
The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is not only the symbolic entryway to the West. It’s also an engineering wonder.

Right downtown in St. Louis, Missouri, today, the 17,000-ton, stainless-steel Gateway Arch, designed by modernist architect Eero Saarinen in the 1960s, stands as the symbolic “Gateway to the West.” The structure carries a clunky U.S. Park Service name — the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial — as a nod to the third president, Thomas Jefferson, who dispatched Lewis and Clark.

If you take the claustrophobic tram inside the catenary curve to the top of the Gateway Arch 192 meters above the river and peer westward through the window slits, you’ll see the land flatten beyond St. Louis. On a clear day you can see fifty kilometers across Missouri.

But none of this helps us find the place where East greets West today, since they really don’t meet anymore. They just sort of blend together because something we call the Midwest grew in between them over time. We pretty much agree on where that begins– I can confirm it because I lived my first eighteen years there. The Midwest begins where the land starts to flatten, in Ohio, just past hilly, industrial, eminently eastern Pennsylvania.

America’s Breadbasket
This 1867 lithograph of Suttler’s Store in Dodge City, Kansas, by Theodore Davis, appeared in Harper’s Weekly magazine. It certainly shows the rough-hewn conditions on the western prairie.

“Middle America,” we often call the Midwest. The “heartland” of tidy farms, ordinary small towns, obligatory white picket fences, and a scattershot of vigorous metropolises. The heartland rolled right over St. Louis, through Missouri and Iowa and Minnesota and past the Missouri River on the western edge of those states. Somewhere beyond, into Kansas and Nebraska, the Dakotas, and even distant eastern Montana, Midwest meets West.

But where? Where does the West begin?

Kansas, perhaps? It’s a head-scratcher when you’re trying to put that pin on the map. Can Kansas be “western” if it’s corny in August, as reported in the song “A Wonderful Guy” from the musical, “South Pacific”? A tornado in Dorothy’s dreams

South Dakota’s Badlands, where outlaws and American Indians hid from their pursuers and where gold attracted a rush of prospectors, is on the cusp of the West.

swept her and her dog Toto from the dull surroundings of a Midwest-style Kansas farm to the fanciful land of the Wizard at Oz. Bustling Kansas City — two of them, actually: one in Missouri and one in Kansas — are no more “western” in look and feel than Chicago or Columbus.

Yet Dodge City, the quintessential Old West Town — which was home, for awhile, to legendary gunfighters Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp — is a Kansas town. Is that where the West begins?

Or is it up in the sweeping sandhills of western Nebraska, the narrow and oil-rich “panhandle” of western Oklahoma, or the rugged Badlands in the far reaches of South and North Dakota?

To Go West, Look South First
Judge Roy Bean held court in this saloon in Lantry, in far-west Texas. Justice there was swift and sure.

No, the West starts well below those places, down in Texas. Just ask the people who live there.

Cowboy culture grew up on dusty Texas cattle “spreads” like the King Ranch, which happens to be larger than an entire U.S. state (Rhode Island). Mounted, do-good Rangers took the law into their own hands in Texas. Tumbleweeds tumble in Texas. America’s most enthusiastic “hanging judge,” Roy Bean, held court in a saloon there. The “Singing Cowboy,” Gene Autry, filmed “Round-Up Time in Texas” and many other movies in that “home on the range.”

Since Texas is such an enormous place — only Alaska is larger among the states; it’s almost 1,300 kilometers from Beaumont to El Paso in Texas — we must hone the search for the Start of the West still further. And we found it:

Not ‘Big D,’ but in that Neighborhood
Line dancing at Billy Bob’s, often in between rides on a mechanical bull, is a lot of fun and good exercise to boot.

It’s that dot on the map to the west of sophisticated Dallas. Fort Worth is where the West begins!

Once again, we know this because Fort Worth says so. That’s its immodest slogan. (Texans boast so openly that there’s a whole genre called “Texas brag.” Not only is Texas the biggest this and the best that and the doggonedest something else, it’s even the only state that’s allowed to fly its flag at the same height at the U.S. colors. As any Texan will grandly tell you, it, too, was once a sovereign republic, if only for nine years, 11 months, and 17 days in the early 1800s.)

This downtown carving depicts the Chisholm cattle trail, which ran from the Mexican border north to Kansas. Fort Worth, with its saloons and huge stockyard, was a popular stop.

Fort Worth emerged from the prairie sod as a classic “cow town,” a cattle-drive stockyards stop on the great Chisholm Trail. There, cowpokes shook out the dust after the weeks-long drives and went a bit wild. Shootouts were so common that they called Fort Worth’s prostitution district “Hell’s Half Acre.”

Fort Worth has funneled some of its considerable wealth into nonpareil art museums and shimmering performing-arts palaces, and Cowtown U.S.A. somehow grew into the nation’s nineteenth-largest city. But uptown cowboys in white and black Stetsons still holler at rodeos and ride mechanical bulls and line dance to the “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” at clubs like Billy Bob’s.

Ruler at the Ready?
Unlike huge, red dairy barns in the Midwest, western barns were smaller, often unpainted, and strictly utilitarian. This one is in Idaho.

So on your U.S. map, draw a line straight north and south from Fort Worth and consider it the Start of the West. To the west of that Landphair Line, traffic speeds up and thins out; settlements grow so scarce that, from the air, we call it “flyover country”; cattle abound and rainfall is scarce; large lizards outnumber household pets; fences have barbs; barns, which are often flat and unpainted, shelter more hay or horses than cows; coal trains pulled by four or five locomotives stretch to the horizon; spittoons are not entirely out of fashion; beef and ground corn and hard whiskey are the food groups; politics turn rightward; and “government” is an epithet.

I’m pretty sure Rudyard Kipling never made it past this Landphair Line that starts the West. But he might have liked that land had he done so. Not only did he write swashbuckling stories like Gunga Din and Captains Courageous, but he was also a graduate of a school in Devonshire, England, that sits in a seaside village called — I’m not making this up — “Westward Ho!”


TODAY’S WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Boot Scootin’ Boogie. A 1992 Brooks & Dunn country hit song, still popular in cowboy bars and dancehalls. Its lyrics instruct dancers to “heel, toe, docie do,” which takes its own explaining. Docie do, or properly do sa do, is a move, especially in squaredancing, in which the dancers turn back-to-back rather than face-to-face.

Catenary. If you take a string, hold an end in each hand, and let it drop freely, the string droops to form a shape called a “catenary.” If you could solidify the string and flip it upright, it would form a catenary arch like the Gateway Arch.

Sod houses. “Soddies,” as settlers on the Great Plains called these houses, were made from clumps of coarse bluestem grass in rich soil that were held together by their intricate web of roots and sliced into long strips with a “breaking plow.” Lacking enough trees for wood to build a complete house, pioneers stacked sod in rows to make the walls, then laid more strips atop precious boards that formed joists and the outlines of the attic. Finally, cloth was hung below the ceiling. It caught most, but not all, of the dirt that sifted down onto the family below.

Stetson. The brand name that has become almost a generic term for a western hat, just as the names “Coke,” “Xerox,” and “Scotch Tape” have come to stand for genres of products. Felt Stetson hats have broad brims that keep some of the sun and rain off a cowboy’s face and neck. Those with an especially high crown are sometimes called “ten-gallon [38-liter] hats” because they look like they can hold a whole lot of water. In fact, only three or so liters will fit in one.

Tumbleweed. A short Russian thistle shrub, common in many parts of the world, that dries and breaks away from its roots in autumn, then rolls like a ball in the wind across the plain. Tumbleweeds stick in barbed-wire fences and are sure to blow in front of your car when the dust kicks up, scaring you half to death. In one of their first hits, the Sons of the Pioneers western group sang that they belonged on the range, “drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.”

Please leave a comment.

Ted’s Wild Words

Posted September 25th, 2008 at 1:00 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment

Below are words and terms that I have highlighted and explained in Ted Landphair’s America postings.

Additionally, if unusual English words or phrases interest you, you’ll enjoy the weekly VOA feature “Wordmaster.” You can read and listen as Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble explore American English. And for news and feature programs written especially for English learners, check out VOA’s Special English site.

As for Ted’s Wild Words:

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

A

A-body. This is sort of backwoods-Pennsylvania shorthand for “anybody.” My mother would often mutter how hard it was for a-body to do this or that in the big city of Cleveland.

Above the Fray. One who stays above the fray remains cool and collected in the midst of turmoil. A “fray” is a fight that goes on and on. Some sources date the term to feudal times, when nobles, high in their castles, remained serenely unaffected by the squabbles of their vassals outside the gates below. When I hear the phrase, I think of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, watching the fierce fighting from atop a Fredericksburg, Virginia, hill in the U.S. Civil War. Lee is said to have remarked to Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, “It is well that war is so terrible, [lest] we should grow too fond of it.”

Abscond. To run away quickly, usually with someone or something. Escaping prisoners are absconding, but they are really absconding if they take, say, the jailer’s keys with them.

Accouterments. From the French, as you might have guessed, this word describes the trappings or accessories that go with uniforms or dress.

Ad nauseam. To a sickening degree. There’s a direct relationship between something that goes on and on, ad nauseam, and nausea.

Ague.
A malaria-like infectious disease spread by parasites, often in dirty water. Symptoms include high fever and severe chills.

Alacrity. Quickness or eagerness. Someone who is offered the last remaining ticket to a sold-out concert would be wise to accept it with alacrity.

Alkali. A harsh mixture of soluble salts, often found in arid regions, that makes land unsuitable for agriculture.

Animus. Hatred bordering on active hostility. Wishing ill will on another.

Antebellum. Before a war, particularly the period before the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s.

Apogee. Informally, the word is used to mean the high point of something. Technically, it’s the point at which a moon or artificial satellite is at the most distant point in its orbit from the earth’s center.

Approbation. Warm congratulations and approval, especially from an official source such as your boss. Praise is nice. Approbation can mean a raise!

Audacity. Daring, of the kind where you find yourself saying, “Of all the nerve!”

Avatar. Lots of young people know this word well. Online, it stands for a computer representation of oneself – an alter ego that looks and acts much like a human. The word traces to Hindu mythology, in which a god comes to earth in human form.


B

Back 40. Undeveloped land next to a cultivated spread. The “40” refers to acres, though the actual size is often smaller or larger. Why 40 acres – about 16 hectares? The use of that figure may trace to the “40 acres and a mule” promised to freed African-American slaves at the end of the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s. Very few former slaves ever got such land or mules.

BB gun. An air gun, or one that fires small, round, metal projectiles called BBs using a spring. It’s sometimes said that “BB” was taken from industrial “ball bearing” pellets, but it actually originated from the size of lead shot used in some shotguns – BB was in between the B and BBB sizes. A number of companies have developed less-dangerous toy alternatives that employ plastic pellets.

Bedraggled. Soiled, unkempt, dilapidated.

Beget. To produce children. Biblical references such as “Abraham begot Isaac” are examples.

Belly up. One who goes “belly up” has been financially ruined and forced out of business. The term likely originated at sea, where dead fish float upside down and sunken ships sometimes turn hull-upward in the briny deep. The term is not to be confused with “bellying up” to the bar, which is thought to relate to the notion that you are old enough to drink if your belt line reaches the bar.

Big-Box Stores. These are mega-stores, sometimes an entire square block in size, that sometimes carry an entire mall’s worth of products from fresh produce and meat to appliances and, in some states, even guns.

Bigger than a breadbox. The meaning is clear. The term is thought to have entered popular culture thanks to American television personality Steve Allen, who was a regular panelist on the show, “What’s My Line.” Trying to guess a line of products that the “mystery guest” might work with, he’d ask, “Is it bigger than a breadbox?”

Bilious. Sour or ill-tempered. The adjective takes its name from gastric distress of the bile duct.

Blotto. Intoxicated, soused, stoned, pie-eyed, sotted, drunk as a skunk – not that we’ve seen too many inebriated skunks. The derivation is unclear; perhaps it popped up after one too many people were blotted out on the highway.

Bonhomie. Friendliness, genial good cheer. It’s a quality that good-natured “hail fellows” (and gals) possess. The word, from the French, is pronounced “bohn-oh-MAY.”

Boot Scootin’ Boogie. A 1992 Brooks & Dunn country hit song, still popular in cowboy bars and dancehalls. Its lyrics instruct dancers to “heel, toe, docie do,” which takes its own explaining. Docie do, or properly do sa do, is a move, especially in squaredancing, in which the dancers turn back-to-back rather than face-to-face.

Bootlegging. Making or selling illegal whiskey. The name is said to derive from an early practice of hiding a contraband bottle in one’s boots. They must have been bigger boots than we wear today.

Borax. A crystalline chemical containing the element boron, often extracted for use in soaps and other cleaning agents.

Bucolic. Rustic, pastoral, countrified.

Bumpkin. Another disparaging word for an unsophisticated, dimwitted backwoodsman, often written as “country bumpkin.” Apparently the term originated with British settlers as a derisive term for the Dutch, for whom they had low regard. Boomken in Dutch means “a little tree.”

Bunk. Patently false information, akin to “hogwash” or bull excrement.

Burley. A light-colored, relatively mild tobacco, lower in nicotine than darker varieties. Burley tobacco is grown extensively in the mid-South state of Kentucky. Not to be confused with burly, which is an adjective describing men, primarily, who are brawny and strong. Burly lumberjacks often smoke burley cigs.

Bushed. Exhausted. Apparently the word traces to the Dutch word for woods or wilderness, traipsing around in which is indeed tiring.

Bustle. This has two quite different meanings. To bustle is to move briskly. As a noun, the concept is often paired with a word with which it rhymes. We speak of the “hustle and bustle” of a city. But as used in my posting, a bustle was a wire frame, or a pad, or even a bow, at the back of a woman’s skirt that accentuated its fullness.

C

Cacophony. This means a harsh or discordant note or interruption. But more broadly it has also come to refer to a really loud and disruptive clatter, as when reporters shouting questions, all at once, at a defendant emerging from a trial.

Calligraphy. Practiced and beautiful handwriting. Some people actually make a living by writing in delicate, florid longhand.

Candy dancer. A laborer on a railroad work crew. The term is thought to have followed the introduction of the first track-laying machine by the Gandy Corp. of Chicago. One can picture the workers dancing out of the way of such a contraption.

Capacious. Large in capacity.

Capitulate. To surrender under agreed-upon terms, usually after a long and honorable struggle.

Catch-22. A predicament in no option or solution really works. An example: You need a car for a certain job. But without a job, you don’t have money to buy a car. The term is taken from the name of a 1961 satirical novel by Joseph Heller

Catenary. If you take a string, hold an end in each hand, and let it drop freely, the string droops to form a shape called a “catenary.” If you could solidify the string and flip it upright, it would form a catenary arch like the Gateway Arch.

Chaparral. Scrubby desert land, dotted with low bushes.

Cheesy. Cheap. Poorly made. It derives from an Urdu word adapted by the British to mean showy. From there, the meaning declined even further to reflect something even more derogatory that has nothing at all to do with cheese.

Chest waders. Waterproof clothing that incorporates boots, pants, and a top held up by suspenders, all in one. Add a colorful flannel shirt, and you look backwoods but natty, all at once.

Chiggers. These are tiny parasitic bugs that lurk in the woods and weeds. They attach themselves to your skin, often around exposed ankles, and feed on the fluids in your skin cells. The enzyme that they inject causes little red welts that can itch for weeks on end.

Chipper. Cheerful, upbeat, self-confident. Chipper people break into a whistle from time to time. Those in a less buoyant mood can find them annoying.

Circumspectly. Cautiously, watchfully, often a little furtively, not wanting to call attention to oneself.

Codgers and Geezers. Eccentric but amusing old men. The words for women who reach old age appear to be less forgiving.

Colloquy. A conversation, especially a learned or formal one.

Color Commentator. The broadcast partner of a sports play-by-play announcer. The “color man” (or woman) is often an ex-athlete who can add depth and analysis to what’s happening in the game.

Conjure. To make things — even ghosts, spirits, and the devil — materialize, especially using chants or incantations. Magicians with this talent are sometimes called “conjurers.” We often stick an unnecessary “up” after this word, as in “conjuring up an excuse.”

Consternation. Frustration and confusion. It’s easy to be consternated by an overly wordy and tangled explanation of something.

Conundrum. A difficult problem or dilemma. Nobody seems to know the origin of this curious word. An online sleuth called “The Word Detective” concludes that the most reasonable theory “is that ‘conundrum’ originated as a joke among university students in 16th century England, probably concocted as a pseudo-Latin nonsense word.”

Coolie. A derogatory slur for unskilled Asian ― especially Chinese ― laborers employed in mines and on the railroads of the early American West. The term was borrowed from British colonialists’ word for Indian servants.

Copse. This copse has nothing to do with robbers. It’s a shortened version of the word “coppice,” which is a grove or small thicket of trees.

Cornpone. A colorful synonym for cornbread, a simple bread made from cornmeal in a hot skillet. Poor mountaineers often had little beyond cornpone and a bit of bacon to eat. Lard or pork drippings served as the skillet oil. Because cornpone was associated with humble people living back in the “hills and hollows,” the term became yet another unflattering adjective, as in “cornpone humor.”

Covet. To long or wish for something, often enviously.

Crazy quilt. A patchwork cover sewn from irregular scraps. The term is often broadened to describe places ― even ideas ― cobbled from odd sources.

Crucible. In concrete terms, a crucible is a strong vessel, often made of porcelain, in which materials can be combined and melted, even at extremely hot temperatures. Metaphorically, one who is thrown into a crucible, say a roiling controversy, had better be ready for some heat as well.

Cotton gin. A machine that separates seeds and husks from sticky cotton fiber. “Gin” is short for “engine.”

Cubicle farm. A sarcastic reference to an array of small office workspaces, each surrounded by partitions to give their inhabitants the illusion of privacy. At VOA, we call one such arrangement in our large newsroom “Podland.”

Cumbersome. Awkward, unwieldy, hard to manipulate physically.

Cup of Joe. A cup of coffee. The term could relate to the average American – the “average Joe,” or perhaps it dates to World War I, when U.S. admiral Josephus Daniels broke with naval tradition by banning alcohol, including wine in the officers’ mess, aboard American ships. Thereafter coffee – deridingly called a ‘cup of Joe – was the strongest brew on board.

D
Dapper. Up to date in dress and manners. And there’s an extra quality to the word, too, a sort of jauntiness or even raffishness, reminiscent of the movie star Cary Grant. A dapper fellow – and the word is more often applied to men – is not just well appointed. He’s a sauve charmer.

Dawdle. To take one’s sweet old time!

Denizen. Strictly, this means any inhabitant of a place. But the word also gives special status to animals and those of mystical powers, as in “denizens of the deep” or “denizens of the fields.”

Depredations. The ravages left behind by plunderers or marauders.

Deprivation. Extreme poverty. A state in which one is deprived of even the basics of life. Be careful with this word. “Depravation,” spelled with the “a” instead of the “i,” means moral decay and degeneracy. That version is an offshoot of the word “depraved.”

Dirigibles. Slow-moving, lighter-than-air craft filled with a lifting gas and steered by rudders and small propellers. Those without skeletal frameworks are called “blimps.” Rigid, hydrogen-filled airships such as the massive Zeppelins of the mid-20th century all but disappeared following several terrible explosions. Today’s dirigibles are filled with inert helium gas.

Disillusionment and dissolution. The former means disenchantment. Even idealists can get disillusioned during hard times. The latter means decay or disintegration. Disillusionment can foster psychological and physical breakdowns.

Dither. A confused state. One who dithers is flustered, agitated, all a-twitter. The word comes from a Middle English word meaning “tremble.”

Dixie. There are many theories advanced about the origin of this nickname for the Deep South states. One is that it ties to the survey of the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, called the “Mason-Dixon” line, that is often used as the informal boundary between North and South. Another traces to $10 banknotes issued in French-speaking Louisiana prior to the Civil War. They were known as “dixes” or “dixies.”

Doddering. Feeble, even senile. The word is often combined with others, as in “you doddering old fool.”

Doozy. A doozy is something that is really difficult, or something that’s extraordinary or extreme.

Dork. This is not something you want to be called. A dork is a loser, an incompetent and even stupid person. Believe it or not, the word dates to the early 20th Century.

Doughboys. American infantrymen in World War I. There is debate about the origin of the term. One theory ascribes it to the doughy white clay that soldiers used to clean their white belts. Another states that it was other Allies’ derogatory term for U.S. forces, who were said to be “soft” for showing up late to the war. The term had been used (sparingly) in other conflicts and may also have had its origin in cavalrymen’s contempt for ordinary foot soldiers.

Dour. Brooding or glum. One with a dour disposition isn’t enjoying life at the moment. By the way, the word is pronounced “DOO-er,” not “DOW-er,” for reasons that escape me.

Dragoon. To obligate or bully one to do something, perhaps by force. Dragoons were French soldiers who sometimes compelled peasants to leave the farm and join the military.

Dyspeptic. Sour, morose, grouchy. Dyspepsia is a recognized medical ailment, involving stomach pain caused by ulcers or other conditions that certainly do not lighten the sufferer’s mood.

E
Embrace (or into the Arms) of Morpheus. Morpheus was the son of the Greek god of sleep. But it was a Roman, the poet Ovid, who gave him his own job, as the god of dreams. So it’s zzzz time when you fall into the arms of Morpheus.

Endemic. Present at all times in a country or people. Cheerfulness, for instance, seems to be endemic in the Caribbean Islands. The word also has a medical meaning, referring to the incidence of disease in a population.

Enervated. Depleted. Exhausted. Soil that has been planted with the same crops year after year, for instance, is often said to be enervated.

Eureka! Taken from a Greek word meaning “I have found it!,” supposedly exclaimed by the physicist Archimedes when he discovered a way to compute the density of solid objects. He measured how much water they displaced in his bathtub!

Excoriate. To scold someone scathingly. The word has a medical origin. It also refers to the wearing-away of one’s skin. Imagine taking sandpaper to your palm and you’ll appreciate how unpleasant it is to be excoriated.

Extant. Existing now. Lizards are extant. Dinosaurs are not, so far as I know.

Extol. To praise or laud someone’s virtues, sometimes lavishly.

F

Fen. A swampy bog or marsh.

Festooned. Lavishly decorated. The word traces to the noun festoon: a garland of leaves or flowers. So if you want to literally festoon something, string a pretty chain of petunias or pine branches along it.

Flimflam. A swindle, especially one that convinces others to buy worthless or overvalued property.

Flocked. Flock is a small tuft of fiber, and flocked wallpaper containing flock is not flat as a result. It is decorated with colorful patterns of flocking that one can feel.

Flummoxed. Flustered, confused, perplexed by what’s going on around you.

Forbidding. Stark, rugged, even life-threatening.

Fourth Estate. The press. Britons of the 17th century referred to three “estates of the realm”: Lords Spirtual, Lords Temporal, and the Commons. Pointing to the press gallery in the House of Commons, the effusive Whig orator Edmund Burke is said to have remarked, “Yonder sits the Fourth Estate, more important than them all.”

Frowziness. Shabbiness, down on its luck.

Frumpy. Decidedly unfashionable, even shabby. But people who look frumpy are not slovenly or unkempt, just drab and old-fashioned, almost amusingly “clueless” about their appearance. They are the opposite of “fashion statements.”

Fuddy-Duddy. A fuddy-duddy – usually referred to as an old fuddy-duddy, is an old-fashioned, stuffy, stuck-in-the-past dullard. Nobody can quite lock onto the term’s origin, but we know that a “dud” is a dull disappointment. A fuddy-duddy’s a bit like an old fogey, and neither is a compliment.

Fulminate. To rant and rave and fume. The word is often applied to speakers who make a habit of, and a living from, denouncing others.

G

Gabbing. Chatting, sometimes incessantly. People who talk a lot – and have something worthwhile to say – are said to have the “gift of gab.”

Gad About. In the 19th Century, a gad-about was a person with nothing better to do than drop in on neighbors, just to pass the time. Gadding about today is viewed as a pleasant interval of shopping or just ambling along, taking in the sights.

Gambrel. This is a French word, roughly meaning “meat hook” and is often applied to the style of roofs, especially on barns. It reflects the abrupt change in pitch of the roof.

Gandy dancer. A laborer on a railroad work crew. The term is thought to have followed the introduction of the first track-laying machine by the Gandy Corp. of Chicago. One can picture the workers dancing out of the way of such a contraption.

Gargantuan. Really, really big! This would be a great word to apply to a huge monster in one of those Japanese films: “Godzilla Meets Gargantua.”

Gargoyle. A decorative, carved water spout resembling a grotesque dragon, famously mounted around the roofs of castles. This word as well as “gargle” come from the French gargouille, or “throat.”

Garrulous. Talkative, gabby, especially about trivial matters.

Geiger counter. You know the meaning of this word if you’ve seen one of those low-budget, black-and-white space-invader movies. It’s an instrument, full of dials, that gives off static sounds that grow more insistent closer to the radiation source. German physicist Hans Geiger and a colleague developed the instrument in 1907.

Genie. In popular fable, a genie is a powerful, often turban-wearing figure imprisoned in a bottle. Some lucky soul stumbles upon the bottle, rubs it, frees the delighted genie, and is granted one or more fabulous wishes. The origin of the word is less cheerful, however. In early African and Middle East cultures, genies were sinister spirits that took animal or human form.

Genteel. Civilized, refined, cultivated.

Gift of Gab. Ability to speak knowledgeably and informally, often for long periods of time.

Gig. As I’ve used the word in my story about Hawaiian entertainers, a “gig” is a job, often in some form of show business. The online “Word Detective” notes that “Every job is a ‘gig’ today. Calling your job a ‘gig’ is a way of saying ‘I’m not really emotionally invested in my job, which I find boring and soulless, and I’m only doing it so I can act/write novels/play jazz saxophone on the weekends.’” “Gig” also has many other meanings. It’s a small spear used to snare fish, for instance, and it was once an object that spins, such as the child’s toy called a “whirligig.”

Glam. Newspaper tabloid slang for “glamorous.”

Glider. As used in my first blog, my kind of glider is not an unpowered airplane. It’s a porch swing that looks like a living-room couch, hanging from a low frame. But it doesn’t swing in an arc. It slides forward and backward gently without upsetting one’s stomach. Combine that lazy to-and-fro motion with comfy glider cushions and a summer breeze, and you have a mesmerizing invitation to take a nap!

Gossamer. As the noun, the word literally describes a fluttery film of cobwebs. More often, the adjective form describes a delicate, feather-light, even dreamy scene.

Grandiloquence. High-flown style; grandiose prose. Note that the word is not “grandeloquence.”

Gravy Train. When you’re on the gravy train, you have it made. Money is no problem, and you don’t have to work very hard. Gravy was long considered a luxury addition to meat or potatoes, and railroaders who pulled shifts on short, easy runs were said to be riding the gravy train.

Gringo. Latins’ disparaging term for English-speaking foreigners, especially Americans.

Green eyeshades. These are clear visors, first made of celluloid and then other plastics, worn — at least in the movies — by accountants, clerks, telegraphers, and copy editors. The term became an unflattering characterization of obsessively detail-oriented people and professions.

Gremlin. A mischievous fairy. The word also has a more modern application to electronic and mechanical devices that develop inexplicable glitches, blamed on mysterious gremlins or “bugs.”

Grudgingly. Extremely reluctantly. Doing something, going along with what’s asked of you, but with zero enthusiasm.

Guffaw. A boisterous laugh.

Gumshoe. Detectives and private investigators got this unflattering nickname in late 1800s, when they snuck around furtively in cheap boots or shoes whose soles were made of gummy rubber.

H

Hapless. Pathetic, deserving of pity.

Hardscrabble. This word almost defines itself. It’s an adjective referring to a place that’s difficult to work or make money from. And thus, those stuck there have a hardscrabble existence as well.

Haymow. A loft where hay or other grain is piled, ready to feed animals below. “Mow” as used here, by the way, rhymes with “plow,” not “toe.”

Hex signs. In the United States, hex signs are Pennsylvania Dutch folk art meant, despite their name, to bring farmers good luck, not cast a spell on their neighbors. They are intended, however, to ward off evil and others’ hexes and to “protect” the site from bad luck, which is one way of bringing good fortune.

Hidebound. Inflexible, stubbornly narrow-minded. The term may have morphed from the animal world, where the abnormally dry skin of a hidebound animal clings rigidly to the underlying flesh.

High Horse. One gets on his high horse to opine grandly on a topic, as if from a position of certitude. The word dates to the Middle Ages, when the tallest horses were used in battle. Apparently your lance would strike higher into your opponent’s mail. That’s not his stamped letters. Mail, or maille, was his armor.

Highbrow. Having or demonstrating culture, refinement, and taste.

Hippies. A youth subculture, originating in San Francisco in the 1960s. These “flower children” sang of peace and love, but much of their utopian innocence was lost when drugs infested the movement.

Hobnob. To associate or hang out with someone, especially of high social stature.

Hoity-Toity. Haughty, stuck-up, much like an earlier Wild Word: highfalutin’. An old English verb, hoit, referred to romping around noisily – another form of showing off.

The hole. Prison jargon for cells to which convicts are sentenced to solitary confinement.

Hologram. A three-dimensional image made from microscopic laser light waves that, when viewed, seem to make the image turn, twist or hover.  Thus, holograms are extremely difficult for counterfeiters to copy.

Homesteader. An American pioneer who had been granted a parcel of land in return for settling the vast expanses of the American West.

Howitzer. A large, high-angle, muzzle-loaded artillery piece that fires shells high into the air but for short distances. Its name, from the Dutch, first referred to catapult-like siege guns of the 1700s.

Humongous. Really, really huge. The word is a deliberate exaggeration that offends linguists. The Web site World Wide Words quotes William Hartston, writing in the British newspaper The Independent, as calling it “surely one of the ugliest words ever to slither its way into our dictionaries.”

Hump Day. Wednesday, the middle day of the work week. It’s all downhill to a weekend after that!

Hushpuppies. These are bite-sized bits of deep-fried cornbread. They originated as scraps left over after a country chef prepared pans of cornbread. Supposedly, the family hound would whine to be tossed some of these treats, to which its mistress would scold – you guessed it – “Hush, puppy”!

Hyperbole. The use of exaggeration for emphasis. When one exclaims, for instance, that long-lost friends “look good enough to eat,” you’re not really a cannibal about to devour them. At least I hope not.

I

Ichthyology. The study of fishes. Ichthys is Greek for “fish.”

Ignominious. Shameful, disgraceful. Ignominy comes from the Latin, meaning “without a name.” Ignominious behavior brings one great discredit. Ignominious places are lowly, ruder or humbler than what might be expected.

Ilk. Of a kind or sort. A person of a certain ilk shares the qualities – or foibles – of others of that same ilk. Picky pedants cite a more arcane meaning having to do with baronial estate names, but the informal if imprecise definition above is in vogue today.

Impunity. Free from punishment. If you’re told that you can do something with impunity, you can go wild! You’ll not be arrested for it.

Inane. Idiotic and empty of substance.

In situ. In its full and natural setting. Someone commissioning a photograph of a gate, for instance, might ask that it be captured in situ, including the fence and landscape that surround the gate itself.

Insouciantly. Nonchalantly, in a lighthearted, carefree, or even careless manner. From the French for “not worrying.” People sometimes flaunt their insouciance, in the way many young Americans today, confronted with a serious situation, dismiss it with a casual, “Yeah, whatever.”

Intractable. Not easily convinced, managed, or fixed.

Ire. This is a little word packed with meaning. It refers to intense anger, bordering on rage, openly displayed. There’s fire when one shows ire.

J

Joe. No one’s certain, but calling your morning coffee, especially, a “cup of Joe” may go back to 1914, when a mean-spirited U.S. Navy admiral, Josephus Daniels, banned wine in officers’ quarters and stipulated that coffee would be the strongest libation allowed. Or maybe those wine-swilling officers had slurred the term “Cup of Java,” dating to the days when much coffee came from the Indonesian island.

Jot and tittle. Every minor detail. A jot is the little cross-mark on the lower-case “T,” and a tittle is the dot on a lower-case “I” or “J.” These are two words that never seem to be apart from each other. Just as one never sees a nook without a cranny, one always attends to every jot and tittle.

Juxtaposition. The alignment of two things, often words, side by side.

K

Kitcsch. Cheap, tasteless, often garish art and collectibles. The German or Yiddish word was first applied to really bad paintings, like bright, velvet depictions of jungle beasts or Elvis Presley.

Kleptomania. From the Greek, meaning an impulse to steal. The word is often applied to shoplifters who seem driven to lift items, even without an economic motive.

Kudzu. An aggressive vine that can completely cover abandoned structures and strangle trees and other plants. Kudzu was introduced from Japan as a decorative plant at the 1876 U.S. centennial fair in Philadelphia. Little did people know that the invasive species would become a nightmare as it ran rampant, especially in the hot, humid South.

L

Lament. As a noun, it means a pitiful cry, often uttered after terrible news is received. The verb means to mourn or greatly regret. One often laments having made a really bad decision.

Laurels. Awards or honors. Roman heroes were often crowned with stems of the laurel, or bay-leaf, bush. To “rest on one’s laurels” means that you are satisfied with your past achievements and not interested in working particularly hard to earn more.

Legerdemain. Skill and adroitness. The word is taken from the French, and from the world of magic and illusion, where it refers to sleight, or lightness, of hand.

Lode. A deposit of valuable ore confined to a particular location from which the mineral can be extracted.

Luau. A Hawaiian feast, originally named after one of the dishes served there: chicken wrapped in Taro leaves and baked in coconut milk. Guests who arrive are often greeted with leis – necklaces of flowers or shells. One of the traditions at touristy luaus, in addition to the strumming and singing of soft Hawaiian melodies, is the dangerous fire dance, borrowed from the Samoan Islands.

Luminaries. Prominent people or stars. Big shots. The bright lights, or luminescence, shine on these famous people.

M

Mangy. Worn or threadbare. The word is often applied to a pitiful animal’s coat, or to a carpet or bedspread.

Mesmerizing. Hypnotizing, usually without a hypnotist present! A really good lecture can be mesmerizing. So can a song or a repetitive motion. You’re not just interested in a mesmerizing performance or object, you’re locked in, spellbound. The term appeared in the nineteenth century in reference to the work of one Franz Mesmer, an Austrian physician who developed a theory of animal magnetism that’s so strong, it can hypnotize people.


Mezuzah. A small scroll containing handwritten passages from Jewish sacred writings that is stored in a protective case and hung on a doorpost. The mezuzah serves as a reminder of God’s presence in the house.

Mien. One’s bearing – how you carry yourself. Thus we sometimes read about a person’s low mien (not a Chinese delicacy) or regal mien.

Missive. A letter or quick note. Does anybody write letters any more? This blog is a missive, but it’s not as quick as I’d like it to be.

Moonshine. Home-recipe distilled alcohol, concocted in secret apparatuses called “stills” back in the woods, hidden from federal agents or “revenuers.” Batches of this potent drink are often produced at night, illuminated only by the moon. According to some accounts, moonshine more often approaches the quality of paint thinner than elixir, and such stories as losing one’s hair after consuming impure moonshine are not exaggerated.

Moonshiners. The stealthy makers of illegal whiskey back in the woods, away from government “revenuers” who might want to tax their brew. These furtive distillers work most efficiently, naturally, by moonlight.

Morose. Gloomy, sullen, dejected.

Mosey. To amble or walk leisurely, at your pace. Sometimes, out in the country, you’ll hear people ask someone else to please “mosey on down.”

Muffelettas. Pronounced muffa-LOTT-uhs, these are tasty, often toasted, sandwiches in rounded bread loaves. Invented by a New Orleans Sicilian grocer, they are filled with authentic Italian meats and a spicy olive salad. Note: While New Orleanians spread mayonnaise on just about every other sandwich, including roast-beef po-boys, they recoil at the thought of mayo on a muffuletta.

N

Nabob. Originally a Mogul high official, the term came to be associated with executives of the British East India Company and, later, of any highly placed – and perhaps a tad pompous – individuals.

Nary. Not one. Nary – or as we sometimes see it in Old English such as Christmas carol lyrics, ne’er – a sound was heard. Or, as it’s used in a popular cliché: nary a word was spoken.

Natch. Glib shorthand for “naturally.”

Nattering. Chattering, usually about things of little importance.

Nebbish. From Yiddish, this word describes an extremely meek, timid, and unremarkable person.

Newfangled. Not just new, but a recent fad or fashion. From a Middle English word meaning “addicted to novelty.”

98-pound weakling. A scrawny man, especially when compared with a strapping bully who’s standing next to him on the beach. Body builder Charles Atlas had patented “97-pound weakling,” so those who copied the idea simply added a pound!

Non sequitur. This old Latin term refers to a statement that makes little or no sense in relation to the comments that came before it. Something like, “I took my dog for a walk where the straws were longer than usual,” for instance, would be a real head-scratcher. The walk and the straws have no apparent connection except, perhaps, in the dog owner’s mind.

Nonchalant. With blithe unconcern or indifference. Behaving matter-of-factly in a situation that might normally evoke extreme reactions.

Numismatic. Pertaining to the serious collection of coins, paper money, tokens and the like.

O

Obelisk. This is a monument or even a gravestone in the shape of tall, rectangular column topped by a pyramid. Sort of a squarish pencil with the point at the top.

Obliterate. To completely destroy or do away with something.

Odyssey. A long and most eventful journey. The word is taken from the wanderings of Odysseus in Ancient Greece, who took ten years to reach his home in Ithaca after the Trojan War ended.

Old Wives’ Tales. Another term for folklore, superstition, handed down orally over many years. The term refers to women in general, not just to married ones. In old English, wif means “woman.” Over generations, older women were the keepers of wisdom about home remedies, proper behavior, and such.

Oeuvre. A work, or life’s work, of art, music, or film. This word is often used somewhat pretentiously, since “one’s oeuvre” sounds terribly cultured.

Oxidize. To introduce oxygen to another chemical or metal, creating different substances called oxides. Oxidized iron in some rocks takes on a rusty hue. Some metal surfaces are deliberately oxidized as a preservation technique.

Oxymoron. Contradictory terms side by side. “Deafening silence,” for instance, makes no sense. How can silence be deafening?

P

Palliate. To the lessen the effect of something.  A “palliative” relieves pain without really curing the condition.

Panoply. A wide, and often impressive, array of something. A panoply of colors, for example. It’s pronounced “PAN-uh-plee.”

Parishes. The French divided Louisiana into parishes, in the fashion of the Roman Catholic Church. When Americans took over, they never bothered to change the arrangement. So Loo-see-anna is the only U.S. state without counties.

Parsimonious. Not just frugal but downright cheap. Tight with a dollar and not inclined to part with one.

Paucity. A scarcity. Usually people understand you better if you just say you don’t have very many of something.

Peccadillo. A small sin or indiscretion, not worth getting too worked up about.

Per se. From the Latin, meaning intrinsically, exactly. “It wasn’t fraud per se, but it had all the elements of it.”

Phantasmic. Dreamlike, illusory. If you see a phantom, you’ve had a phantasmic experience.

Pilaster. I can never get my architectural terms straight, but I’ve learned that a pilaster is a column with a top (or capital) and a base like most columns, but one that protrudes only partially from a wall. It’s not free-standing, in other words, but part of the wall treatment. The word is pronounced “pih-LASS-ter.”

Pithy. To the point. Getting to the heart of the matter in a few words. The word comes from nature. Pith is the central core of a plant stalk. You may have heard of a “pith helmet” – the lightweight, bowl-like headgear that African explorers wear in the movies. It’s sometimes made from pith.

Pizzazz. An energetic personality. Flair. Pizzazz is an asset to television stars and infomercial hosts, but all that bubbliness can be annoying.

Plat map. A plan or chart of a piece of land that depicts architectural features such as homes and stores and schools. These maps are often huge and bound in what look like giant scrapbooks. Invaluable historical documents, plat maps show the progression of development in a neighborhood over the years.

Pokey. Slang for a prison or, more often, a jail where one is confined only for a short time. It was first used in the 1840s as an adjective, spelled “poky,” to describe confined accommodations. Sounds like a jail, all right.

Ponzi scheme. An age-old grifter’s con in which investors are convinced to send the schemer considerable sums of money on the promise of lavish returns. Handsome interest is indeed paid, using some of the money contributed by fresh, eager new investors. But the crook is keeping most of it. Ponzi schemes almost always collapse when not enough new investors can be found, or old ones are tipped off to trouble and try to pull out their money en masse. They quickly find that there’s no money at all.

Pork. In a political context, pork or “pork barrel” appropriations are a slice of fat off the government hog, directed specifically to a single state or congressional district. Shrewd members of Congress are skilled at directing projects such as new highways, bridges, and factories their constituents’ way. The pork is often quietly appended to totally unrelated bills that are so popular that they easily pass. Either the pork goes unnoticed or nobody says anything, since “everybody does it.” (Not really, but to critics, it seems that way.)

Posse. A group of citizens called together, usually by the local sheriff, for a common cause like chasing down desperados on the run. The word derives from the common English law posse comitatus, or the right to conscript male citizens 18 years and older to assist in keeping the peace.

P.R. Short for “public relations.” Many companies and famous people have an army of “p.r. men” (or women) to polish their images.

Prairie Schooners. Heavy pioneer wagons with arching wooden bows that supported billowing canvas covers that gave the wagons a vague shiplike appearance.

Pratfall. An often humiliating slip or fall, fast, onto one’s backside. “Prat” was an Old English term for one’s buttocks.

Prima Facie. From the Latin meaning “at first appearance” or examination. When one has a prima facie legal case, it means there’s apparent evidence of guilt that only strong refuting testimony could disprove.

Primordial. Primitive, primeval.

Props. A relatively recent addition to the English lexicon of slang. When you extend someone his or her proper due, you’re “giving props.”

Pyromaniac. One who compulsively starts fires; a firebug. The word derives from the word “pyre,” which refers to a roaring fire.

Q

Quonset hut. A prefabricated structure made of galvanized iron that’s shaped like a huge pipe cut in half lengthwise. Strong but easily lifted by cranes, these huts have served as military housing and office space. The name comes from Quonset Point in the state of Rhode Island, where the first such structures were built in 1942.

R

Rack and Ruin. Utter decay. “Rack” is a variation of “wreck” or “wrack.” This is another phrase that always appears in this order. One doesn’t, for some reason, go to ruin and rack.

Railhead. The end of a railroad line and often the staging area for the shipment of materiel in war zones or livestock in remote areas. In the American West, cowboys sometimes had to drive cattle thousands of kilometers to reach a place where they could be loaded onto trains heading for eastern slaughterhouses and markets.

Rain check. A sports term. When a baseball game, especially, must be halted and then postponed because of inclement weather, patrons are issued a “rain check” entitling them to free admission when the game is replayed. I may regretfully decline a social invitation but ask for a rain check – a chance to enjoy another such opportunity down the road.

Rambunctious. Exuberant, noisy, a bit out of control, but not in a dangerous way. The word is often applied, affectionately, to an overactive child or puppy or kitten.

Ramshackle. Poorly constructed or maintained. A ramshackle structure is literally falling apart. Believe it or not, the word comes from the Icelandic, meaning “badly twisted.”

Rancor. Not just dislike or irritation but deep-seated ill-will and hostility. The term is related, in its derivation from Middle English, to the word “rancid,” so rancor is not a pleasant thing.

Rat on. To turn you in or inform on you. Sometimes communities try to encourage citizens to tell authorities about lawbreakers, but those who do can be regarded as “dirty rats,” or worse, on the street.

Raucous. Loud and disorderly, and often a bit lewd, as in some of the hootin’ and hollerin’ inside a western saloon when dusty cowhands reached town after a long cattle drive.

Raunchy. Crude, uncouth, vulgar. So-called “dirty” jokes are often raunchy, even obscene by civil standards.

Rectitude. Righteousness. The moral high ground taken as a matter of honor.

Red-headed stepchild. This wretch is always being severely beaten in a popular phrase. Stepchildren often get short-shrift when there are natural siblings around. Read the “Cinderella” story. As for why redheads get a double dose of trouble is not clear, except that they, too, are not as common in most families as are blonds and brunettes. No one is sure who first called attention to the plight of red-haired stepkids.

Refractive. Reflection bounces back light. Refraction bends it or changes its direction by passing it through a medium like glass.

Rest on One’s Laurels. To be so satisfied with your abilities and accomplishments that you stop trying to improve. In Roman times, victors in battle wore a head-ring of leaves (laurels). Those who rested upon those victories often lost the next battle.

Roustabout. An unskilled laborer, often on the docks or in oilfields or railroad yards.

Ruckus. A disturbance. We speak of “raising a ruckus,” meaning we’re going to raise our voices and make a great fuss until someone listens. This is also sometimes called “raising a stink.”

Rustler. A livestock thief.

S

Sally. To rush forward, as in a military maneuver. We sometimes add a word and speak of “sallying forth.” In fact, Sally Forth was whimsically borrowed as the name of the main character in a popular newspaper comic strip that debuted in 1982.

Saltbox. A common style of home in New England, often marked by a flat front façade and an uneven arrangement of stories to the rear.

Sardonic. Sarcastically, even snidely or sneeringly, humorous. William Morris’s Dictionary of Words and Phrase Origins notes that the word may trace to a Sardinian plant, the sardane, which was so bitter that it caused convulsions or facial contortions in those who ate it.

Sarsparilla. A drink similar to modern-day root beer that derives its flavor from the roots of the prickly sarsparilla plant found throughout Latin America.

Schlep. From Yiddish: to tediously drag oneself someplace.

Scion. A descendant, often applied to male heirs. The word comes from nature, where a scion is a shoot off a twig.

Serape. A long, colorful shawl traditionally worn by Mexican men.

Shtick. A comic performance or routine; sometimes called a “bit.”

Skidoo. A slang term originating in the early 1900s, meaning “to leave quickly,” as a variation on the even older “skedaddle.” No one can say for sure where “23-skidoo,” in particular, came from. Wisegeek says it might have something to do with New York’s famous Flatiron Building on 23rd Street in Manhattan. Its pie shape supposedly kicked up such a breeze that dignified ladies passing by had to keep a good hold on their skirts. The police gave the “23-skidoo” to men who loitered nearby, waiting for a pretty woman and a good gust.

Skosh. A dab, a touch, a teeny bit. People often ask their tailors for a “skosh more room” around the waist, for instance, when getting fitted. This is one of a few English words borrowed from the Japanese, where sukoshi means “little.” Supposedly, United Nations troops heard the word while on leave in Japan during the Korean War of the early 1950s, and the word became part of military jargon.

Slather. To spread generously. Mayonnaise on a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, for instance.

Smidgen. A little bit. Sometimes shortened to “smidge.”

Smithereens. This is a fun word to say. But where exactly do you end up when you get blasted to smithereens? “Smidder” was an old Irish word for a bit or a fragment. Perhaps an Englishman named Smith dropped a glass goblet, and it smashed to smithereens.

Smokey Bear. He is a brawny but gentle mascot of the U.S. National Park Service. In his trademark drill-sergeant hat, he sternly reminds campers, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

Smooshed. A made-up word not in most dictionaries. It’s a descriptive variation of “smashed.”

Snarky. This is one of those new-age words you won’t find in most dictionaries, even though it derives from the century-old British word “snark,” meaning to nag or find fault with. A snarky remark is laced with snide disrespect. Now you’ll have to look up “snide”!

Snide. Sarcastic, in a snotty sort of way. Snide comments are often asides about someone else’s perceived inappropriate appearance or behavior.

Snippet. A little piece, as if it had been snipped off. A phrase or a line would be just a snippet of a poem.

Sniveling. Whining and tearful. Another vocabulary-building word, obsequious, also fits someone who snivels.

Soap opera. Serialized radio, and later television, romantic dramas, aimed at a female audience and frequently sponsored by the makers of soap powders.

Sod houses. “Soddies,” as settlers on the Great Plains called these houses, were made from clumps of coarse bluestem grass in rich soil that were held together by their intricate web of roots and sliced into long strips with a “breaking plow.” Lacking enough trees for wood to build a complete house, pioneers stacked sod in rows to make the walls, then laid more strips atop precious boards that formed joists and the outlines of the attic. Finally, cloth was hung below the ceiling. It caught most, but not all, of the dirt that sifted down onto the family below.

Sodom and Gomorrah. These were cities on the Jordan River that, according to the book of Genesis in the Bible, were destroyed by God, who rained down fire and brimstone to punish their inhabitants for their sinful, lascivious ways. The two cities are often lumped into one place when speaking of a “Sin City” of today.

Solicitous. Expressing care or concern. A solicitous person solicits information about you, your family, and your well-being.

Soubriquet. A familiar, rather than formal, name, often applied to a person. Thus, parents will call their son James “Jim,” and Jim often becomes “Jimmy.” It’s pronounced SOO’-bri-kay, after the French.

Speakeasy. This was an establishment, carefully guarded by a suspicious doorman, that served alcoholic drinks during the Prohibition period from 1923 to 1933, when such sales were banned. But the term goes back at least 30 years or more before that. Pirate hideouts carried the name, and a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, woman who sold liquor without a license is said to have advised her customers to “speak easy” if they wanted to buy some.

Specs. Specifications, as in the blueprints and other particular requirements for an engineering job.

Sphynx. In ancient Egypt, a sphynx was a tactile representation of a sun god, often in a lion’s shape and wearing a headdress of the pharaohs.

Spin doctor. “Spin” is the fashionable political term for putting one’s own, highly partisan, interpretation on events. You spin them to suit the best interests of your candidate or cause. And a maestro of spin is a “spin doctor.”

Spoon. As I’ve used it, this has nothing to do with an eating utensil, unless it’s affectionately caressing the cheek of a lover. Spooning is an old-fashioned word for amorous cuddling.

Spunky. Lively, spirited, plucky. The word is said to have devolved from an English and Scottish term for “spark.”

Steadfast. Holding firm in one’s stand or convictions.

Stetson. The brand name that has become almost a generic term for a western hat, just as the names “Coke,” “Xerox,” and “Scotch Tape” have come to stand for genres of products. Felt Stetson hats have broad brims that keep some of the sun and rain off a cowboy’s face and neck. Those with an especially high crown are sometimes called “ten-gallon [38-liter] hats” because they look like they can hold a whole lot of water. In fact, only three or so liters will fit in one.

Straight-arrow. Straightforward and honest; morally upright — traits of a “straight shooter.”

Suffragist. A supporter of suffrage, or the right to vote, especially for women. Those who mocked the most radical, female supporters of women’s suffrage at the turn of the 20th century preferred to call them by the derogatory term “suffragettes.”

Supplications. Humble, earnest pleas for something, such as forgiveness or a job.

Swashbuckling. Pirates are swashbucklers, and others can swashbuckle, too, thanks to the evolution of the word. The “swash” comes from an old word for tapping one’s foot on the ground, as fencers (and sword-wielding pirates) do when they attack. The “buckle” doesn’t fit around one’s pants; a “buckler” was a small shield, worn (by right-handers) on their left arms for protection. Somehow, this got all smished into a word describing the flamboyantly daring.

Switchback. One of the winding curves that enabled first railroad trains, and then cars, to make it up — and down — steep mountains by slowly zig-zagging around them.

T

Taciturn. This is a word that I learned a long time ago from a challenging little book called 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. It describes not just quiet behavior, but deliberate, calculating silence. Someone who is taciturn wants to say very little — and does. “The silent type,” we sometimes call taciturn people.

Tacky. Frumpy, dowdy, lowbrow, decidedly uncool. Wearing white socks to a formal dinner, for instance, is considered tacky and uncouth.

Tar Heel State. North Carolina’s nickname. Barefoot backwoodsmen there once made a lot of turpentine, which left behind oozy, black pitch that stuck to their heels (and soles and toes).

Tequila. One of several potent Mexican “mescal” liquors made from the fermented juice of the spiky-looking agave plant. Legend has it that you’ll find a worm in the highest-quality tequilas, but this is a marketing gimmick by certain brands.

Terrarium. A bowl, glass box, or other confined container in which to grow plants.

Tightfisted. Frugal or cheap — holding fast to a dollar.

Toddle. To walk with short, slightly unsteady steps. Infants and old folks toddle. And what do we say to an oldster who’s about to toddle off? Toodle-oo! Toodle, not toddle!

Tommy gun. A .45-caliber submachine gun, invented by John T. Thompson, that became the weapon of choice of both gangsters and federal agents during the “roaring” 1920s.

Torpid. Slow, sluggish. Torpid people are disinterested, apathetic.

Tory. Tories were American colonists who supported the British side during the American Revolution. The name is taken from a British political party that was an opposition party to the Whigs.

Tough row to hoe. Often misquoted as a tough road to hoe, the expression, which ties to hard weeding in a cotton or vegetable patch, now means, more broadly, any difficult task.

Town Crier. In a tradition brought from Europe, criers, employed by the community, would walk the streets of early America, often at dusk, carrying lanterns or handbells, calling out public announcements. These would often begin, “Hear ye, hear ye,” or the more formal “oyez,” which is still used to bring many U.S. courtrooms to order.

Transcendentalist. One who practices transcendental meditation, or “TM.” Introduced in the 1950s by the Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – who for a time was the spiritual adviser to the Beatles – it involves seated contemplation, with one’s eyes closed, for twenty minutes a day. In the early 1970s, the people of little Fairfield, Iowa, were surprised to find a number of transcendentalists (many in eastern dress) in their midst. They had purchased the buildings of private Parsons College, which had gone out of business, and began setting up a transcendentalist university in the midst of Iowa corn country. Now called Maharishi University of Management, the school teaches students what it calls “pure consciousness within themselves as the source of all knowledge.”

Traverse. To cross or pass through a place. The word’s root is the same as the root of “travel.”

Triangle Trade. Trade among three distant regions, notably this ungodly exchange of slaves from the late 17th to early 19th centuries: Caribbean merchants would ship sugar, tobacco, and cotton to mills in New England or Europe. Those owners would ship rum, manufactured goods, and textiles to Africa. And “slavers” would send captured tribesmen as human cargo to the New World.

Tumbleweed. A short Russian thistle shrub, common in many parts of the world, that dries and breaks away from its roots in autumn, then rolls like a ball in the wind across the plain. Tumbleweeds stick in barbed-wire fences and are sure to blow in front of your car when the dust kicks up, scaring you half to death. In one of their first hits, the Sons of the Pioneers western group sang that they belonged on the range, “drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.”

U

Unfettered. Unchained, unencumbered. Fetters are shackles, especially of the feet.

Unremitting. Persistent, never-ending. To “remit” is to reduce the intensity of something, but unremitting intensity never wanes.

Unrequited. Unsatisfied. The word is most often applied to unfulfilled love.

V

Variegated. Multi-colored.

Vaudeville. A zany form of stage entertainment, popular in the United States from the 1880s to the 1930s. It featured comedians, dancers, magicians — even animal acts. The origin of the name is in doubt. Some say it’s taken from the French voix de ville, or “voice of the city.” Or it may have come from the Vau de Vire valley in France, known for its satirical songs.

W

Ward Heeler. A “machine” politician, part of a clique that controls a city or party for its own ends as much as to serve the public. The “heeler” part of the term refers to the legwork that menial party members are ordered to perform around town.

Well-heeled. Wealthy. People of means, of course, can afford fine footwear. Fine fighting cocks were also said to be well-heeled with deadly spurs.

Widow Walk (or Widow’s Walk). An observation platform above the roof of a house near the sea. It’s called “widow’s walk” because many a seafarer’s wife has paced on this platform, watching in vain for her sailor to return from a voyage.

Windfall. Unexpected good luck, especially of the monetary sort. If your long-lost uncle leaves you a million dollars, that’s a windfall! The term may have originated in an orchard. When the wind blows a pear off the tree, you don’t have to climb up and pick it.

Wistful. Yearning, wishful, usually in a dreamy sort of way.

Wolverine. A foul-tempered, musky-smelling, burrowing weasel after which both Michigan and its largest public university’s sports teams decided to nickname themselves. Wolverines don’t back down from a fight – a welcome trait in the state’s current economic morass.

Wry. The word derives from an Old English word for bent or twisted, and wry humor is similarly offbeat and, sometimes, a little contorted from the norm. Similarly, a person’s “wry smile” is a bit skewed from the norm.

X

Xanadu. A place of unimaginable beauty, first imagined by the poet Samuel T. Coleridge in Kubla Khan. In the movie classic “Citizen Kane,” a wealthy newspaper publisher, modeled after William Randolph Hearst, calls his fabulous Florida Estate “Xanadu.”

Y

Yammer. To cry loudly, in the manner of a howling wolf or an incessantly barking dog.

Yellow journalism. An early name for sensationalized, even made-up, stories printed by viciously competitive newspapers in New York City in the late 1800s. The name was taken from a character, “the Yellow Kid,” who appeared in a popular comic strip in one of the papers.

Yeoman. As a noun, this refers to a free person who cultivates his own land. (There doesn’t appear to be a feminine “yeowoman.”) In the adjective form, yeoman work is hard, prodigious effort.

Yes siree, Bob. Yes, indeed, you’d better believe it! This phrase may have first been uttered by Gabby Hayes, the cranky Western-movie sidekick to singing cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Hayes also let out a few “no siree, Bobs,” even to cowpokes whose names were not “Bob.”

Yo-Yo. First made popular in the 1920s, Yo-Yos were toys in which two weighted pieces of wood or plastic, connected by an axle, were lowered, raised, and spun in creative ways by means of a string attached to the axle. To “yo-yo” is to constantly change direction, first in favor of, then against, something.

Yuppified. Appealing to “yuppies,” or young, “power suit”-wearing, Gucci-briefcase-carrying, upwardly mobile urban professionals. Yuppies were idealized in what is often looked back upon as the self-centered “me” decade of the 1980s. The term became widespread with the 1983 publication of The Yuppie Handbook, a sort of guide to conspicuous consumption and wealth. To say that a community has become “yuppified” is to observe that it has gone trendy, with upscale shops, restaurants, and spas.

Z

Zigzag. To travel ahead making sharp turns in alternating directions. Lightning bolts are often depicted to make such jagged turns on their way to the ground.

Zinger. A “gotcha” or “ouch” line or retort. A zinger is pointed, like the tip of an arrow that’s humming toward an unsuspecting target. Often everyone in the room, except the zingee, laughs when a sharp zinger strikes home. (Don’t search for “zingee.” I made it up. But that’s how words like “zinger” get started.)

Bloggin’ in…

Posted September 22nd, 2008 at 8:30 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment

Here and now, Ted Landphair, who writes twice-weekly Only in America essays on VOA’s American Life page, begins a blog designed to connect your curiosity about the United States with his experiences, insights and quirks gained from forty years of reporting.

World, meet Ted, whom we affectionately call “Mr. America Without Muscles.”

This was my humble childhood abode. It
looks a lot more imposing in this
close-up view taken recently

Radio and newspaper assignments have taken me to every state, some of them many times. But you won’t find the roots of this new undertaking in my resume or travel vouchers. They trace, instead, to a wee but well-kept house just west of sooty Cleveland, Ohio, where I spent my formative years.

There, for an only child like me, imagination was a magical mystery ship. On the front porch glider, I read and daydreamed and — often alone — played “The Game of the States.” It described the industries, products, and key cities of every U.S. state. I soon knew all the capitals — still do; you can test me! This gave me a certain suburban street cred.


When storms swept mayflies that we called “Canadian soldiers” off Lake Erie, I would picture Great Lakes ore boats, three football fields long, bucking out of the waves and turning into that wind. When thunderstorms and blizzards bore down, I conjured Oklahoma’s “Tornado Alley” and a North Dakota valley I’d read about called “Ice Box Canyon.” I wondered who would live in such places, and why.

A limited worldview
Mother was a beauty as a young
woman. She was also a firm and
dedicated teacher whom her
little students loved.

My mother, a teacher of small children whose homework papers I helped to grade, raised me with stern assistance from my pious grandmother. They rode buses and streetcars everywhere — my mother to and from school; Gramma, night after night, back and forth to a Pentacostal church on the East Side. Neither drove a car even once. Mother was scared of automobiles; Gramma said they were the devil’s tool.

So we did not go far. But in my mind, I went everywhere.

I, too, rode the streetcar, past the Hungarian church (and wondered about Hungary), through a Ukrainian neighborhood (and wondered if my hockey player idol lived there), and over a high bridge above Cleveland’s “Flats,” where acrid smoke from steel mills and breweries below billowed into our railcar. I wondered about what went on down there, too.

This is a 1953 view of one of the streetcars
on the Madison Avenue line that I rode all
the time. “P.O.C.” on the beer billboard
stands for “Pride of Cleveland.”

The only trip we took beyond town was an annual visit “over the mountains” — the ancient Alleghenies — to my uncle’s fishing cabin in Pennsylvania. “The cottage,” we called it, though the spiders and blacksnakes and outhouse thereabouts were hardly refined. Mother and I would ride two streetcars to Shaker Heights, where my garrulous Uncle Robert, taciturn Aunt Edna, and irritable teenage cousin Bob would meet us in their Olds 88. Off we’d go, I wide-eyed, Mother terrified of each hairpin turn. Gramma stayed home to watch my cocker spaniel and to pray.

Pennsylvania roots

Uncle Robert and Mother, who were raised in abject poverty, would tell me about earlier trips to market over a single mountain from their meager, rented Pennsylvania farm to a shabby coal town. They would take the better part of a day on a horse-drawn buckboard. Rolling along in the Oldsmobile, I thought of the pioneer families who walked those hills, of Pennsylvania’s strange place names like “Riot” and “Scalp Level,” and of the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889, when a wall of water and debris twelve meters high roared down a valley like the one I was eying out the window.

I was younger than four here
(I’m bad at guessing ages in
photos), and a lot cuter then
than now.”

Mother, Taffy the spaniel, and I had made one other trip, by rail, all the way to Colorado, in a failed attempt to reconcile with my father. I was just four, but I remember a surprising amount: sneaking Taffy from the baggage car into our compartment; a gruff cop in sweltering St. Louis, ordering us to “remove that hound” who was coolly dog-paddling in the train terminal fountain; the exotic smell of fresh corn muffins as we crossed the Kansas prairie; goats high in the Rockies and bison low in the meadows; angry, stinging fire ants in my father’s scrubby yard; and my first encounter with live chickens, many of which became dead chickens when I loosed Taffy into their coop to “play.”

The jackalope is a rare and elusive creature,
but this postcard company’s photographer
managed to catch one in a meadow.”

The wonder of America for me began in such small things. Why did my father wink when he described a hunt for the elusive “jackalope?” Why did his town of Pueblo have white fire engines? Fire engines are red. Why did Ohio, and not Colorado, have such a large lake?

(Did you, too, ever develop a burning curiosity about your nation or the world around you? I’d be especially interested in hearing about any fascination with America or some part of it. Perhaps I can write about that place here sometime.)

America through a viewer

We came home from Colorado without my father but with a set of “View-Master” wheels containing 3-D pictures of Indians of the Southwest, the then-treacherous road up Pikes Peak, and red-rock formations in the “Garden of the Gods.” I pushed the little spring that advanced the photos so many times that the viewer broke before we reached the Mississippi.

Downtown Cleveland today
has cleaner air, since most of
the factories and mills in the
“Flats” (foreground) have
been razed or turned into
night spots.

Late nights listening through the medium-wave static to Cleveland Indians’ baseball games played in exotic Chicago or Philadelphia further stoked my imagination. Save for that Pueblo journey and a class trip to New York City, I would not travel farther east than the Indians’ ballpark, south than the Cleveland zoo, north than Lake Erie’s shore, or west than a municipal park next door until I left for college.

That’s all right. Ideaphoric — an aptitude-test word that would one day put a name to my curiosity — I wandered every part of our land through a new View-Master viewer, in our cheap and condensed encyclopedia, and on television in black and white.

Later I would be fortunate to live and work in memorable places: New Orleans, Los Angeles, the red-dust country of North Texas, and here in Washington. And it would be a fortuitous and delightful development to marry and travel with Carol M. Highsmith, who has become one of America’s eminent photographers. You see a bit of her work here and will enjoy, I hope, even more of it in the weeks to come. As Carol and I have traveled and published photography books, we have come to appreciate the old– she calls it “Disappearing America” — the new, the obscure, and the celebrated parts of our land.

Roadmap to our nation

If you would like to hop aboard this expedition, check back. Please have a United States map at hand if you can. Touching a finger to each place that we go will enhance your enjoyment. The one to which I’ve linked will enable you to zoom in on detailed maps of any state we visit. By your leave, I’ll throw in some U.S. history (on which I also spent a lot of glider time) and a profile or two of some interesting, if little-known, American characters.

Not all of our land is “America the Beautiful.” Some of it has never seen a tourist, except maybe Carol and me. But if you pack your imagination, we’ll go there together.

(They tell me the success of blogs depends upon interaction with those who read them. So please tell me about the places in America that you’d like to hear more about, and if you happened to visit the country and have your own story to tell, please share it.)

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Conjure. To make things — even ghosts, spirits, and the devil — materialize, especially using chants or incantations. Magicians with this talent are sometimes called “conjurers.” We often stick an unnecessary “up”* after this word, as in “conjuring up an excuse.”
*As a bit of a grammatical stickler, born under the fussy sign of Virgo, extra “ups” bug me. Most grating of all to my ear is a request to “call me up” when just calling you would suffice. I’m always tempted to reply, “OK, Up ” . . . as in “Call me a taxi.” “OK, you’re a taxi.”

Glider. My kind of glider is not an unpowered airplane. It’s a porch swing that looks like a living-room couch, hanging from a low frame. But it doesn’t swing in an arc. It slides forward and backward gently without upsetting one’s stomach. Combine that lazy to-and-fro motion with comfy glider cushions and a summer breeze, and you have a mesmerizing invitation to take a nap!

Mesmerizing. Since I just used that unusual word, I’d better explain it. It means hypnotizing, usually without a hypnotist present! A really good lecture can be mesmerizing. So can a song or a repetitive motion. You’re not just interested in a mesmerizing performance or object, you’re locked in, spellbound. The term appeared in the nineteenth century in reference to the work of one Franz Mesmer, an Austrian physician who developed a theory of animal magnetism that’s so strong, it can hyptnotize people.

Taciturn. This is a word that I learned a long time ago from a challenging little book called 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. It describes not just quiet behavior, but deliberate, calculating silence. Someone who is taciturn wants to say very little — and does. “The silent type,” we sometimes call taciturn people.

Please leave a comment.

Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

Calendar

October 2019
M T W T F S S
« Nov    
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031