Tag Archives: Appalachians

Frog Hair, Gunga Din, and an Old Cow

My father had his own peculiar way of speaking.

It wasn’t just his Kentucky accent, which can actually be found throughout most of southern Ohio where we lived, and even up into Michigan.(1)

Because we lived in Ohio since I was three, my dad was concerned that I might start “talking like a Yankee.” When we would go back to Kentucky (which we did frequently) he called it “getting elocution lessons.”(2)  I ended up able to speak what was known as “Network Standard,” and also to lapse back into a Kentucky accent when it would annoy my sorority sisters.(3)

So my father was not alone in his manner of speech, but he did have his own peculiar vocabulary. I suppose that somewhere amid the hills and hollers there are people who still speak like this, but in suburban Ohio, he was near-incomprehensible.(4)

Here are some of my father’s favorite expressions and what a normal person would say in the same circumstances.

“Finer’n frog hair split four ways” = “I’m great, thanks, and you?”

“Hangin’ in like Gunga Din”= “I’m great, thanks, and you?”(5)

“Like an old cow pissing on a flat rock” = “My, it’s raining hard.”(6)

“A real frog strangler” = “My, it’s raining hard.”

“Give me a box of Band-aids and a bottle of Mercurochrome and I’ll have this cow back up on her feet and giving milk in ten minutes” = “Gosh, this steak is too rare.”

“If he had another nickel, he’d have bought a red car.” = “My goodness, that car is certainly bright red.”(7)

Most of my father’s odd expressions came from his upbringing in rural Kentucky, but some of them he borrowed from the Old West. This habit only increased when he retired from civil service on a disability and went back to his roots. He started wearing flannel shirts, cowboy hat and boots, or sometimes sneakers. He abandoned the Vitalis and Aqua Velva for chewing tobacco and small, disgusting cans of pemmican he ordered through the mail.

Young children were fascinated by his cowboy persona. Once while in a restaurant wearing his Wild West get-up, and crutches owing to his disability, a young lad asked whether he had been shot by an Indian, much to the embarrassment of his mother. My dad loved it. On another occasion, he addressed a young boy as “little pard,” (short for “partner,”) only to have the child respond indignantly, “I am NOT a little fart.”

My mother was tolerant of his idiosyncrasies.(8)  She had to be. His pet name for her was “Old Squaw,” which these days, of course, would be politically incorrect for oh-so-many reasons.(9)

All in all, my father’s language was in some way reassuring. It was a family thing. It didn’t matter if the rest of the world understood him. We did.

(1) This is a result of the southern migration up I-75, also known as the “Hillbilly Highway.” Thousands left the southern states for industrial jobs in Ohio and Michigan car plants.

(2) My high school speech and debate teachers disagreed with him on the necessity of this, or at least his definition of same.

(3) My college membership in Delta Phi Epsilon is one of my darkest secrets and I hesitated to reveal it. In fact, just pretend you never read this footnote.

(4) Once at a party he fell into conversation with a shy, soft-spoken young lady. The next day we learned that each had thought the other must be from a foreign country.

(5) Very few people know where this expression comes from. You may recognize “Gunga Din” as the title of a poem by Rudyard Kipling, but that’s not where my father got it. Early rock and roller and country superstar Jerry Lee (“The Killer”) Lewis used to use the phrase in some of his songs. No one knew what he meant by it then, and no one knew what my father meant by it either.

(6) People often ask, but there is no real reason that it has to be an old cow. It just is.

(7) I occasionally use this one myself, once totally confusing a friend’s Puerto Rican boyfriend.

(8) Though once in a while even she didn’t get what he was talking about. Once, when getting ready for a trip, he told her, “Pack and tie,” which had something to do with loading a covered wagon (I think). She thought he said, “Pack a tie,” and she did, though she had no idea why he wanted one.

(9) Some say girls marry their fathers. I don’t know about that, but I did marry a man whose term of endearment for me is “Old Boot.” Not usually in public, though.

The Day I Brought Bullets to School

I grew up in a house surrounded by guns and bullets.1 After we moved to Ohio, squirrels were no longer on the menu, but in my youth, my Kentucky uncles would shoot squirrels and rabbits and the occasional woodchuck. So I had tasted all of those, usually fried in lard by my maiden aunt, who was for some reason called “Pete,” rather than “Edna Mae,” which was her real name.2

So steeped in gun culture was my family that my father gave my mother a single-shot rifle, which was nicknamed “Grandma,” for their first anniversary. Both of them later became certified rifle and pistol instructors. At age 12 my sister and I both received .22 rifles. We were a well-regulated little militia – three generations worth, if you count “Grandma.”

As if guns weren’t enough of a hobby, Dad also had a thing for bullets. And when I say “thing,” I mean a reloading tool. He would collect spent .38 cartridges (known as “brass”) from the rifle range. He would then put them on a machine operated by a lever that would, depending on the setting, straighten out the cartridges, seat a primer in the bottom, add the appropriate amount of gunpowder, and grease and seat a bullet,3 which was then ready to repeat its journey and reincarnate as empty brass. It was an early form of recycling that for some reason environmentalists never talked about.

Dad also had a hand tool that would reload a single bullet. It looked something like a Bedazzler, only more butch and greasier.

As I entered my teen years, I became more reluctant to spend my Saturdays on the father-daughter bonding experience of going to the rifle range. The smell of cordite in the morning was no longer so alluring. Guns were his hobby, and I was finding my own. Admittedly, crossword puzzles and Star Trek reruns would be less useful than target shooting after the zombie apocalypse, but the prematurely resurrected were not yet on the horizon.

When I was solidly ensconced in my teens and encountered high school, one of the educational exercises they inflicted on us was doing demonstration or “how-to” speeches in front of our English classes. It was a more sophisticated version of show-and-tell, with fewer goldfish. I don’t remember any of the other demonstrations, but mine was reloading bullets. It did nothing to lessen my reputation for oddity.

I took the hand reloading hand tool, an empty cartridge, a spent primer, and powder. I Bedazzled my way through all the steps, happy in the knowledge that, though I gave an entirely valid how-to demonstration, it would be utterly useless to the class.4

It’s worthwhile noting that I did not bring actual gunpowder to school. Instead I substituted iced tea powder.5

It got me an A. These days it would get me handcuffed and tasered.

1. The house was not surrounded by commandos with guns and ammo. The guns and bullets were in the house.
2. She got riled up if anyone called her Edna Mae. Admittedly, that still doesn’t explain the Pete. It caused some confusion when a neighborhood friend went visiting with us and in telling her mother about it, casually mentioned, “I slept with Pete.” She then had to explain (and quickly), “Oh, mother, Pete’s a girl!”
3. He made the bullets himself, too. He had a big chunk of lead, and he would melt it down and pour it into molds. (My mother made him do this outside, which was a Good Thing, because of the fumes and our tender, growing brains.) For those bullet-techies out there, what my Dad made were “wad-cutters,” a flat-nosed bullet used for target shooting. He sometimes substituted wax for lead and made lighter loads for starter pistols.
4. Maybe some of them are Doomsday Preppers now and wish they’d paid attention.
5. Which is ironic, considering how much I loathe the Tea Party and open-carry enthusiasts.

Moonshine Reality

In my last post I joked about moonshine. The reality is quite different.

Moonshine is sometimes presented as a defiant protest against the government, which wants to tax everything fun and make a profit on it while soaking the common people. And right now, that’s a pretty popular – even populist – sentiment.

Media portrayals of moonshining, while not universally positive, have sometimes given it the cachet of harmless, if illegal, rebellion – think Dukes of Hazzard. Let’s outsmart them pesky revenooers (actually ATF agents) and race fast, sexy cars and yell yee-haw a lot.

And I’m not denying that can be a good ol’ way to spend your time, as long as you don’t crack up that spiffy car trying all those impressive special-effects stunts that defy the laws of physics as well as traffic.

And we all know that Prohibition didn’t work. You can’t keep people from drinking if they really want to. It’s as old as civilization itself.

But during Prohibition, alcohol consumption and rates of alcoholism actually increased. The temperance movement was counter-productive.

And “bathtub gin,” like moonshine whiskey, being unregulated (more outlaw fun defying the damn gummint!), had no quality controls. A lot of moonshiners didn’t care, or maybe didn’t even know, the effects of using the wrong copper tubing or automobile radiators for their stills, or mixing the product with wood alcohol (methanol). They probably should have suspected that the rat poison, bleach, embalming fluid, or paint thinner added to give it an extra kick would be less than ideal, though. The lead and antifreeze were bonuses.

Blindness, liver damage, alcoholism, and death were the best-known side effects. Others included seizures, nerve damage, and partial paralysis, either temporary or permanent.

So yes, I did grow up in a family that thought “That Good Ol’ Mountain Dew” was a fun song for children. And I did have an uncle that made or bought moonshine – we kids were unclear on that – and hid it in the corncrib. (Digression: Ironically, he was named Uncle Sam. There was also an Aunt Jemima somewhere in the family tree. True story.)

But I’m not going to encourage drinking actual moonshine. I won’t even buy the cute Mason jars of whatever it is they sell in state-approved liquor stores labeled as moonshine. And I’ll pass on Outback’s moonshine-flavored entrees, thanks.

Moonshine Fantasy

Watching Chopped on Food Network, I noticed that all the baskets contained some kind of moonshine and that the guest judge was from Outback Steakhouse.

Math may not have been my best subject, but I can put one and one together and usually come within spitting distance of two or thereabouts. I said to myself, “Self, I bet Outback is having some kind of moonshine promotion.”

I was right. Within a couple of days I began seeing the commercials. I have also seen “moonshine” for sale in the liquor stores. This is just wrong. The wrongness of it rattled around in my brain and caused this vision.

Me [in Outback Steakhouse]: Any specials today?

Server [perkily]: Why, yes! We’re featuring our new Moonshine Entrees!

Me: Tell me about them.

Server [still perky]: Each of our superb meats has been infused with the authentic flavor of moonshine!

Me: You mean it tastes like airplane glue and smells like kerosene?

Server [puzzled]: Why, no! It’s a sweet rich flavor that enhances all our dishes.

Me: So where do you get your moonshine?

Server [resuming perkiness]: It comes from our warehouse on the weekly truck so you now that every batch is fresh!

Me: Yeah, that’s about how long my uncle used to age his. But he kept it under the corn crib instead of in a warehouse.

Server [still trying]: We make sure the quality is consistent and always imparts that special moonshine kick!

Me [impressed]: So you know that it always causes the jake-leg wobbles and the blind staggers?

Server [beginning to fold]: Really, I don’t think…

Me: Yeah, that’s the other good thing about moonshine. After your kidneys shut down, it goes to your head and you can’t think.

Server [losing it]: Perhaps you should see the manager.

Me: If I can still see her, it ain’t the best moonshine.

Server [nearing tears]: It’s really nothing like that!

Me: Then you’re obviously not using my uncle’s recipe. It was a big hit at all the family reunions. He’d get plumb crazy and start firing off his single-shot rifle. Gives a person a sporting chance. Not like those AR-15s everyone has nowadays. Tell me, is this an open carry state?

Server flees, returning with the manager, who gives me a coupon for a free dinner. At the Olive Garden.

Of course, I wouldn’t really do any such thing. For one thing, it would be mean, and for another I can’t really afford to eat at Outback. And of course the dialogue probably wouldn’t go as I imagined. And I’d be thrown out on one of my ears.

But still…

Hillbilly Bashing

It seems that hillbillies – people from Appalachia or the southern U.S. – are the last remaining group of people that is acceptable for people to poke fun at, insult, and demean.

Every other stereotyped group has been taken off the comedy table. Indeed, most remarks about stereotypes are not permitted in polite company. You can get into trouble for saying black people are lazy. Italians are mobsters. Fat people are disgusting. The Irish are drunks. The Polish are stupid. The French are snobs. Blondes are dumb (and “blondes” is code for “blonde women“). Feminists are lesbians. Scientists and other geeks can’t get laid. Men are hopeless at child-raising and household chores (or if they’re not, there’s something wrong with them). I’m sure you could add your own examples.

But hillbillies are fair game. Whether you call them hillbillies, hicks, rubes, briars, rednecks, jethroes, bubbas, or peckerwoods, you can make jokes about how they marry their sisters, drink moonshine, screw livestock, and eat roadkill. Honestly, you’d think some people believe that Hee-Haw was a documentary.

Jeff Foxworthy made millions with his “You may be a redneck” humor. It was gentle, seldom-vicious, well-intended humor, but it was stereotypical nonetheless. And was it more acceptable or less because Foxworthy himself was a Southerner? I haven’t decided.

If you look at “reality” shows (I try to avoid them), you’ll get a whopping dose of “Let’s all laugh at the stupid hillbillies. We’re way better than they are.” Duck Dynasty. Honey Boo-Boo. Moonshiners. Hunters and fishers and survivalists. And someone is making a lot of money off these shows. I’ll give you a hint: The moneymakers don’t eat roadkill or have outhouses.

But let’s forget comedy and reality shows for a moment. We all know that’s just entertainment, not one culture actually demeaning another. Let’s look at real reality for a moment.

The other day someone posted about the contaminated water scandal in West Virginia. Many people who replied to this post were, well, less than polite. Here are some examples:

People in those communities need their own Martin Luther King, someone who can raise their spirits and challenge them. Someone who can bypass the whole political process (Me: so far, so good. But wait for it.)…. And because the people there are so fearful of minorities, this version of Dr. King will have to be white and one of their kin, while being aware of much bigger things and principles than Appalachia usually considers.

And this, regarding an elected official who ignored the disaster in his own state:

Yep, and $20 says he gets re-elected. Why? Have you LOOKED at the average citizen of West Virginia? 

And my favorite:

Don’t believe in science? Fine. How about being a good steward of the earth like that book you’re constantly jizzing yourself over says, you half-witted, superstitious dumb-fuck!

Admittedly, there were commenters who called out those who made such comments:

There’s a good chance the “average citizen of WVA” may be keeping your lights on and letting you post insulting things about them.

And:

Extremists have a choke-hold on American politics–and this is true in more places than Appalachia.

And (again, my favorite):

Don’t make the mistake of confusing the politicians and the people. It would be a mistake to stereotype the people of Appalachia as ignorant and racist. You can find ignorance and prejudice in every corner of our nation. You can also find brilliance and humanity in every place as well.

Now I admit I have a vested interest. I was born in Kentucky and so were most of my relatives. And my family has produced teachers and coaches and civil servants and businesspeople and college graduates. And me. Someone who uses proper grammar and punctuation, and makes a living doing that. And yes, listens to country music, knows how to shoot a rifle, has milked cows and collected eggs, and has relatives nicknamed Jim-Bob and Spud.

My culture is as worthy of respect as any other. Appalachian people make beautiful art and music. They have become scientists and celebrities, inventors and innovators.

And let’s not forget that the Appalachian land has been exploited for its mineral wealth, with the profit flowing out to other regions. The farmers who try to make a meager living from land not really suitable for agriculture have had to become sharecroppers. If many people there are poor and undereducated, it’s not because they like it that way.

They may be different than you. But you are not better than they are. Show some respect. The ones who jeer and demean are the uncivilized ones.