Russ Ringsak

Epiphany

May 29, 2007

Posting that last article led me straight into one of those epiphany things. You don't expect an epiphany once you get this far down the road. You think you're about all epiphanied up by now, but here it was, and if I'd been paying attention all these years I might have seen it earlier. It was this: If you make a big enough fool of yourself in front of a large enough audience you will very likely be set straight by some good people, and all of them decent enough to do it without calling you a dodo.

The foolishness that brought this epiphany on was of course in my starting that piece with a bit of misguided humor, a notion planted in my skull by fun-loving musicians from Tennessee and Virginia, having a bit of sport with a gullible upnorth trucker. I took the bait like an old walleye from an upnorth lake; swallowed the triple hook and the leader and the sinker, unhesitating, without a smidgeon of suspicion.

But most people know the second person plural personal pronoun is y'all. It isn't now and never has been all y'all, like I said it was. And y'all is never singular. You cannot use the second person plural personal pronoun in place of the second person singular personal pronoun, and no self-respecting reasonably intelligent Southern person would do that; this according to my new friend, Mr Terrell Shaw, whom I trust. I do believe I am getting the straight story this time. Especially because he was in a lot of good literary company in making this point to me.

All y'all might be used as a plural collective, as in addressing a number of different softball teams, for instance, or a gathering of families. And it might be used occasionally in informal speech for emphasis, like a double negative is sometimes used. But for general conversation, it's bad. It just makes you sound like a goofy old northerner trying to buddy up.

I received more mail about that article than any previous, and none of it was about the rest of the piece. It was all about that dumb first sentence, and all of it was in good humor. I even got a letter from my brother, who pointed out I also misused the title word 'gruntled.' It's not, as I thought it should be, the opposite of 'disgruntled,' but rather it's an old word meaning grumbling, just like it sounds. The 'dis' part was added later and means, in this case, 'completely.' I couldn't find 'gruntle' in my heavy Random House and thought I was backing into a new word, but no. It has been done before, and the folks who backed into it before apparently got it wrong as well.

Anyway, the upshot was a volley of interesting letters from well-read and well-traveled people, and I thoroughly enjoyed them all. If I could come up with another bozo statement that would bring another response like that, I'd do it. But I think it's better when it comes from authentic straight-out clumsy ineptitude and ignorance.

Anyway, about that time when the show in Georgia, it was in the news, including from the BBC, that Sheryl Crow, on her mission to save the entire planet, had been advocating the use of a single square of toilet paper per trip to the loo. (To which Rosie O'Donnell famously responded: "One sheet? Have you seen my ass?") The episode brought to mind the story of a miserly farmer in central Minnesota in the fifties who we'll call Mr Offendorfer, who was considered to be at the very top — the dean, if you will — of all the cruelly frugal heads of household in that area and of that era.

He and his wife had two daughters. Offendorfer felt he was spending too much on bathroom tissue — along with everything else, of course, but especially on tissue — and he set the family on rations. Four sheets per day per person, and no more. He would buy four rolls at a time and he expected each roll to last a month and a half. Eight rolls, with 750 sheets per roll, would last the family an entire year.

He allowed only two exceptions to the sixteen sheets per day for the household: One, if they were to have company over, and two, if they needed to squish a bug in the bathtub.

His math was about right: a year at sixteen per day is 5840 sheets, and there would be 6000 sheets in eight rolls, leaving 160 sheets a year for guests and bugs. It implies they might have to cut down on having company in the summer because there'd be more bugs around.

The parents lived out their entire lives in that small house, built for $800 and given to them by the wife's father as a wedding gift. One of the daughters told a friend, years after she moved out, that when she started using lipstick her mother told her not to blot it on the tissue, so she would cut off the tops of her old socks for that purpose. One of the great freedoms of being out on her own, she said, was not having to blot her lipstick on her old socks.

A lot of people back then tried to pinchpenny their way out of being poor. Some still do. I never saw it work. The time spent cutting two old denim jackets apart and sewing them into one larger one, the darning of socks, the coupon cutting, bargain hunting, the ironing of used tinfoil, the found newspapers spread out to save the floor and the furniture. Saving the dishwater to wash the floor. The kids all bathing in the same water on Saturday night (girls first, and no more than four inches deep), the never-ending overhauling of worn-out cars. The threadbare tires. One flat after another. A full-time existence devoted to spending as little money as humanly possible. "How much did that set ya back?" they'd ask, as if anything you bought was another setback. They were always treading water and never really swimming.

It wasn't from some inherited disorder that they did this. They were usually just two generations removed from bold and brave ancestors, reckless even, who took their chances in wooden sailing ships against the freezing Atlantic to get here. What brought out the tightwad in people was that Depression. The one with the capital D, the one everybody had at once, in the early thirties. Twenty five years later the postwar generation was in a boom, but there were a lot of guys like Offendorfer who were determined not to trust good times.

They were dead set against good times. Not all took it as far as he did, crossing the line from thrifty into downright stingy. But we do have stories from the those days. A friend tells of his grandmother in Louisiana who lived in an unpainted shack like you'd see on a Muddy Waters anthology and who had ten acres of land, an eighth mile on a side, with five or six rows of pecan trees running along the southern border. It yielded a steady two crops, pecans and squirrels.

She had a very old heavy-barrel blackpowder muzzle loader, Kentucky Rifle style, with a bore the exact size of a number one buckshot ball. She carried two bags, one for the squirrels and the other for the shot, the gunpowder, the wadding and the tin of primers. He said she never missed. When she got home she'd make two quick cuts and with a good pull she'd have hide and innards in one hand and a glistening naked pecan-fed squirrel in the other. She could clean two a minute.

They had squirrel stew a couple of times a week, and he said it wasn't that bad. "They looked like rats layin' there on the counter, but hell, I was just a little kid. I didn't know anything. Tasted just fine to me. And they didn't taste like chicken." (This is not a guy who told me about the second person plural personal pronoun, nor did he ever use that word, having dropped it young when his family moved to Michigan. He later moved to Minnesota and became the state offhand blackpowder rifle champ, along with being a blues guitar monster. He still has the grandmother's gun.)

I get asked what do I think about, driving across country alone and seldom listening to the radio. Sometimes I'll have a CD on and sometimes I'll be absorbed in the interesting task of navigating heavy traffic. But when there's time to think I think about stuff like that. What my parents went through in WWII, what their parents went through after the crash and before that. WWI, the Civil War. Early railroaders and miners and loggers, or threshing crews and horses. All the incredible stuff they had to make happen for us to arrive at where we are now. Ships thrown in the storms of Cape Horn and wagons creaking on the frozen high trails across the Rocky Mountains. And that'll sometimes lead into thinking about the reasons that I have such a low tolerance for whiners.

And I naturally do a bit of whining myself, but it's hard to do it when you're floating on airbags at seventy on a sunny four-lane in an air-conditioned cruise-control double-turbocharged handsome rig with a sleeper and five mirrors and twenty gauges and thirty switches, forty-two lights and eighteen new tires, and two good windshield wipers when you need 'em.

© R.Ringsak 2007

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