Russ Ringsak


October 29, 2007

It was a surprising drive through Chicago last Monday afternoon on the trip back from Charlotte. I took the I-90 tollway right through downtown, partly to sidestep the ongoing work on the intricate joinery of interstates 65, 80, 90 and 94, and partly to check on the progress of the new roadways in the town. I went entirely through without stopping, first time ever. Not only the city but from Gary through the entire hundred miles of northern Illinois. A breathtaking experience. The combination of the twelve new lanes south of the Loop and the I-Pass open road tolling has made this possible, at least during the middle of the day. You see very few trucks in the toll booth lanes now, meaning those long convoys that would clot all the way back onto the main road are gone. They have performed a successful percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty, in poured-in-place concrete and rebar. Don't try it at home and don't try to say it at the tavern.

But I have whined about driving through that place for the last twenty years. And I never wrote an angry letter to the city about their need to shape up, never wrote a single politician or board of commissioners. They figured this out without any help from me. My carping was not a factor. I am still against toll roads but at least now they don't make you stop and mess with pocket change when you should be tending to business, and they no longer bring all that tonnage to a dead stop over and over all day long.

So I lose something to crab about and gain about twenty hours every year. We can build a perfect truck and engine and Chicago traffic can be cleaned up enough to give that truck room to run. So there may be more competence afoot than some of us thought. We of course can't stop Yellowstone Park from blowing up and wiping us all out, and we can't make it rain. But Chicago has made it clear that we can deal with difficult matters here at our own level. It took time and it got real messy and it made a lot of us mad. But now it works.

And I still have a good inventory of other things about which to crab, like how hard it's getting to understand what people are saying. This is a common gripe among we seasoned folk, especially the men. Other old guys have said the same thing. This is aggravated by young women who speak these days in a high staccato Valley Girl cadence, the chirps tumbling over each other as if to cram as many as possible into a six-second commercial. The effect is not a linear sequence of syllables but rather a sudden pile of them, as if they had been dumped out of a burlap bag. On the phone with a young woman from the technical help department of my internet server it sounds like an untrained cockatoo on the line. Can't make out one single word. I'm already frustrated by that accursed portable PC and then I have to deal with this high-frequency rapid-fire chitter. I ask her to slow down. More than once.

And it's not just the girls either. Guys are picking up on it. Downtown you hear'em yakking fast in a high register and nothing they say has any weight to it. I want to take one aside and say Slow down, young fella, you sound like a damn fool.

I mentioned the hearing problem to my correspondent in the undisclosed rural area out there and she sent back an account of another evening with her parents in the house of the deaf back in the good old days. She was married by then and has always had the ability to remember conversations, which she attributes to being deaf herself in one ear since childhood and therefore becoming a careful listener.

She said "My Dad's family spent more on hearing aid batteries than they did on cars." She said I could strip her letter for parts, but as usual she would be ANON, A Negative Old Neurotic. She wrote:

When Uncle Louie and his wife May came to visit my folks, gender discrimination was in full spate. Louie (who was deaf) and my Dad (who was deaf) sat at the kitchen table and the women sat in the living room.

My mother had extraordinary hearing.

Dad and Louie would be visiting, mostly about their personal work histories, and my mother and May would be in that verbal
sparring that is a part of relationships that never should have been. The only reason that May came to our house was because she was Uncle Louie's chauffeur.

My dad was a retired road builder and Louie had been a butcher, owning his own store in our town.

My mother exercised control over 97% of anything said in the living room and kept excellent track of the conversation exchanged (at record making decibels) in the kitchen.

Like this:

Louie would ask Dad, "How in the hell did you boys keep building roads back then when horses was used? Most of you fellas wasn't close to bein' horse guys."

Before Louie's question could filter through my dad's ear canal and be disassembled in his brain and the decision made to either try for a response or simply wait for Louie's next question, May would be startled to hear my mother yell, "Alfred (my father's name), you hardly got started in road work until the Caterpillars came in!"

Dad would yell, "For God's sake, Esther, I started out with horses when I was fourteen years old! I took a load of horses to North Dakota when I was just a kid and. . ."

"You did not! That was one of the Swenson boys!"

Louie is wondering, "Is this what we were talking about?"

May is relieved, inside. She's not much for conversation and this could go on all night. She's known that to be the case.

My dad protests, "But, Esther! You didn't even know me when I was a kid!"

Always ready for a stupid argument which has nothing to do with the subject anyhow, she calls, "Well, I certainly know you were not in Dakota with a load of horses!"

Louie is suddenly alert and peers into the semi-dark living room. He says to Dad, "So Esther came from a log house in South Dakota, did she? I never knew that." Louie muses for a few seconds and my dad pours a cup of coffee.

He says to Louie, "Remember the winter of '36 when we were cutting wood up there in Pine County? Never got up to zero the whole time we were there."

Louie wants to remember but he's not sure it's worth the effort. He shifts in his chair and looks toward the living room and sure enough, a challenge is already underway.

"Alfred, what in God's name are you thinking of? You went to Pine County in 1938! In 1936 you were in Aitkin County. That was the year Larry was born."

May stirs. Dare she make this a four way discourse?

She jumps in.

"Esther, I always thought your Larry was the same age as my Janice. She was born in '37, she was a year old when Tommy came and I know he was born in '38. I just had to look it up so he could join the army."

Louie rubs the side of his head and says to my dad, "If Janice is 38, what the hell would the army want with her? Both Hitler and Tojo are done, we shouldn't need women fightin'."

My mother refuses to give up on the Pine/Aitken affair. "Anyhow, you always said 1940, not '36, was the worst year for cold, Alfred. You said it a million times."

"The hell I did! 1940 we had that big blizzard but the temperature most of the winter wasn't that bad. That was the year the folks moved to town and the snow was ten feet deep back of the gas station!"

Louie half-rises from his chair and stares at Dad. "What radio station was that on? God damn it, I missed the news and the weather report tonight, but hell, I can't believe a blizzard's comin'! 40 below and people movin' into the gas station?!"

May calls out to him, "Not tonight, Louie. A long time ago." We notice May doesn't go near the '37, '38, 1940 angle.

My mother is less combative suddenly, switching over to the idea of a long time ago so smoothly that it's like none of the other exchanges were real. "Lord, it wasn't a long time ago, not really. Just think, all the kids were small, Donna was just a baby."

In the kitchen, Dad's coffee cup crashes to the table top. "For God's sake, Donna's a good kid! Fourteen years old! The hell she's having a baby! I'll kill somebody!"

Now Louie gets excited. "Your girl killed somebody's baby? Alfred, you better get a damn good lawyer! I know a guy down in the Twin Cities. Expensive, but what the hell?"

Dad, his face white, his voice shaky, wants Louie and May out of there. He calls, "Esther, we gotta talk."

She answers serenely, "There's no use talking to you. You're deaf as an old hound dog."

Louie looks up from buttoning his sweater. "It don't surprise me, no sir. I figured all the groundhogs are dead. I ain't seen one since that one Charley shot ten years ago, killed him with one shot to the head."

Dad is now calm, as Louie and May are about to pull freight. He answers Louie, "Yeah, Charlie seemed down in the dumps last time I saw him, but I'm surprised he'd kill himself. He's the guy shot the big groundhog that time, didn't he? Eight, ten years ago?"

This was family entertainment in the early fifties. Technology has replaced it with bad tv and better hearing aids, which I may have to check out myself before I start hollering.

* * * *

The last time I tossed out terminology without knowing anything about it I got an entertaining letter from a literary gentleman in Georgia — another one — who wrote: ". . . Latin, being a highly inflected (though dead) language, has not only verbs that are conjugated but also both nouns and adjectives that are declined. . . so the plural of gluteus maximus would be glutei maximi, not gluteus maximi. Although the implication that it is one thing with two large parts is not without merit. Unless you're anorexic."
Getting mail like this emboldened me to dive into the four-part medical terminology in reference to highway construction. Someone may observe it's not amusing to make light of such a serious procedure and someone else might not like a rank amateur casually throwing around stuff it takes years of hard study to grasp. And it could be an utterly inappropriate metaphor. But there's also the chance I might learn something. If I do, I'll pass it on. And I'll be conjugating verbs and declining both nouns and adjectives. Whenever they seem to need it.

© R.Ringsak 2007

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