Russ Ringsak

Words and Machines

November 11, 2011

Of the thousands of right words this luscious language offers to us, "phlegm" has to be up there in the first tier. It sounds like what it is and its spelling perfectly describes it. A 'flem' spelling wouldn't fit. Flem would be lame. Which is itself another right word. 'How lame is that?' is exactly right, and right itself also sounds like what it is. Said with emphasis, the words exactly fit their meanings. Lame is lame and right is right, and phlegm is perfectly phlegmy and is just as right as lame is lame.

And liddle lambsey divey, to quote a lilting WWII novelty song called Mairzy Doats. "O mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lambsy divey; A kiddley divey too, wooden shoe?"

This amazing tune came bouncing to us just when we really needed it, in 1944, by then all war-weary from dealing with the maniacs in Europe and the Pacific. (Another right word, that maniac.)

The phrase was carried home from school by a four-year-old daughter of a songwriter. In its original form it was an English nursery rhyme: "Cowzy tweet and sowzy tweet and liddle sharksey doisters. The girl's father was a songwriter named Milton Drake. He teamed up with Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston to rewrite it and get it played on radio WOR in New York, performed by Al Trace and his Silly Symphonists.

A version by the Merry Macs hit #1 in March of 1944. It's been revived a few times, been in the movies with Stan Laurel, James Garner, Alan Alda and others; been on British television.

We all knew that song, all the kids and parents and grandparents, everybody, and it still runs through the functioning portion of this old man's brain now and then. Like it just did when I sat down here, for example. It comes from a time when the nation did and felt things in unison, if not necessarily in harmony. But we all were aware of the same stuff: the same music, the same sports, the same news from the front. Nowadays, not so much.

Nowadays very few people I know can name all the teams in either the American or National League, or even a single tune on the Top Twenty. Nowadays I don't know if there still is a Top Twenty.

Anyway, phlegm has been on the mind these last few days because I've been a pretty much healthy guy walking around with an intermittent cough. None of the drugstore suppression agents seem to knock it out. To sleep all night and cough all day is better than the other way around but still it's a nuisance. Then I see film of WWII on TV and I think this is not that bad. Walking pneumonia is perhaps just a reminder of all the ghastly things that could be wrong and if the nuisance of a cough is the only thing one has to complain about they are in very good shape indeed.

And "cough" is of course another perfectly right word, sounding like the act itself. So are "ghastly" and "knockout." As are our expletives and vulgarities, of course; we wouldn't put them to their various designated purposes unless we could launch them with vigor.

~ ~ ~ ~

The truck was idle while the show was in St Paul and myself and my trusty researcher have been commissioned to bring forth a third edition of the book Minnesota Curiosities. On a field trip up north to check out a fantastic rock garden on an island in Lake Kabetogama we stopped at the police station in the town of Proctor, near Duluth, to check on the case of a man who was given a DWI last year for hitting a parked car with a motorized reclining lounge chair. The case had attracted national attention on television.

In Proctor we unexpectedly came upon this most remarkable steam locomotive, about as far from a motorized lounge chair as a vehicle can be:



It's an M-3 Yellowstone class, one of the last steam engines to run on the Duluth Messabe & Iron Range line. When this wheel arrangement, the 2-8-8-4, was introduced in 1928 on the Northern Pacific they were the largest locomotives in the world; ALCO rolled out the first one and they celebrated with a catered formal dinner for twelve people inside the firebox. White linen and fine crystal in the belly of the steel beast. This was of course before they lit the hellfire in there.

There were 72 of them built for five railroads: Northern Pacific, Great Northern, Southern Pacific, Baltimore & Ohio and the Duluth Messabe & Iron Range.

In a dramatic feat of engineering, the leading wheels and the forward set of eight drive wheels slide laterally underneath the mighty boiler to allow the machine to negotiate curves, a trick I still find remarkable. Especially since they had to get live steam out there to the huge pistons. And what it must have been like to operate such a machine.

If you'll indulge this boy a brief flurry of large numbers, the M-3s were 129 feet long including the tender, 11 feet wide and 16 feet tall; fully fueled with 22,000 gallons of water and 25 tons of coal they weighed nearly a million and a half pounds; 1,368,675 to be precise. 684 tons. They ran on a boiler pressure of 340 pounds per square inch (!). A standing six-footer would be not quite at eye level with the tops of the driving wheels.

They developed well over 6,000 horsepower and 140,000 foot-pounds of traction. They were used on the Iron Range to pull 144-car trains of ore from the mines up north to the docks in Duluth; from there it would be taken by steamship to the mills in Gary, Indiana, to be made into steel for battleships and tanks.

So in a way they were like Mairzy Doats, in that they helped in the winning of WWII.

Well, that's a stretch. We would have won that war without that tune; silly lyrics without the machinery would not have done the job. And from what I've heard from my direct forebears, our GIs didn't sing all that much while they were actually at work.

~ ~ ~ ~

After the little research cruise I went for a three-day deer hunting trip in South Carolina on a 5,000 acre private tract of former plantation land. It had more than two dozen sturdy tree stands set near clearings and along trails. We were a party of seven, young and old, most of us family on my mother's side, hosted by a good friend who is a member of a hunting club.

I've done a bit of target shooting but am new to hunting herd animals; my natural duty as a biologically useful predator has been covered by ranchers and hunters until lately. I didn't hunt because I was just too lazy.

But we know that herds have little regard for conservation and that without carnivores the land would quickly become barren. A million deer live in the state (of which 2,570 or 3,144 or 33,000 were taken by deer crashes last year, depending on which paper you read); enough to get me off my butt to keep the forest from being eaten and to conserve the automobile population.

My contribution so far has been modest: fired twice in five expeditions, put two critters in the freezer. Probably not the most efficient way to get protein but at least now I feel better about myself. Which of course is what it's really all about.

During most of the hunt one just waits in the stand, moving not much more than the eyeballs. To do this out of idle curiosity would soon get old but having a purpose and an instrument changes that. If you tote a camera or a paint brush or binoculars and a notebook, or a borrowed rifle, you find the forest a more interesting place.

Our host drops me off and I climb the ladder in the last twenty minutes of total darkness and perfume the place in the vapors of deer musk from a small bottle. I hear a faint noise in the first thin scrim of daylight but see nothing moving, as if it were the weak light itself that creaked.

About nine o'clock a cardinal lands on a branch beside me and sits for a time, apparently unaware that a giant meateater lurks two feet away. I feel invisible the rest of the day. At noon I watch a slow phalanx of seven wild turkey hens stroll in from the south, pecking their way up the hundred-yard clearing.

Cardinal's view of your wily reporter.

Maybe thirty minutes later -- it's hard to sense time in the stillness -- a group of jakes emerge from the same woods, feigning indifference to the females out in the field. It's a slow melding, taking well over an hour. They're like teenagers at a smalltown mall, interested but coy. They gradually move in my direction and finally reenter the woods to the immediate right, now pretty much all one flock. The rest of the afternoon passes in utter stillness. Darkness begins moving in, noiseless as when it left.

A deer emerges delicately from the right. I keep the scope on it all the way across the clearing. It stops four times on its careful twilight path and I stay with it, thinking there might be a big buck following, holding off until it's nearly into the woods on the left. The rifle cracks the quiet.

It's the only deer of the day and we take it to a local processing plant for my relatives to retrieve later. It's not huge but it's a few pounds heavier than the ones already registered there. I fly back north the next day.

~ ~ ~ ~

Two weeks later we move the show from the Fitzgerald in St Paul to the World Arena in Colorado Springs. On the way I encounter a dropdeck rig hauling the bed for a mining truck; they run 32 feet wide, 48 feet long, 29 feet tall; outsized and awesome, like the M3 Yellowstones, and weigh about the same.

Bed of an ore truck at a stop in Limon, Colorado

~ ~ ~ ~

From there we went to the big fieldhouse at Murray State University in Kentucky, where we did a bluegrass tribute show to Bill Monroe.

It was between those two that we got the awful news of Tom Keith's passing, something we are still not over. There will be a memorial show this weekend in St Paul, intended to be more celebration than eulogy. Without ever acting like it, he was a big part of our enterprise, and he leaves a legacy of cheerful optimism, something in general short supply these days.

© R.Ringsak 2011

russring at visi dot com

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