Alabama, Civil War, heat and humidity, heat exhaustion, Miscommunication, Mispercetion, Montgomery, porch sitting, rocking chairs, Southern Accents, War Between the States, War of Northern Aggression, Yankee accents
I don’t think I speak with any accent at all, but this past week I attended a conference in Montgomery, Alabama where I was informed that I indeed have one.
The women from across the country that were in my seminar had no problem understanding anything I had to say. However, when I went out into the community, my dialect was met with strange stares which were inevitably replaced by grins and “You’re not from around here are you?” type questions.
The failure to communicate is a problem on all levels worldwide, but sometimes even here in our own backyard we don’t understand each other. I wonder how many times we’ve made assumptions because of miscommunication which turned into blatant misperceptions.
While attending the conference, I stayed in a historic building converted into extended stay studio-type apartments. The individual rooms in this building were side-by-side and shared a giant covered porch which ran from one end to the other. It had white pillars reminiscent of the days when women wore flouncy dresses (and men wore sexy black riding boots, cropped jackets with brocade vests and tight, camel-colored, double flap Regency pants that leave little to the imagin—whoops, where was I? Oh yeah.) Antebellum pillars held up the generous roof over the porch. *Ahem*
The rooms faced a beautiful green lawn backed by huge trees wrapped in kudzu and draped with Spanish Moss. A very romantic setting. My writer’s mind zoomed with ideas as soon as I saw the view. The setting begged to be used as a backdrop for a romantic story—maybe pre-Civil War. (BTW – I was corrected in a museum about the misnomer and I quote—”There wasn’t nuthin’ civil about that war. It was the War Between the States or The War of Northern Aggression.” I swear to you this was said with a straight face. Anyway….
Each room came equipped with white rocking chairs on the porch to allow guests to enjoy the greenery of the Alabama landscape. It is a beautiful state—it’s no wonder people write songs about it. It’s lovely.
Beautiful? Yes. But Bama was also hot and humid. The weather made it nearly impossible to enjoy the lush scenery. I found myself rushing from air-conditioned guestroom to air-conditioned rental car to air-conditioned conference room.
I learned the hard way that you don’t linger outside in that kind of heat. After nearly exhausting myself by meandering around the lush grounds when I first got there, I came back to the room drenched in perspiration, light-headed (even more so than usual) and feeling nauseated. From then on, I rushed around from one temperature-controlled environment to another like I might run into a stinky wah on the rue. What is a wah on the rue? Well, let me explain.
I found out you can only use the rocking chairs without melting (or in the very least suffering heat-exhaustion) from 6:00 am to 8:00 am or 9:00 pm to roughly 9:15 pm. After that mosquitoes the size of dogs will eat you alive. Alabama has a very short porch-sitting timeframe in the summer.
One morning I was dressed and ready before my husband, so I took some time to think about story ideas while rocking on that southern-style veranda.
A shadow in the corner of my eye interrupted my thought train. I looked up from my oh-so-comfortable rocking chair to meet the sky-blue eyes of a gentleman wearing overalls on top of a grimy orange tank top.
“Mornin’ Ma’am.” He tipped his hat with the end of the broomstick that he held in his fist.
“Good morning. How are you?” I smiled at him.
What I heard (in a very thick Alabama accent) was this: “I’m here with the deer in the middle.”
I’m not kidding that’s what it sounded like to me.
“Pardon me?” I asked wide-eyed and confused.
“I’m here with fear of the meadow yonder.” He gestured with his chin toward the sky.
My mind went through a quick rolodex of possible meanings. Coming up short, I could only smile. I thought he’d walk away—I mean we already exchanged pleasantries. Instead, he moved to the front of my chair–a little off to the left side.
The morning sun made him squint. Wrinkles from decades of squinting appeared in the corners of his eyes. His sunglasses rested on the front of his ball cap. His leathery red cheeks above his white whiskers were clearly victims of the blazing Alabama sun.
He scanned me—as if trying to figure out where I belonged at 7:00 in the morning. My turquoise linen sundress with an empire waist and a cute bow in front, didn’t look like the attire of a tourist and that seemed to confuse him. With my make-up applied, hair done up in a twist and properly plastered with hairspray to fight the humidity (and keep my wavy hair from looking like I had kudzu and Spanish moss on my head) it was obvious I was not going to leisurely rock the day away on the porch, right?
He waited for something. Oh! It must be my turn to speak again.
“It’s beautiful here. Nice view.”
He took off his hat, wiped his brow with the back of his hand, and slapped the cap back onto his head. He neither walked away nor answered me. He looked down at me with expectation.
Perhaps I’m sitting in his chair.
There were empty chairs to the left and right of me all the way down the shady (but growing hotter by the minute) porch.
I wondered if I’d stumbled onto some Deep South custom of which I was unaware. Maybe I am supposed to offer the old guy my seat? Naw…southern gentlemen give ladies their seats.
Trust me when I say chivalry is alive and well….it’s just living in the south. They are very polite in Dixie. I am not joking. An insult is always prefaced with a blessing. As in, “Bless her heart. She’s as ugly as a shriveled-apple-headed scarecrow.”
So anyway, this hefty gentleman and I continue to blink and stare at one another.
“It’s getting hot already, isn’t it?” I tried communicating again.
He didn’t return my smile. Instead, he looked at me like I just uttered the most inane remark he’d ever heard. He tilted his head in a ‘Duh! You flippin’ idiot-it’s-late-June-in-Mongomery-Alabama-of course-it’s hot!’ sort of way.
“I’m just waiting for my husband.” I started to slowly rock in the chair. After a minute I broke eye contact thinking he’d walk away. Giving him clear non-verbals, I found something interesting about my sandal. Then I studied my “all the rage pedicure” which included a tiny faux-diamond and painted white daisies on my big toes. (That’s a whole other blog, btw.)
Joe Overalls didn’t move. Instead, he spoke to me again.
What I heard: “Ma’am you knee. They’re full. Dare wahs on the rue.”
His milk-colored mustache twitched a bit when I ask him to repeat himself. He scratched his scrubby cheeks. Clearly, I was supposed to do something. Or say something. He was waiting for me to do it or say it, but I hadn’t a clue what it was.
Being one of those people who wants everyone to be happy all the time, I really didn’t want to frustrate this man. I absolutely must figure out what he wants.
As I contemplated this, he adjusted his well-worn baseball cap. His fingers left yet another smudge on the yellow bill.
“Ma’am, I said you need to watch the wahs on the rue. Day stank.”
My mouth opened and I was about to ask what a “wah” was. I wanted to know why the day stank. The look he gave me made me think twice. I am clearly annoying the crud out of this old guy.
“Yu’ll wannamoo so I can mash’em.”
Ahhh! Communication had been achieved…sort of. He wants me to move…I think. Perhaps, I am sitting in his little corner of the porch (even though it’s obviously in front of my door.). Maybe he likes that particular angle or that particular view. Who am I to deny him?
“Oh! Okay. Sorry.” I got out of my chair, moved it over a few feet and sat back down.
That did not placate him.
“You got wahs on the rue. Ya’ll can’t be here. Ain’t smart and they’ll stink if’n I done stir ‘um up to a freshing.”
It took a moment, but…Aha! Clearly this man was on a mission. He wanted to rid the rue of the wahs. Got it.
“You want me to move? Am I in your way?”
He laughed. The kind of scoffing laugh that escapes your lips when you encounter the stupidest person in the world.
My curiosity was aroused. I must engage this guy. I love characters and this guy and his rue-hunting ‘charm’ intrigued me. I’m going to get to the bottom of this. So, I did what I do whenever I want to meet new people (which is basically all the time—everywhere and everyone). I began a conversation.
“I’m just waiting for my husband. We’re going to get the continental breakfast. It’s just that I was ready a little bit early. I thought I’d take advantage of the morning before it got too hot.”
I waited for engagement.
What I got was not engaging.
He spread his legs shoulder width apart, his brown suede work boots planted on the porch like he was staking his territory. Hands gripping the broom, he crossed his arms in front of him. “What?” He wrinkled his nose like I am one weird, confusing specimen. A thought occurred to me. Maybe I’m a wah on his rue?
“Well, I got ready early this morning and I’m waiting for my husband to finish showering. We are going over to get the continental breakfast together. I’m sure he won’t be long now and we’ll be out of your… (I swallowed the urge to say wah-hunting.) way.” I continued, “I just love the view from here. It’s so nice and green. I forgot about the kudzu out here. We’re in a drought where we’re from and it’s so brown that–”
“What?” he interrupted me, a perplexed look on his face. “I can’t understand you. Slow down.”
I laughed. “Oh, sorry.”
I do speak fast. Very fast.
We lived in the Deep South years ago and what I learned (and had obviously forgotten) was that Southern folks talk slow. Very slow. I figured out why. They are smart. They don’t expend energy by moving around quickly or talking at high speed. They conserve their energy in the oppressing heat much like critters in the desert. They’ve adapted to their environment. They probably could’ve won the War Between the States by using this strategy. If they had hunkered down drinking mint juleps and let the fast-talking, always-in-a-hurry Yanks run around like bees in a beehive, eventually the heat of the South would’ve exhausted them to the point of immobilization—Yep, they might’ve won the war that way. At any rate, I understood that I could not speak at my normal caffeinated, sugared-up speed. I slowed down to half my normal chatterbox cadence.
“I’m waiting for my husband.” Instinctively, I gestured to our suite. When I realized I started speaking louder than normal, I brought it back down to the regular level. He’s not deaf. “We are going to breakfast.” I smiled, biting back the urge to pantomime eating.
“I don’t care where you’re doin’ it. Ya can’t do it here. I need to rid the rue of the wahs and if I done toll ya before… they’s gonna be mad.”
A sudden shield of bravery surrounded me—I can’t make him madder, right? He had no qualms telling me he didn’t understand what I said so…fair is fair.
“Umm…Excuse me, sir, but…what is a wah?” I’m thinking possum. I swear. Or some southern derivative of a weasel, an Alabama havalena-esque beast. Some smelly menace that needs to be eradicated from the porch.
“What?” Clearly, I had shocked him to the point of exasperation.
“A wah. You said you’re going to kill the wahs because they stink, right?” A little light came on in my head. Ahh, a skunk, maybe. A specific kind of skunk. A Wah Skunk. Probably porch-dwellers.
His blue eyes bored a hole into my head. “No. Not wahs. Wahhhs.” He pointed to the eaves with the broom handle.
My eyes followed the broom. “Oh! Wasps!”
“That’s what I said. I need to get the wahs from the rue.”
“Rue?” I said it to myself for my own edification, trying to work it out in my head.
“Yeah, they built their nes in the porch and on the rue.”
“ROOOF!” I shouted. “There are wasps on the roof and they sting!”
I was so proud of myself.
Mr. Overalls was not proud of me.
In fact, I’m pretty sure he wanted hit me with the broom handle. The one he was going to use to exterminate the wahs from the rue.
After I told the story to the other ladies in my seminar I had a quick vision of this guy telling his side of the story to the other groundskeepers.
Here’s how I pictured it:
Joe Overalls: “So, I ran into some dumb foreigner on the porch today.”
Grounds-keeper Bob: “Really? Another Yankee?”
Joe: “Yep. This one was particularly stupid.”
Joe: “Well…this is what happened. I told her I was there to get rid of the pests and she should go inside. I told her to be careful of the hornets and wasps. Told her they’d sting her. The idiot-woman looked at me with a blank stare. So, I told her again, “I’m here to take care of the wasps’ nest up yonder.”
Bob: “What did she say?”
Joe: “Nuthin’ The dumb bunny looked at me with them big ole eyes like she never heard of such a thing.”
Bob: “What did she do?”
Joe: She said, ‘It’s beautiful here. Nice view.’
I pictured the other grounds keeper and Joe Overalls laughing hysterically.
Joe: “The dumb woman didn’t move so I told her again. ‘Ma’am you need to be careful. There are wasps on the roof. If that’s a live nest, they’ll be mad and they’ll sting you’. But again, she stared at me. I told her flat out to move.”
Bob: “What’d she do?”
Joe: “She moved her chair back two feet like the wasps can’t get her there. I swear it.”
Here, I’m sure Joe and Bob guffawed a while at my expense.
Bob: What’d she do after that?”
Joe: “She spoke gibberish. After I finally got the poor thing to understand that the wasps would sting her, she looked me dead in the face and asked, ‘What’s a wasp?’
Here, I pictured Joe and Bob feeling sorry for me having to go through life with such a mental handicap.
Joe: “Eventually, she was rescued by her husband who took her off someplace before those wasps stung her but good. Bless her heart, she was as dumb as eatin’ ice cream with a fork in July.”
YEP…two sides to every story.