Thursday, June 07, 2012

Where're You From, Mac?

Nobody likes being an outsider.  But if you’ve relocated a time or two, you’ve had no choice but to be “the new kid on the block.”  In some places, acceptance of newcomers is a lengthy process. You could be a new kid for a very long time, especially in a small town.

During a dinner conversation at our home in northern Wisconsin when I was a teenager, my mother several times referred to “that man from Illinois” in a discussion of a happening across the street from our house.  We weren’t sure who she was talking about. A clarification revealed that the “man from Illinois” had owned his home in our neighborhood for 26 years!

I’ve only been an outsider in one place where a native enjoyed identifying and embarrassing newcomers. My first job outside Wisconsin (except for Army duty) was an assignment as the Public Information Officer for the Boise National Forest.  One of the duties was participating in team teaching at environmental education workshops. The Idaho Fish and Game Department always had one or two representatives on the team.

It was obvious that one of the F&G men, a native Idahoan, was not overly fond of U.S. Forest Service personnel, nor was he delighted to be working with National Park Service people who sometimes were team members.  At that time, pay for the federal natural resource people was considerably better than that of state personnel. The federal agencies didn’t employ many wildlife biologists, so state wildlife specialists had a difficult time moving to the Forest Service, Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, or Fish and Wildlife Service as a way of gaining a heftier paycheck. 

In addition to resentment about pay disparities, there sometimes was an undercurrent of native-newcomer tension.  The majority of Idaho Fish and Game employees at all levels were born and raised in the state, or at least were long-time residents.  Most professional federal agency people had transferred to Idaho from other locations. 

The state man liked to make it clear he was a native son.  He did that at least once during every environmental education workshop by suggesting we all stand and sing the state song: “Here We Have Idaho.”  He, of course, rendered every word loudly and correctly.  Most of the rest of us muttered along as many have while trying to mouth an unfamiliar hymn in church.  The F&G man made a point of staring at me a time or two as I stood there pretending to sing the state song.

I actually tried to learn “Here We Have Idaho” just to thwart him.  The tune consists of two short verses and a chorus. It should have been easy, but I never got the hang of it.  That wasn’t surprising.  How many Americans know the words to any state song?

“On Wisconsin!” should be a snap for me.  The tune doubles as the university’s football fight song and the state anthem.  After years of hearing both, I can negotiate the football version pretty well, but can’t get past the first line of the lyrics honoring the state.

Apparently destined to forever flunk the Idaho anthem test, I strongly suggested to the song leader that he drop the whole hidden-agenda affair.  “You know damn well there aren’t two of every ten people you con into this who know the words, whether they spent their whole lives here or not,” I said. “You’re just embarrassing everybody.”

He finally agreed to suspend the musical salutes to the Gem State. “I know how to show you flatlanders up, anyway,” he said.  “I just get you talking about the Idaho Panhandle.  As soon as you say you like that big lake near Sandpoint, ‘Lake Pend Orioles,’ I gotcha.”

Hard to bluff your way through that test.  Any worthy Idahoan knows Pend Oreille, the state’s largest lake, is pronounced “pond-o-ray.” Seldom does a newcomer get that one right, perhaps with the exception of a French immigrant.

Other states we’ve spent some time in have place names designed to baffle a neophyte. On the way from our long-time home in Ogden, Utah, for a little recreation in the nearest Nevada gambling houses, we drove through Tooele County.  Telling locals you had traversed “Toolee County” brought big guffaws every time.  After several years as Utah residents, we became experts at announcing we had just returned from a trip through “Twilla County.”  We had become old settlers.

Indian names can be especially tricky.  Many acres in far northern Wisconsin are included in the Chequamegan National Forest.  “Shewameegun” rolls right off the tongues of people from my hometown and environs.  How would you say it?

The "Big Mac" truly is AWEsome.
Here in our adopted State of Michigan, a designation based on Indian words probably holds the record among U.S. geographic names mispronounced most frequently. Much of the fun started in 1957 with completion of the Mackinac Bridge linking the state’s upper and lower peninsulas.  At the time, the bridge was the longest two-tower suspension span in the world, so it got lots of attention.

Many tourists said they’d crossed the “Straits of Mackinack” on the “Mackinack Bridge,” and they still do. Actually, the newcomers traversed a bridge over waters whose name ends in “awe,” not “ack.”

The endings of most names in the area that look like "ack" are pronounced "awe." That holds for the bridge, the straits, and Mackinac Island, plus Fort Michilimackinac.  But just to confuse things, Mackinaw City sounds just like it looks.  And, to add more fun, some Michiganders refer to the famous “awe” bridge as “Big Mac.”

A little off the point is the fact that many long-suffering winter residents of both northern Wisconsin and Michigan wear sturdy overcoats known as “mackinaws.”  But that can be a help.  Think of big coats and you have a key to remembering the proper name of the big bridge and associated heart-warming stuff.

Much more could be written on this topic, but beautiful wife Sandy is telling me it’s time to start on our day trip to Dowagiac.  Folks, I haven’t a clue about how to say that.  Some local surely will be delighted to tell me after a guffaw following my feeble attempt to say I’m enjoying my first visit to D…..something or other.

Don’t look it up.  I did it for you.  Dowagiac (Doe-WAH-jack) is an Indian name meaning foraging ground.  Don’t damn those Indians; a legacy of unpronounceable names is just a reasonable bit of revenge for past war crimes against the tribes.


schmidleysscribblins, said...

Beautiful country where you live. Several of my cousins have returned home to WI after spending a life time elsewhere. I wish David would consider moving north, but he won't. Dianne

joared said...

Oh those Indian words can be fun pronouncing, but then so are many of our words with silent letters and the like.

We lived a few years in a southern state when I was young. Anyone who hadn't lived in the area several generations was an outsider known as such by all.

Enjoyed your Idaho story.

schmidleysscribblins, said...

Dick, I asked my Aunt Marge what Sheboygan meant. She said it's what the chief said when his wife had another girl. Sheeee boy again. BTW, I was born in Nacodoches Texas. Lovely Indian village from before the Spanish came. Dianne

Dick Klade said...

LOL, Dianne. And I always thought Sheboygan was named for a bratwurst.

JHawk23 said...

As an army kid I had fairly constant outsider status in ten different schools between kindergarten and high school graduation. In one or two places there was a school on base but usually, I'd be bused to some school off-base where of course there'd be mostly locals. Maybe the saving grace was that there usually would be quite a few military kids in those schools, so we were seldom a minority of one.