My brothers were a handful

By Jacque White Kochak

It’s been a scorching Kansas summer day, 103 degrees in the shade in the days before air conditioning. You can’t get in the car wearing shorts because the vinyl seat is too hot, and you can’t walk barefoot on asphalt or cement or you’ll be sorry. If you are out in the country, you’ll see water shimmering where the highway meets the horizon, but you know it’s a mirage.

Better to be outside than indoors, though, because in western Kansas there’s always wind, sending tumbleweeds scuttling down the side of the road. I’m not talking about a timid little breeze, flirting with the treetops. I’m talking wind, always wind, a familiar companion like a lullaby that eases me to sleep at night.


‘My twin brothers were like that, always with their fearless shenanigans. One time I came home from school at Sunnyside Elementary to learn they had shimmied up the television antenna by the side of the house, climbing as high as the porch roof.’ 


I’m alone in the backyard. I’ve used a slender tree branch to draw a circle in a patch of dirt beside the sidewalk that leads to the back porch, and I’m sitting inside the circle with my skinny legs crossed. This is my teepee, and I’m an Indian maiden. It’s getting towards suppertime, and Mother is in the kitchen cooking. Probably biscuits with dried beef gravy, because we ate a lot of that in those days.

Daddy is away, as usual, and my sister Kelly and brother Steve must be inside playing. Mother comes out on the screened back porch, pokes her head out the door, and asks, “Jacque, have you seen the twins?”

No, I haven’t, so she shakes her head as she wipes her hands on her apron. “Well, you better look for them. Those boys are going to give me gray hair,” she says.

So I unfold myself from my teepee and gallop across the yard to look behind the old outhouse. I crawl through the hole in the wire fence behind the outhouse and search around the rusty, decrepit farm equipment behind the barn. We are trained to stay away from the ramshackle chicken house and the barn’s interior, so I don’t check there. I don’t figure they’d dare go inside.

Deciding they must not be outside, I move my search indoors. I look upstairs, systematically checking each one of the four bedrooms and their closets. I return to Mother’s tiny kitchen, where Bruce and Brent have been known to race ants across the counter.

“Mama, I can’t find them,” I say tentatively, knowing I should have been watching them.

Consternation etches her pretty face, then anger. I cringe, because I know how my mother’s anger can escalate, culminating in a session with the pink plastic hairbrush, its bristles bent from contact with our bottoms and other tender parts. She’s too worried to waste time on me, though. My brothers are a handful, and there’s no telling where they’ve gotten to.

The mystery is soon solved. The doorbell rings, and a policeman looms in the front door, blocking out the bright late-afternoon sun. Bruce and Brent are in tow, their faces dirty and their bright blue eyes intent as they gaze at my flustered mother. They contentedly lick chocolate ice cream cones, with just as much ice cream dripping onto their t-shirts as makes it into their mouths.

“Mommy, wook!” says Bruce as he shows her his melting ice cream. They are about 3 years old, and their speech is a little hard to understand. In fact, they have their own language between them, a language that nobody else can understand.

The tall, kindly officer explains that the boys turned up at the drive-in restaurant located a block away and across four-lane South Second Avenue. I know he is kindly because, after the bemused owner called the law, the policeman showed up and bought my errant brothers ice cream before he brought them home. I see this as patently unfair, because they got in trouble, tempted fate by crossing a busy street, and received a reward for their daring.

My twin brothers were like that, always with their fearless shenanigans. One time I came home from school at Sunnyside Elementary to learn they had shimmied up the television antenna by the side of the house, climbing as high as the porch roof. When they were younger my mother tried attaching them to the clothesline with dog leashes, but they undid the latches.

As teenagers, Bruce and Brent often preferred to sleep on the floor, and they made their own bows and arrows from Osage orange, common on the Great Plains. The big green fruit, bigger than a softball, is known as a hedge apple because the Osage orange, like the cottonwood, is common in the windbreaks that stopped the wind from stripping the fields. The heavy, fine-grained yellow wood is prized for tool handles, fence posts—and bows. In the early 19th century, a good Osage bow was worth a horse and a blanket.

Don’t ask me how my brothers knew this, but they knew a lot of things that didn’t make sense for them to know. Once Brent told me that he and Bruce were reincarnated Indians, and I half believed him. Now, he says he doesn’t remember saying any such thing.

As the oldest child, I was usually nominally in charge when we played in the yard. Once, Kelly and Steve got into a giant ant pile, which left them screaming and crying as the ants stung them. Mother, enraged, demanded to know why I had let them get into the ant pile.

“And why did you get in the ant pile?” she also demanded to know of them. Kelly and Steve told her Bruce and Brent were playing in the ant pile, so she asked them why they would do such a thing.

“The ants are our friends,” the 4-year-olds replied. And the truth is that the ants were their friends, never stinging them—just one more thing I can’t explain about my brothers.

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You can go to war, meet your ancestors and even play Indian at the local library

By Jacque White Kochak

(This article first appeared in the Auburn Villager)

I’m a nerd, and proud of it. God bless Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish industrialist and philanthropist whose largesse built more than 2,500 libraries in the U.S., Great Britain and Ireland.

Thanks to Mr. Carnegie, I was able to spend long, hot summer afternoons in the cool, domed Dodge City Public Library, located on the western Kansas plains. My child’s body rarely traveled past the stockyard and feedlot at the edge of town, but my mind was free to explore foreign countries, spend a season with a Bedouin or see the world through the eyes of a French madame. My goal was to read every book in that little library.

I have always said that if I suffered a mid-life crisis, I would disappear into the bowels of a library to study ninth century marriage customs or some such esoterica.

And God bless former Auburn University President Ralph Brown Draughon, the moving force behind construction of the Auburn University libraries that bear his name. The libraries—there are several—boast combined collections of more than 2.7 million volumes as well as 2.6 government documents, 2.5 million microforms and some 148,000 maps. The libraries also receive more than 35,000 current periodicals, many available online. And the libraries provide access to more than 227 electronic databases.

I have always said that if I suffered a mid-life crisis, I would disappear into the bowels of a library to study ninth century marriage customs or some such esoterica. And this is the place to do it.

I tend to become enamored of a subject and research it thoroughly. Where else can you find the Colonial Records of South Carolina volumes relating to Indian affairs? I have perused the pages of a master’s thesis about the history of the old Drake Infirmary and wrestled with microfilm to read issues of the Opelika Daily News from the early 1900s. You’d be surprised what constituted news in those days.

I’ve even fended off the advances of a 30-something graduate student. I was carrying a volume about South Carolina’s old 96 District, and I guess the fellow—a history student with a passion for the Revolutionary War—thought he’d found a soul mate.

If genealogy is your thing, check out the archives in the basement. The staff was quite helpful when I begged them to find mention of my great-uncle, an early barnstorming pilot, in their collection of aviation memorabilia (unfortunately they weren’t successful).

The building is imposing, parking is difficult and townspeople may feel they’re not welcome. That’s not true. All bibliophiles are the same, if you ask me. Rich or poor, young or old, they’re all seekers.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got someplace to go. James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokees is calling my name.

 

ARE YOU OFFENDED YET?

Please don’t call me a hussy or I will be very angry. Don’t call me a courtesan, either.


By Jacque White Kochak

I’ve been thinking about pejoration lately.

I’m glad I haven’t used the word “Oriental” in years, because when I wasn’t looking this innocent word morphed into an offensive term for Asians. I was unaware of this inexorable shift, as I tend to think of Oriental as meaning Eastern. Occidental has not undergone such a shift, so I was taken by surprise. Fortunately, my consciousness was raised one afternoon as I listened to NPR and an earnest young woman talked about her father’s Chinese restaurant. She made a good case, so I’ll be on my best behavior.

‘But see, here’s the thing. Illegal alien and undocumented immigrant mean exactly the same thing.’

Thank heavens, I have long been aware that “wetback” is a totally unacceptable name for Mexicans who crossed the Rio Grande without benefit of papers, although in the 1950s, when I was a very young girl, President Dwight David Eisenhower made the inexcusable mistake of including this insulting term in the name of a quasi-military search-and-seizure operation aimed at illegal immigrants (remember “Operation Wetback”?). Umm, make that undocumented aliens. No wait, I forgot, “aliens” is not nice. Undocumented immigrants, that’s it—for now, at least. Apparently  Ike missed the memo.

I have to keep up with these things, because as a journalist I’m supposed to know AP style. For the uninitiated, that’s the style preferred by the Associated Press. Knowing AP style is a way to ensure consistency, so the reader isn’t subjected to the annoyance of things like the period that ends a sentence being isolated outside the closing quotation marks. I’m enough of a true believer that I cringe at such an abomination, and AP style says undocumented immigrant is acceptable.

Back to the subject at hand: Missing the memo these days, in the time of Twitter and Facebook, can be a very serious thing. One slip of the tongue, and yours can be a household name in every 50 states. Your mother may be exposed for failing to raise you correctly, and you may lose your reputation, your job, and I suppose even your family.

But see, here’s the thing. Illegal alien and undocumented immigrant mean exactly the same thing. The difference, as you’ll remember from English class, is that “illegal alien” has a negative connotation, or the “idea or feeling that a word evokes,” quite beyond the literal meaning.

The problem is that the connotations of some categories of words tend to pejorate. Pejoration is a linguistics term describing the way some words take on negative or disparaging connotations over time. This isn’t really a random process; certain categories of words tend to pejorate more than others, which to me raises some interesting questions.

‘You can insist that sexism exists only in the perfervid imaginings of a bunch of old feminists, but our language tells a different story.’

For example, words having to do with women often pejorate. Hussy started life as the perfectly respectable “huswif,” or housewife—but please don’t call me a hussy or I will be very angry. Don’t call me a courtesan, either, although a courtesan once meant nothing more insulting than a lady of the court. You know, like a courtier—but words having to do with men do not have the dismaying habit of slumming around with the riffraff.

A few centuries ago, a wench was a female baby or a young unmarried woman. I don’t think I need to explain “mistress” and “madame,” but you might not realize that a spinster was once a woman who spins. And a tart, in the sense of a prostitute? Tart was probably just a contraction of the innocuous “sweetheart.”

Are you angry yet? Our attitudes are indelibly imprinted upon our language. You can insist that sexism exists only in the perfervid imaginings of a bunch of old feminists, but our language tells a different story.

Words having to do with smells also tend to pejorate, as do words having to do with the bathroom. So that brings me to what I really want to talk about, which is words having to do with ethnic groups and words referring to people with disabilities.

This is perilous territory, and I risk a misstep that will send me into Twitter purgatory. I did my homework, however, and I believe—unless the terminology has already changed—that black and African American are still acceptable. “Negro” not so much, apparently—the Army actually apologized in 2014 for saying the term was tolerable.

I guess Martin Luther King didn’t get the memo when he used the word “Negro” in his moving “I Have a Dream” speech: “But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free,” he wrote. “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

Let’s not even talk about the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NACCP). What were they thinking?

Most people are aware of the care needed in referring to different ethnicities, but they’re shaky on words referring to people with disabilities. A “disabled person” or “the disabled” are definite no-nos. You should probably stay away from “mentally ill” (“person with mental-health issues” is better).

‘Why keep changing words when the problem is really societal attitudes? I realize I’m on treacherous ground here, but can’t the word police ease up just a little on us old fogies who grew up using terms that are now totally unacceptable?’

I’ve kept up well enough to know that “retarded” is no longer acceptable, never mind the fact that The Arc, an organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, started out in 1953 as the National Association for Retarded Children. The association’s history of name changes allows us to date with some precision the period when “retarded” pejorated to the point of becoming completely verboten. That would have been the early 1990s, when the Association for Retarded Citizens of the United States euphemized into The Arc.

And don’t forget, “handicapped” is really bad.

I could go on with examples all night, but I bet you get my point. In fact, my point is, “What’s the point?” Why keep changing words when the problem is really societal attitudes? I realize I’m on treacherous ground here, but can’t the word police ease up just a little on us old fogies who grew up using terms that are now totally unacceptable? It’s just hard to keep up, you know.

Does changing a word to something less “offensive” really solve anything? Doesn’t it make more sense to work on the entrenched attitudes themselves? If I ever end up in a wheelchair, please—just call me a cripple. I promise I won’t get angry (but stay away from hussy or courtesan).

Even worse, aren’t the sensitive, empathetic, socially conscious ones among us—the people who point out that “Oriental” is really not nice—the ones who are perpetuating this pejoration?

I realize I’m an outlier, but my philosophy has always been that I won’t take offense unless offense is meant. In this era of political correctness and “microaggression,” can’t we all all just lighten up a little bit?