French Class: The Perils of Pierre

I transferred to Wright State University in the winter of 1982 to get a bachelor of arts degree.  My academic advisor told me that I needed a foreign language, and I signed up for French 101 that summer.  The class time was 8 a.m..  I worked third shift on weekends, and transferred to a normal sleep schedule each Monday so that I could stay awake for day classes.  8 in the morning presented a challenge early in the week, but I adjusted by Wednesday.  But if I arrived groggy and slow witted, my professor, Pierre Horne, had a manner of teaching that woke me up immediately.  He often placed his pointer finger on the side of one nostril and intoned the French word “un”.  The  nasal sound of the extended vowel, which reminded me of a garbage disposal whining after it had ground up its last bit of refuse, made the underside of my brain itch with irritation.  I  also stirred to a functional level of alertness when the professor spouted a steady stream of mushy vowels and consonants while pointing to objects in the room.  He paused to ask students questions about what he had just spoken, and chose his victims randomly.  When he called on me he stared with an expectant look that said, “Only a complete moron would fail to understand the beauty and majesty of the French language.”  After my inevitable moment of humiliation, of sputtering the few words I recalled that may or may not have been apropos, he always called on a willowy blonde two seats up the row.  She would answer at length in perfect French, and he would compliment her on her impeccable Parisian accent.  I hated that girl.

Eventually I picked up a understanding of French grammar as the professor began to relent and explain the basics in English.  I passed the first test but was stumped by one question.  Professor Horne spoke a phrase in French, and we were supposed to translate it into English.  He said, “Les voix des anges.”  That sounded like “Lay vwah dez on jzuh.”  I asked him to repeat it, and he obliged with a superior smile.  I understood that “les” was “the”, and “des” was “of the” but had no idea what “voix” and “anges” meant.  We hadn’t used those words in class when we discussed going to the library, our dietary preferences, the names of pieces of furniture, and the color of Gabrielle‘s hair, blouse and skirt.  I asked the professor after the test for the correct translation of the phrase, and he told me it meant “the voices of angels”.  I later paged through the text book several times and finally found “les voix des anges” in a caption beneath a photograph of Notre Dame in Paris.  The choir, apparently, sounded like the voices of angels when they sang in the cathedral’s choir loft.  Why hadn’t Gabrielle, my fictitious amie, stressed the importance of that nugget of information before the test?

One unfortunate lad joined the class late.  He had been in Israel studying Hebrew and found the transition into French difficult.  He annoyed Professor Horne especially when he pronounced “je”, the French word for “I” as “juh” instead of “jzzzuh”.  Pierre got incensed every time the kid butchered the French language and would cry out, “What is this juh-juh?  There is no such thing as juh!”

When the professor was in a happier mood he would muse about the oddities of American culture and the backward nature of life in Ohio.  He related anecdotes about a disastrous wine tasting at a local winery, the foulness of peanut butter,  and the rudeness of a bank clerk who said, “Hello, Pierre,” after she read his name on a form.  He expected her to address him formally as Mr. Horne as she and he were perfect strangers.  In France no one would dare to assume such intimacy (using someone’s first name) until a relationship had evolved much further.  (Perhaps his father had addressed his mother as Madame Horne until after the birth of their third child.)

I had to take two more semesters of French and chose another professor.  This man, whose name escapes me, spoke English with a French accent spiked with New York gutturals.  He had been born in Russia, escaped with his parents to Paris, and eventually settled in Brooklyn.  Having learned to speak three languages by the time he was a teenager he held the French language in lower esteem.  It was one of many.  He was much kinder and patient with us, and made no disparaging remarks about Ohio and the United States.  He did show us the 1950s film noir, “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, in which a French woman tells her Japanese lover that she was horrified when she and her friends listened to a news report about the Hiroshima nuclear bombing.  Her eyes filled with tears as she whispered to her Amour Japonais, “When we spoke of Hiroshima we said, ‘Those American bastards!'”  Two questions occurred to me after I read that subtitle:  Why would a French woman, a survivor of the Nazi Occupation, sympathize with an WWII ally of Germany? And why did the French flaunt a bias against Americans as if they were making a principled stand?

My new professor was a friend of Professor Horne and knew that many of us had taken his colleague for the introductory course.  He told us that Horne was on sabbatical in Paris where he intended to absorb as much of the latest French slang as possible.  I expected that our snobbish professor would be glorying in a return to the land of his birth where the cuisine enchanted the palate and bank tellers greeted customers with frosty aloofness.  We heard the opposite, however.  Apparently Professor Horne was homesick.  He found the French hostile and rude and missed the open friendliness of folks in the Midwest.  Pierre longed to return to Ohio, Wright State, and his sleepy, dull-witted students who insisted on butchering the most beautiful language ever spoken.

I took perverse pride in the fact that we had somehow managed to pull him down to our level.  Perhaps on his return he would dash out to the local supermarket and buy a loaf of spongy white American bread, a giant tub of sticky peanut butter, and a jug of Ohio wine that “tasted like turpentine”.   He might even beam with pleasure when the cashier called him “hon” and asked him about his weird accent (“Are you from Canada, Pee-air?”).

 

The Nicest Guy?

 

Trust him.  He means no harm.

I told a drawing class this morning that my goals as a professor are to teach as many concepts and techniques as possible, and to deliver the material in the most direct and easily digestible form available.  I want them to succeed.  I said that some students inexplicably believe that I’m trying to block their paths to success by making things difficult, by arbitrarily throwing up road blocks.  I countered that by saying that my life is much too complicated at the moment to take the time and energy to come up with diabolical schemes.  I’m 100 percent on their side.  Really.  I am.

But I’ve been told on a number of occasions that I’m considered to be a tough teacher who is very blunt.  I think that I’m just the nicest guy around, very kind and diplomatic, but when I say that to my adult children they snort and roll their eyes.  Their opinion is probably prejudiced by memories of a few times when I laid down the law when they were little.  At odd moments I channeled my father’s parenting techniques and gave them high decibel orders while staring down at them with a Wrath-of-Godlike glare.  They fail to recognize that I disciplined them purely out of loving concern, and never out of annoyance and impatience.  My brother has reported that one of my “special looks” is like a slap in the face, but he must be mistaken.  Sometimes folks confuse an expression of nearly violent concern as one of angry contempt.  Go figure.

When I went to Quaker Meeting several years ago I noticed that some of my more vivid stories and colorful language made my listeners cringe and withdraw.  I learned eventually through trial and error to avoid talking about traumatic childhood experiences, painful operations and current symptoms of undiagnosed diseases during coffee hour.  It’s uncouth and jarring, apparently, to introduce such topics immediately after congregants have left behind the ineffable peace of meditative worship.  Live and learn.

When I was a child my family sat around the dinner table and discussed Uncle Ralph’s bouts of alcoholism, Aunt Betty’s shotgun marriage as well as Grandpa Bob’s body odor and psoriasis.  Tales of death, misery, misdeeds and moments of tragic miscalculation accompanied dessert and coffee.  I grew up believing that folks discussed these matters frankly while in company, and that adding a few snide remarks as editorial commentary was also in good form.  Who knew that other people avoided such topics and hid awkward moments in family history in repression closets filled to overflowing?  I discovered these tactful people when I left home and Ohio, and it was as if I had crossed over into another dimension.

Now that I’ve seen the error of my ways I strive toward gentility, to an aristocratic sense of restraint and dignity.  Lord Grantham in Downtown Abbey is my role model.  Not his blood vomiting ruptured ulcer scene, of course, but the moments where he absorbs yet another blow to his standing and reputation with barely a murmur of protest.

I tell my painting students that painting is a process of making mistakes and learning how to fix them.  My life has been a lot like that, but I live in hope that one day my nature will become less erratic and explosive and more docile and tranquil.  I want to guide my ship through rough waters into a safe port.

But if that finally happens I may have to deal with one more problem:  my wife’s expectations.  She has become accustomed after 32 years of marriage to the vagaries in my mood and character, and any true sea change in my personality may cause her undue distress.  She may have to go through a period of withdrawal not unlike an addict kicking meth.

I remember one morning several years ago when we sat down together at breakfast and I took pains to conceal my residual anger from an argument we had the night before.  After ten minutes of polite conversation she put down her spoon and demanded, “What’s wrong?”

I said evenly, “I’m being a perfect gentleman.”

She answered, “I know you are.  That’s how I can tell that something’s wrong!”

 

 

The Cursed Vacation

We went up to Lake Thornapple near Hastings, Michigan from the time I was ten until my sophomore year in college. The lake was small, muddy and stocked mostly with pan fish, and the nearby town was simple and plain. Who knows what strange forces of fate and unnatural attraction kept drawing us back there year after year?

The Hoelschers, my six cousins and Aunt Mary and Uncle Louie, rented a cabin beside ours, and we shared meals together. We spent most of our time fishing, swimming and playing softball in a clearing in the pines near the shore. Dad and Uncle Louie also drank heavily and went through a several cases of beer in a week’s time. My Mom read books by the water and relaxed, and gossiped with Aunt Mary when the itch struck them to tell tales about family members not present. We usually came back home feeling happy and content with our break from our normal routines, and looked forward to our next vacation in Michigan. But we didn’t know what was in store for us the year I turned eleven.

Mom and Dad were known for showing up barely in time for church and family events, or arriving just a bit late. We pulled out of the driveway on a morning in August running an hour later than our planned departure time. That was about average. My parents had partially packed the night before and were somewhat organized about planning the trip. Mom had a to-do list and checked off items in an orderly fashion. But she always found additional things (food, medicine and clothing) to pack and jobs around the house that had to be done before she felt safe leaving home. Dad had to pack and unpack the trunk several times as the pile of goods kept growing in the driveway.

Dad bought a new trailer that year to haul fishing gear and an outboard motor. I believe that it had once been used to move remains from an Indian burial ground. When we turned the corner onto Doris Dr. to leave our neighborhood the hitch broke and the trailer skidded to a halt behind us. Dad cursed and backed up our Dodge. He managed to wire the hitch back together with a coat hanger and drove us and the trailer back home. He called a man he knew from NCR who lived a mile away. He did welding jobs for extra cash after retiring, and Dad hired him to fix the trailer. I drove over with Dad and watched him as he worked. He was a grizzled, burly man gone to fat, and had a giant black tumor on his lower lip. It looked like a small blackberry had taken root there. He wore goggles and sucked on a cigar as he worked. Dad told me to look away from the light of the torch.

It was noon by the time the job was finished, and we decided to get lunch several blocks away from home at the Parkmoor Restaurant on Woodman Drive. It was a drive-in/diner that served country fried steak, Dixie Golden Fried Chicken and burgers. We got a booth, and Dad and I put our baseball caps and sunglasses on a window ledge behind the cushioned seats. We ate a good meal and laughed off our trouble from earlier in the day, and then headed north. Just beyond the city limit in North Dayton we discovered that we had left the hats and glasses at the diner, and Dad insisted on turning around to retrieve them. It seemed that a mysterious force wouldn’t let us leave, that we kept getting pulled back to our point of departure. Our anticipated starting time of 9:30 a.m. lapsed to 2:00 p.m. I began to suspect that my family was living in a Twilight Zone episode.

It took five hours for us to escape the dark hills of the Miami Valley and hurry, never looking back, through western Ohio and into Michigan. The Hoelschers’s were eating supper outside at picnic tables when we arrived. Uncle Louie walked up to our car with a grin on his face and said, “Right on time, Tom! What’s the rush?” Dad told him to go to hell. We unpacked the car and trailer while Mom made cold sandwiches. I could still smell my cousins’ grilled hamburgers as I ate peanut butter and jelly and drank cherry Kool-Aid. The red powder combined with well water tasted like sugary poison.

The next day both fathers took six kids out in two overcrowded rowboats. Dad’s practice was to head to the upper end of the lake and let the wind push us down the length of Thornapple. We drifted over schools of fish and sometimes caught twenty or thirty in one pass. Our outboard motor made things a lot easier for the Schmalstig boat: we made more trips up and down the lake and caught more fish than the Hoelscher’s. We also passed our home dock more often and were hailed at mid morning by Aunt Mary. She wanted Uncle Louie’s car keys so that she could go on a grocery run into Hastings.

Dad headed over to the Hoelscher’s boat to deliver the message. Uncle Louie told us that his gas tank was just about empty and asked Dad if Aunt Mary could borrow our car. Dad agreed if Louie was willing to row in with our car’s keys: Dad was catching fish and didn’t want to waste time heading back to the dock. We maneuvered the boats so that they were about five feet apart, but came no closer. A stiff breeze kicked up waves that rocked the boats and made a closer approach dangerous. Dad leaned out over the water and said, “Catch!” to my cousin Johnny. Our boat rocked up as Dad released the keys, and the Hoelscher’s boat rocked down and drifted away. Dad’s throw was a little short, and Johnny had to lunge out to try to catch them. They glanced off his fingers and slowly drifted down in the murky water to the bottom of the lake. We all stared in stunned disbelief into the depths. No one dared jump in after them: the muck on the bottom was known to catch hold of and never release its victims.

When we docked at noon Dad called a mobile locksmith out to the cabin and got a car key made. Johnny skulked around like a child waiting for a whipping whenever he came near Dad, but Dad was magnanimous, chalked the whole thing up to chance and took some of the blame for making a poor throw. Johnny was smart enough to not trust in my father’s apparent good favor. It was eerily unlike Dad to accept responsibility for a mishap and to be cheerful in the face of an unexpected loss of cash. I began to wonder if Dad had been replaced by a simulated version of my father. Who had inserted him into our lives? Were we being studied by aliens?

Things went smoothly for the next few days, and our parents decided to take a boat ride at sunset. They needed a break from the combined demands made by nine children. The kids went down to the dock to do a little fishing before the mosquitoes came out and ate us alive. Joe and Johnny were at the far end, and when Joe swung his arm back at the beginning of a cast he had a long length of line dangling from the tip of the rod. He managed somehow to hook Johnny in the middle of his back, and hurt him worse as he slung the line forward and planted the barbs deeper. Johnny immediately began to bellow and swear at Joe, who prudently dropped his fishing pole and ran. Carla and cousin Joanie took a look at the hook and saw that it was deeply embedded, and no one wanted to try to pull it out.

Our cousins began to shout and wave to our parents. Their rowboat made slow circles in the middle of the lake just out of earshot. They smiled and waved back, but failed to notice that we were in distress. The lake didn’t want them to come in. But when the kids on the dock persisted in jumping around and screaming, our caterwauling dance penetrated the lake’s invisible barrier of unknowing, and our parents realized that something was wrong. Dad took the oars and began to pull hard.

Dad took Johnny into our cabin, laid him out on his stomach on the kitchen table, and told him that the hook could be pulled out with one, quick jerk. But Johnny wouldn’t hold still. His eyes were wide open and rolled from side to side, and he was starting to get hysterical. He thrashed around and cried out like a boy possessed. Dad and Uncle Louie drove him into town and found a small hospital with an emergency room.

Johnny returned a few hours later with a bandage on his back and a sore arm. The doctor had given him a tetanus shot after removing the hook. Joe made himself scarce for a day to avoid getting pounded by his brother. Johnny was sure that he had gigged him on purpose, and he may have been partly right. The spirit of a dead fisherman in the lake may have suggested to Joe a means of humbling his older brother, may have influenced the trajectory of his cast.

When that bit of excitement died down our parents decided to take us on an outing to Dearborn, just outside of Detroit, to visit Deerfield Village. We walked through the historical buildings and saw the Wright Cycle Shop where the Wright Brothers designed and built their first gliders and flyers. A chill went through me when I saw the chair in which Lincoln had sat at the Ford Theater. There was a rusty stain on the back cushion where his head must have rested after Booth’s shot.

On the way back to Hastings we traveled down a four lane highway, and our car led the way. A hole in our muffler had opened up on the way to Dearborn. We had the windows open to catch a breeze and the noise was deafening. We somehow heard a siren behind us and Dad looked up at the rear view mirror. He swore and said, “Dammit, they’re going to ticket me for the muffler.” We drifted over to the edge of the road and saw Uncle Louie pull in behind us. Dad cut off the motor before the cop got out, and was surprised when the officer walked up to Uncle Louie’s car. The trooper talked to Louie intently for a few minutes while patting the night stick hung from his belt. We were Ohioans, supporters of Woody Hayes and the Ohio State Buckeyes, and might be subject to officially sponsored violence in the home state of Bo Schembechler and the Michigan Wolverines. Mom began to say the rosary, and the cop eventually took his hand away from his night stick. He handed Louie a ticket. Dad sighed with relief, but waited until the police man pulled away before starting his engine.

When we got to the cabins Dad found out that the cop had given Louie a warning for a burned out tail light. Divine intervention had saved us, but we didn’t know how long our period of grace would last. Our string of mishaps had been the defining feature of the vacation trip, and we decided not to invite further troubles on the drive back to Dayton. The day before we left for home Dad went into town and had the muffler replaced, and Uncle Louie got a new tail light. I sprinkled lake water over the hitch, made the sign of the cross and said a few Hail Marys. The hook that had torn Johnny’s flesh was buried by the lake as a blood offering to the spirits of the waters. The new keys were rubbed with a St. Christopher medal to ensure a safe trip, and we put a piece of brown wool that the church said had come from the robe of St. Jude in the glove compartment. Catholics appealed to Jude when faced with a lost cause.

We made it home in one piece. Dad sold the trailer, but never told us to whom. He may have been worried that one day we would read in the newspaper about a neighbor who had wrapped his pick up and a haunted trailer around a tree. Or about a second cousin hauling a load of firewood who mysteriously disappeared into a dark void when he crossed the line into Indiana and never returned. (We usually thought of Indiana as a dark void, but folks traveling without hex upon them were generally able to return to Ohio, the land of goodness.)

Subsequent trips to Lake Thornapple were less eventful and the curse was broken. We knew for sure that we were safe from the influence of malevolent forces two years later when Dad kept Carla and me out on the lake during a lightning storm. The waves madly rocked the boat, squalls of rain lashed at us, and bolts of lightning flashed directly overhead. We pleaded with Dad to take us in before we all got electrocuted, but the fish were biting and he wasn’t willing to lose the opportunity.  Carla and I huddled down as low as we could go on our seats. When we had caught five more fish and thunder boomed in my ears so loudly that they ached, Dad pulled the cord on the motor and headed for our dock. We made it safely ashore and ran to the cabin. My Dad’s only punishment for tempting fate was a tongue lashing by my mother, a fairly regular occurrence, and we knew that all was well.