“Life is short and full of blisters,” sighed the elderly southern gentlemen as we exchanged confidences about our various problems.
That seemed to sum up our mutual outlook on the vagaries of human existence, so we shook hands and went our separate ways.
That succinct sentence has returned to memory often since I first heard it several years ago – partly because of its homey philosophy, but mostly because it is a draught of cool water to this writer who has wandered long in a language desert searching for oasises.
I have come to realize that the colorful language of my youth in the South has nearly disappeared from the American scene. We speak in precise phrases, short sentences, business-like declarations. Efficient, but drab.
When I was growing up “down home” it was common for folks to sprinkle their conversation with colloquialisms. “Shoveling smoke,” or “Money thinks I’m dead,” or “A day late, and a dollar short,” or “If they put your brains in a jaybird, it’d fly backwards.”
What we need are more inventive talkers – like my Uncle Hooky Brown. He appreciated the fine points of discourse.
Hooky dearly loved clerking in the general store at Bradford, Tennessee. He built up a big trade because he was the best entertainment that side of the Mississippi.
At the conclusion of each sale, while sacking items purchased, he rattled off – in one breath — a long list of improbable commodities the customer might have forgotten to order. It was a symphony of dialog in a minute waltz:
“Thank you kindly, Miz Boone, and will there be anything else today?
Lampwicksaxehandleshorsecollarscorsetstaysblackeyedpeasprunessealingwax beeswaxcarpettaxfignewtonssunbonnetscoaloilshoepolishfurniturepolishsilverpolish bakingsodasodacrackerssodapoppumpwasherspeppermintstickcheeseclothneedles flowerseedssidemeatbuckshot or button hooks?”
The spiel varied – depending on the customer’s sense of humor. It was fun to try and figure out what he was trying to get you to buy. You figure it out.
Once in awhile he would get caught by his tomfoolery. A sly customer would reply, “Why, yes, now that you mention it. I’ll have a dozen corset stays.”
“Yes, Mam,” Hooky would say without hesitation. “We’re fresh out just this morning. I’ll have a box of them for you tomorrow. Would you care to make a ten-dollar deposit?”
* * *
Salty talkers in the olden days abounded everywhere. Hey-day of “rip-tail roarers” had nearly vanished in my childhood as regular fare. Nonetheless, we kids in small, southern towns could still coax old-timers to recite the brags and yells they learned as young ranch hands, lumberjacks or riverboat stevedores.
Roars once were the fashion among rough, hardworking men. They made a dent in my youthful memory.
When I was nine, at Caruthersville, Missouri, my father would take me to the levee at the foot of Main Street to watch the Mississippi cotton boats tie up for cotton bales.
When there was loading, the good old boys — who usually whiled away the time around the courthouse — came down to the levee to watch the goings on.
Dad always took along a plug of chewing tobacco to pass around and loosen the tongues of the old-timers. It didn’t take much. I got to keep the little, tin, brand tags on the plugs – such as “Tin Star,” “Red Coon,” and “Bull of the Woods.” They were prized collectibles.
“You boys remember any of the old brags?” Dad would say, as he stuffed in a chaw of terbakker. Then I snapped to attention. One brag I remember went something like this:
“I’m half horse, half alligator, with a little touch of snapping turtle, clumb a streak of lightning, slid down a locust tree a hundred feet high, with a wildcat under each arm, and never got a scratch. Whoopee-yip-ho!
“I come to this country riding a catamount, whipping him over the head with a forty-five and picking my teeth with a rattlesnake, using a cactus for a piller. Whe-e-e! I’m a two-gun cuss and a very bad man, and it won’t do to monkey with me. Whoopee!
“I was raised in the backwoods, suckled by a grizzly bear, got nine rows of jaw teeth and holes punched for more, a double coat of hair, steel ribs, boiler tube intestines, a barbed wire tail, and I don’t give a damn where I drag it. Whoopee-wee-a-ha!”
* * *
Frontiersmen took great pride in their personal yells, or brags, elaborating on them through the years. Generally they were given preliminary to good-natured “tussling” or roughhousing.
Brags also were a way of announcing their presence at a strange saloon where they wanted to make friends quickly. A creative brag usually was rewarded with a free beer.
A bar room sally went something like this:
“Hey, look at me! I’m the genuine article, a real double-acting engine. I’m a hard customer that can lick any man here. If you don’t believe it, step up and try me. I can out-run, out-jump, out-swim, chaw more tabaccy and spit less, drink more whiskey and keep soberer, than any man in these localities. Come out some of you and die decently, for I’m spieling fer a fight.”
* * *
The best roarers were river men who drifted up and down the Mississippi without calling any place home until they got too old to haul a hawser. Once I heard this magnificent boast at the Caruthersville levee:
“Yah-hoo! I’m the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw. They call be Sudden Death and General Desolation.
“Sired by a hurricane. Damn’d by an earthquake. Half-brother to the cholera. Nearly related to the small pox on my mother’s side.
“Look at me! I take nineteen alligators and a bar’l of whiskey for breakfast when I’m in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I’m ailing. I split the everlasting rocks with my glance, and I squench the thunder when I speak. Whoo-op!
“Stand back and give me room according to my strength. Blood’s my natural drink, and the wails of the dying is music to my ears. Cast your eyes on me, gentlemen. Lay low and hold your breath, for I’m ’bout to turn myself loose.”
* * *
How I cherish the character descriptions of my youth.
“Pretty as a new soda fountain.”
“Fidgety as a cat on a hot tin roof.”
“If brains were dynamite, he wouldn’t have enough to blow his nose.”
“She eats like there is no tomorrow.”
“Knee-high to a grasshopper.
“He drinks like it is about to go out of style.”
“Tender as a mother’s heart.”
“He doesn’t care any more about a nickel than his right eye.”
“She’s tighter than bark on a tree.”
“Butter won’t melt in his mouth.”
“Busy as a one-armed paper hanger.”
“His mouth is so big that if it wasn’t for his ears, the top of his head would be an island.”
“Big as life and twice as handsome.”
Compliments in the old days were enhanced by an imaginative choice of words. Insults were tempered by a touch of humor.
Perhaps life today wouldn’t be so grim if only we had the knack of speaking colorfully. Give us more rip-tail roarers and salty talkers.