Thursday, November 15, 2012

Memoirs of a Frenchman: Learning to Speak English

My dad, in fits and starts with lots of prodding from me, is slowly writing his memoirs.  His story is just too incredible not to tell.  You can find more, including life in France, coming to America, and life in Kentucky over here.

I was just dropped into school, even though I didn’t speak English. There were a couple of months left in the school year, and children have to be in school, especially when their parents work. I think my sister also went, but I’m not sure what grade she was in. I was put in the third grade, and I sat in the back trying to read books in English. Not so easy. There were words that looked like French words but didn’t at all mean what I thought. I was more tickled than distressed by this stuff, though; I came across the word “mare,” which in French means a large muddy pond. Then I’d find out (usually by some picture) that it meant a horse; since they didn’t draw animal genitalia in kids’ books, I wouldn’t know that it was a female horse until much later. But I really thought it was cool that one word could mean something so different from one language to the other.

Since I was only 9 years old, my language acquisition device had not shut down, and I learned English very painlessly—as painlessly as possible, but one doesn’t learn even one’s own language without some pain and frustration. But that was the way I learned it: as a native language. Speaking, I would replicate sounds that got certain results, and that was it. For instance, the kids brought their toy pistols to school. I thought that was great, and of course I eventually got a pair of Roy Rogers six-guns in fringed holsters from my parents. But at the time I didn’t have anything like that, and longed to have one, or, failing that, to just hold one. I heard what one boy said to another, and it sounded like this, pronounced in French: “Ho mi cide gun.” With that nice childish sense that doesn’t demand precision, I figured that “homicide” of course had something to do with guns, and I knew what homicide meant in French. And the boy handed him the pistol. I tried it. Walked right up to that kid and said “Homicide gun!” and sure enough, the kid handed me the pistol. The kids at Liberty School didn’t seem to care about “please,” and that had to be taught by adults.

And I learned American imprecations! “Owlhoot!” “Dang!” “Four-flusher!” and my favorite, “Why, you…!” which I pronounced Oui-you. That made my friend Elsie laugh, and she modeled the correct pronunciation for me. But as to the meaning, it was a long time before I figured out that the suspension points were standing in for “sonofabitch” or “bastard” or something; as far as I knew, “Why you” was a perfectly good insult. And I know I’m not the only one who thought this. I’ve seen a SCTV show in which Ed Grimley shakes his fist at someone and says “Why you!” obviously assuming it to be a real insult. Of course, the actor in question is Canadian.

I was also embarrassed by the clothes I was wearing, horrible little red European shorts, and all the other kids were wearing Levis! Scarred for life by that, you betcha. Liberty School… you’d think that being weird little European kids, we’d have been bullied or at least hassled, but I don’t think there was any of that. I can imagine our arrival in that community made a splash and the kids heard about us from their parents. I believe we were taken for DPs –Displaced Persons—and due some consideration since we’d probably lost our home to bombardment or Nazis, and had narrowly escaped death. The Americans were really at their best at that time; as they became more and more aware of what had transpired in Europe—as they met more and more “Displaced Persons”—they understood how much people had suffered, and how fortunate Americans had been. That realization of being fortunate didn’t carry the self-righteous smugness it does today in some people. There was a feeling then that it really had been a close call, with the Nazis on one side and the Japanese on the other; it was diminishing by 1951, but there was still enough of that feeling around that Americans were very hospitable. And then, of course, people thought the French were cool.


Danielle said...

This is wonderful, and good for you for prodding. These amazing stories need to be recorded or else they'll just fade away with each passing generation.

Lisa from Lisa's Yarns said...

Oh wow, this was so interesting to read! I am glad your dad is writing his memoir - clearly he has a very very interesting story to share!!!

Kyria @ Travel Spot said...

This is really cool. I am glad he is getting it down on paper. That is so foreign to me, having to be assimilated into a culture at a later age, having to learn a new language! It would have been so hard. I am glad that he says that he doesn't feel like people were prejudiced against him.

Alice said...

i am so happy you're getting your dad to write all this down - what an amazing legacy for you and future generations to have. i WISH someone in my family had written about their experiences coming to America!

Journey Authentically said...

This is awesome and such a wonderful thing to do together. Loved reading this!! And what a compilation you'll have for the future.