Wednesday, June 29, 2011

WE THE VERY SPECIAL AMERICAN PEOPLE


June 29, 2011

In answer to Armed & Angry of Monticello: Affirmative, old boy, I am very much an American chap, by jove, even though I speak funny and write funny like this, and even though I don’t believe in all the gubbins you believe in. My president, George W. Bush, assured me I’m every bit the Septic* you are, squire .
[* Septic tank: London Cockney rhyming slang for Yank.]
Hundreds of millions of us are native born, some with foreign ancestors going back to 1776 and many before 1492. But there are millions of new Americans. Apart from the indigenous tribes, we’re originally from all over, which makes us such a special nation. It’s our diversity that unites us.
The Irish Americans, I’ve noticed, are just that. They make no distinction between northern and southern. While back across the water these two “brands” have been killing each other for centuries, here it’s beautiful: they’re all just Irish.
Nonetheless, not many Americans, I’ll wager, come from the following place...
It’s a little Viking island in the middle of the Irish Sea that has its own stamps, coins, tail-less cats and the oldest continuous parliament in the world, the thousand-plus-year-old Tynwald. It’s the Isle of Man, and those born there, as I was, don’t have Manx citizenship per se, they’re just common-or-garden British.
I did have German nationality once as well, because the rule there is that if your father is from the Fatherland then you, too, are a Kraut. My cousin Horst would often lecture me: “If an elephant ist born in a lion cage zet dussent make him a lion.”. Noteworthy that he would equate his dumpling-eating countrymen with elephants and the British with lions.
But when I went to the German embassy to have my passport renewed they just snatched it out of my hand with a curt “Senk you!” in which the “you” was at least an octave higher than the “senk”. They refused to issue me another.
All this bypasses the fact that my forebears way, way back came from Koenigsberg in East Prussia, now absorbed into Poland. And that some drunken New Yorker with one of those ten-foot Polish names once told me: ”Szcwzkrzcvw brczwkrkzski cie!”. Such a wit. Very droll. I laughed at that one till I cried. And then he sank another slivovitz and said: “Two hundred years ago, buddy, we whupped you.” Whupped, you say? Did you really! Two hundred years ago we were probably neighbors, my fine inebriated przyjaciel (przyjaciel means ‘friend’), and most likely you were just as obnoxious then.
Either I told the following to Norman Nicholas of Monroe Optical or he told me. “Read the bottom line,” the optometrist instructs his Polish patient. The patient replies: “Read it? I know him!” This joke doesn’t work in Poland where two out of three people actually do know him.
And this leads me to the true story of how international trade began eons before the Columbian Exchange, the unlikely business partners being the Hawaiians and the Poles. These two nations are – you’ve guessed it - poles apart. Seven thousand miles, give or take a few waves, but measured in nautical miles a mere 6,000, so the naked oarsmen heaved a sigh of relief when they learned that.
Yes, oarsmen. Naked to spare the added weight of their loincloths plus they stayed slim on low-fat coconut water and, boy, were they furious paddlers – as evidenced in the Seventies TV series Hawaii Five-O .
Anyway, the Hawaiians had stripped their language of all its consonants from B to Z, loaded them into the canoes and paddled like demons till they reached Gdansk. There, they traded those consonants for all the vowels in the Polish language, piled them into the boats and the two nations bid each other a fond “Gdby” or “ooe”, depending on who was saying it. After a quick glug of grog - that slivovitz stuff again – as a brace against the Baltic winds, the islanders rowed back singing “A Life On The Ocean Wave.” Devoid of consonants, it came out as Aloha Oe.
Hawaiians today are all Americans, our most notable being Barack Obama – unless you’re in Loganville still thinking he’s Kenyan - and Don Ho. And this country has its share of Poles, too, the overwhelming majority being descendants of people who rowed over from Poland... no, that can’t be right; maybe they rode.
Measured against New York, where I lived 12 years, and especially Chicago, where I didn’t, you don’t see too many Poles down here in Dixie. Nor Ukrainians, Bulgarians, even Italians. Atlanta’s changing dramatically, but the overwhelming percentage of Southerners are descendants of immigrants from the British Isles. You can tell by the names.
Nationally, nearly 13 percent of us are labeled black with more than 16 percent Latino and over 72 percent white, although white also includes Arabs. Foreign-born Americans are as numerous as black folks. So the short answer, A&A, is yes, I am an American – a new one, but still a proud and loyal one who loves apple pie.
Hearing the Star Spangled Banner brings me twice the pride. It’s really an English ditty from 1780 called ‘To Anacreon In Heaven’ that Francis Scott Key heard and assigned new lyrics while captive on a Royal Navy warship. The original was a somewhat raunchy song about wine and wenches and Baccus and back again to wine and women.
Much more fun than saying and seeing by the dawn’s early light.

ENDIT

© 2011 Fred Wehner is a journalist formerly with the Daily Mail in London, who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Monroe 21 years ago.