Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

November 12, 2005

Nine yards, cont.

No clear consensus has emerged in the debate over the origin of the phrase "the whole nine yards." The cement truck explanation is in a tie with the ammo belt explanation in responses from readers, several of whom have researched the matter.

I often wonder why some of these phrases stick and develop a meaning which is generally agreed upon. We all know how to use the phrase "the whole nine yards," but we can't agree on what it originally meant.

I think it has something to do with the sound of the phrase, the way it rolls off the tongue. Why are so many people with the name Bill given the nickname "Wild Bill?" Did it start with Wild Bill Hickock? Perhaps. But I think it continues because it is just plain fun to say.

Some of my favorite sources of humor are mangled cliches and mixed metaphors which preserve the original poetry of the phrase while changing the meaning completely.

For example, I was once bowling with some friends, including one we'll call Bonzo. Bonzo wasn't having a good game. As he rolled another gutter ball, somebody from back at the bar, who was a bit lit up, blurted out, "Bonzo, you just never seems to amaze me."

I don't know if it was an intentional slip, but the result was brilliant.

When I sold pianos, we had an old, gruff piano mover named Ed. He was on the verge of retirement, and he did what he wanted--which usually included a stop at the bar on the way to and from a piano delivery.

Well, one day I was lamenting a large tear in a piano slip cover. Ed was standing nearby and finally barked, "Just take it to a teamster!" He meant "seamstress," but it came out teamster, and I laughed until I dropped at the thought of Jimmy Hoffa with needle and thread.

The new Newt

Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, has reappeared as chair of an organization called the Center for Health Transformation. This is a bit odd, given Gingrich's past reputation as a flame-throwing free marketer, for this organization is committed to providing health insurance for all citizens, a patently socialist notion.

And an idea which I back fully, as long as we can avoid the pitfalls of the nationalized health care systems in other industrialized nations. It is clear that the present system is inadequate and clumsy.

If you are past retirement, you have Medicare and Medicaid. But if you are a young person struggling to pay the bills with no sense that you ever will get ill, health insurance is a cost which might seem a luxury--until you need it. Stories of children getting seriously ill and not having the insurance to cover their treatment are particularly troubling. Children cannot be blamed for their parents' lack of foresight in not carrying proper coverage.

So, although I am a free marketer, I think the health care field should be set aside as an area where dog-eat-dog competition is neither appropriate nor beneficial for those who most need care.

It appears that this group has chosen Gingrich as its chair in a bid to make sure it is not excused as a liberal, utopian group wanting universal health care without regard for the cost. I know Gingrich's chairmanship got my attention.

This country has trouble focusing on big picture, long-term problems. We prefer the drama of today's disaster. It makes for better television. But to make for a better country, we need to address the health care problems with courageous and far-sighted leadership.

November 11, 2005

The whole nine yards

Weblog reader and historian Allan writes wondering if I know the origin of the phrase "the whole nine yards." I do not, so I looked on the internet and there are several possibilities.

--It could be a reference to football. Nine yards is just short of the ten required for a first down. The "whole nine yards," somebody postulated, is an subtly ironic reference to falling just short. I doubt this. Somehow "subtle irony" and "football" don't seem to belong in the same sentence.

--It could be a phrase from the garment industry. However, no standard lengths of cloth that anybody knows of are measured in lengths of nine yards.

--It could refer to putting up all the sails on a ship. However, the phrase first appears in about 1966, a little late for it to be a nautical reference to big sailing ships.

--Machine gun shells were at one time about 27 feet in length, nine yards. Shooting off all the shells in one strip could mean one shot "the whole nine yards." However, by the time the phrase appears, strips of that length were long obsolete.

--My favorite possibility is that it refers to nine yards of concrete, the standard capacity of a modern cement truck. Say you pour a slab and there's a little left over. You quick find a place that needs concrete so you can use up "the whole nine yards."

If any of you have any further ideas, let me know. It appears the language experts don't really know where the phrase came from.

Any idiot

A few years ago, Dad was extolling the virtues of PVC pipe to a local plumber. The man spat back, "Yeah, now any idiot can be a plumber."

I suspect more than a few photographers who have spent years dealing with film and film development are a little chagrined at how easy photography has become with digital technology.

I took the photos below, loaded them onto the computer, adjusted their coloring, cropped them, reduced their quality so they don't take so long to download onto the web, and loaded them on the website--all within thirty minutes.

Somewhere, somebody is muttering, "Yeah, any idiot..."

Pictures of the last day of Indian summer

The pods of asclepias (milkweed) are a favorite target of photographers. No wonder why.

A touch of Christmas in the asparagus patch. A red asparagus seed stands out against the green asparagus foliage, which is aparently impervious to frost. The red seed is not on the green part of the plant--it comes from a stem which was very dead and which had fallen on the green stems.

Still a glimmer of color from the fall asters.

Dead seed heads have visual interest, although they leave me a bit cold. This is a monarda (bee balm), a plant which is native to the prairies around here.

Last day of Indian summer

At least that is what the weather forecast says. Tomorrow is supposed to bring more typical November weather--sleet, drizzle, cold. But today! It is going to be 64 degrees and sunny.

SPENT a little time reading Winston Churchill's World War II memoirs last evening. Nothing like good historical writing to pull one out of the cares of the moment and into a larger world.

Churchill's writing style is heavy on strong nouns and verbs. "Little did we know that Hitler had already cast his glare eastward," he wrote regarding a particularly costly bombardment of the London docks by the Luftwaffe, which turned out to be the last.

Lesser historians with fancy Phds might have written: "Although the devastating bombardment of London's docks reduced the port's shipping capacity by 74%, Germany discontinued the bombing, choosing instead to focus her resources on the impending invasion of the Soviet Union."

I like the picture of Hitler casting his glare eastward much better.

The Battle of Britain--a one-sided affair, so named by Churchill to make it seem less like a slaughter--went on for months. The Luftwaffe pounded British targets night after night. At one stretch, England was losing over two-thousand civilians per night. A total of nearly 50,000 lives were lost by the time Hitler "cast his glare eastwards."

At one point, Churchill alluded to Ireland, lamenting that Irish ports were "of course" not available to the English. I looked on the web to find out why that was the case. Sure enough, Ireland was neutral during the war, with some Irish politicians not-so-subtly pulling for the Nazis. The Irish hated the British so much that anybody who opposed them was seen as a friend.

November 10, 2005

Red Lobster, etc.

Olla and I had a good trip and accomplished all of our goals.

Olla had been telling all her friends at the Fertile Hilton that she was going to the "funeral parlor" today, and they would respond so gravely--"You'll pull through fine," and pat her on the back, not realizing how much Olla enjoys refining the plans for her funeral. The spectacle of these people feeling sorry for her gave Olla the giggles, so she was in high spirits when we left for our visit with the undertaker.

Although we didn't pick out a specific tombstone--which was a relief for me, since I know she would have insisted upon mauve--we did set some money aside for the purpose. As we sat down with the funeral director for our discussion, Olla said, "This getting-ready-to-die business is about killing me off!"

As we went down Highway 9 towards Fargo, Olla decided we should stop at the Spring Prairie Hutterite colony to pick up some chokecherry jelly. I have never stopped there, so I was glad to get a chance to see the place. It was down a minimum maintainance road which had a seven-ton limit posted. Olla was worried about that, and then laughed: her husband, who died thirty-five years ago, would tease her about being concerned about weight limitations on roads, telling her to get out of the car and walk so they would be legal. We met a gravel truck about that time. I think he was heavier.

Florence and Olla were regulars at the Hutterite colony there back in the days when they took their road trips. The gentleman who helped us said in a heavy German accent, "Where is the old lady who doesn't like chicken?" He meant Florence.

Due to a childhood truama which has stuck with her through her 90 years, Florence hates chicken, or anything with feathers. Once they discovered this, the Hutterite gentlemen teased her about giving her chickens for Christmas, and so on. It had been a couple of years since Olla and Florence had been to the colony, so it was impressive that the man still remembered Florence and Olla. I suppose they are unforgettable.

Olla explained that Florence and she had eventually gotten confused about how to get to the Hutterite colony. In the past couple of years when the were in the general area they would start arguing so ferociously about which turn to take that they both agreed not to even try to get to the colony anymore, just to keep the peace.

I ended up buying two smoked chickens and a ham, and Olla got her chokecherry jelly.

The number one goal in Fargo was to get a new walker. We accomplished that at a medical supply store. This is no usual walker--it has wheels and brakes and the whole nine yards. Plus, it is painted metallic blue. Olla worried that it will seem ostentatious at the home. "This will cause a stir," she said, worried that the other inmates would stare at her more than they do already.

Later in the day, she returned to the topic, saying that if anybody has a problem with the glitzy walker, they'll get over it--or they'll die, eventually, and be replaced with people who will also have glitzy walkers because, no doubt, she is at the forefront of a trend which will eventually become universal. So much for that.

Then we went to Best Buy to get a stereo. Olla waltzed into the store with the new walker at a scary pace. We found a good stereo, and then bantered with the 18-year-old clerk who apparently has never dealt with the elderly before. He was clearly uncomfortable, but intrigued. I told him we were on a spending binge to use up Olla's money before the nursing home took it all, and he wondered why you have to do that. "That really sucks!" he said, after I explained.

Onto the West Acres mall for a new watch band. We ended up downstairs at this delightful little watch shop staffed by a charming gentleman who bantered around with Olla for quite a while as he found her a nice band which didn't pinch her skin. He grabbed a fold of skin on her wrist and said, "it's getting a little loose!" Now, there's somebody who's dealt with the elderly before.

Finally, our goal: Red Lobster. Olla has always wanted to go there and have lobster. So we did. She sheepishly asked my permission to order a "small" glass of red wine, which I granted. The lobster was okay, and Olla ate every bite, but in the end she decided shrimp is better, so she ate part of my shrimp, too. And then, a cup of coffee to "sober up."

On the way back to Fertile, we deliberately drove Highway 10 so we could take the shiny new interchange onto Highway 32. "Now I can say I have seen THAT!" Olla said, as if seeing the interchange was the coup de grace in our day of grand accomplishments.

Then back to the Fertile Hilton. Olla had worried during the day that she forgot to tell the nurses she would be gone. "I guess they'll have to just get used to me running in and out," she finally concluded.

No worries. The first nurse who saw Olla said, "How was Red Lobster?" I think she had told more people than she remembered.

Gravestone shopping

I am picking up Aunt Olla in a little bit to go shopping. Our first stop is the funeral home to pick out a stone. She wants to get that all taken care of before the county starts assisting her with the nursing home costs--and she will only be allowed $75 per month.

We are also going to Fargo to pick up a new walker, and get a stereo system compact enough for her to have in the nursing home.

We'll top it off with dinner at Red Lobster. Olla has always wanted to go there, and this is the day. That means we will miss our usual dinner place, Juano's on Broadway, which has the best Mexican food in Fargo, but such is life. We'll have to take another trip.

It is a beautiful day for such a trip.

The fun of living in the nursing home hasn't worn off yet--Olla is still as enthused about the place and the people as she was the first day she moved in. Her dinner-table mate recovered from her stroke well enough to go home--which was too bad for Olla, but they have talked on the phone at length since. Olla is always good at making new friends.

November 09, 2005


Things have been quiet around here during the week--just a couple of shots per day. Hunting season in this area is nine days this year, covering two weekends and the weekdays between.

Last weekend, the two parties who hunted on this land took perhaps six deer between them. There are still many of the critters left to go.

By Sunday evening, the regular hunters had moved on and some others stopped by, including a man who hunted here last year. I was a little chagrined at him then, for he had made it sound like it would only be himself hunting. That was why I said yes. One more hunter on the property wouldn't clog things up too much.

But when opening morning arrived, there were eight hunters in his party and they had two four-wheel drives which were racing around the property making noise. I guess four-wheelers are legal if you have a handicapped person in the party. But it made for a very crowded quarter section of land, with two other parties there as well.

So, he stopped to see about hunting again. Made it sound like he was the only one. So, I asked, how many in your party? He paused like he didn't want to answer the question or had to take a count...and finally said, "I think we have four."

You think? How difficult is it to figure that number out?

I almost sent him back to get an accurate count. However, since all the other hunters were gone and it was almost dark, I told him they could make a drive through the woods if they wanted. We want to get rid of some deer, and pinning people down on their little fibs isn't going to get that done.

November 08, 2005

November color

Hardy roses can display stunning fall color. I think this is a rose which was bred by a young woman in Bagley. It blooms pink in June.

This is a glossy black chokeberry, related to chokecherry but not quite as palatable. The morning mist created the big drips.

A "Madonna" elderberry is still hanging onto its leaves and its color.

The Fairy Queen spirea, a dwarf version of the old time bridalwreath, has had this color for at least three weeks.

Even after several hard frosts, the leaves of the lupine bead water better than Turtle Wax.

Bi-polar November

Yesterday was about as perfect as you can get in a northern Minnesota November: Sunny, mid-50s, still. Today is more typical. Rain, cold, drizzle, lots of blue on the Doppler radar.

Any nice weather in November is a bonus. If you have a blizzard in early November, that snow usually stays. So, the longer we put off the first blizzard, the more work that can be done--and the shorter a winter we will have.

TALKED to Uncle Rolly and Aunt Jean on the phone last night. They deadly Indiana tornado passed eight miles from their house. It was unpredicted, and it happened at 2:30 a.m., when both early birds and night owls are in bed. There was no way to warn the people in time.

Rolly had a thought: With all the 911 technology, wouldn't it be possible to set up a computer to automatically dial the phones of people in the path of a tornado? It sounds difficult, but I don't think it is implausible. Doppler radar can identify funnel clouds quite clearly. A computer could predict the path the tornado would take with some accuracy. That same computer could trigger a phone call to all homes in the tornado's path.

Of course, if you lived in a trailer home, what could you do? You could jump in your car and drive, but in which direction? I suspect it would be safest to drive north or south, since most tornadoes move from west to east in this part of the world.

I didn't put a basement under this house, and the only reservation I had was the thought of a tornado. However, the slab drops two feet from the kitchen to the living room, so I think I would lay down right against the two-foot vertical concrete wall formed by the drop.

I have lived in trailer homes twice in my life, and I am fond of them, at least when the pipes aren't frozen and there isn't a storm and when it isn't 95 degrees and humid. Oh, and if you don't bank up the skirting with snow or straw, your feet will be pretty cold during the winter.

For a kid, the length of the trailer can be fun--running up and down that long hallway. When you are in the back of the trailer, it is sixty feet removed from the front. If Mom's busy in the kitchen up front, she can't hear what havoc you are wreaking in the back bedroom. It is a little like living in a cave, sort of adventurous.

When Mom and Dad built the new house in 1974, it was exciting, but it was also sad to see the trailer, which they sold to neighbor Henry, roll out of the yard.

November 07, 2005

More on torture and detainment without trial

The Christian Science Monitor gives the torture question its usual fair and circumspect treatment.

Can you imagine the nightmare for somebody innocent who was taken into custody by the CIA, shipped off to an Eastern European country to be tortured and held (and sometimes killed, by the way) for an indefinite time without even the potential for a trial? Do we assume that the CIA knows what it is doing and is getting the right people? We don't assume that about our own police, and for good reason. Everybody makes mistakes.

John McCain is right. This rot needs to be exposed to the light of day. McCain was held for five years--and tortured--in North Vietnam. He knows what he's talking about. Ninety senators agree with him.

November 06, 2005

Stop the torture

Newsweek has a good article on why there should be a strong anti-torture policy towards prisoners of our military, no matter how heinous their crimes.

I am ashamed that our country tortures prisoners. Such torture has happened before on our watch, but mainly in times of great stress for the grunts on the ground, and without official sanction. American soldiers did some atrocious things in response to the horrible Nazi massacres of American POWs late in the war, but that was without permission from the top.

Now, we have Donald Rumsfeld passing on the message that the Geneva Conventions are to be ignored--we need to get information out of these prisoners in whatever way possible.

So, they have been waterboarding--sinking prisoners underwater until they think they are drowning--beating them, shocking them, deliberately inducing hypothermia by making prisoners stand naked for hours in the cold, and a whole sickening catalogue of other nefarious practices.

Aside from the obvious moral questions torture raises, it is simply not something we should do for strategic reasons.

1) Torture of prisoners destroyed our image in Iraq.

2) The information gathered from people who are tortured is usually unreliable. Wouldn't you tell people what they wanted to hear if they were holding your head underwater?

3) If we violate the Geneva Conventions, is is likely that our future enemies won't abide by them either, which doesn't bode well for future prisoners of war from our military.

4) Torturers are emotionally scarred and morally compromised for life. Nobody should be required by their superiors to engage in such atrocious behavior. Shooting armed enemy combatants is one thing--tormenting helpless prisoners is another.

Now, my questions are these: Why hasn't there been a huge outcry from the people who claim to be the great moral voice of this nation, the religious conservatives? Why do they just not care about this issue? Isn't there enough sex in it to get them interested? Doesn't torturing another human being strike them as a direct violation of New Testament principles? Why isn't James Dobson railing about this on his radio show every day instead of devoting all his time to making sure gay people don't get too uppity? Is there any indication in the teachings of Jesus that he would sanction torture?

What does it say about the morality of our mission that 1) we took over one of Saddam's most notorious torture chambers and used it for--torture. And, 2) the CIA is torturing prisoners in some of the very gulag's in Eastern Europe where the Soviets tortured their political prisoners?

Traveling abroad was difficult enough when we were merely bombing Libya, and for arguably legitimate reasons. But I can't imagine what it is like traveling now. Simply throwing up your hands and saying you aren't a part of it isn't sufficient. When you get cornered by a European angry at Americans, they start pelting you with so much anger that there is no appeasing them. Some of their charges are so false that you have to refute them. No matter what your specific views, you end up defending this country.

For instance, if I were fall into a discussion at an overseas pub or party and announce right up front that I was absolutely opposed to torture of prisoners, that issue would be laid aside and the more virulent anti-Americans would move on to something else, until they said something so outrageously false that it would set me off.

In one case, I was dodging bullets from an angry woman who kept at me until she finally resorted to, "I've heard that American ice cream tastes like shit!" Oh, I said, it is awful. Then she got mad. She was really hoping to find an ugly American in the flesh that she could tell off good and proper.

I suspect that this torture business is not only ruining our stature in the world, but it is going to haunt individual travelers for years, at least those who get out of their hotel enough to talk with the locals. That may seem like a minor matter, but perhaps it can make the torture issue relevant to individual citizens: We are responsible to speak out when our country is behaving dishonorably. If we don't, we are culpable.

Frosty morn

Woke up to frost and a little ice on the swamp. The incredible humidity in the house accounts for the foggy fringe around the windows, I think.