This job may have ruined my language for life.

April 18, 2006

This job may very well have ruined my language for life. Hanging around bomb clearance workers for a month has corrupted me. I’ve done more cuss’n in the last thirty days than I did in my previous thirty years. I was hoping that some day, when I report in at the Pearly Gates, I could trade in my bomb removal work for some preferential treatment. Not a room in heaven’s high rent district. I’d settle for an efficiency apartment in a humble walk-up.

I’ve already blown my chances. If I arrived today, the big guy is likely to say, “Sorry son, but you out-cussed your good deeds three-to-one.”

I developed a vocabulary of cuss words early in life. Believe it or not, my mother was my cussing instructor and my father was the moderating influence. Where Mom picked up her colorful vocabulary is anyone’s guess, but when she got up a head of steam, she could swear like a wounded pirate.

For thirty years I worked in schools, surrounded by impressionable students. I lived in fear that I would one day slam my thumb in a desk drawer and Mom’s early lessons would end my career. I had a few close calls, but never a serious lapse. At least not while speaking English. My saving grace is that I know just enough Swedish to cuss my way through spilling coffee in my lap or slamming my fingers in a car door.

Most of the technical advisors on bomb crews here in Laos are from English-cussing countries: mostly Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain. All are vets with at least twenty years of military experience. Mom taught me to cuss with the worst of them.

Bomb clearance work started here a dozen years ago when ladies from the Mennonite Central Committee came to Laos to assist in post-war rebuilding of the country. Having grown up in Ohio, I know the Amish and Mennonites well. Wonderful farmers; poor joke tellers; can’t cuss worth a darn. “Fiddlesticks” and that sort of fluff.

The Mennonite ladies didn’t know a thing about bomb removal. So, when they started meeting villagers maimed by leftover landmines and bombs, they had the good sense to get hold of the Mines Advisory Group, or MAG, in Great Britain. The Mennonites organized the first clearance work in Laos, and MAG went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Some of the guys I work with remember chumming with the Mennonite ladies. (The old hands never refer to the Mennonite ladies as anything but “the Mennonite ladies”. Not “the Mennonites;” not the “Mennonite women;” certainly not the “gals” or “girls.” It’s always “the Mennonite ladies.” Tells you something, doesn’t it?)

What I wouldn’t give to see the old-timers working side by side with the Mennonite ladies. My vision is of the guys bleeding from the mouth as they chew on their tongues. I envision war-hardened vets struggling to conduct a conversation free of colorful language. I envision the good Mennonite ladies thumbing through their dictionaries vainly trying to find definitions for some of the new vocabulary that they heard during the day. I see blushing Mennonite ladies fanning a fainted colleague. I see our guys shame-faced when they realize that they’ve just made matters worse by offering to buy a beer in apology.

When I was a school principal, students would be sent to my office for discipline. Often the culprit would try to weasel his way out of trouble by pleading that “everyone else was doing it, too.” My standard response was to say, “Then everyone has to stop. Do you plan to be the first one to do the right thing, or do you plan to be the last?” Most students had the common sense to know which answer the principal wanted to hear.

Now I face a dilemma. I’m not the only one doing it. Everyone else is cuss’n up a storm too. I don’t want to be the last person to do the right thing. But, then again, I’m not sure I want to be the first guy on the team heard shouting, “Fiddlesticks!”

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