Talk the talk,wherever you are

Of the several possible approaches to this morning's topic, I'll use Otto Stewich, if you please. Otto was a Silesian, or German-speaking Pole, and years ago was recruited by Mr. Gutmann to come to America and be a weaver in the Worumbo Mill. The Worumbo wove the finest woolens in the world, and Mr. Gutmann ran the Worumbo. And Worumbo was the name of a sachem of the Sabattis Family, American Indians of the Abenaki tribe.

Worumbo was well known in local lore. The woolen mill was named for him, rather than he for the mill. Otto Stewich thus arrived in Hoboken, N.J., by immigrant steamship, and had been told he would be met at the gangplank by somebody with a welcome hand.

Otto arrived. It was a bitter cold evening, and Otto was cold, tired, hungry, much afraid, and very much alone. His guide and interceptor had missed a train connection in Worcester. Otto didn't know one word of English.

Otto spent a miserable night wandering the Hoboken waterfront. Every once in a while he'd heave his arms into the air in supplication. And he'd yell "Worumbo!" At very long last his interceptor found him, because people kept calling the police to say some nut was loose, shouting a strange tongue.

Long after he became a United States citizen, Otto would still say, "It vas der only English vort I knew!"

We may wonder if Chief Worumbo considered his name English, but we can't deny there is wisdom in knowing a foreign word at the right time.

In Wolfsburg, Germany I found a bus driver who spoke 13 languages, and said he could handle several dialects as well. He had a cousin who lives in Waltham, Mass. There's a moral here, even if I don't jump up and down and clap my hands.

I went into the post office in Waiblingen to mail a dispatch to this newspaper, and in my stupid German I had much trouble making the postal clerk understand me. He was patient. At last I had the right stamps and all, and I thanked him and turned to go. Then he said, in perfect English, "Not at all, sir, we thank you. You'll find a postal pillar on your left by the front door."

See what I mean?

One time, Marcel Menard was coming with his horses to draw out some sawlogs that were too big for my little tractor, and I was called away. I asked my wife to call on the telephone and tell Marcel not to come. Neither Marcel nor his bonne femme spoke English, and my wife lacks French. But Marcel did not come. Why, you ask? Very simple! My wife said, "No school!"

I believe there is no cultural satisfaction any better than the pleasure that comes when you can talk to somebody in his own language.

A great technical breakthrough was the development of the forest telephone line. It used one wire, the ground serving the other side, and it was strung on tree limbs for miles through the woods, linking remote lumber camps and wardens to the world. It was scratchy, rumbling, buzzing, unreliable, and a no-no in an electric storm.

One better way was to open a camp window and shout. But the woods lines served until radio was perfected, and one day the parish priest up in St. Philibert, Quebec, put in a call via Bell Canada to one Romeo Jalbert at Scott Brook Lumber Camp down in the state of Maine, to tell him his wife had produced a baby girl and everything was fine.

Scott Brook was a camp of the Great Northern Paper Co., and it was 50 miles beyond the mountain. It employed some 150 men, all French-Canadians except the clerk. The clerk answered the phone when it rang 16, his number, and said that Romeo Jalbert was in the woods with the chopping crew, and it would take some time to get him to the phone. The priest would attend.

When Romeo arrived, he stepped into the office, and the clerk nodded at him and pointed at the candlestick telephone.

Romeo had never seen a telephone. He had seen the wires on the trees and had been told, "Ne touche pas," but a telephone was a nicety as yet beyond the privileges of a chopper from County Beauce, Kaybeck, l!

Romeo fitted the receiver to his ear and stooped to put his face to the mouthpiece. Romeo took a deep breath and said, "'Allo-l!" Then he stiffened, clearly astonished, and turned to the clerk. With amazement on his face, he exclaimed, "She talk French!"

Another version of the same concerns my friend Jean-Louis Gauthier, a bilingual big-shot in Canadian TV who visited France. He well knew the executive of Procter & Gamble who handled TV advertising, and the executive told him, "When you get to Paris, call our office there, and they'll help you."

So on his first morning in Paris, Jean-Louis dialed from his hotel room, and when the receptionist at Procter & Gamble answered, he jumped back from the telephone and told his wife, "It talks French!"

And so it did, even in France! He told me, "You have no idea how strange that was! All the years I'd done business in French with P&G and we'd never spoken 'Procter & Gamble' in French! I had never heard of 'Prock-tair-eh-Gomb-l'! And I didn't know what I was connected to! I hung up!"

Which should be a good lesson to us all, linguistically speaking. There is nothing any nicer than a friend you have made from a stranger by saying "hello" in his patois.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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