Online Edition 04.2007


Five Minutes of Hell with Harley Race | Thomas Crone

Nipkow Disc (1883) | Greg Ott

Rural Rhetoric | L.A. Ramsey

Knees Knock | Brett Underwood

American History | Matthew Webber

Chris | Jennifer Woods


Sound of St. Louis | Kerry Zimmerman

SOUND Photos | Dana Smith, L.A. Ramsey, and Jane Linders

Rhetoric of the Rural | by L.A. Ramsey

Rural. The word itself just sounds rough, don't you think? Like the physical act of shearing the wheat from the chaff; starting up a cold engine despite a warm day; or else of a cigarette-ridden lounge singer clearing a COPD-or-cancerine throat. /Unh-ernh-rnh-mhm./

As you know, the science of the sounds of things goes by the tag /acoustics/. In the lingua franca of the linguist, it is /phonology/. (Don't even picture an operator standing by to take your call, you obsessed-with-hearing-yourself-gab cell-phone user.)

Hardscrabble, Illinois, is not exactly what you'd call a bucolic place. That sounds much too prettified for an unassuming place like this downstate hamlet.

You can wake up most days of the week to the rattle, if not the chattering, of eighteen-wheelers barreling past, plus or minus the barrels. Of course, some are slower and more respectful than others. But most don't care if they disturb the dust or not.

Sometimes it's a Milwaukee Lite beer truck at the school--okay, to be fair, it had just left the bar and was only turning around in, then accelerating out of, the elementary school's half-moon driveway.

The gravel and grain trucks' gears make noises roughly akin to what they're carting to and fro. No airy throated whispers there.

My own history's pock-marked by such trucks. My grandfather drove a tractor-trailer for Henry Ford, or so he used to say, during the Depression. I guess it was nice just to have a job. Any job. In his characteristic irreverent manner, though, he always used to swear he'd never heard of Ford till he worked for him.

Which should be no surprise, since the whole family was on the same wavelength in calling Fords "fix-or-repair daily" cars or, alternately, "found on the road dead."

But back to Hardscrabble. It's so far from where I began that it's hard to get back there, when all I want to do is get away. (Mom intones: "You're old enough 'till your wants won't hurt you." What age that becomes the gospel, I have no clue. Probably right after "children are made to be seen and not heard" happened.)

But I've always pined for the next place--which is most definitely always the best--and not the place I am now.

And why can't I go to Carolina in my mind? There are much worse things than the deep, humid South; just think--I could be a ... Republican.

* * *
From the mountains to the prairies. And I've seen a couple oceans since I left, not really that far but quite a bit wide. And, wonders never cease, I've even flown over one.

In school we learned that denotations were what you found in dictionaries (or, another word still: lexicons). Connotations are what the words meant to you as a human being. How you internalize their essence and come to grips (or don't) with them.

Like love, for instance. One of the worst four-letter words in the book. The word I've never once heard my parents express to each other. Thoughts and wistful imaginings don't count where love's concerned.

For this one thing at least, you have to say it to make it real. Vocalizing it means realizing it, if not Realitizing it. That's my newly coined word (a.k.a. "neologism"). It just says you've been baptized by a little bit of Reality.

But back to love, for it's got nothing much to do with Reality. Love's the emotion even the sounds of trucks can't contradict, much less the machines themselves. Dissonance and consonance and assonance, oh my.

Where Poe harped about tintinnabulation, Faulkner litanized layered line upon layered Latinate line--and that's just a single-sentenced, many-pages-long eruption of thought (both a sound and a fury before its terminus in a caesura just begging for a period). But did it mean anything or merely signify nothing?
These internal combustion chambers on wheels (and lots of them) have fiery hearts, as you can imagine.

The more I listen to them, the more I begin to pick up on their accents. Where one drawls, the other burrs. And some sound "warshed out," smacking their lips with genuine Midwestern (read muted) Úlan.

I've taken to listening to their utterances very closely. Each one has a personality and is a character unto itself. On Mondays there's the clanking rattler clattering down the road around daybreak. Its gears are herky-jerky. These machines become larger than the lives of those who push them forward and back.

I couldn't care any less about the men (or an occasional chick) who manipulate these hunks of metal.

Well, I shouldn't say that. Actually, I admire most of them. How they hear the roar all day, feel it coursing through their sex, their legs, their chests, and addling through their brains and all else--and yet not go mad--I don't know. Maybe the maddening pace of the roads passing ever under keeps them sane, steadies them in the lane. Certainly the loony fellow motorists don't help any.

But I avoid drivers, preferring to listen to unseen movements instead.

I'm alone with only the sounds to keep my ears busy.

Of course there's a rhythm and routine to their passings-by. Tuesday's truck is full of pace. Speedy Gonzalez, let's call him. So much so, you barely hear him going by. If you were to get up and look out the window--I'm afraid to do it, for it would take the air out of the illusion--you'd probably see a pacey, high-up square framing a man with a cigarette clamped in his mouth, wheels spinning so fast you can't see them, mud flaps fluttering so furiously the nekkid woman'd be obscured (or else she'd look like a mermaid or some other mythical beast).

It occurs to me that you may think that these beasts I hear, whose voices I here chronicle, are mythical. Some sort of siren in masculine machinery.

I could continue the children's poem to its final destination, where Wednesday's truck is full of "whoa!", Thursday's obsessed with go-go-go, and so on.

But I won't anthropomorphize them any more than I already have. This pastime does indeed pass the time, even if it is difficult to hear the conversations above the din of the winged chariot hurrying near.

Next time you're in a city (pick any city), metropolis, 'hood, barrio, burg, hamlet, hole-in-the-wall, one-horse, land that time forgot, crummy-little-dust-town Bedford Falls, Hell's Kitchen, Blandville, I am the way and the (stop)light, Road to Nowhere, Bob Hope-Bing Crosby The Road to Singa-zanzi-bali-occo (et al), the road not taken (but has it made any difference?) On the Road, On the Waterfront, Easy Rider, slow boat to China, Timbuktu, ends-of-the-earth, the journey is the quest, Kerouac-wouldn't-even-bother-with-it blip, you'd do well to sit down, put your ear to the pavement, and suspend your disbeliefs fer a piece.

You just might hear the mermaids singing, each to each (like some modern impotent poet-Prufrock), or the scuttlebutt uttered by engines who think they're all alone. The gossip curling around the gears like vipers.

Ah, the sweet nothings that become somethings (if we let them). The telephone-game we used to play; oh yeah, we still do. It's called Working for a Living.

(Can you believe she ...? Did you see him ...?)

It's /Mad Libs/ all over again. It's true, ain't it, that it's all about embedding yourself in the vernacular of the place?

Give the mechanized mutterings of trucks a listen sometime, be they rural, rustic, or merely rusted. Perhaps you'll discern something of yourself in their hushed tones or rumbling rhetoric.


L.A. Ramsey is a writer and photographer who lives in the Metro East. Her writing has appeared in 52nd City and at She blogs too.