Author Archive
Customs
Protection

1UP, Pegs up

Main piece:

When you ride, you have your pegs, right? And when you have your girl or your buddy on the back, you’re riding 2UP, they’ve got pegs too, right? To put their feet on. And on every bike, these pegs fold up and down.

Now, this one’s kinda weird – but ya gotta think about it. When you’re by yourself, but you’ve got your pegs down? You’re askin’ the devil to sit behind you. You’re askin’ him to lean the wrong way, bounce around.

So, the idea is that you always need to put your passenger pegs up when you’re by yourself. The only exception is in a funeral procession. A guy you lost out on the road? Leave the pegs down so he can ride with you. That’s the exception. He’s like a guardian angel.

Context:

Stew has been riding motorcycles since the age of fifteen. He is a thirty-five year member of Glen Ellyn’s volunteer fire department, and is a Vietnam War veteran.

Background:

This myth is common to most motorcycle riders, and is one of many superstitions in biker culture related to passengers.

Analysis:

Summoning the devil is a common superstition in American folklore. The 1UP, pegs down example is particularly interesting, as it is a sin of omission or forgetfulness rather than direct action like spilling salt.

Folk Beliefs
Humor
Myths
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Banana Boats

Main piece:

So, there’s this superstition about fishing – or, I guess it’s more about bananas. Where, if you have a banana on the boat, you’re not gonna catch any fish. And there’s all kinds of stuff related to this too… Like, if someone eats a banana right before going out? Or if you find the banana, there’s a certain way that you gotta get rid of it? But, yeah – it’s kind of ridiculous.

Context:

Superstition described by Randy Peffer at Boatswayne Yard in San Pedro, CA. Randy is a career seaman, educator, and writer.

Background:

This is a well-documented superstition among sailors. There is a novel explanation which is also commonly discussed alongside the myth. Boats carrying bananas generally moved the most quickly in an attempt to maintain their freshness. Therefore, sailors aboard trolling lines would be moving too quickly. Consequently, they would catch fewer to no fish.

Analysis:

Fishermen are superstitious and sailors are superstitious. It should come as no surprise then, that the overlap of these two groups has a seemingly arbitrary superstition like the Banana curse.

Myths
Narrative

Barn Monster

Main piece:

DM: You remember the Shed Monster story, right?

JH: You mean the one Zurbier or whatever his name told?

DM: Yeah! The Dutch fella that lived up the hill from you guys

JH: OH! Yeah, the Barn Monster. First time he told us was around the bonfire back behind my place. Scared me shitless.

DM: Do you think you can re-tell the story?

JH: Oh for sure! Yeah so we was around the fire, and Jos is a big ol’ Dutchy, right? Like – 6’8” or some shit. In a circle of Midwestern fellas, he looks like a fuckin’ giant. Has hands and teeth like one too. So he’s smokin’ a cigarette, Bud in hand callin’ us over to tell us a story and he goes points over at the pole barn a ways off and says, “Heard you boys been messin’ around in the barn recently after sundown”.

And of course you and me were, like, lookin’ around at my dad who knew damn well that we had been and we weren’t supposed to.

DM: Right, yeah.

JH: Anyway, Jos goes on and scares the shit out of us, right? Starts talkin’ about a shadow that can slide up walls and under doors about the size of a man. But he can change shapes and make the floor drop out from under you under the hay, too. He can trip you and touch you with a cold hand, and he moves from barn to barn on the New Moon. ‘Bout the scariest story I’ve ever heard. I don’t know that we went back in the polebarn for a year after that.”

Context:

Story originally told by Jos Zurbier in Decatur, IL.

Background:

Jos was a dutch, immigrant carpenter from the Netherlands. He fit in extremely well in rural, Southern Illinois.

Analysis:

This story reflects the Shadow Person motif which has been popularized in a variety of contexts. Similar stories describe a dark figure which does not speak, though Jos’ localization to the barn is particularly eerie. Additionally, most polebarns don’t have overhead lighting – meaning that shadows are cast by flashlights whenever someone enters them in the dark.

Customs
Folk speech

Boat naming

Main piece:

There’s a whole, elaborate set of standards related to boat naming. And a lot of rules have exceptions and a big part of it all is taste, of course. And I’m sure there are cultural differences too – like, a lot of these rules are probably unique to American boats.

A couple that come to mind though? You can’t name a boat anything to do with a storm or sinking or waves. That’s asking to sink. And you can’t say anything about the wind. We can tell you have a fucking sailboat, y’know? It’s just stupid. And if you’re fast, go fast. Don’t name your boat Glide or Speed or some other shit.

There’s stuff that you want though too – women’s names. Three A’s – that’s good. That’s how you get names like Atlantas. And you want it to be short. More than anything, really. Like, a fast boat has a short name. Three words? That boat’s never leaving the dock. And nothing about alcohol. That’s just… I dunno. Ya just don’t do it, though.

Context:

Conventions described by Randy Peffer at Boatswayne Yard in San Pedro, CA. Randy is a career seaman, educator, and writer.

Background:

Randy’s boat is named “Sarah Abbott”, after his own mother. This is considered to be an extremely tasteful name, as it contains both three A’s, is the name of a woman, and is two words.

Analysis:

Naming conventions reflect taste and cultural norms within the sailing community. Everywhere in the sailing community, simplicity is valued. Luck is valued. And in all fairness, women are generally missed while at sea. (Though this will change as sailing becomes more diversified with regards to gender).

general

The Boat Carpenter’s Level

Main piece:

So, there’s this ritual among boat carpenters, right? Where on your first day you show up, ready for work – and all these guys, y’know, none of them are really new to carpentry? They’re all usaully guys that have done some work for someone for a while before going into the wooden boatyards.

They walk in, and half the time they have their tools in their hands. But sometimes they don’t, and the older carpenters will send them back out to grab them. Then right there, before they can start, all the guys will start diggin’ through their toolboxes and makin’ a big deal out of it.

When they find a level, they hold it up in the air and parade it around for a minute. They give the new guy a hard time about it, and ask him what it’s for. By this point, he usually has no idea what’s going on. Then they’ll say – go see if that seat over there is level. And when he tries, they’ll rock the boat back and forth so the bubble is goin’ all over the place, laugh their asses off, and then they throw his level into the harbor.

Can’t use a level in a boat yard.

Context:

Ritual described by Randy Peffer at Boatswayne Yard in San Pedro, CA. Randy is a career seaman, educator, and writer.

Background:

Boat carpenters have a strong brotherhood, as they do a highly specialized job. They are often forced to work together in tight spaces, and their safety is mutually assured rather than guaranteed.

Analysis:

This is a transitional ritual which is tied to a carpenter’s entry into the trade of boat carpentry.

Legends

The Gar

Main piece:

Where we grew up, we were always warned about swimmin’ in Steven’s Creek on account of the Gar. The Gar was supposed to be a huge – six, maybe eight feet long – alligator-nosed Gar we’d seen a couple times. You could ask anyone from along the Creek or the Lake and they all know, and some’d swear they seen it too. There were a couple times we thought we saw it but who the hell knows, right? Big log looks a lot like a big fish.

When we were maybe eleven or twelve? We got it in our heads to try to killim. Showed up on the creek with our rods, heavy line, and bait the size of most things you’d expect to catch. We chummed the water – and I think we had a harpoon or somethin’ we’d made. Brought a deer huntin’ bow, and waded maybe four or five miles up and down the creek.

Context:

Story originally told by Jake Handley in Decatur, IL.

Background:

Jake and I grew up together. We swam and fished in Steven’s Creek for most of our childhood, encountering everything from snakes to foxes.

Analysis:

This story is a “Big Fish” motif, but is also similar to the Loch Ness Monster – a threatening creature, supposedly one-of-a-kind, which can disappear into the deep at a moment’s notice.

Myths

The Helicopter Story

Main piece:

There were really vicious pranks between USC and UCLA for most of the schools’ history. Like, we set their lawn on fire. They kidnapped Traveller. We ran fake Daily Bruins, they ran fake Daily Trojans. We swapped out their card stunt directions. We stole the Victory Bell. All kinds of stuff.

So, the greatest UCLA response of all time was allegedly – some guy hired a helicopter. He gets a ton of horse shit together, puts it in a cargo net, flies it over campus, then drops it on Tommy Trojan.

I’ve never been able to find proof that this happened, but ask any alum and they’ll tell you about it. Especially the older dudes – it’s an infamous prank.

Context:

Drew is a sixth generation Trojan, and is a Trojan Knight. He is intimately familiar with USC’s history and culture.

Background:

USC and UCLA are two Los Angeles-based universities with a long history of athletic/academic rivalry punctuated by inter-campus japes.

Analysis:

This story combines many LA-area stereotypes. Wasteful spending, helicopter use, and the UCLA/’SC rivalry are all characteristic elements of the myth. The regularity of football season and the continuity of the rivalry have given this myth particular longevity.

Customs
general

The Pickle Game

Main piece:

The Pickle Game can be played throughout the Christmas season. One member of the family may start by clandestinely hanging a pickle or pickle-shaped ornament on the Christmas tree among other ornaments.

Whenever other members pass by the tree, they can look for the pickle! And if they find it, they should move it and re-hide it themselves. Typically, there is a reward for finding the pickle – usually food or a sweet treat.

On Christmas morning, the pickle is hidden one final time for a special prize. After rushing down the stairs, children compete to see who will “pluck the pickle” and get a special treat (which is usually shared with their siblings in sportsmanship).

Context:

Game described by Laura Monk, second-generation Austrian-American. Many of Laura’s family traditions are imported from Austria and reflect her grandmother’s upbringing. These traditions are carried on in her family today.

Background:

Although believed to have originated in Germany as “Weihnachtsgurke”, the tradition is unknown in that locale. There are various other origin stories as well, some domestic.

Analysis:

This is a fun hide-and-seek game which can be enjoyed both passively throughout the holiday season and actively on Christmas morning. It is both silly, and sincere. It’s also difficult to spot a dark green pickle among the leaves of a pine tree.

For more on the Christmas Pickle, see James Cooper’s article: “https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/christmaspickle.shtml”

Proverbs

When Mama Ain’t Happy…

Main piece:

When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t NOBODY happy.”

Context:

Expression described by Laura Monk, raised in Southern Illinois and Kentucky. She is a mother of three known for her liberal use of anachronisms, sayings, idioms, and expressions.

Background:

This phrase is used frequently among rural midwesterners, and refers to the necessity of caring for the head of one’s household (traditionally, the mother) – though it can also be used to refer to any motherly figure.

For instance, a father might warn his children with the phrase when they misbehave. By making their mother miserable, the children are assuring their own misery later.

But it can also be used in a preventative, positive sense. If a family is taking good care of their mother, then they’ve assured their own happiness.

Lastly, the statement can be used as a warning. If a mother wishes to threaten her family, she might remind them that her happiness and theirs are closely tied by utilizing this proverb.

The implicit statement here is that Mama puts up with a lot, and that when she isn’t happy, it’s the fault of those around her.

Analysis:

This expression reflects the values of care for women, love and respect for one’s mother, and supporting one’s family which are present in the communities that use it.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Myths
Protection

Whistling on a boat

Main piece:

This one is a little interesting just because there’s so much controversy about what it really means. So, there’s something about whistling on a boat. Either it’s bad luck because it insults the wind, or it’s good luck cuz it calls on more wind. Of course, on a sailing ship wind is what decides where you go and how fast you get there.

But good or bad, a lot of folks say that the cook gets a whistling pass! Cuz if the cook’s down in the galley whistling, he can’t be eating all the food!

Context:

Superstition described by Randy Peffer at Boatswayne Yard in San Pedro, CA. Randy is a career seaman, educator, and writer.

Background:

It’s quiet on boats, and many deckhands perform boring and repetitive tasks. Therefore, whistling is fairly common among new sailors. The standing rig (which holds up the mast) naturally whistles in the wind. Therefore, a comparison might be drawn between the two.

We again see the motif of insulting the gods of the Sea – as whistling may be a challenge.

Analysis:

Randy suspects that this tradition served as a way for more senior sailors to prevent younger deckhands from being a nuisance. Most people find others’ whistling irritating, and creating a superstition to curtail unnecessary noise would be very like most sailors.

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