USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘war’
Folk speech
Humor

Shoe Polish: A Folk Insult?

You don’t know shit from Shinola.

According to the Informant, he heard this phrase growing up from his father. It was typically said by Person A in situations in which Person B doesn’t know what’s going on or for general naivety. It’s not exactly a proverb, because it ridicules those without wisdom instead of imparting wisdom. It can be said to be a folk insult. He said he heard this insult so many times, but it took until about the millionth time for him to realize that yes, it was true. He hadn’t the slightest clue what Shinola was.

This folk insult reportedly originated as commander-to-soldier vulgarity during WWII. The original form of the phrase involved a second verse. In the 1940’s, when is started popping up in military barracks, the full-length piece stated: “You don’t know shit from Shinola, and that’s why your shoes don’t shine.” This oicotype clearly allows anyone, using context clues, to decipher that Shinola is brown shoe polish. It’s interesting that the actual product named Shinola is long-gone, but it lives on in an insult.

It turns out that many insults without authors come from the military. “He doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground,” is another example of the same category that can be traced back to the military. Once we know the meaning behind the parts, it’s easy to see the meaning of the whole. Shinola would obviously be the choice pick over shit to shine shoes. Only a truly naïve person would use the two interchangeably.

This phrase always gets a smile out of me, regardless of context. This can possibly be regarded as the Informant’s catch phrase. In a way, it’s a passed-down insult, from my father’s father, that the majority of people today would be clueless to understand the meaning of. This fact, for a phrase meant to mock a person’s naivety, is just the icing on the cake.

 

Legends
Narrative

“Click Clack”

The following is a scary story told to me by my friend Claire, who learned it at a summer camp where they have been a counselor for a few years.

“I’ll start at the beginning, which is World War One. In Virginia, there was this family and they had, y’know, wife, husband, son, daughter. And they were a family of farmers–they were like, subsistence farmers; they were not incredibly wealthy at all. And so, when World War One happened, the husband and the son both went to the war…And so, y’know, the war was a big toll on them. And the father and the son both came back alive, but um…the father came back a little off. And a big part of that was the fact that he’d had an accident, and he had had to have both of his legs amputated above the knee. So he um, was in low spirits, and he became incredibly antisocial. He would just stay up in his room, he eventually kind of stopped coming down for meals…

So then many years later, um, World War Two happened and then the son had to leave again, and the family had to give away all of their metal. But um, before that happened, in between the wars, the husband had taken two tin cans, and he had taken the wrapping off of them–the labels off of them–and he had stuck the cans to the stumps of his legs. And so um…then fast forward again, so the son is gone now and the family has had to give their steel to the war, um, to the army, so they can melt it down to make weapons and whatnot. So they had to give away their, um, their light fixtures and the rest of their cans and their, um, scissors and their nail clippers and y’know, some silverware, stuff like that.

And so um…the husband all this time had been falling sort of into a deeper reverie. And the only big change was that he moved, um, into the living room. And so he would sit in the middle of the living room now instead of in his bedroom, ’cause y’know, he and his wife shared a bedroom and she was kinda getting creeped out by him. And what he would do is he would just sit in the chair and he wouldn’t really look at anything, he wouldn’t say anything, he would just sit there in silence and then whenever somebody came into the room he would just start staring at them without saying anything…And so, y’know, since they had to give away their metal, they had to get rid of their scissors and their nail clippers, and the wife and the daughter, they were, y’know, in sane states of mind, so they found ways to remain hygienic. But the uh, the husband, his hair started to grow very long and it would mat. And he had a thick beard and he had really long hair and it was scraggly and messy and he wouldn’t ever clean himself or–more importantly–he wouldn’t cut his nails or do anything about his nails, so they grew incredibly long. And um, eventually he actually started moving around a little more but um, he would get out of his chair, and he started to train himself to walk around. But at first it was very difficult because again, he only had tin cans on his leg stumps, above his knees. So he would walk around and it would sound like the click clack of his fingernails against the hardwood floor, and then a long drag of his legs behind him…Um, but he still would not speak to the family, he still didn’t say anything, and he still let all of his hair and all of his beard and all of his nails grow out incredibly long and he was slowly day by day starting to look less and less human. And um, then he started to change his behavior even more, and now he could get around pretty well on his just his hands and it was just a really fast click clack click clack click clack throughout the house, and he began to move away from the living room, but in a very strange way because he would only ever move in the shadows…And what he would do was, he would follow someone around, and they would just hear a slight click clack click clack click clack and any time they turned around it would stop. And they would keep walking and then…he would jump out at them! He would just leap from the shadows and surprise them.

But um, he never really did anything until the family got a notice from the government that they were going to build a marine base on their land! So, they had to organize to move. And this was now, World War Two was over and the son is back, and so the whole family is back together, and he’s obviously very disheartened to see, y’know, what his father has turned into. And so when the government marine base was about to, y’know, start and they seized this family’s land, and um…it came down to the night before they [were supposed to] move, and then in the morning there was nobody leaving the house. And um, the construction company and the project manager and everyone, they they came to the house and they came prepared to tell these people like, ‘you have to move out right now,’ prepared to help them move out their furniture. But they entered the house and it was a massacre. And there was blood everywhere and the wife the daughter and the son had all been murdered and they had just been mauled, they had been maimed, they had been cut into pieces. There were like, splashes of blood everywhere, it was incredibly gruesome. And there was no sign of the husband.

So, y’know, after this terror they still had to go along with the project. So they built the marine base, which is now what is the Quantico marine base in uh, very near Prince William Forest Park…um, so for the Marine Base, y’know, they had to train marines obviously. And something that in the park you can do is you go out and there are these orienteering posts. And orienteering, for those at home who don’t know, is using just a map and compass to find your way from a point A to a point B…And so this was really good training for the marines, but what they would do is they would do it at night, um, to make it harder. So they would send these people out and they wouldn’t always come back. And sometimes those who did come back would tell stories of things they saw in the darkness like huge, huge abnormal shapes and really incredibly fast footsteps, and some who came back would come back with long slashes on their face and they would say–if they could even say anything about their experience–they would say simply that they had been out there at night and then out of nowhere something had jumped out at them and tried to kill them. And it had cut long claw marks all over them. And um, it was a miracle that those men survived.

So um, y’know, eventually Prince William Forest Park was built. And there was, y’know, tourism that was established there. And what they do is they have these historical cabins that people can stay in and so, um, one night there was a family that was going to uh, y’know, just stay for a weekend in the park…And so this family, they were staying in the cabin and it was nice. They, y’know, unpacked on a Saturday evening, it was um, the Fall so the sun was beginning to set really early, but it was nice afternoon light, y’know, they were getting their sleeping bags, fixing up a little dinner and um, it fell dark very quickly. And so, as they were wrapping up for dinner sitting around the little fireplace, they started to hear something out on the porch. Um, and it sounded like a little animal maybe, some very light, very quick little scratches. And then they stopped their conversation, they listened, and a few seconds after the scratching was silent again. And they would, y’know, start talking again. And it became slightly more defined of a noise and they could identify it as a sort of click clack click clack click clack as if something was walking back and forth on their porch. And so they stop their conversation again, they listen harder, y’know, trying to figure out what is this animal out there. And the click clack stops. And then they wait a few minutes, and just as they’re about to start their conversation again, the noise begins again before they even start talking. And now it’s faster, it’s more erratic, and um, the wife, y’know, the mother of the family, she turns to her husband and she goes like, ‘honey, you should go see what that is, even if it’s a raccoon we should, y’know, at least scare it away so it doesn’t come in here and eat all our food at night.’ And the husband, of course, he gets up and he goes over and he goes to the door and the noise is getting louder as he’s approaching the door. And um, just as he puts his hand on the doorknob it stops. And he looks out the window, but it’s pitch black, he doesn’t really see anything. So he turns the doorknob and he opens the door…and there was Click Clack!”

The summer camp where Claire learned this legend is held partly in Prince William Forest Park, so it is directly connected to the camp’s location, and could serve as a cautionary tale for campers who want to stray into the woods. Claire has told me various different versions of the story, involving different characters’ run ins with “Click Clack.” I also vaguely remember a friend telling me a version of it when I was a kid, but it had no connection to Prince William Forest or Quantico.

Customs
general
Rituals, festivals, holidays

ANZAC Day

“ANZAC Day is our Australian day where we acknowledge, um, the sacrifice, I guess, of the Australian soldiers in both World War I and World War II. Um, it takes place on the 25th of April every year. Um… It kind of, it came from- Well, ANZAC stands for the Australia and New Zealand Army Corp. And so ANZAC was like the nickname given to like the soldiers who went over to fight in both world wars, but in the first world war, it’s like this really long story about how, um, the Australians got kind of called in to kind of, um, take the heat off another country, I think it was Britain or something. Um, got called in to like take the heat off them and distract the enemy for a bit, but they ended up walking into basically a slaughter. They kind of just off-loaded the boats, they landed, and they all got killed. Like, we learned about this in, like, primary school and high school but like, it’s that kind of thing where like, you learn about it so much that you kind of just tune it out. I’ve never learned the specifics, but like, thousands died, and like… It’s remembered in, like, Australian culture because it was like the first time. It was in the first world war. It was the first time that Australia kind of like proved itself I guess, in a way? Australian soldiers went over there and they kind of um… We were a newly formed nation at the time, so we’d only been on our own, like, independent for about 18 years at that point, and like, we hadn’t really proved ourselves. So we went over there and even though, like, hundreds of men got slaughtered, it’s kind of remembered as a sign of like Australia kind of asserting itself as a strong nation. So like as people who will, um, kind of tough it out, I guess, and that’s kind of what ANZAC Day has come to mean for Australians every year. So the tradition is that on the 25th of April every year, um, not every Australian does it, but like, it’s kind of, um, a lot of Australians do, so I would say like 50% would observe the day, but like everybody acknowledges it, everybody knows what the 25th of April is, but I would say around 50%, 60% get actively involved in the day. I personally do. My family, not all my family does, but me and my mum do. We get up really early, at like 4AM or 5AM and we go to what we call a dawn service, which is where you go to your local suburb, I guess, your city center, your county. So every suburb has kind of like a monument where it has on it inscribed all the names of the men who died during the ways from your suburb. So all the local men who enlisted and died during service are written on the wall, and at the dawn service there’s like, literally thousands of people from your suburb. They gather and usually do an hour-long service where it’s people from like the army, the air force, and the navy, all come to be like representatives of the ANZACS. They also have ex-service men. People, anyone who’s still alive from the first or second world war come as honorary guests. Descendants of the original ANZACS come if they are still alive or still live around here. It’s a nice service. They have speeches and prayers from the different denominations. And they have singing, like some songs usually about God, but just some songs that they usually say were, like, sung on the battlefield. And one of the most important parts of the dawn service for all Australians, and even if you don’t go to the dawn service, you know the sound of, it’s like this horn that they play. It’s a trumpet. It was like the trumpet that they played on the battlefield. It was like the trumpet that roused them to battle and told them it was time to fight. But also it was the horn that they played when the fight was over and basically everyone was dead and they called a retreat, so like, it’s kind of the sound of this horn that signals the start and the end of the dawn service like the one that signaled the end of the fight on the 25th of April, which was when all the men died. It’s usually like a pretty moving service, I guess. A lot of people, like, sing along and join in prayer. Most will also, like, shed a few tears during prayers or speeches because like the sacrifice that the men made on the battlefield made us able to keep Australia as an independent nation, free from enemies invading, I guess.”

 

This was a very solemn piece to collect. The source spoke about ANZAC Day with a lot of respect. She knew a lot of the history and wanted to pay respect to the people it honors. It’s a great idea, I think, much like our Veteran’s Day. I feel like ANZAC Day is far more personal than Veteran’s Day, though. Americans don’t particularly do anything on Veteran’s Day, where as it seems Australians have organized a lot to do on this day. They must have a different kind of respect for their armed forces. They also have far less people in their country, so that might be why it’s more personal. Whereas for us, we have thousands of veterans. It’s not quite the same. We also sort of treat it as just a day off of work or school rather than a day that’s actually dedicated to a certain group of people.

Folk Beliefs
general
Myths

The Truck of the Flag

*Note: The informant, Harriet, is my grandma. She was born in the 1930s, so she’s seen her fair share of wars and has collected some interesting facts about wartime. This particular story is a legend about the truck of the American flag (the ball at the top of the pole).

 

INFORMANT: “So during the Cold War, Americans were always afraid there was going to be a Soviet invasion. Or, at least this is how people claim this got started, even though there were balls on the flags way before the Cold War. Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, so everyone was in constant fear of this Soviet invasion. So what they did was they put these balls, which were called trucks, on top of the American flags, and supposedly inside they put one bullet, a bag of rice, and either matches or a knife or razor or something like that. And it was to keep the Russians or whatever enemy from getting to the flag. In an emergency, a soldier would be assigned to the flag and he would eat the rice for energy and use the razor or the match to burn or destroy the flag so the enemy couldn’t get it. And then the bullet was to kill himself.”

COLLECTOR (myself): “Why would he have to kill himself?”

INFORMANT: “Well, either to avoid being captured by the enemy, or out of guilt for destroying the flag, maybe. He’d done his duty but he did still destroy the American flag, and that’s a big no-no in the army.”

This rumor holds little weight – most experts say that the ball atop the flag is made of solid metal. However, this myth has spread through many channels, having become a favorite of veterans and soldiers. It’s a piece of nationalistic folklore, relating to American pride, wartime patriotism and an undying devotion to the country and the flag. Protecting the flag is a metaphor for protecting the country as a whole, and patriotic myths like this bestow honor on those who serve our country and add a sort of allure to the army. Perhaps my grandma had a connection to this particular myth because my grandfather served in the army – he fought in the Vietnam war.

Humor

Vietnam Vet joke

My informant told me this joke as we were commenting on jokes in bad taste, such as racist jokes and dead baby jokes.

How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb?

YOU DON’T KNOW MAN, YOU WEREN’T THERE!

 

She thought it was funny because it plays off of the stereotype of the PTSD Vietnam soldier who overreacts to the slightest thing.  She says that people love stereotypes, even if they know they aren’t true.

 

This joke takes a known form of a joke “How many x does it take to screw in a light bulb?” and throws in the vetern sterotype.  This form is very easy to make blason poulaire out of because it relys on puns and stereotypes as the punchline.  It is also a way to cope with the difficult issue of the Vietnam war.  The punchline is a quote from Jacob’s Ladder, a thriller about a Vietnam war veteran made in 1990.  The movie is about a traumatized vet who finds out that his post-war life isn’t what he believes it to be when he’s attacked by  horned creatures in the subway and his dead son comes to visit him*

 

*Jacob’s ladder: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099871/

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