Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
from sea to shining sea
the dare fieldworker must be prepared to lead a hectic, strenuous existence, with long hours and meager comforts. goshen, ny

Linguistic Profiling?
There’s more in the crime solvers’ tool kit than what we see on TV

Take a Regional DARE!
What’s a bubbler?

Radio America
The sounds of regional radio

Additional Resources
DARE  Index

Life in a DARE Word Wagon
Since 1985, The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) has been publishing a unique reference series that documents the varieties of English that are "not found everywhere in the United States." To collect examples, the publishers scattered linguistic fieldworkers across the courntry.  August Rubrecht gives us an intimate picture of what it was like in the late 1960s to live in a DARE “word wagon.”

I have been told that people nowadays tend to mythologize the Word Wagon era of DARE fieldwork. The chance to become a legend in my own time tempts me to cultivate this tendency, but I will resist temptation out of a higher loyalty to historical accuracy.

The Word Wagon

The Word Wagon was a Dodge van outfitted as a motor home. A realtor might call it a “starter” mobile home and describe it as “cozy.” Just behind the engine compartment, flanked by the front seats, there was a countertop with a small sink where water could be pumped from a reservoir underneath. This was on the left; on the right was an ice box. Along the left side behind the kitchen area was a piece of furniture that could be either folded up into a table and two padded seats like a little restaurant booth or folded down into a bed. In the right rear corner was a tiny closet. The van carried kitchen- and dinnerware, bedding, a Coleman stove, a Coleman catalytic heater, and a battery lamp.

Along with his equipment for living, we carried what we needed for fieldwork: a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a box of tapes, a box of questionnaires (QRs), and other office supplies. In the space remaining we fitted in our personal belongings; mine included clothes, toiletries, fishing and hunting equipment, a few books, and a portable typewriter. Soon I acquired a camera. Things were pretty cramped, especially since the van was not tall enough to stand up in. I made matters worse with my incorrigible untidiness. Whenever possible I left the bed folded down and used the van just for sleeping and storage; I did my cooking, eating, and writing at a picnic table.

How Things Were Supposed to Go

the fieldworker bleakly contemplates the task of typing up data sheets

“What,” people sometimes ask, “was a typical day of fieldwork like?” There was no such thing as a typical day, because different stages of fieldwork required different kinds of effort and activity. The number of hours or days required for each stage would vary widely—even wildly— from community to community. We did have a general plan, though. Many readers of the DARE Newsletter know it already, but for the record it went like this:

  1. On entering a new community, find a place to camp. Depending on when I arrived, I might do this second, but when possible, I did it first, to provide an “address” to give authorities.
  1. Check in with the authorities—county sheriff, police chief, mayor: show credentials, make a good first impression, explain the project, and begin developing leads.
  1. Develop leads to potential informants (Infs). The authorities usually referred me to schoolteachers and librarians. We seldom chose these people as informants because we sought citizens whose knowledge was just as thorough but more folksy. Schoolteachers and librarians were very good sources for leads, though, because they usually understood the idea behind the project, sympathized with its aims, and knew a lot of local residents to be recommend.
  1. Select an informant; repeat as necessary. As recommended by Professor Cassidy, I would try to get one informant who could do the whole QR, but because prospective informants had varying amounts of free time, knowledge, energy, and interest, I often wound up with two or three, sometimes more.
  1. Go through the QR, scheduling segments at times convenient to the informant(s).
  1. Make a tape recording of each Inf.

Throughout all the stages we tried to learn about the community, for context. I remained alert to the topography, the layout of streets and roads, the crops, and the architecture of houses, barns, churches, stores, and factories. I visited libraries, museums, and historical societies. I read the local papers, auction bills, graffiti, and epitaphs. I eavesdropped on others’ conversations shamelessly and started ones of my own on slender pretexts. It was important to do an appreciable amount of this kind of observation before selecting informants, to be able to judge who was typical of the community. Incidentally, the process of gleaning background knowledge also provided good opportunities to find new words for DARE. I kept my pad of 3 X 5 paper slips handy at all times and wrote down any language items that seemed significant. It was less efficient than going through the QR, but just about as much fun.

Expenses

We had University of Wisconsin vehicle fleet credit cards to pay for gas, oil, tires, service, and repairs on the Word Wagon. (These cards could not be used for any other expenses.) We also had an expense account for parking and camping fees, phone calls, office supplies, postage and shipping costs, white gas for the Coleman stove and catalytic heater, ice for the ice box and batteries for the lamp. And once a week we could rent a hotel or motel room. We paid for these things out of pocket and filed an expense report once a month. A reimbursement check was sent General Delivery to the post office where we told the DARE office we expected to be.

We paid for other expenses—food, entertainment, laundry, traffic fines—out of our own pocket. I had my monthly check sent to my mother’s address, and she deposited a designated amount in my savings account and sent the remainder to me in the form of a certified check.

This elaborate system worked better than you might expect, but a few times the money got delayed enough to worry me. Twice it was so late that I wound up short of cash. The first time came after I flew home to attend my grandmother’s funeral in late October. In my journal I wrote:

[St. Francisville, LA, Nov. 16, 1967] My check is late and I am broke except for 84 and two cans of beans. Called Mom last night—collect, of course—and learned she hadn’t sent it yet because she didn’t know how much I wanted. I had told her when I was up there but she had forgotten, what with the worry and tension of the forma but she had forgotten, what with the worry and tension of the funeral. But the [St Francisville informants] have been inviting me to supper and I have been making out by catching a few fish now and then. I wouldn’t be down this low except for the plane tickets, but even if I were worse off than now I wouldn’t grudge the trip a bit. I have some meal andoil and some dried mashed potatoes besides the beans, and some jelly and peanut butter, so actually I could withstand a siege if it was a brief one that didn’t keep me from catching fish. Tea and coffee are gone; so is the beer, but I do have one drink of Dubonnet left. That stuff has been my consolation for a month now, and one of these nights I will be in the mood to savor it one last time.

Food

a morning’s catch from the delaware river near roxbury, ny. the two long skinny ones are pickerel and the other four are smallmouth bass.

I ate well, at least by the standards of bachelor graduate students.

Once the fuel tank is pressurized with its built-in pump, a Coleman stove works just like a two-burner gas range-top. I enjoyed cooking on it. Because I had never learned how to bake bread or pastries, the lack of an oven was no hardship, except in two cases. Over Christmas break I took time off at the suggestion of Jim Hartman, the fieldwork coordinator. I camped in a public hunting area along the Sabine River in northwestern Louisiana, where I managed to shoot some ducks. I fried some, but I like duck much better roasted. Fortunately, not doing any fieldwork left me time to build a hickory fire, cut some green sticks to make a spit, and roast one duck over the coals. The game warden who came to check my license thought I was a little weird, but the duck was delicious. In the other case, I caught seven Spanish mackerels from a school that briefly swam into casting range off the beach at Grand Isle, Louisiana. They were good charcoal-broiled on a hibachi, but after two meals I lusted for variety. I soon learned that fried mackerel is way too oily. An oven would have given me additional options.

spanish mackerel caught by fieldworker in the line of duty. grand isle, la. april 1968.

Ordinarily I achieved variety in what I cooked rather than how I cooked it. TV dinners were not an option because I had neither freezer nor oven. For quick, easy meals I depended on canned foods, dried mashed potatoes, and Minute Rice. For fresh meats and vegetables I shopped nearly every day rather than stocking up. For one thing, my storage space was limited. More important, though, the more shopping trips I made, the more pretexts I could invent for starting conversations and the more eavesdropping I could do. I wrote out a lot of word slips in grocery stores.

I never went out of my way to hunt mushrooms or wild greens, but in October at a campsite on paper company land near Monticello, Arkansas, I got lucky. Volunteer tomato plants had grown up in what I took to be a corral where saddle club members had fed salad scraps to their horses during the summer, and these plants had good-sized green tomatoes on them. So I picked enough to have fried green tomatoes for two or three meals—the first in a very long time because I had kept no garden for three years and supermarkets don’t sell green tomatoes (not green enough to fry, anyway).

Grooming and Hygiene

Recreational campers can afford to get unkempt and grubby, but we FWs could not. We had to make a good impression on civic officials and on the citizens we approached to help with the project—hard to do unless we were clean and reasonably well groomed. I found laundry easy to take care of; once a week was plenty. Not so for shaving and bathing; unless I could rent a site in a campground with showers, I had to get creative.

My mother solved the shaving problem not long after I started work by sending me for my birthday a rechargeable electric shaver. I could plug it in overnight during my weekly motel stays and use it all week. This convenience was especially important because four years earlier I had lost patience with scraping my face with a sharp piece of metal every day and quit. I realized I had to resume the habit to do fieldwork effectively, since in those days a beard was seen as a sign of rebellious attitude and a dissolute life-style. Trouble was, Word Wagon living made the razor even more detestable than when I had enjoyed the convenience of hot running water in a dormitory bathroom. Cold water made shaving downright painful, and heating water took extra trouble. So the electric shaver was a godsend.

If I saw the razor as a curse of civilization, the hot shower was one of its blessings. Often none was available; many public and some commercial campsites provided only a table and paths leading to a water pump and a privy. Sometimes I could find no camping facilities at all, and I would just pull off on some secluded logging road or clearing on public or paper company land. In such isolated spots I could heat water and take sponge baths when the weather was not too cold, but I didn’t like to. Showers were far better, as this journal excerpt makes clear:

[Granville, NY, June 25, 1968] I stayed in a state park on the Vermont side of the state line on Sunday and Monday nights but finally found one in New York for the rest of the week. It has no particular advantage of distance, but the showers are hot and the price is less. Hot showers mean a lot to me. One of the few truly valuable contributions of civilization to the average man.

The family of my informant in Grayson, Louisiana, knowing my campsite had no shower, invited me to take baths at their place. At Grand Isle, Louisiana, someone looking to pick up a little cash had set up shower booths on the beach and charged bathers a quarter to use them. I found it ironic that the YMCA in Dover, Delaware, charged me ten times as much for a shower, considering the motto it displayed prominently on a sign out front: “To improve the quality of community life.”

Memorable Campsites

Even though the best campsites provided hot showers, those are not the ones I remember best.

In February near LeCompte, Louisiana, I camped on a simple one-lane logging road. I made no journal entry about this site, but the memory of one night there remains vivid. I had worked late typing up expense account reports and biographical data sheets. Finally I folded the bed down and, before crawling in, stepped out behind the van to answer a call of nature. Since the weather was too cold for snakes, I did not bother to take a flashlight. Light from the sky was obscured by clouds and a canopy of bare branches, so that I could barely discern the light sandy road stretching back into the woods. After a few moments, however, I did perceive something a ways behind the van that was a good deal darker than the dark grass between the wheel tracks. It was impossible to make out its shape and hard to guess its size. Bigger than a skunk and smaller than an Angus cow, but…? It was moving steadily toward me. Unable to stop what I was doing to jump back to the side of the Wagon and climb in, I had to stand there helpless as whatever it was came closer and closer. It did not hurry, but it did not hesitate, either; it headed purposefully toward me.

When it got close enough to attack, it whimpered in the unmistakable voice of a dog begging for attention. It was a black-and-tan coonhound lost in the woods. I gave him water and a few scraps of food. To keep him from getting lost again (without having to sleep with him in the van), I tied him to the bumper overnight, then took him into town the next day and returned him to the owner, whose phone number was stamped on a brass tag on the collar. I hoped the resultant good will would help me develop some leads. That idea didn’t pan out, but the guy was glad to get his dog back.

Another campsite where I had animal visitors was the one at Grayson, Louisiana, mentioned earlier. I made a journal entry about that one:

[Grayson, LA, Oct. 23] Tonight I am camped just down the road from my informant’s…house. This camping place was put together by private individual, [sic] a couple of brothers-in-law, as I understand, and it is completely free, including firewood and a good well of water. Not much of this parish is posted (in marked contrast to East Carroll) and I intend to step out into the woods tomorrow morning about daylight and hunt an hour or two before driving down to [my informant’s house].

The words are full of “woods hogs,” which we call razorbacks at home. A couple of scrawny sows and their pigs were around here while ago begging scraps. I didn’t have any yet, so I fed them some grapes. The two sows were marked with cleft ears, so they belonged to somebody. The pigs did too, of course, if they were following the sows.

the dare fieldworker must be prepared to lead a hectic, strenuous existence, with long hours and meager comforts. goshen, ny

A Few Bad Nights

Though I nearly always slept comfortably, the exceptions make better stories. The night of December 10, in Ruston, Louisiana, a cold rain started just as I piled my laundry into the van, so I couldn’t spread my goods out on a picnic table to give me room to make the bed; I just curled up in the clutter and slept in my clothes. When an ice storm hit Mansfield, Louisiana, in January, I simply gave up and took refuge in a motel. The next morning, just after starting an interview a new Inf, I felt flu symptoms coming on. I hurriedly left and made arrangements to keep the room longer because, as I wrote in my journal on January 4, “A Word Wagon is no place to undergo misery in.” I sweated the flu out in the motel room by turning up the thermostat, preparing canned soup and hot lemon toddies in the pot supplied for complimentary coffee, and crawling into bed under as many blankets as I could get. In a February cold spell in DeQuincy, Louisiana, I ran out of white gas for the catalytic heater and couldn’t find more. However, I didn’t suffer because the owner of the local laundromat invited me to sleep on a couch inside. I got to sleep in a comfortable place and he got protection from vandalism.

That one bout of flu was my serious illness, but later I underwent some misery in the Word Wagon just on account of wind and rain:

Dover, DE, May 29 (Wednesday, before daylight)] It has been raining ever since midday Monday. The wind started blowing pretty fierce Sunday night and it got cold—stayed that way until sometime in the night, and the rain has been just a mist. But I woke up while ago feeling uncomfortable. The wind had slowed and the rain had turned to a downpour.. Rain was leaking in between the two back doors….Then I turned over and discovered why I was uncomfortable—rain had run in under the mattress, which has a plastic bottom that kept most of it from getting wet. But some had trickled down to where the two pads join and seeped upward, making a wet, cold spot in the middle of my back. I started the wagon to turn it around so the rain would leak in, if it must, in some other place. It went a ways, sputtered, and died. The distributor was damp. The motor wouldn’t start again. Trying to make the best of a bad deal, I got some clothes on and got out and [toweled off some wet items]. After I got them dry, I tried the starter again ad motor caught. It runs a little rough, but it runs.

But except for a very few nights, I slept as well in the Word Wagon as in any other dwelling I have lived in. From this FW’s point of view, the DARE Word Wagon was a great success.

Reprinted courtesy: Dictionary of American Regional English Newsletter

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

August Rubrecht , an Ozark native, received his Ph.D. from the University of Florida. In his graduate course work he specialized in medieval literature and historical linguistics. He has an ancillary career as a professional storyteller, specializing in folk humor from the Ozarks. He enjoys gardening, fishing, and especially hunting.

Back to Top

Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York