Cypher

Cypher: (v) to calculate numerically; figure

We live in a generation that touts its tolerance while simultaneously maintaining a tiny regional dialect.

Nowadays, folks are not only ignorant of words and terms, but proud that they were born long after said phrase was uttered.

I suppose I felt that way when I was younger, too.

I was guilty of looking for words and slogans from former decades so I could make fun of them.

Yet in the process of this alienation, a lot of good words get crucified on the “cross of cool.”

So today when I saw our word—cypher—it brought back one single memory.

When I was in high school, there was a young guy who moved to our town from Bowtown, West Virginia. We thought he talked funny. He certainly dressed poorly. He was shy. And he always told us when he was discussing his algebra homework that he was “workin’ on his cypherin’.”

We just stared at him, having no idea what he meant. Exasperated, he explained that all reasoning, all math problems, all puzzles and all dilemmas back where he grew up had to be “cyphered.”

He described the process—you study the problem, look off in the distance seeking an answer, and then lick your pencil and “get to figurin’.”

We called him a hillbilly.

It was not a compliment.

It was our way of saying that we were better than him because he had a weird word for mathematics.

Whatever his terminology may have been, his test scores were excellent. Matter of fact, he was so good at cyphering that he ended up with a scholarship to The Ohio State University, where he studied to be an engineer and ended up traveling the world, building stuff and benefitting poorer countries with better ideas.

I suppose one might consider that in these journeys he gained a certain amount of sophistication—and didn’t cypher anymore.

But I can still envision this alien to our community standing over a set of blueprints, looking off in the distance before licking his pencil…

And solving the present problem.

 

funny wisdom on words that begin with a C

Coal

Coal: (n) a combustible rock consisting of carbonized plant matter

For a season as a young man, I traveled with a gentleman who had a low-budget Las Vegas-type show, and performed at conventions, carnivals and county fairs.

One summer, we were scheduled in a West Virginia mining town for their city-wide carnival, fair and jubilee–all mixed into one. There was no motel in town, so the sponsor found homes for the entertainers to sleep overnight. Most people got to pair off–in other words, two to every house.

Except me.

I ended up driving about seven miles into the hills, and stayed with a family who had a shack that could have been a prop-double for Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

I was still dressed in my stage clothing and upon my arrival, the people stared at me like I had twelve heads. They offered me a meal of brown bread and beans with side-meat and molasses. It was delicious.

But they never stopped peering at me. I was just a kid, so I was really spooked.

I attempted communication. I tried to express interest in coal mining. The only thing I knew about coal was that when I was a boy, my dad had a coal furnace that warmed the loan company we owned. It was my job ever so often to go down and stoke the coal into the furnace. So I had picked up a piece or two and analyzed it. It’s quite an attractive rock. (You can understand that if it got the chance to hang around for several hundred thousand years–how it might become a diamond.)

So ridiculously, and clumsily, I might add–I shared my limited awareness, and even ventured calling it “bituminous” just to show off a bit.

The family had no toleration for my ignorance. Every question I asked was met with a two-word grunted answer. Usually, “Huh. Maybe.”

It was an uncomfortable evening–mainly because I was miserable and felt out-of-place with this common sort.

So imagine my surprise when I woke up the next morning to buckwheat pancakes, scrapple and coffee. The mom of the house had also taken an old shirt, sewn up all the holes and presented it to me as a gift.

For you see, while I thought they were giving me a hard time–unwelcome in their home–they, on the other hand, were actually sitting over there, quietly trying to figure out some way to bless the stranger.

That afternoon during our performance, I wore the shirt they darned for me, and the family sat near the front, grinning from ear-to-ear.

It brought me to tears.

I realized that even though I was having a hard time making money, I did not have to live in an old shack and descend into a coal mine, risking my life, to eek out enough money for my beans.

 

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