The complement of the facility in Jacksonville generally represented a lot of the Southeast (although some of the transferees had called various Midwestern locales home), but there seemed to be an inordinate number who came from within 50 miles of Hilliard. The most entertaining of them to me was the Waycross contingent. Although I had spent 13 years in South Florida before arriving in Jacksonville, I was a Yankee at heart, and the mother tongue to which I was accustomed was embodied in what is known linguistically as a Midland American Accent.
Those boys from Ware County sure talked differently. I remember one day sitting down at a table in the café populated by Hugh Sport and Fred Thrift. They were having a conversation about something and after five minutes of listening I was not able to figure out what language they were speaking. And I was really trying. After a few months, it became easier, but it sure seemed like the accent got thicker when it was only Ware County boys doing the talking.
Later on Fred trained me on a couple of high altitude sectors and I got to know him pretty well. One day, after having listened to him for quite a while I noticed that some words that sounded different when I pronounced them, each sounded exactly the same when Fred said them. I gave him a little quiz:
“Fred, what’s that thing that you shoot with a bow?” I asked.
“An arrow (pronounced air),” he replied.
“And what do you call a mistake?” I continued.
“An error (pronounced air),” he answered.
“And what’s the invisible stuff you breathe?” I said.
“Air (pronounced air),” he said.
I rested my case. Despite my initial assessment of hillbillies, Fred, Hugh, and the other locals were genuinely nice guys and we had a lot of fun together. Sometimes, they were hard to understand, though.
One day Hugh called in sick. Then another and another. We got word that he was quite ill. Then we heard it was cancer. It turned out to be a particularly virulent form in his brain. Within six weeks he was dead. I believe that was the first death I experienced of someone whom I knew quite well.
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