While I detest political correctness (in my opinion, a form of thought and behavior control that would have been detested on campuses in the 1970’s, when I was in college, much less by the author of the Bill of Rights), I am afraid I may have been an early participant.
When I was in college, ethnic jokes were popular. While I believe that intelligent people knew these jokes were not intended to be offensive, my generation decided that some change was required.
We all had lots of friends and acquaintances who were Polish or Italian or Irish (or we were ourselves), so we needed to avoid the risk of offending anyone.
So we took on the Belgians. The rationale was that nobody knew any Belgians, that maybe there weren’t even any around, maybe they didn’t really exist. Well, I ended up marrying one, and I have learned a few things about them.
Don’t worry, I am not taking on political correctness in this column. I do not want to run the risk of being “Al Sharptoned” or “Al Gored!” This column contains just a few of my insights about being Belgian, or at least being married into the family of one.
My wife’s dad and his family moved from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania in the late 1930’s to Clarksburg, West Virginia, following jobs in the glass industry. Her dad and his brother and sister were still in school, resulting eventually in an extended family of “Bastin’s” in the North View section of Clarksburg and more recently in nearby Bridgeport.
They joined a significant bunch of other Belgians primarily employed as glasscutters in what was, for several generations, a large glass industry in Clarksburg.
The Bastin’s are proud Belgians. As I said, I have learned a few things about them –– one thing I learned is not to refer to them as “poor man’s French.” It is not well received. Fighting words.
Another thing I have learned is that they are strong-willed and stubborn. My blood being a great American cocktail of Irish and English and Scottish and Welsh, my personality traits tend (except professionally I hope) towards “wishy-washiness” and indecisiveness and obsequiousness.
Not the Bastin Belgians — they are unfailingly polite and kind but also firm and honest and respectful in their relationships. The clan I married into is “respectable” in the best sense of the word. They want to be known by good character and good deeds and to uphold the family name. Those virtues are not as prevalent today as they should be.
An interesting “activity” that my wife’s family (not all of them I must say) tried to introduce me to was “turtle gigging.” I can’t say for sure that this sport is peculiar to Belgians. But I can assure you that it IS peculiar. Downright peculiar as my late aunt Mary Alma would have said.
For those who are unfamiliar with the sport, as I was, turtle gigging involves getting in a creek and walking or floating along the banks. While I like the outdoors, my involvement has been an occasional hike and a little biking and jogging on trails where the terrain permits, unless ball fields count as the great outdoors.
A descendant of Davey Crocket or Daniel Boone I am not. My outdoor experiences have not included carrying a weapon or walking in murky water. I was assured by my wife’s Uncle Olie and several others, however, that no weapon was necessary. Therein is the rub as Shakespeare said.
The reason that no weapon is required is that you use your hand to “gig” the turtle. I think this probably evens the odds for the turtles but it did not whet my appetite to participate.
The way you do this is to search along a creek bank looking for telltale signs that a turtle has burrowed its way into the bank — I am not sure how you know for sure what has burrowed in, as I am pretty sure they don’t put out flags saying “turtle here.” But nonetheless, that is the starting point.
This is where it gets really interesting — when you have made the strategic decision that there is likely a turtle in the hole, you stick your hand in and feel for the shell. I was told by Uncle Olie that you learn from the feel of the shell whether the turtle is facing towards the outside or the inside of the creek bank.
I was also told that if the turtle is facing the outside, you will almost certainly be bitten. But if you aren’t bitten, and can tell that the grain of the shell “runs the right way,” you then slide your hand quickly down the shell towards yourself, grab the tail of the turtle and jerk it out of the hole.
I assume the turtle takes umbrage at having been “gigged”, but there are moments when they avenge themselves.
I was assured by Uncle Olie and several other male members of the clan (the female Bastins, while typically athletic and active, do not, to my knowledge, much care for this sport) hat the odds are “80 – 20” that the turtles are facing in (and thus not able to bite you). I would think this is likely true, given the gymnastics that would seem to be required of a turtle to dig a hole into a creek bank, crawl in and then turnaround, but nonetheless the percentages were not good enough to entice me.
I asked for the over and under on fingers lost but no one wanted to say. I was also surprised to learn that this sport did not involve beer consumption, as it seemed to me that this would be the only way to make it tolerable. I shouldn’t have been surprised that it does not though, given that my Belgians are almost all teetotalers, a fact very unusual in Belgians generally.
It is also possible that this was merely the Belgian form of snipe hunting. The Bastins are known for great practical jokes and love to laugh. And I never noticed any missing fingers.
Evans “Buddy” King grew up in Christiansburg and graduated from CHS in 1971. He lives in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where he practices law with the firm of Steptoe and Johnson PLLC.