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God bless you, Mr. Ahern
By Rebecca Trimpe

About ninety-five percent of the time when I talk, I’m lying. What I’m saying is true, sometimes painfully so, but the accent I use is a flat-out lie. I sound like a television news anchor from the great Midwest. There was a time this served me well, but the space dedicated to translating what I want to say from the way it sounds in my head to perfect for the six o’clock news when it comes outta my mouth -- that’s taking up too much real estate in my brain. I’m too old for this shit and can’t be bothered to give a damn anymore.


Anchor-speak is a skill I picked up because I had to. First-grade teacher sent me to the speech therapist. Said my accent would keep me from “succeeding in the world.” Therapist listened to me talk for a while then gave her diagnosis: “You have a Southern accent. You’ll grow out of it.” I was an overachiever. I began to grow out of it immediately. Once word hit the playground that I talked funny, which no one had noticed before our teacher made a big damn deal out of it, every kid in my class started pointing it out. It was hell. I had to blend in, so I started developing an ear for accents about thirty-seven seconds after it was made clear I had one I needed to bury. I soak 'em up like a wrung-out kitchen sponge left on a sunny windowsill all day. If your accent is particularly delicious, let me apologize in advance. I am not mocking you. I’m a speech chameleon.


I wasn’t gonna get any help at home. The first time I managed to say the word “five” halfway properly my mother laughed at me just like the kids at school. If I was going to fix this thing that needed fixing, I had to figure it out myself as silently as possible. Then I discovered the source many people turn to when they’re told they need to improve the way they speak: television. This was the era of local teevee kiddie cartoon programs and I watched two every chance I got. I liked Janie but didn’t want to copy her speech. I enjoyed Chuckwagon Theater, but not enough to adopt the way Cowboy Bob spoke. I might have tried on Walter Cronkite’s accent, but the Vietnam War was part of the national evening news every night and my parents wouldn’t let me watch. Local news was not off limits and my family was loyal to WISH TV, Channel 8. Mike Ahern began his broadcasting career a couple years before I started fishing for a new way to talk. I was an Eliza Doolittle and needed a Henry Higgins. We were perfect for each other.


I grew up in southern Indiana but anyone who tries to call me a Hoosier will get corrected. The only English I heard when I was learning how to talk was spoken with an Appalachian accent thick as sorghum. My original speech and the place where I was born are like a pair of little chips on my left shoulder. After more than fifty years of pressure to conform, they’ve become a pair of twinkly diamonds. What’s left of the coal-camp town where I was born is in the valley of the tallest mountain in Kentucky. I did not do any of my growing up there. I’m sure there are Kentuckians who would accuse me of trying to appropriate a connection to a place that isn’t truly mine. I might concede a point to that argument but it would be the size of a period in 4-point type. My parents were born and grew up there. Every long weekend or school vacation was spent in Letcher and Harlan counties among grannies, grandads, aunts, uncles, cousins, and enough other relatives to populate a small town. They all sounded just like I did. I don’t want to appropriate anything but the way the brave little girl I was in first grade sounded when she spoke. She’s my hero.


Mr. Ahern didn’t sound like a Hoosier, even though he is one. Most television news anchors have no discernible accent, at least to American ears. Perhaps that’s why he made such an impression on me. I usually say Watergate was the reason I wanted to go into the news business, a career I had for over 20 years, but I’m sure Mr. Ahern also helped steer me there. A handful of months before Nixon resigned, my fourth-grade teacher sent a note to my mother. Suggested if I read the newspaper out loud at home it might help me stop transposing numbers and let me practice my accent. I burst into tears. My accent was still a problem? My mother rolled her eyes and handed me a copy of our local newspaper. It had started picking up the Watergate stories through the Associated Press. Here was another symbiotic match. Woodard and Bernstein needed to uncover the truth. I needed a career to aspire to.


I didn’t realize I’d perfected anchor-speak until high school. I was in journalism class and interviewing sources for news stories for the first time. No one asked me where I was from. My fake accent stayed in place throughout college, where a man from Chicago I dated briefly said he was glad I didn’t talk like a southern person because “they just sound so ignorant.” My first media jobs after graduation also were free of questions about my speech. I’m far removed from that young girl trying to re-teach herself to talk and yet to this day, when I ask a source a question for a story I’m writing, I wonder who this person is, posing these questions. She sounds entirely foreign to me.


I’m an educated, intelligent human. I’ve always known I was code switching, though I wouldn’t have called it that in elementary school. I was in my early fifties before it occurred to me I didn’t need to code switch anymore because I had, in fact, “succeeded in the world.” I was listening to a co-worker give a talk when I tuned into her voice and heard the southern place of her birth. This woman had just earned her Ph.D. and anyone in doubt of her intelligence needs to be called out for the ignorant asshat they are. She sounded like her authentic self and while I admired her for it, I envied her too. Then I decided to not envy her anymore and stop editing myself. Turns out, that's more difficult than it sounds. Mr. Ahern did this job he didn’t know I gave him a little too well.


My internal speech editor eases up on me when I’m around another southern person. Or maybe she just tosses her hands in the air and casts her eyes skyward searchin’ for Jesus because I am hopeless when I get a chance to talk to someone who’s got an accent from south of the Ohio River. This can get sticky. People who don’t know I was born in southeastern Kentucky and raised by a pair of hillbillies give me an odd look and ask: What happened to your voice? My speech editor has been on the job a long damn time, cleaning up my diction, slammin' the brakes on the pace, and flattening out my accent. The old girl is good at what she does, but it’s way past time for her to retire. She prevents me from saying things like “he’s bein’ ugly” and instead has me say “he’s being difficult.” “Oh my goodness” gets put in place of “lord have mercy.” She insists I utilize the proper pronunciation of the word “tired” instead of saying “tarred.” She makes me tired.


I Eliza Doolittle’d myself once so I can do it again. From now on, my “eye” sounds will lengthen and issue from the back of my nose. G’s at the end of gerunds may disappear entirely. R’s are likely to vanish now and then. The pace is gonna accelerate considerably so buckle up and hang on. Y’all and all y’all are valuable plural nouns and will prolly be utilized liberally. And should I be disposed to think of you with affection, you’re liable to be called “darlin’” now and then. You have been warned.


Rebecca Trimpe is a writer and editor in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, three cats, a large dog of indeterminate breed, and a small collection of succulents. She worked as a journalist for over 20 years before becoming a communicator in higher education. Her work can be found in genesis and The Bookends Review.

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