JIM IN ARGENTINA, 1903 – 1905
(Adapted from the book Working-Class Hero)
This is the period in which Jim learned his one and only foreign language, and also learned the extreme importance of pronouncing it properly.
Jim had spent a total of two years in South Africa, leaving about 1903. From there, either directly or via a brief stay back in the United States, he proceeded to Argentina where he remained for two years. His livelihood in Argentina was never mentioned, but it seems reasonable to assume that he continued to be involved in construction. He mentioned two particular recollections from that period.
One was that, while being transported with a number of people in an open wagon, he was admiring a young lady seated across from him. A large fellow got aboard and found no vacant seat except a narrow one next to Jim. But the fellow also noted that the young lady was occupying more space than she needed, so he hauled her up and plopped her unceremoniously into the place next to Jim, saying, “Her little butt will fit in here better than mine.” Jim was so taken aback by this behavior, not to mention the sudden extreme closeness of the young lady, that he wasted the entire opportunity in a blushing and tongue-tied condition.
His second recollection was of an evening open-air dance. An Englishman came to join the festivity, fresh from horseback riding and wearing knee-high boots with spurs. He started to dance and quickly got his feet entangled in his partner’s dress. He apologized profusely in his minimal Spanish, and unfortunately added a brief explanation: “No soy acostumbrado á bailar con botas.” (“I am not accustomed to dancing with boots.”) His specific misfortune was in letting the English equivalent influence his pronunciation of the last word, saying “bootas” instead of “botas.” The word was understood as “putas” (“whores”), and a brother of the young lady immediately stabbed him – non-fatally, it was understood.
During his two years in the Argentine, Jim acquired an excellent command of the Spanish language, not from books but from close association with the people. In the mid-1930’s he demonstrated this before his family on the occasion of visiting an Argentinian grocery in New York City. Through an hour-long conversation in Spanish with the storekeeper, his speech was rapid-fire and fluent, the storekeeper understood him immediately, and his pronunciation seemed to lack any vestige of American accent, seeming quite identical in sound with that of the native speaker he was engaged with.
By about 1905, the year he turned 21, Jim returned to the United States. There is no indication that he ever left this country again. The picture shown above is the earliest one we have of him. It was taken in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, about seven years after he left Argentina. He is the young fellow seated on the wagon at far left.