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Column: Qualifying for ‘nincompoop’ status

The word “nincompoop” has been rattling around in my brain lately. I remember my mother using it when I was growing up. There were some other pretty neat words that she used on us kids, some of which you’ve probably heard yourselves; some of which you may have heard but I cannot repeat.

She especially liked and used the word “shenanigans,” and “fracas,” and “puckersnatch.” As you can see by the general direction of her vocabulary, our behavior left something to be desired. We ourselves didn’t think so.

“Nincompoop” seems to have been around, according to various wordsmiths, for a long time in the Dutch language: it likely comes from the Dutch phrase “nicht om poep,” meaning “the female relative of a fool.” Now please, women reading this, first consider that it has changed its meaning in the past years, and seems now to be mostly directed at males, who are well known to perform various idiotic behaviors in their quest to conquer not new worlds – which have all been discovered – but new situations.

As a young boy growing up on the farm in the ‘50s, I had many opportunities to qualify for nincompoop status. As farmers transitioned from horses to tractors, safety in particular and behavior in general had no experience to base behavior on. Machines are dangerous. Many of us kids and some of the adults didn’t survive this era. I’m not going to go into all the times I survived a pending disaster by pure luck. Obviously, nincompoops have to be lucky.

So here’s just a couple of typical incidents that I experienced, growing up. For one thing, I remember fueling gasoline tractors up while they were hot and running. No one advised otherwise. As an adult I’ve since experienced some gasoline fires that were outright scary. Not to have set myself and one of Dad’s tractors aflame was just lucky.

I especially remember forgetting to take the filler hose out of the tractor gas tank and driving off, tearing the hose out of the tank, which, luckily, was full enough to be heavy enough that I could not yank it right off the stand, spilling gasoline all over everything. In those early teen years, distraction was the norm. I don’t remember what I was distracted about, but in fact adults today drive off from filling station pumps with the hose still in their gas tank, so it appears I wasn’t too abnormal. Dad at the time may have thought otherwise. (Nincompoop.)

I suppose the nincompoop-iest thing I remember doing happened the summer I was 16 and left home to work full-time for Bob Mauser, where I learned that I in fact didn’t have it all that bad at home. Dawn to dusk. Whew.

Anyway, it was August, and we were about five miles away from his farm, combining an oat field in weather that was typical Iowa: 90 degrees in the shade. Relative humidity high. Sweaty. Little oat husk barbs clinging to your skin, stabbing you under your armpits, making life simply hideous. We had just changed wagons behind the combine, and Bobby – who was approximately 70 years old at the time – decided we should grease the combine. But the grease gun was empty.

In those days, you filled the grease gun by taking the pumphead end off, sticking the now-open end into a five-gallon-bucket of grease, pulling back against the strong spring on the suction plunger, and bringing it back to the locking slot. That held it while you screwed the head back on.

The head never wanted to screw back on. I grabbed the gun, sucked it full of grease, and locked it open, but somehow, while Bobby was screwing the head back on and I was holding the grease gun, the lock let go and the gun delivered its full contents of warm, Iowa-summer grease in a huge splat onto Bobby’s chest.

Remember the temp? The humidity? He had to finish the day in that shirt. I cannot repeat the words that Bob used, but I believe one of them to be Dutch in origin.