April 5, 2011

Non-phonetic brain matter

I HAVE ONE of those brains which, if you try to push too much into it at one end, things fall out from the other end.

Now it so happens that I learned a phonetic alphabet at an early age. I don’t remember where I learned it (because that’s one of the bits that has fallen out) but it may have been in the Boy Scouts -- from which, incidentally I was cruelly expelled shortly after my Tenderfoot test for smoking in bed. I thought I was safe (I was with the Scoutmaster’s daughter at the time) but it didn’t work out that way.

Anyway, the phonetic alphabet I learned was the one used by the armed forces in World War II and it went like this:

Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, George How, Item, Jig, King, Love, Mike, Nan, Oboe, Peter, Queen, Roger Sugar, Tare, Uncle, Victor, William, X-Ray, Yoke, Zebra.

Now, somewhere down the line somebody thought it would be a good idea to make this list more “international,” that is, easier to remember for those whose home language is not English.

Frankly, I would have thought that, having won the war, English speakers would be entitled to impose their phonetic alphabet on everyone else. I mean, what the heck is the use of winning a war if you can’t even tell the losers how to spell?

But no, we behaved like whipped wimps and let ourselves be dictated to by them furriners, so that even the U.S. Coast Guard, enquiring about the name of my sailboat, expected to be replied to in the new phonetic alphabet. Which, incidentally goes like this:

Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-Ray, Yankee, Zulu.

Now we come to the strange bit. I can never remember the new alphabet for more than 10 minutes at a time. Yet I can recall the old one perfectly, even if I don’t think about it all winter.

For once, my brain has seized upon a block of information and absolutely refused to let it be kicked out and replaced by a new block. It doesn’t matter how hard I try, my first impulse on the VHF radio is to spell according to the old alphabet. I can recite the new alphabet if I’m given a moment to think about it, but it never comes naturally. The old one just won’t let go.

I think my brain is trying to tell me something. I think it feels there’s something unnecessary about the “new” alphabet, maybe something unfair. A man shouldn’t have to learn two phonetic alphabets in his lifetime, specially when there’s nothing wrong with the first one, which he took special pains to memorize thoroughly and impress the Scoutmaster’s daughter. And all I can say is that I agree with my brain. I think it has got this right.

Today’s Thought
There are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run the sword is always beaten by the mind.
-- Napoleon

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #181
The old definition of seakindliness, as laid down by Howard I. Chapelle, was “the ability of a boat to meet heavy weather and remain reasonably dry, shipping no solid water and relatively little spray.” Incidentally, it was his opinion that few boats under 40 feet in length could meet the other requirements of seakindliness, namely that it should permit comfort for the crew through a slow, easy roll (with no jerk or sudden stop at the end of each one) and an equally slow and easy pitch.

“Officer, please tell the court if you searched the luggage in this man’s room.”
“Yes, sir, I did.”
“Did you find in it any property belonging to the hotel?”
“No, sir.”
“No towels? No sheets?”
“No, sir.”
“Nothing at all?”
“Only a chambermaid in his grip, sir.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Ben said...

On the ships we usually had the ships name and calls sign written out somewhere near the VHF in the phonetic alphabet.

That is how we managed to sound super efficient and pompous on the VHF - it worked great until they asked us to spell out phonetically something that we didn't have prepared. Then it was not quite so professional...

Oztayls said...

Whaaat, you were expelled for "smoking in bed", and expect us to believe that when you were in the company of the Scoutmaster's daughter?! Hehe, very funny :)

s/v Windward said...

I had to learn a different phonetic alphabet for a job in 1979, and am glad to learn I'm not the only one who cannot displace it.

Adam, Boy, Charles, David, Edward, Frank, George, Henry, Ida, John, King, Lincoln, Mary, Nora, Ocean, Paul, Quincy, Robert, Sam, Tom, Union, Victor, William, X-ray, Yellow, Zebra.

uurchin said...

at least Victor & X-ray are the same on yours and Charlie & Mike also on Johns