April 2024
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At The Courts With Mme. Nguyen: Tacked, Nailed, Screwed – Oh Hell!

by Kevin Well (ACS)

Idiomatic American English is something you just have to know and learn the hard way, and sometimes the thought gets through to the person, but comes back out somewhat altered.

In late 1960 my father got into playing tennis in a reasonably big way. He acquired the rudiments of the game back in college, but the intervening years did to him what it does to everybody, so to get back in the game, he started at the Circ. Eventually, he got to the point that as often as not, he could at least outlast his opponent until heat did his work for him and the opponent folded. Anyway, these informal matches occasionally developed into a series of matches over a period of two or three weeks.

The old man was hanging right in there through the first weekend and was going back for the next weekend’s “showdown”. It was a mixed field, US military personnel and dependents, people from the French expatriate community, the odd member from other embassy staffs from Australia, etc, as well as some of the more wealthy Vietnamese. Language was a problem so a committee formed to make line calls and pass on the results to the crowd, which was primarily contestant’s family and friends.

Most of us in the crowd had only a casual knowledge of the finer points of the game, and I must admit that the spectators regarded the action on the courts as more of a social occasion than a tennis event.

Mme. Nguyen had gone with her husband to Michigan State University during his graduate studies, and observed the proceedings more attuned to the politics of the situation than the finer points of the game. Both she and her husband were Vietnamese from the south of the country.

Mme. Nguyen was particularly critical of one of the French judges who seemed biased in his calls of the game. You don’t have to know much about Vietnamese history to know that the French were not universally loved and that some of the grudges ran deep. Many grudges were personal.

While explaining the call that eventually eliminated my father, Mme. Nguyen turned to my mother and some others nearby and said “Mr. Wells has been tacked!”

This drew either a blank stare or that slight squint that signifies that the person does not quite get the message.

She thinks for about a three count and offers: “nailed?”, then “SCREWED!” “Mr. Wells has been SCREWED!”

It took us a while to convince her that this was the sort of coarse thing not said in polite company.

She did, however, have a convincing contrary argument.

She cited the American game called Oh Hell! More blank stares. Madame explained that we certainly knew the game, contestants received a cardboard card, and marked it as someone called letter and number combinations like N-15, G-23, O-17. At some point somebody yells something and everybody in unison, says “Oh HELL!”.


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