Clearly, I need to brush up on my Spanish.
While I would never say that I was fluent, I took several years of high school and college Spanish, and at one point I could probably limp my way through a Spanish conversation.
Over the past 20 years, however, I have replaced that information with, well, lots of other things, including lots of Wiggles songs, which my kids haven’t listened to in years, so I’m really not sure why that has to keep to taking up memory space in the ol’ noggin.
I discovered this language gap the other day at a busy intersection near my house. As I turned off the main road, I saw a van across the road, very much 90 degrees away from where it should be. The front doors were open, and two women were at the side of the vehicle trying to push the van, which was going exactly nowhere.
I pulled my car off the road and hopped out to help them push. As I approached the van, I said, “Lemme help,” which was probably unnecessary but I wanted to make sure they were aware I was not some road rager coming to attack them.
One of the women said something to me. And it did not compute. The other woman said something. I got nothing.
I could tell they were speaking Spanish, but every single bit of Spanish I had ever known was just gone.
It was clear that they were trying to push the car into a gas station parking lot, but they were not going to be able to make the turn. We were going to have to push the van back from the road, turning the wheel to the right, and then get behind the van, turn the wheel to the left, and push it into the parking lot.
I started pushing, and the van began moving backward. I said to the women, “Turn the wheel to the right. The RIGHT!” They said something back.
The van kept moving. I started going through my Spanish files to try and find the word for “right.” Biblioteca. Gato. Me llamo Miguel. Nada.
I began motioning with my arm in a clockwise motion. Ah, the international language of spastic hand gestures.
By this time, several other guys had hopped out of cars to help push, which certainly made the going better. As self-appointed team captain, I went to the driver’s side to motion frantically that it was now time to turn the wheel to the left and push the car forward. The woman said something to me, and then realized she, too, spoke gesture, and motioned at the steering wheel. She then grabbed it and jerked it left and right, to no avail, to show that she could not move it and thus could not steer the vehicle.
I hopped in the driver’s seat and began cranking the steering wheel as hard as I could, gradually turning the wheels. “Go forward now!” I called out, hoping my new team of strongmen understood me. They did, and the car began moving forward. The driver pointed to the gas tanks. Onward, team!
I stayed in the driver’s seat, slowly guiding the car up to the pump. From the backseat, I heard a little voice. “Hello, mister.” And then another. “Hi.” And another. “We’re out of gas.”
“Um, hi.” I said. “Nice to meet you.” I considered asking if any of them even considering stepping up to the plate and serving as team translator, but I figured that was probably not the right thing to do to three kids in car seats, in particular ones who had just had their car commandeered by some stranger. Enough trauma for one night.
We coasted up to the pump, and I turned control back over to the driver. The women were very appreciative, or so I assume, as my Spanish had not come magically rushing back.
Perhaps I will use this as incentive to brush up on my Spanish. Like I said, I was never really fluent, but I certainly could have navigated a situation such as this. Who knows, maybe I can study a little bit of Spanish and repopulate that part of brain that once housed it. And maybe that will flush out the “Fruit Salad, Yummy Yummy” song once and for all.
Mike Gibbons was born and raised in Aiken, S.C., and now lives in Charleston. A graduate of the University of Alabama, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @StandardMike.