STUTTERING SIAM by Peter Nolan Smith

In the 1950s stuttering was considered a possible sign of mental retardation.

At age 2 I spoke like a stuck record. My parents thought this disability would pass and I fooled them by mot speaking other than in single syllables. My family became accustomed to my aberrant speech habits, however upon entering Underwood Primary School in Falmouth Foresides, Maine my kindergarten teacher suggested that my parents take me to Maine Medical Hospital in Portland to see a specialist.

“Your son has a stutter.”

“He does?”

“Do you have a stutter?” asked my mother.

“N-not-ttt all the t-t-time.” This was the most I had spoken in years.

My father shook his head and my mother thanked the teacher.

As we got into the family station wagon, she said, “No one in my family ever stuttered.”

“It’s not a sin.” My father had converted to Catholicism to marry the Boston beauty.

“The nuns taught that stutters are naturally left-handed and left-handed people belong to the Devil.”

“You don’t believe that, do you?”

My mother didn’t answer the question and the next day we drove across the two bridges spanning the Presumpscot River and the Back Cove into Portland. My grandmother Edith was taking care of my brothers and sisters. My father parked on Bramhall Street and entered the hospital. I didn’t like the smell.

The hospital subjected me to a series of tests; mostly to divine whether I was mentally impaired. My test scores indicating an intelligence higher than average was a relief to my parents. The head doctor then explained that stuttering resulted from a series of blocks, which prolong syllables.

“Stuttering in itself isn’t a problem. Demosthenes, the Greek orator, spoke with pebbles in his mouth to cure his stuttering.”

“Pebbles.” I wanted out of this office. No one was putting pebbles in my mouth.

“Not proven to be effective, but what we have to be concerned about in your son’s case is the appearance of secondary stuttering behaviors such as tics and twitches could develop as escapes to stop stuttering.”

“Twitches?” My mother was alarmed by this prognosis.

“Tics as well.”

“What can we do?” my father asked with a worried look in my directions. I had been no trouble to them up to this point and now I was becoming a monster simply because words wouldn’t exit from my mouth.

“Well, ancients suggested drinking water from a snail’s shell or hitting the stutterer on a cloudy day. We’re a little more advanced nowadays. Let’s have our oral specialists take a look.”

I was brought into another room. The young doctor wore thick glasses. He examined the structure of my mouth and whispered his opinion to the head doctor, who announced to my parents, “The reason your son stutters is that he thinks too fast for his tongue, which is too big for his head.”

“Is there anything we can do?” My mother was scared that I would be ridiculed by bullies for stuttering, even though no one in Underwood had ever made fun of me.

“As parents, no, however we can scrap the boy’s palate with a needle to induce his tongue to work fast.”

“I don’t mind stuttering,” I told the doctors, but no one listens to a 6 year-old boy in 1958.

I was strapped to a chair in a small operating room. The needle was about two-inches long. The young doctor asked me to open my mouth. I shook my head. Doctors didn’t waste time on young boys’ objections to perfectly good operational procedures and he nodded to the two nurses. Their hands pulled my mouth open like correction officers force-feeding a prisoner on a hunger strike.

“This won’t hurt,” the doctor told me with the needle aimed at the top of my open mouth.

He was a liar.

Worse I had to go to Maine Medical once a week for a month, until my father forbade any further treatment.

“Quacks. That’s all those doctors are. Quacks.” His father had been a GP in Westbrook, Maine, so my father recognized a fake doctor when he saw one.

My stutter survived grammar school and high school. High school wasn’t so bad, since my Latin teacher also had a stutter.

“A-mo-mo-mo-, Amas-mas-mas, Amat-mat-mat.”

Brother Bede also taught Algebra.

The other students thought my good grades came from his favoring another stutterer. I was just good with numbers, plus my stuttering wasn’t so pronounced as before as I honed my stalled sentences to sound like thoughtful pauses. After a while I forgot I had a stutter. After all I really never listened to how I spoke and none of my friends ever mentioned it, but upon graduation from college I went on job interviews and the personnel director of a bank asked, “How long have you had that stutter?”

“O-o-only when I’m n-n-nervous.”

“Thanks for coming.”

The bank never called for a follow-up interview or the hotel chain or insurance company. Corporations had no use for stutterers and I taught English at South Boston High School. The kids noticed my stutter and the principal said, “I can’t have an English teacher who stutters.”

I was transferred to gym and lasted another year before moving to New York.

People of that city were more concerned with my Boston accent than my disorder, although any time the police would stop me for bad driving, the stutter would emerge with a vengeance. Most of the cops would get so annoyed by my repeating a single syllable that they would wave me away without writing the ticket and I exaggerated the stammering in foreign countries to avoid traffic violations, proving all cops hate stutterers.

None of them could tell me why.

It even worked in Thailand with two cops wanting a bribe.

When we were up in Ban Nok visiting family, my wife told everyone about the stuttering or dit-arnh episode with the highway police. They laughed, although her mother said, “You can cure dit-arnh easy.”

“Cure how.” I was willing to listen to what she had to say, since she was an expert with herbs and country healing.

“You have to eat the hee-moo.”

“Hee-moo?” Basically slang for pig vagina.

“Yes, hee-moo.” The entire gathering repeated with heavy nods.

“From a virgin pig,” my brother-in-law solemnly added.

“I’m fine with dit-arnh, really.”

I started for the door, but everyone was worked up about curing my stuttering and 30 minutes later my wife’s mother entered the house with a steaming plate of what appeared to be fried gristle. Obviously pig pussy was sturdier than that of a human female.

“Chim.” The mother speared a morsel with a fork and held the quivering innards to my mouth.

Everyone else chanted ‘chim’.

My wife said, “Taste it. You not have to eat much, then you not dit arnh ek.”

Never stutter again?

I had my stutter for over 46 years.

It was like an old friend and they were suggesting I get rid of it in a second. This was magic and I couldn’t figure out white or black. Maybe if I didn’t stutter, I could get a real job. Maybe things would be different. Maybe I would be rich.

I opened my mouth and chomped on the hee-moo, only to have everyone laugh in unison.

“Not hee-moo. Hoo-moo.”

“Pig ear?”

“Chai, hoo-moo.”

My brother-in-law’s face was boiling over with amusement. The rest of the family joined his laughter. I was slower to see the humor, but finally smiled and said, “H-h-hee m-m-moo not stop d-d-dit arnh.”

The Thais like a good sense of humor and my brother-in-law broke out a special bottle of lao khao dang or red rice moonshine. Within two hours all the males in the house were only capable of slurring their speech and the only cure for that was sleep.

As for stuttering I still have my old friend and will until I die, because some things are just too much you to not be you.

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