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Earworms
by Newt Harlan



Have you ever had “ear worms”? I have, in fact I’ve got a pretty good case right now. No, I’m not talking about some exotic disease that I picked up as a result of some of my unsavory adventures, but something that almost everyone has experienced at one time or another. Have you ever had a song which seems to just stick in your mind that you constantly find yourself humming or whistling, and even when you’re not humming or whistling, the damned thing keeps rolling around somewhere up there in your head? If this has happened to you, then you have experienced what our German friends call “ohrwurm.” Translated, that means earworm, which is that infectious and irritating piece of music that just won’t get out of your head.

They’re sneaky little boogers, these earworms. You never know when you’re fixin’ to catch one of them. One minute you’re just innocently going about your business, brushing your teeth or driving down the road or sitting out in a boat, fishing, with not a sound of music anywhere, and all of the sudden, there it is -- a song is rolling around up in your head, over and over. And to make things worse, it’s usually a song you detest.

Right now I’m infected with not one, but two songs. One is “Pretty Woman” and the other is “Waltz Across Texas.” You’re probably wondering how the hell I can have two songs running through my mind at the same time, however that’s not quite the case. The way it happens is when one song ends, the other begins -- kind of like a radio playing the same two songs one after the other, over and over. It’s really not a lot of fun, especially since I don’t care for either song.

These aren’t my usual earworm songs. Usually, I cue up with either “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” or “Sweet Caroline,” both of which I can’t stand. There are also a couple of commercial jingles I can’t recall right now, that I’m not even going to think about, for fear of setting them off.

Probably my worst episode with earworms came during football season a couple of years ago. On the first or second game of the season, tu (University of Texas) was playing somebody and the game was on television. For whatever reason, while watching the game, I picked up on their fight song: ”Texas fight, Texas fight, and it’s goodbye to A&M; Texas fight, Texas fight, and we’ll chalk another win.” Now this wouldn’t be a big problem to most people, but since I’m a former student at arch-rival Texas A&M (the reason for the small t small u abbreviation above), it was a very traumatic and embarrassing experience for me.

Can you just imagine me sitting in the beer joint on a Saturday afternoon, watching a football game with my friends, when there’s a lull in the action and conversation and there sits ol’ Newt, a dyed-in the-wool, can’t stand anything to do with the longhorns, Fightin’ Texas Aggie, just a-humming . . . “Texas fight, Texas fight” . . . I’ll have to say my friends were very understanding -- they only nailed me every chance they got, not constantly or anything like that.

I just couldn’t get rid of that damned song. I didn’t like it to begin with, just because of its origin, but I came to detest it to the point that to this day I cover my ears if I even suspect I’m going to hear it. Finally, along about Christmas of that year, “The Little Drummer Boy” replaced the fight song and I haven’t had to deal with it since.

The most infamous event I can recall, involving earworms, occurred about 20 or 25 years ago, before I even had any idea what an earworm was. Miss Gertrude, who owned a local liquor store and was an after-hours and Sunday bootlegger, passed away. Since she had donated a considerable amount of money to the Freewill Baptist Church, the preacher, Brother Decker had agreed to preach at her services. She had no family to speak of, but her numerous friends and customers packed the funeral home. Just before the start of the services, Joe Forrest, a somewhat eccentric local reprobate stumbled in and found a seat on the aisle right down front, just behind the pallbearers.

All went well at the beginning as they sang a couple of hymns and gave the eulogy. Then it was time for Brother Decker to preach. Now Bro. Decker was notorious for his long-winded sermons and the longer he went, the louder he went. Just as he was getting started, referencing the Bible verses that he was preaching from and such, we heard someone softly humming Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The tune went through a few refrains, then suddenly stopped. We noticed ol’ Joe surreptitiously (he thought) get a half-pint from his jacket pocket and take a swig. Pretty quick, the “Stars and Stripes” started up again, a little louder this time -- another couple of refrains, another couple of nips.

By this time Bro. Decker was getting pretty wound up and was talking several decibels above normal. So, apparently, was ol’ Joe, as by now he could be heard throughout the hall, tuning up right along with the preacher. The preacher paused for a sip of water and ol’ Joe paused for a couple of nips, then they got going right up to speed again.

By then the church ladies sitting over in the “amen corner” had started with their sshhhhh! but we weren’t sure whether it was meant for ol’ Joe or the preacher because Joe was up to full marching band strength, complete with trumpets and drums and Bro. Decker was hurling fire and brimstone faster than we could duck. Joe must’ve thought the sshhhh’s were meant for him because he kinda faded down to quiet on his last refrain, although he continued to drum his fingers in march time and managed to sneak another nip or two. Not long after, the preacher finished cleaning up our sins and offered up a prayer. We had the final viewing and the service was over.

As we waited outside the funeral home, fixin’ to load up to go to the cemetery, we asked Joe about his humming “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Some of us thought it might have been a favorite of Miss Gertrude and he was perhaps humming it in her memory. Joe told us that no, that damn song had just been stuck inside his head for 2 or 3 days and was making his brain itch, so there he was humming it, right in the middle of the funeral. He never did tell us the significance of the nips of whiskey -- probably for medicinal purposes.

Now you know all about earworms and I’ll bet that about half of you have picked one up, just from thinking about it. Pesky little varmints, ain’t they? I suppose you’re thinking since I’ve gone this far to tell you about earworms that I’m going to offer you a cure for them. Wrong.

There’s no known cure for earworms. Some folks say if you get a recording of the song that’s stuck in your head and sit and listen to it play all the way through a couple of times, that it’ll go away. It has something to do with giving your brain closure or some kind of scientific talk. It doesn’t work.

As I was researching this on the Internet, I came across a cure that was a guaranteed, no- fail solution. All that was necessary was to hum the song “The Girl From Ipanema.” For some reason, humming this tune completely through eradicates all forms of earworm. It worked; I no longer have the two songs running through my head.

Now if I can just get “The Girl From Ipanema” to turn off, I’ll be fine.

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Newt tells us about himself:

I was born, raised and educated in Texas. With the exception of a few brief sojourns and the 4 years during the Vietnam Era that I spent riding around on airplanes courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, I've spent the more than 65 years of my life within spittin’ distance of the place where I grew up. I managed to cram a four-year college degree into nine years and by virtue of that remarkable feat, I am a former student of six different schools, which sure helps the odds of rooting for a winner in sporting events. The academic standards committee had a moment of weakness and I was the fortunate recipient of a degree from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

I'm Southern to the bone. The sound of “Dixie” being played gives me goose bumps and I stand and remove my hat. My yard dog, B.J., controls the squirrels, cats, meter readers and peddlers around my place. I’ve picked cotton by hand, plowed behind a mule, churned butter, shelled back-eyed peas, and for the first 12 years of my life, went without shoes from April until October. Several of my friends regularly hold conversations with mules, but as of yet I can’t get the danged mules to answer me. I think grits are as much a part of breakfast as bacon, eggs and cathead biscuits. I think ain’t is a perfectly good word and don’t plan to quit using it just because some damnyankee dictionary writer arbitrarily thinks it ain’t.

I've been married for 30-some odd years and have beaucoup kids and grandkids. I'm now retired after having spent the better part of the past 37 years traveling around Texas, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast areas of Mississippi and Alabama, trying to sell steel products. My hobbies, in no particular order, include writing, grandkids, hunting, fishing and visiting the local watering hole to swap honest lies and research material for stories.

E-mail Newt at: Newt281@embarqmail.com

Want to read more of Newt’s stories at USADEEPSOUTH? Click these links:
Ol’ Red and the armadillo
Tastes like chicken
Southern Fried
Belly Waddin' Lunch

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