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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

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A Father's Journal / The baffling mysteries of W's and Fairfield stop signs

Updated 6:48 am, Thursday, January 23, 2014
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I grew up in an arctic backwater. The sisters at Immaculate Conception Elementary School were either very excited to be there, requesting the assignment to help us poor children, or they had committed some heinous act and were banished to our little corner of the globe.

So they were very good or very bad, but either way, they were very interesting women.

One of the nuns taught us our vowels in a sing-songy ditty that most English-speaking kids learn: "A-E-I-O-U and sometimes Y and W."

That's right, our renegade nun was teaching us that "W" was a vowel. I'm guessing she was one of the nuns that didn't choose to be there.

As I grew, I would hear the vowel song without the "W" and feel something was missing. Finally, I met my wife, English major and the daughter of English major. Surely she knew and shared my secret love of "W" being a vowel. She did not. She had never heard it.

So I looked it up, and according to the Internet (which has never lied to me), some grammar books in the 1800s and before had "W" as a sometimes vowel. How old was our nun? I guess Immaculate Conception needed newer books.

Also, "W" is a confirmed vowel in Welsh and in Welsh words that have migrated to English -- such as "cwm," which is a type of valley, and "cwr," which is a special train track. I personally have never used those words, but I may try to impress some people with them at our next party.

Some people think that "twerk "is an example of "W" as a vowel. It is not. It is an example of shaking your booty vigorously in front of perfect strangers.

I was at a nice party the other day, and I met a retired Harvard-trained English professor. This man had written several books on obscure areas of English that I could neither understand nor pronounce. I asked him about "W." I am not saying bad things about the PhD program at Harvard, but this man had never heard of "W" as a vowel, Welsh valleys or special train tracks. After I pestered him about it, he agreed to look into it for me if I looked into something for him.

"Sure," I said, feeling pretty good now that I now had a distinguished comrade on my side. "What do you want me to look into?"

"I live in Michigan, and every time I come to Fairfield to visit my daughter's family I am struck how everywhere else in the world, there are signs under the stop signs, telling how many people will be stopping with you -- such as two-, three- or four-way way stop. In Fairfield, you don't have those signs."

"I think we do," I replied

"No you don't, especially on Mill Hill Terrace," he asserted

I had to admit I'd never noticed, but agreed to look into it.

We shook on our pact that night. A blood oath, that I promptly forgot about, until a week later when I was riding with my daughter, who is learning to drive.

When we got to a three-way stop she asked, "Is everybody stopping?" The professor had a point. I never thought about it because I have lived here for 20 years. I know the intersections. People from Michigan do not.

My obligation came flooding back to me. I imagined the professor was back in Michigan feverishly researching "W" as a vowel and preparing a learned paper for publication, confident that I was working equally as hard. I needed to catch up. So I spent a few minutes emailing the Fairfield Police Department. This is what I got back:

Hello Mr. Lawlor,

The Police Commissioners are the official board to determine if traffic studies and changes should be made in the Town. They follow the State DOT guidelines to make their determination. Every sign posted has to meet the state standards for height, size etc. Some intersections in Town are not even posted, i.e. at T-stops because the state statue requires you to stop.

Please let me know if you need more detail.

I may need more detail. I guess the next step is to have the professor's daughter here in Fairfield contact the police commissioners? I don't know. I could not make heads or tail of it.

I'm sure my new professor friend is making much more progress. I feel I am just twerking by the train tracks.

Thomas Lawlor lives in Southport with his wife and two daughters. His "A Father's Journal" appears every other Friday.