Hoowee. The “h” is silent. Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language in which word meanings are enhanced by pronunciation of musical notes, emphases rising and falling, higher and lower. One word could have seven different meanings depending on where it is pronounced on the musical scale. So it is in Southern English American dialect, and particularly concerning words of disgust and revulsion.
A child of the South, walking barefoot in the yard, stepping in a fresh pile of pit bull doo-doo, feeling the soft, stinky, squishy substance oozing between her toes, has an innate sense of how to pronounce “hoowee,” which may or may not accord with Webster’s or the Queen’s English.
“Hoowee,” she says, her six-year old features squinching up in horror and the revelation that she has suddenly been tainted. The first syllable, “hoo,-“ three simple letters, may be drawn out as though composed of eight or more o’s: hoo-ooo-ooo, the tonal emphasis is rising and falling, higher and lower, finished off with a high-pitched “-wee,” as the child desperately rubs her toes and foot on the cleansing Bermuda grass lawn beloved of dogs of all breeds. In New York City, one is obliged to follow one’s pet with a plastic glove and pooper scooper, but not in the South, where dogs freely squat, planting noxious land mines that patiently await the next running, playful child.
So it is that hoowee’s proper usage is learned at a young age, and when those children grow up and go to prison, as many inevitably will, their vocabulary is properly primed to express their unbridled reactions to the sights, sounds and smells of an alien environment disgusting to average citizens.
Go to any state or federal prison web site and peruse the mugshots of the residents, and gauge your reactions to the sad images of human detritus washed up on prison shores. One reaction is, “How young!” Another is wonderment at how many countenances are marred by crude jailhouse tattoos. How will those poor children ever get decent jobs when they get out, looking like that? A third realization is how ugly so many are.
One unfortunate miscreant was saddled with the nickname, “It’s Alive,” with the same emphatic expression of fear and repulsion cried out by the horror movie victims. I shudder to imagine the psychological damage inflicted on that soul as a result.
Danny Trejo is a rare example of a tattooed, frightful dude who got out of prison and made a successful transition as a Hollywood leading man. He would never be considered handsome. His shocking ugliness is his draw. Prisoners across America admire him for his role in “Machete 3,” in which he got to see a naked Lindsey Lohan in the flesh.
Surely Danny Trejo had a nickname, as many prisoners do, although he left his behind upon leaving San Quentin prison. Many prisoners are so ugly that they are nicknamed after the varmints they resemble. “Squirrel,” “Rat,” “Dog,” “Snake,” “Mouse,” “Worm,” and “Rooster,” are examples. An old prison credo says never trust anyone named after a varmint. Their character might also be reflected in their nicknames. So it is with “Hoo-wee,” describing someone who is revoltingly ugly.
The first prisoner I knew called “Hoo-wee” was a fairly young, slightly-built Quasimodo-like prisoner who was so grotesque I cannot properly describe him. “Hoo-wee” was called that not only for his beastly countenance, but also for his actions. He was outcast from his family, had no resources or skills, no source of income, except what he earned trading sexual favors to prisoners so desperate they would overlook his horrid face. Many an unsuspecting prisoner mindlessly strolling into the prison restroom or shower area was shocked at encountering “Hoo-wee” enthusiastically servicing two or more prisoners, and would spontaneously emit a loud, “Hoo-wee!” which would cause “Hoo-wee” to answer, “Huh?”
“Hoo-wee” got locked up. Around 2:30 p.m., so the disciplinary report read, a prison guard was walking along the perimeter fence around the rec field when he observed an inmate performing oral sex on another inmate seated on the bleachers by the softball field. Both went to lock-up for thirty days.
When he got out, “Hoo-wee” came by the art room where a dozen of us worked, making his rounds. He had no artistic abilities, but he appreciated the talents of men who could paint beautiful pictures.
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Prisoners have few qualms about asking embarrassing questions, and that day was no different. One grizzled prison veteran led the question-and-answer session. “Hoo-wee” had few qualms about answering, either.
“Hoo-wee, I heard you got caught sucking someone’s cock at the bleachers. Is that true?”
“In broad daylight? With a guard making his rounds?”
“Why? That’s stupid.”
“Well, I was standing there, and the guy pulled out his thang. What was I supposed to do? I sucked it. It’s my nature.”
The art room burst out in laughter. After that, some men called “Hoo-wee” “Nature Boy.”
The second “Hoo-wee” was a tall individual who looked like an ostrich, with a small, misshapen head, patchy hair, bulging eyes, wide mouth and lips resembling an ostrich’s beak, set on a long, curved neck with a prominent Adam’s apple that constantly moved up and down. Red, scaly skin rashes on his face served to otherwise ostracize him from contact with most other prisoners. Skinny arms and a sunken chest flared out into a bulbous lower body that completed the ostrich image. All he was missing were wings and tail-feathers.
This “Hoo-wee” was entrenched at another prison, his constant companion an ill-favored young man who had survived being shot in the face at point-blank range by a shotgun blast that left him permanently disfigured. Some called him “Pie-face” or “Retread” for the large skin graft taken from his abdomen and transplanted onto his face. I called him Harold, his name, since I’d helped him get into a self-improvement program and learned the horrifying details of his life. Many people who happened upon Harold unawares would gasp and turn away, his monstrous face so disconcerting.
It was transfer day, and a prison “Bluebird” bus had dropped off twenty or so men from a penitentiary up the road. There are thousands of “lifers” serving time in Florida prisons, and whenever a bus unloads a group of men at a different prison, a couple of lifers will get off and be greeted by their compatriots. It’s like old home week as a dozen or so men gather and share news of who got out, who escaped, who died. On this particular day, an infamous, outspoken biker was at the center of the circle updating his old friends on the happenings at “The Rock,” a notoriously bad place, since they’d been gone.
Around the corner came the ostrich-like prisoner otherwise known then as “Chicken Man,” and behind him followed hideously-disfigured Harold. The biker got a full look at Chicken Man as he detoured around the group crowding the road, stared at him for a moment as he passed closely by, the biker’s face contorted in shock and surprise.
“Hoowee, that’s one ugly motherfucker,” the biker said, his eyes following the first one, then he turned back to come face-to-face with pitiful Harold. “Goddamn! He’s uglier than the first motherfucker.”
From that day forward, “Hoo-wee” and “Goddamn” possessed new monikers that they answered to for the remaining time they served in prison.
The last “Hoo-wee” was an abhorrent guard who’d been transferred from another prison after being jumped on by a group of prisoners he’d insulted and disparaged. In his thirties, with deep acne scars pitting his constantly scowling face, I won’t mention his name since he continues his career as a sadistic prison guard, and might one day retaliate against me for my ridicule. That has happened before. Prisoners would stand silently, as he passed them on the yard, then snicker and titter behind his back, often causing him to spin around and try to catch the offenders.
On this particular day, several hundred of us slowly shuffled into the chow hall in a single-file line. A four-foot divider separated the long line from the seats and tables where men ate the meager trays of chili-mac, supposedly to keep the famished from jumping back into line for a second tray. On the other side of the wall, the gargoyle-like guard slowly paced from one end of the line to the other, sneering in apparent disgust at us, as we did the same toward him. Jimmy was a mid-thirties black man who’d spent most of his time since his sixteenth birthday travelling through a succession of jails, mental hospitals, and prisons. If you can have a class clown in prison, Jimmy was it. He was hearing impaired from beatings and concussions he’d received from guards who weren’t amused by his descriptions of the marital status and morality of their mothers, and on more than one occasion, Jimmy had been seen descriptively cursing out guards who were taking him to lock-up, adding up additional charges of “verbal disrespect.” A month or two later, a considerably paler Jimmy would emerge from solitary, and regale us with hilarious stories of life in lock-up.
“No talking in the chow hall,” several signs proclaimed, “Strictly Enforced.”
On this day, Jimmy was ahead of me in the chow hall line, talking very loudly due to his partial deafness, when the dreadful-looking guard stopped on the other side of the wall, silently glaring at Jimmy to quiet down. Jimmy got an up-close view of his face. The guard hadn’t proceeded two steps down the line when Jimmy burst out in a spontaneous declaration heard by the entire chow hall.
“Hoo-wee, that’s one ugly motherfucking cracker!”
The entire chow hall was silent only for a moment before bursting out in laughter. The guard was so shocked that he froze, unable to speak. Jimmy had his back to the guard as he continued to chatter away at the story he’d been telling. The guard retraced his steps and stared at the back of Jimmy’s head. I tapped Jimmy on the shoulder. He turned, and saw the “Hoowee” guard glaring at him.
“I’m sorry, officer, for calling you an ugly motherfucking cracker. I apologize. I didn’t see you standing there.”
The chowhall erupted in laughter again. Everyone expected Jimmy to be locked up, or at least to get ejected from the chow line, but the guard just turned around and walked away.
From then on, sometimes to his face, the guard was called, “Hoo-wee.” Even the prison captain used the name.
“Hey, Hoo-wee, go to the rec gate and relieve the officer there.”
Hoo-wee would not risk additional ridicule and humiliation by reacting to the insult. His perpetually angry disposition did not endear him to his co-workers, no more than to those of us subjected to his frequent wrath.
Many prison employees enjoy hearing prison gossip and tales of woe befallen on prisoners and guards, and the middle-aged female officer who was my erstwhile supervisor, anxious to hear a good story she could pass on to her friends, perhaps enjoyed it the best. Hamming it up, the next morning in her office I acted out the entire incident, playing the roles of Jimmy and the guard. The lady laughed so hard, she whooped, and almost fell out of her chair. When she finally got hold of herself, she grabbed the phone and called her best friend, Lori, who was also my classification officer.
“Guess what happened in the chow hall yesterday,” she said.
She repeated the story, even embellishing the, “Hoo-wee, that’s one ugly motherfucking cracker,” with her own emphases on each of the words, then she laughed until tears ran down her cheeks.
The phone calls continued until it seemed everyone in the prison had heard about it. In the following days, staff and prisoners would pass the newest “Hoo-wee” and suppress the urge to laugh. I was just grateful that the guard never traced back the spread of his ignominy to me. “Hoo-wee!” That was one ugly motherfucking cracker!
Charles Norman has been serving LIFE for 1st degree murder in Florida since 1979, a murder he says he did not commit.
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Charles Norman #881834
Tomoka Correctional Institution
3950 Tiger Bay Road
Daytona Beach, FL 32124