Monday, May 14, 2012

When you're from Auxvasse, you can't go home again

Thomas Wolfe wrote a novel entitled, "You Can't Go Home Again."

Wolfe's title was prophetic for anyone from my hometown, Auxvasse, whose official web site describes it as "the third largest fourth class city in Callaway County, Missouri."

Missouri has many small towns with peculiar names. Peculiar, for instance. Not to mention Blue Eye, Tightwad, Useful and Climax Springs. Strange names to be sure, but at least they are pronounceable.

But Auxvasse is next to impossible for anyone but a native to pronounce.

People try to pronounce it phonetically -- "Ox Vossy." Or, if they know a little French, they'll say,"Oh Vwah." Both are way off base. 

For years I patiently explained, "It's pronounced like the last two words in the title of the movie about Dorothy and Toto, "The Wizard __ __." 

Everyone seems to understand that, but even that's not exactly true. To pronounce it as natives do, say "gauze." Then drop the g, put "Of" in front of that, and. presto, you've got it: "Of auze." 

The town was founded in 1871 as Clinton City. That was fine for a few months until someone figured out the reason nobody had received any mail (other than a "You May Already Be A Winner" letter from Publisher's Clearinghouse) was because there was already a Missouri town named Clinton. The Postal Service insisted on a new name.

At that point, the town fathers, who clearly weren't all that swift when it came to picking names in the first place, decided to give the town the name of a nearby creek. Legend has it the creek was named by French settlers whose wagons had become stuck in its muck. The Frenchies dubbed the creek "Riviere Aux Vases" which supposedly means "river with miry places." But a friend from France tells me it means "to the bottle" which may explain why the town's tavern is one of the few long-time businesses that has survived.

I like to amuse myself on long trips by challenging my car's computerized navigation system to perform complicated tasks.

I will tell it, for example, to route me to Anchorage, Alaska. Within seconds, it calculates the route and is prepared to tell me every turn I need to take.

But no matter how many times I've asked, it can't figure out how to get me to Auxvasse because it, like everyone else, can't comprehend the name.

"Do you want to access navigation?" asks the digital voice.

"Yes," I reply.

"OK, what state?"


"Mizz-her-ee," the voice confirms, sounding just like Rosey, the Jetsons' maid. "What city?"

"Auxvasse," I say.

The screen then displays a list of five possibilities. The choices are different every time but almost always include Augusta, Oakwood or Bogard. Not once has it given me the option of going where I told it to take me.

If I had to rely on my navigation system, I could never go home any more. And as people continue to depend increasingly on computers to tell them how to get from point A to point B, Auxvasse may someday prove impossible for anyone to find unless, of course, the good people of that town change the name again to something a computer can understand.

"Clinton City" contained the name of a future president and was easy to pronounce. Any computer would have no trouble understanding that. So maybe the town can be renamed for another president. Bushville. Obama City. Whatever. Just as long as it's comprehensible.

I finally gave up trying to explain to people where I'm from. It was too complicated. And it's not like anyone ever asked, "Do you know so-and-so from there?" I've spent most of my life in the New York area. New Yorkers have never met anyone from Missouri, much less from Auxvasse.

So now, when people ask where I'm from, I tell them I'm from the nearest town. It's the town I was born in because it, unlike Auxvasse, had a hospital.

"I'm from Mexico," I reply.

"Wow," they say. "Never met a Mexican with blue eyes."

It's easier to leave it at that.


  1. Ah, so true about NO one, unless they are an Auxvasse native, possibly Callawegian (name of those who live in the Kingdom of Callaway; that's a whole other story!), or those close about, can pronounce Auxvasse, much less spell it or find it. However, it was great growing up there and I have fun with the name. Also use the Wizard of Oz example. Keep writing, Tom.
    Phyllis D.

  2. Very humorous article. I found your blog out of curiosity, looking for the reason Auxvasse got it's name. We pass by on Highway 70 frequently as we go to Kansas and back home to St. Louis. So I got a bit of a history lesson reading your article!