Bubbler: A Secret Code

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Barry Roal Carlsen

I was applying for a passport at my suburban Houston post office when the postal agent reviewing my paperwork leaned over the counter, squinted conspiratorially, and asked, just above a whisper, “Do you know what a bubbler is?”

I realize that national security has tightened, but this seemed like an odd question nonetheless. Perhaps the State Department had instituted some obscure appraisal of intellect. If so, ask me something more challenging, such as what sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia means.

Then he smiled.

“I see you were born in Wisconsin. I’m from Waupun myself,” he explained.

Better than a secret handshake, more reliable than SSL encryption, for those of us no longer living in the state, knowledge of the word bubbler seems to be a secret code for, “Yes, I’m from Wisconsin.”

I didn’t even know there was another word for bubbler — A drinking fountain? Really? — until I went to the UW and met a bunch of Minnesotans who could never seem to tell me where the bubbler was, because they didn’t know what the bubbler was. I mean, what is your problem? You live right next door to Wisconsin; hasn’t the word ever leaked across the border?

A quick read of the source for all that is true and trustworthy today — Wikipedia — tells me that a bubbler is actually a Bubbler, a trademarked name for a product invented in 1888 by what is now Kohler Company. Apparently, the original Bubbler shot water one inch straight into the air, creating the bubbling phenomenon that gave the product its name. After several years, it was redesigned to cause the water to arc, which made drinking from it easier. There’s an original Kohler Bubbler in front of the Wisconsin state capitol — well, at least there is according to Wikipedia, which shows two photos, one of the Bubbler alone and a second showing it in use.

I remember as a child lining up for the Bubbler each day after recess. The promise of a cool, refreshing drink was often dashed, however, by the reality of a tepid sip, with the teacher warning us not to put our mouths on the nozzle, the apparent ground zero for pestilence in Appleton.

Like other displaced Badgers, I usually ask people who say they’re from Wisconsin if they know what a Bubbler is. Until recently, the positive response rate was 100 percent. Then I met two women from Eau Claire at a conference. They appeared to be in their thirties, and they seemed normal in every way, except, much to my surprise, they didn’t know what a Bubbler was.

I prodded: have you lived in Wisconsin all of your life? Are your parents from Wisconsin? H’mm. Is it possible that the term only exists in eastern Wisconsin, and I have a lot of apologizing to do to those circa late-1970s Minnesotans? What’s next: Milwaukee being pronounced as if it has three syllables?

Worse than being a factor of geography, it seems that Bubbler awareness is related to age. A website I found by clicking around one night said that it’s an “old school” term used by aging Badgers. (I can’t recall the source, but I certainly remember the slur.)

I’ve lived in Texas for twenty-five years, and I suppose that’s long enough to have stopped calling the drinking fountain a Bubbler. But if Badgers by nature are cantankerous — I mean fierce — time isn’t likely to make us more mellow, is it? So now, I absolutely refuse to refer to the Bubbler as anything else (which may result in my being thirsty in unfamiliar public places, but that’s a small sacrifice for principle). I trained my native Texan children early in their lives to call it a Bubbler as well, at least when they’re with me. If they can say y’all instead of you guys, put things up instead of away, and have a test over rather than about a subject, they can accede to this.

Like the Rio Grande to Texans or the Mississippi to those who live along its banks, the Bubbler is not just a drinking fountain — it’s a watery symbol of my Wisconsin heritage. It says who I am and, I now know, my approximate age.

If only I could find the Bubbler of Youth.

Barbara Belzer Adams resides in Houston, Texas.

Published in the Spring 2012 issue

Tags: Alumni

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