Nels Hanson

Posted on July 17, 2017


The Interpreter

No doubt you’ve read newspaper reports of injuries that scramble the language centers in the human brain, say a stroke victim in Kansas who wakes from a coma and speaks in a Scottish burr, or a Florida child hit by a car who opens her eyes in the ICU and converses in Shakespearean English, in perfect iambic pentameter.

Jerry Vargas had been what was once called “a blue baby,” the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. Jerry was slow in development and at four his mother feared the trauma of delivery had irreversibly damaged his capacities.

When she held him close and cooed in his ear, he responded with random stuttered sounds that weren’t words but “the same crippled promise of words” neither parent could understand.

Jerry didn’t speak his first sentence until he was five, a garbled string of apparent nonsense he repeated with painful emotion for several weeks. The pediatrician, Dr. Harriet Stone, was dumbfounded when Jerry earnestly spoke his strange-sounding phrase again and again with rising agitation.

After closely searching his eyes and ears, Dr. Stone suggested that Jerry should go to the hospital at Stanford, before her medical assistant entered to retrieve a stethoscope and stopped short, staring at the loquacious upset boy perched on the edge of the examining table.

Ms. Charderoy was from India and recognized the words of her native Hindustani that meant, “I love you very much! Can no one hear me?”

She repeated the phrase and spoke different words and Jerry broke into tears and reached for her hand as she took him in her arms.

The Vargases were of course overjoyed but also confused.

Jerry’s father, who taught world religions at the local college, considered the possibility that his son was a reincarnation of a native Indian speaker and was familiar with the Vendata sage and saint Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi.

Jerry’s mother, who had seen the movie “Seven Years in Tibet,” wondered if her son were an inspired being like the Dali Lama, but such imaginings soon disappeared as Jerry grew quickly into an affectionate and apparently highly gifted child who was soon speaking fluent English in complex sentences.

When classes began in the fall Jerry was ready to attend and in grammar and high school was at the top of his class and was surrounded by many affectionate and admiring friends.

At 17 he entered U.C. Berkeley, where he majored in international diplomacy, and later received a Fullbright Scholarship to study in Armenia, before winning an Adlai E. Stevenson fellowship to Harvard for his Ph.D. studies.

On graduation in 2018 Jerry joined the American delegation at the United Nations as its lead interpreter, with astonishing results, including several widely heralded diplomatic breakthroughs. He has been urged to run next year for senator from New York, amid growing speculation that Jerry Vargas might seek the Democratic nomination for president six years from now, when he reaches the required minimum age of 35.

Jerry’s proud parents are grateful but not astonished at their son’s numerous domestic and international successes, as they recently told Charlie Rose on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” There were many early instances of Jerry’s spontaneous skills in language and empathy, but one episode his father and mother always fondly remember, when Jerry first become a hero.

Jerry was 8 and at a crowded Thai restaurant in Fresno he jumped to his feet, insisting he had to call the police – he’d heard the cook mumble to himself that he was going to kill his unfaithful wife.

Jerry’s mother phoned 911 when they got home and two hours later the man from Thailand was arrested with a loaded gun. A suicide note explained why the murder would take place that night, after the restaurant closed and he picked up his wife and the mother of his three children at the popular nightspot where she worked five days a week as a dancer.

Young Jerry received a medal and commendation from the mayor and police department, special thanks from representatives of the large Thai community, a trophy and a plaque from the Fresno Rotary and Soroptimist clubs, and a birthday party at a special daytime open house at the nightclub.

The Vargases shared a newspaper photo of a lit orange cake, Jerry smiling and wearing a crescent saffron lama’s hat, the grateful pretty dancer kissing his cheek.


Nels Hanson’s fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and Pushcart nominations in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016. His poems received a 2014 Pushcart nomination, Sharkpack Review’s 2014 Prospero Prize, and 2015 and 2016 Best of the Net nominations.

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