I’ve been thinking a lot about my Dad lately. He passed away in 2006, and some of the stuff I’m working through now has brought up old memories that I’d forgotten. One of them occurred to me on the way home from the coffeeshop tonight.
When I was in the Cub Scouts — well, actually, it was Beaver Scouts, to be technical — in La Ronge, Saskatchewan, my father taught us a Zulu War Dance. At least, that’s what he claimed it was. Knowing him, there’s all the chance in the world that it was real… or that he just cribbed it off some movie like Shaka Zulu or Zulu Dawn, or made it up. He was such a great storyteller we still wonder about some of the tales he told.(The chances are that it wasn’t real, since as far as I know he never lived in Zulu country, but since he did know bits of other cultures — he spoke some Swahili, for example — after all, but who knows.)
Yes, my dad spoke some Swahili, and his best fishing trip story included a near death experience involving hippo. Beat that, if you can.
As a friend recently commented to me, it’s fascinating how he lived in Saskatchewan but was still in some ways operating by totally foreign rules — in some ways, he was as much a foreigner in Canada as I am in Korea, and, indeed, in some ways he might even have been moreso. My friend urged me to write about my father and his life in Saskatchewan, but I dunno… he himself was always reticent to write down his life story, though I urged him and urged him. I thought about visiting some summer and interviewing him, but I know he wouldn’t have liked the idea, and would have gotten sick of it eventually.
So many of his stories and memories are lost to the world now, like tears in rain — if I may steal a line from Blade Runner–but I think he was comfortable with that.
Like when he happened to tell off a deranged neighborhood bully who would not leave me alone. When he told the little bastard off, he happened to be pruning the backyard trees with a butcher knife, and didn’t bother to put it down when he was saying to the bully, “If you don’t leave him the bloody hell alone, and pick on someone your own bloody size, I’ll teach you a bloody lesson you bastard.” Yup, he said that with a bare butcher knife in his hand. I was embarrassed at the time, but also grateful, especially when the bully, an oversized sociopathic thug named
Jody (see below) Jamie Hammersmith (Hammershit, as he was widely called) stopped messing with me.
Now, I wouldn’t say my old man exactly threatened the punk with a butcher knife, but its presence at the moment of confrontation wasn’t an accident, either. Dad would never have used it, of course. But I guess he figured it couldn’t hurt if his point were made very, er, pointedly. The bully’s father called later that evening, and attempted to bitch my father out. Instead, he got an earfl: I remember something about, “You better learn to control that little bloody bastard…” Dad was in no way apologetic, and however Tony Soprano that may seem, the man got results without actually laying a finger on someone who’d been terrorizing me and other kids for over a year.
But I digress.
When my Dad caught us the Ostensibly Zulu War Dance, it was in the gymnasium where the Beaver Scouts met. Actually, I can’t remember whether it was in a gym, a church basement, or what, but it was a big space and there were floor hockey sticks. Floor hockey sticks with removable blades, because we removed the blades and used the sticks as spears in the dance. He had us remove our
shits shirts. He had us shout on certain beats — I don’t remember what we shouted, or on which beats, but I remember shouting so hard my throat itched inside. We did this big choreographed dance that took several meetings to get memorized and coordinated, and which we never performed again. (I think we might have gotten a dance badge or something for it, though.)
I somehow wonder if maybe he felt we needed a ritual of some kind in our passage to manhood. I remember him telling us about the coming-of-age ceremony in this or that African culture, where a boy would be painted all white and then sent to hide in the bush. After a head start, the men of the village would come hunting for him, and catch him, and drag him away to be circumcised. And it hurt like hell, and then he would be a man.
I can certainly see him thinking we needed some kind of ritualistic introduction to masculinity. We lived in a town where the native kids (who were the majority) mostly lived in broken homes, and endured pretty tough home lives. The white kids, like me, were routinely beaten up by older native kids. But when we were chanting and dancing–well, stomping our feet to some drum beat, really–as we did that Ostensibly Zulu War Dance, man, I’m telling you, we felt something, some kind of power inside us. Something communal and something deep.
Postcolonial theory would probably indict him for something or other–and ignore his heart-rending love of Africa, his longing to return that only by luck came true just weeks before he left us–but for my part, I set aside the mumbling accusations of appropriation and remind myself that people have borrowed from cultures they loved forever, and learned amazing things in doing so. In that night in that gymnasium in that screwed-up little northern town, my father gave us a thesis on manhood and masculinity.
Maybe the war dance was fake, and maybe the chant was made up, but that feeling, it was real. If you want to be a warrior, be a warrior. Don’t know the words? Make ’em up. Don’t know the dance? Fake it. No spears around? Use a floor hockey stick. Are you confused? Take your shirt off and thump your chest. Feel the heart beating inside it.
That’s what my Dad taught me, and I only wish I’d truly learned his lesson before that moment in the cab coming home tonight.