Legends of Myself 4

Posted on July 24, 2010


Continued from Legends of Myself 3

Times before your own are essentially unimaginable.  The Great Depression I am willing to accept on the testimony of living voices.  The Second World War, ending five years before I was born, is history to the historians yet hardly more than prehistory to my narrowly personal view of things.

And always the past comes to you in anecdotes from people who left out, maybe, an adjective.  Who left out sometimes a critical context.  Names.  Badge numbers.  Shoe sizes.  Forwarding addresses.

What we learn of the past sometimes seems no more than the dust being shaken down from the floor above.

There’s a mighty lot of stomping that you heard.  Uhuh.

But you’re long on dust and short on details.

6. A Prehistory of My Father, Part 1:

Port Essington and the Clan Katzenjammer

My father grew up in a social milieu common to a time, unique to a place.  Early twentieth century Canada, and what that meant.  Port Essington, and what that meant.  A half-breed Tsimshian, and what that meant.

(Oh, yes, and half a lifetime’s worth of breakfasts, yawns, itches, dialogue and thought balloons are omitted here, just to keep it mysterious.)

George Collins Jr. (he had no middle name; how that galled him) knew how to swear in Japanese.  Only the basics.

He could understand his mother when she spoke in Tsimshian.  Back then, he spoke some himself.

He went to the Port Essington day school and was the best of whatever grade he was in.

In the schoolyard, which tended to the gladiatorial in those days, he was also dominant.  He was the strongest and quickest of a family of tall, strong quick boys.  He usually won his schoolyard battles.

And of course the story my father told about it had nothing to do with that.

He describes a certain smart-alecky kid who challenged him to a fight.  Dad was likely the Spartacus-to-beat in the schoolyard gladiatorial games.  Every boy in Port Essington in the 20s and 30s, as a socially necessity, had to take his licks in the schoolyard or be called a sissy.  You didn’t have to win your fight, but you had to fight it.

So the boy challenged my father to a fight, and after not much effort my father had him down, hands and shoulders pinned to the ground, with the kid looking up at him ironically from underneath.

The kid said, “So, do you give up?”

My father, taken off-guard, inadvertently replied, “Yes.”

And that was enough.  In the battle rules of the schoolyard, sarcasm strutted a TKO.

Dad lost that battle—kind of—and never described the fights he won.

Of course, discussing my father in the singular in this way is a little misleading.  The Collins of Port Essington didn’t come alone, but as a clan.  George, Jim and Gus.  Grace, the sister, somewhat shadowy and off to the side.  They ran in a pack, with my father as leader and chief instigator. (Of which more below.)

The children of Hammond and Tauber were eccentric and exuberant, the explosive result of generous quantities of fish protein and rice all fried up together with hybrid vigour. (Racial purity only sells, as any geneticist knows, when you are marketing dogs or ideology.  Otherwise, hybrids have the advantage.)  The genetic lines which produced my father’s generation had not met or mingled in 35 to 40 thousand years.

They met and had a party.

The family ate large.  My father talks about once when Granny Alice spent the day baking thirteen deep-dish apple pies.  He emphasized that they were all bigger than the pies we’re used to seeing nowadays. Before supper, each boy reserved a pie by touching it with his hand, since no boy in that germophobic household would eat food that any other boy had touched.  And after supper—after a regular supper of generous growing-boy proportions, so my father emphasized—the boys had a pie apiece for desert.

The Collins clan were irreligious.  My father said he liked going to church until he realized that he was supposed to believe those stories.

Perhaps Granny Alice had a little religion, although it’s not clear.  Old Pop—Tauber—was agnostic, although he attended a Christian school as a boy as per middle class French propriety.  He had not been fond of the religious aspect of it, and he thought, his own father being who he was, that he ought to have been able to bypass it.

The elder Tauber, Old Pop’s father, was a Free Thinker—a brand of religious scepticism rather close to agnosticism, which must have been considered racy and scandalous in bourgeois fin de siècle France.  His father sent young Georges to a Christian school—as a kind of sociological formality, I guess—then mocked and teased him for the religious rituals, prayers and obligations which the school placed upon him.

A generation later in Port Essington, the irreverent Collins clan, pagans and atheists all, performed grace at supper by saying to their sister, “Grace, pass the butter.”

It was funny everyday.

My father mentioned on one occasion breaking into farmer’s yards and stealing apples.  I didn’t have a sense of what he was really referring to until after his death, with a remark from Uncle Gus.

“We were the Katzenjammer Kids,” said Gus at my father’s funeral.  You learn so much at funerals and their aftermaths.  This particular detail was one of the least expected.  My father defined sober honesty in his everyday life.

Yet the Katzenjammer Kids are the quintessential violent pranksters of the funny pages.  While Dennis is hardly a Menace at all, and Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes is difficult, overcharged and over-imaginative, the Katzenjammer Kids are the veritable devil’s spawn. The nearest of anything to their violent brand of mischief-making would be probably old silent movies.  Or animated cartoons, the falling-off-cliffs-with-pianos-landing-on-your-head type humour which has now been banished entirely from the children’s hour and from Saturday mornings.

Probably legitimately.

“We were the Katzenjammer Kids,” said Uncle Gus, and gave one example, one only, of what he meant.

Port Essington, you may remember, was a cannery town built on the edge of the joining of two rivers.  It had no sewer system.  Outhouses replaced toilets, and some of the outhouses were constructed over the beach and thus were flushed, so to speak, by high tide.

(I know this all seems terribly unsanitary, and it was, but the same system was maintained all up and down the west coast in virtually every cannery town.)

Of course when the tide was low, the outhouses were perched over the beach and mud, and the beach and mud was accessible to impolite, marauding gangs of boys.  Boys who could take it into their heads to toss mudballs from underneath at bare bottoms dangling through the outhouse benches.

That was my father and uncles tossing the mudballs.

The clan Katzenjammer struck, hooted, howled, and ran away.

And you can hear the screams of indignation all the way over to here.


Continued at Legends of Myself 5

Posted in: autobiography