Childhood Confusion and Immobility I
Bill Long 11/11/08
I have been enjoying the rare treat of (re)reading James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and using it as a means to probe not only his literary method but also to think about my life. What Joyce does so powerfully in ch. 1 of this work is to illustrate childhood confusion by portraying Stephen Daedalus so often bewildered by events in his family and in interactions with friends. As I think back on my younger life, I am gradually seeing it as a time of (often humorous) confusions and, at least in one instance, a curious immobility when I didn't do something when I knew exactly what I should have done.
Confusion (1961)--The Congo
I actually relate a confusion I experienced during the 1960 US Presidential election (when I was 8) here. I hope you read that story; it amuses me to think of it today. But I will begin here with a confusion from 1961. It culminated in the death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold on Sept. 18 of that year, when I was a new fourth grader. I tell the story of how his death led me on a lifelong interest in words here. Throughout the preceding months I had heard snippets of the evening news talking about problems in "The Congo." I only had at first a vague sense that the Congo was in Africa. But I decided to find it on a map. The thing that both fascinated and horrified me right away was that the Equator ran through the Congo. I was horrified because I knew how hot and uncomfortable it was in my CT suburb in the summer, and I figured that if you lived on the Equator, you must experience physical torpor all the time. Yet, I was fascinated by the fact that the Equator ran through the Congo. How did I know? Well, I saw the line, which had "Equator" written above it. I wondered at first whether the line was actually on the ground in the Congo, sort of the like yard lines in Yankee Stadium where I would watch the New York Giants play. I imagined that it was, and that the Congolese people would just step gingerly over the "Equator" to keep themselves from getting burned by it.
But then, I decided to look more carefully at the map and I found that there was a town that actually was right smack on the Equator. I recall it as if it was yesterday--Coquilhatville was the name of the unfortunate town. I memorized the name of that town because I wanted to say a brief prayer for the people who lived there--that they wouldn't be burned too much by living right at the Equator. Every map I saw of the Congo had Coquilhatville right on the Equator. I couldn't stand it, so I found the biggest "blow up" map of the Congo I could find (I think I went to the town library for this one), and found to my immense relief that on this map Coquilhatville was located just about 1/8'' off the Equator. Phew, I thought. At least not right on the Equator.
But all of this was in the context of confusion that was growing for me about the Congo. As I mentioned above, I heard bits and pieces of the "news" about problems in the Congo. I had no idea what the problems were, but I knew that one of the leaders of one of the groups sounded like "Boo boo". It was actually Joseph Kasavubu. At nine years of age, everything that can be interpreted through the filter of bowel movementss or burps is so construed, and so I thought vaguely about this "Boo boo" guy in those terms. Once I heard a newscaster, with a mustache and a deep voice (it turned out to be Walter Cronkite) saying that his opponent was a guy whose name sounded like Chombay (actually, not far off). Since the name sounded a little "choppy" to me, and since the only instances of choppy thing that I had in my mind at the time were people doing Russian dances kicking out their feet (I think I had seen the Nutcracker for the first time the preceding Christmas), I imagined that Boo boo was going after a guy who was folding his arms and doing leg kicks.
A kid told me that the TV reporter was a famous person, and that some people called him Walter Conkrite, but in fact his real name was Walter Concrete, and that the stuff out of which sidewalks and steps were made was named after him.
Well, during the Spring and Summer of 1961 the crisis was building in the Congo, and all I knew was that Boo boo was chasing Chombay around, and that the Secretary General of the UN was flying back and forth to help out. I wondered what a Secretary General was. My fourth grade class had just elected class officers and the Secretary was always a girl. But the Secretary General of the UN was a man, even if his name was Dag, a name I had never heard before. But I was further confused. How can you be a Secretary and a General at the same time? And, if you were a General, don't you have to wear a military uniform? So, how can you take notes and be a girl and, at the same time, be a man in a military uniform? Then, when I saw pictures of Dag, I realized he was neither a girl nor did he have a military uniform. I was completely bewildered, but I didn't voice my confusion, I am sure, to anyone.
Then, early in my fourth grade year (Hammarskjold died on Sept. 18, 1961), my teacher sadly told our class that the Secretary General was killed in a plane crash over the Congo. She "mourned" his death. I had to go look up that word, which I did by sneaking over to the row of Thorndike Barnhart dictionaries and opening it until I found "mourn." I didn't know if his death would in any way stop Boo boo from chasing Chombay around or if, in fact, the two were related. Indeed, the picture I had in my mind was that Boo boo was chasing Chomaby around near Coquilhatville and that Dag's plane just crashed someplace over the Congo. That is, I didn't connect them with each other at all.
I took a long time relating this one, but I think I can be briefer on a few others--in the next essay.