12 May, 2010

I told you that story to tell you this one, or: my Dad was Indiana Jones.

Back in the 1960s, when the country was busy undergoing rapid social change, my Dad was busy in the summers helping to pay for his undergraduate education by wandering the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico, collecting bats. Not the wooden kind made for striking balls of various varieties, but the mammalian kind, destined for some biology collection at Texas A&M. The stories of his adventures made fantastical bedtime distraction for me when I was a small girl. Parents are often sort of boring to their children, who picture them as never having had any life but the one the children see before them. These stories opened up a whole strange new world, in which my dependable and predictable father had exciting adventures, a world in which I was not even a vague consideration. They were suggestive of the fact that my Dad had a whole life going on before he married my Mom and became my Dad, and that it was a fascinating one.

In these stories, he roamed the jungles with his trusty guide Antonio, collecting bats, getting into scrapes, escaping by cunning and cleverness. He was not my English Professor father, wearing his navy blazer and khaki pants and conservative ties[1], he was Indiana Jones, out for bats instead of artifacts. He collected the bats mostly by shooting them, and he shot bats in culverts under roads, he shot bats in a church, he descended into the mysterious depths of Cueva Leon and didn’t shoot any bats there but nearly suffocated. Cueva Leon, with its hilarious prologue in which he hires two more guides to get there and then the suspenseful midsection, featuring near-suffocation, and finally the climactic ending in which he discovers the secret of Cueva Leon and also escapes alive, was one of my favorites. I asked him to tell it so many times that he finally typed it up for me and told me to read it myself, which I did. In fact, I got my Mom to have it laminated so I could have it forever and ever and read it over and over and over again.[2]

I told you that story so I could tell you this one:

Recently, my Dad sent me a file, written by a gentleman who had been on the bat-collecting expeditions. First this was startling because there was never a mention of anyone but Antonio in Dad’s stories, it was always the two of them adventuring through the steamy jungles, shooting at bats. It had not previously occurred to me that this was a whole party of adventurers shooting at bats; in fact when my Dad referred to the author as his colleague, I thought he was speaking figuratively. And then I got into the part about shooting bats in a church, and thought “Hey, this sounds familiar!” and then there was a whole new story, about being mistaken for missionaries, and finally the gentleman named the members of the party and there was my Dad’s name.

After a second read-through and a little correspondence with Dad, it got even more hilarious. His colleague describes the bat-collecting expedition in the church thusly:
“…three obviously demented giant gringos, one a Viking Amazon with a dirty handkerchief balanced on her head, bare arms, pants, and military-looking boots–garb unlike anything ever seen before on a woman in this untouristed remote region; one a tall skinny guy even taller than the woman and wearing a counterfeit pith helmet and the darkest of dark glasses in this very dark church; a young matinee-idol-like man/boy dressed like Beetle Bailey; and a crazed Mexican, as Maya-faced as the shawled women, but shouting in an alien tongue and wearing shells in bandoliers crossed on his chest like Pancho Villa.”

As it turns out, my Dad was the “young matinee-idol-like man/boy dressed like Beetle Bailey.” Antonio, of course, was the crazed Mexican, and the other two were the author and his wife.

My Dad, the matinee idol. Dad was skeptical of the accuracy of the description, so I asked for photographic corroboration. A couple days ago an envelope arrived, with an old picture scanned and printed onto the page, labeled “Working on a bat. Taken by Antonio. At a small village in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, summer 1962.” Dad’s head is bent over a bat on his leg, a bat which cannot in fact be seen. All you can see is a thick head of short hair (which was long gone by the time he became my Dad), a bit of face viewed from above, and the cigarette that dangles from his lips. On the other hand, you get a sterling look at his clothing, and he is most definitely dressed like Beetle Bailey, only I don’t think Beetle wears a watch.

It’s funny how our parents unfold like origami and become real people as we get older. Children cherish predictability in their parents, but as an adult I find that I cherish the vision of my matinee-idol-like man/boy father, dressed like a dork and wearing combat boots one size too big. Next time I see him, I think I’ll even ask for some more bat stories.

[1] AS HE GOT OLDER, THE TIES GOT LESS CONSERVATIVE. THERE IS PROBABLY SOME KIND OF LESSON IN THIS.

[2] THE OTHER THING HE WROTE FOR ME WHICH I ASKED MOM TO LAMINATE WAS AN EPIC POEM ENTITLED “HOW I GOT RAGS” WHICH DETAILED THE ADVENT OF HIS CAT. IT WAS WRITTEN IN IAMBIC PENTAMETER AND RHYMING COUPLETS, ALL HOMERIC AND STUFF. I WAS NOT BEING FACETIOUS WHEN I CALLED IT “AN EPIC POEM.”