We had finished our chores early and my brothers and I had built the great and spacious building of blanket forts. My mother would probably be finding closepins in illogical places for weeks to come. I crawled into the sequestered, arguably claustrophobic, nest that I had made between the wall and the bunk bed. Joseph and Joshua somehow wriggled in as well. “Daddy! Come tell us stories! And not your bad Voltron ones that don’t make sense!” we shouted. He came crawling in after us wedging his way between small squirming bodies. I cuddled up to his chest and started examining his ink stained hands. He always had red ink in the same blotchy pattern next to his thumb. I wanted my hands to one day show that I loved my trade like he did.
“What stories do you want me to tell you then?” he asked. Joshua giggled and said, “The ones about you blowing things up!”
I start to doze off a little bit as he talks about going to the local bamboo grove to pick the greenest most flexible stalks to build cannons out of. I know where this is going as he describes ramming out the bamboo with old rebar, carefully drilling a hole in the top, fashioning a fuse out of twine, pouring kerosene into the canon, loading it with old plastic bottles, lighting a fire underneath it to boil the kerosene, and waiting for it to boil. My brothers squeal in delight as he describes how he lost his patience with the cannon and looked down its barrel to see if it was going to fire. Well it fired and took with it his eyelashes and eyebrows…. Then there was the time he accidentally lit a firework while riding in the back of a truck and almost blew the truck up… or the time he was curious what would happen if you boiled kerosene in a pot… underneath the curtains…. My father must have been determined to earn himself a Darwin award as a child…
Finally the stories shift towards tales of catching spiders in the sugarcane fields and running through old orchards to eat sticky black duhat while being attacked by terrifying turquoise colored killer geckos with serrated teeth.
My ears perk up as I hear the beginning of one of my favorites.
He starts with the nonchalant statement, “There was an empty lot next to ours, it belonged to someone, but it was empty. There was a coconut tree growing there. One day I climbed up the tree to steal a coconut. I was in the middle of spinning the coconut (how you pick coconuts) when I heard my mother calling me. I hesitated for a second but finally scrambled down to run to the house, at that moment the coconut fell directly on my head.” More hysterical giggles from my brothers.
Then my mother pipes in from the other room. “So what do we learn from that story, honey?”
My dad glibly replies, “If you are going to steal a fruit, don’t steal coconuts.”
My Mother, “BENJI!”
Dad, “I mean don’t steal fruit, and go right away when your mother calls.”
It is way past our bedtime and the cool evening rains have swept up the valley bringing with them the scent of white ginger and jungle vines. It wafts in through the open window. We beg for one last story and he agrees to just one more.
“Once upon a time, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a superhero. I believed that all I needed to fly was a cape. So I took a towel, tied it around my neck, and jumped out of our second story window. My neck got caught on the closeline on the way down, I flipped a 360, and landed back first on the cement. I learned that day that I could not fly.”
At this point I pipe in, “But I still think you are Superman.” For a moment my perpetually goofy father looks like he might show emotion, but he chokes it back, tickles my brothers and I, and tucks us into our rat’s nest before saying prayers and leaving us alone with the geckos… thankfully the ones in Hawaii were neither turquoise nor armed with saber like teeth.
Fast forward five years. We are bumping along a badly paved road, seemingly playing a constant game of chicken with motorcycles stacked high with actual chickens. We had traveled for 12 hours by plane and I was thoroughly exhausted but I could not close my eyes to the grime, confusion, and squalor that I was suddenly immersed in. Most of all, I definitely could not close my nose to the dank smell of humid filth. Joseph was frantically doing a I-need-to-pee dance in the back seat and finally my grandfather directed our driver to pull the van to the side of the road. I looked on in shocked silence as my 10 yr old brother peed against a wall in the middle of what one could loosely call the suburbs of this underdeveloped urban jungle.
I saw street after street of rickety shacks frankenstiened out of bits of cement, corrugated tin, bamboo, rebar, and wood scraps. I kept expecting to find myself in a more…well, for lack of a better word... civilized neighborhood. Suddenly, I realized we were parked in front of a tall metal gate in a neighborhood that looked much like the rest that we had passed through. The house before me was a solid cement structure held in with firmly grilled windows and a high wall topped with broken glass. I slowly turned around to be met by the curious gaze of a group of small children, some of whom were almost as grubby as the mangy dogs playing in the gutter behind them. The other side of the street was a row of cramped ramshackle hovels.
As I watched what I was pretty sure was raw sewage run down the muddy gutter next to the car it sank in… This is the mud my father recalls making cricket cages out of. Mud so smelly that no amount of baby powder could redeem it….Those were the rusty broken pieces of rebar he would pound into pocket knives because he was too poor to own one…. It was a door like that where many a night he waited for his drunken father to stumble home… It was dirty roads like this that he and his little brother had ridden makeshift BMX bikes down with equally mangy dogs yapping at their heels…and yes those geckos were really massive terrifying turquoise colored monsters. This was the reality of what had simply been my bedtime stories full of adventure, near death experiences, and Huckle Berry Fin-esque shenanigans.
Now my dad was no longer just a superhero in my eyes because he had conquered killer geckos, or saved the world from destruction by bamboo cannon, he was a hero because he, with the miracle of the gospel and help of his family, had conquered generations of poverty and near illiteracy. He had saved my world from the villan of socio-economic stangnacy that had always lurked just out of sight at the edges of my childhood bedtime fairytales.