Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Entertainer

Most of the Mennonite churches in my childhood town had a Boy's Brigade program: the Boy Scouts basically, with a few Bible verses thrown in. It's a little ironic that Mennonites embraced the military trappings of this program. The call to order required a Captain and Lieutenants, a Sargeant, Corporals, Lance Corporals and Brigadiers all executing a military drill: stand at attention, stand at ease, stand easy (haven't forgotten any of this stuff - yikes!). I guess the powers that were figured a little marching didn't necessarily lead to taking up arms, and that boys were suckers for uniforms and drills.

We were and we weren't. Most of us wore the shirt - a forest-green polyester work-shirt with a few red badges sloppily sewn onto the sleeve (my mother was so disgusted at the lack of quality, she took it upon herself to re-affix all my badges) - but chafed at the bogus authority structure. We were there for the floor hockey, and put up with the drills by making with the wisecracks.

Campouts were part of the deal, too. Some batallions took their campouts very seriously, insisting on a requisite level of "roughing it", which could involve a lengthy hike with pack, or a canoe trip, or both. Our batallion leaders weren't quite so strident on this issue. The captain figured a fall campout was a worthy enterprise, but couldn't see himself sleeping in a tent with a bunch of rowdy adolescents. He opted instead to park a large trailer at a provincial campground, in which he and the other men could sleep, or watch the football game on his little b&w TV set, while the rest of us froze in our tents - thus fulfilling the "roughing it" requirement.

The experience proved to be rough indeed. A cold drizzle fell the entire weekend, and temperatures dipped to the freezing point at night. In the morning, after we scorched our pancakes on the Coleman stove, we found the Aunt Jemima's syrup was frozen inside the plastic container, where it remained untasted. We pilfered the campground's supply of firewood (paid for by the tax-payer, in those salad days of waning Trudeau-mania) and desperately built the largest campfire we could. We huddled around that campfire for the next 36 hours, moving only when the smoke pitched our way and brought us to tears.

One of the guys, a fellow "corporal", was a born entertainer. He could be a merciless joker with guys, and had an easy, natural charm around girls that was the envy of us all. He took immediate note of the bitter disparity between our situation and that of the men who drove us here, and made frequent, pointed commentary. When it was clear we were in for the long haul, he hunkered down and took it upon himself to entertain the troops.

He had had a bit part in his school's production of Fiddler on the Roof, and like any bit-player, knew the entire score from start-to-finish. In one afternoon he sang and recited every song and every line of dialogue from that show, slipping from basso to falsetto when necessary. I stood and watched this guy, and watched the reaction of the campers to this guy. His performance could have brought the usual adolescent churlishness to the fore - hoots, catcalls, "aww, shut-up already!", etc. Instead, every one of the boys (ages 12-17) silently listened to his performance, never once interrupting, and laughing only when he delivered the scripted punchlines.

So remarkable: all these boys with their weird, adolescent bodies and all the crazed behavior that comes with the tidal wave of hormones, just huddling in the rain and quietly listening to one of their own singing "Matchmaker, Matchmaker Make Me A Match". One of those rare, luminescent moments that takes place precisely when you least expect it.


DarkoV said...

A Mennonite Tevye. This I would have paid for and gladly chilled myself to the bone. Was your little campsite (the one without the trailer) named Anatevka? Or was ther an appropriate Mennonite appellation?
Hate to sound like an old fogy..but how memorable would have been your camping experience if you all were huddled in the trailer amongst the old timers with their releasing of gas and their old tired commentary? Nothing like a sharp chill in one's nostrils and Broadway Jewish musicals to lodge firmly one's childhood memories. Bet you even play the soundtrack when you go camping with your own kids.
..."If I was a rich man. Yaddle, diddle, diddle, doo.."

Oh, Yeah. The film version of Fiddler (directed by that famous Canadian Norman Jewison, who, by the way, also directed one of my favorite movies, the film version of Richler's "Apprenticeship of Duddy Krawitz") starring Topol (saw him on Broadway; couldn't hold a candle to Zero Mostel) was filmed in a series of villages just outside of my home town of Zagreb. They didn't have to do too much to get it to look like early 1900 Russia. Roads were an afterthought.

Whisky Prajer said...

That's a neat bit of trivia! As for Mennonites and musicals, I suspect we are more prone to fancying ourselves the heirs to the Jews than other flocks. Lots of "exile" talk, given the history of persecution - though in our case, there isn't any particular piece of dirt we can lay religious claim to.

And you are quite right to point out where the real fun was to be had on our little campout. There were kids (football fans) who were anxious to set foot in that trailer, but that was not my inclination, pretty much for the reasons you raise.