Friday, December 28, 2012

Tape One: Erche Namu Yang, the Mosuo, & America

Transcribed Tape One prior to writing the book. Discussion with Erche Namu Yang on why she wants to tell her story.

Before I came to America, all of my impressions of this country were from movies and television. I found out very soon that the America in the movies is not the real America. Not at all. A friend picked me up at the San Francisco airport and drove me into the city. I stayed with her in an apartment near Golden Gate Park. Having lived in both Shanghai and Beijing, I found America to be so quiet. There were no large crowds on the street during the day. Even in Union Square, the numbers of people were small compared with what I had experienced in China.
But the thing that struck me most about America was the way that people are all strangers to each other. Even people who live in the same building or on the same block don't know each other, don't speak to each other. Everyone here seems to be a stranger to everyone else. Nobody knows his neighbor. You walk down the street or walk through the park and people don't look into each other's eyes, don't say hello, don't smile. Everyone looks at the ground or at the sky or at the buildings. And yet they live side by side. The Mosuo are such a friendly people and we always greet our neighbors and even strangers. I found that the isolation of Americans from each other not only disturbed me. It frightened me. It took me many months to get accustomed to this coldness of Americans toward each other.
When I wanted to go for walks at night and see the city, I was told that part of the city was dangerous! This, too, surprised me. I was unprepared for it. My friends said that at night they went to clubs and bars to meet other friends and to dance and drink. Among the Mosuo we met and danced outside. So this, too, was new to me. I don't drink alcohol. I never have. I learned to make wine for young men, but never tasted it myself. Few Mosuo women like the taste of alcohol. So I went to some bars and clubs with my friends. But my English at that time was almost nonexistent. I knew how to order tea in English. I remember the first time I ordered tea in a club, the bartender said to me, almost in a shout, "If you want to drink tea, why do you come here?" I had no answer. But my impression of Americans as unfriendly was reinforced by his question.
Because of my poor English I had a lot of trouble shopping. One morning I walked to a market to buy some cooking oil. It was my first time in an American supermarket. I was confused totally by the labels because most of them didn't seem to tell me what was inside. I found the section of the store that sold dish washing liquid. I bought a large plastic bottle of it, paid for it and brought it home and then tried to boil it for cooking. It did, after all, look like cooking oil. I could tell by the way it bubbled in the wok that it was not oil. I solved my problem by carrying a large dictionary with me to the supermarket from that day on.
After I moved to San Jose, I liked to go to Valley Fair shopping mall on the weekends. I didn't have any money to buy things, but as on my first trip away from home, I liked to just sit and watch the people spend their money. It was strange and entertaining and educational. People did not greet each other. There were thousands and thousands of strangers walking back and forth in the mall without anyone greeting anyone else or even smiling. I sat on a bench for hours without anyone ever smiling at me. I watched people buying things and I was struck by the fact that everyone was well dressed and seemed to have everything they could possibly need and yet they bought and bought. When stores had sales they were always filled with shoppers spending lots of money. It was almost like a religion. People bought anything and everything. They carried large packages to their cars and drove away. In the next weeks I would sometimes see the same people doing the same thing again. I just couldn't figure it out. At night I thought about this and all I could conclude was that America is a very strange and complicated place for a Mosuo girl.
Of course I wanted to meet some men my own age here. I wanted to date but had no idea how to meet someone. Eventually I met a young man in a park near the home where I worked as a babysitter. He was jogging and stopped to talk to me. Our conversation was carried on awkwardly since I was still learning English and could only speak in simple sentences. He told me he was a lawyer, he was single and he wanted to know if I would have dinner with him -- that night! I told him I did and gave him my address.
That evening I dressed in my most beautiful dress. He came to get me and was wearing jeans and a tee shirt. As you can imagine, I felt a bit strange and out of place for the rest of the evening.
Once I left the Mosuo people I had been warned about young men taking advantage of the openness of my people with regard to the ritual of courtship and sex. For that reason I had remained celibate while living among the Chinese. And before I came to America I was warned again and again about both the looseness and the casualness of Americans in sexual practices and about the diseases transmitted here. Among the Mosuo we had no sexually transmitted diseases. So, for me, even a kiss might be dangerous and I was determined to have no physical contact with an American. I did expect, however, to have fun on a date.
Well, we had dinner -- a beautiful dinner. We went for a drive around the valley and then he brought me home. He walked me to the door and then, as we said goodbye, leaned forward to kiss me. As he did I turned, opened the door, said goodbye and went inside.
I watched out the window as he returned to his car and simply sat in it for several minutes. Then, after about five minutes he came to the door again and knocked softly. When I answered he smile and said, "Namu, would you mind paying for half the dinner?" That was my introduction to dating in America. I must confess, however, that things over the years did improve. They had to.
I wanted romance at that time. I needed it. I missed it badly. But I found during that first date and several times later that there is very little that is romantic in American dating. I had been spoiled by the Mosuo boys. They would sing and dance and recite poetry. They would play the guitar or the violin and pour out their heart. And, in the end, if your own heart was moved, you shared a wonderful romantic evening with them.
But here, I found that too often young men want to buy you dinner and then have sex. It was like a commercial exchange -- almost like shopping. This is not romantic, this is mundane, and this is, I think, all wrong. Again and again I wanted to ask American men, "Where is your heart. Dinner, dancing and fucking? Is that it?"
But I found many Americans mistook that for romance. It was sad. I had never been in such a beautiful country before as this one. I had never heard so many beautiful love songs before as I heard in this country. But the songs here seemed to be a substitute for the real thing. Among the Mosuo the songs enhance romance, are part of it. Here they are separate and they are sold on cd's at the malls where nobody smiles and says hello.
But don't get me wrong. I love America! I have become an American citizen. I will live my life here. I will meet a romantic young man some day and marry. I know it. And we will have many children and sing love songs to each other. I will tell my children stories of my own childhood, tell them of my mother and my grandmother and of all the strong brave women of my people. And I will be happy.
But the dream that is dearest to my heart is this one. Some day I want to return to the hills where I grew up, where I tended the horses and the yaks. I want to build a small temple there. I want to put the names of my mother and my grandmother over the entrance to the temple. And when the Mosuo people are all gone and those beautiful hills of my Shangri-la are populated only by outsiders and tourists, I want people to visit that small temple and to see those sweet names and to remember, just for a moment, who we were, how we lived and loved and what the world has lost.

July 8, 1998

Writing Namu's autobiography. Manuscript, edits, revisions.

Chapter One Proposal: Rough Draft 6 with comments and corrections. March, 2000.


Troublesome Treasure

My entry into the world was loud.
Mama cannot remember the date of my birth nor can she recall the month or the season or  the year.  The only thing she remembers is my endless crying.  “From the moment you were born,” she tells me,  “you  were a troublesome child.”  

When I PRESS HER  for details about my birth, Mama [x only] says I  was born shortly before dawn 
Our neighbor Dujema remembers more.  She TOOK CARE OF my mother that night.  She wiped the sweat and tears from Mama’s face and tried to comfort her.  Mama’s labor lasted two nights and a day.  IT SEEMED ENDLESS.
Dujema could not understand why my birth was such a difficult one.  She knelt on the blanket on the floor where Mama was lying and moaning in pain.   She ran her hands over Mama’s swollen belly  to SOOTHE her and to make sure I was in the proper position.  She ADDED SOME WOOD TO THE HEARTH AND LOOKED  AT MAMA’S FACE GLOWING BRIGHT ORANGE FROM THE PAIN OF PROTRACTED CHILDBIRTH AND THE HEAT OF THE OPEN FIRE.  SHE whispered, “This is your third child, Latso. It is supposed to be easier than before.  I  know there is good reason for this difficulty.”  
After a while she concluded, “ IT  is going to be a boy this time.  A big boy.  That has to be why there is so much pain.”
At last,   after the second crowing of the rooster,  Dujema  saw me emerge.  She placed her hands gently around  my head and shoulders and pulled me kicking and screaming into this world.
Dujema washed me in a small bowl of water beside her on the floor and examined me by the light from the fireplace.  Then she gave mY mother the bad news.  “It’s a girl, Latso,” she announced.   
“Another girl.” MY MOTHER REPEATED, HER voice was full of disappointment.
Mother TELLS ME she believed I caused her so much suffering because she wanted a boy. [I took and away]  I must have sensed this and  felt unwelcome to this world and so resisted being born.
Our  people customarily favor daughters.  After all, girls inherit the family house and property.  They cook the food and grow and harvest the crops in the fields. They tend the animals.  They become head of the family and pass the family name to their children.  Because of this, our land is even known as the country of the daughters.
Yet every family needs sons, too.  Males tend the yaks in the mountains and  males alone can travel with the horse caravans to trade with the distant places in the outside world.  Males also journey  to Tibet to study the holy Buddhist scriptures and become lamas.  Without our lamas we, the Mosuo, could never name our children nor could we cure our sick or send the souls of our deceased to the ancestral paradise. 
With two daughters already,  Mama needed a son.  Instead, she had me.
My mother’s household was unlike all the others in our village.  She enjoyed no large extended family.  We had no aunts or uncles living with us in the house.  Because of this Dujema, our neighbor,  had to assist in my birth rather than one of Mama’s sisters.  
We were a small household because when my mother was still a girl she had broken with (NO NEED FOR RIGID, CUSTOM IMPLIES OBLIGATORY – ALSO RIGID CUSTOM  SOUNDS DICTATORIAL) Mosuo custom. WE, THE MOSUO MUST LIVE IN THE HOUSE OF OUR MOTHERS. BUT MAMA ran away from her mother and her village.  
Among my people this is how households are established.  A woman does not have one lover or one husband.   Men and women do not marry.  Love, it is expected, comes and goes, like the seasons.   A man or woman may fall in love with many partners during a lifetime and have children with several of them.   There are many sons and daughters in one family.  A mother may have many children and each of them may have a different father.  None of the fathers live in the family household. 
The children are raised by the women in a HOUSE and take the family name of their  mother.  They are raised side by side with cousins – the children of their mother’s sisters.  The only men [x] who are permanent residents  IN THE HOUSE are the brothers of the women.  THUS, in place of ONE father we have MANY uncles.  IN A WAY, WE ALSO HAVE MANY MOTHERS BECAUSE WE CALL OUR AUNTS LITTLE MOTHERS.
But there were no aunts and uncles to HELP Mama after my birth and my sisters were still toO young  to carry on the necessary chores of the household .  SO, Mama bound me to her back and carried me with her as she tended the animals and the crops and cared for my sisters.
From the moment I was born I cried constantly.  I cried day and night, week after week.  Mama could get no sleep and she became exhausted.
Mama could not understand why I always cried.  She thought perhaps this was divine punishment for having run away from her mother.  Now through me she was paying for her transgression. 
She tried  everything to quiet me.  She sang the traditional songs of our people.  She cradled me in her arms and walked along the shore of Lugu Lake trying to soothe me with prayers.  She nursed me until she had no more milk.  Still I cried.   When she could not stand it any longer, she bundled me tightly into a white goat skin blanket (NO S) and placed me under the KANG, THE wooden platform where the family sat at night around the fire. 
In her frustration, she ran into the courtyard and kicked THE ground and SHOUTED AT (?) the ANIMALS, AND IMPLORED THE heavens FOR HELP (TREES ARE SACRED IN MOSUO COSMOGONY, SO YOU WOULD NOT DARE KICK OR SHOUT AT TREES, IT WOULD BE LIKE SHOUTING AT THE MOUNTAINS).  She paced around and around in the yard until she felt calm enough to retrieve me from the platform beside the fire.  
One night when she left me CRYING alone for a few minutes UNDER THE KANG, and paced restlessly back and forth in the courtyard,  I wriggled free of the goat skin and reached out to the bright embers that HAD fallen BETWEEN THE CRACKS OF THE KANG FROM under the stove.  My LITTLE hand closed around a glowing coal, which seared my skin and stuck to the flesh.  I screamed WITH ALL THE FORCE OF MY BABY LUNGS.  Mama rushed back into the house and saw what I’d done.  She covered the burned flesh with butter and wrapped my hand tightly and cursed herself for leaving me alone. To this day my mother cries when she sees the scar, still visible on my right hand.
AFTER A FEW WEEKS, WHEN my mother could no longer bear my crying, SHE DECIDED TO LOOK FOR HELP.   She snipped off a corner of my clothing and set off with a tiny bouquet of artemisia to consult with Lama Ruhi.
The old lama welcomed her into his courtyard.  She knelt and bowed three times to him, touching her forehead to the earth with each bow. She then placed the artemisia in his incense lamp, AND followed Lama Ruhi into the small chapel.
“Ape Lama, how is your health?” she asked.  “How are your crops?” She held her hands together in the prayer position as she spoke to him.
“And how is your family?” he replied.  “How is your mother?  And your sisters and brothers?
“Thank you for asking, Ape, ” she said. “But the horse caravan has not arrived and we have no fresh news.”
“I have heard that this year there has been hail in Qiansuo,” he continued.  “I am praying that  your crops survive and you will have a good harvest.”
“Thank you for your concern, Ape.  But I have not come because of  my mother or sisters or brothers.  I have not come because of my crops.  I come to you because my third daughter cannot stop crying.  I have enough with the noise of the pigs and goats and chickens and cows.  I cannot sleep at night.  I am exhausted.  I am afraid I am going to loose all my hair.  She CRIES AND CRIES.  No matter what I do, SHE DOES NOT STOP.  Please, Ape, help me.”
She handed him the snipping from my clothing.  Lama Ruhi bent over her and took the cloth and brought it to his nose.  He sniffed it and asked, “When was this child born? (?MISSING)”
“She was born before the rooster crowed the third time,” Mama told him.
Lama Ruhi nodded and then asked, “But what is her zodiacal sign?”
My mother frowned.  “Perhaps it is the horse….”
Lama Ruhi laughed.  “What do you mean ‘perhaps’?  Don’t you know when your daughter was born?”
“She is about two months old.  With four mouths to feed and the pigs and the chickens and horses to tend and without brothers or sisters to help me, I don’t even remember my own birthday!”
The old monk shook his head and sat down to chant from his prayer book.  When he’d finished he sat silently for several minutes.  Then he looked into my mother’s eyes with concern.  “Latso, your third daughter has a very special destiny awaiting her.  You must find a suitable name for her.  Only that will solve your problem.”
“How shall I find the name?” Mama asked.
On the fifteenth day of the month, before the cock crows, you must take her to the crossroads in the center of the village and wait there.  You must [X] ask the first person you meet to give her a name.  Then she will stop crying.”
Mother thanked Lama Ruhi and hurried home, filled with new hope.
On the fifteenth day of the month, shortly before sunrise, Mama wrapped me tightly in a blanket and carried me to the crossroads.  When she arrived, it was still dark.  She placed a goat skin in the middle of the road and [X] placed me on it [SHE WOULD NOT HAVE UNDRESSED HER BECAUSE IT WAS VERY COLD].  After that she prepared HER offeringS to the gods – butter lamps, a bowl of red rice, a slice of ham and a boiled chicken. [THESE OFFERINGS ARE NOT SPECIAL, THERE THE USUAL VERY GOOD OFFERINGS GIVEN WHEN IMPLORING THE GODS, ANCESTORS ARE NOT ALWAYS SO RICHLY PROVIDED FOR]
It was VERY cold that morning and Mama began to worry that no one would come out of their houses for a long time.  What would happen to my sisters if they awakened and found she was gone?  How long should she wait in the road?  And what if I caught a cold?  She took out her PRAYER beads and began to CHANT SOLFTY.
Then, in the darkness, she heard the tinkle of a lama’s bell approaching.  She looked up and saw old Lama Gatusa.  He was bent over, looking at the ground, walking to Lugu lake to gather water for his morning prayers.
“Ape Gatusa!” she called out.  “Ape Gatusa!  You are so early.”  She bowed to him.
Lama Gatusa looked at my mother prostrate on the road and at her offerings and then at the crying child on the goat skin.
“Ape Gatusa,” she explained, “my third child cries too much.  I went to see Lama Ruhi.  He told me that today was a good day to name this child and to come to the crossroads and wait.  I never imagined that my daughter’s luck would be so great that the first person we would meet would be a lama..  Please, could you give her a name?”
Lama Gatusa reached down and pulled my mother to a standing position.  Then he picked me up from the goat skin and examined my face.  “She is pretty as the moonlight,” he said.  And then still holding me in his arms, he started to pray.  When he was finished with his prayers, he turned to Mama and said quietly, “Her name is Erche Namu.”
In our language Erche means “treasure” and Namu means “princess.”  
Mama then followed Lama Gatusa to Lugu Lake.  There, SHE washed my face with clear water.  We believe that the morning lake water  – before the birds drink from it – is the purest.  THE LAMA WOULD NOT WASH THE BABY, THAT’S A WOMAN’S JOB.
When She had finished washing me, Mama THANKED BOWED TO LAMA GATUSA AND THANKED HIM WARMLY.  She hurried home with her TreasureD Princess TO PREPARE BREAKFAST FOR HER OTHER DAUGHTERS (?).
Unfortunately, Lama Ruhi was wrong.  Finding a name for me did not stop my crying.  I CONTINUED CRYING, MY SCREAMS GROWING STRONGER AS THE DAYS WENT AND MY BODY GREW STRONGER FROM  MY MOTHER’S MILK. My tears became legendary and word passed round the neighboring villages that Mama had given birth to a daughter who was supposed to be a son and [X] would never stop crying.
One morning, [X] Dujema came to our house with a dramatic proposal.  She brought specially prepared barley cookies and asked Mama to sit down and talk with her.  Mama brought her into the [X]).  I was crying, of course, so Dujema picked me up and held ME, AND BEGAN TO PACE UP AND DOWN THE KITCHEN, SINGING TO ME SOFTLY AND BOUNCING ME IN HER ARMS.  Mama  placed Dujema’s cookies on the ancestral altar and then prepared butter tea for the two of them.  
Dujema was tall and strong and very beautiful.  She had many lovers and many more sought her favors regularly.  She was Mama’s best friend and they spent [X] hours together each day, working in the fields,  singing and chatting. [ They sang, Mama said, to keep their spirits high and to prevent them from feeling tired.]  Most of the time they talked about growing and harvesting the crops, BUT OFTEN, THEY JUST talked about men.   NOTE: I INVERTED THE [ SENTENCE].
WHEN, AT LAST, I HAD GROWN QUIET, DUJEMA SAT DOWN AT THE FIREPLACE AT THE PLACE RESERVED FOR HONORED GUESTS.  Mama gathered her long skirt and sat down across from Dujema TO THE LEFTHANDSIDE OF THE FIRE, WHERE the mistress of the house CSUTOMARILY SITS.  Before pouring tea for Dujema AND HERSELF, she poured several drops over the iron stove to honor the fire god Zabbala.
“Look at this loud little piggie,” Dujema said HOLDING ME UP IN THE LIGHT OF THE FIRE – “little piggie” was her nickname for me.  “Little piggie,” she commanded me, “YOU MUST stop crying!”  SO, OF COURSE, I BEGAN CRYING AGAIN.  DUJEMA took out her breast and shut me up by nursing me.
“ (X) She’s not really such a bad one,” Dujema said to Mama.  SHE PAUSED AND LOOKED SERIOUS.  “LATSO, You are lucky.  You have three girls now.  I have only boys – two boys.”
Mama nodded her head politely, but found it difficult to believe she was lucky to possess a child like me – a girl who wanted to be a boy.
“Without girls,” Dujema continued, “who is going to help me work in the house and the fields when I get old?”
Then she stared into the fire for a long time and thought about what she wanted to say.  “She DOES like you,” SHE SIGHED.
Dujema nodded her head in assent.
(X) Dujema stared down at me for A MOMENT.  Then she looked up at Mama and said, “I WILL give you Tsili in exchange for this one.  He is almost onE year old.  He’s not much trouble any more.  You know what people say, Latso.  If we exchange our children, then the next time you become pregnant, you will have a son for sure.”
THUS Mama and Dujema  agreed to exchange THEIR children – a daughter for a son.


UNFORTUNATELY, I began crying again soon after I arrived at Dujema’s house.  I cried so loud and so long that Dujema’s mother SPENT THE NIGHT walkING around with her hands over hear ears to block out my cries.  My cries, in fact, were so loud that Mama said she could hear me [faintly –TAKE OFF?] THROUGH THE WALLS OF OUR LOG HOUSE all night long.
After fifteen days and fourteen sleepless nights, Dujema’s mother concluded that she had made a bad bargain.  “Give her back!” she commanded.  “If she continues crying like this, the whole house will break apart and fall down.”
So Dujema returned me to my Mama and took back Tsili.  She felt a bit guilty, however, and so each afternoon, she came to our house and nursed me in order to give Mama some peace.
One year later, a woman from a neighboring village came to our village looking for a daughter.  She had only sons in her family.  AND SHE HAD HEARD THAT (?) [Word circulated that] my mother had grown weak and thin from trying to feed her crying daughter.  This POOR woman had tried for many years to have DAUGHTERS, but she bore only sons.  She came to our house with offerings of tea, ham, chicken, eggs and barley cookies.  She departed with me.
BUT THIS DEAL WAS EVEN SHORTER LIVED THAN THE ONE MY MOTHER HAD STRUCK WITH DUJEMA.  I remained with this new family for two days.  On the third day, just after the cock crowed, THE WOMAN brought me back to Mama.  “This baby will not stop crying.  We have had no sleep since I brought her home.  We’ve tried everything,” she said, RUBBING HER EYES RED AND SWOLLEN FROM FATIGUE.  “To have no daughter at all is far better than to have a girl who will not stop crying.”
And so Mama was stuck with me again.
The following spring, my aunt Yufang ARRIVED FROM MY GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE IN Qiansuo, two days walk from our village.  SHE appeared in our courtyard with her five your old son, Ache.  She asked Mama if she would exchange a son for a daughter and again Mama agreed.
Aunt Yufang BUNDLED ME  UP IN WARM CLOTHES AND WE STARTED ON THE LONG WALK BACK to QiansuO.  AS SOON AS WE REACHED THE EDGE OF THE VILLAGE, I began  [I TOOK OFF PROTESTING] PULLING ON HER HAND AND, WHEN AUNT YUFANG TRIED TO CARRY ME,  I screamED and kickED and scratchED.  When WE WERE only half a days walk from Mama’s house, AUNT YUFANG GAVE UP AND turned around.   SHE returned me to my mother and took in exchange my older sister Djujelama.  
AFTER THIS, I became known as the girl who was given away and given back three times.  Yet there was something fortuitous in this final exchange.  AS OUR CUSTOM HAS IT, THE NEXT BABY MOTHER GAVE BIRTH TO WAS A BOY.  BUT THAT WAS NOT ALL,  I was fascinated by my ADOPTED brother ACHE AND AS SOON AS HE CAME TO LIVE WITH US,  I STOPPED CRYING.  [X] OF COURSE, Mama was VERY happy NOW.  SHE WAS at peace for the first time since the night I was born.  Her troublesome treasure was no longer troublesome:  I HAD BECOME A NORMAL CHILD.  
FOR THE STRANGE THING IS (?), I never cried again.  
And why did I NEVER CRY AGAIN, AND WHY DID I cry so much in the first place?  Who can say for sure?  Perhaps I shed a lifetime of tears in my first three years because there would be no time for crying during the long journey that lay ahead of me.

(3127 words)

Chapter One, Draft 7: [April 11, 2000. 3PM]


A Troublesome Treasure

Mama cannot remember the date of my birth. She says she does not recall the month or the season or even the year. All she remembers, she tells me, is my ceaseless crying. "From the moment you were born," she says, "you were trouble."
When I press her for details she attempts to summon up more memories but in the end simply says that I was born shortly after dawn.
Our neighbor Dujema remembers more. It was early in the winter, she says, and the mountains were already white. But Mama did not feel the cold nor did she hear the stillness in the snow-covered fields. She was aware only of her own suffering. Her labor lasted a day and two nights. During those long hours, Dujema knelt on the grass mat on the floor, beside Mama.
She wiped Mama's face, varnished with tears and sweat and shining like amber in the halo of the fireplace, and soothed her brow. She ran her hands over Mama's tight belly, to calm her, but also to make sure that I was in the proper position. When the pain became unbearable, Dujema put a dried up corn cob in Mama's mouth and instructed her to bite on it. When Mama was still at last, she added wood to the fireplace and stared into the bright flames, and the same frightening thought again came to her. "This is her third child. It should be much easier. How must it end?'
Before long Mama groaned again and held her belly. And Dujema placed a reassuring hand over Mama's trembling fingers, and said softly, "There is a reason why you're having so much pain, Latso. It's going to be a boy this time. A big boy. Yes, that must be it."
Mama opened her eyes wider and tried to force a smile as she responded, "Then this is worth the pain, Dujema, isn’t it? All is well."
Near the end of the second night, as the rooster called for the sun to rise, Mama groaned and gave another big push and Dujema cried: "That's it, Latso! I see the head!"
She laughed with relief, "It's a big head. A big boy's head!" And she received me, wrapping her hands gently about my head and shoulders as she pulled me kicking and screaming into the narrow ray of dawn filtering through the opening in the roof, above the hearth.
"Is he alright?" Mama asked anxiously. She wanted to see me, and tried
lifting herself on her elbows. But she was too weak. She fell back exhausted and closed her eyes, leaving Dujema to examine me more closely by the warmth of the fire.
Dujema smiled a little sadly. "Yes, the baby is alright, " she said, covering me with a blanket, and turning to silence my curious sisters who had crawled out of bed, awakened by Mama's groans. They were now giggling and pushing against each other, and trying to lift a corner of the blanket to get a better look at their newborn brother.
Dujema smacked her lips impatiently, and shouted to my older sister to hurry and fetch the scissors from the sewing basket. Then, she stood, her knees tender and
creaking from the long hours she had spent kneeling on the floor. She reached into the fireplace and picked out a piece of kindling to light the artemisia, the holy bush we burn in offering to the gods.
After such a long labor, there was no time to waste in separating me from my mother. While the smoke of the burning bush filled the house, purifying every corner and crack, and slowly drifted upwards to the opening in the roof, Dujema hurriedly ladled warm water into a blue rimmed enamel basin. She assured herself that the water was neither too warm nor too cold, and quickly passed the sewing scissors through the artemisia smoke. She cut the umbilical cord and then dipped me into the warm water as she chanted above my screams: 'All is well, all is fortunate. The room is cleansed. The baby is well. The water is pure. All is in harmony.'
When I was clean and dried, Dujema anointed my forehead with a little pad of yak milk butter. She placed a cloth diaper between my legs before bundling me up in the traditional square of cotton cloth and tied a tiny red and green cotton belt across my belly.
And at last, she handed me over to my sleepy mother so that I could suckle. And only then did she give Mama the bad news.
"It's a girl, Latso," she said. "Another girl."
Mama opened her eyes. "A girl?" she asked in disbelief, hoping she'd misunderstood. Dujema looked down at her with pity and nodded. My sisters started giggling again.
After so many years, Dujema says that she still remembers my mother's sad red eyes and weary face, as though it all happened only days ago. She says that my birth caused my mother so much suffering because Mama had wanted a boy so badly. She says I resisted being born so as not to disappoint my mother.
My mother's disappointment at my birth was unusual among our people. For unlike the Chinese, Mosuo people usually favor daughters. Girls, after all, inherit the family house and property. They maintain and manage and rule the household. They plant and harvest the crops in the fields and cook the food. They become head of the family and pass the family name to their children. Because of this, the Chinese call our Mosuo
country the Kingdom of Daughters.
But we Mosuo also treasure our sons. It is men who herd the yaks in the
mountains and men who travel with the horse caravans to trade with the distant places in the outside world. It is men also who make the long journey to Lhasa to study the holy Buddhist scriptures and become lamas. Without our lamas we could not cure the sick or send the souls of the departed to our ancestral paradise.
My mother's single-minded desire for a boy was unusual and urgent because our family was unlike any other in our village. We enjoyed no large extended household. We had no aunts or uncles living with us. We did not even have relatives leaving nearby. That was why Dujema, our neighbor, had to assist in my birth rather than one of Mama's sisters.
And that was why, already blessed with two daughters, Mama so wished for a
In fact, our family was unlike the others because of Mama's defiance of Mosuo custom years earlier. According to our tradition, Mosuo families should never divide and go their separate ways . Daughters and sons are not supposed to set up their own households but are instead to remain with their mother and other maternal relatives for their entire life. Ideally, all Mosuo should die in the house where they were born, the
house of their mothers and grandmothers. At the very least, they should live in the maternal village.
But when Mama was still a young girl, she ran away from her mother and her
village. She says now that she was just curious and restless, that she only wanted to see the outside world -- the world beyond our valley where the horse caravans traveled.
So she left the house of her grandmothers and followed the path of the horse caravans. But she did not go very far. She stopped in Zuosuo, only two days walk away on the other side of the mountains. There she quickly lost her heart to a young man and soon abandoned the dreams that had beckoned from beyond the tall mountains and the deep river valleys.
When her belly became round as the full moon, she decided to set up her own
household in his village.
When I ask Mama why she chose such a hard life for herself and why she did
not simply return to grandmother's house in Qiansuo, she says that she could not bear the humiliation of going home with unfulfilled dreams. I know that she also feared the wrath of her mother.
At any rate, some months after Mama settled in Zuosuo, my oldest sister Zhema was born. Then, not long after Zhema began to walk, Mama fell in love with another man and soon gave birth to another daughter, Djujelema. After that she fell in love with a third man, Zhemi. His home was in Qiansuo, where my grandmother lived, and he traveled with the horse caravan to Tibet and other far away places. He was tall and handsome and had a wide smile and black eyes that flashed when he sang love songs. Mama told me she fell in love with him the moment she saw him. He was the great love of her life.
Zhemi was my father.
Among my people this is how households are established. Women and men do not marry - for love is like the seasons. It comes and goes. A Mosuo woman may have many lovers during her lifetime and she may have many children. Yet each of them will perhaps have a different father, and none of the fathers will live with his children. Mosuo children are raised in their mother's house and take the family name of their maternal ancestors. They grow up side by side with their cousins --the children of their mother's sisters. The only men who are permanent residents in the house are the brothers of the women. Thus, in place of one father, Mosuo children have many uncles. In a way, we also have many mothers because we call our aunts "Azhama," which means "little mothers".
When I was born, my father was away at his own mother's house in Qiansuo. And since there were no sisters or aunts or uncles at home, there was no one to help Mama: no one to cook, or chop the firewood, or kill and clean a chicken for dinner, or hold her newborn baby. My sisters were still too young to do anything but the lightest chores. So, when Mama had eaten enough of the traditional meal of eggs and chicken soup and corn gruel given to new mothers and which Dujema prepared for her, and when she
was strong enough to stand up, she bound me to her back. Then, with my two sisters trailing behind her long skirt, she carried me with her everywhere she went as she cooked and cleaned and tended the chickens and the pigs.
I soon proved to be an uncommon burden. From the moment I was born, I cried almost constantly. I cried all day and often through the night as well, week after week. Mama could not understand why I never stopped crying. She tried everything to quiet me. She sang the traditional lullabies. She cradled me in her arms and walked along the
shore of Lugu Lake to soothe me with prayers. She nursed me until her breasts emptied.
Eventually, Mama began to suspect that my crying was divine retribution for her having run away from her family. So, a few weeks after my birth, she decided to seek divine help. She snipped off a corner of my clothing and set off with a large bunch of wild artemisia to consult with Lama Ruhi.
The old lama shooed away the chickens and the piglets, as Mama stepped through the wooden porch and into his courtyard. She undid her headdress and loosened her long black hair and bowed three times to the holy man, each time touching her forehead to the cold earth. Once she was done with the customary formalities, she picked up her long head scarf and her bundle of artemisia and followed Lama Ruhi across the yard, and into
another interior court enclosed on two sides by women's bedrooms and at the far end, a little chapel.
Mama piled her artemisia into the large clay burner adjacent the chapel and Lama Ruhi struck a match. When the twigs began crackling and the scented smoke rose into the sky, Lama Ruhi led Mama up some stairs and into the chapel where incense smoke perfumed the air and the tiny flames dancing in butter lamps illuminated the portraits of the Buddhas smiling with serene benevolence from the altar. Again, Mama placed her scarf on the floor and bowed, this time to the Buddhas. Lama Ruhi sat on a large red cushion and Mama respectfully knelt in front of him, joining her hands in a gesture of prayer.
"Uncle Lama, how is your health?" she asked. "How are your fields?
"And how is your family in Qiansuo?" he replied, smiling down at her. "Have you any news from your mother? And your sisters and brothers?"
"Thank you for asking, Apé, " she said. "But the horse caravan has not arrived and we have no fresh news."
"There was hail in Qiansuo this summer," he told her. "Did your family enjoy a good harvest?"
"Thank you for your concern, Apé. But I have not come because of my mother or sisters or brothers. I have not come because of the crops. I come to you because my third daughter will not stop crying. I have enough with the noise of the pigs and goats and chickens and cows. I cannot sleep at night. I am so tired. I am afraid I'm going to loose all my hair. She cries and cries. No matter what I do she will not stop.”
Mama unclasped her hands and reached under her belt for the snipping from my clothing. 'Please, Apé, help me," she pleaded as she handed him the little piece of cloth.
Lama Ruhi leaned over and took the cloth from her and brought it to his nose. He sniffed it and asked, "When was this child born?"
Mama hesitated. "She was born before the rooster crowed the third time".
"Yes, but what is her zodiacal sign?"
Mama frowned. "Perhaps it's the horse…."
Lama Ruhi laughed. "What do you mean 'perhaps'? Don't you know when your daughter was born?"
Mama lowered her eyes. "Maybe she's already two months old. With four mouths to feed and the pigs and the chickens and horses to tend and without brothers or sisters to help me, I don't even remember my own birthday!"
The old monk shook his head, and without saying a word, half-closed his eyes and began chanting from his prayer book in a deep low voice. When he had finished, he opened his eyes and gazed calmly into my mother's face. "Latso, your third daughter has a very special destiny awaiting her. To solve your problem, you must find a suitable name for her."
"But how shall I find this name?" Mama asked eagerly, at once relieved to hear that there was a solution and anxious to find it as quickly as possible. "Will you give her a name, Apé?"
"On the fifteenth day of the month, before the cock crows, you must take her to the crossroads in the center of the village and wait there. You must ask the first person you meet to give her a name. Then, her crying will cease."
Mama hurried home, brimming with new hope.
On the fifteenth day of that month, well before sunrise, Mama wrapped me tightly in a blanket and carried me to the crossroads. She spread a goat skin in the middle of the road and placed me on it.
Fortunately, I was still too sleepy to begin my daily crying, and did not hinder her as she lit the butter lamps and prepared her offerings to the gods -- a bowl of red rice, a slice of ham and a whole boiled chicken.
It was very cold that morning and when she was done with laying out the offerings, Mama began to worry that no one would dare to venture outside before the sun came up. And what if no one came at all? Would this baby cry for ever? And what would her small daughters do if they awakened and found she was gone? And what if the baby caught a cold?
She took out her prayer beads and began to chant softly.
The tinkle of a lama's bell in the nearby darkness soon answered her concerns. Mama squinted towards the dark shape moving slowly towards her along the road, and smiled. It was old Lama Gatusa. He was walking very slowly, bent over his wooden cane, his eyes fixed on the ground. He was on his way to the lake to collect water for the morning prayers.
"Apé Lama! You are so early." She called out as she bowed.
The dear old man looked at my mother prostrate on the hard cold road and at her offerings and at the whimpering child on the goat skin.
"What is the matter with this child?" he asked.
"Uncle Lama," Mama replied, raising her forehead from the ground, "this is my third daughter. She cries too much. I went to see Lama Ruhi. Apé Lama told me that today was a good day to name this child and to come to the crossroads and wait. I never imagined that my daughter's luck would be so great that the first person we would meet would be a lama. Please, Apé, could you give her a name?"
Lama Gatusa bent a little further toward the ground and reached out to my mother to invite her to stand.. Then, he asked Mama to pick me up from the goat skin so that he could examine my face.
"She is pretty as the moonlight," he said, his dark, weathered face suddenly brightened by an affectionate smile . He handed his cane to Mama and took me into his arms somewhat shakily and began to pray. When he was finished, he gave me back to Mama and said quietly, "Her name is Erche Namu." Then he leaned on his cane, and without another word resumed his slow walk towards the lake.
Mama nodded her appreciation: in our language Erche means "treasure" and Namu" means "princess." At that moment, I was both awake and quiet and she was impressed by the apparent magic of my name.
"My Treasured Princess," she repeated softly to herself, bouncing me tenderly
in her arms and holding back her own impatient steps as she took off after the old Lama.
The night was still perfectly quiet when Mama and Lama Gatusa reached the shore of Lugu Lake. But the moon was fading. The golden glow of the approaching dawn shown faintly in the darkness beyond the tall jagged mountains. We, the Mosuo, believe that the early morning lake water --before the birds drink from it -- is the purest and this is why the water is used for the prayers. Mama and Lama Gatusa had arrived just in time,
for the birds wake with the sun.
Mama hitched up her long skirt and stepped into the lake. Following the lama's instructions she dipped her right hand into the pure -- and very cold -- water of our mother lake and scooped up just enough to wash my face. She then lifted me above her head, nearer the sky, and while I screamed with all my might, she presented me to our great mother goddess, the mountain Gamu.
Her Treasured Princess thus blessed by our divine mothers, Mama went home
to prepare breakfast for her other two daughters.
Unfortunately, Lama Ruhi's prediction suffered from a delay. Finding a name for me, even such a beautiful name, did not stop my crying. In fact, it seemed that my screams became louder as the days went by and my body grew stronger from my mother's milk.
When Mama could not stand it any longer, she sometimes bundled me tightly into a goatskin blanket and placed me under the kang, the wooden platform where the family sits at night around the open fire. She then covered her ears and rushed into the courtyard and kicked at the ground and shouted at the animals. When she was done with her shouting, she paced back and forth until she felt calm enough to retrieve me from underneath the platform.
One night, when I was three or four months old and Mama had left me crying
alone under the kang, I managed to wriggle free of the goat skin and reached out to the bright embers that had fallen between the cracks from under the stove. My tiny fingers closed around a glowing coal, which immediately seared my skin and stuck to the flesh. I screamed with all the force my baby lungs allowed. Mama rushed back into the house but already my hand was horribly burned. To this day my mother's eyes fill with tears
when she sees the scar, still visible on my right hand.
My own tears, meanwhile, became legendary as word went round the neighboring villages that Mama had given birth to a daughter who was supposed to be a son and would never stop crying.
At the end of Spring, Dujema came to our house to visit. She had brought barley cookies and wanted Mama to sit with her near the fireplace and have some tea. As usual, I was crying. So while Mama placed Dujema's cookies on the ancestral altar and went to fetch the butter and the salt for the butter tea, Dujema took me in her arms and began to pace back and forth, singing to me softly and bouncing me over her shoulder.
Dujema was tall and strong and very beautiful. She had many lovers and many more sought her favors. She was Mama's best friend and they spent many hours together each day, toiling in the fields, singing and chatting. They sang to keep their spirits high and to avoid dwelling on how tired they became during the long day. Most of the time they talked about the weather and growing and tending and harvesting the crops – serious topics. But often they also savored stories of their children and the many men in their lives. And at those sweet moments laboring together under the sun they paused in their work and sighed or laughed like little girls. Or both. They were very close.
When I had at last grown quiet, Dujema sat down at the fireplace at the spot reserved for honored guests. Mama sat across from Dujema on the left hand side, where the mistress of the house customarily sits. Before pouring tea for Dujema and herself, she poured several drops over the hearth to honor the fire god Zabbala.
"Look at this loud little piggie," Dujema said holding me up in the glow of the fire -- "little piggie" was her nickname for me. "Little piggie," she commanded me, "you must stop crying!" I, of course, began crying again. Dujema took out her breast and shut me up by nursing me.
She joked with Mama, "She's not really such a bad one." Then, following a
thoughtful pause, she spoke in a more serious tone. "Latso, you are fortunate. With this Treasured Princess, you have three girls now. I have only boys -- two boys!"
Mama agreed politely, but perhaps she found it difficult to believe it was such good fortune to possess a girl who wanted to be a boy. Her Princess was truly a Troublesome Treasure.
"Without girls," Dujema continued, "who will give me grand-children? Besides, everyone knows that the wealth of a household is its women." She paused once more and sipped butter tea from her bowl.
Mother also took a sip of tea and watched me gurgling and nursing eagerly from Dujema's breast, wondering if perhaps Dujema's milk was sweeter and more nourishing than her own. Then she stared into the fire and remained silent while she thought about what she wanted to say.
"She likes you," Mama said slowly, so as not to betray her emotion.
Dujema nodded.
Mama continued in the same thoughtful tone, "You can take her if you wish."
Dujema had expected no less. She gazed down at me happily nursing at her breast. Then, she looked up at Mama and said, "I will give you Tsili in exchange for this one. He's almost one year old. He's not much trouble any more. And you know what people say, Latso. If we exchange our children, the next time you become pregnant, you will have a son for sure."
Thus Mama and Dujema agreed to exchange children -- a daughter for a son.
I, unfortunately, appeared not to like this new arrangement for I resumed crying soon after I arrived at Dujema's house. And now, I cried so hard and so long that Dujema's mother spent the night pacing the floor with her hands over her ears. I cried so loud that Mama said she could hear me through the log walls of our house all night long.
After fourteen sleepless nights, Dujema's mother concluded that a bad bargain had been struck. "Give her back!" she commanded. "If she continues like this, the whole house will break apart and fall down."
So Dujema returned me to my Mama and took back Tsili. She felt a bit guilty, however, and each afternoon, she came to our house to nurse and play with me in order to give Mama some relief.
One year later, a woman from a neighboring village came to our house looking for a daughter. She came with offerings of tea, ham, chicken, eggs and barley cookies. And she departed with me.
But this bargain was even shorter lived than the one my mother had struck with Dujema. I remained with this new family for two days. On the third day, the woman brought me back to Mama. "This little girl has a terrible temper. We've had no sleep since I brought her home. We've tried everything," she said, rubbing her red swollen eyes. "Everything, I tell you! To have no daughter at all is far better than to have a girl who will not stop crying."
And so Mama was stuck with me again.
Then, when I was nearly three years old, my Aunt Yufang appeared in our courtyard with her five your old son, Ache. They had walked all the way from grandmother's house in Qiansuo to ask Mama if she would exchange a son for a daughter.
Again Mama agreed.
A few days later, Aunt Yufang bundled me up in warm clothes and we started on the long walk back to Qiansuo. But as soon as we reached the edge of the village, I began pulling on her hand and when Aunt Yufang attempted to carry me I screamed and kicked and scratched. When we were only half a days walk from Mama's house, Aunt Yufang gave up and turned around. She returned me to my mother and swapped me for my older sister Djujelama.
After this I became known as the girl who was given away and given back three times.
Yet there was something fortuitous in this final exchange. For I was fascinated by my adopted brother, Ache, and as soon as he came to live with us, I stopped crying.
Mama had peace for the first time since I was born and within a few weeks, she slowly began to appreciate her new life.
Who knows, perhaps it was then that she truly erased from her memory the painful details surrounding my birth. In any case, she was happier now. I had become a normal child.
Well, so it seemed. For the strange thing is, after I stopped crying, I never cried again. Perhaps because I had already shed a whole lifetime of tears in my first three years.

The Boys of Summer

The Boys of Summer


Larry Engelmann

"There wasn't any limit, no boundary at all, to the future. And it would be so a man wouldn't have room to store his happiness."
John Steinbeck, East of Eden.(1952).

"I see the boys of summer in their ruin"
Dylan Thomas

On any given summer morning in the early 1950s, a resident of the small southeastern Minnesota community of Austin,(population 23,110) who stepped outside for a moment to breathe in the fresh heartland air perfumed with the familiar full pastoral aroma of acres of green lawns, hollyhocks and morning glories, wild flowers, clover and green apples, and neat rectangular patches of backyard berries and vegetables, was likely to witness an unusual and felicitous migration just getting under way. The hushed movement down the sidewalks and streets of the sleepy town was not one of any familiar migratory animals, but rather resembled something like an army -- an army of boys -- quietly breaking camp and slipping away in groups of two and three and four toward some unseen but familiar assembly area while leaving unmade beds, homes, parents and other adults behind. Nearly all of these boys were attired similarly and the loose and carefree way in which they carried themselves might make it appear they were unquestionably delighted with both the route and the goal they were pursuing early in the new day. White short sleeved tee shirts were their most common item of clothing. The trousers varied: some wore wide-wale corduroy, some denims, some nondescript cotton or gabardine of any of several hues – none of them bright or patterned in any noteworthy way except for streaks of grass stain on the knees. A few carried baseball bats slung over one shoulder. Some of them had strung baseball gloves on the bat. All wore black high-top sneakers. One in a dozen brought black spiked baseball shoes, tied together by the laces and slung over the other shoulder or around the handlebars of a bicycle. Half of the boys rode bikes and half of those carried another boy on the crossbar, handlebars or back wheel brace. The recognizable brands were Schwinn (the 24 inch Phantom was the Cadillac of bicycles at that time) , Shelby, Huffy Radio Bike, Monark, Gene Autry, Rollfast , Hopalong Cassidy, Raleigh, J.C. Higgins and Columbia. There were several local bicycle shops and a Sears outlet and a sporting goods store where these could be purchased. A rubber band around the right ankle of some of the riders held the wide leg of the trousers fast and prevented them from getting caught in the chain. Others merely rolled up the right leg of their trousers to mid calf. Some bikes had battery operated horns between the cross bars and large rear reflectors on the back fender. A few handle grips had long strips of plastic streamers that snapped in the breeze. And some had even added rear view mirrors to the handle bars. A half dozen of the boys used a clothes pin to attach a small piece of cardboard to the back wheel frame. The cardboard flapped against the turning spokes and made a sound vaguely like a two cylinder engine as they pedaled down the asphalt, tree lined streets.
One of those streets, Maple – where I lived --, and the streets just north of it, were canopied by the lush branches of large oak and maple trees. From above a viewer in an aircraft might only have seen the green leaves of the trees with no movement in the street beneath. But there was movement. The boys rode and walked as if through a gorgeous quiet and enchanted forest. All were headed in the same direction and toward the same objective. They were going to a huge grassy swatch of land six blocks long and two blocks wide known throughout the town as merely the Athletic Field.
Around the Athletic Field, ringing it and making it impossible for an automobile to drive out onto the lush grass, were hundreds of thick posts. The posts were sunk deep in the rich southern Minnesota loam. They were painted white up until about ten inches from the top where they had been painted a bright red. From the distance as well as close up they looked like a nearly endless row of matches embedded in the ground. They rose about four feet over the ground and were spaced about six fee apart, ringing the field.

On the southwest corner of the field, adjacent to two-lane Highway 16, which sliced through the town and provided the main route to nearby Albert Lea, were six fenced in tennis courts, usually entirely vacant on weekday mornings. The nets on the courts were thick wire, permanent fixtures just like the fencing enclosing the courts. And on the west side of the field, right smack in the middle of the north south access, lay the “football field.” On either side of the east and west length of the field was a white concrete bleachers, courtesy of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (WPA). Beneath the east bleachers were large storage facilities with huge padlocked wooden doors. Inside were also the dressing rooms for the home team – the Austin Packers – and for visiting teams from the local athletic league – the Big 9 conference. On Friday nights in the fall the stadium came alive and was filled with local fans. In the spring the quarter mile cinder track surrounding the field was used by the high schools track team for practice and meets. The rest of the year nothing much happened in the stadium. And, this being Minnesota, for several months each year the field and the bleachers were blanketed in ice and snow. But in the autumn and the summer, boys climbed over the tall barbed-wire topped fence to play touch football on the pampered cushioned grassy surface of the football field and to dream of someday playing in real games on that turf in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd, running up and down the field while the gray-clad band blasted out the Austin fight song and everyone cheered. But in the summer the stadium was silent. A few birds perched on the top of the covered press box at the top of the east bleachers, or searched through the grass on the field. Undisturbed.
The boys of summer gathered along the outside east wall of the stadium. A trickle soon became a sizable crowd of more than 100. Bikes were parked and leaned along the fence and the wall of the stadium. There were no locks on the bikes. Stealing a bike was not a concern or a worry or even a passing thought for these boys. The homes, people said, were never locked and people parked their cars on Main Street and surrounding streets in the towns downtown area, customarily leaving their keys in the ignition. This was not considered at all unusual.

At the southeast corner of the field, just across the street, was a small storefront soda fountain and cafe known as The Rush Inn. It was owned and operated by the Rush family – Barry Rush was one of the ball players. The store front had half a dozen red topped stools along a short counter. The specialty of the house was root beer and, best of all, root beer floats – a large glass of root beer with a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream. The Rush Inn gained its fame, among the boys of summer in Austin, because whenever any one of them hit a home run, he was given a hand written note to take to the Rush Inn. There he was rewarded for his accomplishment with a free tall icy glass of root beer.

The boys abandoned their bicycles along the fence and the white washed concrete wall of the field house and sat around or stood around talking or pacing back and forth. A few played catch. Others wrestled or pawed at each other in a pastime known as “horseplay.” They watched a car pass, now and then on the north-south running street bordering the east side of the athletic field. They knew exactly what they were looking for. Any car brought an apprehensive moment of silent. But when the first one spied the big four door two-two tan Oldsmobile roll slowly around a corner and head along the street beside the field, a shout went up. One or two voices at first and then, inevitably, a loud and enthusiastic chorus. “Ove! [Oh-Vee] Ove!” they chanted. A few broke from the others and ran toward the car as it slowed just on the other side of the white and red match stick border. “Ove! Ove! Continued. The automobile slowly rolled to a stop. The driver’s door opened and out stepped a very tall slim man, Ove Berven, the supervisor of the summer baseball program and the basketball coach of Austin High School. Ove stood somewhere around 6’5” – although to these boys, doubtless, they might have described his stature to others as about 10’ tall. He walked ramrod straight toward the field house in a slow and graceful gait. The boys whirled around him as he walked shouting his name. Some leaped into the air in enthusiasm, shouting again and again their one word hymn of praise. The others waiting by the field house stood and watched, as if some religious figure was approaching. Another individual, coming seemingly out of nowhere but probably from under the trees on the other side of the street, joined Ove. This man was also tall, perhaps as tall as Ove. But he walked with a very noticeably stoop so that his face was only a few inches above that of the boys. His eyes were open wide, his mouth hung open also. His arms hung loosely at his sides, palms back. His walk was more of a lope that was recognizable from the distance wherever he walked through the town. This man was known affectionately by Ove and by the boys as “Jerry.”
I don’t know where Jerry lived. None of us did. I knew nothing about his past. I never learned what had happened to him after I outgrew this pee wee league of baseball. Jerry Nelson was probably in his 30s. But his mind was always that of a 9 or 10 year old child. Ove treated him with the utmost deference and respect as we did in emulating Ove. Some of the boys began to shout “Jerry! Jerry!” When Ove and Jerry arrived at the field house in the midst of the tangled swirl of boys, Ove handed Jerry the keys to the big double doored storage facility in one section of the Stadium. The doors swung open wide. Inside were bats and bags of baseballs along with several sets of equipment for the catchers. The boys huddled outside the door and Ove and Jerry went inside and then handed out the equipment. In the darkness inside they could see where the tackling dummies from the approaching high school football season were stored along with several dozen red and white football helmets piled in a corner. Ove and Jerry also distributed several clip boards with official scoring sheets attached to them. A stubby yellow pencil went also with each board. Players were handed small plastic “clickers” that showed strikes, balls and outs. These were to be held by the umpire as a reminder in teach of the games that was played. As they boys scooped up their equipment many broke and began running for one of the 8 diamonds that had been laid out from one end of the athletic field to the other. Ove and Jerry also threw out bases – large padded sacks – to be used in each of the games.
At the start of the pee wee season these boys had been broken up into teams – picked partially by Ove and partially from among each other. The teams were supposed to be balanced by talent. Each was given the name of a major league team at the time. But there were no uniforms. Not even caps from the major leagues. And midway through the season all the teams were dissolved and then reorganized. There was to be no real season championship and no season-long triumph by one small group. These games were to be played day after day with one goal in mind – the love of the game itself. Not of winning or of losing. But merely of playing. Truly in this organization it did not matter if you won or lost but only that you played the game and had fun doing it. I cannot now remember how many games were won or lost by my own teams. What overwhelms me mostly after all these years is the sense of unfettered and unbounded joy of those mornings. Being with other boys, waiting for Ove, running for our selected diamond. Playing the game. What happiness! What utter delight! What boundless and unrestrained jubilation it produced.
Not all of the boys brought gloves. But that was no problem. Whenever one team left the field and another ran out, those in the field usually just dropped their gloves near where they were standing for someone else to use. A center fielder or first basemen might, then, use his own glove or use the one he found nearby. Whichever felt best. The important thing, it went without saying, was that everyone be given the chance to play his best and a fielder with a bad glove could skew things the wrong way. Every opportunity was given every player.
Umpires were chosen from the side at bat. One of your own team mates, in other words, stood behind the pitcher– nobody stood behind the catcher or the backstop when the Pee Wee league played, and called strikes and balls. Every effort was made to do it fairly. And if someone proved to be bad at making calls he was simply booed down and came to the sidelines while someone else took his place. As with the gloves, nobody wanted to win or lose a game from bad calls, so every effort was made to make the calls as accurately as possible. Often strikes and balls were protested and settled by an argument. The same was true of stolen bases. There were no threats, just groans and boos and cheers. When Ove, at some nearby diamond, heard a difference of opinion being expressed, he either hurried to the place where it was taking place or sent Jerry in his place. After listening for a few moment and trying to let the boys themselves decide the issue, he’d decide or Jerry would decide and the game continued. Jerry went from diamond to diamond and if he didn’t think the umpire was doing a good job he’d take the position for a few innings before tossing his clicker to someone else and moving on to another game.
Honesty was always unquestioned. That is what made the game fun. And Ove had another firm rule, besides the effort to be honest. Everyone had to play. No matter how many players on each team showed up everyone had to play and everyone had to bat in the proper rotation. So if a team had eight players they played with eight. Tough luck. But if a team had 15 players they played with all fifteen. To make this accommodation, Ove created new positions. Nobody disagreed with his wisdom on this matter.
Since most boys batted right hand, right field was the least desirable position and those who were lazy or who could not catch a fly or who needed more experience were usually consigned to far right field where they fended off utter boredom for a few hours. Most of their excitement came from throws to first base that went too high or too wide. Rarely were the boys in right field called upon to field an actual hit. But they were an important back up for every single throw to first base by other players.
The umpiring, although doubtlessly honest, was anything but consistent. The strike zone on any particular morning might be as large or as small as those playing the field and those crowding behind the tall wood and wire backstop might reasonably agree upon. It also was dependent upon the stature, record and needs of the batter. And upon the score. As one team fell further and further behind in score, the strike zone grew. Sometimes it was as big as a garage door. A pitch that went 12 inches over the head of a batter or that hit the plate in front of him might unashamedly be called a strike. A pitch three feet on the far side of the plate might be a strike or one that, in one case, went behind the batter. The explanation of such a call as that, “You coulda hit it. Easily.” Protests sometimes got the call reversed or in rare cases the umpire might plead that he wasn’t watching closely and the pitch would be done again one more time.
As a consequence of this unpredictability, scores tended not to become embarrassingly one-sided by the end of a game. If a pitcher were throwing a particularly good game, the strike zone narrowed and narrowed until finally it was only an inch square several inches from the hips of the batter. A pitcher had to stop concentrating on getting a batter out and working on merely catching a corner of the strike zone or upon calling for a new umpire.
My dear friend Ron Anhorn told me he remembered one morning retiring 21 batters in a row. At the end of the day Ove gave him the score card and he still has it some place tucked away in a corner of a closet in his home in Colorado. I cannot remember that accomplishment. I do however, remember one particular morning when a team using a series of pitchers walked 24 batters in a row and ran up a 0-21 deficit in the first inning. Jerry and Ove, hearing the shouts and howls of protest came to stand behind the backstop and watch the melodrama unfold. Several umpires were called and then dismissed. Even Jerry went out to stand behind the pitcher. The poor team seemed incapable of getting the ball anywhere near the plate until bases were loaded and the score was 21 to nothing. Ove seemed less concerned about the score than about the length of the game. Finally he allowed pitchers on the opposing team to stand two or three feet closer to the batter. They aimed their pitches like a man thrown darts at a board and sure enough soon got them in the vicinity of the strike zone and the batters started in their overconfidence to swing wildly and miss. I do not recall who the first batter was to strike out after his team scored 21 runs in a row. I hope it was not me. But it might well have been. On the other hand the fact that I cannot remember means that there was not much of a stigma attached to it. Everything was in fun. Absolute total and unrestrained fun. I recalled that morning as one batter after another advanced to first base falling down laughing along the third base line and tears of happiness and silliness streaming down my face. The scent of the rich new-mowed grass filling the air, huge cumulus clouds overhead and boys laughing and screaming and running around having what surely was the time of their lives.
Getting on base was not merely a function of calling strikes and balls. Pitchers in the Pee Wee league were notoriously wild in flinging the ball toward home plate. Each player could look forward each day to being beaned several times. In fact, when the game was in the late innings and a batter did not have a formidable record that morning he could certainly look forward to his team mates crying from behind the backstop, “Come on, get in there and get hit. Crowd the plate. Lean over it. Shut your eyes.”
I cannot remember how many times I was hit by a pitcher. I can only say with complete confidence that it was many many times. At least once a game. At least.
The batter stepped up to the plate several times each morning. Everyone tended to use the same bat even thought a few of the boys brought Louisville Sluggers from home with the handles carefully taped. The pitcher looked over the new hitter and took his windup. Despite all of the choreography of older players, everyone seemed to realized that the pitcher was concentrating on getting the ball roughly across the plate and into an area that the umpire might call a strike. I was hit in both knees, the arms, the hands, the foot, the chest, the gut and many many times in the head.
The pitcher’s wind up – even that of Ron Anhorn (come to think of it, especially that of Ron Anhorn) was as much a warning to the batter as a threat. Teammates begged and advised me not to step out of the batter’s box to avoid getting hit. Come on Engelmann, get in there and get hit, was a common bit of cheap advice. And it was not only given to me but to any batter in a critical part of a game. If one dodged a pitch or stepped out of the way it was usually met by a chorus of groans – the batter had just avoided a sure place on base.
I recalled a couple of times – in those pre helmet days – being struck in the temple, the neck, the cheek and the forehead. These left raised swellings usually the size of half a golf ball that disappeared in a day or two. Twice I turned away and was hit in the back of the head, the ball bounced over the backstop with the catcher madly scrambling after it. I have no idea what the rule is for a ball that bounces off a batters head and is caught in flight by the catcher. I remember a pitcher grimacing as I turned back to him after being struck and then limped my way to first base. I am still today amazed and impressed by the absence of tempers. Nobody lost his temper. Hitting a batter was accidental, always, and everyone knew it. The pitcher would far rather strike out a batter than strike him. Yet many times each of us was asked to “take one for the team” by standing stoically as we watched a fast ball bear down on us for the inevitable and stinging conclusion.
Because everyone had to play and to bat – that was the Ove rule – Ove created many new positions not heard of before or since that time in baseball. And I personally played some of those positions. If a team had say 15 players show up one morning, Ove usually began placing players at the short stop position. A team might have two or three or four short stops. These were labeled by the nearness to a base. Therefore, third short short, third short, short, second short, second short short. There were times when the infield, I recall, was pretty crowded with players, all eager to snatch the ball. He then moved to the outfield. Between left field and right field there might be three or four players – left left, left, left center, left center center, center and then moving to the right.
In at least a half dozen instances I remember two pitchers on the mount taking turns, one standing hands at side while the other tried to throw a strike. Of course the umpire was behind the Mound and sometimes Jerry was there with him. So also the mound was crowded.
But the crowds on the field, which meant a lot of fun for everyone and a virtual stampede between innings as players left or took the field, in no way guaranteed that getting a hit was rare or difficult.
Year’s after I had given up a nonpromising career in baseball I watched a genuine rarity in the major leagues on TV. Jose Canseco was standing in right field for the A’s when a fly ball hit him on the head and bounced into the stands for a home run.
This was shown again and again on television, right down to the present day, much to the consternation of Canseco who may have been thinking about his salary, his car, or his steroids at that time. It is still funny to watch.
But I had witnessed such scenes in Pee Week league a hundred times. Any time a ball was launched by a batter into the outfield, any number of things could happen and the least likely was that someone would catch it for an out. I remember the stunned silence on the field, indeed, even on nearby diamonds, when that familiar crack of hickory hitting horsehide bolted through the air. It was a rare occasion and everyone paused to watch. The ball rose into the sky. Players on the sidelines stood and shielded their eyes to watch. Cars passing up and down nearby highway 16 might slow to see what happened. There were a dozen shouts of “I’ve got it, I’ve got it” as players ran every which way in the infield and outfield. If someone snagged it in before it hit the ground there were loud groans and cries, shouts of utter astonishment, yells of praise. Ove or Jerry rushed over to congratulate the boy who caught the ball and to praise him lavishly.
But catching the ball was a rare event. I’ve seen and laughed at everything that happened in the outfield. Players ran into each other like the Three Stooges times three. They tripped each other up, fell down, got up, pointed, yelled, used their glove to block out the sun and try to find the elusive white ball. Players running in opposite directions collided and fell to the ground. Desperate players flung their gloves high into the air to try to stop the ball – I have no idea what the rule was or is on a glove without a player catching a ball 20 feet in the air. I think I saw it happen one time. The boy threw up his glove, the ball went into the webbing and fell back down, but he dropped the glove. It was a hit.
And I’ve seen the ball bounce off the shoulders or the head of an outfielder and continue on its way. In one game I remember the ball, as if it was inside a pinball machine, strike three different heads and bouncing up after each one, only in the end to be caught by a nearby fielder, amidst the cries and laughter of the both teams. The surprised fielder – dumbfounded really – finding the ball suddenly and almost magically in his glove, took it out and threw it 20 feet over the head of the third baseman and into an open nearby field. Runners tagged up and the bases emptied.
How glorious our games were in those days. How full of praise and admiration Ove and Jerry were for us all. How full of admiration and love we all were for each other. How much fun we had at the end of the morning, pulling up our bikes and heading home. How exhausted. And how utterly brimming with happiness. We knew we were the luckiest boys on the face of the Earth. We really were.
I cannot remember a serious injury in Pee Wee baseball. I do not even recall a bruised ego. Everyone was good. Everyone was bad on any given day. And we realized the teams would be dissolved and reorganized mid season and we’d start all over again so who cared if you were on a winless team half the summer or an undefeated one. We tasted equally victory and defeat and the lesson was sweet.
Today, the one thing that stands out from those days is not the lack of uniforms or spikes or gloves or balls or bats. It was the absence of parents or older boys. There were never any family members along the sidelines. There was never any pressure. Ove and Jerry were the only adults around. We were alone in our own world with each other and with Ove and Jerry.
Now when I pass an athletic field or park where boys or girls baseball is being played and I see the sidelines and bleachers crowded with parents, some with ice chests or elaborate folding chairs, cheering their children on, the children all in uniform, a uniformed umpire, uniformed coaches pacing up and down the baselines, I feel only sad for the boys. They will never know, I am sure, the joy, the pure unpressured joy, that my friends and team mates and compatriots and I felt as children playing a game for the fun of it all.
When the ball game was over at the athletic field, and a lucky few ran to the Rush Inn for their root beer, the rest of us returned home. My favorite lunch at that time – which we called “dinner” along with "supper" at night and breakfast in the morning, was peanut butter on home made bread.
About 1PM I usually got on my bicycle and pedaled to the “public swimming pool” at the north end of Main street, beside the Red Cedar River and a small structure called “the Clay House” where kids could work with clay with teachers during the afternoon if they wished.
“Free time” at the swimming pool was 1:30 to 3:15. Once an hour there was a “rest period” of ten minutes. AT that time children pulled themselves up on the side of the pool and lay on the hot concrete while the life guards circled the pool looking for any foreign objects -- pebbles or pieces of tar from the caulking used in the concrete around the pool -- in the bottom. There was a roped off area with two diving boards. The rest of the huge pool was marked off in lanes or areas for merely splashing around. Inside the dressing room, I remember, we got a basket to put our clothing in and then an identification pin we attached to our swimming suit. We had to run through a hallway that had a chemically treated water in pans on the floor and cold water showers that cleaned us off before we entered the pool. There was also a concession stand, managed by my grandmother, that sold paper cups of Coke and other drinks and paper bags of popcorn. Swimmers could only eat in the area beside the concession stand.
At 3:15 pm we had to exit the pool and 15 minutes later “pay time” began. There was a dinner break for the life guards and the pool then opened at night also for paying customers. The pay, if I remember, was 10 cents. But money was much more scarce in those days and as a boy I don’t remember every going to the pool during pay time.
In the evening in the summers of the early 1950s, there was a man with a large telescope who set up his own concession on the corner of Main Street just outside the Austin State Bank. We called him Elmer the Moon Man. Elmer called out as the light was fading, “See the Mountains and the Craters on the Moo hoon.” I think he charged two or three cents for a look through his telescope.
To this day I remember the time my dad paid Elmer and I looked in the end of his telescope. I was stunned. I straightened up to make sure he wasn’t putting a photograph over the end of it. The moon was brilliant and beautiful and was as close, suddenly, as the other end of main street. I’d seen so many science fiction thrillers at the Austin or State or Paramount Theaters, had seen the stage mockups of the moon and stars, but had never in my life seen anything like this. What a thrill! What dreams Elmer inspired. He was gone by October, 1957, when the Soviet put Sputnik 1 into orbit and the demystification of space began. Elmer was truly a guide at that time, to the future, to the stars. For 3 cents a boy or girl could glimpse the future.
Our activities were limited in the early 1950s – that of all boys and girls around the United States and the world, because of the epidemic of polio. Nobody knew what caused it. But everyone seemed to know it was contagious and often fatal. Between 1952 and 1954, when Pee Wee baseball was in it’s prime, well over 100,000 cases were reported each year. And this was a children’s disease usually, without regard to income or race or class, it struck down countless youngsters. As a result we avoided movie theaters, where the air was not as fresh and clean as it was in outdoor activities. But also usually in August we were restricted in our use of the swimming pool. The long period of fear came to an end in 1955 when Dr. Jonas Salk announced the discovery of a vaccine that could prevent the disease. The world, for my generation, was divided between 1955 and after, the years of fear and the years free from fear from that awful affliction.
But after the polio panic passed, every August we swam, went to the matinees at the theaters on Saturday afternoons to watch our favorite serials, and inevitably went “up north” fishing for a week with the entire family. My cousin, Bobby Doty, who lived next door to me, spent much of his time during the last month of every summer, sitting on the curb of Oakland Avenue, which turned into highway 16 at the west end of town, counting and calling out the states on the license plates of cars from faraway places as they passed through the town. New York, New Jersey, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah were particularly rare and valued sightings. Staring at the passengers of those automobiles -- especially at the children whose faces were pressed up against the side windows looking out at us -- was not unlike staring at the crew of some extra-terrestrial space ship that suddenly and inexplicably swooped down for just a moment near the rich dark earth of southern Minnesota to see how the earthlings lived. The children looked at us. We looked back at them. Our eyes met. And the moment passed. We almost expected one of them to fling a message in a bottle out the window or to hold up a sign asking for help. But that didn't happen. We remained strangers to each other, inhabitants of the same country but of vastly different worlds. If anyone had told me as I sat next to my cousin shouting out the names of distant states on license plates that Bobby Doty would, within a few years of graduating from Austin High School, join the US Air Force and fly missions over distant Vietnam, I would have told them that it was more likely that he would become the first man to set foot on Mars. I had never heard the word "Vietnam" and I surely had no idea that Vietnam might be closer than Mars. And neither did Bobby Doty or any of the other boys of summer. In the fullness of time, however, we all discovered that it was much much closer. Too close.

Sometimes, however, the passing strangers stopped. Nearly everyone who lived in Austin in the early 1950s can tell you about the day when William Boyd -- better known as Hopalong Cassidy -- drove into town and stopped long enough to enjoy a hamburger and a Coca Cola at a local fast-food cafe. Boyd, it was later said, was receiving medical treatment at the Mayo Clinic in nearby Rochester, Minnesota, and came through Austin on his return home to California. He was mobbed by local fans. Everyone in town -- adults and children alike, it seemed -- wanted to see him and touch him and shout, "Hi Hoppy!" and "How's Topper?" to him. It was a glorious moment in the town's history. But, as someone pointed out a few days after Boyd's visit, "Even with his boots on, he wasn't quite as tall as Ove Berven."

Downtown, if one waited long enough in the early 1950s, one might see the film star Leslie Caron, who had married Geordie Hormel and lived part of each year at the Hormel estate just outside town. Caron married Hormel in 1951 and divorced him in 1954, the year after she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Lili. Hormel went on to compose music for several television shows and to sing back up on a Frank Zappa album.

Bill “Moose” Skowron could be seen playing first base for the Austin Packers in those years before he was called up to the Yankees to become a legendary player, hitting 211 home runs in 14 major league seasons and playing in seven world series. Skowron was discovered by the Packers' manager who saw him playing football for Purdue University against the University of Minnesota, spoke to him, learned of his interest in baseball and studied his statistics, and offered him a contract to play in Austin. During the off season Skowron worked at the Hormel plant. Skowron, who was given the nickname Moose by his father who insisted he looked like Benito Mussolini, married a local girl, Virginia Hulquist.

The years raced by. Soon my time in Pee Wee League came to an end. I never went on to play American Legion baseball with the more gifted players. The problem, not merely for me but for most of the boys, was not lack of desire or effort but rather it was a common flaw we shared with Michael Jordan -- the inability to hit a curve ball. Once a few of the boys were big enough and strong enough to throw a good curve, Ove Berven did not need to tell us that despite our dreams, very few of us had a future in the major leagues [two of us, Daryl Richardson and Clayton Reed, however, actually did.] It was the voice of reason and of destiny I heard one morning after taking three very enthusiastic and unsuccessful swings at three successive curve balls and coming up with nothing but air. As I walked away from the plate I think I heard the catcher say to the pitcher, "that guy couldn't hit a curve ball with an ironing board." And he was right. I never even turned around to glare at him. It was no use and I knew it. It was the curve ball, primarily, that separated the boys from the young men. And the change up and the slider and the screwball merely made the separation wider and permanent. And so more and more I swam in the summers, and watched the younger boys playing as I rode my bicycle past the athletic field. One generation followed another. I cheered for Ove Berven’s basketball teams as they repeatedly won Big 9 and Region One titles and went to the state basketball tournament. All of the boys went their separate ways. Elmer the Moon Man suddenly stopped showing up in the late 1950s. I don’t know what happened to Jerry. He just wasn’t there any more one summer.

I can truly say I have never had as much carefree and guiltless fun as I did during those mornings playing baseball with the other boys of summer in Austin, Minnesota. We watched each other get older over the years, went on to live our lives, experienced just about all the good and the bad that life has to offer. I think only with the passage of years did we come to recognize what a time we’d had and how very special those summers had been. We had not yet experienced what the rest of the world might throw our way. We were blissfully unburdened with the weight and the weariness of the world. The world and its burdens, nonetheless, waited impatiently for us to grow older in order to test our ideals and illusions. But on those long summer mornings we were still all innocence and trust and hope and love. We were nearly pure possibility. We were not yet dreamers because we were still the dream. But we didn't know it. And because we didn't know it, we didn't know how to express it. As one of the boys asked me recently, "How can you ever begin to explain the taste of fresh blueberries to someone who has never tasted a blueberry?" How could any of us ever express our boyhood happiness to others who had never experienced such happiness? Never again would we be so free and happy merely to be ourselves and to be with each other and to laugh at our peculiar awkwardness and our little unimportant fumblings and shout encouragement to each other -- to tell those who fell to get up and keep running and to tell those who struck out one day to keep their eye on the ball and to try harder tomorrow-- and to cry only tears of pure delight.

Ron Anhorn probably spoke the truth for all of us when he summed up Ove Berven and those baseball summers. I told him I was going to write this piece when I talked to him a few weeks ago. He told me during our conversation, “You know, I really loved that man.” I was not surprised by his words. We all loved him. And I like to think that he knew that, too, in his heart, every morning as he pulled up on the eastern edge of the Athletic Field and heard the boys of summer start their happy chant, Ove! Ove! Ove!