“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”
Boxcar to Manhood
by Toianna Gump
Consciously, I had not thought about Rudyard Kipling since my Dad died, years ago. But If reminds me about the difficulty in remembering Dad without thinking about Kipling or about Kipling without Dad, whose chief aspiration I remember as acquiring the emotional detachment Kipling implies is vital to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”
My father’s Achilles heel was the struggle to keep a lid on his boiling kettle of emotions and, as an older man, trying to outrun his unhappy childhood.
As I reread If, I could hear my father’s gravelly voice from too many cigarettes and too much booze. I could hear his inflection and theatrics the many times throughout my childhood he recited Gunga Din. Easily twice a month.
I was astonished to find that the poem If resonated significantly more with me than Gunga Din. If leaps out of my bloodstream and onto the written page, rather than the other way around.
Looking back, I realize that I failed to make the connection between mental calisthenics my father practiced obsessively and wisdom Kipling’s work embodies, ideals Dad hoped to impart to me, especially those in If, the piece I realize he recited most and that I associate with my father’s own voice.
I see how Dad was drawn to the grit and manly character Kipling implies throughout his works, including the first few lines of If, integral parts in the journey from boyhood to “true manhood.”
Dad was a thinker, a drunk, a pot head, and probably the smartest, most well-read person I have ever known personally. By “smart,” I don’t mean the spewing and regurgitation back of what others have taught. Dad did not fear facing disagreement and lack of popularity. He took brutish delight in rubbing two sticks together and creating sparks to get to the Truth.
When conversation became too agreeable, he played devil’s advocate, oftentimes defending points of view contrary to his own. Anything to get a rise out of people, elevate blood pressure, inspire a debate, and make everyone rethink his position on a given issue.
I remember him forcing me and Mom to keep him company, sometimes all night, to listen to his childhood stories about growing up during the Great Depression, being the only redhead in a “litter” of five boys, his Irish mother having died when he was six, and his being the only one of the boys to be sent away to live on a farm with an aunt and uncle.
He seemed to have spent most of his life feeling unloved, unwanted, and different.
Dad thought of himself as a kind of fun-loving, adventurous Huckleberry Finn, open to traveling on a raft in the flow of things. He told me and Mom that he started smoking cigars at six years old and lay flat on railroad tracks so trains could go over him. By his early teens, he ran away from the farm by hopping boxcars headed anywhere. He joined the merchant Marines and was able to see the world.
He scoffed at being regarded as uncouth and related to Huck’s distrust of morals, as dictated by “civilized” society. He was regarded as an outcast, and, like Huck, preferred hell over “following nonsensical, conventional rules” that powers that be dictated just because.
Strangely, Dad was not only popular, but many younger men regarded him as a kind of guru, which made Dad believe they were fools.
When asked for his opinion, Dad’s response was almost always Socratic, non-committal, and had an air of bemused detachment.
He turned every talk we ever had into a debate and forced me to correct any grammatical mistakes I ever made before listening to anything I had to say. He told me he automatically removed fifty points from my IQ and credibility for being Christian and another fifty for being Catholic.
He did not care much for my referring to his atheistic stance as religion. Touché.
The closest Dad and I came to discussing the fine point of Kipling’s religious stance was through the orphan Kim and Kim’s trip down the road with the Tibetan lama to find the sacred river and spiritual enlightenment.
I can hear my father giving a similar answer as Kipling about his religious beliefs. “I am a God-fearing Christian atheist.” Likewise, when cornered about his particular religion, I can hear him say, “All sensible men are of the same religion, but no sensible man ever tells.”
Some readers respond to Kipling’s quips with, “whatever that means.” I say a loud “Amen!” to both of Kipling’s sentiments regarding his religious stance.
Although I would certainly not try to speak on behalf of Kipling, I do feel confident about understanding my father’s interpretation. Fiendish smile on his ruddy, freckled face and in his icy-blue eyes, my Dad would delve into questioning the oxymoron in the phrase “God-fearing Christian,” as God supposedly represents love, the polar opposite of fear. Or so I remember Dad and I having concluded.
Dad and I pushed further and discussed what led people to believe they needed to fear God. Of course, the answer is, as Karl Marx said, that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” My father and I discussed how power mongers manipulate people through their emotions and their sense of what is right.
I would bet money that my father would have said he was a “Christian atheist” just to jar the person asking his religion and to set a fire under his feet, so the person’s complacency was shaken and he was forced to jump around and think.
Dad did not allow disgruntlement of others about his views to make him bitter. He prescribed to church of religious science minister Terry Cole-Whittaker’s “what you think of me is none of my business.”
Dad asked everyone he encountered about the meaning of life. He dragged drunks home from bar stools, and they stayed with us sometimes for a few months. But, like many brilliant people, Dad became bored, impatient, and disillusioned with apathy, clichés and platitudes he received in response.
He described the majority of people whose paths he crossed as clucky, conventional, Puritanical types, resembling characters out of Vanity Fair and The Importance of Being Earnest. Shallow, self-righteous, and hypocritical.
People squirmed uncomfortably or outright ran from interpretations Dad pulled out about the meaning of ethics, sex, politics, religion, and any other subject that would get a rise or start controversy.
My father practiced his own brand of decency, like a moral code among criminals. He reminded me constantly that the worst breach of integrity for me would be to violate my own code of ethics.
My father did suffer from something akin to hubris, which Kipling warns against. “Don’t look too good nor talk too wise,” which, in my mind, created Dad’s greatest stumbling block in attaining ideal character. If a person did not get that my Dad was brilliant, he would hit them between the eyes by announcing he was so smart that it sometimes scared him.
Although he liked to believe that he was not attached to triumph or defeat, I remember Dad expecting triumph and clinging hard, as do I.
My husband thought Dad’s sinister voice was reminiscent of actor Peter Lorre and compares Dad’s character most to William Burroughs.
I think more of a cross between young Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when he was in good humor and an older, more cerebral Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs when he was angry.
Kipling and Twain admired each other enormously and became friends. Many parallels can be traced between their actual lives and the male characters they created—Kim traveling on a road and Huck traveling down the river. “Kim and Huck are alike in ‘trying to evade the clamp of civilization,'” notes American literary and social critic, Irving Howe.
Whether travel involves floating down the river like Huck, walking down a road to find the sacred river like Kim, or hopping a boxcar like my Dad, the struggle along the way is maintaining detachment from worldly items, emotions and actions in order to attain Enlightenment.
Most recently, I discovered George Orwell’s 1984, which led me to become a devout Orwellian, and interestingly, once I scanned If for the first time in decades, I happened upon Orwell’s critique of Kipling, in which Orwell describes Kipling as having “a definite strain of sadism in him, over and above the brutality which a writer of that type has to have. Kipling is a jingo imperialist; he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.”
That Kipling was not regarded as highly as Twain probably outraged my Dad, who would write it off as politics.
Regarding Orwell’s assessment of Kipling, I can hear my father’s dark cackle.