Entry 100: Dumb– How dumb can you get?! Question mark; exclamation point. Hands up all those who have never had this accusation, or some synonymous hoot, levelled at them. Oh…Kay… can you just shift over to the liars’ corner- now, please?
1959, Aruba, Netherlands Antilles. It was not long after my tenth birthday and I had just returned from my best friend, Rusty’s, “Christmas party” (air-quotes, here). His Dad was a raging atheist and had flushed his Mom’s Bible, page by page, down the toilet, not so long before, Rusty confided. So she had to have a party that had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, but she still wanted to have some sort of commemoration, being a woman of faith, however brow-beaten, and possibly beaten in other ways, too. So she devised a gift-sharing party for her son in mid-December which coincided with his birthday.
We all brought gifts, bought and wrapped by our mothers, of course, and we placed then in a large wicker basket in the centre of the lounge room. We had cake and snacks and we played silly games, as kids do on such occasions. Then came the gift exchange. There was a musical chairs sort of game where, when the music stopped, the standing child was able to choose a gift from the basket. The music was traditional Christmas carols.
The only rule was: you couldn’t choose your own gift. Sorry, there was another rule- you could exchange gifts with another child if you hated your gift and the swap was agreeable. My gift was a quality thermos flask. I hated it on sight. An older child, whose name I will supress to protect the guilty, suggested a swap with his gift- a plastic ray-gun that made a snazzy sound and had sparks. Of course, I made the swap!
When I reported the exchange to my father, he responded in words similar to those at the top of this journal entry. My Dad was tough, and he had respect among the hard men, Rusty’s Dad included, on that enchanted desert island. But I loved that space-gun for the two days that it worked. And, do you know, even at this remove in time of over half a century, I do not regret the choice I made on that hot, tropical afternoon. Two days of pretend wars in space! How could a thermos flask compare?
But, through the years, I still remember Rusty’s, mother, and I wonder how things turned out for her, that subversive believer who delivered to me a ray-gun that sparked my imagination for two whole days. As you can imagine, I remained mute in the face of my father’s scorn at my ill-advised deal with the older boy. Of course, he was only trying to toughen me up for the real world, of which he knew a great deal. I’ll dedicate the remainder of the content of this entry to the courage of the woman who defied her husband to bring to kids like me the joys of sharing gifts.
I’ll start OT. There is some ambiguity as to whether the prophet, Ezekiel, was struck dumb or if he just held his tongue for several years by the rivers of Babylon. Whatever the case, no one suggested that he was stupid. There can be no doubt, though, if you choose to accept the testimony of Luke 1: 18-22, that Zacharias, priestly husband of Elizabeth and father of John the Baptist, choosing to disbelieve the tidings of the archangel Gabriel, was, in fact, struck dumb from the moment of doubt through the duration of his wife’s pregnancy and was not released from his mute state until he had written on a wax tablet, at the ceremony of circumcision of his son, that his name was to be John, as mandated by the archangel and not Zacharias, as custom dictated.
Now, although it is never advisable to bandy words with an archangel, no one suggested a lack of intelligence on the part of Zacharias. So where do you stand? Does dumb mean mute or stupid? Acres of pedantic tedium could scarcely contain the volume of material generated by this dispute. Just accept both as being OK. Dictionaries will give first position to the former while common usage will favour the latter. Me? Oh, I’ll go to the poets, every time. Report for duty now please, Robert Graves,
Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,/How hot the scent is of the summer rose,/How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,/How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by. Robert Graves knew about childhood and he tells us of the cool web of language and how we are trapped in its sticky essence as we grow older:
…we have speech, to chill the angry day,/And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent./We spell away the overhanging night,/We spell away the soldiers and the fright.
Yes we do, and I thank the poet for reminding me that the awkward butterfly has, a just sense of how not to fly:/He lurches here and here by guess/And God and hope and hopelessness./Even the aerobatic swift/Has not his flying-crooked gift. Another of God’s dumb creatures.