April 12, 2016

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Poetry Postcard 33: Eagle Father

It’s one of my father’s favorite stories. I was sixteen years old, a junior in high school. The guy I’d dated all through tenth grade was a jerk, according to my dad. But that was over.

Then, in late October, I met an older man. He was seventeen and went to a different high school. He had wavy brown hair and was a great listener. And he had something else going for him.

“Dad,” I reportedly said. “I found you an Eagle Scout.” Rob and I are still together after 27 years.
Many Eagle Scouts are returning their badges and ribbons
in protest of BSA's stance on homosexuality.

Scouting was always a part of my family. My brothers and I grew up hearing Dad’s Boy Scout Camp stories. Our lullabies were camp fire songs. When my brothers were Cub Scouts, my mom was a den mother. My father was Scout Master for the troop.

After a while, my brothers dropped out. Dad traveled a lot, so someone else headed up the troop. But I saw a tear in his eye when Dad came with me to Rob’s Eagle ceremony.

Postcard 33 (read about the poetry postcard project here) was a gift from my friend Cynthia Kalodner. It reminded me of my father’s love for his scouting days. The poem is both a portrait of and a tribute to him.

Headdress, 1955

My father sat in the tenement
sewing an Indian headdress --
city boy, Bronx kid,
beads and eagle feathers
in his lap. Did he earn
the right to wear it?
Fourteen years old,
dressed as chief
for Order of the Arrow.
It was summer,
Boy Scout camp,
woods and lake.

When an eagle feather falls
from a dancer’s headdress,
the dance must stop,
the feather returned.

A trail of feathers on his back,
trail of fathers in tenements
and ships crossing from France,
Romania, Russia,
from pogroms and shtetls.
He keeps it hidden
in his fine house.
The feathers wither.
Bless you, bless you
Eagle Father.

Laura Shovan

My father read the poem and sent me this photograph of him in the headdress. He’s about fourteen years old.
Photo: Guess who this is?  Love your poem, Laura.
My father at Camp Ranachqua, New York, in the 1950s.
It's still a Boy Scout camp today.

The weird thing that happened with this poem: I had intended the second stanza to open, “A trail of feathers on his back,/ trail of feathers…” The word “fathers” was a typo. I didn’t notice it until I began working on a second draft.

I was about to correct the word. Hovered over it with my mouse ready to add that letter “e.” But I kind of liked that happy accident. And, as I revised, that one word took me in a direction I hadn’t expected, to my father’s immigrant roots via Europe.

Trust the happy accident.

Photo: This is being posted for Laura Shovan.  Can you guess who this is?
Photo of the headdress at the museum.
A second life for the headdress! Dad donated it
to the Ten Mile Scout Museum, where it is on display.

Postcard Information:

THE CIRCLE. In all Indian cultures you will find the circle image. Over and over again. You find it in the dances, in the art and in the shape of the lodgings. But more than that, the circle is the basis of American Indian beliefs. That everything is connected to everything else. All people and nature and the Maker and no matter where you go and who you become you are still part of it all. And that cannot be ignored. Never.

This is just one of the m any beliefs that are kept alive by the 26 tribal colleges. Help save a culture that could save ours. Support the American Indian College Fund. Send donations to the American Indian College Fund, 217 East 85th St., Suite 201P, NY, NY 10028.

Photograph of Lakota staff donated by Vincent Joliet.

I have mixed feelings about the BSA's adaption of Native American clothing like the headdress for its own purposes. But this was the 1950s and in my father's urban boyhood, scout camp's "Indian" pageants were as Romantic as a poem by Wordsworth. (An informational article about the early BSA's co-opting of Native American culture is here.)

"After the fact" facts: I learned from my father

1. his father (an immigrant from France) did most of the work on the headdress -- Dad and I both agreed that it was better not to correct this in the poem;
2. each borough of New York City had its own Boy Scout Camp at Bear Mountain, New York;
3. in addition to the headdress, Dad donated some funds to the Boy Scout museum for the display (he's a good guy).

Here is a video about the history of the Ten Mile River Camp.


Linda B said...

I know there is lots of controversy about the Scouts today & I too have mixed feelings, Laura. I wish everyone could just be kind and just to one another. My husband & son were/are very involved in Scouting & as I told you before, my husband grew up in a Missouri tradition begun by someone in Kansas City called the Mic-O-Say tribe. It appears very important to those who participated, just as your father was a leader in Order of the Arrow. Scouts gave my son many opportunities for leadership along with those in high school & for that I am grateful. Your poem is lovely & I imagine your father loves it very much. I like that feather/father 'slip'-interesting how that works, isn't it? That you tied the headdress to those who came before is a tribute to your father, carrying on the fatherhood from the past. I always love the connections! Thanks for all your steadfast work in your project. It's been a pleasure!

Tabatha said...

I love that photo of your dad. The expression on his face! The typo is wonderful -- thanks for sharing that glimpse into your poetic serendipity.