County Fairs: Seen (2012)

Posted by jdg | Saturday, August 25, 2012


 Make sure you get to one before they're gone.

 Previously: County Fair: Seen (2011); County Fair Seen: (2010)

The Littlest Centurion

Posted by jdg | Monday, August 13, 2012 |

So there was this guy in ancient Rome called Germanicus. He had a bunch of other names too but if we get into that we'll have to try to wrap our head around how nearly every potential successor to Augustus was somehow the nephew of the adopted first son of his third wife and also the grandson of his sister and Marc Antony or something plus a dozen other connections and by then you're so grossed out and confused you don't care about any of them anymore. He was called Germanicus because his family was all about going to Germany and kicking ass. If I remember my Tacitus, the tribes of Germania at this time were a disgusting lot whose menfolk (when not fighting each other) sat around wearing nothing but cloaks held together with thorns while their wives brewed the beer and cleaned the hovels and worked the fields, and when they were fighting each other they took their wives with them to bare their breasts on the sidelines so the men would be reminded of how their wives would be hauled off somewhere if they lost. These jerks had been doing a pretty amazing job of keeping the Romans south of Rhine until Germanicus' dad Drusus came along and mopped up Germans everywhere he went until he fell off his horse and died. Germanicus grew up to lead his dad's legions on many successful campaigns against those half-naked, misogynistic hornhats. Everyone in Rome loved Germanicus, which is why everyone suspected the emperor and his creepy friend Sejanus had him poisoned while he was off in Asia. Germanicus' son Gaius would accompany him on military campaigns in Germania where the little boy was beloved by all his father's soldiers. According to the historian Suetonius, whenever the troops would get all drunk and angry over their cracker rations or something, "the mere sight of [the child] Gaius unquestionably calmed them." It was said that Germanicus had a full Roman military kit made for the boy so he looked just like a common soldier, including a pair of the common soldier's hob-nailed military boots, called caliga. The soldiers called him Caligula, meaning "Little Boots." Maybe you've heard of him? I think the guy who started Penthouse Magazine made a movie about him once.

That is one of my wife's favorite stories from her days of high school Latin. Her other favorite Latin memory is that our word scruple comes from the Latin word scrupulus, (which literally meant "a small sharp stone,") and was used figuratively by Cicero to mean "a feeling of doubt or reluctance to do something that one thinks may be wrong." A nagging feeling, like a small annoying stone trapped in your little boots.

I am not wholly without scruples. There were times, while sitting down at the playground working on a full, authentic Roman soldier's kit for my own son when I wondered if maybe I was taking things a bit too far. After all, look how it worked out for young Gaius. But apparently that didn't stop me. The only part of this costume that I did not make myself from scratch were the sandals. I added leather straps to some sandals we already owned, and although I certainly wanted to craft a pair of hobnailed little soldier caliga, I couldn't. Going that far just seemed unscrupulous.

I don't have it in me to be a homeschooler, but this summer I've been teaching the kids all about ancient Rome. We've been reading tons of books and playing with Roman soldier toys and even watching old Asterix cartoons. My boy has taken to it as enthusiastically as any other subject involving heroes with armor and edged weapons (plus giant communal toilets with "sponges on a  stick" instead of toilet paper). He really loved my description of Roman fermented fish gut sauce. Sometimes I nerd out a bit too much. We'll be talking about Julius Caesar and how he was stabbed to death by his friends and my son will call him "the Roman king" and I roll my eyes and remind them that Romans hated kings, that his friends killed him because he started acting like a king and that Romans were like us in that they did not believe in giving one person too much power, and then I'm ranting about how ultimately the Romans did create something way worse than a king, a man so powerful that kings and Pharaohs and satraps and chieftains all bowed before him. Sometimes emperors even believed that they themselves were gods." And then he's like, Whatever dad. When can I throw my spear again? And then I'm all, "When you've learned the Latin words for all your weapons." And then he's like, "Here's a pilum in your gut, Cicero."

I majored in Latin because I loved all this stuff. Even after the tedium of conjugating a thousand irregular verbs you knew you were still learning about some untouchably Romantic time in Western history, full of conquering generals and political intrigue and feasts of peacock and honey-dipped dormice and stones and stories that would hold together for thousands of years. I've had so much fun talking about the history I loved as a kid with my own kids, and I've loved bringing it to life for them. It all started with a trip to the art museum. By now we know every piece in the museum's classical collection, and this armored torso has always been one of our favorites:

Common Roman soldiers didn't wear armor like this---it would have been mostly decorative and worn by generals and patrician officers. But I really wanted to carve those two griffins eye-to-eye with that gorgon's head in the middle of a cuirass. I drew the griffins freehand on tracing paper and folded it in half so they would be mirror images, then I traced it with a ballpoint pen over a piece of leather cut to the shape of the armor.

With the design on the leather, I began carving and stamping it so it would stand out.

After that, it was just a matter of wetting and shaping the leather over a mold and letting it dry to the proper shape.

Then I dyed it reddish-brown, applying several more coats over the designs to make them stand out even more. The skirt I did the same way. I considered making it all one piece but they like to mix and match their costumes so I thought I'd give them that option with this one too.

If I had been truly historically accurate, I probably would have made the helmet in the Attic style with a forward-facing crest, but he really liked the centurion's helmet so I sewed together a helmet in the Gallic style and added the crest which came from the bristles of an old broom. I had never made a leather helmet before so I looked at how a baseball hat was made and just copied it without the brim, then sewed the extra pieces on where I needed them. This was great fun, probably because my wife didn't think I would ever be able to do it.

Seeing him in that helmet with that crest makes me so happy.

 His throwing spear (pilum) is a leather tip attached to a dowel driven into a shaft of scrap walnut.

The sword (or gladius) I modeled on some surviving examples and used walnut for the blade and tang, then glued-on pieces of cherry for the handle.

I also made him a soldier's dagger (or pugio) from the same walnut with a handle made from some scraps of zebra wood.

The scabbards were really fun---both were based on designs from actual archaeological discoveries. The sword's sheath gave me a chance to learn how to do some metal engraving. I did not dye these sheaths---the leather turned that color after multiple coats of molten beeswax, which also hardened them to the point where they're no longer flexible.

So many of the parts of this project came together because I simply wanted to learn how to do something new. Roman shields (scutum) were rounded to give the soldier more protection, and I've always wanted to learn how to create bent plywood so bought some extremely thin sheets of wood and bent them around a frame, gluing and clamping them in place before leaving them to dry overnight.

The design I painted on the front of the shield includes several motifs from shields in relief sculptures, like Trajan's column. The shield boss is a plastic bowl epoxied to a sheet of steel and painted.

We have been marching around the neighborhood for a few weeks now. Most of these pictures here were taken at Old Fort Wayne, an excellent place to practice martial skills. The Roman Empire was built by the soldiers of the Roman army, I tell him. Even when they weren't fighting, they were building the roads and the bridges, the canals and walls that made the empire great. They carried shovels along with their swords. But their most important weapon wasn't the gladius or the pilum: it was discipline, I tell him. They marched all day. They fought shield-to-shield alongside their friends and brothers. That was true discipline. They always worked together. They never whined or complained to their superior officers. They cleaned their plates and cleaned their tents. And they always did as they were told.

See previously: Epic Fun

The Detroit Nursery School Olympics (revisited)

Posted by jdg | Friday, August 03, 2012

I know that re-posting old content is one of the laziest and most despicable things a blogger can do, but my wife has been working really hard lately and I have been with the kids every day all summer and this week they've been staying up really late to watch the Olympics.  This post originally appeared July 1, 2008, before the Beijing Olympics. Sadly, planners of the Detroit Nursery School Olympics did not give it a second try in 2012 (though a similar event in the suburbs drew over 100 kids). In the years since this event, my daughter has consistently reminded me of "the day [she] won all those medals." She has completely forgotten she was the only kid there, and I wish I could tell the organizers how fondly she remembers it. 

[art work by our friend Xenos]
One of the highlights of my week is scouring the newspaper's weekly calendar of local events for activities to break up the monotony. Estonian folk dancing at the public library! Burlesque costuming workshop at Studio 601! One of the Wayans brothers is coming to town! I circle events and file them away inside the Trapper Keeper full of appointments in my mind. We rarely do any of it, but at least I know we can go to a Tyler Perry film festival or a spaghetti dinner at St. Jude's if we get bored.

A few weeks ago, I read about one event that I knew we couldn't miss: The Detroit Nursery School Olympics: "Hosted for tomorrow's champions, events include Marshmallow Shot Put, Big Wheel Grand Prix, Paper Plate Discus, Diaper Derby, Toddler Trot and more!" Hot damn, I thought, that will burn at least an hour of daylight! My only regret was the lack of a crawling tot to participate in the diaper derby. It has always been my dream to sire a diaper derby champion. When the morning of the Detroit Nursery School Olympics arrived, the kid put on her wristbands, headband, and her striped tube socks. I gave her a pep talk, thinking of all those other parents out there training their kids for weeks in the Paper Plate Discus or the Big Wheel Grand Prix, and I told her that even if she didn't win a gold medal, I'd still love her. In the car, already late for the opening ceremonies, we found ourselves following a flatbed truck loaded with port-a-johns down Jefferson Avenue. "Look Juney," I said. "A truck full of potties!"

"A truck full of potties?" she screamed, "Where?"

"Right in front of us." Cue uproarious laughter from the back seat.

We followed that truck full of potties all the way to the site of the Detroit Nursery School Olympics, where it turned and lurched across the green lawn. "I think those potties are going to the Olympics, too," I said.

And there stood Detroit's Nursery School Olympic Village, awaiting a half dozen self-contained shit boxes. It was a gorgeous day. Tents had been erected to shelter the forty or so volunteers and three security guards from the sun. There were a dozen different sporting events set out, from a tiny basketball court to a bean bag toss to a mini golf course. There were gym mats for the diaper derby; cones positioned in a slalom for the Big Wheel Grand Prix. At each station two or three volunteers stood around ready to assist the pint-sized competitors. There were coolers full of dew-dripping Capri Suns and boxes of Goldfish crackers. There were medals and ribbons laid out, waiting to be awarded.

There just weren't any kids.

Yep: my daughter was the only kid at the 2008 Detroit Nursery School Olympics.

Remember that scene in John Huston's Annie where the titular urchin and Miss Farrell first enter the Warbucks mansion and hundreds of servants gather in the great entrance hall to greet them with a Busby Berkeley song-and-dance number, you know, with the leggy chambermaids and the gardener who pirouettes his way over to the trellis which he then climbs to deliver Annie a single rose? Well that's kind of what it was like to walk up to the empty Detroit Nursery School Olympics holding a 3-year-old by the hand. But unlike a plucky, attention-starved orphan, my child did not burst into song about how she thought she was going to like it there. As more than forty volunteers crowded around to welcome an actual living, breathing child, she screamed and hid behind my legs, burying her face in the back of my knee. A few of them did back handsprings and clapped while a few others scooted backwards doing jazz hands, and I said, "We'll just wait over here a few minutes for some more kids to show up." As we stood there, I looked over the flier they'd handed me when we'd arrived:

Welcome to the 2008 Detroit Nursery School Olympics!

10:30 Opening Ceremonies
10:45 Children Compete in events
11:45 Awards Presentation
12:00 Closing Ceremonies

It was nearly 11:00, and still no other kids. I'd told her there would be lots of other kids there, and she kept asking me where they all were. I signed in, guessing how many jelly beans were in the jar for a big prize and sliding the bent slip of paper containing my guess into an empty fishbowl. A woman who seemed to be in charge asked how old my kid was and then told me she had a daughter the same age. Where was this daughter? One kid was pathetic, but two would have made a competition with odds I could support. I offered to borrow one of their vans and go round up a few dozen rugrats on Belle Isle but they warned that would probably constitute kidnapping.

After a few more minutes we headed over to the first event. The woman whose own daughter was MIA enthusiastically escorted us, explaining each event in detail despite the presence of eager volunteers at each station. "After you throw a marshmallow," she said, "We'll let you eat another one. I think we have enough for that." She said all this as though she'd spent the previous evening practicing how to warn gaggles of feisty urban children not to eat the marshmallows. Unfortunately, my child is really bad at throwing things. I don't think any item she's ever thrown has gone in the direction she intended. The key was having her stand backwards and telling her to throw it as far in front of her as she could. The marshmallow landed a respectable distance behind her. So the Marshmallow Shot Put? Gold medal. Paper Plate Discus? Gold medal. Toddler Trot? Gold medal. By the time she'd completed all the events, she had so much gold around her neck you could have slapped on a feather earring and called her B.A. Baracus.

* * * * *

I'm the guy who purposefully dines in empty restaurants. I'm a glutton for this particular type of heartbreak. I figure I should spend my money where it's actually appreciated. But the surly waitress always looks like she wants me to leave so she can go hang out with her friends; how's one sawbuck left on the table going to solve any of her problems? What's the price of our whole meal against the owner's rising tide of obligations? I sit there in an empty restaurant and say to my wife, "What if we hadn't come in here tonight? Would some other fools have taken pity on this place?"

If you hold a Nursery School Olympics and no one comes, does it even count? What if one kid shows up: does it really make any difference? A week or so later, and I sit down to a hot cup of coffee and the Saturday morning newspaper. What's going on this week, kiddo? Urban Oasis Nature Walk. Free. I undo the velcro and pencil that one in, fully prepared for a private tour full of roused pheasants, fleeting foxes, and abandoned tires.

[Again, this post first appeared July 1, 2008.  Congratulations to all the young champions on the 2012 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team: you have some big fans in this household. All the hooting and hollering is keeping me from getting anything else done.]