Wednesday, May 27

Grand Marshal

Once I watched Bob Newhart serve as Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses parade. I would watch Bob Newhart doing almost anything. I watched Newhart, where he played a Vermont innkeeper, religiously. After it went off the air, I would watch reruns of The Bob Newhart Show, the one where he played the psychologist in Chicago. I watched his failed shows too. I watched Bob, where he played a comic book artist and George and Leo where he hangs out on Martha’s Vineyard with Judd Hirsch and Justin Bateman. I even watched a few of the episodes of ER, which I don’t even particularly like, just because he was on.

I suppose that I had seen other grand marshals at other parades both on television and in person on a million different occasions, but I’ll be damned if I can remember a single one of them. I guess I just like Bob Newhart. Or maybe it’s what he did with the modest power accorded not just a marshal, but a grand marshal. As best I can tell, the weighty responsibilities of grand mashaldom are three: ride on a float, greet the captains of any affiliated sporting event and flip a coin.

For Newhart the coin flipping seemed to be the big deal, or perhaps less that he got to flip a coin and more that he got to have a coin. After Newhart had shaken hands with the captains of each Rose Bowl team, the referee handed him a large silver commemorative coin, a flip of which would be used to determine who kicked off.

Newhart shook the referee’s hand, pocketed the coin and began to walk off the field.

This made sense. Every character Newhart has ever played seems to be a grumpy comedic skinflint in the best tradition of Jack Benny. Still, while Newhart is a comedian, he could only take the joke so far. After ten yards or so, he turned, laughed sheepishly and walked back to the fifty-yard line. Finally, he flipped the coin. No damage done.

Well, almost no damage. After watching the spectacle, I concluded that I would like, someday, to serve as grand marshal for something. Anything. It falls under my umbrella policy of seeking self-esteem without sacrifice or, God forbid, strain.

But given my distinct record of non-accomplishment and tendency to have my finest moments in the shadows, quietly scoring points for my employer or cause, I have not had a chance to distinguish myself to the point where a grand marshal’s, I don’t know, Scepter? Float? Coin?, was a real possibility. Writing a baseball blog under a pseudonym does not get you noticed.

So I went on with life, as we must, hoping that someday, somehow, a chance to be simultaneously a marshal and grand might come my way. It wasn’t an obsession, or something I even thought about with any regularity. Instead, it was one of those vague life goals that one hopes to achieve somewhere over the course of 70 or more years, like visiting all seven continents, but will not go on one’s tombstone. In other words, if someone were to remake Citizen Kane but about me, “grand marshal” would not be my muttered final words in the opening scene. Those words would more likely be something like “Donald Duck Flip Flops.” I lost them on Cape Cod in 1982 or so, when the tide came in, and the fact that some kid in Spain probably ended up with them always bothered me. Still, being a grand marshal was something I have vaguely aspired to do for a long time.

I had always imagined that the Memorial Day parade in a small New England town would be my best bet. Significantly further down the list was being grand marshal of a municipal soccer match in an 11,000 person town in rural Uganda.

While enjoying an exalted position on a half unmowed grass, half parched earth field about 14 degrees north of the equator may not have the cache of marching in a town parade featuring both a high school and middle school marching band and two unfortunate reserve soldiers in a jeep with a recoilless rifle, the prestige of grand marshaling this match should not be dismissed. The stakes were frighteningly high.

There was a goat on the line.

Squads from some of the 12 villages that comprise Nkokonjeru, literally “White Chicken,” Uganda, had struggled and striven for this moment, for the right to compete for one delicious goat.

The two teams stood in a perfect line facing the crowd, half clad in red jerseys reading Nkokonjeru T.C. F.C. (Town Council Football Club) and half of them skin to the sun. And there they waited…. and waited… and waited… Finally, the referee called over Peter our lanky Uganda coworker and guide and chattered something to him in Luganda’s syncopated cadences.

Peter returned to us and stared directly at Alex, a fresh faced 20-year-old mechanical engineer on his first trip to Africa.

“Do you want to shake hands with the players?” Peter asked.

“Uhhh…” responded Alex.

Alex, while not shy about popping open an electrical contraption, jury rigging a mechanical contraption or otherwise indulging in the sort of madness for which engineers are know, is not nearly as fearless when it comes to interacting with people. Of the four in our group, his the most hesitant about using his limited Luganda and the most reluctant to enter the furious fray of market bargaining. Going out to shake hands with a bunch of strangers about to play soccer had precious little to do with the forces of physics and presented almost no risk of explosion, thus he was hesitant.

“Uhhh…” he repeated.

I, however, knew what was going on. I knew that this was a chance at being a grand marshal of sorts, a chance not to be squandered, so I did the only thing I could.

“Do it Alex, “ I cackled. “Go shake hands.”

That wasn’t right? I was supposed to say, “Don’t sweat it, man. I’ll go be the center of attention. I’ll be the one to walk of the field with the ceremonial coin.”

Didn’t happen. “Seriously man, do it.” I cajoled again.

At this point Peter chimed in and pointed out what should have been obvious—that he had not asked Alex, he had asked all of us.

And so we went, hesitantly, shyly even, down across the dried, almost brick, mud to the line of players. At last, I would be a grand marshal, chosen on the basis of a) being white b) having just shown up in a town where everyone knows everything about each other and strangers are an oddity to be investigated carefully.

Down the line we walked, shaking hands with each of the twenty-two players and the two-team managers. In Baganda society, this could be a lengthy process, as proper greeting might involve not only exchanges on how the day has been thus far but, obligatory inquiries on the condition of each others’ goats and so on, a discourse well beyond my limited Luganda. Thankfully, the magnitude of the project limited the length of introductions.

“Dan,” I introduced myself.

“Thomas,” the player would respond. We grasped hands and shook in the African fashion, a three part shake consisting of a standard hand shake clasp, then a quick move to an arm wrestling grip, and then back to the handshake.

“Good luck!” I pithily added for affect, or “The keeper!” when I could discern, by the curiously colored jersey’s that I was dealing with the goalkeeper.

The match itself was about what one would expert from a goat match, what wrestling commentators would call a slobber knocker. After a scoreless first half, red jumped out to a two goal lead in the second half before skins thundered back with a rocket from the penalty line and a header off of a corner kick to equalize. Ultimately, red won 4-3 on penalty kicks. It was an odd sort of shoot out. Neither keeper was eager to actually throw himself to the rock hard ground to make a save, so the only rules for shooters seemed to be do not kick the ball directly at the goalie and do kick the ball between the uprights.

In my expert analysis of the match the outcome came down to three factors. First, goal tending. Skins was a much better team, but their goalie had hands of stone. Second, shoes. Some players had proper sneakers, others had sandals and others played barefoot. I’m not sure which side had more shoes but it had to have been a major advantage. Third and finally, grand marshalling. I am not one to brag, but I am pretty sure that the red team shook hands with more enthusiasm and that it was decisive.

So I got to be a grand marshal, to see one of my lesser dreams fulfilled. This seems to be how it has been in Africa for muzungu ( white men) for some time. White men come here to pursue what they cannot have at home. People of modest means and low standing in their native countries can come here and be dignitaries. The Boers who came from the lower rungs of Dutch society violently asserted predominance in South Africa and fancied themselves as God’s chosen people. A tubercular nobody named Cecil John Rhodes founded an empire on the continent. The colonizers of many nations came to Africa and lived like kings, demanding tribute from their unwilling vassals. Even the NGO workers today have cooks to cook for them, maids to clean for them, drivers to drive for them and guards to protect them. These are not typically people who would have servants at home.

While my time as a grand marshal is just the manifestation of a silly and petty dream, in many ways indicative of nothing more than the friendliness and congeniality of the Baganda people, it does bother me that while at home I am just another guy, here I am noteworthy. I am not Rhodes, I am not Stanley, I am not even a scraggly diplomat in a compound in Kampala, but it is clear that here, I am someone. I’m just not sure that there is any reason I deserve to be.