by Hugh Gilmore
Just before I turned 30, I developed a strong hunger to know more about human nature and, by extension, myself. I entered a graduate program in physical anthropology and decided to specialize in the study of primates, specifically a troop of 80 baboons living near Gilgil, Kenya.
I would follow them around daily, taking notes, recording them and capturing their behaviors on film. In the first three parts of this series, I described some of the things I did there and what I discovered, especially about myself. But I forgot to mention something important to my emotional life that happened just before I left home for Africa.
A few days before we were to depart, my mother called. She talked to me about a few things and then said, “Dad wants to say something – I’ll put him on.”
A second later he said, “Hi, Hughie.”
“You got everything packed for your trip?”
“Yeah, just about, except for the little last minute things.”
“You have to get any shots or anything like that to take this trip?”
“Oh yeah, yellow fever, cholera, polio booster. malaria pills. Should be okay.”
“Okay, well just watch yourself over there.”
“I will. We’ll be okay.”
That was touching. He must be worried about my going so far away to what probably seemed like a dangerous place. Usually he’d let my mother do all the talking, but here he was, saying—between the lines—that he cared for me and was concerned.
“Yeah … well then, I guess that’s all she wrote.”
“I guess so,” I said.
And then he spoke again, in a way he’d never spoken to me before.
He said, “Well, one more thing. About this trip of yours. I don’t have much education, you know, and I don’t understand a lot of things you’ve done, or why you did them, all that school stuff is nothing I’ve ever been around much.”
I was wondering if he was leading up to a joke.
“Well, you see the thing is, you’re going to Africa with the animals and all. Well, you know how we used to watch Zoo Parade on television with Marlon Perkins? I really liked that kind of nature show. And I always thought that’s something I would’ve liked doing myself. It ain’t in the cards for me. But you’re going, so I’m glad for you. And I wish you the best of luck. I think it’s great what you’re doing.”
I flashed on the night I was cutting up a frog on the kitchen table at 2 a.m. And the snakes I kept in a glass-covered suitcase under my bed. And the turtle pens in the backyard. They made no sense to him, nor did the hundreds of books up in my room, or my beard, or the classical music records I played. And certainly not occupations named “anthropology” or “linguistics.”
But now, I was going to go to Africa to be around animals, just like Marlon Perkins and Jim Fowler, just like “Zoo Parade.” It all was so romantic and wild and wonderful to him. He had finally found a connection with his scrawny, strange, son! I had had to wait till I was 34, and even then it came in sideways, spoken in roundabout words, and compared to a TV show. But who knew he had the same secret dream I had?
My eyes welled up. Oh, my goodness, after all these years: a father’s blessing. I’ll take it!
I was thinking about him and that phone call one afternoon while I sat in Kenya with the baboons near a cattle trough. I was sitting on a rock, keeping very still. Most of the baboons were quietly grooming one another, or napping.
A dozen impala appeared at the edge of the clearing, feeding quite close to some of the young baboons, and closer to me – perhaps 30 feet away – than I’d ever seen them when I was on foot. Something to the right caught my eye, so I turned slowly and then studied the vegetation. Up from an abandoned warthog hole popped the head of a baby bat-eared fox, followed a second later by its equally curious sibling. Twenty feet beyond them, crouched almost flat in the grass beside a small bush, was the mother fox, holding a small bird in her mouth. Dinner for the little vixens was being delayed while she calmly waited to see what kind of creature I was. In the meantime, as though someone had said “Shazam,” a group of about twenty zebras had suddenly materialized to my left, nibbling their way toward where I was sitting.
The animals had been taking their vigilance cues from the baboons, obviously, and not minding my presence. I was just another animal at the waterhole. I held my breath and watched. I felt as if I had been granted invisibility. A curtain between humans and animals had been drawn aside.
The sun was setting, the shadows were getting longer, and the scene was lit with a soft glow. I sat in one of those pristinely natural settings one is only occasionally privileged to peek into – what the world would be like if there were no humans. I was transformed to a pair of eyes and a slowly breathing soul. The visitors went through the scene and walked daintily away after a short stay. I wished they had stayed forever.
This one’s for you, Dad, I thought.
Adapted for the Local from Hugh Gilmore’s recent memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” This past week Gilmore’s book reached the #32 spot in Amazon.com’s KINDLE TOP 100 in the categories of Family Relationships>Parenting>Fatherhood.