The Proposal


My father did his work, his writing, on a shuffleboard.  It was a great oaken beast onto which he draped a Persian runner from end to end.  John Carelton was a professor of some note in our town, whose mercurial pursuits were as extraordinary as they were reckless.  He lectured in both Sociology and Agriculture, an oddity to be certain but his research into how communities and societies and indigenous peoples viewed their food had grown more in favor as our culture became more and more interested in what they ate and how it was raised.  He strode into my father’s office late one July afternoon unannounced.

“Mr Jones I need a documentarian, a chronicler for an expedition I have planned in two weeks at the end of third session this summer.  I am traveling to Burma for three weeks to study the Indu tribe’s methods and approach to their tillage and religious practices.  Are you interested?”

I had seen him come in, positioned at the opposite end of the shuffleboard as I always was around 4:30 after mother left for her class at the gym and before father was finished for the day.  My father apparently did not.  Mr. Carelton’s wavy hair wafted in the air as his long strides carried him quickly and almost noiselessly past me.  We never locked our doors in our small town.  Father said crime wasn’t really an issue and we had nothing anyone would want to steal anyway.  His office was attached to the side of our modest home on 12 Pine Street with a separate entrance so visitors needn’t come through the house.  It wasn’t uncommon for father to have visitors throughout the day.  Still, I didn’t like this one from the beginning.

In addition to the longishness of his hair, which I knew father wouldn’t approve of, he held himself with a self-important posture and manner of speaking that, along with the brashness and abrupt nature of his visit, held no chance of endearing him to my father.

“Professor Carelton, to what do I owe this pleasure?”  My father spoke without looking up from his manuscript after Professor Carelton’s opening declaration.  He continued to work as he addressed him further, only looking up upon finishing and gazing at the man.

“Oh, I guess you’ve already made that vaguely unclear.  I should try and catch up, shouldn’t I?”  My father could be really cutting in the most polite way imaginable.

I don’t imagine Professor Carelton was used to being spoken to so dismissively and his face showed a fleeting anger but he continued, nearly unabated.

“As I said, Jack, my trip begins in two weeks, July the 27th.  I will be traveling to Burma to do my latest research on the Indu people.  Despite their isolated location and primitive agricultural practices they appear to be a people who long ago went through the same sociological process we find ourselves in today.  Not to bore you with the details but through several chiefs and loosely organized movements the tribe went from typical hunter gatherers to an agrarian society and then progressed to a culture rampant in its concern about its food.  Through several generations the rancor about their food grew until it came to a head almost 15 years ago.  Then something happened.  Something happened with the majority of the tribe and their leadership and seemingly overnight the unrest was quieted and they returned to a peaceful tribe, complacent and secure about their agriculture sect.  I’m traveling there to study what happened hoping to find the secret and quiet what’s going on here but I need your help.  I need someone to document what we learn and see.  I need a disinterested third party that the press and the naysayers and my critics will see as an objective observer.  Will you help me?”

My father rarely spoke at any length.  Even though he was a man of words, his strength, his chosen mode of communication was not the spoken word.  Although I knew he’d been asked countless times he’d never spoken at publisher’s events or universities or large gatherings that would have surely advanced his career and his celebrity immensely so Professor Carelton’s dissertation amused and slightly fascinated him, I could tell.  He looked at the Professor with the same entertained gaze he trained on me whenever I explained my difficulties in school or more recently at the local swimming pool surrounding my lessons.  In both circumstances he knew when he was being presented with a conundrum, a plight, that was self-created.

“Professor, I have no desire to insert myself into the melee our country has constructed over its food any more than I have in inserting myself into a Burmese culture who more than likely doesn’t want me there.  Furthermore, I don’t see how the American people are going to look upon a primitive way of life and aspire to it, regardless of whether you’re studying food or any other part of ours or their existence like, for instance, child rearing.  I’m not against the proposition, mind you, I just don’t see the purpose.”

Professor Carelton’s face flushed slightly amidst its consternation.  Clearly he was not used to having his ideas and proposals questioned.  Even in my relative youth of 12 years I knew that college classrooms, like my classroom at school, were ruled by the teacher.  No one challenged the lesson nor its planning and certainly not how it was delivered.  My father had done all three.  Professor Carleton remained standing at my father’s work space, I imaginen to give himself the appearance of being the one in power and control.

“Jack, the fact that this is a culture that began simply, escalated its concern over its food and then resolved the issue in some manner to return to a simpler way of life is exactly why our society today will be interested.  The movement toward natural or organic foods is growing nearly exponentially and the yearning for a simpler way of life although it’s relatively new is growing right along with it.  No, we’re not going to start living in thatched huts and wearing loincloths but so many people want their lives to become simpler, more straightforward that this example of a people who’ve been through what we’re experiencing in this country could be what we need to avoid a major shift in the wrong direction.  Agriculture is being forced to move this way too, John, whether they want to or not.  My fear is that we’ll go backwards and not be able to recover in agriculture, at least not before people around the world die because our society has crippled our farming industry.”

His plea was impassioned, something I knew my father appreciated; like the time I pleaded with him to splint the baby bunny’s leg that I’d run over with my bike in the backyard.  Again he looked at Professor Carleton as he had looked at me.  Standing up from his laptop behind the table he towered somewhat above the slightly built professor.

“All right, John, you have a deal.  I’ll accompany you with a small staff to support me.  You send over the logistics, flight information and contacts all along the way and I’ll tell you how many people I’ll be bringing.”

Professor Carelton’s face beamed like a kid at Christmas.

“Fantastic, Jack, you won’t regret it.  I’ll have my assistant send all the details and I’ll be in touch.”

He turned to leave but as he swished past me my father called out, “Oh John, the boy’s coming too.”

Professor Carleton paused and swung around, his eyes sweeping over me and assessing my capability for the task.  “That’s just fine, Jack, bring the boy.  It should be quite an adventure and educational.”

I thought I detected a patronizing hint in the Professor’s tone directed at me but I didn’t much care.  It was Christmas for me also.

This is the first installment of a longer story whose segments will follow.  If you would like to read other stories or other types of posts at my blog, click here and you will be directed to the home page.  Once you’ve read some of them I hope you’ll subscribe to the blog.  Subscribing is free and means you will get an email on Sundays with links to the week’s posts.  I never sell or share emails so please don’t worry about spam.  You can subscribe right here by clicking this or at the home page.