My Big, Fat, Pointless Vocation


I’ve been under the impression that they’re going to let me out soon, any day now, but each day that goes by I find that’s not the case. The administrators and supervisors who could or should know, avoid me when they see me in the hallways.

When they brought me here, they lavished me with praise. I was the kind of young man they wanted. My vocation was immediately apparent. It would be an insult to God and a grave mistake for me to squander such an opportunity to serve Him.

As time went on, their enthusiasm waned. I was no longer the idea candidate. Other boys came and went, but I remained, having been thoroughly charmed by their appraisal of my gifts. Boys like me were the reason this place existed. I was their walking mission statement.

My original mentor, Father Pretorious, a kindly old man with rheumy eyes and a long gray beard never gave up on me, but after he died, it was sort of like I ceased to exist. I was now more of a ghost than he. My name was rarely mentioned in our institutional newsletter. True, I still taught classes, but my name did not appear in the course directory. The instructor for the sections I ended up teaching was listed only as “staff.”

They’ve cut back on food, both in variety and portion size. I’m always a little bit hungry, which makes me edgy and nervous. My old well-fed self was lethargic and complacent compared to the new skinny me, the one that dreams about donuts and ice cream.

Ours is no longer a religious institution. For a while we were a “benevolent society” but now we’re not even that. We’re just a vocational school, the kind for people who don’t plan on attending college. Shoe repair is no longer a popular line of study, but writing cellphone apps and graphic design are in demand.

We all wear the same uniform, dark blue pants and matching shirt that make us look like warehouse workers or bus drivers. Even the women wear pants. No hint of style or glamor, no opportunity for self-expression. We are all the same. Drones.

They have given me a group of younger boys, pre-teens, whom I mentor. We all wear hush puppies, soft, effeminate shoes with crepe soles, as well as polyester shirts that cause our underarm odor to fester and increase in potency. Since my superiors chose these garments, I know they are deliberately trying to ensure our lack of success with women. None of this is accidental. We have been given copies of old Superman comics to study and hopefully incorporate into our lifestyle. I was instructed to encourage us to emulate Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen, the cub reporter with no ego and little “on the ball.” We are well-intentioned yet impotent just like Jimmy.

We had a “rap session” in the “dugout” one night, and some of the boys thought we would do better to model ourselves on Jughead of the Archie comics, or Mayard G Krebs from the Dobie Gillis TV show. But I sensed danger. My superiors would be threatened by such eccentricity, such quirkiness. Jimmy Olsen was a safe conformist, while Maynard G. Krebs was a unpredictable beatnick. This school had no use for rebels of any kind.

We were recently brought to a conference room in the administration wing and told that our program had proved so successful that we were being sent abroad, to share the secrets of our success with orphans in Borneo. Since none of us knew how to find Borneo on the map, we were shown a brief travelogue produced by Lowell Thomas in the 1950’s. It looks like the kind of place where people wear bones in their noses. The boys looked uneasy. I tried to smile and project confidence.

“How many orphans do they have in Borneo?” I asked, just to appear proactive.

“A lot. Tens of thousands. Nobody there feels they can adequately support their children, so they hand them over for adoption as soon as they can walk.”

The boys looked at me with increasing concern. By now I was grinning like an idiot.

They had us pack and await further instructions. Within a few hours we were in a van heading toward the airport, within a day and a half we were on the tarmac at the Sarawak International airport, waiting for another van to take us to the orphanage. By now our cheap, permanent press shirts were drenched with sweat, or Hush Puppy soles melting into the hot asphalt. No longer smiling, I was simply making a brave face. Like Magellan or Cortez, my first job was to project authority and confidence.

Borneo was completely unlike Central Missouri. It was, first of all, hot. Hotter and muggier than the hottest July day back where we came from. The bugs were very large, the size of sparrows. Hardly anyone spoke English. We were taken to a dormitory on an institute of some kind, but the place seemed to be closed for the season. The swimming pool had been drained. The lawns were unkempt. The building itself smelled like phenol, a disinfectant used in some parts of the world instead of chlorine.

Each of us was assigned a very large room. Back at the school, we had slept twelve to a room in a dormitory, but here we were astounded to find such luxury. Each room had its own bathroom, again something that seemed incredible compared to the shower down the hall we had endured for years. The bathrooms contained a large porcelain covered copper bathtub, big enough for three people. On the other hand, there was no “hot” water tap. Maybe in this climate, hot water would have been a punishment instead of a luxury.

As the days dragged on, we waited for instructions. What was expected of us? Our meals were announced by a bell rung at 8, 12 and 5. There was a library full of dusty books written in Indonesian. Other than that, when it came to entertainment we were on our own. A crew of cleaning women attended to our wing, but they would not look any of us in the eye, and slumped over in an attempt to make themselves even smaller than they were when one of us passed by.

Finally, after five days, we were invited to meet the Head Master in the Main Lounge, and were taken by an open-air bus to another building. The moment we entered through the automatic sliding doors we were delighted to be greeted by air-conditioning. It is only after deprivation that we really appreciate what we’ve taken for granted.

The Head Master was a very tall man with an extremely bushy head of snow-white hair. He seemed alternately nice and scary. He spoke English with a strange accent, maybe Dutch. He spoke for an hour, and I don’t think I was alone in not getting much out of it. Maybe we were too jet lagged, or maybe he simply wasn’t making sense. Either way, it didn’t seem to matter. We were here. It was hot. Those were the facts.

Later on, I was to find that our job was to educate a class or orang-outangs who had been taught elementary English. As difficult as this was to comprehend much less believe, it turned out to be fact. This is why we had been brought here. Great effort had been made to take these apes from the wild and teach them to speak at the level of the average eight-year-old. Our employers had hopes of getting at least some of them to graduate from University.

It turns out that they had been giving the apes high doses of LSD since they were babies, then forcing them to watch English-language movies on YouTube. If they watched an entire film, they were allowed to eat. Pretty soon the group had seen every talking picture in the public domain made. Some could even pull off vocal impressions of Edward G Robinson, Cagney and Jimmy Stewart. Our Christmas show featured two orang-outangs bringing to life the famous scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” where George Bailey tells Mister Potter that he doesn’t want the job he’s been offered, and calls Potter a “a warped, frustrated old man.” You haven’t lived until you’ve seen an auburn-haired orang-outang doing a Jimmy Stewart impression deliver that speech.

Some of the apes progressed faster than the others. They asked me if I could help them form a poetry study group. They wanted to start with Milton and progress on through the Victorian poet Tennyson. I did my best to give them some background on Milton, his blindness, and his becoming England’s first poet Laureate. They were impressed by the scope and complexity of Paradise Lost. I asked them why they ignored Wordsworth and Coleridge. They shrugged and said they found them mediocre at best. For two months we slowly read through as much of Paradise Lost as we could. They especially liked Satan’s comment “I would rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

Tennyson really caught their imagination with Idylls of the King. They ended up liking him more than Milton, and were enraptured by the many images evoked by the Arthurian legend. They wept when Arthur bade his loyal friend Sir Bedivere throw the sword back into the lake and then depart. The brightest ape said that Arthur’s line “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of” gave him goosebumps.

The apes were curious about world travel. How does Malaysia compare to Vietnam? They had heard that Thailand discriminates against apes, and that they would simply be imprisoned in a zoo instead of accepted into a University. The brightest ape wants to receive a doctorate and become a professor. I tried to encourage him, because affirmative action would allow him to garner a tenure-track faculty position, even though as a white male I had never been able to do so in the twenty-five years I applied for such jobs.

I asked the apes if they were lonely, if they missed their fellow apes. They could not understand my question. “What would anyone miss about apes?” they asked. “We have already experience everything there is to know about apes.” I told them about my feelings of homesickness after moving across the world.

They laughed and said “But the opportunities here are so much more important than the momentary discomfort you might feel after arrival.” I had to admit they were making sense.

It turned out that the apes were immune to religion. The idea of making up facts in order to satisfy emotional urges seemed laughable to them. I began to think they were smarter than us. Much smarter.

So when I was called back to Missouri as a punishment for encouraging our students to think for themselves, I was puzzled. Hadn’t they known about the great intelligence of the orang-outangs when they brought my group to Indonesia? Maybe not. Perhaps they had assumed they were primitive apes covered in red fur who could become an attraction at an Ozark petting zoo.

After Boreno, I found Missouri horribly depressing. Back at our school, smug men in crew cuts lectured me on patriotism and laughed at my artistic and literary pretensions. It was good old boy central, white male anti-intellectuals who ran everything and intended to keep it that way. It was their way or the highway.

The boys in my care had been reassigned to a Christian mission in Sarawak, and were forbidden to communicate with me. Although I am not being held prisoner here, I will not leave until I have formed a plan of action.

First I have to find some shoes. Something more durable than these damn hush puppies.

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