I was going to write about hats. I like hats, and I have a lot of them, and I have a new one. The Counselor ordered us new running hats that have cloth flaps that shade our ears and necks, like French Foreign Legion hats or something. As soon as I put it on and looked at myself in mirror I said, “Lawrence of Batavia!” I’ll explain that instead of writing about hats.
If you’re from southwestern Ohio, or a number of other places where there is a town named Batavia, you already get part of the pun in the title, playing off the immense and wonderful film, “Lawrence of Arabia.” Of course, any joke that needs explaining is not a very good joke. Batavia, as you probably know, was the Dutch name for Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and there are a number of U.S. towns and cities with the same name, presumably settled by Dutch immigrants who gave familiar names to other small towns like New Amsterdam, now known as New York. In southern Ohio, Batavia was, when I was a kid, a rural town east of Cincinnati. Now it’s probably a burgeoning suburban residential community, but in the ’50s and 60s, it could signify any backwater village anywhere in the midwest.
The gag is this. It was a simmering, broiling day in the summer of 1967. It might’ve been The Summer of Love for some, but for Nixon Builders, it was the Summer of Concrete Block. We were building a series of horse barns at the local fairgrounds. Here’s a photo. The barns are at the top of the photo, which was made many decades after the events described here.
I’m hoping the Main Cheese weighs in here on the dimensions of these barns, but, although they were not all that vast, there was a lot of concrete block involved in building them. Maybe 100 feet long by 25 feet wide. That’s a lot of long, straight runs of concrete block, all set in place by hand, carried to the bricklayers along with all the requisite mortar by yours truly and my noble younger brother. It was hot. No shade. The ethos of Nixon Builders could be summarized in a few words: Don’t talk, work. There wasn’t much to say, after all. The primary subject of speech was what any one of the bricklayers needed. This was simple: “Block!” meant they needed some more blocks; “Water!” meant they needed another tin can of water to dampen their mortar, or “MUD!” meaning they needed mortar. These were smart people, and it just occurs to me, all these years later, that this monosyllabic vocabulary was probably constructed to convey as simply and clearly as possible to the unskilled laborers who were serving them (that’s me, folks) what they needed. They laid blocks at a torrid pace, unrelenting. They were paid by the hour, and the only hope of making their projected price lay in producing as many finished feet of wall per hour as possible.
It may have been two-thirty or three in the afternoon. The sun punished us. The humidity took its toll. My Uncle Bodie, suffering under the sun, took out his bandanna and tucked it up under his hat to cover his ears and his neck.
Here it comes.
Now, Bodie was an anomaly in the Nixon Clan: effusive, effervescent, loquacious, irrepressible, where most of his siblings and their children are taciturn, pragmatic and reserved. Eight hours of hard labor under a summer sun was no harder for him than for any of the others. What Bodie could not tolerate was the SILENCE. And so, donning his fluttering handkerchief headdress, standing on a scaffold, silhouetted against the harshly bright summer sky, he declared himself, “Lawrence of Batavia!”
“Lawrence of Arabia” had debuted maybe three or four years before this: Peter O’Toole with those blue eyes, riding across the vast, unending sands.
Like so many things in life, I can’t fully convey how gosh-darned funny it was. The hours of steady, grinding work: a kind of competition between the little group of people against the weight of brick, the fast-drying mortar, gravity and heat, punctuated by this single declaration of hilarity. It was the intrinsic Bodian Moment. Dad, my brother and I are now the only living people who were there then, but it — and Bodie’s irrepressible spirit — remain forever in my memory.
© 2014 Brad Nixon