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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

It's just the Roma in my soul

NSU's homecoming is called Gypsy Days,  When I first came to Northern to work, the administrators and some faculty used to dress up with the flowery shirts and sashes and embroidered vests on the Friday of homecoming, but the Gypsy motif has slipped away all but in name.  This year I was in the parade.  I got pressed into service to drive Ericka, the Junior Snow Queen, a lovely high school student from Groton, in a vintage Chrysler Le Baron Convertible that, like its driver of the day, has seen better days.  It was downright cold that day, but the switch for the heater was broken.  When Amy, the car's owner, turned it over to me, she said there was a jug of water on the back floor in case the car over-heated.  I could not quite imagine stopping in middle of a parade to put the hood up and quench a hot engine.  The only problem I had with the car was that it would intermittently emit great clouds of smoke through the exhaust.  At times Ericka, perched on the trunk, had to fan away the smoke, but the women from Curves marching right behind were occasionally obscured and overcome. I heard mutterings that were not ladylike.

Sitting in the chill, the smoke, and feeling great empathy for Ericka who was wearing her sleeveless queen's gown and shivering as she smiled and waved at the crowd,  I was obsessed with irony.  Here I was in the middle of the Gypsy Days parade and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had just expelled about 1,000 Gypsies from French soil.  Now the Gypsies think the word Gypsy is a pejorative, and prefer to be called Roma.  I was wondering if NSU would call its homecoming Roma Days next year.

Over my lifetime,  I have encountered Gypsies, or Roma, if you prefer, numerous times, but I find it hard to get a factual grasp of what comprises Gypsydom.  They inspire a kind of romantic sense of freedom and joy and they helped create flamenco music and dance, which is why they are revered at the NSU homecomings.  On the other hand, some people have said they pick pockets, kidnap babies, and do other things that ain't couth in western culture. 

My fondest memory of Gypsies came in regard to Sgt. Jody.  (That is not his real name, but it is close enough.)  Sgt. Jody was a young non-commissioned officer from the South who was  assigned to the launching platoon  of our missile battery in Germany.  We were never sure what function he was to serve, but he annoyed the hell out of the men because he insisted on marching them from the headquarters area to the launching area in formation and in cadence.  This was annoying because when the morning formation in the company street was dismissed, the men had all sorts of administrative tasks to attend in conjunction with maintaining the missiles.  Dismissal of the formation meant they would go to the orderly room, or the missile assembly and maintenance area, or the motor pool and pick up paper work and tools needed for what they had to do with the missiles that day.   They went about their business and just sort of sauntered down to the launching area with their materials.  Sgt. Jody thought this was very unsoldierly, so he marched them down, and then they had to walk back to the places they needed to go for their materials, and then saunter back down to the launchers when they had the necessary information and equipment.  Sgt. Jody was convinced that men sauntering around with clip boards, brief cases, and tool boxes in their hands were screwing off.   He was only half right, 

The men harassed Sgt. Jody.  While marching, they would chant  under their breath "Jo-dee,  Jo-dee, Jo-dee" in time with the marching cadence just below the hearing threshold.  Sgt. Jody would yell "halt." stop and listen,  and the chant would stop, then resume the march.  The men, of course, had no idea what he was talking about when he asked, "Who is saying that?"  He also revealed that he had witnessed ghosts, so the men were constantly plotting ways to give him spooky experiences.  I relate this to establish that Sgt. Jody was a bit flighty of mind.

Our missile site was at a remote military base on the Rhine River at a town called Germersheim.  To get to town from the post gate, there were two possibilities.  One could walk along the roads.  Or one could take a shortcut, a path that ran through some pine groves and ran along some vacant land.  That land was a place where Gypsy caravans camped at times.  When they were present, we looked at them with curiosity but kept to our business, which was with students at the women's college and cognac at the gasthouses. 

One night a group of us were returning to post via the short cut when someone checked his watch and said we were pushing the deadline.  Our off-duty passes automatically expired at midnight, when the gates were officially closed, and anyone trying to get on post after that would be taken into custody by the military police and held for disciplinary action.  We quickened our pace from a stroll to a jog to beat the deadline, and were jogging past the Gypsy encampment.  Ahead of us about a block, we saw Sgt. Jody walking.  He glanced back when he heard a bunch of men running and broke into a sprint.  We thought his running meant we must really be late, so we broke into a dead run.

When we got to the gate, an MP was standing outside the guard shack looking bewildered.  When we came up to the gate, he asked what was going on out there.  He said Sgt. Jody ran through the gate yelling that the Gypsies were after him.  When we got to the orderly room to sign in, Sgt. Jody was there trying to explain to the officer of the day that a bunch of Gypsies was chasing him and seemed about to attack the post.  We signed in and with suppressed snickers and chuckles went to our bunk rooms.

The next day those of who signed in from pass together were called in  to a meeting with the battery commander, the executive officer, and the first sergeant.  They asked what we knew about the events involving Sgt. Jody the previous night.  We explained how he took off running when we  came jogging up behind him.  The executive officer asked why we did not provide that information when we signed in, because Sgt. Jody's account caused a joint investigation  by the Army and the local authorities, and some tense and confusing moments with the Gypsy camp.

We were given a talking to about harassing Sgt. Jody.  The executive officer explained that Jody had been raised with stories about ghosts and Gypsies taking babies and the like, and he had run to the orderly room to alert the guard mount that there seemed to be an attack. Our Platoon Sgt. Bradley summarized point of the meeting in his succinct way:   "Don't f++k with Jody anymore."

Sgt. Jody was a good soldier.  But Sgt. Bradley (who had been raised in an orphanage) explained that he came from very poor circumstances and was working hard to better his lot and make a career in the military.   "Don't f++k with a good man you may have to depend on someday," Sgt. Bradley said.

The harassment of Jody stopped, but we still told the story of Jody's sprint and laughed.

My other encounters with Gypsies were not as funny, but were equally remote.  I  remember the caravans passing by our house when I was a small child.  Later when I worked in state parks, I came across them in campgrounds.  Their caravans at the parks consisted of Airstream trailers pulled by Cadillacs with Alabama plates on them. Of course, I knew that Gypsies were targeted victims of the Holocaust.  I am also aware that they have been the objects of suspicion, revilement, and persecution for centuries.  I have never understood exactly why.  They inspire some kind of ethnic animosity.

That's what was on my mind during the Gypsy Day parade.  The French were deporting Gypsies from their land.  Other countries in Europe have proposed measures to stop the immigration of Gypsies into their lands.  Part of the problem is that jobs are scarce in Europe, too, and Gypsies appear to illegal immigrants in their minds.  They can't find work, so they are accused of sopping up welfare money and instigating criminal activity.   But there we were on a chilly Saturday morning celebrating Gypsy Days while other places were condemning and expelling them,  much like we do the people who sneak across our Mexican border.

Across the world, there is a resurgence of conservative sentiments.  It is not the kind of conservatism that tries to restore the liberal principles of democracy; it is the kind of conservatism that fixes on dividing people into classes and wants the right for one class of people to suppress other classes.  In our own country, this has meant a revival of racist sentiment. Although there is much denial that the so-called tea party movement has racial objectives, the demonstrations and signage of the  movement have made racist expressions a prominent feature.  While there is not an overt racist agenda behind some of the conservative factions, it is difficult to escape the fact that appeals to racist attitudes are in part what is driving those factions.  To those of us who were sentient during the 1960s and 70s, the attitudes and arguments have a familiar ring.  We have our Mexican immigrants we'd like to drive from the land; the Europeans have their Gypsies.  And the  world has its Muslims.  The Muslim world has its infidels.  The world tries to provide everybody with someone to hate.  Status in the bourgeois mind is built  on how many people you can look down upon.

So, there I was in the Gypsy Day parade thinking about  Mexican illegals and mosques. About f**king with Sgt. Jody.  And just what America wants.  And what it will eventually get for itself.

Perhaps, the Gypsies who are not bound to a single country have the better idea.

Gypsies developed their own  breed of horses to pull their wagons.  They are revered for their endurance and their gentle temperament.  They are called Gypsy Vanners.  I never saw any in the Gypsy Day parade over the years.  I wonder if other horses tolerate them. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States