More Bounce to the Ounce

When my dad came over from Hungary in 1922, at age 11, he knew virtually no English but learned it quickly, as children do. He loved movies, and since they were all silent films, he would practice reading English from their title cards, which contained all the dialogue. The first movie he ever saw in America was Nanook Of The North, which came out that same year. It was the first documentary film ever made and is still hailed as a true classic.

And so all things Eskimo were big in the Engel household. I remember getting a Golden Book — The Little Eskimo by Kathryn Jackson — when I was about eight. I had already read her Saggy Baggy Elephant, which was my favorite, but even as a kid, I knew how to tell a white lie and announced to Dad that The Little Eskimo was my favorite. What’s one little fib if it makes your Dad smile at you?

In 1959, I was the same age as my dad when he first saw Nanook. And it was that year that Alaska became our 49th state. In school we were required to give oral reports on our newest state. Knowing I had my dad as the world authority on their native people, I said I’d speak on the most fascinating thing about Native Alaskans that nobody else knew. Now I just had to pump Dad for it. Even back then, I was not shy in touting myself as the best speaker in the class. I might have still been throwing a baseball a bit like a girl, but I could run my mouth faster than Jesse Owens could run the 100-meter dash.

I patiently sat through the other dull reports on how high Mount McKinley was (who cares?) or how Alaska was bigger in area than Texas (so?) or how many inches of snow Anchorage received annually — yawners all. One very smart but charisma-free classmate stood in front of the class, blubbering on way too long about what the natives called the huge spongy chunks of whale or seal fat that they loved to eat to give them strength through the long winters.

The next morning, when called upon for my report, I practically bounded up to the front of the room (or “center stage” as I liked to think of it). Armed with my dad’s Alaskan super-knowledge, I knew I would wow them with my tantalizing tidbit, which I remember even to this day. The girl before me had anesthetized us with an endless show-and-tell presentation on the variety of Eskimo blanket patterns. Little did she know that she had been the perfect warmup act for me. I announced that my talk would be about a very different type of Eskimo blanket than the ones Bonnie had just mentioned.

My type of blanket, I told the class, was made of seal or walrus skins, with woven rope at all four edges to be used as handles. A hunter scout would step into the middle of the large blanket and then four strong men would grab each of the handles and toss the scout high in the air, the man now rebounding off the rubbery animal skin as he continued bouncing up and down. In this way, the scout achieved the perfect height to see animals a long way off in the distance that could then be hunted, be it herds of distant caribou across the flat landscape or even whales entering the gaps in the far-off ice. 

And my heart now beat frantically as I came to the fireball conclusion I was about to spring on the class, exactly as Dad had instructed me to do: “I could not bring this Eskimo blanket to show you, but if you wish to see it today, just wait for fifth period gym class where we can witness this 19th century Eskimo invention, which we now call…the trampoline!”

I don’t think I have ever given a speech since then that was as fun to deliver or that was better received. And I know I have never EVER had a better reference source than my dad. Shortly after that date, our neighbor, with kids around my age, bought a trampoline, and, non-athlete though I was, my enthusiasm allowed me to become a fine jumper, even mastering the tricky seat drop and tuck jump right away.

These neighbors went away every summer to their grandparent’s house in New England and allowed us to move the trampoline to our backyard. I wanted to use it all the time, but it was explained to me how dangerous this sport was when practiced alone. And so my parents made sure I was only allowed to use it when one of them was there as my “spotter,” the person stationed at the edge to assist the jumper by minimizing the chance of accidents or injury.

Since dad loved trampolining as much as I did, he was invariably my spotter. I often think back now to those wonderful summer evenings, with dad and me sharing a sport in the unique way fathers and sons often do. It strikes me that of all the glorious roles that good parents fulfill, perhaps the most precious one is that of our spotter. From his contagious enthusiasm about Eskimos, to his helping me shape countless class presentations, to his looking after me both when I really needed him to, and also when I foolishly thought I really didn’t, he was always standing right there for me. I realize now, as I move toward old age and challenges that are starting to bounce me around in new and occasionally unsettling ways, how much I adored his steadying, loving attendance.


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