When I was maybe 6 years old, my uncle John (who was 11 at the time) was showing me around my Grandparents’ place, where he lived but not a place that I was yet familiar with. At this stage in the family history I think that my Uncle John (till recently the youngest in the Baker clan) was relishing the fact that there was finally a smaller Baker than him, and another child to play with.
In his new role as an older and wiser human being, Uncle John showed me how to climb up onto the roof of Pop’s shed. I was a cautious child but somehow, through that powerful combination of encouragement and ridicule that all small boys (and many grown men) use to motivate each-other to do dangerous things, Uncle John made me climb up on the roof with him.
We pottered about for a minute or two until we either got bored or, more likely, till Uncle John realised that we might cop some heat if older members of the clan spotted us up there, whereupon he nimbly climbed back down. As I watched him descend, it dawned on me that I was now looking down at the ground from a long way up, perhaps the highest vantage point I had ever achieved until that time, and whatever nerve I had used to scale those heights suddenly failed me in the attempt to get back down.
This time however, Uncle John’s encouragement couldn’t budge me and his harangues only reduced me to tears. When he saw me on the verge of a wholesale hysterical bawling session, Uncle John quickly realised that it was in his own best interests to both calm me down and then get me down, before any grownups spotted tragic little Mr. Trembly-lip up there. It would be obvious to the powers-that-be whose idea the climb had been, and even if this didn’t occur to the inquisition immediately, it was a dead certainty that I would rat him out if I was put to the rack.
So, after encouraging me not to bawl out loud, Uncle John promised that he knew a way to get me down safely, and ran inside the house. Crouching nervously at the edge of the roof awaiting my rescue, I became steadily convinced that Uncle John had abandoned me.
After what seemed like forever, he re-appeared from the house and ran back over to the shed, brandishing Grandma’s umbrella. He threw it up to me and suggested that I use it as a parachute, much as Charlie Chaplin or Mary Poppins might do in a film. This struck me as pure genius. We both had complete confidence that this plan would work, I know that I certainly did, anyway.
It wasn’t the ambitious vision of taking flight that some children succumb to at a similar age. No, it was the much more believable expectation that I would surely fall, but do so with grace. Why, I should be able to step off the roof and glide gently to earth, touching down nimbly on the tips of my toes! With that charming vision clear in my mind, and with the greatest of calm, I stood up, popped the umbrella open and confidently stepped out into space…
The umbrella promptly turned inside out, and I plummeted to the ground like a child-shaped stone trailing a black ribbon. I believe that some part of my anatomy was sprained upon its high-velocity contact with the ground, and a piercing yowl ensued, quickly followed by a convergence of angry elder Bakers; precisely the sort of ballyhoo that Uncle John was trying to avoid…
Frankly, that part of the memory is rather a blur to me now, I have no recollection of whether the truth or some artful fabrication was entered into the public record, but the latter would be my guess. All I remember from that point onwards, is the encounter with my old friends; pain and embarrassment, but also something new; the violent disconnect between my absolute faith in what should happen and what actually did happen. This was a brutal lesson in the supremacy of the Laws of Physics over Cartoon Logic for somebody who was to become a cartoonist later in his life.…
PS: Some people may wonder how it is that my uncle is only a few years older than me and was a childhood playmate. I’m the oldest child of a big family (7 children) but at the time and place that I grew up (rural Australia in the 1970s) big families seemed the norm rather than the exception. It wasn’t until I left my home town and moved to the city to work that I realised that families with less than 4 kids even existed. A feature of huge families is that the oldest child of parents who are themselves oldest children, and started parenting young (as was the case with both my parents) may have an Aunt or Uncle who is only a few years older. I have one of each; my Aunty Mary (only four years older than me) on my Mother’s side, and my Uncle John (five years older than me) on my Father’s side. Because of the minimal age difference between us they often felt like older siblings, and some of my earliest memories of playing with other kids were of playing with my Aunt and Uncle. I took this for granted in my childhood, but have come to learn that it seems hillbilly-esque to people not familiar with the syndrome. So you big city sophisticates can by all means imagine this story playing out with banjos and fiddles on the soundtrack if you must.