whose hand in Autumn
painted all the trees scarlet,
leaves red and yellow
Adapted from Henry Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha.
But the fierce Kabibonokka
Had his dwelling among icebergs,
In the everlasting snow-drifts,
In the kingdom of Wabasso,
In the land of the White Rabbit.
He it was whose hand in Autumn
Painted all the trees with scarlet,
Stained the leaves with red and yellow;
He it was who sent the snow-flakes,
Sifting, hissing through the forest,
Froze the ponds, the lakes, the rivers,
Drove the loon and sea-gull southward,
Drove the cormorant and curlew
To their nests of sedge and sea-tang
In the realms of Shawondasee.
According to Wikipedia, “Chapter II tells a legend of how the warrior Mudjekeewis became Father of the Four Winds by slaying the Great Bear of the mountains, Mishe-Mokwa. His son Wabun, the East Wind, falls in love with a maiden whom he turns into the Morning Star, Wabun-Annung. Wabun’s brother, Kabibonokka, the North Wind, bringer of autumn and winter, attacks Shingebis, “the diver”. Shingebis repels him by burning firewood, and then in a wrestling match. A third brother, Shawondasee, the South Wind, falls in love with a dandelion, mistaking it for a golden-haired maiden.”
I have tried and tried to wade through Hiawatha.
I am familiar with it’s history and place in a American literature but it is shoveling heavy snow to work my way through its 5,314 trochaic tetrameter lines.
Maybe its the words and wording I cannot pronounce.
Maybe it is the names.
Minnehaha, Mudjekeewis, Mishe-Mokwa, Wabun, Wabun-Annung, Kabibonokka, Shingebis, Shawondasee and Nokomis.
One of my favorite authors, Bruce Catton recalled that when he was in high school he had attempted to write a novel based on the Aztecs.
Mr. Catton noted in Waiting for the Morning Train: A Michigan Boyhood, his autobiography, that he had selected for his main character of the novel, the name Nezahualcoyotl, King of Tezcoco.
Mr. Catton did bit complete the novel and he writes, “ … how could you do a piece of fiction whose name is Nezahualcoyotl? Utterly impossible.”
Then there is this other reason.
I have a problem with Hiawatha due to this other story lurking there in the back of my mind.
I grew up in a neighborhood Baptist Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
My family had started going there back in the 30s.
For a good part of my life the Pastor of the Church was wonderful Bible preaching man who had grown up in the state of Maine.
The Pastor was fond of telling stories his boyhood in that great state.
I loved the stories.
If there was a problem for me and the Pastor and any of his stories was that I had this type of brain that remembered the stories.
I might not be able to force my mind to remember spelling words, trigonometry tables or quadratic equations but ask me what happened to the first trout the Pastor caught while fishing for the first time with his buddies along some river in Maine and I will tell you.
ANYWAY, the Pastor had a story he would tell about the poem Hiawatha.
I have to admit I do not remember the point of the story or the illustration created by telling the story but from the first time I heard it, I remembered the story.
I know I remembered it because as soon as he would start the wind up that lead into the story I would lean over to who ever I was sitting next too, my Dad mostly or some friend or sibling.
I would lean over and whisper, “He is going to say LEG PAINT.”
Which got some good silent stares in reply that said, “Are you nuts?”
Then the Pastor would describe how when he was in high school in Maine he recited most of, if not all of the Song of Hiawatha at an all school assembly.
Pastor said that he was dressed for the part.
Pastor said he had feathers in his hair and carried a bow and arrows.
Pastor said he wore moccasins and buckskin pants.
Then it came.
“From the waist up,” he said, “I was covered with … leg paint.”
I think the first time I heard the story I had asked my Mom what leg paint was.
My Mom said that when silk and nylon wasn’t available for stockings during World War 2, someone came up with the idea that brown or tan make up used on legs could look like a nice pair of stockings.
The make up was marketed as Leg Paint.
Let me tell you that that is one hard picture to get out of your mind.
This was only the 2nd Pastor of our Baptist Church that I known.
The first one, I was sure, had weekly meetings with Mrs. Swanson, the Principal at Crestview Elementary School and Lyndon Johnson, President of the United States.
When I read about the BIG THREE, I thought of Pastor, Principal and President.
And you know how it is when you think of older people as younger people.
They have smaller bodies but the same face.
I would look at the Pastor up there in the pulpit and I saw the buckskins, the bow and arrows and … the leg paint.
I wish I could come up with the original reason that the Pastor told the story.
An unexpected positive result was that when I was faced with something goofy or odd that I had to do in High School I would often recall that the Pastor went along with Hiawatha Assembly.
If he could do it, so could I.
He was a good guy.
Much later in life I had an opportunity to give him a Boston Celtics jacket.
Being from Maine, he was Celtics guy but that was okay.
Nothing made me smile more than reports that the Pastor was spotted wearing that jacket.
I had done burst once when a sister of mine told that she ran into the Pastor at a diner near church and he was wearing that bright green and gold jacket.
My sister told me she had to ask, “Where did you get that?”
The Pastor squared his shoulders and straightened the jacket and said, “I’ll have you know your brother Mike gave it to me.”