My Grandpa lies. Big ones. Fat ones. Short ones. Skinny ones. And he’s good too. He can tell a thorough half-truth while shoe-horning into his hushpuppies, without even blinking an eye. In fact, some of his best lies are so good, they have been happily, and knowingly, traded for the truth.
When I was 12, I suddenly noticed a pattern in my life. Some people bite their nails, or twirl their hair. Some hum, chew their lip, or consistently primp their moustache. Others tap their fingers while wiggling their feet. My grandpa, however, folds or rolls papery and napkiny things tightly, neatly, then finishes them with a knot. Napkins, paper, aluminum foil, receipts, paper bags, newspaper clippings, wrapping paper, Kleenexes… It is less a function of whatever he can find, than of opportunity and availability of appropriate materials, coupled with a moment spent, not in boredom, but in contemplative observation. It’s the thing his hands do when his mind is not looking.
The ideal environment for this is after a family dinner. The mashed potatoes have been carried back into the kitchen. The dinner plates have been stacked and we have successfully conquered dessert. We are loosening our belts and sinking into a cup of coffee. Some of us are sliding loosely into the port too, so this particular moment in family space makes for great open and candid conversations. It also means Grandpa’s napkin has migrated from his lap to the table in front of him. He is proudly listening to the two generations he has masterfully nurtured and inspired. Just observing, sometimes he chuckles, because we are silly, too, and sometimes he nudges the conversation himself, but he always keeps an eye on that napkin. It is deliciously smooth and perfect for his creation.
Initially, he starts just by smoothing the napkin gently with his hand; over and over, just smoothing, and listening. Next, his hands will notice the stitching on the edge of the napkin. It’s thicker than the rest of the napkin, and sometimes the stitching is rough where it is surged. It is especially obvious to the tip of the ring finger, sliding lengthwise along the stitching, a little more slowly towards the corner. Back and forth, and listening, looking up every once in a while, as if almost about to say something.
The second stage of the process is dependent entirely upon the actual material involved. Paper will be folded; fabric will be rolled. This most important intermediate step goes almost unnoticed. He spends so much slow and methodical time smoothing the napkin that as a witness, you are lulled into the impression that ironing the napkin is his only objective. I had been watching this process long enough, so I knew if I wanted to see how it was done, in its entirety, I would also have to keep my eye on the napkin. The transfer from smoothed and rolled, to knotted, is one single manoeuvre, launching from the slow and careful evaluation of the corner stitching. And that’s all I know for sure; I miss it every time. He knows I’m on to him, and he is still quicker, so he waits until I take a sip of coffee, close my eyes in laughter, or brush a crumb towards my brother to complete his work. Because suddenly, there it is: the napkin, rolled and knotted.
I don’t know exactly how many times I have seen him do this in my life – he still does it, to spite being exposed – but suddenly at 12, I was overcome by curiosity.
“What is that? Why do you do that, all the time? It’s the same thing, over and over, every time!” The conversation stopped, and everyone at the table looked at him, waiting for an answer.
“It’s a ‘bonker’.” He looked me right in the eye.
Like any explanation from any good modern leader, it was followed by silence. I was not aware of any one else’s expression, but felt only my own. My eye brows raised to let the thought penetrate my frontal lobe. I accepted it as truth, and my face relaxed knowing that what my grandpa had created was, in fact, a bonker. The pause in the conversation, and our silence, was our acknowledgement that we would know the purpose of the bonker after some other lesson, when it was time. He did look me straight in the eye, however, as I am the impatient grandchild, who might press him for premature information. I felt my brow crinkle, just enough to infer that I wasn’t completely satisfied, but that I agreed to think it over, until next time. He just smiled.
So weeks passed, as weeks do in families, and we found ourselves again at the dinner table, with nothing left to contemplate but the coffee and the Baileys. I, on the other hand, continued to contemplate “the bonker” that predictably taunted me from the head of the table. I was obsessed. In hindsight, I’m sure he was watching me, and cooking up something that would get me. By nature, I have always been victim to my own imagination, so when he makes up lies to tell me, they have fantastic plumage.
“Alright. What the HELL is a “bonker?” I swore, for teenaged emphasis.
“Well…” Once again, the conversation at the table stopped, and for a moment the only sound that was heard was the soft thump of the bonker on the table. He picked it up at the free end, turned it straight out in front of him, and thumped the knot a few times on the table to show its potential action. “It’s a bonker because it reminds me of a tool we used in the war.”
“Oh. Hmm.” I heard myself mumble.
I was still fixed on the bonker, sort of nodding. I could see the shape of this mythical tool in my mind’s eye, but I could not figure out what he would ever use a bonker for. First of all, Grandpa’s war was not one of hand-to-hand combat, and secondly, I think if he ever actually killed anyone he would never recreate the instrument at the dinner table, let alone relish the details. That part I knew for sure. “Seriously Grandpa, what is a bonker.” I threw my hands up.
We were all waiting silently now, so he leaned into it, elbows on the table, and the bonker stretched straight out in front of him. He paused for a moment, smoothed it end to end, seeming to ponder where to begin. He bounced it on the table again a few times. His eyebrows raised and he took a deep breath. His head was lower than his shoulders, and he was literally on the edge of his seat. It was excrutiating.
“I’m kind of hesitating to tell this story… ahh, but what the heck, we did what we had to do. When I was in the war, I spent a little time in Africa.” In my mind, he had just rubbed his face in dirt, and painted zebra stripes across his cheeks and forehead for camouflage. He was still wearing his glasses, but his cheeks were sunburned, his face stubbley and sweaty. He squinted a little, remembering the sun and the heat, as he continued.
“This bonker,” he said, holding it up, “looks a lot like the bonkers we made, when we were stranded in Africa, during the war. Our ship had been shot, and it had a good sized hole in it, so we had to pull over. It took them a long time to rescue us, and we were running out of food, so we had to get our own food. We were starting to get really skinny, and feeling pretty desperate, you betcha.” He wasn’t looking at any of us at the table; he was staring at the napkin bonker, alternating between stroking it with his finger tips and bouncing it on the table.
“It was pretty simple, really. It was hot, so we were all walking around with our pants rolled up, and our socks off. We would just wear our shoes, which was cooler for our feet. And frankly, a whole lot nicer when you put them on after a swim in the ocean. We had very few weapons, so we had to get really resourceful about how we did things. A great example of this was how we created the bonker. Not wearing our socks meant we could put chestnuts in them, tie a knot to keep it secure, and swing it to hit things.” He plussed over that part really quickly, and we hardly noticed. Grandpa had a way of telling stories, where no one actually interrupted with questions. We would all just sit there, mesmorised, listening, and if we registered any confusion he would pause, let us catch up in our minds and continue. “So, O.K. You got that now?” He had been a teacher and a principal, so he was especially experienced in seeing that the whole group understood, before moving on. If you didn’t get it, he would explain it to you in a different way until you did. He knew by our faces if we were all on the same page.
“Alright then. So we would make these bonkers out of our socks and chestnuts.” He was talking a little more quietly, so everyone was very still, listening. A couple of us had leaned in too, just to focus on what he was saying. Very clearly, and very slowly he continued. “We would walk up the beach towards the fields, and spread out, a few of us at a time. We would lie down in the grass, and be really, really still. We would pretend we were dead. And we practically were dead, we were so hungry. The hyenas would come out of the forest, into the field, see us, and think we were dead. Those scavengers would gather around us to eat us, but when they got close enough, we would WHACK them in the head with our bonkers.”
Shock and horror spread around the table, and we all recoiled like he had bonked us over the heads.
“And that was dinner!” He professed.
“Grandpa!” I exclaimed.
“Jesus, Dad. That’s terrible.” My uncle groaned, shaking his head.
My Mom let out that sound only moms can make.
My Dad guffawed and took a hearty sip of port, his belly shaking as he laughed.
“I told you I shouldn’t tell that story! We did what we had to do to survive!” He had sat back in his chair, waving the bonker at everyone. “It was a war, you know.”
My brother and I looked at each other, horrified. Could he really have done this? I pictured the hyenas. Poor dogs. I couldn’t think any further, about how they cooked them. Grandpa just looked at us, now straight-faced, nodding a little.
“Grandpa.” I said as firmly as I could. I wanted the truth. “Is that true?”
“What?! Of course it’s true!” He spoke like he was the one who was horrified. Then he looked me right in the eye, like it was just the 2 of us in the room, no one laughing or groaning around us. “Would I kid you?”
I stared right back at him. This was perhaps the most amazing story I’d ever heard, and the thought of him in Africa, hunting to survive and that he obviously did, just made him a hero. I double-checked the other faces at the table, but they were already engaged in new conversations. I took this to mean that they had heard the story before, and had already accepted it. I looked at him again; he was still looking me straight in the eye.
“I wouldn’t kid you.” He said, gently. “You’re too smart for that.”
Wow, I thought to myself. I had heard a lot about his life, but this was the first time I had seen him as the fittest of survivors. It was a magical image, and it came to mind every time I saw him skilfully and absentmindedly fold and twist-up a bonker. He didn’t tell that story again, maybe because it was too upsetting for the rest of the family, but any time he would catch me watching him make a bonker, we would just nod at each other. And he would smile, knowingly. We both knew what he was capable of, not just for survival, but for his country, and now for the future of not just this dinner table, but many generations of family dinners to follow.
Years and years went by. And years. I got a part-time job, my driver’s licence, and learned how to speak German. I finished high school, then university, started my own business, and then went away skiing for the winters. By the time I was 25, I had a very exciting and busy life; I talked to a lot of people everyday. I told lots of stories, because that’s what ski bums do. Everybody has a story to tell, and riding chairlifts or huddling in small warm-up shacks, makes for lots of great story-space. Funny thing though, I did not tell the complete version of the bonker story until I was 28. I alluded to it more than many times, of course, because so many objects resemble bonkers: candy apples, pre-tied safety webbing, emergency duct tape wrapped around a pen, or 2 big shoelaces folded and tied together so they wouldn’t get tangled. Again, it’s more about form and spontaneity, than it is defined function, because after all, the original bonker was a chestnut in a sock, and it was, indeed, a lethal device.
“What’s a bonker?” That was the usual question that would follow, with a chuckle. And I guess it is a funny thing to say, for sure; it just feels funny when it comes out of your body: bonker. “It’s a thing my Grandpa used to use to kill hyenas for food during the war.” No one ever asked anything else, they just laughed, probably thinking I was just joking. And they thought I was joking because I had such a straight face when I said it. It truly was a serious instrument, with a funny name to give levity to its weight in world history.
So there I was, at 28, at the top of a mountain, in my skis, in my prime, just about to bust into a half-frozen lunch, and out of my friend’s pack falls a cappuccino sugar stick. I burst out laughing: “Hey! A bonker!”
“A bonker. What does that mean, anyway?” He had heard the brief explanation before, but it was late season melt-freeze conditions, and to spite the bluebird sky, we were taking our time over lunch, waiting for the ride down to soften. This was a perfect time for a story, so I thought I would really share the whole bonker story from start to finish. And as everything comes full circle, the end of the bonker story, is the beginning of this story.
It was the funniest thing. I finished the story, and there was no laughter. There were no questions. He just looked me straight in the eye, dumb-founded. It was the same look I had felt from the inside myself, when I heard the story for the first time all those years ago. I had never discussed it with anyone, never shared those feelings of pride and familial experiences with anyone, not even Grandpa. We had only ever simply nodded our heads across the table at each other as a symbol of our communal knowledge. I looked right back at him, as Grandpa had at me, and thought: “Yes, indeed, that is a bonker.” Then my friend’s brow wrinkled ever so slightly, and he burst out laughing.
“A bonker. You’re hilarious. You almost had me. I mean, seriously, I didn’t know whether to believe you or not, but then I started thinking: Canadian Navy, stranded in Africa, eating hyenas? Not a chance. And the chestnuts? Chestnuts? Really?” And he dissolved in another fit of laughter.
I was really confused. I just couldn’t understand how he went from dumbfounded to hysterical laughter, and then it happened to me. It was like someone had taken the 2 halves of my brain and twisted them like a rubic’s cube. The past 13 years of mythical truth about “the bonker”, this historical symbol present in every day of my modern life, was instantly available. We laughed together, but my friend had no idea why I was laughing. He was thinking I had made up this ridiculous story as a spoof. But I had finally realised, I’d been had. “Would I kid you?” It rang through my head, resonated along every nerve in my body, and eventually settled in my cheeks. It was the warmest, kindest, most nurturing feeling.
My Grandpa lies. It’s the most wonderful truth.
Written by: Adrienne Yeardye; Jupiter’s Hive