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A good laugh at ourselves never hurts

Lance Neita

Sunday, September 16, 2018

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Jamaica's indigenous culture remains the saving grace for a country battered by crime, economic woes, indiscipline, natural disasters, and political wranglings. We have been repeatedly savaged by acts of violence and a coarseness that has threatened to uproot our social stability. It must be the traditions inherited from earlier generations that help us to withstand the shocks from the daily outrage.

In spite of the hardships and constant struggles to meet the cost of living, Jamaicans continue to smile and to perform deeds of kindness and unselfishness. We seem able to draw down on an inner strength and resolve forged out of a background of religion and morals inculcated at an early age.

This is not meant to be a rhapsody about contentment. The reality is that, notwithstanding our high standing on those “international satisfaction polls”, we live on the edge. Too many of our people face life in the shadows of relatives or friends lost to the gun, coping with fear, warding off those things that go bump in the night, or going through forced removal from home communities to find more secure shelter at addresses unknown.

Often it is our culture of kindness and sense of humour that forms a wedge to protect our sanity. We have been fortunate to have had a Bim and Bam, a Miss Lou and Mass Ran, and the irrepressible Oliver to show us how to laugh; and best still, how to laugh at our misfortunes and ourselves.

Many years ago my mother fainted while walking up and down King Street doing her Christmas shopping. She was immediately helped to her feet by a group of those rotund ladies who traditionally sold Christmas cards on the sidewalk by the General Post Office.

By the time I reached the scene the street vendors were fanning her vigorously and rubbing her with white rum. To my surprise and relief she started laughing as we got her up into the car. Later she explained that when she came to and saw all those strangers around her she immediately closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep. But when she heard one lady saying, “Rub her foot, Zelda, rub her foot, dah part deh always dead first,” she laughed as she knew she was alive and well and still in Jamaica — and in the hands of good and kind strangers, to boot.

My mother had an incredible sixth sense when we tried to play tricks on her. Something is funny, she would say to herself but just loud enough for us children to hear. No matter what mischief we were up to, or what we sought to hide, she would pick up a clue from some errant behaviour and start her investigations around the house, moving from room to room as we watched petrified. Nothing could escape her, not even the comic books hidden under the mattress.

She kept a tight rein on behaviour, but also had a sense of humour that applauded our cleverness and smartness even as she administered the rites of corporal punishment.

My father, on the other hand, while a feared disciplinarian at his school, was the easy one around the house, and would most times turn a blind eye to our misdemeanours, leaving it up to his beloved Abie to run the domestic things and keep tabs on the children.

He was one of those old-time head teachers who used the strap liberally and was never hesitant about including his children in the line-up of students failing mental arithmetic or fighting on the ball ground. But at home he was a bit of a softie and we could count on him to intervene when ever Abie threatened punishment.

His philosophy of life was simple. He looked after the income, the school, the 4-H club, the savings union, the Jamaica Welfare branch, the village cricket team, the Clarendon Cricket Board, the Benefit Building Society administrative duties, collected his staff pay cheques from the post office, conducted Jamaica Agricultural Society meetings, church lay preaching, and gave an occasional bass contribution to the local church choir.

Abie was the housekeeper, the disciplinarian, the nurse, the 'broughtupcy' expert. She planned the birthday parties, did the sewing, put dinner on the table, and saw to it that we did our homework.

When we were sick, my father would tiptoe through the bedroom, lift the mosquito net, put his hand on the cheek to check for fever, murmur 'poor thing', and then move on. It was up to Abie to administer the salt physic, tie the cactus around the forehead for headaches, wrap the bandages, keep up special anniversaries, plan the Sunday school outings, and determine what to wear, and when to wear it.

The well known joke about decision making in families would apply to them. My father would claim that he made the major decisions while my mother made the minor ones. When asked, however, to qualify what were the major decisions mother made, he could say “What school the children should go to, what colour to paint the house, whether to change my job or not.”

And what are the major decisions? “Oh, should the prime minister call elections now, should President Trump be impeached, should America invade Syria, and so on…”

The old-time movies

We still have fun with our Jamaican comedians and playhouse shows, but nothing can replace the old-time movies for the sheer drama and excitement. The cinema has always had a strong appeal for Jamaicans, and when we get down to enjoy a show we can 'bruk out' with the most enthusiastic and energetic audiences in the world and live the story to the full from first reel to last.

At one stage movie cinemas were all over Jamaica and we were keeping pace with film capitals of the world.

In the 1930s the Palace, Movies, Ward and Gaiety cinemas reigned supreme, but by the 1940s movie fans in the Corporate Area had the choice of the Ambassador, Globe, Tivoli, Tropical and the Rialto.

Every major town in the rural areas eventually boasted a movie house. Clarendon had three, the Little Magnet and Theatre Clarendon in May Pen, and another in Lionel Town. Theatre Royale ruled the roost in Linstead, while there was Bevo in Christiana, the Strand and Roxy in Montego Bay, Odeon in Mandeville, Doric in Savanna-la-Mar, and other proud houses at Frome, Highgate, Port Antonio, Duncans, Morant Bay, Brown's Town and St Ann's Bay.

In the deeper areas of Clarendon movies came to us with a projector and sheet for a screen. We had our own improvised cinema in the schoolroom and every Saturday we were treated to the best in romance, Westerns, adventure, religion, and comedies.

A gentleman from Porus, whose name I think was Barracat, was our 'picture man' and he was able to perform the extraordinary feat of having three or four shows running on the same night at different locations. He would start off with reel one, but Heaven help him if he was late with reel number two as the forced intermission would be laced with expletives while the crowd waited for the operator to show up.

The audience enjoyed the show to the maximum with loud cheers when the MGM lion roared, and enthusiastic welcome and recognition as the actors names appeared on the screen. We were as familiar as city folks with the stars of the day: Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Grable, Stewart Granger, Alan Ladd, Errol Flynn, Grace Kelly, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Taylor, John Wayne, Cary Grant, Doris Day, Joan Fontaine, Ava Gardner, and Henry Fonda.

There was never a dull moment on-screen or 0ff. We helped Sinbad to throw the pirates overboard, jousted against the Black Knight with Ivanhoe, puzzled over the identity of the Corsican brothers, and we fought the good fight with Scaramouche in that epic and longest sword fight in movie history.

But it was the Westerns that literally raised the roof. The schoolroom came alive as we rock and rolled with the posses chasing the bad men across the prairies. Rock Hudson's fisticuffs were fought with supportive shouts of 'biff, buff, baff and lick 'im.' The star was urged to duck when the bad men attempted an ambush. And the Lone Ranger and Tonto got a helping hand from us in times of trouble with a loud, “Hi-ho, Silver! Away!”

As for the screen kisses, there were no oohs and ahs, more raucous laughter and sexual innuendos as John Wayne took Maureen O'Hara in his arms or Cary Grant wrapped up a young starlet in a wild embrace.

The movies gave us a chance to escape and travel into fantasy land. They can never replace the realities of life, but they offered an excellent escape valve for us to let our hair down and indulge in a good belly laugh.

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant and writer. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.

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