Sunday, October 02, 2022

Encounters of the First Kind : Peter Larlham

Peter Larlham at Pima Point.

My first conversation with Peter Larlham began with a shudder. In his first breath he asked my age. This being the day after my 81st birthday he found me in a weakened state. I had not taken the event well. 81 sounded more like a death sentence.

To compound the felony, he expressed amazement and intimated that my demise was nigh.  

“That’s really old. I’m 76.” As if that were prepubescent.

I whimpered, “But I don’t feel 81.” I lied.

Both of our in-depth conversations turned to aging and the malicious manifestations of that malady. Bad back. Worse balance. Replacement parts. Shrinkage. Flabby stomach and no ass. Scoff if you must. Every man I know of a certain age has lost muscle mass and most of it vacated his nether regions. Peter quoted a line from Shakespeare in which an elderly gentleman laments that he no longer fills his “pantaloons.” I am guilty as charged. My buttocks are absent without leave.

I introduced you to Peter last time. He’s the chap I met at the Grand Canyon two weeks ago, the affable storyteller of mythic proportions. Peter, as you may recall, grew up in Africa and was schooled in Africa and England before getting his Ph.D. in Theatre at NYU.  He told me he attended boarding school for 12 years. While attending school in England he came home to Africa once a year whether he needed to or not. It’s an existence that seems classically British and aloof to a white bread American kid of the 50s like me.

He said he was lucky to pass his exams so he could attend university. He chose Natal University in Durbin, South Africa, a city on the Indian Ocean which boasted a heady stew of Native Africans, Indians, and the English. It sounded idyllic. 

When Peter arrived at Natal, he and his best mate looked down from a hill overlooking the campus and observed a building where a steady stream of girls were entering and leaving. Peter turned to his friend and proclaimed, “That’s the school we’re going to attend, Alfie.” So, Peter’s career in theatre was spawned by raging hormones. The bard, the boards and the babes beckoned. He met Margaret his future wife of 51 years at Natal and retired as a Professor of Theatre at San Diego State University after 36 years. Imagine Peter’s story if the long line of lovelies in Durbin had been aspiring nurses not actors.

He told me he awarded only A’s his last five years of teaching. “Who am I to judge an art form?” he pondered. Who indeed.

On the first day of class in his very last semester of teaching, he saw an unfamiliar face in the classroom. He asked her name. She wasn’t registered for the class according to his list of new students. When questioned she replied, “I’m not. But I didn’t come to class at all last semester, and you still gave me an A. So, I decided I might as well see what I missed.” You and I can ponder the efficacy of the straight A model but it's a great story well told.

Two experiences foretold Peter and Margaret’s lives and careers in the U.S. They honeymooned in New York City in 1972 and fell in love with the freedom and vitality of America. The contrast to Apartheid Africa couldn’t have been more stark. In a moment of riveting clarity Peter describes that revelation and a second moment when they knew they had to escape Africa.

Their young son had just drawn a picture of a British Colonial soldier on horseback shooting a Zulu warrior through the heart. In drawing the warrior’s heart is gushing blood. His son’s teacher patted the boy on the shoulder and told him, “Excellent job, Lewis.”

“That’s when I knew we had to get out of Africa.” Peter told me.

Peter Larlham speaks Zulu and wrote the definitive book on Black Theatre, Dance and Ritual in South Africa.

Since 2008 he has worked to transform The Mnyakongo Primary School in Tanzania. Appalled by the condition of the school’s library he has returned every year first to build a new one stocked with 8,500 books, then to install electricity and running water and to buy goats to provide milk for school lunches. These efforts expand each year under his impassioned leadership.

For this work he is the first recipient of the Ray Sylvester Phi Kappa Phi Distinguished Service Award for service that extends beyond academia.

And speaking of age, on our last evening of mediocre pizza, tepid pilsner, and zippy repartee he probed a second time, “Aren’t people shocked when you tell them how old you are?”

Sadly, the only one shocked is you, my new best friend. Well, and maybe me.


Anonymous said...

Haha! Never thought I’d wish I could be 80 again! 81 down, 19 to go!! Great post, youngster!

John Farnsworth said...

Haha! Never thought I’d wish I could be 80 again! 81 down 29 to go!! Great post, youngster!

Steve Immel said...

Isn't it pathetic? I'm angling for 79. I hate 8s.

Blacks Crossing said...

One thing that age must be doing for you, Amigo, is enhanceing your writing skills. This piece is one of your very best. You must have been inspired. It rates right up there with your recollections of the restaurant industry. Just divine. So glad you met Peter Larlham and shared some of his life with your blog readers in such an eloquent way. Thanks, Steve! May we have more, Sir?