My Cousin Dikran, the Orator

TWENTY years ago, in the San Joaquin Valley, the Armenians used to regard oratory as the greatest, the noblest, the most important, one might say the only, art. About ninety-two per cent of the vineyardists around Fresno, by actual count, believed that any man who could make a speech was a cultured man. This was so, I imagine after all these years, because the vineyardists themselves were so ineffective at speechmaking, so self-conscious about it, so embarrassed, and so profoundly impressed by public speakers who could get up on a platform, adjust spectacles on their noses, look at their pocket watches, cough politely, and, beginning quietly, lift their voices to a roar that shook the farmers to the roots and made them know the speaker was educated.

What language! What energy! What wisdom! What magnificent roaring! the farmers said to themselves.

The farmers, assembled in the basement of one or another of the three churches, or in the Civic Auditorium, trembled with awe, wiped the tears from their eyes, blew their noses, and, momentarily overcome, donated as much money as they could afford. On some occasions, such as when money was being raised for some especially intimate cause, the farmers, in donating money, would stand up in the auditorium and cry out, ‘Mgerdich Kasabian, his wife Araxie, his three sons, Gourken, Sirak, and Toumas — fifty cents!’ and sit down amid thunderous applause, not so much for the sum of money donated as for the magnificent manner of speaking, and the excellent and dramatic pronunciation of the fine old-country names: Mgerdich, Araxie, Gourken, Sirak, Toumas.

In this matter of speaking and donating money, the farmers competed with one another. If a farmer did not get up and publicly make his announcement like a man — well, then, the poor fellow! Neither money nor the heart to get up fearlessly and throw away the trembling in his soul! Because of this competition, a farmer unable to donate money (but with every impulse in the world to help the cause), would sit nervously in shame year after year, and then finally, with the arrival of better days, leap to his feet, look about the auditorium furiously, and shout, ‘Gone are the days of poverty for this tribe from the lovely city of Dikranagert — the five Pampalonian brothers — twentyfive cents!’ and go home with his head high, and his heart higher. Poor? In the old days, yes. But no more. (And the five enormous men would look at one another with family pride, and push their sons before them — with affection, of course; that strange Near-Eastern, Oriental affection that came from delight in no longer being humiliated in the eyes of one’s countrymen.)

No farmer was prouder, however, than when his son, at school, at church, at a picnic, or anywhere, got up and made a speech.

‘The boy!’ the farmer would shout at his eighty-eight-year-old father. ‘Listen to him! It’s Vahan, my son, your grandson — eleven years old. He’s talking about Europe.’

The grandfather would shake his head and wonder what it was all about, a boy of eleven so serious and so well-informed, talking about Europe. The old man scarcely would know where Europe was, although he would know he had visited Havre, in France, on his way to America. Perhaps Havre — perhaps that was it. Yevroba. Europe. But what in the world could be the matter with Havre suddenly — to make the boy so tense and excited? ‘Ahkh,’ the old man would groan, ‘it is all beyond me. I don’t remember. It was a pleasant city on the sea, with ships.’

The women would be overjoyed and full of amazement at themselves, the mothers. They would look about at one another, nodding, shaking their heads, and after ten minutes of the boy’s talking in English, which they could n’t understand, they would burst into sweet silent tears because it was all so amazing and wonderful — little Berjie, only yesterday a baby who could n’t speak two words of Armenian, let alone English, on a platform, speaking, swinging his arms, pointing a finger, now at the ceiling, now west, now south, now north, and occasionally at his heart.

It was inevitable under these circumstances for the Garoghlanians to produce an orator too, even though the Old Man regarded speechmakers as fools and frauds.

‘When you hear a small man with spectacles on his face shouting from the bottom of his bowels, let me tell you that that man is either a jackass or a liar.’

He was always impatient with any kind of talk, except the most direct and pertinent. He wanted to know what he did n’t know, and that was all. He wanted no talk for talk’s sake. He used to go to all the public meetings, but they never failed to sicken him. Every speaker would watch his face to learn how displeased the Old Man was, and when they saw his lips moving with silent curses they would calm down and try to talk sense, or, if they had talked to him in private and learned how stupid he regarded them, they would try to get even with him by shouting louder than ever and occasionally coming forth with ‘We know there are those among us who scoff at us, who ridicule our efforts, who even, out of fantastic pride of heart, regard us as fools, but this has always been the cross we have had to carry, and carry it we will.’

Here the Old Man would tap his sons on their heads, these in turn would tap their sons on their heads, these would nudge one another, the women would look about, and together the Garoghlanians, numbering thirty-seven or thirtyeight, would rise and walk out, with the Old Man looking about furiously at the poor farmers and saying, ‘They’re carrying the cross again — let’s go.’

In spite of all this, I say, it was inevitable for the Garoghlanians to produce an orator. It was the style, the will of the people, and some member of the Garoghlanian tribe would naturally find it essential to enter the field and show everybody what oratory could really be — what, in fact, it really was, if the truth were known.

This Garoghlanian turned out to be my little cousin Dikran, my uncle Zorab’s second son, who was nine years old when the war ended, a year younger than myself, but so much smaller in size that I regarded him as somebody to ignore.

From the beginning this boy was one of those very bright boys who have precious little real understanding, no humor at all, and the disgraceful and insulting attitude that all knowledge comes from the outside — disgraceful particularly to the Garoghlanians, who for centuries had come by all their wisdom naturally, from within. It was the boast of the Old Man that any real Garoghlanian could spot a crook in one glance, and would have the instinctive good sense to know how to deal with the man.

‘When you look at a man who hides behind his face,’ the Old Man used to say, ‘let me tell you that that man is no good. He is either a spy or a swindler. On the other hand, if you look at a man whose glance tells you, “Brother, I am your brother” — watch out. That man carries a knife on his person somewhere.’

With instruction of this sort, beginning practically at birth, it was only natural for the average Garoghlanian to grow up in wisdom of the world and its strange inhabitants.

The only Garoghlanian who could n’t catch on, however, was this cousin of mine, Dikran. He was strictly a bookreader, a type of human being extremely contemptible to the Old Alan, unless he could perceive definite improvement in the character of the reader — of necessity a child, as who else would read a book? In the case of Dikran, the Old Man could perceive no improvement; on the contrary, a continuous decline in understanding, until at last, when the boy was eleven, the Old Man was informed that Dikran was the brightest pupil at Longfellow School, the pride of his teachers, and an accomplished public speaker.

When this news was brought to the Old Man by the boy’s mother, the Old Man, who was lying on the couch in the parlor, turned his face to the wall and groaned, ‘Too bad. What a waste. What’s eating the boy?’

‘Why, he’s the brightest boy in the whole school,’ the mother said.

The Old Man sat up and said, ‘When you hear of a boy of eleven being the brightest boy in a school of five hundred boys— pay no attention to it. For the love of God, what’s he bright about? Is n’t he eleven? What bright? Who wants a child to burden himself with such a pathetic sense of importance? You have been a poor mother, I must tell you. Drive the poor boy out of the house into the fields. Let him go swimming with his cousins. The poor fellow does n’t even know how to laugh. And you come here in the afternoon to tell me he is bright. Well, go away.’

In spite of even this, I say, the boy moved steadily forward, turning the pages of books day and night, Sundays and holidays and picnic days, until finally, on top of everything else, it was necessary to fit glasses to his face which made him all the more miserablelooking, so that every time there was a family gathering the Old Man would look about, see the boy, and groan, ’My God, the philosopher! All right, boy, come here.’

The boy would get up and stand in front of the Old Man.

‘Well,’ the Old Man would say, ‘you read books. That’s fine. You are now eleven years old. Thank God for that. Now tell me — what do you know? What have you learned?’

‘I can’t tell you in Armenian,’ the boy would say.

‘ I see,’ the Old Man would say. ‘ Well, tell me in English.’

Here everything would go beautifully haywire. This little cousin of mine, eleven years old, would really begin to make a speech about all the wonderful things he had found out from the books. They were wonderful, too. He knew all the dates, all the reasons, all the names, all the places, and what the consequences were likely to be.

It was very beautiful in a minor, melancholy way.

Suddenly the Old Man would stop the boy’s speech, shouting, ‘What are you — a parrot?’

Even so, it seemed to me that the Old Man was fond of this strange arrival among the Garoghlanians. Book-readers were fools, — and so were orators, — but at any rate our book-reader and orator was not by any means a run-ofthe-mill book-reader and orator. He was at any rate something special. For one thing he was younger than the others who imagined they had learned many things from books, and for another he spoke a lot more clearly than the others.

For these reasons, and because of the evident determination in the boy to follow his own inclination, he was accepted by all of us as the Garoghlanian scholar and orator, and permitted to occupy his time and develop whatever mind he may have been born with as he pleased.

In 1920, Longfellow School announced an evening programme consisting of (1) Glee Club Singing, (2) a performance of Julius Cœsar, and (3) a speech by Dikran Garoghlanian — a speech entitled ‘Was the World War Fought in Vain?’ At the proper time the Garoghlanians seated themselves in the school auditorium, listened to the awful singing, watched the horrible performance of Julius Cœsar, and then listened to the one and only Garoghlanian orator — Dikran, the second son of Zorab.

The speech was flawless: dramatic, well-uttered, intelligent, and terribly convincing—the conclusion being that the World War had not been fought in vain, that Democracy had saved the world. Everybody in the auditorium was stricken with awe, and applauded the speech wildly. It was really too much, though — I mean for the Old Man. In the midst of the thunderous applause, he burst out laughing. It was really splendid, in a way. It was at least the best thing of its kind— the best of the worst kind of thing. There was some occasion for pride in this, even.

That evening at home the Old Man called the boy to him and said, ‘I listened to your speech. It’s all right. I understand you spoke about a war in which several million men were killed. I understand you proved the war was not fought in vain. I must tell you I am rather pleased. A statement as large and as beautiful as that deserves to come only from the lips of a boy of eleven — from one who believes what he is saying. From a grown man, I must tell you, the horror of that remark would be just a little too much for me to endure. Continue your investigation of the world from books, and I am sure, if you are diligent and your eyes hold out, that by the time you are sixty-seven you will know the awful foolishness of that remark— so innocently uttered by yourself to-night, in such a pure flow of soprano English. In a way I am as proud of you as of any other member of this tribe. You may all go now. I want to sleep. I am not eleven years old. I am sixty-seven.’

Everybody got up and went away, except me. I stayed behind long enough to see the old man take off his shoes and hear him sigh, ‘These crazy wonderful children of this crazy wonderful world! ’