Dad and the Anthropologist

By Eric White

One leisurely Saturday morning I was sitting at the dining room table nursing a cup of coffee, looking forward to a pleasant weekend which included a visit with my dad. He had traveled from the eastern part of the state to spend a few days with me and my family. His wife, my mother, had recently died, and it was easy to see that he was lonely and wanted company.

I always enjoyed being with my dad. He was never at a loss for words, had an opinion on almost everything, and could keep a conversation going long after even I had lost interest and didn’t even pretend to be listening. He enjoyed the company of virtually everyone he met and was always eager to strike up a conversation with anyone.

I was on my second cup of coffee. Dad had already finished his breakfast and his one cup of coffee and had gone outside to check out the neighborhood. We had recently moved to the Highlands, and he was eager to explore where I had decided to buy my first house.

I wasn’t paying attention to anything in particular when I started to hear voices in the distance. I looked up from my coffee, gazed out one of the windows in the dining room and saw my father in what could be called, without any exaggeration, an animated discussion with my next-door neighbor, who was also busy washing his car.

I couldn’t hear the exact words, but could tell from the low rumble of voices and the hand gestures and body language, that there was some sort of disagreement. Now what could they be arguing about, I thought, for there was no mistaking that this was an argument. The noise level got louder, the gestures more animated. And then it all stopped, almost, it seems, as suddenly as it had started. I watched my father storm across the street, back onto my driveway, push open the back door, stomp through the kitchen and into the dining room.

“Who is that man?” he bellowed.
“What do you mean?” I responded, not quite sure what he meant by his question.
“Who is that man?” he repeated. “He doesn’t know anything.”

I knew exactly who he was. He was my neighbor, the guy who liked to wash his car, owned some German Shepherds, had two kids, a wife, and taught anthropology at the University.
So I said: “He’s a fairly famous anthropologist who teaches at Penn State.” I thought this would calm dad down if I could establish my neighbor’s credentials and give him some credibility.

Didn’t work.

I should have known better, because Dad was never especially impressed with anyone’s credentials, especially academic ones. He didn’t seem to comprehend what degrees I had earned, although he came to all my graduations, once happily with a new camcorder in hand to document the moment, even though he didn’t have the faintest idea how to use a motion picture device. Beyond the bachelor’s degree he never asked what the other degrees were or what they were in. He didn’t ask me how I made a living, only I think breathed a sigh of relief that I didn’t ask him for money or to live in his home.
And then he shared what had been bothering him, the cause of the disagreement with the anthropologist.

How they got into such a discussion I couldn’t figure out, but it all hinged on whether It’s a Long Way to Tipperary was a World War I or World War II song. Dad insisted that it was a World War I song and the anthropologist insisted, according to dad, that it was a World War II song.

As he recounted their spirited discussion, which somehow descended into some sort of verbal spat, Dad claimed victory over the misinformed anthropologist who should have known better.

“Humph, some famous anthropologist: Doesn’t even know that It’s a Long Way to Tipperary was from World War I”–as though this was a fact that all anthropologists should know by virtue of being anthropologists. And to Dad if he didn’t know this one obvious fact, then what else didn’t he know.

“What’s his name, this famous guy?”
“Napoleon Chagnon,” I said.
“What kind of a name is that?”
“I don’t know,” I said.” It’s just his name. Around here we call him Nap.”
“Who names their kid Napoleon?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe it’s a family name; maybe someone in the family liked the Emperor Napoleon.” None of this seemed to appease Dad.

Napoleon Chagnon though was, indeed, well known. His illustrious career is chronicled in many sources along with some rather heated controversy which has dogged him much of his professional life.

But I knew of him at Penn State as a teacher of an introductory cultural anthropology course, which students (who don’t always flock eagerly to anthropology) filled all of the time when other intro classes went unfilled or were taken by those who couldn’t get into Nap’s class or did not want to wait another term for it.

The passion he brought to his exchange with Dad he brought to his class as well and students responded in kind to his “showmanship” in the class room. For those not especially enamored with cultural anthropology, this was probably the best way to get exposed and, hopefully, to develop an appreciation and understanding of the field.

I explained all of this to Dad, but he remained unimpressed. I even offered up what a pleasant neighbor he was, ready with a “hi” and a wave, making time for casual chat. A nice wife and two kids as well. Still, not a budge. If you didn’t know the origins of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, then all the degrees and education in the world were for naught.

Dad went on to fill up the rest of his morning, asking questions about my new home, about the neighborhood, and State College. Nap Chagnon finished washing his car.

​After all these years, I still can’t help but wonder: did Nap ever check it out to see that It’s a Long Way to Tipperary was actually a World War I song? If he had, would he have ever admitted he was off by one war? Did he even make the assertion as Dad claimed in the first place?

Dad– til his last days about six months after his encounter with Nap Chagnon, when he was felled by an embolism after a radiation treatment for lung cancer (he returned to chain smoking during my mother’s illness)– never failed to marvel at how someone so erudite as an anthropologist could get such an obviously basic fact (that everyone knew, of course) so wrong .

Nap Chagnon left Penn State and continued his academic career at a few other renowned institutions, his “celebrity” maintained throughout his career. Dad, though, was known only among a relatively small circle of friends, family, and acquaintances. I know that he never forgot (although I doubt that Nap Chagnon remembered) the day that he became more convinced than ever that degrees and years of education don’t make the man. And that if you didn’t know that It’s a Long Way to Tipperary comes from WWI, then you really didn’t know anything at all.

[Napoleon Chagnon died on September 21, 2019.]

Eric White is a member of the Editorial Board of Hearts in the Highlands.