On a recent weekend, I received a text message inviting me to what my friend called a “man night.” There would be wood-fired pizza, smoked meats, whiskey and decent beer, he said. It would take place at his parents’ house in Burien, a working class town about midway along the suburban lull between Seattle and Tacoma.
Burien is a woodsy suburb of big evergreens, mossy little houses, chain link fences and scruffy yards. Every ten minutes or so a plane would groan overhead, coming in to land at nearby SeaTac airport.
When I went around the back of the house I saw a large skull made of pine, the logo of Punisher, a vigilante anti-hero from an especially violent corner of the Marvel universe. The skull was top-heavy, balanced on the Punisher’s garishly elongated teeth, and held in place by a steel brace with sliding u-bolts in the timber.
I asked one of the white-haired men nearby what it was.
“You never been to one of these things before?” he said. “We’re gonna burn it, man!”
My friend’s family had been holding Man Night annually for years. They had recently added effigies to the mix.
“One year, we had this T-shape that you lit at the bottom, and then flames shot up the middle and out the sides,” my friend said. “Trouble was, the column of flame ended up burning through the center and shooting out the top. So then you’ve got about 30 guys, most of them white, standing around a burning cross in our backyard.”
This story was being repeated all over the small backyard. The Carpenter who had overseen construction ran his hand through his hair, looking sheepish.
“Yeah, we put that one out pretty quick.”
The Carpenter spent a good twenty minutes applying kerosene at strategic locations. The wood was riddled with chambers and flues, and when he lit it at the base, the teeth became a chimney that deployed intense columns of flame into the eyes, which then flared the flames in spinning tendrils toward the edges. The effect was hypnotic in the dark.
As the initial ooh’s, aah’s and speculation about the structural integrity of various points within the effigy gave way to general conversation, a man stepped in front of the fire and called for quiet. He was short and solid, with a face ringed by mutton chops linked by a thin line of salt-and-pepper beard.
“I gotta do this before I get too drunk and stoned,” he said, in that still-stoked wizened surfer’s voice common among white guys of a certain age in the Seattle region.
The crowd quieted down, the man closed his eyes, and began to chant:
While in the merry month of May, now from me home I started
Left the girls of Tu-am nearly broken hearted
Saluted father dear, kissed me darling mother
Drank a pint of beer, me grief and tears to smother
And then he jumped up a key, hands in fists began to swing by his side to keep the time:
Then off to reap the corn, leave where I was born
Cut a stout black thorn to banish ghosts and goblins
A brand new pair of brogues to ratt-le o’er the bogs
And fright’ning all the dogs on the rocky road to Dub-er-lin
And then tumbling into the refrain:
One, two, three, four, five,
Hunt the Hare and turn‘er down the rocky road
And all the way to Dub-er-lin, whack follol de rah
The tune’s protagonist charms a few ladies with his country accent in the town of Mullingar, but is robbed when he reaches Dublin. Unable to locate the thief, he hops a ship to Liverpool:
Down among the pigs, played some hearty rigs
Danced some hearty jigs, the water round me bubb-er-lin’
When off Holyhead, I wished meself was dead
Or better far instead on the rocky road to Dub-er-lin
And then that refrain again, except everyone around him now counting him in: “One, two-three, four-five.” Some 40 boots stomped out the beat. The singer was now hopping between his lines, eyes still closed, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t click his heels as, on the next chorus, the yard shouted “Hunt!” as one to get him started.
Later, once the effigy had collapsed to form a glowing mushroom — just as the Carpenter had planned, he admitted — and the Singer was well and truly “too stoned to sing anymore,” guitars appeared. Several of the men sat in a semi-circle in the waning heat of the fire to play a familiar tune.
A skinny young man in an oversized hoodie and jeans approached and took a seat in the circle as a freewheeling guitar jam began to wane, and before long a single guitarist was plucking at three repetitive chords. The young man put his hood up over his shaved head, bobbed for a few moments and, like water spilling over a dam, the first words that slipped out of his mouth became a flood.
He took those who listened deep into his mind, to the streets of his hometown, into the minds of spirits and halls of power, and at the same time fit his syllables to a rhythm that both fit and augmented the accompanying guitar. I regret to say I have no memory of his actual words — I tend to submerge into those moments, and remember little — but, once the rapper had finished, one of the white-haired white guys present said, “I’m gonna be puzzling that one out for the next week, man.”
By now the effigy had collapsed into a large pile of coals, and men were starting to drift away. I said my goodbyes — I almost certainly won’t see most of them until next year at the earliest — and wandered back to the bus stop. It really was little more than food, fire and some songs in a backyard, but it felt like something more.
I have felt this before, and in stronger doses. Usually music is involved, or some kind of ritualistic element. It is, I think, a hint of religion. It doesn’t need much of an excuse — a bonfire in the dark, the singing of a song, the first bite of a certain dish — to build a community around these sorts of things, a moment for human beings to get together and show a piece of themselves to friends and strangers.