Memories of My Father : The Limerick
September 16, 2013
Memories of My Father : The Limerick
Circa Fall, 1976
My father was an authoritarian.
He ruled his castle with an iron fist, but he had a velvet touch. One of his most strictly enforced rules was that suppertimes were mandatory. I ate supper at home virtually every night of my life until I left home at seventeen. Dad worked hard for us, and my Mom is an old-school girl, who can not only storm-clean a house like a Navy Seal on Black-Ops, knit an entire afghan from memory with no written pattern, and sew whole formal evening gowns out of remnant scraps of cloth, but man can she cook.
I ain’t talkin’ Hamburger Helper either. I mean… she can cook.
We were, more or less, lower-middle-class from an income standpoint, but my parents were the children of the Depression Era generation, and Mom took shopping, budgeting, and saving to heights that will probably never again be equaled by any woman of my generation.
And suppertimes were the times when it all came together. Dad’s ability to bring home the bacon. Mom’s ability to serve it as a four course banquet. And our sworn duty to make sure we were all present and accounted for at evening roll call.
Back then, there were many nights I had other things to do, and I groused much about the rule. As did my younger brother as he grew older, and more social. But looking back now, I realize how important that time was to us all, and I’m glad my parents didn’t waver. Many of my most precious memories of growing up were made at that dinner table. Not surprisingly, my Dad is at the center of many of those memories.
I watch television today, and see the father figures of nuclear families portrayed (when they’re portrayed at all) as gruff, grunting, nonverbal bears who hold their children and wives in contempt. Dinner times in those mythical television families are tense, dangerous moments.
Nothing could have been farther from the truth in my house.
My Dad, being the man he was, made those evening hours magical. You just never knew what shenanigan he might get up to, or who the target might be. Most evenings it was me, being the oldest son, and more able to digest his brand of humor. Sometimes it was my little brother. And just every once in a great while, it was Mom herself. Although scamming Mom was dangerous territory indeed. Thus the rarity.
As I said before, my Dad was not some out of touch, old-fashioned fuddy-duddy. He was, more or less, pretty hip. And watched contemporary news and entertainment events pretty closely. Although he didn’t like our music when we hit our teenage years in the 70’s and 80’s, he could certainly identify the artists.
His being as politically and socially savvy as he was really worked against us. It was easy to underestimate him, or buy into the 60’s garbage credo that young people shouldn’t trust anyone over 30.
As a teenager, I worked odd jobs in fast food restaurants, and got used to being perpetually broke. When a big name rock star would come to town, I could usually, but not always, afford a ticket or two. Dad had taught us to be industrious, and to save, and when they would come to town, we almost always had the money to buy tickets to their concerts, but often the concerts were sold out in a few hours, and tickets became difficult if not impossible to come by.
Dad was shrewd, and man did he know how to pick his moments.
He’d wait carefully, usually when supper was winding down. Mom was up clearing dishes, and we were relaxed, and at our most vulnerable. That’s when he’d strike. Like a cobra.
“You know,” he’d start. “Some fool at work came around today at lunch with some tickets to some concert he was trying to give away.” And then he’d shake is head, in that wise Dad way he had. “Said they were front row seats, and he was just giving them away. Said he won ‘em in some contest or something. Said he’d never use ‘em.” Then followed a long, pregnant pause as he waited for his fish to look over the bait.
I was too green back then not to bite. “Who for?” I’d ask, wide-eyed and unaware.
“Uhm,” he’d say, seemingly searching his memory hard, “Some country music guy. Sammy Haggard? Something like that I think.” Just far enough off the mark to lend him credibility.
“SAMMY HAGAR?” I’d practically scream. He just happened to be the hottest concert of that summer. And one of my favorite rock artists, even to this day. And he had sold out in record time in my area. Tickets were being scalped in the over $50 dollar range, even for the nosebleed seats. In 1977 “kid” dollars – that was outrageously expensive.
“Yeah,” he’d say, “that’s the group.” He knew that didn’t sound right. It wasn’t supposed to. It was supposed to sound just like an older guy getting it wrong.
I was practically hemorrhaging. He had held free front row seats to the hottest concert ticket of the summer in his hand, and had just let them slip by! As the veins in my temples began popping, I’d look across the table to see that telltale smirk spreading across his face, and realize I’d been had.
Mom just looked at me as if to say “Bit down on that one, didn’t you putz.” My younger brother had seen it coming, and hooked his finger into his cheek mimicking a fish hooked on a line. My humiliation was complete.
They’d get theirs. Sooner or later. Dad’s graphic illustration of life’s “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is” lesson would be just as indelibly imprinted on them as it was me. Tonight was just my turn in the barrel.
Then, there was The Joke.
The Joke was where our Dad’s not-so-subtle brand of humor really glowed. Sometimes he’d tell The Joke, every single night for weeks. Sometimes he wouldn’t tell The Joke for months at a time. And sometimes, just sometimes, he would tell another joke, as opposed to The Joke. You just never could tell. That was the beauty of it. As they say in comedy, “Timing is everything.” They got that right.
Suppertime would be rolling along. Mom would tell about her day. Problems would be discussed, and solved if possible, or put off until they had “private” time if necessary. My younger brother and I would tell about our day, or talk of current events. The conversation was almost always pleasant, and interesting. Then there would be a lull in the conversation. The family members would be talked-out, or just busy stuffing their faces. That’s when he’d strike.
“I heard a good joke today.” He’d say. We weren’t allowed to groan. We knew exactly what was coming. It was incumbent on us to play along, or face who knows what. Everyone at the table would look at each other, trying to determine who would be the one to throw themselves on this evenings joke grenade. As the butt of many of my father’s antics, I felt it was only fair that the job fall to my little brother. He would lower his head, and try as hard as he could to muster interest into his voice.
“Really Dad? Tell it to us.”
Dad would get that silly grin all over his face. “Well,” he’d say, “being as you insist.” Like I said, we weren’t allowed to groan.
“This termite walks into this tavern, and says ‘Hey! Where’s the bar-tender?’” And then he would chuckle loudly to himself, as if he’d just told the funniest joke in the entire world.
Now, some people consider this joke a “way-homer”. Meaning you don’t get it when it’s told, you get it later, on the way home. Others think it’s just plain stupid. Very few I’ve told it to actually think its funny. And it may sound odd, but, when you’re hearing it from the same guy, for the 5,197th time, being told as if it’s the worlds funniest, and most original joke, it’s not just funny, it’s hilarious. Side-splittingly so. At least it was to us. We never let on though. We never groaned. We never complained. We always acted like it was the first time we’d ever heard it, and that it was really funny.
But sometimes… sometimes… he’d throw in a ringer. He’d start with his patented “I heard a good joke today.” And when we’d bite, he’d throw out some equally inane, but totally different joke. His favorite was the one about the duck that walked into a drugstore, and asked for some ChapStick. When the clerk asked how he was going to pay for it, the duck told him to “put it on his bill.” This was the level of joke that he’d throw out. Always, always a “groaner”. You just never knew when he’d strike.
Once, when we were older, he pulled the granddaddy of all stunners. I was sixteen I think, which would make my younger brother in the eleven or twelve year old range. Old enough certainly to hear an “adult” joke. On this night nobody was talking much. Dad came home in his typical, upbeat mood. Glad to be home and surrounded by the ones he loved. We, on the other hand, weren’t in such a good mood. We had done something to anger Mom, and had been taking and emotional beating for our sins.
Dad kept glancing from us, to Mom and back, wondering when the conversation would start, if at all, and wondering what we had done to upset our Mother. My brother and I kept glancing at each other, and then at Mom, wondering when she’d drop the hammer on us to Dad. The classic “You guys are gonna get it when you’re Father gets home…” carried a lot of weight in our house.
You must understand though, that my Dad was truly one of the greatest role models a kid could ever had. He didn’t cuss. Not seriously anyway. The occasional “Damn,” Or “Hell” would slip out if he was really angry, but never anything more risqué than that. I was a grown man, well into my 20’s before I ever heard him say a significantly more offensive word, or saw him drink a beer. He wasn’t a tee-totaller, or a bible-thumper. He just had class.
And tons of it.
So, after about 20 minutes of almost total silence, Dad decided to break the tension. He sat his knife and fork down, finished chewing what was in his mouth, and stood reverently, clearing his throat to get our attention. This was different, we thought to ourselves. We hadn’t seen this before.
When all eyes were on him, he cleared his throat once again, and launched into one of the funniest, and, Dear Lord forgive the man, one of the purely filthiest limericks anyone at that table had ever heard in their lives. At the top of his lungs. I mean, this from a guy who didn’t even break wind in front of his kids.
“Skaggy Mag… ” he began. In most sincere earnest.
“That scaly slut! Between her thighs the fungus lies, and worms crawl outta her butt!
Before I climb those scaly legs, and suck those festered tits…
I’ll drink a quart of buzzard puke, and DIE of the DRIZZLIN’ SHITS!”
My Mom almost fainted.
I did a spit take, having just taken in a giant mouthful of milk.
My younger brother’s eyes grew to the size of the big, flowery china dinner plates we were eating off of, and just sat with his mouth hanging open, mashed potatoes dribbling down his chin.
We all sat in stunned silence for a good 30 seconds.
Then, we all looked at Mom.
Good old Mom. Good old raised in the church and don’t take God’s name in vain Mom. Good old you can go to hell for cussing Mom. Would she blow a blood vessel and stroke out? Would she saw his head off with a butter knife? Perhaps she’d hold him down and choke him to death with a dinner roll. We waited to see which.
When she finally came out of her trance, her face began to twist up, but not with anger. It was laughter. The tension was officially broke. We all laughed and laughed. Except Dad. He just sat there with a big, silly grin on his face. Which made us laugh even harder. Having not one, but two hormonal, moody, teenage boys stomping around the house brings lots of anxiety on a family. It had been a very long time since we’d laughed together that much, and that hard.
At one point Mom was belly-laughing so hard that she forgot about the high oil-soap shine she kept on those hardwood chairs, and she slid right off and onto the kitchen floor with a very un-ladylike plop.
When mom hit the floor, you might say she got “the wind” knocked out of her. The moment of impact bumped a small but very audible toot from her.
That was the coup-de-grace.
We were already laughing so hard our sides hurt, but when Mom hit the floor and cut the cheese, we laughed even harder. Mom just sat there, too weak from laughing fits to get up. We laughed so hard we couldn’t breathe.
Dad had once again proven that you just never knew what life was going to throw at you.
He had never done anything so outrageous before. And to my knowledge, he’s never done anything like it since.
But I’ll never forget that dinner.
I love you, Dad.
Memories of My Father : The Shed
September 8, 2013
I’m from a long and prestigious line of aggravators. I say that with more than a little pride. Our family doctors have identified a gene that is carried, almost without exception, throughout the branches of my entire family tree. Teasers, practical jokers, creepers all.
My father is the undisputed ringleader of them all.
As a child I suffered much at his hands. And as ridiculous as it sounds, I have very fond memories of that suffering. I think I’m a much better (or at least a more careful) person as a result of some of the indignities he visited upon me. I sure can move quickly for a guy with short, chubby legs. That’s for damned sure.
My fleetness of foot is result of the many frightenings I endured as a youngster. I’m sure of it.
I grew up in a small, three-bedroom home in the Midwestern suburbs. It was small even by the standards of those days. But my mother kept that house spotlessly clean. She kept my brother and I clean and well fed too.
Out in our backyard my father had built a small metal shed where all of our lawn equipment, swimming pools, bicycles, and related gear were stowed, because we didn’t have a garage. (Back then most of the houses in the neighborhood had “car-ports” instead). And invariably, my younger brother and I would forget to lock our bikes up in the shed in the evenings when we were called home to supper.
After supper, we’d get sidetracked with homework, playing, and generalized family activities. Just before bed-time (and always after dark), Dad would always ask “Have you boys put your bikes away, and locked the shed?” Our hearts would sink into our toes. It may seem like a small thing to ask, but when your 11 and you lived with a guy like my father, he might as well have been sending us to the chair.
We would beg. We would plead. We would wheedle and weasel with every conceivable excuse. But on this issue my father would not budge. “You guys know the rules,” he would scold, “now go lock them up.” And with these words we were doomed.
I’ve often driven by that old house, and I’m amazed at how tiny that back yard looks to my adult eyes. When I was young, it seemed like acres and acres. The trip from the back door to the shed in the dark seemed like a miles long walk. In pitch-blackness no less. My brother and I could barely make out the dark shape of the small metal shed from where we stood on the porch. Like doomed men on the way to the gallows, we would collect our bikes, and begin the miles long walk through the backyard to the shed. In the dark.
As we approached, the shed doors would be pushed wide open. The darkness inside that shed was the most amazing, impenetrable black one could ever imagine.
My brother and I would take a deep breath, and try, as quickly as a human being could possibly move, to get our bikes into the shed, get the shed-doors shut (saying little prayers, begging Jesus the whole time not to let those rickety doors slip their guide tracks, which would force us to take the long minutes necessary to get them back on the rollers) and get those doors locked before whatever nefarious demons that were probably lurking in the darkness of that shed woke up, and came leaping out of the darkness to tear us apart.
My younger brother’s job was to stand with the pad-lock ready. The key, hanging from an old lanyard that I had made at some summer camp, was already inserted in the lock, enabling the fastest possible snap and twist. My job was to get the doors closed as quickly as possible without de-railing them. As the doors met, my brother would slam the lock through the handles, snap it shut, and twist the key out with a deft, practiced move. He was only 5, but man could he move when it counted. We’d practiced this maneuver more times than we could count, and considered ourselves Olympic Class shed shutters.
But there were nights when things didn’t go so smoothly. There were nights, especially in the summer, when things went very badly indeed.
My brother and I would be sitting inside, usually watching television or playing a game and always, always, always after dark. Our Dad would come in, and the minute we saw him we’d realize that we had forgotten to stow our bikes, and lock the shed. We’d curse ourselves for not remembering earlier. When it was light outside.
So off we’d go, shuffling our feet in our patented gallows walk. We’d pause at the back door, steeling ourselves for the run to the shed in the dark. Each of us silently praying for Jesus to watch over us, and, if he had the time, to please not let those rickety doors slip their rails. I look at my brother. He’s ready. I’m ready. And out the back door we go at a run.
Across the yard. Through the damp grass. Down to the shed, which stands gaping at us in the darkness as it always did. My brother snatches the padlock and jams in the key, his hands trembling a bit. “Hurry!”, he says, breathlessly. “Don’t worry.” I reply as always. I slide my bike into the darkness, between the ancient lawn mower, and the even more ancient wooden ladder. My little brother’s bike is smaller and slips in beside it with ease. He stands ready with the lock, practically on his tiptoes with nervousness while I grabbed the door handles and began sliding them together as fast as possible. 3 feet apart. 2 feet. 1 foot. Down to inches now. 6 more of them and the handles will meet. My brother hands slide under mine, ready to slip the lock into the holes, and slam it shut.
And then… the doors stop moving.
My brother goes to slip the lock in, but something is wrong. The doors aren’t shut all the way. The doors won’t shut all the way. It’s stuck open with the handles still an inch or so apart. I’ve been careful, the doors are still on their rails. Something must have fallen inside the shed, and is stopping the doors from closing all the way. Maybe a rake handle. Maybe an errant garden hose. Maybe a werewolve’s bloody claw.
Our hearts stop beating for a second. The doors will now have to be opened. The problem will have to be found, corrected, and the process will have to be started all over again, as precious seconds tick away. Precious seconds and a lot of noise rooting around in the darkness. We’re almost certain to awaken whatever monsters lurk in there now.
I slide the doors back open about a foot, and try to shut them again quickly, hoping that will dislodge whatever obstacle is keeping them from shutting. No such luck.
They stop dead on their tracks, still about an inch from being closed. I slip my hands inside the inch wide crack, and start feeling from the ground to the roof, looking for the obstacle, and hoping nothing bites my fingers off. I get near the top of the doors when my fingers find the obstruction. It’s soft, and hairy, and it takes a minute for my mind to register that it is also moving. I go to snatch my hand away in horror, but it’s too late. A claw-like hand has shot from the inside of the dark shed with inhuman speed, and wrapped itself around my wrist in a vise-tight grip, and is trying to drag me into the shed.
I try to scream to my brother to run, run for his life, but I’m so scared nothing comes out of my mouth. He hears me gasping, and in a shaky, 5-year-old voice asks “Wha.. wha.. whaaat’s wrong??”
That’s when whatever has grabbed me starts a long, low, growling noise, and pushes the shed doors open from the inside. I look for my brother, but that little fart is already in the house, screaming for Mom in a high pitched squealing voice. My insides turn into cold, white lead.
And that’s when I hear the laughter. The thing in the shed is cracking up, and its iron grip on my wrist lets go amid the gales and gales of laughter.
Out steps my father.
This isn’t the first time we’ve been victimized by this man. Or the second, or the third for that matter. But, unfortunately we never see it coming.
To this day my brother and I wander aloud to each other about how Dad could have gotten out the front door, over the back fence, and into the shed before we had time to walk to the back door. The only theory that we can come up with is that he was driven. By the gene. The urge to aggravate must be so ingrained into his DNA that it gave him superhuman strength and speed.
As my brother and I became fathers ourselves in later years, this gene would manifest itself in our lives, and we would realize – in horror – that we were carriers too. My brother and I actually had entire conversations detailing how we were going to top The Old Man with our own kids. And did. We look at our children – ALL of our children – and know without any doubt, this gene lives in them as well.
No DNA tests necessary.
And those are stories that you can look forward to seeing here… soon.
Memories of My Father : The Bug
August 29, 2013
Circa Summer, 1976
The Aggravator’s Gene I surmise, must be responsible for heightened levels of creativity.
Our Dad was never a very artistic kind of guy. But when the aggravation gene kicked in, he was a veritable Picasso.
Dad had many hobbies. All were of the healthy, stay at home variety. He built models. He built radio kits. He learned to cut gemstones. I look back now and realize that some of my friends had fathers who hung out in bars. Some had Dads that were gonzo sports fanatics. My Dad made things. Some were unique. Some were meaningful. Some were even useful. But all were made with a careful hand, and a steady eye.
One afternoon in the summer of my 15th year, I walked by his workbench, and saw him carefully sculpting something out of the odd black clay he used to hold his gemstones in place while cutting. It wasn’t modeling clay, and I’d never known my Dad to sculpt anything before, so I leaned over for a better look. When I did, he sort of slid the whole sculpture under some other work, and gave me a “What’s up?” smile. He wasn’t telling me to go away. Dad would never do that. But… he didn’t necessarily want me in on what he was up to either.
“Whatcha makin’?” I asked innocently. “Ah… nothing.” He said, dismissing me. It was obvious that he wanted to keep his private project private. I didn’t take offense. I had only got a brief glimpse at it, and it looked like some sort of bug or something. I just figured that he was goofing off, and didn’t feel like anyone making fun of his little attempt at sculpting something. That was cool with me.
But two hours later, I walked by again, and he was still working on it. I didn’t pry further, but I thought it unusual that he was investing that much time in his little sculpting project. Little peeks here and there confirmed my assessment. He was making a bug. This was tres strange on the one hand, and clearly none of my business on the other hand. Later, after he was finished, I saw no trace of the finished work. I figured maybe just once in his life my Dad had gotten bored, and done something silly. Like sculpt a bug, and then smoosh the sculpture back up into a blob when he was done.
Now, it’s important to know that in our small suburban house, there were two bathrooms. Our bathroom, meaning mine, my brothers, and my Dad’s. And mom’s bathroom. Mom’s bathroom was inviolate. No male human had ever stepped foot in that room and come out alive, and none ever would. Under pain of death. Horrible, agonizing, excruciating, painful death. It simply wasn’t done. No matter how bad we had to go.
So I thought it unusual when I watched my Dad disappear into Mom’s bathroom, and re-appear a minute later. Surely he hadn’t actually used Mom’s bathroom? The Mysteries of the Mom/Dad relationship were still totally beyond my young years, so I let it pass. If he was dumb enough to risk the wrath of Mom, then he deserved what he got. I pretended not to notice, and vowed silently to myself to deny all knowledge if questioned on the matter.
Time passed. Maybe it was an hour or two. Maybe longer. But eventually I saw my mother disappear into her bathroom, and shut the door. I had forgotten that Dad had been in there a bit earlier, but when she gave a loud, startled scream, and came tumbling through the door, her side-zipper polyester pants undone, but held together at the waist by hand, I suddenly remembered Dad’s furtive moves of earlier. And then I remembered the sculpture.
You know, the one that looked like a bug…
Suddenly a mental image flashed across my mind. I knew my father well. He had placed it under the seat. Where maybe one hairy little bug-leg protruded. Maybe protruded just enough to be felt by a bare bottom. The owner of which would almost certainly have to lift the seat a tad to investigate what might be causing the foreign sensation. Where her eyes would fall upon… a big, hairy, black bug.
I totally lost it. So did my Father. My younger brother Chris didn’t have any idea what was going on, but Mom was screaming, and his older brother and father were laughing their butts off. That’s funny to an 8 year-old. He fell down on the floor with us, and began to howl.
Now, my mother has a sense of humor. About most things anyway. But that sense of humor tends to only stretch one way. When she’s doing the dishing. Being dished on was another matter entirely. My father and I continued trying to catch our breath through the gales of laughter, while Mom gave us a look that could wither an oak tree. She turned on her heels, zipped up her polyester slacks, and slammed into the master bedroom in a huff. I heard her rattling around, and I buried my face in the cushions of the couch to stifle the laughing fits.
Suddenly, I realized that my Dad’s laughter had stopped abruptly. I looked up to see my mother standing in the doorway holding a 3-foot long strip of wood. It was a yardstick. It was the yardstick. The one she used from time to time to discipline her unruly children. Dad was still lying on the floor, but he wasn’t laughing anymore. He was checking his exits, and then he made a truly Herculean effort to push off the floor and make it through the door to the kitchen, and down the steps into the basement. To safety. But it was way too late for that. Mom was on him in an instant with that yardstick.
Now, my brother and I pulled some shenanigans that truly merited the whippings we got with that yardstick. But we never saw the like of the beating that she threw my father that afternoon. My father is built like a fireplug. Short, broad, and not an ounce of fat on the man. I’ve seen him dead-lift the railroad ties we used for landscaping in the yard, the ones that weighed maybe 175 pounds each, without even turning red in the face. And here he was, his arms slung over his face for protection, getting the Holy BeJeezus smacked out of him by this tiny, angry woman, trying desperately not to let her see the giant smirk on his face, which would undoubtedly make the whipping harder and longer. And it was truly the most hilarious thing I think I’d ever seen.
More hilarious were the implications. It never once crossed her mind that perhaps my brother or me may have crafted the evil sculpture. She had gone straight for my Dad. It did our hearts good. We’d suffered much over the course of our lives as a result of The Aggravator’s Gene and we fairly howled with laughter while he took his beating. With every whap of the stick across his scalp, and arms, and back, and butt, we howled.
Paybacks were sweet.