Wednesday, April 10, 2013

De patre

My brother and I have each reached our 60s:  a threshold that our father never glimpsed, as he died swiftly upon reaching 55.  And so it is the time to reminisce -- the moreso as, just offstage, the Reaper sits, meditatively whetting his scythe.

My brother wrote in as follows:

Did you ever hear Dad curse?  If he didn't like someone, he'd call him a "flathead."  When something was going well, he'd say "whoop-de-doo!"  I believe I once heard him say "shit."  I think Mom said "Oh, damn" once.  Is this why I don't curse, or is it because my 6th grade teacher, who I respected a lot, said that only stupid people curse, because they can't think of other words.

I replied at length, and shall share the results, since they are less the memory of one man, than of the time in which he lived;  and not so much the portrait of his young sons, as of all the budding boychildren  time out of mind.


“Flathead” was his favorite expletive, generally directed at the occasional rogue driver.  He himself always drove in a careful and moderate fashion;  his outburst struck me at the time as unusual, since it was so uncharacteristic of him:  nowadays, with all the Road Rage around, he would count as a Traffic Pacifist.
I never heard him use stronger language, and have the sense that it simply hadn’t been part of his family growing up, and that he never acquired the habit later on, any more than he later took up the ukelele.
I’m quite sure I never heard him say “sh*t” when we were young, because of the circumstances -- which I vividly recall -- of the first time I heard this word.  I was walking home from school with a classmate, one whom I did not particularly consider a friend (and all the less so, after this incident).  Slyly writhing like Uriah Heep, he snickeringly uttered -- not the word (that was beyond our wildest daring, back in our Eisenhower boyhood), but its spelling, “ess aitch eye tee”: awaiting my shocked or snickering reaction.  Instead I was puzzled.  I was a pretty good speller by then, but had never heard such a word.  Had he misspelled it?  Had I misheard it?  Dubiously, I ventured, “  `Shit’???’ “ -- as who should say:  “ `Ophthalmologist’??” 
He gaped and gasped:  You said *** !!!”   At which point I realized that it was an example of a rumored but never previously sighted species known as Bad Words (native habitat: Siberia).  Conclusion:  We never heard such things around the family hearth.

A more dramatic anecdote of Dad and Dirty Words  occurred some time earlier.  We were up in the tree fort, and a semi-friend from the neighborhood (who, harbinger of Sh*tboy,  no doubt later came to a bad end) was telling us our very first Dirty Joke.  It involved traveling salesmen and a farmer, along with (though not in a speaking role) the female offspring of the latter (presumably of tender age, though this was not spelled out).   The commercial travelers arrived seriatim on successive evenings,  requesting lodging for the night  from the rural husbandman.  To the first of these, that worthy agriculturalist replied hospitably enough,  “You can spend the night, but don’t f*ck my daughter or I’ll cut off your dick.”
Now, already this much justified the guilty-pleasure giggling up there in the fort.  “Dick” was not actually a bad word in our milieu:  it was a normal expression linguistically, though its referent was of course a bit louche. 

So, what happened during those nocturnal watches, when all good citizens are sound abed?  Well, the same thing that has been happening ever since God created Eve and Adam, ever since the Fall.  And so, the next morning, the sturdy Son of the Soil -- stern but just -- inquired of the doomed commercialist, in which particular branch of industry was his father employed, among those traditionally available to the Sons of Men?  “He’s a lumberjack,” replied the salesman, resigned to his fate.  “Then” intoned the granger with Solomonic appropriateness,  “I shall chop off your dick.” 

(Whether this rigorous sentence, sharia-like in its equisitive matching of punishment to crime, was ever carried out, or whether an angel of mercy intervened -- conceivably that very daughter, who, on bended knees, her white arms wrapped around the unbending denim-clad knees of her sire, begged for her lover’s life, swearing by all that is holy and it was the best night she’d ever had … was not recorded in this telling. 
Likewise our readers, classically trained as they are, will immediately recall that play of Aristophanes, in which Cleon, the tanner, is threatened being chopped up to make leathern shoes for his enemies the Knights.
But let us return to our narrative -- soberer, sadder, but wiser men.)
The next day -- in a remarkable coincidence -- another commercial traveler put in an  appearance at that distant croft and requested lodging.   Apparently having learned nothing from the events of the previous evening, our farmer acceded to the request, and on the same terms. 
The next morning, the salesman looked nervous, the farmer wroth, and the farmer’s daughter had a dreamy expression on her face  that told all.  Again the inquiry was made as to the paternal profession (evidently they did not have Social Security Numbers back in those days, and so this biographical particular was used for identificational purposes);  and upon being told that the miscreant’s father was a carpenter, a fitting sentence was passed:  The arcadian cadi would saw off the offending member.
By this point in the narrative, the mirth and merriment up there in the tree fort can better be imagined than described.


The telling of jokes to children   serves an important instructional function, tutoring young minds in the literary themes and folkloristic motifs of their tribe.   And one of the invariants of jokes in the genre of the above  is that these things happen in threes (in Euro-American circles; among Amerindians, four is the favored number).  And thus it was that, in a case of serial coincidence that would otherwise strain the credulity of all but the most credulous (to wit:  our young selves), yet a third traveling salesman showed up at that very same rustic farmhouse -- whether accompanied by a samples-case of Fuller brushes, is not recorded -- and put forward the identical request for nocturnal lodging to that very same tiller of the soil.   Upon which, that same cottager, with an amnesia that baffles the psycho-historian (although the daughter appeared to suffer no such mnemonic lapse, to judge by her anticipatory smile and bedroom-eyes) spluttered:  Lodging?!?  Do I look like Mr Hilton?  This is a farm!!”
No no, of course he didn’t say that.  Such a peripetaia in the narrative would constitute a subversion of the whole genre, a post-modernist critique of ludic-literary conventions.   Such would have been seriously pre-mature for the place and time, since you and I were around five, and Grandpa Ike smilingly occupied the White House (so aptly named).
Once again, the silence of the darkened farmhouse was broken -- did one but hark -- by muffled thumps and giggles;  and when at last  brave HELIOS rose in the east, spreading his grateful rays  over the fields of wheat  whereby our reluctant amateur innkeeper earned his bread by the sweat of his brow, the scene around the breakfast table was plain to read.   The maiden -- or rather, daughter (maiden no more) -- applied herself to the eggs & b. with a more than usually voracious appetite;  the farmer had his suspicions;  yet the salesman, this time, seemed strangely untroubled, even cavalier, as he speared another slice of buttered toast (his fork expertly piercing the very center), washing it down with a third cup of strong black country coffee.
Upon accusation, the salesman freely, even genially admitted the charge.  Once again the farmer sought example in the wisdom of Solomon, that the lex talionis might be scrupulously applied;  at which point the salesman, satisfied in every fiber of his being, and langorously fingering a fat sausage, replied:


At that point, some passing hobo might have discerned a gasp of delight and astonishment  coming from the region of the leafy branches that shielded the tree fort.  And then the three boys, in unconscious imitation of the concupiscent salesmen who had arrived seriatim (rather like the Magi, if it comes to that), exited the sylvan scene of their enlightenment, climbed down single-file, and went about their business upon the surface of the good earth.


Here we pause -- as our Muse insists -- for a spot of literary theory, before returning to the narrative of the Two Boys and their Uncursing Dad.

It is frequently to be met with (at least, so I have concluded, after a lifetime of ludic research) that  even in the coarsest locker-room jape, there may underlie  a philosophical, even theological dimension:  and such is surely the case here.  And the inculcation of this loftier perspective, upon the bare wax tablets of the youngsters’ minds, was ennobling, and far made up for  any possible indelicacy of the raw details of the joke.
For notice:  The salesmen arrived and left independently -- for theirs is a solitary trade.  They had no opportunity to compare notes on their experiences at that rural grange.   Yet each as a matter of course  accepted the relevance of paternal occupation to the resolution of the case:  and this motif embodies and reinforces that heritage of guild and feof whereby our island race has lived and procreated and gone to their final rest, since time immemorial;  the lesson thus smoothly and swiftly delivered by this joke, was worth any number of history classes treating of the systems of apprenticeship or socage.   And none objected to the just severity of the sentence pronounced:  This illustrates our Protestant roots in the Old Testament (since tempered -- laus deo -- by the mercy of the Historical Church).   But thirdly, and most remarkably  -- consider how outlandish this would be, really, outside the chivalric fairyland of jokes -- the third salesman knew in advance, before any sentence had been passed, not merely that the punishment would be emasculation (that much anyone might guess  from the simple principle whereby, in the lands of the Mohammedans, the hand of the thief is forfeit), but that the means whereby this should be carried out, would exactly and elegantly mirror the particulars of the paternal occupation!   How could he possibly have known this?  Why,  either by some deep-rooted racial memory, reaching back to the time of the ur-horde, or by that very same ethical intuition that is instilled into each of us by our Maker, so soon our souls have been fashioned, and instilled into the base and aching clay!  The joke assumes and thus implicitly proclaims the existence of a sort of structured moral canopy, overarching all.


To resume.
This joke -- our very first in the “dirty” category -- was too splendid not to share;  and so I rushed into the kitchen of our ranch-style dwelling (little resembling actual ranches, but so designated in the quaint vocabulary of the day), where our father was seated at the humble table, enjoying some spare repast.
“Heydadheydad, yawanna heara dirty joke,  hmm, huh?”
Mildly he turned, and expressed a willingness to hear out the juvenile offspring of his loins -- his someday inheritor, and present care.
“Wellsee, this salesman and a farmer and he said Don’t fuck my daughter or I’ll cut off your d-d-dick (!) (omigosh) and then, then, what does your daddy do, and he does stuff, and so, I’m gonna chop it off, and then -- Mydaddyworksinalollipopfactory you’llhavetosuckmineoff Ha Ha HA HA HA !!!”
With perhaps a touch of sadness, born of long experience, and on a tone of gentle concern, he asked:
“Do you … know what … fuck means, David?”

At once, my blood froze in my veins;  the world went black before my eyes.  I had no idea -- or rather, had had no idea, prior to that very instant;  yet something now told me -- some ancestral whisper, reaching back to an age when sileni and naiads copulated in the foam, when Zeus descended upon Leda  and did ravish her in the form of a swan -- that it was far deeper, and mysteriously more taboo, than that schoolboy “dick” business, and that I was suddenly in way over my head.

“You see,” he said, leaning back pedagogically (and perhaps making a steeple of his fingers, though we shall never know, for by this point a glare and haze obscured my sight, not unlike that of Saul on the road to Damascus)  “when the father puts his penis into the mother’s vagina …”
))) nononononononono thisisnthappening nononopenisthing nonothatsomethingotherthing   nonono   nononooo  kthxdad nomorenow,k    kthxbai …. (((

1 comment:

  1. The first such joke I told my father was the riddle about the moron, the toilet seat and the half-assed brother-in-law. My dad laughed loud and long. You would think he had never heard it before.