I prefer the taste of a bar of Dove soap compared to Zest or Dial. I ought to know, I had my mouth washed out with a variety of brands through the years. There were two reasons the soap bar got lathered up for a good scrubbing of my mouth: Sassing and Cussing. Apparently the soap was supposed to clean words after they came out of my mouth. My problem was that I had opinions that I thought should matter.
The surest way to have one’s head removed from one’s body was to sass my Mother. Had she lived during the Wild West, she would have been the fastest gunslinger north of the Pecos. If I sassed her and happened to be within arms reach, I never saw her gun clear the leather. She’d whip her hand out of the holster, cock the hammer, pull the trigger and unload all six shells in the chamber while I was still eating my peas.
Also known as talking back, sassing was the eighth Deadly Sin. There are supposed to only be seven Deadly Sins, but we were good Protestants and had close to a hundred. Along with greed, lust, and pride, sassing an adult slathered one’s slippery slide into hell with bear grease. Yes, Ma’am. No, sir. Yes, sir. These were the only correct answers to anything an adult said.
One incident that comes to my mind was also the same incident in which my Mom introduced me to the conundrum of global hunger. We were sitting at the dinner table in that drafty old two-story house along Highway 54 when she dropped a glob of spinach on my plate. It looked, and smelled, like someone upchucked.
I couldn’t even get my dog to eat it and I had seen that cur eat the vilest of carrion. He routinely dragged rotting carcasses into the yard like they were gold medals he won at the Canine Olympics. He’d carry those things around grinning like Jimmy Carter on the campaign trail and offer me the spoils of his discovery. He took great offense if I did not share his enthusiasm for maggot-covered possum. But canned spinach? Nope, he covered his eyes with his paws and started dry heaving.
Mom put her hands on her hips and said, “Well, you know, there are starving children in Africa who would love to have that food.” Thusly, I learned the most common messaging of about global hunger that persists to this day: It’s a big problem. It’s somewhere Over There. You should feel bad about it. There’s not a darn thing you can do about it except hand out food.
While she was standing there glaring at me, I got out the bear grease and slathered up my own slide. What coiled her up most was me asking for the names and address of the children so I could mail the spinach to them.
Seeing her reaction, I quickly offered to eat the entire bar of soap as long as I didn’t have to touch the spinach. Apparently, the loathing of spinach is genetic because years later, my young son, Caleb, insisted he eat spinach so he could be like Popeye. After his first bite he began wailing, “Ewww, gross, it’s sliding down my throat.”
The other reason we got our mouth washed out was for cussing, a perennial pick in the Top-Ten List of Deadly Sins.
One incident occurred during Fix It Yourself (F.I.Y.) night. Mom was a great cook, but she went on strike each Sunday afternoon and turned Sunday evenings into F.I.Y. night. Dad and us kids were left to our own defenses to scavenge for food. The dog always offered to help, but we politely refused. To make matters worse, since Dad was a minister he invited someone to lunch on Sunday after church so there were seldom any leftovers. All of us kids agreed it was a crying shame.
My nephew, Kendall, and my niece, Annie, spent a great portion of their life in our house so each Sunday night we surrendered our tummies to the culinary gods like Chef Boyardee and the Jolly Green Giant. Our favorite delicacy was the Chef’s pizza that came in a little box. We’d mix the dough, spread it out on a cookie sheet, smother it with the Chef’s special sauce, and fifteen minutes later have a delectable, savory delight followed two hours later by stomach cramps.
The three of us were busy cooking away one Sunday evening when Kendall- who was two years younger than me- started mocking me. I hate being mocked. So I dug out the bear grease, slathered up my slide so I could go to hell a bit faster, and called him a little bastard.
Mom rounded the corner to the kitchen when that dirty little word shot out of my mouth; her timing was impeccable. She always managed to show up at that optimal time to catch me with the maximum amount of guilt. Always. She showed up when I was returning the punch that Kendall threw first; she showed up when I was redressing the Barbie doll that Annie just handed me; she showed up while I was shaving a stripe down the middle of my head at the dog’s suggestion; she always showed up when it looked like I was as guilty as, well, sin. Always.
“Vot did you call him?” She barked.
I wasn’t good at thinking quickly on my feet, so I just stood there like a mute bank robber holding bags of cash in each hand with a cop pointing a gun at me.
“Figurine,” Kendall replied, “he called me a figurine.”
There are moments in time when reason will just get up, leave the room and slam the door behind itself and leave everyone with their mouths agape in befuddlement. Watch C-Span if you don’t believe me.
On one hand, I appreciated Kendall’s valor and intent. Our typical modus operandi was to shove each other in front of oncoming trains with reckless abandon and little remorse. However, in this instance Kendall was to be commended for attempting to rescue a fallen comrade. Trying is sometimes as important as triumph.
On the other hand, the synapses in the frontal lobe of my brain were exploding like someone just threw a firecracker in a shed full of dynamite. My powers of reason were trying to make sense out of the situation and to answer the pressing question: Why did he think figurine sounded like bastard?
The conversation in the Command Center for Logic in the frontal lobe of my brain went like this:
Commander: “Soldier, give me your report. Do the words start with the same letter?”
Soldier: “No, sir. One start with F, the other starts with B.”
Commander: “Do they have the same number of syllables?”
Soldier: “No, sir. One has two syllables, the other has three.”
Commander: “How many letters do they share?”
Soldier: “Just one, sir, the letter ‘r’.”
Commander: “Do they rhyme?”
Soldier: “No, sir. Not even close.”
Commander: “Very well. Abort mission. Send all reports to Area 51.”
There’s nothing like obfuscation to interrupt the normal flow of reason. Politicians do this all the time; why would it not work for dumb little country kids like us?
I expected a trip to the sink and having my Chef Boyardee replaced with a good scrubbing of Dove. Instead, Mom backed away slowly, kind of like a person sneaking away from a mess they’ve made and don’t want to hang around and clean it up. I heard her mutter something about that made no sense whatsoever and they can slather all the bear grease they want on their slides and who in their right mind thought it was a good idea to leave those little idiots alone in the kitchen..
Kendall, Annie, and I resumed our fine dining experience. We compared notes and debriefed each other on the recent encounter with Mom. Few conclusions were drawn that were substantive in nature, but since Kendall spared me the gallows, we toasted the hero with enthusiastic huzzahs and sang several rounds of for he’s a jolly good fellow. Even the dog joined in.
Years later, after the statute of limitations expired, we regaled Dad with the figurine story around a dinner table. Dad recalled a very similar situation when he was a young boy and called his brother, Bill, a bastard. However, Bill came to the rescue when Dad was put in front of the firing squad and cried, “He called me Baxter, not bastard.” Now that is logic I can get behind.
The three of us kids learned a very valuable lesson that seems to serve Congress very well: If you can’t dazzle them with logic, bewilder them with absurdity.
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