Between the Lines / "A blankety-blank day"
My father was a staunch Irish Catholic, who wouldn't tolerate the use of any bad language in our home. It seemed like he was always warning us against what he considered the ugly habit of cursing. Although he frequently approached the gates of profanity when he lost his temper, he never allowed himself to cross over into the abyss. Like the father in A Christmas Story, Dad had a litany of expressions that sounded something like the forbidden words that he substituted for the real thing. Supporting seven active children on a workman's salary certainly pushed him to the brink on occasion, but his standards of decorum remained high.
I had gotten into trouble one day by calling my brother an S.O.B. at the dinner table. I had heard some older boys using that phrase during a backyard football game. I had no idea what the words meant, but I sure liked the sound of them rolling off my tongue. The insult was hardly out of my mouth before I was thumped on the head with Dad's surprisingly quick boarding house reach across the table.
"We don't talk like that in our house, Bare. You won't ever hear your mother and father say those words, and I won't let you use them, either. People swear because they want to make themselves look tough or because they think it's funny. But it's really a form of weakness that makes them look ignorant. I'll have none of my children using bad words. You won't hear anyone else in our family using them, either. And that's the end of it."
I took the brunt of that dinner table lecture and I certainly deserved it. What is it about human nature that we so easily adopt all the bad habits but assiduously do our best to avoid the good ones?
On Saturday mornings we would head to Pine Creek for our usual work at the cottages to get them ready for the summer renters. Dad would drive his older sons down to the beach in our wood-panelled green Chevy wagon. My grandmother Mal hitched a ride with her sister, Jo, and her husband, William Nitsche. Old Bill was a retired railroad engineer and was well into his seventies by then. He drove to Fairfield from Bridgeport's West Side in their big black '49 Dodge that was truly a tank. Bill was an easy-going fellow, who generally impassively endured the relentless nagging of both his wife and sister-in-law. Mal's Dalmatian, Sam, rode next to her in the back seat with his head sticking out the window.
From what I can gather, these were pretty lively rides with the sisters often ganging up on poor Uncle Bill. And yet the two of them together were hardly ever able to ruffle "the old German," as his wife fondly called him. By the time they arrived at the Kenora cottage most of the squabbling was over, and the women set to their morning's work of turning mattresses and mopping floors.
On this particular Saturday Nitsche's car banked into the sand with unusual intensity. The big sedan jerked to a stop just short of the beach plum tree near the neighbor's kitchen window. As I stood on the back porch, I could hear both women shouting at Bill through the closed car windows. Bill was still gripping the steering wheel. His shoulders were hunched and his face was red. One cheek was bulging with his usual chaw of Tuck's chewing tobacco.
The passenger door of the Dodge shot open. Aunt Jo jumped out, shaking her fist at the driver. This was unbridled marital combat.
"Why you thick-headed, blankety-blank Dutchman! If you ever do that again, I will fix your blankety-blank rear end." And on and on and on she railed. This is a family newspaper, so I leave it to you to fill in the blanks.
Apparently Bill had innocently spat some tobacco juice out his window and somehow sprayed Mal in the face with the blowback. She was shaking with fury, more angry than I had ever seen her.
Now Mal joined the row. "Honest to God, Jo! I don't how you stand that blankety-blank-blank-blank son of a blank."
I stood there open-mouthed at the raging torrent of bad words. Some of these I had never even heard on the playground or anywhere else for that matter.
Uncle Bill sat pinned in the driver's seat by the barrage of invective. Steam was coming out of his ears, but he couldn't seem to find the words to fire back at the women. He took his right hand off the wheel and thoughtfully scratched himself under the chin for a bit. Suddenly he expectorated an enormous volley of tobacco juice right out the window into a clump of knotweed about 10 feet away. Then he let loose his delightful billy goat laugh and thumbed his nose at the women.
"I'm gonna kill him, Jo! So help me God, I'm gonna kill that blankety-blank man today and right on this very spot."
"You shut up right now!" Jo scolded Mal as she shook her fist at Bill. "He's my husband and I will kill that blankety-blank fool with my own bare hands."
By now I had inched halfway down the wooden board walk to get a better view of this first-class donnybrook with more inventive cussing than I had ever dreamed existed. Dad stood silently on the porch discreetly leaning on a shovel.
"Why you blankety-blank old bags! You aren't going to do a blankety-blank thing, because I'll drive the two of you off the blankety-blank bridge right into the river." Bill didn't specify what bridge he was going to drive off or which river he was going to drive into, but he seemed mighty pleased with his outrageous threat. Then he got out of the car and mumbled a whole stream of blankety-blanks to himself. His bravado was increasing the longer the brawl went on.
"Hold me back, Jo! Hold me back! I'm going to crown that blankety-blank old buzzard and give him what he deserves. Honest to God I will!" Mal's face was beet red, and even her freckles seemed to be glowing with rage.
Nitsche pointed at her and then fired off his ultimate defensive weapon: the "Who who" counterattack. It wasn't a question, but rather some kind of variation on the call of an owl. Or maybe it was old engineer Bill's imitation of a railroad train whistle. It was his supreme act of resistance and he drew it out with annoyingly great gusto. "Whooooooooo! Whoooooooo! Whooo! Whooo! Whoooooooooooooooooooooo!"
Then he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, "Your Aunt Jo is some old gal, isn't she?" He was smiling broadly and filled with admiration for her. I was puzzled. Why was Bill suddenly chuckling? I started to laugh myself, and then my father joined in, doubling over with laughter. Our neighbors opened their window again and we could hear them laughing inside their cottage, too. The whole beach was in an uproar.
"What the blank is wrong with you blankety-blank guys?" Mal was still peeved, but I could tell she was beginning to thaw.
Dad was laughing so hard he could hardly speak. "I was just telling my sons that we don't use foul language in this family, and that they wouldn't hear it from us." More laughter all around. I thought my father might wet his pants.
"Why to blank with all of you!" Now Mal was laughing, too.
"Whoo, whoo, whoo..." Bill brayed up at the cloudless blue sky.
"Lunch will be exactly at twelve noon," Jo said. "And Bill bought a wonderful cheesecake for our dessert."
Barry Wallace writes a weekly column for the Fairfield Citizen.