Hot July days always make me think of my childhood, playing indoors at my mother’s direction to avoid sunburn. If I wanted my sister to play cars with me I had to play dolls with her first.
“Do you want to dress up Barbie as Supreme Court Justice?” she’d say, looking forward to the day years hence when Sandra Day O’Connor would finally be nominated by Ronald Reagan.
“I think we need to be slightly realistic, otherwise Mom will get worried that we’re developing unhealthy fantasy lives,” I’d say. “Barbie can be Shirley Hufstedler, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit!”
Hufstedler, after liberal application of Dippity-Do.
“Fine,” my sister would say. We’d slip the judicial robes on Barbie–a specially-constructed one that was flat-chested, without the aggressive Cadillac-bumper breasts that came on the standard model. Mom and Dad didn’t want us exposed to unhealthy bodily images that could lead to low self-esteem on my sister’s part, and chronic self-abuse on mine.
After Ken had fixed Barbie and Midge dinner my sister would finally play cars with me, although there was always an argument over who got to drive the Volvo.
“The Volvo always wins the crashes with the American-made cars,” sis would complain.
“So? If stupid American designers are more concerned about tail fins, that’s their problem.”
We’d rev the cars up before sending them shooting across the floor at each other.
“Vroom, vroom,” my sister would say. “Here comes the redneck family that’s listening to Conway Twitty on the radio while the mother puffs on an Oasis cigarette, exposing her ugly double-named kids–Joe Don, Mindy Lou–to second-hand smoke.”
“Vrum-rum-rum,” I’d say. “Thanks to Swedish engineering my healthy family of non-smoking, moderate social drinking parents and their studious children in the back seat can survive ANY crash with stupid rednecks.”
“Gaak!” we’d scream as the passengers with the unhealthy lifestyles went flying out the window, having refused to fasten their seatbelts.
“Hopefully . . .”
“What did you say?” my sister would caution me.
“Sorry. I’m hopeful that everyone in your car died so that their genes aren’t reproduced.”
“And that’s because . . . “
We’d look at each other mischievously–we both knew what the other was going to say:
“Three generations of imbeciles are enough!”–our favorite one-liner from that ur-scold, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Holmes: “This post was apparently written by an imbecile that got away.”
“Jinx you owe me a penny, 123456789,” my sister would say, always quicker on the draw than me.
“I got to ten, you owe me a dime,” she’d say. “I’m tired of cars, let’s go read for awhile.”
We’d go downstairs to the library where I’d pick out one of my favorite American masterpieces that are overlooked because people assume they’re merely boys’ books.
“Let’s see, The New Moby Dick or The New Huckleberry Finn,” I’d say as I pursed my lips thoughtfully. I liked the catch-and-release accommodation that Captain Ahab had reached with the great white whale, but the one-on-one counseling that Jim gives Huck on the raft helped get me through the turbulent pre-adolescent years. Twain it is!
“Now Huck, a good education is the key to personal self-actualization.”
I’d persuaded mom to get an illustrated edition, even though I’d started reading “chapter books” in pre-kindergarden. I loved looking at Jim’s colorful sweaters, his Ph. D. in behavioral psychology up on the wall in his office. I could hardly wait until I got my sheepskin!
My favorite passage of all? I guess it’s when Huck and Jim are out on the river at night, looking up at the stars. “We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft,” Huck says, but Jim jumps all over him like a duck on a June bug.
“Huckleberry Finn!” he exclaims: “You used a double negative, and I detected a disagreement between subject and verb as well!”
“I think you should have used the subjunctive mood, Huck!”
I sighed whenever I read those lines. Freedom isn’t worth it unless you use it responsibly!
We got our precise, mannered and broad-minded approach to life from our dad, who could out-Atticus Finch Atticus Finch. One summer we saw a dog staggering down our street, foaming at the mouth, just like in To Kill a Mockingbird!
“Don’t worry Scout. I’ll cool that dog down with my SuperSoaker.”
“Mad dog, daddy, mad dog!” we screamed as we ran into the kitchen.
“Children,” our mother said. “Don’t use ‘mad’ when you mean ‘angry.’ It’s a solecism.”
“Hold on a second,” dad said as he looked through the screen door. “I think the problem runs deeper than that.”
Dad went outside and enticed the dog into our front yard with the offer of a rawhide bone and a half hour’s free consultation to discuss what was troubling him.
Conway Twitty: It’s Only Make Believe–no actual rednecks were harmed in the writing of this post.
It turned out the dog was haunted by a troublesome paper-training as a puppy. Once dad got to the bottom of the problem, he turned into a friendly, well-adjusted pet! The dog, that is, not my dad.
When the weather got better I’d go outside and play with the other boys in the neighborhood, of course. The po’ white trash Elam boys were always attacking the Knox boys, whose father was a successful surgeon and owned a big house on the hill. The Elams, anticipating the asymetrical tactics of 21st century terrorists, were unconstrained by civilized rules of warfare and would target non-combatants–the Knox’s cat Fluffy, their miniature poodle Jean-Louis.
St. Dominic Savio: Gag me with a eucharist.
Into the breach I’d fly, like a UN Peacekeeper, trying to stop the fighting so that properly elected officials from each side could join my childhood organization to end all imitations of war.
My model was St. Dominic Savio, the patron saint of Goody Two-Shoes types who not only break up playground fights, they tell their contemporaries why fighting is wrong.
Of course, there was great personal risk in taking on the role of neighborhood wet blanket and intervening in hand-to-hand combat that the other boys claimed they enjoyed, but I wasn’t about to back down from spoiling everybody’s atavistic fun. Sometimes if I wasn’t careful the Elam boys would take me hostage and try to exchange me for their youngest brother, who was a Quisling-like sucker for offers of cookies from Mrs. Knox, but when that happened I would yell the magic words that, like King’s X, No Noogies, were universally recognized as a get-out-of-prison-free card in a boys’ game of War: