Peace Under the Olive Branch
My father was fussy about a lot of things and I think being a Colonel in the Army’s armored (tank) divisions made him that way.
When the doorbell rang, we kids were to line-up just beyond the door in pre-assigned places. We extended our hands and said something like, “Hi, I’m Dewey, the youngest son.” It wasn’t exactly a military formation, we were perceived as impolite, uh-oh. The offender would be screamed at, slapped around or punched, and sent off to cry privately, with a shout down the hallway aimed at your spine, “Knock it off or I’ll REALLY give you something to cry about!”
What a joy that was, time and again, but only when company came to visit. It made me feel like one of the Von Trapp children in “The Sound of Music” movie!
Friday dinners were interesting. Mother was a ‘cradle Catholic,’ and her family made it clear that we were to be raised in the Catholic Church. Like Thanksgiving, they meant with all the trimmings: sacrament preparation classes on Saturdays and the eventual sacraments of 1st Confession, 1st Communion, and Confirmation once the nuns found us worthy and practiced.
Back then, Catholics abstained from eating meat on Friday. Fish didn’t count. Chicken, pork, or beef meant eternal Hell for the offending consumer. Dad was a battlefield Christian, meaning he just might believe in God if he had been shot in the chest and believed he was going to die, although we kids thought, “Naaaah, not our old man. Christian? Not now, not ever.” So he granted himself a Catholics’ Friday Flesh-Eating Exemption.
Mom's Friday dinners were macaroni and cheese, fish sticks, or cheese ravioli from a can (yum!). Dad’s exemption found him sawing into steak or gobbling a hamburger, always letting rivers of juice drip down his chin, probably to remind us of our piety, the purity of our sacrifice. Seldom did we look up from our plates; well, except for that one time, the attack of the corn cob.
Some people eat corn off the cob by rolling the cob or going back and forth like a computer’s print-head. My dad mowed-down rows of niblets from the cob with the same precision he mowed the grass leaving the wheel lines perfectly straight in the grass. His corn eating never failed to add niblet remains to his beef-lubed cheeks and corners of his mouth. His finished cobs were clean enough to mistake for a paint roller.
One Friday night during a particularly vicious cob attack between steak bites, Dad suddenly threw the cob down hard enough to bounce the plate on the table making the other food hop. He immediately covered his mouth as the string of foul language ensued. This was no time to giggle at the curse-muffling attempt. Our eyes were wide with fear and “What now?” expressions. Still fuming and spewing bad words, he lowered the napkin.
I began to laugh, uncontrollably. One of his false teeth, a front one, had broken from the corn mowing exertion in his game of “Strip the Cob.” It was funnier that the tooth was ‘missing in action,’ until our military genius of a father determined he had swallowed it. No one dared say he might see it again at tomorrow’s morning… uh… ‘constitution.’
No laughing matter, we were ordered to our rooms to snicker and joke among ourselves as he stomped around yelling at Mom (for?). We laughed quietly under bed covers to conceal and contain our glee, for, there surely was a God and one who didn’t appreciate our dad eating steak on Friday nights in front of us and Jesus. We hoped Dad had got the Holy message and would acquire a taste for processed, baked, formed fish rectangles drowning in catsup.
If Dad ever mentioned “Jesus” it was usually very loudly and accompanied by a piece of lawn furniture or a hand tool flying through the air and you better duck immediately rather than looking around and catching the flying implement with one of your unsuspecting body parts.
The best cursing always followed Friday: Saturday mornings.
He was an army officer but did you ever-in-your-life see a colonel mowing a lawn? That man was obsessed with trees and shrubs and grass. Sun-up on Saturdays was a harsh wake-up of yelling, “GET UP AND GET OUTSIDE. NOW!” I could have won Olympic Gold for slow teeth-brushing, avoiding what I detested under the searing Arizona sun. If he barged into the bathroom, his death-grip on my ear, dragging me to the front door and hurling me up the sidewalk was the first clue that dental hygiene wasn't high in Saturday priorities.
The lawn looked spectacular, where Tiger Woods might want to be buried, but this under-aged laborer paid the price 52 times a year for Dad’s gloating over his yard’s military crispness.
One summer day, over 100-degrees Fahrenheit, we worked on the back and front lawns for 9-10 hours. I was about 10 years old. I was at the point of exhaustion despite frequent-enough drinks from the pitcher to send me peeing on the hedgerow beneath we kids’ bedroom windows. Oh, the smell? We had air conditioning and one never opened the windows for fear of serious reprisals. So the only wafting of glorious uric acid fumes from my Saturday squirts (I couldn’t track grass clippings into the house!) went Heavenward unless the front door was opened right at the wrong time for a breeze to cross-ventilate the doorway with my adolescent ‘Eau du DNA’.
By 8pm, the sun was sinking rapidly. Seeking my undivided attention, Dad grabbed my scrawny arm with his death grip and ‘walked’ me over to the olive tree with its 60-inch circular base dug out so small flowers could grow there. There were only small weeds and grass in the trunk's surrounds. In fact, Dad said, “If it takes you all [blankety-blankety] night, you will dig-out every weed and blade of grass so that there is only smooth dirt and you'll NOT come into the house until it is finished and I don’t give a good God-damn if that means midnight. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?,” which must have been a hearing test because I did hear it. So did folks about 4 houses away.
I dug out grass, rocks, chunks of whatever. I was bitten by ants, worked into total darkness with nicked and scratched hands, tears in my eyes until my mother, to my father’s loud protestations, brought me a flashlight.
It neared 10 o'clock by the time I hauled heavy, sagging bags of flower bed invaders to the alley. My mother attended to my hands, drew a warm bath and tucked me into bed that night. It may have taken less than 10 seconds for me to find sleep from the wearisome day. Dad popped-in to cheer me up, saying something to the effect that my life was in danger if he didn’t like what he saw at dawn.
The next morning was an answered prayer.
Okay, so Dad awakened me in a screaming rage. Okay, so I had dug-out the bed to where the surface looked like crumbled dark chocolate. And if you must know, I'd been so thorough that I had removed and damaged all the iris bulbs meant to sprout flowers later in their existence. Suffice to say this was a Sunday I wasn’t going to Mass or anywhere until I retrieved iris bulbs out from the heavy sacks now inside metal garbage cans, and replanted the bulbs. I donned my battle gear and made a routine: Trowel, small hole, drop massacred bulb, cover and add a small amount of water. Repeat 29 times.
Dirty from head to foot, victorious in both bulb burial and resuscitation, I rang for Dad to inspect my handiwork. He grunted my work was passable, then screamed about me being a little idiot and that was when God intervened.
Dad gritted his teeth so hard against the cigarette filter (an oft occurrence) that he celebrated the 2nd instance of breaking off and swallowing a front tooth. Dad stomped around the front yard howling creative strings of words one does not speak in the presence of children, ladies, or men of the cloth.
I was too tired and too scared to laugh or even look. I stared at my filthy legs and once-white tennis shoes, biting my lip to keep from smiling. The thought of divine intervention came to my young mind. So, respectfully and reverently, I looked upward, toward the sky.
I could have sworn I saw God among the clouds, smiling. And in that compassionate and loving smile, you know what? God confirmed that He had intervened on my behalf because, Glory Hallelujah!, I could see He had a front tooth missing.
© Joe Gensle 2010
Joe Gensle is 56 and currently lives in Arizona. His love of language and literature led him to successful pursuits in broadcasting and advertising. He is a distinguished graduate of San Francisco State University, and enjoys international travel.