Dad hit me only once, an upper cut to the solar plexus. It nearly lifted me off my feet. I was 17 then and already fairly tall, 6’1.” He was 48 and of medium height, 5’8,” a fireplug who if provoked could whirl like a dervish if you can picture that.
He had been a prisoner of war in Ireland and then became a boxer in the United States after the English expelled him from Ireland around 1920.
Fortunately, he caught on with the Commonwealth Edison Company in Chicago and worked there as a trouble-shooting electrician for almost 40 years.
One day he reached over a hot wire too fast to save a rookie from experiencing a shock of 12,000 volts. He took the volts instead and that crippled one arm and brought about an early retirement. While recovering, he seemed more concerned about ruining his accident-free record.
But I’m getting years ahead of myself. I’m talking now about the day 30 years previous when he caught me with that uppercut in the dining room.
What had I done, you might ask?
Well, in the ignorance of youth, I had hidden an open jar of catfish stink bait between the cushions of the living room couch where I knew my father would sit to talk with my friends, all of us just home from high school.
He liked to talk with them and they with him.
In no time at all, the stench from the catfish bait filled the living room and he stopped talking and started looking around in a rather menacing way.
I had thought he would laugh because 10 years earlier he had told me, when I was perhaps in the second grade, about the time he and a fellow worker, Oscar Bergman, another electrician, had been making the rounds in their Trouble Truck, as it was called, in the alleys of Chicago. They would stop as required to take turns climbing poles to get the electricity back on after a strong summer storm.
As the saying goes, it was 100 in the shade and not much shade was available that day in the alleys.
Apparently it was Oscar’s turn to climb the next pole and while he was up there, my father flattened a patty of horse dung he had found in the alley. He put it in the pocket of a jacket Oscar had left on the back shelf of the cab of the truck, a jacket Oscar had worn in springtime.
Horse dung in Chicago’s alleys was common in the 1940s. Vegetable vendors would ride up and down in horse-drawn carts hawking their produce, all of it fresh from one of the farms on the outskirts of the city.
But on this day when Oscar got back in the truck he yelled something to my father who was then climbing the next pole.
“Joe, there’s a helluva stench in the cab of the truck.”
Oscar had a very thick Swedish accent, as thick as my father’s Irish brogue, and as a young child I had a chance to hear them converse when my father brought Oscar over to the house. They had become close friends, different as they were, and the music of their two accents was wonderful to hear. They communicated with gusto.
Oscar’s remark about the stench from the dung patty, however, has remained with me all these years:
“Joe, there’s a helluva stench in the cab of the truck.”
In childhood I said it over and over with more relish, I’m afraid, than a nighttime prayer I had been asked to memorize. I think it is still a prayer taught by some parents. It was called “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.”
In any event 10 years later when my father found the stink bait I had hidden in the couch, he didn’t find my trick as funny as the one he had played on Oscar Bergman.
No doubt he was embarrassed in front of my friends who I had told about the set-up in advance. No doubt they were smiling if not stifling a laugh.
I ran out of the living room as soon as I saw my father leap off the couch. He caught me in the dining room and delivered that uppercut.
Decades later now there are times when I can still feel that punch although he didn’t turn his fist when it sunk into me. I always wondered why he failed to do so.
When I had gotten eyeglasses for myopia in third grade, he had taken me down the basement to teach me how to defend myself based on skills he had learned as a boxer.
Showing me how to fake with my left and deliver my right, he told me that if I ever got in a fight to turn my fist each time I landed a punch. Telling that to a third-grader was a remarkable event in itself. But I remember it to this day.
I listened to my father all through childhood and also watched what he did. Like many children fortunate enough to have a father in the home, I learned good things and bad things that way.
It turned out at school that he was right about other boys bugging me about my new glasses. Three fights in three days, all of them broken up by the nun in charge of the playground during recess.
But the day my father got me with the uppercut in the dining room, I didn’t cry and I didn’t flinch, just leaned back against the wall. To cry would have been bad form for the first-born son of an Irish immigrant.
Crying wasn’t an acceptable response to physical pain in the house I was raised in. No doubt that was because my father had endured much physical and emotional pain throughout his life, especially in that British prison in Ireland where the guards broke both his legs with rifle butts and then let him sit on the cell floor for quite some time without medical attention.
So I kept my mouth shut and watched him walk away. First time I ever saw him with his head down.
He was obviously ashamed and embarrassed that he had hit me, something he had never done before or after in spite of infractions I would have thought far worse.
I did well in school, which saved me in his eyes, but I was far less than a well-behaved child.
I learned a couple of things, however, from that uppercut, one of them funny and the other quite important later on in life as an adult.
The funny thing was I kept thinking how lucky Oscar Bergman was to escape with just a horse-dung patty hidden in the pocket of his jacket.
But later in life, memories of the uppercut reminded me never to strike any of my five kids, whatever the problem. Looking back, that is something I am happy never to have done.
I can tell you, though, some of my children's mischievous deeds were far worse, I thought at the time, than hiding stink bait between the cushions of a living room couch. And those are stories dear to my heart I hope someday to write.
Who knows what my kids might think if they happen to read them, especially those of them still in the throes of raising children of their own.