That's about all I remember on the class assignment front. Memories that old come in a hazy collage of bell bottoms, bad haircuts and spontaneous erections. In fact --
That's how abruptly and clearly this moment lives on -
Sam Tyler striding into class with his beautifully painted Pueblo figurines, proud grin eager to share -- and then his foot catches the rug, whose duct-taped corner finally breaks free after years of neglect, to fulfill its destiny which is clearly to trip Sam Tyler, and send his figurines crashing to the floor. They explode into dust, Sam's face a twisted knot of horror and shock.
"Oh, FUCK!!" He screams. Then he realizes, looks up, and scans the room. He covers his mouth, as if more filth and random expletives will keep shooting out if he doesn't.
But it's too late, it's out there - and our collective nine year-old ears bleed.
Not like I hadn't heard the word. But to hear it spoken with such immediacy and authority was completely new. This wasn't the four-letter, dirty word, "guess what this means" kind of use. Not at all. Sam Tyler, poor figurine-less bastard, gave context and life to this linguistic bomb, this king of all swears (you saw A Christmas Story, so you know how bad it is). He used it not to giggle about birds and/or bees, or to stick his toe in the risky waters of "going blue," No, Sam Tyler saw months of hard work and the thrill of presenting something beautiful to his classmates, slip out of his hands. What else could he say?
One snowy Winter, few years later, my family went on a vacation and this word again reared it's ugly head. My cousins, my sister and I were all set to bunk in the basement of a rented cabin. The adults - as I understand so clearly now - wanted an entire floor between their lives and ours. Closing a door and saying, "good night" was like flipping a switch in a stretch limo, like seeing the thick glass partition rise, shut tight and divide generations for a few sacred hours.
But there was a catch - a mouse was loose in the basement. We heard it, we SAW it and in a mass thumping exodus to the living room, we called on our parents to protect us.
Somewhere in the house was a mousetrap. Again memory selects the facts but not the context. I just know I watched my father sitting on one of the fold-out cots in the basement. He carefully strains to set the spring-loaded --- SNAP!!!
Right on his thumb!!
And that word again. Perfect. Sharp. No other word to describe the surprise and pain on the man's beet-red face. He looks at us kids. Our hands over our mouths like Sam Tyler before. Suddenly, the doors of discipline are blown off. How could this man expect us NOT to use a word that he just used (so perfectly) himself? "Never say that word, ok?" he said as he shook his hand out climbing the stairs. He used to say things like, "Do as I say, not as I do," but suddenly that once meaningful dad-ism lay dead, snapped in a trap that can never be reset.
One Summer night - a few weeks ago. My wife and I, now with a brood of our own, come home late carrying our two youngest like snoring potato sacks and our 8 year-old a teetering zombie in the kitchen. Like he's waiting for permission to collapse right there on the floor.
I put our two year-old in his crib. He's a light sleeper but I think he's still down. Should he wake up, I'm looking as another hour of feeding and singing and rocking and not doing all the grown up things I need to too before work in the morning.
I lay him down - still asleep. I tiptoe out of the room - almost there.
And because my ankles are these ridiculous old hollow chicken bones, on the last step out of the room one of them cracks - POP! And I close the door behind me knowing what's coming. I sigh resigned at the inevitable and walk into the kitchen as I hear it - the plaintive bleat of my little boy - killer of all gown-up time.
And my groggy son is still standing there. Though not so groggy anymore. The circle now complete, and I am Sam tripping into class and my dad nailing his thumb. It's too late. It's out there. I haven't the heart to explain or excuse the word, but I wonder what he makes of it. Now he's sure it's as bad as he thought, and as I walk him past his brother's room (who ironically fell right back to sleep) I lean in to him and whisper, "You probably shouldn't have heard that."
We both laugh a guilty, giddy little laugh and a threshold is broken.
I tuck him in and think of Harry Chapin, who could've written a great song about f-words and perfect circles.
This one comes close enough:
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