We’re Not Slave Drivers, You Know!

Not slave drivers
Man! Can’t a kid get a break? Not slave drivers?

When I was about twelve, my parents wanted a pool. A real one. Concrete with a washed-gravel surround and a diving board. We lived in sunny Tacoma, Washington, where we reveled in four days of summer each year but this didn’t phase these sun worshipers. No. We would carve out a slice of Palm Springs North and bask in whatever heat the stingy sun would impart to its disciples.

This was long before the days of credit cards and home equity loans. Dad was a teacher so funds were thin but we had the nicest lawn in the county. And mom kept the roses perfectly. So we started a yard care business. It was a good match. Dad bought a truck – a metallic green Chevy – and tossed a mower and tools in the back, and took out a classified ad. He was immediately swamped and I was expected to traipse along on weekends and during the Summer to help out.

On most days, I loved it. We left early with fat lunches that Mom packed the night before. We might stop for a shake and sat together on the tailgate, swinging our legs. Dad paid me four bits an hour. I had no clue what to do with this kind of wealth. In the summer, this was up to twenty bucks a week. I was rich and got to spend all day with my Dad. Life was pretty good.

One day, I didn’t want to go. I was thinking about just how good all my friends had it. While I worked, bleeding and sweating my way to wealth, everyone else played baseball at Hatley’s or rode bikes to the Safeway to swipe a candy bar. I was a kid. I wanted a little bit of summer. It seemed pretty normal to me. So, one morning, I said “No.” It was weird. I expected the seas to part. I absolutely expected lots of yelling. At the very least, I expected to be dragged to the truck by my ear. But Mom and Dad just looked at each other. They probably winked. “Fine,” they said. “Stay home if you like. Sheesh. We’re not slave drivers you know.” Dad went to the phone and called one of my friends to help for the day. That was it and everyone was happy.

Not slave drivers
It looks so tiny now. Mom at the pool.

Dad left and I got dressed. Mom got me breakfast and I was feeling good about my place in the world. I yelled to Mom that I was going to Doug’s and started to head for the door. Before I had even reached for the door knob, the world hiccuped. My Mother’s head spun a full one-eighty while she kept washing dishes. “Oh no you’re not.You’re not going anywhere.” That part about not being slave drivers? Out the window.

“But…I don’t have to go to work. I wanted to play.”

“You don’t have to go to work but you are not going to play. You are darn well going to work around here all day. You’ll get the same breaks you get with your Dad and I’ll make your lunch. You can start with weeding the back rhodies and we’ll keep going until your Dad gets back.”

It was genius. I worked all day without the breaks I usually got driving from yard to yard. There were no milkshakes. No cooling off in the shade for a minute. And Mom? Until she died, there were no two men on the planet who could keep up with her. She defined taskmaster. I weeded. I swept the garage and the drive. I cleaned my room. I vacuumed. I worked right up to break time and lunch and kept at it until Dad drove up the driveway with the truck. Mom made sure that I was in the front when Dad drove up, too. He hopped out of the truck and made a big show of pulling out a crisp five and handed it to my friend. With money in his pocket, my buddy waved as he ran home, yelling over his shoulder that Dad could call him anytime.

He never needed to again. I learned my lesson. I never skipped a day again. And we got our pool. Which I enjoyed on my days off.

Not slave drivers
Work is done. Stealing a few minutes in the pool.

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Ms. Haft and the Nasty Word

Hot For Teacher
I’m stretching it but you get the point.

I was a junior and in love with writing and with science and, along with every other testosterone-sick guy in school, with Ms. Haft. She was freshly graduated from college and she wore her hair long and her skirts short. It’s still odd to me, but rather than standing or sitting, she would teach while kneeling on her desk. The younger teachers eschewed rows and columns and circled our desks around the perimeter of the room. One day – it’s one of the few clear memories I have of high-school – Ms. Haft walked into the room, climbed onto her desk, knelt down, and in the most droning, flat, and unemotional voice said “fuck”. Pencils, papers, jaws – everything dropped. Every set of eyes shot up from whatever they were looking at and turned to Ms. Haft. The air left the room. After a very long and very pregnant pause, she said it again. Fuck. And then again. Fuck you. Fuck me. Well, fuck it all.

All of a sudden, school got interesting.

She explained that today’s lesson had two parts. Part One was that we would circle the room and everyone would say Fuck out loud in turn. Just utter the word. Just form the sounds pushing air from your lungs and out your mouth. Touch your upper teeth to your lower lip and say it. Fuck. Good god. What harm can come from expelling air and forming a sound?

We went ’round our circle one-by-one. A couple students, pale and panting at the idea of letting such an abomination squeeze through their lips, shook their head No. I think one person gathered up and left. Some, given permission to swear for probably the first time, said the word over and over until told to stop. In the end, I think everyone in the room except for two or three, completed the odd lesson.

Lesson Two was much less interesting: words are meaningless. Do you imagine that ‘Fuck’ has any real meaning? Do you imagine that lovers would say such a word to each other? If we never bat an eye when the word is spoken would people continue to use it? Words only have meaning when we agree to their meaning.

But isn’t that exactly what culture is? An agreement that words and gestures and swimming pools and a dozen wives mean something?

The very purpose of words is to convey meaning and no word is meaningless. Words move us to great joy or to great pain. Words can elevate a nation. Words can change your life in an instant. “I’m leaving.” “I Have a Dream!” “Math is hard.”  How many girls have never forgotten when their dad told them that he loves them even though they are chubby? How many adults have never imagined what wonderful things they can do only because someone three or four decades ago told them that “you’re not good at that.” My own father remembered me at four-years-old reaching for his hand once to walk across the street. He said that he slapped my hand away and said “Big boys don’t hold hands”. It was meaningful enough for him to remember it fifty years later.

I disagree with Ms. Haft about the meaning of words but she alluded to something that I do agree with: dark things lose their power when exposed to light. I can’t help but think of this when I read that another group or government office has been ordered to cut off communication with the press or to shut down parts of their website. There might be a good reason for these actions but, without open and free communication, we can’t know.

I don’t know what happened to Ms. Haft. I don’t remember if she was there for my senior year. The last thing I remember of her was when she caught on that my buddy and I were the sole members of our high-school Maoist club. We dropped pamphlets and commie art in teacher’s mail each morning and beamed for days after Ms. Haft told us that the school board had called a special meeting to discuss ‘communist infestation’ at the school.


As and aside, it’s said that the most frightening moment in film is when Clint Eastwood sings a solo in the wonderful movie Paint Your Wagon. Here you go:

For my money, though, when the band who rescued rock and roll doffs leisure suits and does the two-step to Hot For Teacher, well, I cry a little bit. Except that the song is redeemed as a showcase for every amazing thing that Van Halen does with six strings.


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The stupidity of boys – and men

I can’t claim to be representative of all males but here’s a quick story about just how stupid boys can be.

I was maybe twelve and a voracious reader. I loved sports and sports stories and read a biography of the great football quarterback Johnny Unitas. I was fascinated to learn that he was blind in one eye. How can he be that good and blind in one eye?

It seems that he and his pals, when they were kids, found a stash of 22 caliber bullets. One of the crew – the smart one I’m sure – found a board with a long split. The boys wedged a bullet down into the crack and propped the board up with the rear-end of the bullet facing them. Gathering up handfuls of rocks, they began pelting the bullet and board until they heard the Pop! of the small shell. While the other boys yelled for joy, Johnny fell to the ground in pain. Who knows what happened but the bullet’s head was likely caught in the wood and the explosion pushed the shell backward into Johnny’s eye. The damage was permanent and it’s a testament to his skill that he was able to play sports at such a high level with only one seeing eyeball.

Fast forward twenty years to me and Terry and Alfred and Rocky rummaging around who knows where until we found a few 22 shells. I don’t know how old we were but I remembered the Unitas story. “Hey, guys. I know what we should do with these.” And I told the whole story. We all looked at each other and thought this is the greatest idea we’ve ever heard. Bullet in wood. Rocks at bullet. Bullet blinds boy for good. What could be more fun??

And we did it. We found the right piece of wood and set up the target and never got a bullet to fire. Duds! What a crappy day! No explosion and no one was blinded!

So, if you every wonder about boys being stupid – here’s one vote on the Yes side.