Saturday, August 12, 2006

A Pierce family tale from long ago

Granddad (my mother's father) died a few years ago, a respected and successful businessman who fought Parkinson's for two decades before finally succumbing. Perhaps Kasia and Sean and Kegan remember him. I doubt Merry does, and neither Granddad nor Nonna (who didn't last long after Granddad went) ever met any of the Kazakh kids, I don't think.

There are many Granddad stories, and I've decided I'll start telling some of them occasionally on the blog. And I'll start with one I told the boys just a few days ago, over a game of Dungeons and Dragons, where we meet on equal footing as neophytes all, as I work diligently on establishing a pasttime for me and the boys to have in common after all those years I spent on the road missing their childhood.

It says something, I suppose, about how poor my choices have been, that they haven't heard this story until now...but, hm, this post is meant to be amusing, not unattractively self-reproaching; so enough introspection.

Granddad was always a spirited chap. Even when he was in the nursing home and hallucinating from the drugs in the final days, he was irrepressible. I remember sitting there with him and Dessie and Nonna, and he started trying to reach for something that only he could see, something that he apparently couldn't reach because he was tied into the wheelchair.

Dessie noticed. "Granddad, what do you need?"

"I can't reach the bourbon."

Now, I never once saw my grandfather drunk, but he did like his bourbon, albeit in the moderation characteristic of the iron self-discipline that never seemed to desert him. We knew perfectly well where the bourbon was stashed; we also knew that it wasn't yet time for the shot he was allowed daily. So Dessie decided to outwit him -- which, I must say, was never a task to be undertaken lightly, even when he was doped up and seeing things that weren't there.

"But Granddad, there aren't any glasses."

"Of course there are glasses; I'll tell you where they are."

"No, Granddad, you don't understand -- they forgot to wash the glasses. All the glasses are dirty. You wouldn't want to drink bourbon out of a dirty glass, would you?"

Granddad pondered this for a couple of seconds and then replied decisively, "Well, I suppose we will, because it sounds like that's the only way we're going to get any bourbon."


That's not the story I told Sean and Kegan the other night, actually. The story I told them went eighty or ninety years back, back into the Prohibition days when Granddad was a teenaged boy possessed with more than his share of high spirits (the natural kind, not the alcoholic, though there was that embarrassing episode of the wagonful of bottles of homemade choc beer that started exploding from the afternoon heat as Granddad tried to drive inconspicuously down Main Street one fine summer's day...but I digress). In those days Haileyville, Oklahoma had little in the way of indoor plumbing, and so every Halloween it was traditional for the young bloods to go out and mark the occasion by tiptoeing out through the dark night and turning over other people's outhouses. Young Harold (it doesn't seem right to refer to a teenager as "Granddad") and his buddies always made a special point of upending the outhouse of one particular older gentleman of whom they did not approve and by whom they were not highly regarded. One of those vicious cycle things, alas.

Our story begins just before sundown on one particular Halloween. No moon is expected, but Harold and his friends are most definitely expected by Older Gentleman. He is engaged in making his preparations for their arrival. Nothing fancy; no reinforcing with concrete rebar or six-inch posts. No, his preparations are far simpler.

He is merely moving his outhouse six feet to the right.

Night falls; darkness descends; all is silent. Then several shadows move silently across the lawn. The silhouette of the outhouse looms up ahead of them with its silent Siren call...and then...

I personally rarely if ever heard my grandfather curse. But never could there have been a time at which a hearty, "Oh, s***!" could have been more appropriate. Whether he or his friends actually uttered this or other expletives, is discreetly left unrecorded in the family annals.

At this point, Older Gentleman is far enough ahead in the game that victory is assured, and young Harold & Company can only try to lessen the margin of defeat. They therefore relieve their outraged feelings, not by tipping over the outhouse, which now seems to them patently inadequate, but by depositing the outhouse in the middle of Main Street. Unfortunately this has the effect merely of widening the gap in the score...because it brings the proceedings to the attention of the chief of police. And for some reason -- perhaps he is psychic? -- the chief knows right away exactly which young men are to be held responsible.

Game, set and match to Older Gentleman. Ah, good times.


This reminds me of a classic anecdote from the days when every child in America knew the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. I must have heard it for the first time when I was in elementary school, but I imagine it was a chestnut long before I was born.

A relatively hot-tempered father has been saddled with a young son who takes bold creative license with the truth, and red-faced yelling and thorough switchings have had little noticeable effect. So the dad decides he'll try a different tack. He calls the boy into the living room and tells him the story of the cherry tree, ending up impressively, "And when George Washington's papa asked, 'Son, did you chop down the cherry tree?' George Washington said, 'Papa, I cannot tell a lie. I did chop down the cherry tree.' But you know what, Tommy? George Washington's father was so proud of him for telling the truth, he didn't even spank him."

Young Tommy has been listening politely though not very attentively up to this point, but this last bit grabs his attention. Unfortunately, this is not because he is struck by the contrast between little Georgie's behavior and his own. The striking contrast is between Papa Washington's behavior and what Tommy figures his own dad's reaction would be.

In fact, the more he thinks it over, the more certain he is that telling the truth to his own dad in a similar situation would produce very different results. He decides a test is in order; but unfortunately his family possesses no cherry tree. A substitute offense is required, and after some thought he decides that pushing the family outhouse over the cliff should do quite nicely. The deed follows shortly upon the thought, and then Tommy returns to the house and placidly awaits the outcome of his experiment.

A couple of hours later his father comes through the door looking quite grim.

"Hello, papa," says Tommy brightly.

His father looks at him with serious mien. "Tommy," he says sternly, "I must ask you a question. Did you, or did you not, push our outhouse over the cliff?"

Tommy folds his hands angelically and says in as sanctimonious a voice as he can muster, "Papa, I cannot tell a lie. I did push the outhouse over the cliff."

At which point his father snatches him up and proceeds to blister the barnacles off Tommy's tender young sit-me-down-upon.

Tommy is not enjoying this process, naturally, but there is always a great deal of satisfaction in having been right, and so there is a triumphant note to his voice as he objects, "But, Papa, when George Washington told the truth, his papa didn't spank him."

"That's as may be," returns his father, "but just you answer me this: was George Washington's father actually in the cherry tree when he chopped it down?"


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