The publication of my book Too Smart for God, has been delayed by the COVID-19 situation. In the meantime here is a chapter that did not make the final edit – consider it kind of a “deleted scene.” Enjoy!
CHAPTER 23 – John Boy (Innocence Lost 1)
My mom was something of a Southern Belle.
She was a very proper woman who insisted the full table be set every evening before supper. My sister or I had to lay a knife on the right side of each plate with its blade facing the plate, then put a spoon beside it. The fork went on the left side; the forks, that is, with the salad fork outside the big one. Under the forks went the napkin folded into a triangle.
This full table-setting did not make sense to me. “Why do we need forks and knives when we’re just having stew?”
It was an argument I would never win. There was a Right Way to do things.
When we were young and still had winter in Virginia, my sister and I would have to wait for my mother to get her hair “right” and her makeup “done” before we could go out and play in the snow. I can still feel the precious moments of sledding, snow angels, snowmen, and snowball fights ticking away while mom fussed with herself in the bathroom.
Appearances were crucial. You put everything away to keep the house clean in case someone dropped by, or even if they didn’t.
You kept problems put away in the house as well.
Much of mom’s propriety was cultural. Her background as a child of an alcoholic magnified her desire for order and predictability.
One thing you did not do in my mom’s house or in her presence was cuss. I don’t ever remember hearing my parents swear, not even once.
In fact, I don’t remember hearing any profanity at all anywhere until third grade in the pool locker room at YMCA Day Camp.
This is how sheltered I was from that kind of language:
When I heard older boys peppering their language with a certain scatological reference as they changed out of their swimsuits, I wondered why they kept spitting out the name of a razor I’d heard advertised on television.
Eventually someone set me straight.
In my house, you could get away with “darn,” but “dern” would get you sent to your room. I never dared use anything stronger for fear of the dire consequences.
Except that one time . . .
We were still in Virginia and I was 11 on the Saturday morning my parents announced to my sister and I that we were going to do Something Special that afternoon. I know now it is a good thing I grew up in a family that did stuff together on weekends. But at 11 I was already engaged in the adolescent War of Independence. It is a stage of development that is necessary, but painful for everyone.
I didn’t want to do Something Special with my mom and dad and my sister. I wanted to play with my friends or, as a budding introvert, hang out in my room and read or listen to my shortwave radio.
Besides, Something Special often meant a long drive to some antebellum Virginia mansion where an old lady in a hoop skirt would lead us from room to room while reciting a canned spiel about the estate’s “fascinating history.”
“In this room Mr. and Mrs. Coopersmith would enjoy their morning coffee and biscuits before setting about their daily routine. The house slaves would receive so much gratification from Mr. and Mrs. Coopersmith’s appreciation of their cooking and serving. The slaves in the field would already be hard at work, singing and happy in the duties and purpose Mr. and Mrs. Coopersmith provided out of Christian charity.”
This was just 40 years ago in Virginia, a state with a proud plantation history in a time they were proud to proclaim it.
And it’s only a slight exaggeration.
On this particular Saturday we weren’t going to a plantation to hear how contented the slaves were, or that Song of the South was an accurate portrayal of African-American history.
We were instead going to drive across the state to some little town in the Blue Ridge Mountains where a Celebrity would be making an appearance.
Richard Thomas! John Boy Walton! (Exclamation points not mine but my parents’; they loved The Waltons.)
Maybe if the celebrity had been Washington Quarterback Billy Kilmer or Orioles Third Baseman Brooks Robinson or an astronaut or something, I would have put aside my quest for individuation for the afternoon and gone along willingly.
But not too willingly. You couldn’t give them too much in this ongoing war.
But John Boy? Let’s just say I didn’t run out to the car and shout, “What are ya’ll waiting for?! He’s not going to be there all day!”
At first I employed passive aggressive tactics.
I took a loooooong shower.
I couldn’t decide what to wear.
I couldn’t find socks that matched.
I feigned altruism: “Y’all don’t really want to wait around for me, do you? I don’t want to make you late. Y’all go ahead without me. I can’t wait to hear all about it when you get home.”
Attempts at reasonable persuasion were unsuccessful.
I segued into a tantrum. Early adolescence is in some ways a return to the Terrible Twos, just with more verbal ability and mobility. “I don’t want to go! I don’t have to go! You can’t make me go!” Those probably weren’t my exact words but they capture the general thesis of my petulant dissertation.
My parents took a dissenting view. Why would I not want to spend time with my family that loved me and cared for me? Guilt was a popular but, by this time in my life, ineffective tactic.
I most certainly did have to go and they most definitely could make me.
I needed to show them I was serious.
All I had left was the nuclear option.
“I don’t want to go and see any,” I paused here, both for effect and to screw up the courage to drop the big bomb, “Damn,” paused again to make sure they heard it, “John Boy!”
I crossed my arms and waited for the reaction.
What did I expect to get out of this? Did I really think my parents were going to respond, “If we had known how strongly you felt about this, we never would have suggested such an imposition in the first place. Thank you for letting us know the depth of your objection. We’ll just run along and leave you to yourself.”
In my dreams.
But when you’re 11 you’re not thinking strategically. You’re not really thinking at all. You want your way, and if you can’t have it you want those who stand in your way to be as miserable as you are. Or something.
Mom and dad’s response was the worst possible.
They didn’t yell at me, or curse back at me, or wash my mouth out with soap. They just looked at me with what is perhaps the most effective weapon in a parent’s arsenal, if used sparingly.
Yeah, sometimes that cousin of guilt could be effective.
Then one of them, I don’t remember which, said, “Okay, let’s go.” They knew my resistance was spent.
So we went to see John Boy. I think I had a reasonably good time. They didn’t tell me until we got home late that night I was grounded for the next week.