Wednesday, November 16, 2016

BETRAYAL, PUNISHMENT

Here's another in our punishment series... this time with an added twist: the perpetrator of this misdemeanor chickens out and lets his brother take the punishment first. When he eventually confesses, it's all the worse for him. What he describes is actually one of the cruelest punishments I have come across. For the author of the story, who has recently moved into our neighborhood, it's clearly a painful memory. It also belongs, surely, in our "dad" series. Far from anger or bitterness, the story ends in genuine love and admiration for the strong, strict father who could punish this severely.


RAW WHITE RICE, ST. AUGUSTINE GRASS, AND FIRE RED ANTS
By Johnny Fotsch


At nine years old, growing up in Metairie Louisiana, my responsibilities were few. Most days were carefree, especially during summer time. When I wasn't riding bicycles, playing with friends or fishing on Lake Pontchartrain I was busy doing chores. My dad compiled a list of weekly household chores that would rotate between myself and my two younger brothers, Kevin, seven years old and Pat, five years old. 

It was the summer of 1968 and my turn in the hopper. Mow the lawn. Ouch! Our family lived at the corner of West Esplanade and Page—a busy traffic corner right across from James Madison Elementary School. Just about every neighbor drove by our house at least twice a day, so even at nine years old I knew how important it was that the lawn was mowed on a weekly basis to look manicured. My dad reminded me of this often. 

Well, I learned early on that the only grass that grew fast, stayed green and was harder than hell to mow was St. Augustine. It would take all morning to mow the front and back yards with a gasoline push-mower. I became very adept at avoiding the plethora of Red Fire Ant mounds that dotted the entire property—although on a rare occasion I would mow right over one of the "Red Devil" mounds and in turn perform the "Fire Ant Dance" for all our neighbors to see. Quite a spectacle. 

One summer morning while I was refilling the gas tank on the lawn mower, I spilled a few drops of gasoline on the milkman's Styrofoam delivery chest that sat in the carport by our kitchen door. Well, for a nine-year old boy, watching the reaction of gasoline in contact with Styrofoam is more exciting than any chemical experiment in eighth grade science class. Wow! The gasoline just shot through the Styrofoam like a science fiction laser beam. I couldn't stop myself. I just stood there letting the gasoline drip from the gas can onto the chest, until where there was once a chest there was now no more than a puddle of syrupy ooze. And as an innocent young boy, the last thing to cross my mind was to clean up the scene of the crime…

Later that day I returned home from one of my summer bicycle adventures. As I put my bicycle away in the shed in the back yard, I could overhear my dad’s baritone voice through the window of my brother Kevin's bedroom. It didn't sound good. As a matter of fact, it sounded bad. I decided it would be a good idea for me to remain outside under the window and listen further. Apparently on returning home my dad had left his car and stepped into the syrupy ooze I had left by the kitchen door earlier in the day.  My dad was angry, assuming that it was Kevin who had left the mess, and my brother Kevin was about to be the recipient of our father’s wrath.

My dad proceeded to mete out justice, and although I couldn't see the punishment I knew all too well what was happening. The sound of my dad’s huge "Golden Glove" boxing champ hand landing forcefully on the bottom of my brother’s Fruit of the Looms was unmistakable. I sat there quietly as my brother received the punishment that I deserved. When he’d finished, my dad exited the bedroom and slammed the door behind him. This was my sign to wait at least 10 minutes for calm to return before entering the house as the Golden Child.  I walked by Kevin's bedroom door and could hear his muffled whimpering.  I have to admit I was just starting to feel the pangs of guilt.

I knew I couldn't fess up to my dad. My mom was shopping for dinner so I went outside and sat on the steps right by the scene of the crime and waited for my mom to come home. As I helped her unload the car I admitted what I had done.  Her jade green eyes began to pool with tears as she admonished me for allowing my brother to take the heat for my bad deeds.

She then uttered the words I feared most. Go inside and tell your father exactly what you just told me and don't leave anything out. She then reached into her purse grabbed a tissue and her rosary beads and proceeded to pray for me. Not a good sign.

I walked slowly to my dad’s den where I found him sitting in his overstuffed leather recliner enjoying his pipe. He smiled and said "Johnny, how was your day today?”

I stood there shaking and proceeded to spill my guts. With every word, I witnessed a new shade of red cascade across my dad’s face. When I’d finished, my dad just sat there glaring at me. He was contemplating the next hour of my existence, I'm sure.  He rose slowly from his recliner, grabbed my hand and walked me to the kitchen pantry. He opened the pantry door and pointed to a large bag of raw white rice and instructed me to pick it up and follow him back to the den. We walked over to the far corner of his den, where the rug no longer covered the hardwood floor. He ordered me to pour the rice on the oak boards, which I quickly did. He then told me to strip down to my Fruit of the Looms. I did what he told me, and stood there bewildered. He pointed to the rice on the floor and said, "Kneel.” 

I slowly got down on my knees amidst the rice that was scattered across the floor. "Face the corner,” my father told me next, “and stay there until I say it’s time to get up.”

I must have had a puzzled look on my face that only angered him more, so I quickly turned to face the corner. It was quiet for the first minute or so, before I heard the drone of the television warming up.  It was a familiar sound every evening after supper. It was Wednesday, so that meant "Combat." Oh, no! “Combat” was an hour-long WWII drama. I was too scared to look over my shoulder so I kneeled and squirmed, chanting all the while to myself: "I hate you Vic Morrow.”

At the end of the show I could hear the click of the switch as the television was turned off. My dad then slowly walked to my side and asked, " Well? Will you ever let your little brother take the punishment for you again?”  

"No, never," I promised in my agony. 

"Well, then,” Dad said, “you can get up now. You'll need to go see your mom."

I staggered across the house to my parents’ bedroom, where my mom was sitting on her bed. "Come, sit by me," she said with a tender glance. Then she kissed me on the forehead. Kneeling down and reaching into her dress pocket for a pair of tweezers and a cotton ball, she began to pluck out dozens of grains of white rice from my skinny, sunburned knees.

Yes, I miss my Dad.  He was a WWII Navy Cross recipient, a Golden Gloves boxing champ, and the list goes on. Most of all I respect and admire his quiet, unassuming approach to life. He was like so many of his peers in "The Greatest Generation" who sacrificed greatly so that those of us who follow them can enjoy this wonderful cornucopia of choices that we are offered in our lives today. 

P.S. Behind every great man there is a real hero. Love you Mom!

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