Paint It Black
Copyright 2011 by Peter A. Teeuwissen. All rights reserved.
When I was five years old, I got a baseball uniform. This was a really big deal in my life. I knew this because everyone told me so.
When you are young the rest of the people in your life—parents, other adults, big brothers—are constantly putting things into context for you and explaining their significance, helpfully supplying information that tells you, in large part, what to think. Sometimes this is useful and even vital. A parent might say, “don’t touch the stove because it’s hot and it will burn you.” Good stuff. On the other hand, your mother might tell you that Brussels sprouts are good, because they are “nourishing.” Without someone telling you that Brussels sprouts are good you would not know it, because everything in your own young mind and body is telling you just the opposite, in fact is telling you not to eat them, on pain of death, or at least at the risk of retching, gagging, physical rejection. When we observe such natural aversion in other animals we understand it implicitly as the creature’s innate knowledge that it should stay away from something that isn’t in its best interests. But within our own species we like to play little games on the smallest and most vulnerable among us. We insist they “just try a bite,” or threaten to deprive them of dessert (a food the young body correctly senses is truly good) or worse, to send them to bed right after supper, if they don’t eat the offensive morsels.
So it goes throughout early childhood. Others tell you that things are good or bad even when it is less than obvious to you. Going to church is good, even though it involves getting dressed up on a Sunday morning and sitting still through an hour or more of boring and incomprehensible nonsense. Getting dirty is bad, even when it results from having the time of your life. Going to school always gets high marks from adults, who would have you believe that being thrown together with a bunch of rude, nose-picking children your own age, under the supervision of stern women you don’t know, is both edifying and enjoyable.
Now, if I have gone overboard here with negative examples it is not to say that I hated having that baseball uniform. I do think, though, that I would have been more or less indifferent to it had I not been told how special it was. My memory of having had that outfit of clothing is not attended by any clear and vibrant feelings, such as I remember always having had at the coming of Christmas or a birthday. Moreover, the rest of the story I am about to tell has long since overshadowed whatever feelings I had in relation to my initial receipt of the uniform.
At five, I was aware of baseball mainly as something that came out of the radio on lazy lawnmower-serenaded Saturday afternoons. Before I understood the game, the broadcasts were a pleasant and benign adjunct to life, full of the murmur and roar of the crowd, the crisp play-by-play, and the beer and razor blade commercials. It was 1954, and the Detroit Tigers, our home team, was having another of its almost unbroken string of mediocre years. Harvey Kuenn was doing great and Al Kaline was up-and-coming, but the Tigers themselves were neither. Every decade or two the Tigers would break out of their lethargy and win the pennant. The last time it had happened was before I was born, and the next time wouldn’t be until after I graduated from high school. In between they played basically lousy baseball, paying as little for players as they could get away with and hoping that serendipity would do what talent could not. They usually weren’t even contenders. Of course I was loyal to them, but that was because I really had no choice in the matter. As with the other less-than-intuitive assignments of value in my life, I was told that the Tigers were good and that we must root for them. Besides, there was no other major league baseball team within a hundred-and-fifty-mile radius. (Years later I moved to Connecticut and became a Yankees fan. We lived about midway between New York and Boston, and some people wondered why I chose the Yankees over the Red Sox. The answer was simple: if I had wanted to waste my time backing a short-sighted team run by cheapskates that would break my heart more often than not, I would have stuck with the Tigers.)
My personal experience with baseball at that time was limited to having a plastic glove of some kind and a Louisville Slugger bat that really belonged to my brother and was much too big for me, and also a really beat up catcher’s mitt that emitted a cloud of dust every time you slammed your fist into it. There weren’t enough kids in the neighborhood for team play, so we spent most of our time playing catch, hitting flies and grounders to each other, or getting someone in a pickle on the base path.
The uniform I was given did not have on it the familiar Old English “D” that emblazoned those of the actual Tigers, being of a more generic type. But it was made of the same baggy wool as those of the big league guys, complete with a short-sleeved shirt that fit over a long-sleeved jersey, and pants with stirrups that went around my heels, over socks that came up to my knees. There were no cleats, however, and on my feet I wore high-top black sneakers, either Keds or PF Flyers.
My best friend Jimmy lived two doors down from me, at the bottom of our dead end street. We were closer than brothers. Our mothers had been pregnant at the same time. I arrived a few months before he did, and after that we did pretty much all the same things at the same time growing up. Jimmy’s family and mine seemed quite different, though. Whereas my parents were straight laced and churchgoing and reserved in practically all things, Jimmy’s folks were looser and more down-to-earth. For one thing, his mom had been a teenager when he was born, whereas my mother was nearing forty. So Jimmy’s mom was almost a kid herself, and although she faithfully did her maternal duty, she never seemed completely an adult to me in those early days. She was busy, also, with having more kids—Jimmy’s two younger sisters—and was thus always preoccupied with diapers and potties and such. My mother was well into middle age, and out of the baby business.
The other big difference in our families, more pertinent to the subject at hand, was our fathers. Mine was a man of the cloth, a big man but on the whole gentle and genteel, well educated and respected by all. He wore suits to work every day, just like Ward Cleaver would a few years later on Leave It To Beaver. On Sundays he wore his black clerical robe, which set him off from and above all others in the house of worship. He was almost never home. Jimmy’s dad ran a gas station and wore blue shirts bearing the image of a red horse with wings, with his name embroidered above one of the pockets. His work clothes were just as impressive in their own way as my dad’s were, to be sure. He walked with a limp because a car engine had once fallen on his foot, which was a sort of badge of honor. Though I don’t believe he drank a great deal, he had the fierce volatile temper of a drunk, and Jimmy was usually the one who took the brunt of his anger, even at the tender age we were then. Sometimes he would come home from work and light into their yelping beagle, whose name was Bill, holding him up at arm’s length by his collar and flogging him with his belt. Just as often it would be Jimmy who would feel the sting of the leather, which he took, all through his childhood, with a stoic resignation that would have made a Dickensian orphan look like a wimp. But most importantly, Jimmy’s dad swore like a pirate. Probably his most enduring legacy is the fact that Jimmy and I learned how to curse from listening to and imitating him, so that by the time we entered school we were already comparatively well educated in that respect.
Not that we always got things straight, profanitywise. When you are a preschooler, you try to make sense of things as best you can without the advantage of literacy. Thus it was that for a couple of years we thought “shit” was “shet,” based on the way his dad pronounced the word, usually accompanied by a withering sigh of disgust, as in, “Shet, Jimmy, how many goddamned times do I have to tell you not to leave that tricycle in the driveway!” Or, as he once said to me, quite calmly, after I let out a fart in his presence, “Careful you don’t shet.” Another word we had a little trouble with was “whore,” which his dad frequently used, not in its literal sense, but rather to describe something difficult or intractable, such as a nut that wouldn’t loosen, when he might say, “Jesus Christ, get off of there, you whore!” Having been familiar with the word from the ages of three and four, when Jimmy and I finally started learning to write we naturally thought it must be spelled “hor.” Then at some point we were given to understand that there was a silent “w” lurking at the beginning, so we modified it to “whor.” This latter spelling of the word lasted us, I think, well up into the elementary grades, until one of us became aware of the insidious silent “e” at the other end, and informed the other. As for the “n” at the end of “damn,” that too was a long time coming. It’s possible that I stumbled on that bit of esoterica while reading the Bible.
Jimmy and I swore roundly and gleefully to and at one another, practically from toddlerhood. We didn’t swear out of ignorance of its sinfulness, for we were well aware that it was Bad and that my parents would have had strokes if they’d heard us, and that Jimmy’s father would have whipped his ass raw, notwithstanding that we’d learned it all from him. Nor did we swear out of anger or frustration, as adults tend to do. No, we swore for the pure pleasure of swearing, knowing it to be naughty. We swore with smiles on our faces. We gloried in it, and we proudly added each new word we picked up to our arsenal of profanity, like a rogue nation might revel in the acquisition of a weapon of mass destruction. There was absolutely nothing innocent about our approach to profanity. If there was a hell to which wrongdoers like us would be sent, we knew we were headed there for sure, and we didn’t give a shet.
I should mention that at this time we were as yet innocent of the f-word. For some odd reason, Jimmy’s dad didn’t use that one, at least not in our hearing. Nor did he refer much to genitalia or sexual functions. Perhaps he had some scruples after all. In any case, at the age we were then, we would have had little or no context to put those terms in, for our understanding of sex was several years off. “Hell” and “shit” had meaning to us. Any kid who went to Sunday school knew what hell was, and shit was pretty self-explanatory. We knew “damn” had something to do with hell, and that “goddamn” was worse than plain ordinary “damn.” Of course Jesus Christ was God’s son, who on very serious occasions was referred to by his full name, Jesus Christ Almighty, the way our mothers would call us by all three of our names when we were in trouble. And a bastard was some kind of guy and a bitch was some kind of woman, and a son of a bitch had a bitch for a mother, a fact that might, we thought, make him a bastard. We didn’t know for real what a whore was yet, but that was okay, because it had that alternate meaning relating generally to things under the hood of a car. But if we had heard the old man say “fuck,” I’m not sure what we would have done with it, other than to spell it wrong. Maybe Jimmy’s dad was carefully teaching it all to us a little at a time, as we were able to absorb it. As the years went by, of course, we added many words we heard at school, and invariably discussed the new ones with one another to make sure we were using them correctly and in the right combinations.
I have a specific visual image of where I was when I was introduced to the word “fuck.” It was in second grade, out on the playground. This kid named David Kennedy put up his middle finger to someone across the yard and yelled, “This to ya!” What makes it so memorable is that he had a big wart on the middle finger in question, just below the fingernail. I asked someone else what the middle finger meant and they said it meant either “fuck” or “fuck you,” they weren’t sure. But I was afraid to ask what “fuck” itself meant, not wanting to compound my appearance of ignorance. Later when I found out it had something to do with sex, and was synonymous with “screw,” I was only slightly less mystified, but intrigued nevertheless, because I was told that “fuck” was a very bad word. As for giving someone the finger, here was a gesture, a mere extending of a particular finger (of which most people had not one but two) that carried with it a meaning more naughty than any of the other dirty words I knew! Such a powerful yet simple thing was truly a force to be respected. What proved tougher to get a handle on was the syntactical problem presented by the words “fuck you.” Although by no means at that age did I possess a grasp of grammar equal to the task of articulating my concerns, I felt that “fuck you” just didn’t quite make sense. There was the verb (whose meaning I only dimly understood) and the direct object, but where was the subject of the sentence? Was it supposed to be “I fuck you,” or maybe “we fuck you,” and if so, why not say so? “Fuck yourself” I could accept in spite of its impracticability, since the verb in its imperative form needed no pronoun. But “fuck you”? What kind of way was that to talk? At least Jimmy’s dad swore in a manner that made sense to me.
Despite always being in trouble with his dad for something or other, Jimmy’s appetite for new trouble seemed boundless. Don’t get me wrong; he didn’t turn into a juvenile delinquent or go seriously awry. But his ability to commit peccadilloes for which he would later suffer was almost uncanny. From his long list of good qualities impulse control was absent. I was more circumspect than he, and also a little better at covering my tracks, and therefore didn’t get into nearly as much trouble as he did. And even when I did, the consequences were likely to be only a couple of swats on the rear from my mom (more a matter of form than of substance), or at worst a stern lecture from my dad.
I should now insert a fact that is perhaps already known by many readers, but which bears mentioning here. Latex paint did not become widely available on the commercial market until well into the 1950s. The Second World War had probably delayed things somewhat, because the Japanese controlled the supply of natural latex rubber. The standard for all types of home applications during the early and middle 50s remained oil-based paint. The latter had the advantage of being shiny and durable, but was also much more difficult to dissolve and clean up, requiring chemical solvents rather than soap and water.
Jimmy’s garage was full of interesting things, as you might expect the home garage of a mechanic to be. One of them was a machete, which his dad used occasionally to hack at bushes, and which I think he had acquired while in the army somewhere in the Pacific during the war, but which he mostly left lying around to rust, and for Jimmy to play with. Not, of course, that Jimmy was allowed to do this—not at all. In fact, Jimmy was forbidden to loiter in the garage, which is why he simply had to spend as much time there as he could when his dad wasn’t around. (I mention the machete mostly because we briefly labored under the impression that the word “machete” was sort of dirty, since it seemed to contain the word “shet,” and we concluded that the whole word had a certain taint to it. Anyway, we loved to say it, and Jimmy loved to wield that thing. It’s probably a minor miracle that we both have all our fingers and toes.) In the back of the garage, as in millions of garages the world over, was a collection of cans of partially used paint, their colors identifiable by the drips and smudges on the sides and lids. And this being 1954, it was oil-based paint.
On one particular morning during the summer, I was playing with Jimmy in his garage, where we were rummaging around as usual looking for something to do in that aimless way kids have of doing. I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, or who had what idea, but the next thing I do remember is that we were outside around the back with a can of black house paint and a couple of two-inch paintbrushes, writing swear words on the garage in letters about a foot high. We wrote “dam” and “hell” and “hor” and of course our favorite, “shet.” There might have been others. Throughout this exercise we were giggling and enjoying our wickedness immensely, and also getting lots of paint on our hands, in our hair, and on our clothes. Oh, and I should mention here that I had left my house that morning wearing my new baseball uniform.
There may have come a time in the garden of Eden when Adam said to Eve (or vice versa) something along these lines: “Maybe if we set this apple back up on one of the branches of the tree and cover it with a couple of leaves, no one will notice that we’ve been eating it.” Who knows? If the story stands for anything at all, it has to be that people are capable of some pretty goofy thinking.
Just such a misguided moment of clarity came to either Jimmy or me, as it dawned on us that we had written several of the most heinous words we knew, not in the sand of the driveway with a sharp stick or with a pencil on some piece of paper that could be thrown in the trash, but in huge black indelible letters where, sooner or later, some adult was going to see them—if not Jimmy’s dad then surely the neighbors who lived behind him on the other side of the fence from the garage.
Then, in a flash of inspiration, we realized we were holding in our own hands not just the instruments of our undoing but also the very means of our salvation. We would simply paint the whole garage, and in so doing, paint over the dirty words! Not only would we be covering up our misdeeds, we would be doing Jimmy’s dad a huge favor. People got paid for painting houses and garages and things, didn’t they? It was bona fide work. And we would do it for free, out of the very goodness of our hearts. With righteous determination we set about putting a layer of black paint over the words that had come from the blackness of our hearts and minds.
Well, two five-year-olds do not last long at a task like that. I don’t know whether the paint gave out first or we did, but after covering a few square feet we gave up. And sensing what a huge mistake we’d made, we decided that the best thing to do would be to get the hell out of there and take our chances separately. I’m pretty sure that’s what Adam and Eve did, too.
I slipped into my house by the side door, as usual. I had no idea how much paint I had on me. Casually I went around the corner from the kitchen into the living room. My mother wasn’t there at that moment. Instead, at the ironing board, was a high school girl who also babysat me sometimes. Back then everyone ironed everything, socks and underwear included. And my mom, being a sensible person, hated to iron. So she was in the habit of hiring girls at twenty or twenty-five cents an hour to do it for her. If I am not mistaken, this girl was named Carolyn.
Carolyn took one look at me and just about dropped the iron. This was the moment when I first became aware of how conspicuous were the vestiges of my recent artistic venture. Until that very instant I had entertained thoughts of going upstairs to the bathroom and washing my hands and possibly getting away with the whole thing, unless someone saw the back of the garage. And for all I knew Jimmy might catch all the hell for that on his own. But Carolyn’s reaction suggested otherwise. And she also pointed out that I had paint all over my baseball uniform. I don’t know if it was her idea or not, but I next remember going down to the basement to try to wash up there, figuring that this would be a job for the bar of Lava soap that sat on the edge of the laundry tub. But it was beyond that. The paint had become one with my skin, and of course with the fabric of my uniform.
The rest is a blur. People, including at least Carolyn and my mom, began to come down the basement stairs. And once again I was being told things I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Serious and important things, like the fact that I was covered in paint, and that it would take turpentine to get it all off and out of my hair, and that my baseball uniform was ruined. Ruined! I had had no idea. People washed clothes, didn’t they? But no, I was informed, there would be no getting this black paint off my nice new white baseball uniform. And wait until your father gets home. I was, to use a word that was not yet in my filthy little vocabulary, fucked.
Now here’s the thing. Nobody found out about the dirty words. But as you can imagine Jimmy caught hell for ruining his clothes and most of all for slopping black paint all over the back of the garage. I don’t remember what punishment I got, but I’m pretty sure it was a walk in the park compared to his. I also don’t know what kind of high-level talks went on between my parents and Jimmy’s over the incident. More than likely the discussion was strictly between the mothers. By this time they’d had several years of experience with our capacity for mayhem (the infamous bird bath incident comes immediately to mind), and knew that the two of us constituted a pretty persuasive argument in favor of the doctrine of Original Sin. Unlike our mothers, our fathers were not close. Their busy work schedules didn’t permit much camaraderie between them. And they had some basic theological differences. My dad rarely called on the deity except before meals and on Sunday mornings. When not at work he adhered to a variety of secular pastimes. Jimmy’s dad, on the other hand, referred to God so frequently and in such a variety of appellations that you could say he followed the injunction of St. Paul to pray without ceasing. In my dad’s relatively abstract view, hell was a place that represented more the absence of the divine than the presence of the diabolical. Jimmy’s dad brought regular old-fashioned fiery hell home to his family on a daily basis.
At this point in the narrative I find that I have come to a surprising realization. At the outset I intended simply to write the story of the painting of the garage, with a digression or two. Now I find that I have unexpectedly come to understand something that has always puzzled me.
Like many boys, when I grew up I became, eventually, like my own dad, a learned member of a respected profession. Yet I’ve always known that I was not like him in some of the ways that matter most. He and my mother were upright and temperate and rarely used profanity. By contrast, I am quick to anger and swear at the slightest provocation. In addition, I still enjoy profanity for its own sake the way I did when I was young. Over the years I’ve searched my family tree for a branch from which such dubious fruits might have fallen. Now I see that I didn’t inherit these traits, but acquired them, through a kind of neighborhood cross-pollination, from the man whose blue vocabulary and penchant for domestic rage captured my imagination at an early age.
Here I must refer back to one of my previous points, namely, that much of our knowledge of our lives and ourselves comes from what other people tell us. But sometimes that just isn’t the whole story. They look at you and say, “you have your mother’s nose,” or “you sound just like your father when you say that,” but seldom does anyone know enough about a child’s life to be able to make the more obscure but perhaps more pertinent connections. Never once, for instance, did anyone ever say to me, “you know, you have a nasty temper and a foul mouth just like Jimmy’s dad.”
Today I have children of my own. They got their tempers and love of swearing from me. Make one of them angry and you’ll know you’re dealing with a chip off the old block. I also have grandchildren. My wish for them is that they can be spared the anger, if possible. As for the swearing, I’m grateful that they won’t have go outside the family, as I did, to acquire such a precious gift.