Those were the words that struck fear into the heart of every child in the era of my youth.
Like nearly all my young friends, I grew up in a traditional home of the 1960s. Dad was seldom home. He worked at least 60 hours a week and came home tired and dirty. I’m sure the last thing he wanted to do when he walked in the door at the end of a 10-hour workday was punish his kids for something that happened hours earlier, when he wasn’t even there.
Because Mom was the one home with us every day, she was the main disciplinarian of the household. Her style of discipline usually involved yelling and the withholding of privileges. When that proved ineffective, she resorted to the ultimate threat, “Just wait until your father gets home!” None of us remembered Dad ever hitting us, or even yelling at us, yet those words terrified us. We’d cry and beg, “Please, no, don’t tell Daddy!”
“Too late,” she would say. “You’ve been warned.”
We worried all day. What would happen? What might he do? As a rule, when he was home, he was cheerful and funny. On the rare occasions when mom was out of the house and Dad was left in charge, his style of discipline was pretty laissez-faire. He often was reading his way through volumes of the encyclopedia. He had a lifelong love of learning and could bury himself so deeply into a book that he could tune out any and everything.
Once when Mom got home after leaving Dad in charge of the five of us, I complained to Mom, “The boys got into a big fight and Dad didn’t even do anything.” Mom just sighed and said, “Oh, your father is just here in case the house catches on fire.” I should have picked up the clue that he was pretty ineffective in the discipline department.
Dad had a great sense of humor and was a master of complex wordplay. Often his puns were so full of big words and complex ideas that we had to get out the dictionary and look up the words before we got the joke. Somehow they still were hilarious in spite of the delay in processing the punchlines. Haha! Good one, Dad.
For some reason, this joke in particular stands out in my memory: Dad was watching an old show called “The Bowery Boys,” which was an even earlier version of a “Three Stooges” type comedy. One of its characters was getting arrested and said to the other, “Oh, no! We are about to get incarcerated!” His buddy calmly replied, “Nah, they don’t burn people no more.” This was a not-so-obvious mix-up of the words ‘incarcerated’ and ‘incinerated.’ It had Dad laughing hysterically. We didn’t laugh until we consulted the dictionary.
Dad didn’t have much of an education. He left school to join the U.S. Navy during World War II. He served at sea as a signalman. His job, during those pre-electronic times, was to stand at the ship’s bow with a small flag in each hand and send messages to other ships in the area. Each motion of his arms and hands meant something to the receiver of the message. At our urging, he taught us many of the motions and we made a game of sending each other message just like Dad did in the war.
Dad also was an excellent musician. He had a beautiful baritone voice and taught himself to play several musical instruments. Often his musical friends would show up at the house and they would “jam” deep into the night. He especially liked singing country tunes and gospel songs. Even these many years later, when I hear one of his favorite songs being sung, like “Amazing Grace” or “Jambalaya,” I burst into tears. It brings back such powerful memories.
I’m not sure why we were so fearful when mom said to “Just wait until your father gets home!” The threat just didn’t jive with the father we knew. Maybe it was because he was such an imposing figure at six feet tall and well over 200 pounds. Maybe it was the scowl and the look in his eyes when Mom insisted that he take over the discipline. He had piercing blue-gray eyes under heavy eyebrows and a menacing scowl that he could call on when necessary, in other words, when Mom insisted that he do so.
Personally, I think it was the belt routine. Although the belt never touched us, it was terrifying. He would stand in front of us, scowling under those bushy eyebrows, then without a word, unbuckle his wide leather belt, and slowly and dramatically pull it through the loops until it was free. Then holding the two ends in one hand and the loop of it in the other hand, he would suddenly jerk his hands apart so that the belt made a loud “Snap!” We ran screaming and hid. That was as far as it went. The mere snapping of the belt was enough to scare us into submission. We’d behave for days.
It wasn’t until I was a young parent myself that mom admitted that it was all smoke and ashes. It was nothing but a bluff. She told me, “Your dad was never going to spank anybody. He was so soft-hearted when it came to his kids. The belt routine was all show. I never did understand why my threat to tell Dad when he got home got you kids to straighten up.”
No wonder Dad was such a good poker player. He sure had us five kids fooled.
Dad died at home of a massive heart attack in 1977. He was only in his early 50s. I miss his puns, his musical talent, and yes, even the meaningless snapping of his wide leather belt.
In honor of Father’s Day, I hope to hear a few verses of “Jambalaya, and a crawfish pie and fillet gumbo, cause tonight I’m gonna see my cher amio, pick guitar, fill fruit jar, and be gayo, son of a gun, we’ll have good fun on the bayou.”
Excuse me while I go have a cry.