It wasn’t exactly like eating with Ward and June Cleavor. It wasn’t at all like “Father Knows Best”. It was more like “Dad Knows Least”. I don’t recall mom ever wearing a dress and apron, or dad wearing a tie and sweater vest. I don’t believe we ever used the words “yes sir”, “no sir”, “yes ma’am” or “no ma’am”, although I do recollect using “may I be excused” for really important after-dinner business. The only similarity to the TV families was that mom served a hot dinner every weeknight in the dining room at six sharp and we were there, all of us, sitting in our assigned seats ready to dig in—well I was ready to dig in, can’t say the same for the rest of them.
Dad always sat at the head of the table, having changed into baggy pants and a t-shirt or whatever was seasonably comfortable at the time. He didn’t seem to enjoy wearing his work clothes. Unlike the model fathers of network TV, I don’t think dad liked his job all that much. He never spoke about the office or about his day, good or bad. We could just tell when he walked through the front door at the end of the day—excluding Fridays—whether he needed to transition or not. And if he needed to shift gears, so be it. We usually knew enough to let him be for a while, allowing him to execute his after-work "procedure" in peace—can’t quite say ‘in quiet’ though.
In the beginning of the Sixties all dads carried out “procedures”. Equally true, by the end of the Sixties most dads lay motionless in the center of their castles while former family staffers ran roughshod over their prone bodies, clueless as to what the hell had happened to the good old days.
Dad’s “procedure” started out the same every night—barring bowling, softball, and retirement dinner nights. He would immediately lumber upstairs to discard his stuffy office suit, do some business in the bathroom, and scamper back down stairs to mix something he called a “tonic”. It wasn't exactly like hair tonic. I had tasted both, and if I had to drink one by threat of death, I would have picked the hair tonic. At least it had a smooth lingering woody note that danced on the tongue. With tonic in hand, he would engage in nightly war with the RCA black and white, maneuvering the tin foil, wrapped around the fully extended rabbit ears, with the precision of a safe cracker. Eventually, with a little twist here, a small turn there, he’d hit pay dirt! He got a channel, any channel, to stop rolling.
The battle was won but the war wasn’t over. He had to retreat to the couch without losing the finicky signal. He backed away from the television on cat’s feet, slowly and deliberately, studying the screen for any signs of rolling buildup at the top of the picture. Arms held out to his side, with the Sports Section of the Newark Evening News clutched in one hand, his tonic in the other, he stepped back like a gunslinger preparing to draw. For the moment he had become a modern day Shane. Eventually he reached the couch, carefully sat down, adjusted his posture, wiped his brow and sipped his tonic. He was in re-entry mode. Finally.
But the RCA had a cruel, sinister mind—almost Stephen Kingish. The second dad settled back to read about his beloved Dodgers, the screen mutated and began a gradual roll. That moment was one of a handful when it was a good thing to have four boys running around the house. The first one storming through the living room usually was collared and positioned near the antenna until the rolling stopped. By the time dinner was served, dad had landed safely and ready for the chaos about to commence.
Mom on the other hand was wild action, struggling to pull together another three course meal: salad, main course, dessert/coffee. She moved about the kitchen like a one-armed, short-order cook on amphetamines. This after a long afternoon of arbitrating at least five criminal cases with appeals, rendering and carrying out appropriate punishments, wrestling with “new math” homework problems, and attending to three or four medical emergencies (e.g., splinters, broken finger-nails, small flesh wounds, and my favorite, bubbling blackheads). From three to five o’clock every school day she was a trial lawyer, county judge, correctional officer, teacher’s aide, emergency room doctor and dermatologist all rolled into one.
What she wasn’t? Sane.
Anyway, precisely at five, she dropped everything to become personal chef for five males. Considering the strict kitchen budget she operated under, she did wonders. I mean that in the literal sense. We often “wondered” what she had made. For instance, one of my weekly favorites was called What-is-it. What-is-it was usually served Thursday nights. The base ingredient was one family-size can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti product. Actually, calling it spaghetti product might be a stretch. I’m not sure what it was really. She then added the vegetables that were leftover by my brother Doug from the prior week. To this she added pretty much anything else in the fridge that was showing spotty signs of fuzz. Of course, she removed the tainted part before adding.
The beauty of Chef Boyardee was that its flavorful tomato sauce chemical compound was sturdy enough to make everything it touched taste just like it. She served it up in a huge bowl with recently defrosted bread and away we’d go. Hog heaven. I’d slurp it down with Crane Ice Tea, a concoction of frozen lemonade, fifteen Shop Rite teabags, and I’d say about two and half pounds of sugar. I think it was part of mom’s grand plan to kill us off through adolescent diabetes. Truthfully it was all she could do, and no jury would convict her.
One more thing about this little pre-dinner dance. Lodged in there somewhere was a meaningful smooch between the parents. I mean a substantial hug, pucker and smack. I always thought that a little hollow peck, like the TV Nelsons exchanged, was enough already, but what the folks engaged in was almost perverse. I really don’t know why, but all indications were that mom and dad were in love. I think I speak for my brothers when I say the whole thing bordered on ... yuck!
Ah yes, dinner time. Whereas I was a legendary eater, my brother Doug was finicky. Whereas I was a fan of integration—get a lima bean on the fork with a chunk of liver, or hide an extra slice of London broil under my mashed potato product—Doug was a fan of strict food segregation. If something touched something it shouldn’t, he’d refuse to eat it. I used this little obseesion to my advantage from time to time. If I spotted something on the table that might taste real good in the next batch of What-is-it, I’d make sure somehow it touched something else on Doug’s plate. He’d refuse to eat it and in it went Thursday. It was a beautiful thing.
Apparently I had this food affliction from early on. There is a story floating around that when I was a year old, neighborhood kids use to flock to the house at feeding time. Mom would invite them in after she planted me in my highchair. They would circle around her as she fed me a spoonful of smashed up carrots. I’d chomp away while making this kind of content humming noise. Mom and her audience would wait for me to swallow the last tasty remnants and then watch in blissful anticipation as my demeanor changed. Soon the humming stopped and panic swelled as food deprivation began to set in. I’d start to sob and make this “Ehh! Ehh! Ehh!” sound, as my arms jerked wildly and my face turned beet red. They would all have a big laugh, shovel another spoonful in my trap, and stare in amazement, as I returned to munching and humming in momentary bliss.
She’d give each kid a turn to alternately feed and deprive me. Everyone was amused. I was happy to oblige. But I also think these seemingly innocuous acts deeply altered my eating habits for life. I have had people on business trips tell me how much they enjoy watching me eat. They get a kick out of how quiet I become when the food arrives, they are entranced by the humming, and they are fascinated by how fast my jaws move. I think there is a link.
My brother Rick had a completely different approach to eating. He ate in his own little leisure world, filled with wonderment and faraway places. Rick wasn’t slow because he savored every bite. He was slow because he would drift off, forgetting momentarily what he was doing, like chewing. I bet if you pried open his mouth right now, you’d find whole leaves of lettuce from a salad he had last week.
To top it off, whenever he fell into one of his spells, he stuck his index finger into his mouth to scratch the back of his throat as his eyes became distant. I think it was akin to rubbing a crocodile’s belly or playing a flute to a cobra. Doug and I couldn’t help ourselves, we immediately started to imitate him. It was one of those sibling things. And the outcome scripted.
“Ma! They’re imitating me! Tell them to stop it!”
“Ma! Tell them to stop! Com’on stop it guys!”
We’d start to laugh.
“Ma! Now they’re laughing at me!”
“No we’re not!”
“Yes you are!”
“Where’d you go Rick? Uranus?” Doug would ask, employing the typical double entendre expected of a ten year old. We’d howl it up some more at the inside joke—as if the parents didn’t “get it”.
“All right knock it off! Ricky pay attention and eat honey, and maybe they’ll leave you alone! Doug, eat your peas!”
“I can’t! They touched my potatoes!”
“Then separate them and eat them!”
“Bobby, aren’t you a little old for this?”
“You know “what”, mister!”
The entire time mom verbally wrestled with us, dad ate quietly, probably thinking about work, and how it wasn’t so bad after all.
This skit repeated several times a night, each time getting a little more dangerous—a little more close to a situation. Once in a while if dad didn’t rescue us with some of his funny stuff, it inevitably turned into tears for someone, usually poor Rick.
But once in a while, mom, and oh boy, did I hate it when that happened. I think all of us hated that.
When she cried, it usually was the result of the few table manners she worked tirelessly to teach us disintegrating into a free-for-all. I’m stealing food from Steve. Doug is pushing touched food off his plate and onto the floor. Rick is drinking from his ice tea glass without using his hands. Steve is dipping carrots into his milk. It was only a matter of time before something broke, or a glass spilled onto the table cloth, staining it permanently.
Dad, meanwhile, continued to eat quietly, calculating the right moment to rescue the table. Usually he did, but when he miscalculated, it was bad. If he let it go to long, mom’s eyes would well up and that would be that. I felt bad for her. She had to deal with five knuckleheads with no way to relate to us. Years of this torment had more or less removed any ability for her to be clever or funny. She couldn’t do impersonations like the old man could. She had no idea how to talk about sports. And sadly, the few times that she tried to be cool ended in disaster. She really didn’t have a chance.
I remember one such attempt as if it had happened yesterday.
We just sat down at the table and already Rick was whining about something Doug inflicted on him at least fifteen minutes ago. In the world of siblings, fifteen minutes is equivalent to the statute of limitations. It’s too late to submit a charge. But Rick was particularly irked and disregarded this rather simple law. He started complaining as he fidgeted in his assigned seat, which was immediately to mom’s left. Mom had just placed in front of her a pot filled with steaming corn-on-the-cob, the metal tongs poking out as a reminder of the special treat waiting inside.
“Ma! Doug called me a ‘root dog’,” Rick squawked.
No reaction. She was busy setting up Steve’s plate to her right.
She continued on with Steve, paying little attention to Rick’s pleas.
“Ma-ah!” Rick was hell-bent on registering his complaint.
After she was done with Steve, she reached into the pot and pulled out a piping hot ear of corn for Rick, giving him first choice. It was a perfect ear—no signs of surgically removed worms. She placed it on his plate, hoping that would quiet him down.
He persisted, “Ma-ah! I’m talking to you!”
With that she pulled the empty tongs back out of the pot of steaming corn and used them to grab Rick by his skinny neck.
“If you aren’t careful, I’ll serve you to Bobby,” she said jokingly. I looked over at Rick, as I waved my knife and fork, gesturing that I just might enjoy that.
It was an innocent attempt to use a little humor to snap Rick out of his tizzy. For the record, she was showing incredible restraint considering the disturbance Rick was creating. And for a moment, the rest of us all smiled in appreciation of her effort. The only problem was that the tongs were hot, boiling water hot.
I knew something went terribly wrong when I saw Rick’s eye balls pop out of their sockets and dance around about a foot in front of his face. They were like Wiley Coyote's eyes when the bomb he swallowed explodes. A better hint that something went awry was the noise the tongs made as they sizzled his hide, sort of a hissing sound. Anyway, by the time mom had figured out what was happening, it was too late. His initial scream is probably exiting the Milky Way right about now, as it travels outward like some Earth communication to worlds beyond.
Well, at least he wasn’t whining any longer.
Meanwhile, mom, tongs snapping in air like a lobster claw freed from its rubber band, tried to sooth the delirious kid. He’d have none of it as his eyes, crazy from pain, followed the snapping tongs in unmitigated fear. It was a situation if ever there was one.
She ran him up to the medical center (i.e., the bathroom) and worked him over. Eventually, they returned. Rick sat in his chair sniveling, looking like a branded calf. Unfortunately, I had miscalculated the seriousness of the injury. Believing that Rick was upstairs for the night, I asked dad for permission to finish Rick’s plate, lest food go to waste. He said go ahead. He really didn't care. So I ate Rick’s ear of corn and whatever else was nearby. Let’s just say that didn’t sit well with Rick upon his return.
It was a bad day all around for the poor kid, but more so for mom, a classic example of coming up a little short.
On the other hand, dad was the master of comic relief, an infamous impersonator: John Wayne, James Cagney, James Mason, Ed Sullivan, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Jimmy Stewart, George Jessel, and his legendary Walter Brennan. He did them all. Always getting big laughs.
But dinner time laughs were a two way street, sometimes with dad and sometimes at dad. It was the "at dad" moments when danger lurked, especially when he had a bad day at work.
Such a moment began while we were eating dessert—a basket full of Hostess white powered donuts. Steve had moved to Doug’s chair and was sitting directly across from me. We flanked dad, who sat between us in his armed chaired at the end of the table. We were the court jesters gathering around our king.
I don’t know exactly what the provocation was. It didn't matter. It was just one of those things. Dad was distracted for a second. Steve, spotting an opportunity, jumped on it. He tapped his plate with his fork to get my attention. I looked at him, instinctively knowing something was up. The tip-off was the tight lipped grin he had plastered across his face. Suddenly, he opened his mouth exposing a pouch full of donut glob, shutting it just before the old man caught him. It struck me funny. I don’t know why. It just did. So I began to chuckle under my breath. It was nothing serious yet, just a little start to something with potential.
I countered his move by shoving a donut in my mouth followed by a huge gulp of milk. I mixed it around a bit as my cheeks stretched out like a blow fish. I waited for the right moment. Steve studied me, his mouth slightly opened, gurgling with anticipation. I waited a little longer for my opening. Finally, dad seemed engrossed in scraping together the last morsels of junket from his bowl, as disgusting a dessert as ever there was. I seized the moment. Slightly concealed from dad’s eyes by my hand, I opened my mouth wide and pushed my tongue out through the glop. Steve locked down on his lips, trying in vain to cover his growing hysteria. I had successfully taken it up a notch. We were now into an escalating groove, as each subsequent maneuver increased the potential to break out in a fit of uncontrolled howling.
Dad’s ignorance was a big part of the magic. It was his oblivious behavior that fueled our excitement. Normally, he’d catch on and say something, at which point we would all have a few civil chuckles and disaster averted. There was no reason to believe this donut caper wouldn’t close in this same general manner, but it was about to take a detour.
While this was going on, nan crane was at the other end of the table talking about god knows what with mom. Once in a while she’d come over for dinner to visit the grand kids and check on how things were going. I think mom liked that, to have a female to talk to that is.
It was Steve’s turn in this match of twits. I watched him like a hawk. He carefully jammed two donuts into his mouth and then found a way to slurp some milk in to boot. He looked like Dizzy Gillespie blowin’ a high note. His cheeks were grotesque bulbs. Filled to the brim, he turned to dad and waited for a distraction. It wasn’t going to happen. The anticipation was killing me. I began to show signs of cracking. I was making squeaking noises as laughter squirted out from the corner seams of my tightly sealed mouth. Unfortunately, dad heard me and looked my way.
“What’s so funny?”
My eyes were wide. I nodded in the direction of Steve, whose head at this point looked like a huge pimple ready to pop. Dad turned to him—a big mistake.
“What the hell is wrong with your chee—”
Before dad could finish, Steve exploded. The milky doughy contents in his mouth sprayed out like wet white ash from a volcano. In one mighty eruption, dad was completely covered. Everyone at the table froze. Everyone! Time came to a sudden and frightening halt. Dad slowly inspected his glop covered tee shirt, as an occasional piece of pulpy goop dripped into his lap from his nose and chin.
“Oh my God! He’s going to kill Steve.” I thought. My mind raced to come to a better outcome. It didn’t.
Then, as if some mystical force reached down from the heavens to pluck Steve from the jaws of certain demise, an unexpected turn of events occurred. Dad, his face lowered, his hair filtering partially chewed chunks of donut like a cheesecloth, slowly raised his face for us to see. Expecting the worst, expecting the gaze of a killer, he … he … he … was smiling from ear to dripping ear. Steve was going to live. I looked at Rick for affirmation but he was scratching his throat, off somewhere else.
Then out of nowhere, the flashpoint.
“Bob, look at you! And you wonder why they act the way they do. It’s your own fault,” Nan blurted out, as only a wise and experienced mother would do, shaking her head back and forth in utter disappointment. Her lips curled with contempt.
As her words floated above the dining room table, Steve and I slid off our chairs, collapsing to the floor in rip-roaring, tear-streaming laughter. It didn’t matter that a short moment ago the vultures of death were descending upon us. We lost it. And so did dad. He started howling. As for mom, she cracked a smile too. Not much of one though. She didn’t want to risk finding herself in the mother-in-law dog house.
I suspect dad’s surprisingly gracious response reminded mom of why he was a keeper. Somehow the whole episode was good for the marriage. In fact dinner time and all its consequences, even the bad ones, were good for the marriage—and the family too.
As for Nan, she just kept shaking her head, while the generational divide had just widened a mouth full of doughnuts more.