They say silence is golden. In my childhood home, it was terrifying.
I was very much a seventies kid. I played outside. I made forts on the beach and built booby traps around them to stop invaders. I rode bikes all over town and on poorly made ramps made from scrap plywood. Saturday mornings, I watched cartoons with my bowl of Kaboom or Quisp cereal. Mom and Dad both worked hard to get me all the Star Wars figures, skateboards and Atari games I craved so I’d be happy when they weren’t around. Mom worked during the day while my sister and I were at school. Dad worked three to midnight. Mom was the yeller and when yelling didn’t work, she was the wooden spoon wielder. My Dad was scarier. Dad just had a look that was accompanied by deafening silence. That look meant I was in serious trouble.
Boys go through stages growing up; teething, terrible twos, Oedipal Complex and pyromania. I suppose it’s hardwired into our brains. (“Look what I have created! See what I can control! Feel my power!”) Then there was the constant refrain of “Don’t play with matches.” Once, during fire safety week, a volunteer fire department came to our school to teach us about stopping, dropping and rolling and all sorts of fire safety jive. We got to sit inside the fire truck, climb around the seats and blast out our eardrums with the siren. The thrill of the day, however, was the trailer house that the fire department brought. Groups of us got to go inside with a fireman. We learned about all the hazards that lurk in the kitchen. A machine attached to the back of the trailer pumped smoke inside and thick white smoke that smelled like pancake syrup seeped under the doors into the trailer. Before he even finished telling us that we should get low because smoke rises, the smoke alarms started going off. That was the cue for whoever it was outside to open up the door and let us out.
On Saturday morning, I woke up needing to recreate that smoke, the smell of pancakes, more specifically. I could still smell it. I walked down the street to my Grandmother’s house. She wasn’t there, so I was free to experiment. Outside, I found some dried out dune grass and tomato plant leaves and packed them into what looked like a bird nest in the backyard. I dug a hole in the sand and carefully put the plants in. I could smother the fire with sand if it got crazy. The wind made it for the fire to catch. After a couple of failed attempts at holding a lit match to dried dune grass, it lit. The smoke didn’t smell the same. That’s when I decided to go inside and continue my experiments in the kitchen sink.
I prepared little bags of tied up paper towels with a mix of various kitchen spices. A little more basil in this bag, more paprika in this one. I mixed up pieces of food. Crackers, pretzels, bread. I probably was at this for about an hour, including prepping my little paper towel bags. Whenever the flames got out of control, a little blast of water from the sink hose fixed that real quick. Aside from leaving some burn marks in the sink, there was little evidence of what I was doing. I couldn’t make that smell, no matter what I tried. I gave up. I cleaned up the sink, threw away any residue and ashes in the backyard next to the house and I went home.
Later in the afternoon, mom had to go to my grandma’s house. She was, of course, immediately greeted with a strong smell of smoke. Turns out that it never occurred to me to open some windows. My mom couldn’t find out where the smell was coming from, so she called the fire department. They came. Two trucks worth. It didn’t take them long to solve the crime. One of the firemen walked down to my house in full gear. When he asked if I could take a walk with him, I knew I was in for it. My plan was to deny everything. He asked questions on the walk down the street and I shrugged my shoulders and said “No,” a lot. The best I gave him was that I made toast and turned the toaster up too high and burnt the bread. When we got to the house, we didn’t go inside. He walked me right to the side of the house where I had thrown all the residue from the sink.
I remember thinking the walk back home was the longest walk ever even though it was only a few houses. It wasn’t because my mom was yelling and lecturing me the whole way. That I could handle. It was knowing that once I got home, my dad would be waiting there for me. When I walked in and saw him making lunch, I was petrified. I had the cold sweats, a dull little headache was brewing and I couldn’t look directly at my dad. He told me to sit down. My mom filled him in. When the yelling was over and it was just the two of us in the kitchen, I didn’t feel any better. I didn’t cry, but I wanted to. He was just standing there, larger than life, burning a hole through me with his eyes. He shook his head from side to side, such a small movement that it was barely an inch. I still saw it. The only thing he said was “Go upstairs.” I spent the rest of the day by myself. It was a Saturday, and instead of spending time with my dad going swimming or building forts out of living room couches, I was by myself because I disappointed him. I let him down.
I always said I’d never grow up to be like my mom and dad. I’m glad I did — I get it now. The greatest gift you can give to your kids is your time. All the bills, laundry and take home work steals that time. When I was a kid, I wanted was to do stuff with my dad. When he took that away for punishment and made himself unavailable, it killed me. I’d rather face down the wooden spoon. Now that it’s my turn to be a parent, I feel like my dad’s silent assassin routine is the ace up my sleeve for when I really need to discipline my boys. My wife is a social worker and a damn good one at that, so she has an arsenal of strategies she utilizes. Me? The silence works, but it’s better when mixed with a calm explanation of the errors in their ways. I keep it simple. They don’t need the long lecture. Not yet. In a few years, when the cliff notes version of the lecture has to follow, I’ll be ready.