Cussing and Kissing Can Both Strengthen Bonds Between Dad and Son
Guest Post by Author Harry Groome
Old Bull, Young Bull
My Uncle John was the first man I ever heard swear.
My family, all except my father who was on duty at the Pentagon, was gathered for Sunday lunch at my grandparents’ dark and forbidding home in Chestnut Hill. Before lunch was announced, my Uncle John told us that the train from Washington, where he also served at the Pentagon, was crowded, as most trains were during World War II, and that he’d accidentally bumped into a stranger who had said, “Get out of the way, you bastard.”
At 7, I didn’t know what a bastard was, but I knew it was a curse and got very excited when I heard it because I thought any colonel in the Army with a whiskey voice, dark beard, and powerful shoulders like my Uncle John would punch anyone who called him a bastard. I was disappointed that he didn’t punch the stranger. Instead, he laughed the incident off, quoting a family-favorite line from The Virginian: “When you call me that, smile.”
My disappointment was short-lived as my five cousins and I asked my sister, who at 9 was the oldest in our group and knew everything, what a bastard was. Her answer left me even more confused because the curse not only had to do with sex but with doing something wrong. I remember sensing that there were fleeting shadows of things happening outside my small world that I didn’t understand and that many of those things weren’t all good, even if they were titillating.
It was a small but uncomfortable beginning.
The first time I heard my father swear, things shifted again. I was in my early teens, and we were standing on our back lawn when our Labrador retriever sauntered past us. Gentle and intelligent, Dongo was a statesman in cream-colored fur. My father looked at him admiringly, took a drag on his Pall Mall, and said, “Dongo reminds me of the old bull in the 'old bull, young bull' story.”
He waited a moment before going on.
“It’s about an old bull and a young bull standing on a hillside looking down into a pasture filled with cows. The young bull starts digging at the dirt with his hoof and snorts, ‘Pop, let’s run down there and fuck one of them.’ But the old bull says, ‘No, son, let’s walk down there and fuck ’em all.’”
I choked out a laugh and looked at the ground, watching my foot paw self-consciously at the lawn. It wasn’t just the cursing. It was the fact that my father knew something I didn’t, although I wasn’t sure what; that there were parts of his world that I didn’t understand and, for some reason, didn’t like; and that he enjoyed the idea of sex and could joke about it while I imagined it was such a big deal. It was then that I realized that he wasn’t pure, in mind or body. And I remember looking for my mother to check in on her because if my father was thinking about all that kind of stuff, she must be too.
I never saw either of them the same again, but I guess my father had felt that I was ready.
Our lawn was more than the place where I first heard my father swear. When our pool was under construction, and the workers were there, it was the place that I first refused to kiss my father goodbye as he went off to work because I thought these tough guys, who worked heavy machinery and poured concrete, would think I was a sissy. That was an even more uncomfortable day than the day he told me the story about the bulls because I instantly sensed that I had hurt him and that I was changing, entering a world that was new and unfamiliar, a world where it mattered what people thought.
Things began to come together in the spring of 1958 when I called home from Hamilton College to let my parents know that the dean had just told me that my grades were so low that I wouldn’t be returning for my junior year. My father answered the phone, and when I gave him the news, he asked if I was disappointed.
The question caught me off guard, and the truth came spilling out. “No, sir.”
“Well then,” he said, “your mother and I aren’t either.”
Now, when I review all that I’ve done or failed to do, I’ve concluded that my father’s comment had more influence on who I am today than any other single event or piece of advice. Even during the call, as I held the heavy handset of the payphone in my hand, I knew the time had come for me to pay him back.
A few months later, I enlisted in the paratroops to begin to earn my father’s unshakeable confidence in me. On a steamy July day, he drove me to the recruiting office. We shook hands in the car, for I was still too big a sissy to kiss him goodbye. I started down the sidewalk when I heard his voice. He had lit a Pall Mall and was beckoning me to come back for one last word. “H, remember one thing,” he said. “Fuck them fucking fuckers,” and drove away.
I wasn’t embarrassed or uncomfortable as I had been when I first heard him swear. I didn’t wonder what his words said about him. I knew that he understood the world I was about to enter and that it was good advice, man to man. I only wish he’d given me more advice on the difference between being a man and a sissy because when he was dying, I kissed him goodbye many, many times, even after he was gone.
Harry Groome is the retired chairman of SmithKline Beecham Consumer Healthcare and a Governor Emeritus of The Nature Conservancy. He is the author of the novels Wing Walking, Thirty Below, Celebrity Cast, The Best of Families, which won the IndieReader Discovery Award for popular fiction, and the award-winning Stieg Larsson parody, The Girl Who Fished with a Worm. His short stories, poems, and articles have appeared in dozens of magazines and anthologies, including Gray’s Sporting Journal, Field & Stream, and Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, and have won numerous awards, including a Pushcart Prize nomination. His latest novel, Giant of the Valley, will be published this December by Adelaide Books. Harry is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and holds an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He and his wife, Lyn, divide their time between Villanova, Pennsylvania, and the Adirondack Mountains in New York. Contact Harry at his website www.harrygroome.com.