One time when grandson Bryce was about 14, he had a tiff with his mother – my daughter Gretchen. During the course of a highly charged conversation, Bryce swore at her. This was earthshaking. It was unheard of. Nobody we knew used swear words – and nobody we knew was so sinful as to direct them at their saintly mothers.
After Bryce stalked out, Gretchen called me in tears and I went next door to commiserate. When she told me what had happened, I was just as floored as she was. We didn’t know what to do about it. Was horsewhipping too severe a punishment? Did Bryce need spiritual or psychological counseling? What could be done, we agonized, to restore his good character and moral standards and return him to the path of righteousness.
Our emotional hand-wringing conference was interrupted when my son-in-law Brad entered the scene. He took one look at our frantic, ashen faces, and then calmly asked, “What’s the matter?” Brad is quite accustomed to our meltdowns.
I remember Gretchen stood up and made an effort to compose herself. “Bryce swore at me,” she announced.
“And what did he say?,” Brad wanted to know.
Gretchen swallowed. “He said”, she blurted out tearfully, “He said, ‘Mom, sometimes you really piss me off’”. I was really proud of her. She didn’t even spell it out or anything.
Gretchen and I breathlessly awaited Brad’s reaction to this formidable news.
He was just as quiet as we were for a few seconds. And then he went to pieces. Laughing. “Gretchen”, he choked out, “Most people don’t think that’s a swear word. ”
Well, you could have fooled me. Which is strange, because if anybody should know what swear words are, it should be me.
In the household we were raised in, our mother, Josie, my sister Joan, and brothers Jimmy, Leo and Richard, were exposed to maximum-drive cussing for many hours of each and every day.
My father, Jim Gorman, could have qualified for a Ph.D. in swearing. The habit was so ingrained that he didn’t even know he was doing it. And we were so inured to it, we hardly noticed. When I was little I thought that “goddammsonofabitchin” was a single word. And one that was used as an adjective. As in, “Please pass the godammsonofabitchin cornbread.”
It wasn’t until third grade that the ugly truth was revealed to me. In catechism class, we learned that the “goddamm” part of that word was taking the Lord’s name in vain and if you did that, you would be sentenced to an eternity in Hell. For the rest of grade school I prayed incessantly that my father would never die, or at least not before he could somehow be reformed and do penance. It wasn’t till I was in high school and learned about the doctrine of invincible ignorance that I could finally quell my fears for his future.
Dad’s salty vocabulary makes perfect sense if you know where it was coming from. His boyhood, for instance, was colorful to put it mildly. In today’s teenage parlance, he would have been known as a “bad boy”. He only got through fourth grade in school. That was a hundred years ago and it may not have been unusual among farm kids in the 1910s and 1920s. I think they were needed to work on the farm. His educational background, while spotty, seemed to have armed him with decent reading skills, but I can’t remember ever seeing him writing anything other than his signature.
My grandma, rolling her eyes and sighing, told me about his rascally habit – from age 11 – of running away from home to join every circus or carnival that came anywhere close to their farm near Plato, Iowa. My grandfather would know right where to travel in order to retrieve him — he’d just check where the nearest big tents were getting set up. Dad’s cussing habit probably started back in his “carny” days if not sooner. According to Grandma, life with son Jim was never easy.
Finally, when he was only 16 or 17, she gave up, put his fate in the hands of the Lord, lied about his age on the application, and let him enlist in a branch of the U.S. Coast Guard known as the Merchant Marines. And he loved it. He got drummed out though, following a near-death attack of mastoiditis and his medical discharge was the only heartbreaking experience I ever heard him mention about his life.
His time in the Merchant Marines probably didn’t clean up his vocabulary any. By the time of his discharge in 1921, he had acquired the license of “First Assistant Engineer on Non-Condensing River Steam Vessels”, a position also known as “river rat”. And as a river rat, he worked the steamboats on the Mississippi till the Great Depression finally did in that form of gambling, dancing, dining entertainment.
I think his next job was in the throes of the Depression at a meat-packing plant and it’s unlikely they used much prim and proper language there. And for most of the rest of his working life, he worked as a machinist for the Link Belt Speeder Company (which, among other things, provided lots of parts for what we know as the Space Needle in Seattle). Again, I doubt if he and his fellow machinists would have been very popular at dainty tea party discussions.
It’s pretty weird to report this, but none of the rest of our family ever took up the cussing habit. At least not that I know of. It was okay if Dad did it, but it didn’t seem to occur to us to follow suit.
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At least, not until Bryce came along. Now listen here, young man, any more swearing on your part is really going to piss me off. I mean it.