Me and my brother, 1977/1978
I never saw the 1984 classic Footloose. The premise turned me off—a rigid and closed-minded preacher, out of fear of a sinful world, convinces a small town to ban rock music and dancing, but salvation comes when a hot-headed, big city teenager moves in and opens everyone’s fearfully ignorant mind while falling for the preacher’s kid, who is rebellious and loose with boys. It was a little too cliché for me.I was often coming up against the stereotype of the pharisaical busybody preacher out to kill everyone’s fun by dousing it with a big bucket of scriptural condemnation. I dreaded telling new friends that my father was a preacher, knowing the moment that I did they’d cringe and recoil as though the lights had been switched on and they’d been caught in flagrante. I’d then scramble to explain that my father wasn’t the strict, judgmental preacher they imagined and I was not a fragile little blossom needing to be protected. At some point, I started throwing in a few curse words to drive home this point. Unbecoming, I know, but I was desperate.
I often wondered what it would be like to tell people my father was something other than a preacher. Something like an actuary. No one but an actuary seems to know what actuaries do. In fact, my actuary friends have even explained their job to me dozens of times, and yet, when pressed, I couldn’t tell you what they did for the life of me. I think it has something to do with numbers and maybe insurance, but don’t hold me to that.
How easy it would have been to tell people my father was an actuary and it had as little social consequence as discussing the local flora and fauna:
“Those are pretty flowers. I wonder what they’re called.”
“Foxglove, I think. I hear they keep gopher and deer away.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, it is.” Having gained a little extra knowledge, though otherwise unchanged, each goes her merry way.
“What does your father do for a living?”
“He’s an actuary.”
“What’s an actuary?”
“I don’t really know. I think it has something to do with numbers.”
“Okay. Want to get some ice cream?”
But anyone who met my father knew he was neither the Reverend Shaw Moore of Footloose or the wildly naïve, firmly religious, and easily shocked Ned Flanders of The Simpsons. He was much closer to being a Methodist version of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, though in my recollection (and great disappointment) he never solved any crimes—orthodox and clever minded, fun loving, naturally intuitive and deeply in love with God and His creation (note: there are far more clergy in the world like this than most people realize).
Unlike Moore and Flanders, he understood that good decision-making wasn’t learned by rigid rules and avoidance of the world but was formed through experience. And the only way to gain experience is by making bad decisions. This explains how, at the age of eleven, he convinced me never to smoke.
I remember the day perfectly, in part because it was one of only a handful of times growing up that school was cancelled due to snow. Even as an adult, I find waking up to a snow-covered lawn to be just as magical as a Christmas morning. The world feels fresh and full of goodness and peace. There’s nothing to do but enjoy it. I say this as a Texan, of course, where snow days are few and far between. I suspect people in Bismark, ND have a different opinion of snow.
The day was also memorable because my brother’s friend, Kevin, was visiting. Kevin was the only kid I knew with facial hair, and I thought it made him look so mature and dreamy. We were all sitting in front of a fire in the living room, warming our toes and sipping hot cocoa, when someone wondered aloud what it would be like to light a bit of a paper grocery bag and smoke it. My father walked into the room at that moment and my brother called out, “ Hey, dad! Can we smoke this grocery bag?”
Instinctively, his mouth shot open to say, “Are you out of your mind? What kind of idiotic idea is that? Absolutely not!” But unconventional wisdom struck and he caught himself. Smiling like the Cheshire cat, he said, “Sure, as long as you promise that if you don’t like it you’ll never smoke again.”
Well, this seemed reasonable enough, not to mention surprisingly permissive. Had I not been so eager to impress Kevin with his fuzzy little mustache, I would have known to be suspicious. But really, what was there not to like about smoking? Judging by all the fun people were having with their friends in the Newport and Salem ads, smoking only brought about good things.
We each took a paper grocery bag, rolled them into cigarettes as long as our arms, and lit them by the fire. I gave Kevin a smoldering, seductive look (which amounted to me wiggling my eyebrows and grinning goofishly at him. This was pre-braces, when my teeth were bucked.), as I held the two-foot cigarette up to my lips and sucked in as much smoke as I could possibly manage. I held it in for a second or two and then puckered my lips, hoping to let the smoke drift out in a long, steady stream just like Lauren Bacall or Bette Davis. I planned to try smoke rings with my next puff. But as I exhaled I began coughing uncontrollably and gasping for breath. I stumbled around the living room frantically grasping for any furniture I could find to keep me upright and fervently praying I wouldn’t vomit in front of or (Heaven, help me!) ON Kevin. I don’t remember anything after this—only darkness.
One wonders where my mother was during all of this. She must have been out of the house, because I can’t imagine she would have allowed it. No, she would have marched straight into the room, perched her hands firmly on her hips and said to my father, “Are you out of your mind? What kind of idiotic idea is that? Absolutely not!” And she would have been right to do so. Nevertheless, unconventional as it was, his approach was effective. I’ve never been tempted to smoke again. I don’t think my brother has, either. I can’t speak for Kevin.
To be continued….