The Terrible Wonderful Gift
The true story of how a young man ignored his girlfriend's curfew, faced a stern father's wrath and lived to tell the tale.
There is a time in a young man's life when he becomes involved with a girl and through that involvement, must eventually tread the difficult path of earning her parents' trust. Not to say that this path is not equally as difficult for girls but boys are typically the initiators and the aggressors in the dating game which makes some parents see them almost as intruders. They are seen initially as a foreign object that has entered their sphere of influence, and like good little white blood cells, the parents have to determine if the organism is safe and able to remain or dangerous and disposed of properly.
The role of the "heavy" typically falls upon girls' fathers because they remember what they were like in their earlier days and must protect their daughters from the unknown organism at all costs. This translates into the majority of fathers choosing to appear stern, tough and unforgiving to all boyfriends. This helps (in the father's mind anyway) to ensure that the daughter is not infected by the organism by using an implied threat of retribution should the gentleman caller cross the acceptable boundary. Mothers can be tough as well, but are typically the more welcoming of the parents realizing she has to balance out the "all business" demeanor of the father or some boyfriends would never return. Here is a true story of one of those gentleman callers dealing with a dad that was a professional with this concept.
It is the winter of 1980 and I am junior at the University of Tennessee. If memory serves it was Christmas break and I was at the home of the girl I had been dating since early October that same year. We had been out for some casual frivolity as our date for the night only to return to her home and a night I would never forget.
Her family's fortress was basically a two story brick box that had to be large enough to house 11 people which included nine children. There were two daughters that were able to enjoy having a room to share off the upstairs' hallway but downstairs, which was the domain of the seven brothers, the space resembled a college dorm. I'll never forget a row of urinals in the boy's bathroom as an attempt to handle all the male bladders housed downstairs. To the casual visitor this home was probably a very warm and inviting domain alive with the activity of a large family. As the boyfriend of one of the two daughters it was (at least in the beginning) a very uninviting place where I was constantly being assessed and any mistakes went on my permanent record.
The father in question here was a very stern individual who spoke in short sentences (when he spoke at all) that were often punctuated with a grunt and sometimes a growl. He had dark eyes that hid beneath overhanging, bushy eyebrows that kept these eyes in shadow such that I couldn't tell if they were really eyes. Sometimes I envisioned them as some type of weapon that could blast you at his pleasure - particularly when he wore his glasses to focus the imaginary beam. I even imagined he was like the comic book character, "Daredevil" who didn't need eyes and could sense your presence no matter where you were. I was also certain he possessed additional built-in senses that included a lie, casual sex and alcohol detector, not to mention a perfect memory.
At six feet tall, he was my height but where I was slim, constantly looking at the floor and hesitant, he was broad shouldered, upright and swaggered, calling upon every ounce of his experience as an ex-Marine. The entire family worshiped, feared and obeyed him - something he had come to expect from anyone that entered his house.
He never called me by my name but preferred to refer to me as "boy". When he said the word he would stretch it out like it was distasteful to him; as if that was the only way it could be said and leave no unpleasant aftertaste. That was when I was lucky enough to be included in the conversation. Fathers sometimes can't do that with boyfriends; it gives the boyfriend acceptance which I apparently had not earned in almost three months of dating their daughter. I did have some strikes against me: At that time I was an art major and ole dad was a very successful businessman; he looked like a football player and I looked more like an underfed distance runner; and I was a Methodist venturing into a Catholic domain.
Previous visits to the fortress found him sitting in an old green easy chair in a dark-paneled living room, holding sway over his castle and as soon as I entered the throne room, I could feel the radar pulses as he sought out the intruder and immediately homed in on him in case he stepped out of line. Occasionally he would be chewing on a cigar and/or nursing a glass of amber liquor, which did nothing to soften his unfriendly demeanor. I can remember sitting on the couch with my girlfriend as his x-ray vision searched every inch of my body for weapons, drugs or condoms.
I will pick up the story from about midnight that night in December when almost everyone in the house had gone to bed. My girlfriend and I had stayed up talking and laughing affectionately, both realizing that we were becoming serious in our relationship. We sat on a couch in the same room as his chair. I kept surreptitiously glancing over to see if there was a camera or microphone hidden in its cushions, but none materialized.
Our conversation went on with about as much happiness as a young couple can find, quietly enjoying each other's company while time flew by at an amazing pace. We realized this when my girlfriend, while looking at the wall clock, suddenly gasped and remarked that it was now 4 AM! This would certainly not score me any points with the father inquisitor as both of her parents were adamant about her midnight curfew (even in her own home). She realized my risk doubtless better than I did (probably knowing where the bodies of previous rule breaking boyfriends were buried) and approached the stairs to the basement with great care.
We quietly made our way down the creaking stairs (that never creaked at any other time), through the downstairs den and she let me out the squeaky door that opened onto the driveway. I crept quietly through the dark to my car. It was a 1974 Chevy Camaro with a little bondo near both rear wheels that was historically a little cranky to start in cold weather. I just knew it would take me several turns of the key to get it cranked - enough time for the old man to come to the window, target my vehicle and put a blast from his beam weapon eyes into it and me.
I settled into the cold vinyl seats while watching my breath escape in nervous clouds in the cold air, put the car in neutral, left my driver's side door open and gave the car a shove backwards with a foot hanging out of the door. Fortunately, the driveway was reasonably flat - perhaps even inclined slightly towards the street and with a thigh-searing push, the Camaro slowly and reluctantly rolled backwards. I looked back over my shoulder as the car picked up a little speed. Working the steering wheel and brake I was able to back it completely out of the driveway and into the street coming to a stop facing in the correct direction.
Again, fortune favored the foolish as the street angled sympathetically and, giving one small push, I was able to coast several yards from the house before attempting to start my combustion-driven chariot. All during this process, I had begun to notice a clicking sound that quickened as my car moved faster possibly indicating a rock stuck in my tire. I assumed the rock would come free as I made my way home.
Thankfully, the engine started on the first turn of the key and I smiled at my luck so far and my thoughts returned to burning the memories of the enjoyable night into my brain. My thoughts even strayed slightly to delight at bending the old man's rules right there under his nose! Add to this a clean getaway (with him none the wiser) and I began to have a little confidence that maybe I was smarter than him.
As I turned onto another street and down a long curving hill, I kept hearing the clicking. It followed the same pattern as before: speeding up in conjunction with my vehicle's speed. Something bothered me about it and I felt the need to investigate. I rolled my window down and confirmed that the clicking was not going away and was coming from the vicinity of my right rear tire. I pulled over on the hill and stopped the car, putting it into park. I opened the door and got out to look at my right rear tire. A nearby street lamp cast enough light for me to spot a metallic object wedged into the tread. Looking closer I realized it was a screw and was buried with only the head of the screw showing. I still had my thirty minute drive home and odds were it would be okay as I could not detect any leaking air.
But no, I was the champion tire changer of the family and a seasoned veteran due to changing out snow tires with regular tires on the family vehicles during wintertime. Heck, I did it for the love of it! Just like the dad in "A Christmas Story", I was ready for action! I looked forward to flat tires because it was a manly function where I was in control! Even better, this instance was like changing a wagon wheel on the Chisholm Trail knowing the big chief's tepee was not far away.
I popped the trunk and wrestled out the jack, spare tire and a tire tool. Still reveling in my escape from the dark fortress, I laid the spare on the sidewalk and assuredly placed the jack under the car. I then put the tire tool in its slot and began to raise the jack. This would be over in five minutes and it was being done in HIS neighborhood! Granted his house was now about a mile away, but it still felt good! I just hoped his radar and his weaponry did not reach this far.
The jack raised the car easily and despite the hour, I felt awake and energized. Once the tire to be changed was sufficiently off the ground, I pulled the tire tool from the jack and went to work on removing the lug nuts from the tire and it went like clockwork. I was down to my last nut in no time, not even breaking a sweat, my breath coming and going easily in milky clouds as I realized this night would shine in my memory.
It was then that, noiselessly and in slow motion, I noticed the car starting to creep forward. As it did, the jack began to tilt sickeningly and as the car inched forward, the right rear tire came in contact with the ground and significantly came off the bolts at a wicked angle. How had this happened? I thought I had set the parking brake. I could figure that out later - I had to remedy this mess first.
The tire was now held only by the solitary lug nut. I knew better than to try and get in the car and move it backward since the tire would end up on the rim. I strained with all my scrawny might but nothing I did would allow me to line up the holes in my once-proud ET mags with the lug bolts and push the tire back on. The jack was solidly wedged between the car and the street at a weird angle and could not be moved. Here is where the power of the fortress had reached down and touched me: Had the lurch happened with two nuts still on, I am convinced the tire would not have come off the bolts and I could have fastened the tire back on, pulled the car forward completely off the jack, and made my way home to make the change the next day in the clarity of daylight.
My brain raced through my options and none of them were good. It was then I realized that the screw in my tire was probably a tracking/sabotage device installed by the father protector to send a message to me about staying too late. I realized that my only option was to walk the mile through the cold night back to the fortress and hope to find help from one of his subalterns without waking him. Note: This was in the days before cell phones so when a person's car broke down they had to walk to find help or convince another driver to give them a ride. The irony was that I was an automobile club member and if a convenience store had been within a reasonable distance, I could have walked there instead, called a tow truck, and still come off as the victor.
I zipped up my jacket, forcing down the feeling of panic and helplessness and began to walk. Each step was heavy with dread and difficult but I began to work my way back up the long hill, looking at all the quiet houses that stared down upon me now in accusation, agents of the dark dad. Dogs barked throughout the neighborhood but fortunately no lights came on as I continued on my trek, moving in and out of each oasis of light cast by lonely street lamps, their heads hung as if to share my shame. Despite the exercise, I was moving slowly enough to start feeling a little cold and with each step I felt a little more nauseated as my anxiety increased. My ears and nose quickly became painful in the cold and I made fists in my coat pockets to try and keep my skinny fingers warm.
I finally made it up the hill and turned onto their street. Dogs still barked in the distance and I thought I could feel his radar sweeping the landscape, looking again for the intruder. The street I just left was not so bad because it was a street I merely passed on to get to her house. Now that I was on a street that was all too familiar and contained the end of my journey, it made it all the worse.
Up the front walk and to the front door I crept, feeling like a thief; trying not to wake anyone but knowing I would have to do just that once I reached the door. I paused for almost a minute, enduring the cold, trying to decide if I should knock or ring the bell. I finally decided to knock hoping that my girlfriend or one of her siblings would hear my plea without waking him-who-must-not-be-waked.
My first knock was delivered and, as I stood there waiting, it was met with terrible silence. I looked up to the second floor windows which stared back at me with disdain that I would dare to beat on His Majesty's house at this hour of the night/morning. I knocked again and stepped back looking at all the windows in the house, silently praying that someone other than her dad would look out, recognize my dilemma (including that I was in danger of being put to death), and come rescue me by letting me use the phone.
After knocking three more times, I realized that I would have to pound on the door like a barbarian horde with battering rams to get somebody's attention. Again, I could have just pushed the doorbell but in my thoughts that would mean waking the entire house. I would have to deal with all of the family members who easily dispensed harassment to outsiders and each other like Pez candy. I held onto the thread of hope that some solitary sibling would come to the main gate and let it down so I could enter the castle.
I pounded on the door and stood back awaiting judgment. After a brief moment a single glow of light registered through one of the windows. Only one light - perhaps my plan had worked! With great anticipation, nervous stomach and a slight shiver, I stood wondering who would answer the door at this hour. The barking of the neighborhood dogs heightened the sensation of being an intruder.
"Who is it?" was the response I heard from behind the door and knew immediately I was a dead man. It was her father and his voice held a promise like a lead pipe that intruders at this odd hour better have a great excuse for getting him out of his warm bed and threatening the peace of his castle. I stated my name punctuated with a polite "sir" at the end, trying to appeal to his Marines background; hoping he might mistake me for one of his scouts returning from a dangerous mission.
"Who?" came the reply from the other side of the door. I wasn't sure if he didn't hear me or honestly didn't recognize the name. I repeated it and felt as though I was going to soil myself.
"Bryan!? What's wrong!?" Looking back, it was the only time in the roughly two years I had dated his daughter that I remember him using my name - at least in front of me and possibly without an expletive. The front porch light came on and the door swung inward. There he stood in a robe and pajamas, dark hair with a little gray at the temples uncharacteristically mussed and his face wearing a mask of concern and irritation. I breathed a sigh of relief when there was no large caliber weapon pointing at me and my brain thought it had recognized a faint note of compassion in his voice.
He invited me inside and I briefly described my dilemma, hoping for some measure of leniency. For the first time ever, he listened intently to me, arms akimbo and his mouth working slightly as though he wished he had a cigar to help him understand my tale. Once I finished, he nodded, pointed to the couch (that was probably still warm from my hind quarters just a little while before), told me to sit and he disappeared down the hallway. After a few minutes later he reappeared and was fully dressed, wearing a trench coat and a rakish hat that looked like something from a Jimmy Cagney movie. I briefly saw myself being put into his trunk and taken to the lake for a pair of cement overshoes.
"Come on, boy. Show me your car." he growled. We got into his expensive executive-type land yacht sedan and without conversation made our way to the point of my adventure. I knew better than to make frivolous conversation with him at this point; he didn't do that even when he was in a good mood. The only dialog was, "Is that the warmest jacket you have, boy?" to which I meekly responded to the negative, wanting to salute while making the lame excuse that I had not expected a need for my warmer jacket, Sir! He grunted and I realized an unlit cigar had appeared in his mouth.
As we neared the site, my fire engine red contraption appeared in his vehicle's beams, and he grunted derisively. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed him working the cigar. I hunched down in the seat, trying to be as small as possible, feeling really stupid knowing that he thought he would have never made this mistake. We both exited his luxury-mobile and he quietly scrutinized my dilemma, gazing upon it from various angles and grunting at random intervals as though this were the signal that a fact had been registered in his memory. He leaned over and looked closely at the jack and the tire; then walked around to the front of the car shaking his head. Finally, he commented,
"Come on, boy. We need to get you a tow truck." We re-entered his vehicle and turned around to head back to his house. The only comment I made to him was about my auto club membership and he grunted but I could not tell if it was a "who cares" grunt or a "that's good" grunt.
When we reached the house, the mom was up and moving around in the kitchen. I think it was probably her normal time to rise since she was used to manufacturing breakfast for eleven for a good many years. She was just as adept at casting humorous barbs at me as anyone in the family and functioned quite well in holding the father's spear until it was needed. This morning was no different as she good-naturedly started to pick on me (and rightfully so given the situation) but something was different: It was more gentle than normal and her face contained a mother's nurturing smile. I began to feel my tension abate as I made my way to the phone and placed a call for the tow truck. I tried to sound adult-like and in charge as both of my girlfriend's parents sat there and listened, making sure I got all the details correct.
By this time, my girlfriend was up as well and in her robe. She looked at me with affection, disbelief and humor and my look back to her contained affection, "protect me" and "I meant to do this." We sat in the kitchen with her mom and talked while her dad got in his big easy chair and read the paper until we needed to leave to meet the tow truck. We said our goodbyes and I took a few more good natured shots from mother and daughter as I left with the father to get into his car.
Again in silence, we drove to my vehicle and her father watched and grunted as the tow truck driver helped me fix my mess in less than ten minutes. In those ten minutes with him standing there, I never lost the feeling that he was looking upon me as a complete idiot and totally unworthy for his daughter. Upon reflection and being a dad myself now, I would hypothesize that he was trying to decide if he should do something now to discourage any further contact with his daughter.
With the repairs finished up, I signed the auto club form and the tow truck driver left me alone to face the tongue lashing that I knew was coming. I went over to Major Dad and held out my hand to shake his, offering my apologies and thanks for helping me and not killing me. His cigar suddenly stopped moving in his mouth as he took my hand firmly in both of his, pulled me a little closer and looked me in the eyes. Here it comes.
"Next time, scotch your tires, boy" he chided. This was the first time I had ever heard the word "scotch" used in such a manner but I came to realize he meant that I should have placed something in front of my tires so the car would not have rolled forward.
He released my hand, turned and got into his vehicle. He waited like a good father to see if my car would start. When it did I pulled slowly away and watched in my rearview mirror as he turned around to head for his fortress. I had done it. I had survived. I had even skipped a major chewing out that most fathers would have rightfully given me. I knew that the jokes would pour forth from the family members in the future but somehow that was okay now. The dark father had shown mercy and perhaps even kindness in dealing with a major screw-up on my part. And he never asked what time it was when I left their house. I began to see him in a slightly different light.
About a week and a half after that, I attended my first midnight mass with my girlfriend and her family that was followed by a party at her house. I felt totally out of place at mass (being non-Catholic) as well as at the house afterwards where I knew very few people. The house was full of revelers on this night and I was treated warmly by all the guests, her siblings and her mother. Her father treated me no worse than usual (he ignored me). He just wandered from guest to guest, sipping his liquor and making pleasant conversation.
Finally, as if by some unseen signal, people began to realize the hour and friendly thanks were starting to pass between guests and hosts when the father finally came to me. With a mischievous twinkle in his eye he took me by the arm gently leading me into the living room. To my surprise, he then put me in HIS chair. Nobody ever sat in his chair - not even as a joke. I began to feel a little uneasy. He then turned and shouted to all the guests (probably about twenty people but it seemed more like 2,000) to gather round. Many faces new to me that night formed a semicircle around the chair as I sat timidly in the master's throne. My girlfriend's father parted the crowd, went over to a corner of the room, returning with something slightly larger than a shoebox wrapped in Christmas paper and sat it in front of me. I looked incredulously at him, then the gift and then at all the expectant faces smiling at me and managed to murmur "thanks" and started to get up and take the gift to my car. It was quite heavy.
"Open it now, boy!" He gleefully demanded so everyone could hear. Assorted smiling people in the crowd offered their exultations to me to open the gift as well. What I had not realized up to that point was that during the evening as guests were asking him about me (as I was the boyfriend that many had not met), the dad was relating my faux pas with great relish to any who would listen in preparation for this moment. My senses tingled with danger and I waited as long as I dared before tearing open the package. I cringed as I opened it: It was a cinder block.
"Next time, scotch your damn tires, boy!" The dark father roared with laughter, joined by the crowd. All I could do was smile trying to hide my embarrassment. I got a couple of slaps on the back from members of the crowd, as they tried to ease the sting of the joke, glad that it was not being played on them.
The crowd while still laughing, quickly broke up and made their way to the exits. My girlfriend found me and, smiling meekly, tried to ease my embarrassment but I could tell that she thought it was a great joke as well. Heck, I can even look back on it and laugh. I like to think that in a perverse way, he found respect for me at the time of the flat tire because I showed courage in returning to their house. Courage, no matter how stupid, is still courage. I have also come to think that the gift said, "Yes, I have some respect for you but as a dad, I need to put you in your place for hanging out at my home until 4 AM." I never broke another of his rules. Ironically, a few days after the receipt of the gift, one of my girlfriend's older brothers told me that he had a scissors jack and if I had just pecked on his window in the back, he could have quietly rescued me.
No, I did not marry her. I found someone perfect for me and we have been married for twenty-one years and have three great kids. Ironically, my wife and I became Catholic together within a year of being married and I have come to understand mass, midnight mass, and most other things Catholic. More than that, I have come to understand how generous her gruff father was in handling my situation.
Of our children, the oldest is our only daughter who is almost the same age I was back then and I have struggled with the balancing act of making her boyfriends feel comfortable around me but not too comfortable. I have been firm but always tried my best never to instill the same fear that I felt so many years ago. I have reflected many times on the gift and what it means to deal with my daughter's boyfriends in the best way possible.
This does not mean that I am not looking for an opportunity to pass on that cinder block. It makes a really great gift!