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A Boy, A Barn, A Belt

by Mark Bench

Copyright on this story text belongs at all times to the original author only, whether stated explicitly in the text or not. The original date of posting to the MMSA was: 19 Aug 2012

Preface: For the following story, I had the alliterative title before I had anything except the most vague idea of what the story would be about: I had a title in search of a story! The following is what the title rustled up. I have to note that I stopped several times while writing this piece and asked out loud, Where is this coming from? I felt as if I were channeling someone! So, to Dr. Pierce Lloyd, wherever he is, I offer my thanks for his having let me be his oracle.

There’s a saying, It’s all over but the shouting (shoutin’). It refers to a matter having been decided — anything subsequent is just an anticlimax, mere shouting. A while back, I looked it up and learned that it first appeared in print in 1842, put down by a Welshman, Charles James Apperley. That fact amused me, because I’d always thought of it as an expression of the American South. Actually, I’m pretty sure it was coined by someone from the land of cotton, that Welsh fellow’s first use in print notwithstanding. Mind you, my confident guess is that the Southerner who coined it was named David Jones or Matthew Cadogan or John Llewelyn, or something like that. (My name, by the way, is Pierce Lloyd. I have Welsh ancestry through both my mother, nee Pierce, and my father.)

I mention the saying, because, when I was growing up in the South, I’d heard it enough times that I came up with a take-off on it: all over but the whipping (whippin’). You see, when I was a kid, the shouting wasn’t the anticlimax. It came before the whipping. Of course, the whipping wasn’t the anticlimax either. It was the main event. So maybe I should now come up with yet another take-off: all over but the butt rubbing, or maybe, all over but the crying. Rubbing my butt and crying; those were the inevitable anticlimaxes to a whipping.

When I was a kid, the shouting generally took place in the house. The living room or the kitchen — those were the locations my parents preferred when they shouted at one of us kids. A kid in trouble didn’t get a lick of privacy for the shouting. My parents wanted anybody or everybody to hear them lay into us for whatever it was we’d done. Whoever was around got to hear the bawling out. Even our friends got to stick around for that entertainment!

Now, don’t misunderstand, please. There wasn’t, in my opinion, an excess of shouting, and it wasn’t all that loud. Especially when my father handled things, the shouting really wasn’t shouting at all. Daddy just didn’t have to raise his voice much to be stern and scary. He had swallowed a truckload of gravel when he was a teenager — so it sounded to us. And he had strong lungs. So, when he talked with passion, you heard it even if he didn’t say it loud. Mama did shout. She sounded like an angry blackbird when she was worked up. But she got it over with quickly, especially if you didn’t argue with her. If you did argue, then she shouted until you stopped arguing, or she brought in Daddy and his gravel-pit voice. Daddy’s voice always shut down the arguing!

Once the shouting was done, then you headed on for your whipping. That was almost always the punishment if you’d done wrong. My parents didn’t know much about other things, like grounding or assigning extra chores, and we kids never got allowances that could have been cut off. No, my parents mainly used the short, sharp shock of a whipping to punish wrongdoing.

At the point of heading on for the whipping there was sex segregation. My sisters — they stayed in the house, the domestic sphere, Mama’s domain. Mama was queen of that castle; Daddy was just what the English call prince consort: Prince Philip to Mama’s Queen Elizabeth. My sisters would go to my parents’ bedroom. That’s where Mama dealt with them, with either her hand or her hairbrush, or sometimes a combination of the two.

We boys, on the other hand, headed out to Daddy’s domain: the barn. Now don’t try to imagine some massive structure of weathered barn-board, full of cows and horses and the like. Our barn was really just a large shed. But Daddy insisted on calling it a barn. He was a country lawyer, who’d grown up on a farm with a real barn, and he’d really wanted to raise his own kids on a place with a barn. So, he called our shed the barn. In his favor I will note that Daddy did plant a substantial garden every year and most of the vegetables we ate fresh came from that garden — and there were also lots of pickled things made from the substantial surpluses: my mouth waters if I think about Mama’s chow-chow and her pickled okra. Plus, we had chickens, which provided lots of eggs and the occasional pot of chicken and dumplings. For a while, there was even a nanny goat named Myrtle. But Mama and Myrtle had serious disagreements about things, and the goat was exiled from our property to a home where she was better appreciated.

The barn. That’s where we boys trudged when the shouting was over. When Daddy could trust us not to run away and hide someplace — which was just a damn fool thing to do — he sent us on ahead alone.

Out to the barn with you, he would say — or some variation on that.

So, with his eyes moist and his stomach bubbling and his heart a-pounding (I have to write a-pounding to get the mood right!), a boy would trudge to the barn. He wouldn’t hurry. There was no point in hurrying, because Daddy always gave a boy a good amount of time between the sending out and his coming along. He always left us time to think things over and anticipate what was coming. We boys even had a name for it: walkin’ and waitin’ time. In some ways, that was the worst part of the whole ordeal! There you were, knowing you were due for a whipping, and you had to wait on it, dreading it, and also, just as much, wishing Daddy would hurry up and come and get it done with. I wonder, do guys about to be executed think like that right ahead of their executions?

Now, speaking of an execution: that’s really what it was like. In the house, Daddy (with or without Mama) was the judge, the prosecutor, and the jury. In the house, he put a lot of passion into letting us know just what we had done that required us to pay in pain. There would be fire burning in his eyes, and I once was sure I saw real steam coming out of his ears. But, when he came to the barn, he was always as cool as a cucumber on a cloudy day. He was there just to do his duty. He was the executioner. I mean, the executioner at a hanging or a frying isn’t supposed to be all revved up with passion. He’s just supposed to do his job and see justice done. He might even feel a mite sorry for the condemned. He might even think the fellow is innocent! But he still does his job. That was Daddy. When he came to the barn, he was there to represent justice and to see justice done. Remember now! Daddy was a lawyer. He believed in justice. He lived by that belief.

I think that’s why my brothers and I never felt a drop of ill will toward Daddy when he whipped us. I know there are folks who won’t buy that — I know, because those folks have told me! But my brothers and I just didn’t hold it against Daddy that he had to whip us. We believed in justice, too. We tried pretty darn hard to live by that belief.

But wasn’t Daddy’s calm, cool, collected manner a problem? I’ve heard that claimed — folks saying how terrible it is for a parent to act like they’re untouched by what they’re doing. Well, now, I suppose that would be true, if my brothers and I had ever thought Daddy really was untouched by it! But, the fact is, we knew better. We knew Daddy didn’t like whipping us, and that it really did hurt him — not more than it hurt us, of course, but some, enough that he did suffer along with us. In short, we knew our father loved us, and would’ve sawed off his own arm for us, with a dull, rusty saw, if that had been needed. So, we just didn’t have hard feelings for how Daddy handled things when we were due a whipping.

In fact, I would say, Daddy’s calm, cool, collected manner was something we appreciated. I mean, a whipping is a scary enough event without having to face it when the one dishing it out is burning at you with rage. Then, you never can know how it’s going to turn out. My best friend, Billy — he had a father who was like that; he whipped Billy in fits of temper. Now, Billy’s father loved him, no doubt. But Billy was scared of his daddy in ways I never was scared of mine. I never worried about Daddy getting his engine revved up and then not being able to shut it down. Billy sometimes had real bruises and welts. I never did.

Another thing: we boys pretty quickly, each of us, got to wanting to be brave and manly when we took a whipping. Daddy’s manner made that accomplishment pretty easy. He was sort of a mirror to look at when he came to the barn. He’d stand there, calm, steady, ready to do his duty. We’d look at him, and we’d get calm (sort of!) and steady (sort of!) and we’d feel ready to do our duty (sort of!). It’s just a lot harder to fuss at a man who is carrying himself the way Daddy did — at least, that’s how it was for my brothers and me. Never with words, but with his way, Daddy invited us to take it like a man — and we did, a good deal of the time.

I’m thinking of one time, out of many. I was fourteen. I was a freshman in high school. Yes! We hayseeds did get more than an eighth grade education! As a matter of fact, I have a Ph.D.! Of course, back then I wasn’t Dr. Pierce Lloyd, professor of American History. I was just plain old Pierce Lloyd or Pierce, or Lloyd ... or One Eye — that latter, of course, is a nickname, which I picked up when I was ten, when I got wounded with a BB (You’ll shoot your eye out!), and had to wear an eye-patch for a while. At fourteen, I was still often called One Eye. I mention that, not to digress, but because it plays a very minor role in my recollection.

To quote: I dare you, One Eye!

That’s a friend, Chris Pritchard, you’re seeing quoted. He was always daring me to do things. Mostly, I refused his dares, knowing how stupid they were, and how much trouble I’d get into if I took them. But, once in a while, I did take a dare. I wonder sometimes at the fact that I took more than one — because, I got whipped for just about every one I took!

The dare, in this case, involved a prank against Miss Mills, President of the Ladies Auxiliary at our church. She had briskly scolded Chris and me for running in a hallway at the church, in front of some of our friends, embarrassing us, and we wanted to get back at her. Chris brought a handful of condoms when he met up with me at the church Saturday morning a week later. They were his older brother’s condoms, but, since Garrison wasn’t actually using them for anything, Chris had liberated them for our prank. Chris and I were in a parlor room at the church, laying out refreshments, arranging chairs, and setting out materials for a meeting of the Ladies Auxiliary. That was the price I was paying Mama for the lift to town when she’d come for her meeting. Chris and I were alone together. Mama had left us to our work. None of the other auxiliary ladies was present.

That gave us access to Miss Mills’ Bible, which was already there — Miss Mills having gone to chat with the reverend about some pressing theological matter or other. Chris handed me the condoms, pointed at the Bible, and issued the memorable dare, which I took. Miss Mills had lots of things already stuffed inside her Bible: old service bulletins, prayer cards, crocheted markers, flowers from weddings, a pencil, sermon notes, lists of prayer request — you name it; everything except a half-dozen prophylactic devices. So, I knew she wouldn’t notice the added bulges and bumps from the condoms, which I inserted at Proverbs 13, the chapter for the day’s devotions (I had looked at the meeting agenda). She didn’t notice them until she opened wide her Bible, while standing before the ladies, and several of the condoms fell out on the floor at her feet!

I wish, to this very day, despite everything, that I had been able to see her face when the safes spilled out before the assembled women. She must have been mortified. These were all quite proper Southern ladies. But they all knew what a condom was. Being that Miss Mills was a spinster, her having condoms in her Bible would have looked mighty strange — and mighty suggestive. At least for a moment. Then, someone would have quickly said something like, A crude prank by some delinquent boys, I’m sure! So, even if the condoms were Miss Mills’, everyone could’ve acted like they really weren’t.

That might have settled it. But, then, someone thought to ask, I wonder which delinquents it was?

To this question, a lady answered, I have a pretty good idea who the culprits were! That lady was my mother!

I mean, honestly, Chris and I hadn’t made it too difficult for the ladies — especially Mama — to put two and two together! To use a bit of legalese: we’d had motive and opportunity!

I won’t belabor all of this, since the point of this tale is to discuss the whipping. So, we speed ahead, skipping memorable scenes of apprehension and interrogation. I’ll note, simply, that Mama’s shouting started at church in the meeting room, in the presence of the entire Ladies Auxiliary and the Reverend Emerson, continued in the car on the way to Chris’s house (where Mama told his mother everything), and then resumed while Mama and I were in the car alone together. Mama was a really angry crow that whole time! Let’s also skip my brief trial at home, conducted in the kitchen, which is where Mama found Daddy, who was polishing off a leftover cherry pie, three slices worth, by Mama’s reckoning — she’d have really let him have it for his illicit pie consumption had she not already been furious with me. We come, then, to the point where the shouting was over and it was time for the whipping.

In this instance, Daddy said, Pierce. Barn. Just two words. That was all.

With the shouting over, I had nothing to do but obey the command. Head hanging, I turned, shuffled across the kitchen, pushed open the screen door, and staggered outside. During my slow, short journey from the house to the barn my thoughts turned briefly to Chris. I was sure that he was, at that moment, roughly at the same point in his miserable existence as I was in mine. I knew he would be getting it from his father with an old fraternity paddle. Encouraging me to crime, and especially, providing the weapons, had been a crime, for which Chris would be paying dearly.

As I got closer to the barn, I set my mind on what lay ahead. I never considered it better not to think about it. I always felt that cold-eyed realism was the way to go. I rehearsed the drill: Daddy’s arrival, my wordless and ready acts of preparation, Daddy’s announcement of the specific sentence, and, finally, his execution thereof. I knew it wouldn’t take long. Mercifully, it would be over quickly. Then, Daddy would leave. I’d be left on my own to reassemble myself. There would be no comforting hand. There would be no hug. At least, not in the barn. The barn was the place of punishment. Comfort, reassurance, and full forgiveness — they would happen elsewhere. And, I knew, they would happen; they always had. Every morning, the sun rose. Every time I got a whipping, afterward, Daddy assured me of his love and of his absolute forgiveness.

I reached the door. I lifted the latch and pulled the door open. I stepped inside and flipped the light switch. Yes, our barn had electricity, for two hanging bulbs and for electric tools. I stepped over by the sawhorse. I took note that it hadn’t been used for sawing since the last whipping — my brother Jason’s. The old horse blanket was still draped across it. I had nothing to do by way of preparing it. I waited.

I tried to think about the fact that I really had been in the wrong. I tried to fully accept it. It was hard. Miss Mills was an old biddy. She was a self-righteous twit. She’d deserved to be embarrassed.... But, she was a lady. She was a lady of the church. She was a spinster — a lonely lady. I was a Southern gentleman, in training. I should have shown her more respect than I had; much more! I had tried to humiliate her. Mama and Daddy, I finally admitted to myself, were utterly right. I had shamed myself. I deserved what I was about to get. I was ready. Except that I was gnawed by dread. I was sure my crime merited great severity. I wondered, then, if I would get the worst whipping of my young life; I’d learned that expression from Mama, who had used it with reference to my elder brother, Tom: Tom, your daddy is going to give you the worst whipping of your young life. I didn’t think I had already had mine; the impending one, I noted, certainly might be it!

I heard Daddy coming. He walked with a bit of a shuffle and his shoes scraped the gravel. My heart galloped, ever faster. Daddy arrived at the door, lifted the latch, opened the door, stepped in, and shut the door again. He looked at me. He nodded.

It was just the two of us there, Daddy and I. That’s how it always was with whippings — just the parent and the child. There were never witnesses, save those who might eavesdrop. Daddy and Mama wanted witnesses to shouting. But they regarded whippings as personal, private transactions. Transaction — that’s a word Daddy used. I remember him saying, of my brother, Jason and I have a transaction to take care of at home. A whipping was like a business transaction. It was a matter of paying up. Daddy represented justice. He made the boy turn over the payment.

I turned to the sawhorse. My fingers had gone numb. But I managed to unfasten the button on my jeans. I caught the zipper pull and unzipped my fly. I shoved my hands down under the waistband of my briefs. I pushed everything down — all the way down to my ankles. That’s how Daddy wanted it. He’d never told us why, exactly. But I think it was so that our act of surrender would be in full. Taking everything right down, as far as it could go — without taking it right off — signaled that we were ready to take what we had coming. Give a guy a Ph.D. and he does this sort of thing when he thinks back on his childhood! I could get a second degree for a dissertation on the close symbolic analysis of my whippings. I even have a title for it, nice and intellectually pretentious: The Symbolic Valences of the Transactional Act of Taking a Whipping: Reflections By a Recipient

Bare-assed, I further assisted in my own execution, by hauling up my shirt, so the tail wouldn’t cover my tail end. Then I bent across the horse, reached out, and grabbed the legs. The horse stood on angled legs, narrow at the top, wide at the bottom; a boy who was tall enough to bend across it could always reach some part of those legs. I took a good grip. That was a key part of taking a whipping—that grip on the legs. If you kept that grip, then you didn’t end up putting your hands back to protect your backside — which was a damn fool thing to do. I was ready — physically at least. I was in the necessary position, which I would keep, God help me, until the last lick had been given.

Pierce, you know why I can’t go easy on you, Dad said. Sixteen licks.

Sixteen! If you have the slightest doubt about that being a lot for a boy of fourteen to take, on his bare behind, then you get somebody to give you sixteen hard licks with a doubled over belt on your bare backside. Then, get back to me. Okay?

Daddy’s decision was not random. I knew it. He was giving me my age in strokes, plus two. Those extra two were, to keep up with my dissertation writing, signals of how seriously I’d screwed up.

I listened while Daddy took off his belt. Sometimes, Daddy arrived with the belt already off, if he hadn’t been wearing a belt, or if he’d been wearing the wrong one — like a thin, light dress belt, instead of the wide, thick one he wore for work around our property, the one he used for whippings. This time, since Daddy had been working, he was wearing that belt. I heard the airy hiss as he pulled it off. I heard the subtle tinkling of the buckle. It’s strange how merry that little bell sound seemed — as if the belt was celebrating its opportunity to visit again with my bare ass!

My ass, I will note, in brief, was typical for a slim, healthy fourteen-year-old. It was small. It was round. It had some meat, some muscle, to it. I was physically active, so it was tight. It was utterly hairless, save perhaps for the lightest peach fuzz. It was very white. Remember, I have Welsh genes! It was sensitive. I’m no physiologist. But, I am convinced that the nerve endings in my bottom were closer to the surface when I was fourteen than they are now. I think of a line in the song, When I Was Young, from Eric Burdon and the Animals, where it refers to pain being more painful, when I was young. Yes, that’s right.

Daddy said nothing further. He just positioned himself, behind me, at the right distance to swing and apply the belt with the force he deemed necessary. He swung the belt. He lashed it cleanly across my waiting rear. The lick was far from ferocious. He could have hit harder, had he wanted to. But, it was hard. CRACK! The sound of hide striking hide is quite unique. The sensation is one of passionate meeting. I once heard someone refer to cowhide meeting boyhide. Daddy’s cowhide belt met my boyhide.

That’s what Daddy wanted. That’s why Daddy always whipped us bare. He wanted nothing to get in the way of the meeting. I was being punished — not my jeans; not my briefs. So, the belt was applied to me, to my bare skin. It was, of course, no different for my sisters; Mama’s hand or brush met their bare bottoms, too. That, in large measure, was just why we had the sex segregation. Mama and Daddy agreed on the principle. A girl’s daddy oughtn’t to see her privates, back or front, once she was beyond about three or four or, at most, five. Likewise, with boys and their mothers — although with a touch more flexibility, it seemed to me. Daddy was an old sexist and Mama was no women’s libber. They agreed that boys and girls were different, and not just in their plumbing fixtures! Girls, they agreed, were more modest than boys, and needed even more respect for their modesty. Boys, they held, were more likely to practice nudism, and this proclivity could be tolerated — within reason. So, Mama saw a lot more of boy parts than Daddy saw of girl parts.

CRACK! Daddy’s belt seared a second time across my tender skin. It felt like being struck with a hot bar of steel. There was force, and then fire — a hot, almost moist, sting. I gritted my teeth. I squeezed my eyes shut. I held onto the horse with all my strength. I wanted to make a good showing. I wasn’t being the least stubborn. I wasn’t signaling any defiance to Daddy. My defiance was all for Weakness. Weakness was the enemy.

Fourteen-year-olds these days are still like I was. Their only problem is that they have fewer opportunities built into life to face and fight Weakness. So, instead of enduring well-earned whippings from their daddies, they play at Jackass and whip each other with belts and assorted objects. They jump about and yell. But, when they look at the camera, they have smiles on their faces and they’re proud of the marks on their backs or butts. They show the world that Weakness hasn’t won.

CRACK! Daddy laid down another band of fire.

I knew I had stripes. Each lick of the belt raised an impression of itself in warm pink, which turned to red. As more strokes were added atop the earlier ones, the red got deeper, turning to crimson with hints of purple — fuchsia, magenta? Daddy had excellent aim, and he took care while whipping us. So, he rarely laid an off stroke. But, if a boy wriggled a bit more than expected, Daddy might accidentally wrap the belt across the hip. Then it would leave a mark, an impression of the square doubled end. That mark might bruise, just a little, but not much. No one was troubled by it. Where I grew up and when I grew up, no one saw such marks as evidence of child abuse. Quite the contrary! They were, to most folks, evidence of steady, committed parental love. They could be a source of mild embarrassment in a school locker room or shower, but not a source of shame. If anything, they were a matter of pride! They proclaimed to peers that a boy had misbehaved and suffered the consequences. The having misbehaved was the key thing: we wanted to be known as normal, healthy boys who sometimes broke the rules. Boys who never got whipped were boys who never misbehaved — who were pathologically abnormal!

If the PE coach saw the marks, he sure didn’t report child abuse. He had a paddle. He left marks of his own on boys’ backsides on a regular basis. I suppose, after this narrative, I should turn to writing about him. We’ll see!

CRACK! The sting got hotter. The lick had doubled a previous one.

I was fighting to hold still. I was struggling to keep silent. I know lots of kids back then hollered right from the start, putting on a great performance of their agony. Many, in fact, were urged to cry by parents who took it as the only sure evidence that a whipping was working: that was Mama’s way with my sisters, who yelped like kicked puppies when they got whipped. But that just wasn’t the way with us boys in my family. It got started with my eldest brother, Tom, who was a reincarnated Spartan, I am sure. Without Tom’s lead, I doubt Jason and I would have been such teeth-gritting Spartans. Tom set the bar high. He coached and encouraged his younger brothers. He convinced Jason and me that trying hard not to move, not to yell, not to cry was a virtue. Daddy, strangely, never said a thing about it, ever. He only condemned outright failure to cooperate; he never praised Spartan endurance. We all understood, pretty early in life, that taking it like a man was something we did for ourselves, not for Daddy. I should note that I have referred consistently here to Spartans rather than Stoics, since, compared to the Spartans, the Stoics were, all of them, pantywaists! Return with your shield, or upon it! Remember Thermopylae!

CRACK! I let out a groan. I could feel tears welling behind my eyes. It was like water coming up higher and stronger against a dam, a dam with cracks in it. I tightened my grips on the horse. I tried to steady my legs, which were trembling. I knew I would eventually succumb to the tears. But, holding them in for as long as I could was the challenge I set for myself.

CRACK! Daddy lashed me low across the place where my buttocks met my legs. That is sensitive skin! My knees buckled a little and I let out a gasping groan. The first tears squeezed out between my lids, wetting my lashes. I could feel my nose trickling teary mucus.

I suppose I could now type CRACK! a few more times — eleven more times, unless I’ve miscounted where I am. But, to my mind, that would get tedious. So, here’s just one more: CRACK!

The whipping continued. The hot, stinging pain got worse and worse. Licks landed on licks. The distinct stripes across white skin blended together into one solid mass of red flesh. I trembled and shook, my legs shaking most of all. The dam broke and tears gushed out, running down my cheeks and dripping from my chin. My gritted teeth gave way and sobs passed my lips. I tried not to sob too loudly. I refused to exaggerate or dramatize. But, I did sob. Toward the end, with the last three licks, I yelped. But, I didn’t let go of the horse. I didn’t stand up. I stayed in my place and I took my licks. I felt proud of myself, through the pain. Now, with the pain just a distant memory, I still feel that pride. Ridiculous, right?

As soon as he had given me the sixteenth lick, Daddy stepped back from me. Alright, Pierce. Done. He put his belt back on.

I let go of the horse and pushed myself back up. Grimacing with discomfort, I stepped back from the horse. I put my hands back and grabbed my burning backside. I held it and rubbed. I was sniffling and hiccupping.

Daddy eased the door open, stepped out, and shut it. He didn’t touch me. He didn’t say a word. That may sound cold and cruel. Here was his son, a boy of fourteen, whipped and weeping, and Daddy didn’t stop to offer the slightest gesture of comfort! Good for him! I was happy to have him leave. I needed, then, to be alone. I was angry. I wasn’t angry with Daddy, not a mite. I was angry at the whipping, at the pain, at the fucking belt, at my own stupidity, that I’d brought it on myself. But there was a fear that all of that anger might find the wrong focus. I didn’t want that to be Daddy. I wanted him away from me, until I wasn’t angry.

As well, I needed to be by myself to cope with the pain. I didn’t want Daddy as an audience for self-pity and pained gyrations. With the barn all to myself, I was free, at last, to wriggle and twist and jump, to do a jig on the board floor, to really rub at my stinging, burning, oven-hot backside.

I was free to cuss. Fuck! Damn! Shit! My ass! Fuck! Damn! That hurt! Damn! It still hurts! Fucking belt! I was free to allow a few more tears to trickle and to let out sobs and whimpers. Ow! Ow! Ow! My ass! I exclaimed.

Then, quite quickly, my dignity asserted itself. My Spartan soul returned to power. I took control of myself. I used my shirt to wipe my cheeks and chin. I turned back further tears. I snuffed back the trickles in my nose. I took quick, deep, steady breaths. I hunched down and pulled up my briefs, easing them carefully over freshly roasted rump. I pulled up my jeans, zipped and buttoned them. I took further fortifying breaths. I felt myself leaving the ordeal. It took just a few minutes.

Then, feeling that I could face the world outside the barn, I stepped to the door, opened it, and was met with sunshine. I could see that Daddy was in the garden, frowning at the squash plants. I walked over to him, stood next to him, and looked down at the plants.

Goddamn bugs! I grew up on a farm, and I have no idea what those Goddamn things are that’re eating the squash leaves! Look like they landed from Mars! Daddy grumbled. Then, he put his arm across my upper back and gently squeezed my shoulder with his strong fingers.

Maybe they are Martian bugs, Daddy, I joked. Start of an invasion, or something.

Call the Pentagon, I guess, Daddy said, continuing the joke. Still with his arm around me, Daddy turned and moved toward the corn. The corn, at least, is doing well.

Nice and tall, I offered.

Just like you, Daddy said. Grown an inch this week, ain’t you? Daddy threw in ain’t whenever the moment seemed right for it.

Two, Sir, I countered.

Is that so?


Well, least folks around here know we’re feedin’ you alright.

You and Mama sure do, I said, my words packed full with meaning.

Well, we love you, Boy! Daddy said.

I love you, too.

You won’t pull a stunt like you did today again, I know it, Daddy said.

No, Sir. I sure won’t.

That’s fine. Matter’s closed, then, far as I’m concerned. Case closed.

Yes, Sir.

That was it. Love. Forgiveness. Case closed. Simple. That’s what I recall my life back then being. Simple. Uncomplicated. As simple and uncomplicated as three words: a boy; a barn; a belt. Yes, the world back then was full of conflicts and tension. It was just as complex, in its way, as the world is today, in its way. My childhood world wasn’t the good old days. I’m a historian. I know that the good old days never existed — ever. In my childhood days, parents thought kids were running rampant, compared with the well-disciplined youth of their younger days! In fact, around 3000 B.C., Sumerians were grumbling onto clay tablets about the various flaws of youth today

I sometimes imagine some prehistoric hominid father, one million and a half years ago (let’s call him Grogg), grumbling to his friends, Why, when I was a boy, I would never have grunted at my father the way Grogg Junior grunts at me!

Right! they all agree. Things were better in the good old days!

I blame Evolution! Grogg grumbles.

And yet ... and yet, I just can’t escape the feeling that I did have it better than kids today. Their lives do seem so much more complicated, so much less simple. The purity of a boy, a barn, a belt is lacking for most of them. I feel sorry for them, sometimes.

Generally, when I’m feeling that way, I pick up the phone, dial the number, and say, Hi, Daddy! Pierce here! Just calling to hear your voice! Then I listen to the gravel-pit voice, old now, yet still strong.

You know what, Son? Those same damn Martian bugs are eating the squash again!

Call the Pentagon, Daddy!

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