My eight-year-old niece, Jackie, is going through a phase. She is an irresistible sprite with tangled nutmeg hair and a smile that crescents atop a dimpled chin. She is also obsessed with moral conundrums – the more macabre, the better.
“Would you rather be burned to death or buried alive?” Her earnest angelic face shines at me like a full moon. I hesitate. “Ummmm, none of the above, honey. I want to live until I am 99, fall asleep in a chair and not wake up.”
“That’s not a choice,” she says defiantly. “Okay, okay, how about…would you rather be eaten by a great white shark or killed by a python?” My sister-in-law shakes her head, “She’s been asking these for six months.” “As long as she doesn’t want to dress up as Lizzie Borden for Halloween, you should be okay,” I say flippantly. Jackie is already locked and loaded with another Catch 22 that involves being either bled by leeches or eaten by cannibals. As if attracted by my squirming and the topic of blood in the water, my boys immediately appear, ready to frenzy on the gory questioning.
My 12-year-old asks, “Dad, what does it mean when they draw and quarter you?” He had obviously been mulling over this particular mode of torture for some time. “What’s drawing a quarter?” Jackie asks. This question immediately plunged me back to my childhood and the memory of a secret place known as the Republic of Richard Stans.
Richard Stans was the country adjacent to but unseen by the USA, sort of like Canada. Each day in class, we would stand and pledge allegiance to the American flag and to the Republic of Richard Stans – one nation, invisible, with liberty and justice for all. At Christmas time we sang Silent Night about the portly celibate “Round John Virgin – mother and child.” Perhaps John was so corpulent he symbolically represented mankind – men, women and children – or maybe he just ate the mother and child. We also sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic: “My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He has trampled through the village where the crates of wrap are stored. He has loosened all the lighting on his terrible Swiss sword, his troop is marching on.” I had no idea what that meant but I knew one thing: God would not even need to use a sword. He could drown the entire Confederate States just by rerouting the Mississippi if he wanted to. The Civil War was confusing. It was an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp” and “cruel to be kind.” How could it be civil if it was a war?
Yet, these were the rote lyrics of our adolescence; we recited these anthems and carols with earnest incomprehension. Through the filtered lens of a child, everything took on different meaning. Other words or expressions confounded me too, such as mysterious ailments and medical conditions. I remember distinctly hearing my Mom telling someone that Mr. Porter from across the street had “Old-Timer’s Disease” and didn’t know where he was anymore. One of my Mom’s friends had “Carpool Tunnel” syndrome, where her hands hurt from driving her kids everywhere, and I guess she got it going through the long tunnels that stretched to Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica. Speaking of carpools, I did actually don a swimsuit at age six when told the car with a pool would be arriving to pick me up. My brother told me when people were choking in restaurants you used Heineken Manure on them. I assumed this emergency technique used beer and horse dung and – which, like ipecac, would force the disgorgement of an offending obstruction.
Later as a collegiate, I was introduced to Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals whose memorable character, Mrs. Malaprop, had a knack for inserting contextually inappropriate words that sounded vaguely similar to appropriate ones and in doing so, created disastrous, humorous results. As a baseball player, I knew that athletes were famous for their butchered grammar and syntax. Yogi Berra made a career out of malaprops: “You guys over there, pair up in threes.” “The future ain’t what it used to be.” And my favorite was Carmen Berra telling husband Yogi, “I took (son) Tim to Dr Zhivago today.” Yogi replied, “What the hell is wrong with Tim now!”
Poor former President W was guilty of routinely felonious phrases. Nicknamed “the most misunderestimated communicator of our time,” President W was unjustly maligned. He was one tough verbalizer. To Saddam Hussein, he challenged, “You better disarm, or we will.” To Congress, he extolled, “The law I sign today directs new funds…to the task of collecting vital intelligence…on weapons of mass production.” About life with Mrs. Bush, he was rumored to muse, “We have a good time together, even when we are not together.”
As my far-off look fades, I once again turn to eight-year-old Jackie, who’s bugging me for an answer to her query on the age-old practice of “drawing quarters.” I tell her it’s too hard to explain and to go away. She persists. I finally decide to tell her about Joan of Arc and how she was burnt at the stake for being a heretic. I figure that gives her something to cut her teeth on. I explain how she was canonized and how the English and French had a history of conflict. She seems quite pleased with the explanation and runs out of the room. In the adjacent den, I hear her explain, “Mommy, I just learned about Joan from the Ark who was shot with a cannon, burned with a steak and wore armor like the knights in King Arthur. Do you know the French have problems?”
I think she got it.