by Gary Spina
(Copyright 2013 by Gary Spina)
From my earliest boyhood days, I remember my mother telling me how to handle questions from nosey neighbors. I was four years old when she began drilling it into my little hard head.
“No matter what they ask, just answer: ‘I don’t know’ – even if you do know. If they ask, how much money does your father make, you answer, ‘I don’t know.’ Was that your mother and father I heard fighting last night? You answer, ‘I don’t know.’”
As my mother told me this, she smiled sweetly, somewhat embarrassed to be teaching her son to lie. She was a Sicilian/ French-Canadian mother and a devout Catholic.
“So, what did you have for dinner last night?” she asked me.
“We had beans and macaroni, Mom,” I answered — to which my mom whacked the back of my little hard head trying to smack some sense into me.
“How are you supposed to answer?” she demanded.
But I was confused. “I don’t know,” I said.
“Very good,” she smiled.
My mother was a life-long Republican; my father was a life-long Democrat. At four years old I wasn’t partial to either political party, and but for my friend Piker Matheson I may never have made the choice. But anything associated with Piker Matheson was an adventure in lost innocence.
From boyhood, and for all of his adult life, Piker was a walking dirt-bomb. I, at least, took a bath every Saturday night, but there were days when even I tried to avoid Piker and the consequences of any concomitant contact with him. Still Piker was my friend, ever steadfast, ever true.
On a typical day we would start off innocent enough at Piker’s house with his mom wiping the breakfast and last night’s supper off his face, and washing his hands with a wet dishtowel. We were boys, free, incorrigible, and willful — engaged and absorbed in our favorite pursuit — playing in the dirt.
That fateful day we were in Piker’s backyard stacking rocks and piling on mounds of dirt for mountains. We were scraping earth with an old discarded shoehorn and digging hollows for gullies and swampland. We were playing “Little Cars and Trucks, pushing our stick-vehicles along our tangle of earthworks. In our free-ranging fancy, the grass all around our roadways had magically transformed into a vast uncharted woodland.
When we switched to playing “Pirates and Ships,” that same expanse of green grass had changed itself into a rolling ocean where we pushed our stick-boats through the swelling sea crests. And the world around us swooned in a wondrous whirl, all of it real – all of it filling our emotions – swelling our chests, our hearts, our heads. This was the world of poor boys without toys, and we loved every minute of it.
And there on our knees as we played, came Piker Matheson’s question out of nowhere.
“Are you Cat-lick?” Piker asked. I, of course, remembered what my mother had told me.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
“Well, I’m Cat-lick and Dem-crat,” Piker said solemnly.
I guess my pride was hurt because it seemed then that Piker knew something I didn’t know about the grown-up world. Secretly I knew I was Catholic, but my parents were divided in their politics. I was confused and suddenly angry, and now I wanted to get back at my little friend.
“Okay, Piker – you be Cat-lick, I be Publican!” I proclaimed. And, by God’s good graces, a Republican I remained. That is, until I grew older, until I became unconfused – until I couldn’t find an ounce of honesty in Washington, D.C., or a wit of difference between the two parties.
And now-a-days, if you ask me, I’ll tell you straight up: I’m a Constitutionalist. I like keeping my government small and my politics uncomplicated, forthright, and clean. I’ll tell you America was a better place when there were Cat-licks, Publicans, and even Dem-crats – when once in a while you got a good whack to the back of your head when you weren’t listening to your mother.