HONOR YOUR WORD
By Aureleo Rosano 9/29/2016
Instilled in us as kids, was the idea of doing what you’ve said you would do. Childhood stories and conversations with adults stressed the importance of honoring your word … “a bargain is a bargain.” “A promise is a promise.”
Nine years old. Fourth grade. Owner of a ballpoint pen, a relatively new device back then, almost 70 years ago. This was not an ordinary, run-of-the-mill ballpoint pen. No, no, no. This was a special, magical, hi-tech ballpoint pen which could write in Technicolor … four colors actually, red, green, blue, and black. That meant my doodle and scribbles were far more colorful than any other doodles and scribbles in the fourth grade at least, possibly in that entire elementary school.
My small, but dazzling, multicolored scribbles attracted the eyes and attention of Larry, the kid whose desk sat nearest to mine in class. He asked about the pen and I demonstrated its capabilities. Could he try it? Sure he could … and I explained how to position the individual color supplies for writing. After writing for a minute or two, he asked if he could buy the pen. I shook my head ‘no’ and said I couldn’t get another one. Larry offered some coins as payment, then quickly doubled the amount and then added to that. Again, I shook my head. Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out a small penknife, about 2½ inches long, a knife of fine manufacture, perhaps a Kabar or Solingen. Holding the penknife in his open palm, he said “Even trade?” Taking the knife and opening its two small blades, I tested one on the hairs of my left arm. Then closing the blades, I shrugged saying “OK, even trade” and offered my hand. We shook hands, with Larry grinning, then saying “Even Steven, dummy. What a sucker!” I kept quiet, never having owned a penknife of my own before this.
In our house in Connecticut, down in the basement, behind the furnace and plumbing, was a secret hiding place I used occasionally and that’s where I stashed this beautiful little penknife after wrapping it in a sock on which I had poured a little olive oil (what other oil would an Italian-American kid use).
Two or three days later, on a Friday, Larry said “My Mom says we have to trade back. So give me the knife. Here’s the pen.” He tried to give me the pen, but I put my hands behind my back saying “I don’t have the knife with me, so you keep the pen and I keep the knife.” Larry replied with “Bring the knife next Monday.” I said nothing. He repeated “Bring the knife next Monday … or else.” No response from me. This Larry guy was not a close friend, just a classmate, and seemed like an OK guy, but he had just threatened me with his “or else.” My guess was the following Monday, after school, “or else” would actually happen because there was no way the penknife would get to school that day. No other human on earth knew my hiding place. My nearly new penknife was secure.
Not often as a kid, rarely in fact, I would get unmovingly obstinate in a situation and “all the King’s horses and all the King’s men” could not get me to move from a position I had taken. This became one of those times.
School ended that day with one more warning from Larry. The weekend was ordinary, not tense for me, as might be expected. I had had threats before and had been in a number of fights, almost half of which I won, whatever that means, and all of which resulted in both people hurting, not just me, usually by far, the smaller of the two combatants.
Monday arrived as expected. Larry arrived at school as expected, too. The penknife stayed home from school that day. Larry, from his desk, separated from mine by eighteen inches or so, said “OK, let’s have the knife.” Me: “That’s not going to happen.” Larry: “I’m going to beat the shit out of you right after school.” Me (repeating a line I had heard somewhere): “Then you can gather up that shit, stick it in your hat, and pull it over your ears.” Larry, being twice my size, towered over me when he stood up, holding his clenched fist up in the air. Our teacher, Miss Chatham, immediately shouted “Larry!” He lowered his fist. She continued “What is going on here?” Larry explained truthfully, we had traded a a knife for a ballpoint pen a few days before. His mother said he had to trade back and this little turd wouldn’t do it. Approaching, Miss Chatham, said “Oh, such nonsense! Trade back right now and everything will be the same as it was.” I just sat still, did not try to protest or explain or use any logic or mention that I didn’t have the knife with me. I just ‘clammed up’, already sensing this was going to be ‘one of those times.’ After a too short interval, this teacher looked at me and said, “Well, go ahead, let’s get this over with.” I stayed still. Again … “Well?” I continued to sit, but now I slowly moved my head from side to side, meaning ‘no’. I honestly believed Miss Chatham was stunned, taking several steps backward. While I had little fear of facing Larry, there was substantial fear in facing an agitated teacher, but I remained outwardly unmoved, I think. Miss Chatham walked to the front of the classroom (from whence I guessed she would make an ‘example’ of me). She surprised me by telling the class to please open the reader to page 14 and read silently while she took “these two boys” to the Principal’s Office.
Oh Brother, here we go. I had been to the Principal’s office two years before and had no pleasant memories of that business. As we walked down the hallway, the three of us, there was little conversation. Two people now were angry with me and soon it would be three. The Principal, a tall, bony woman, was a scary apparition. A teacher being irritated was one thing, but a pissed-off Principal was quite another. The whole classroom confrontation was repeated with me remaining mostly silent. Larry then explained that the penknife was a gift from his aunt, his mother’s sister, and his mother insisted this trade be reversed. The Principal sympathized, saying “Oh, your aunt would be so disappointed if you couldn’t have the knife she gave you. So let’s trade back and everything will be OK, do we all agree?” Everyone now smiling, nodding their heads ‘yes’, while I stand alone, saying nothing, staying still. Now she asked the question of me alone, “Do we agree?” Moving my head slowly from side to side, I signaled ‘no, we don’t agree’. She then rather gruffly told me to sit down, sent the others away, and said, “If we can’t solve this problem in fifteen minutes, I will have to call your mother. Do you know how much trouble you’re causing? Do you know how many people will be disappointed with you? Do you realize how much extra work and bother this will be for your mother?” I sat silently. After an interval, the Principal said “Last chance.” I remained silent. Time passed.
READER’S NOTE: From the initial discussion with Larry the previous Friday, and through the classroom actions with Miss Chatham and at the Principal’s Office, so many thoughts and reactions were fermenting in my mind, but I voiced very little except for that “shit in your hat” response to Larry, which, at the time, I thought clever enough to be out in the open air for all to enjoy. I felt Larry was a bit on the stupid side trading a good penknife for a cheap ballpoint pen. As far as getting into a fight with Larry … if that big jackass so much as touched me, we would fight fairly … but only after I kicked him in the balls, which I fully intended to do. As far as Larry’s mother was concerned, I thought she should just butt out and mind her own business. I felt Miss Chatham, whom I usually liked, was just plain wrong and should have told the two of us to settle our difference somewhere other than her classroom. The Principal, however, scared the crap out of me, but by the end of our non-conversation, I was no longer thinking and reasoning. Having ‘clammed up’, I had also silently and secretly shifted into a ‘stand your ground’ mode which meant there was no turning back, which meant there would be no meaningful communication with anyone, which meant there was no good solution to this situation. This was going to be painful and that was that. I did so strongly want to curse mightily at all the participants, but being an Altar Boy (with all the implanted ‘holy’ nonsense) prevented me from really mouthing off effectively (I would begin to practice my cussing a few years later). END NOTE.
Though it required at least 15 minutes to walk from our house to the school, it seemed suddenly, my mother was alongside me in the Principal’s office and there was little doubt in my mind, emphasized by the excessively firm grip with which my arm was being squeezed, that she was aggravated beyond anything logical (I had seen this before). Mom, already informed of the circumstances, looked directly at me with the fiery glare only she could muster. In her unmistakable tight-lipped manner, but at the same time trying to act in a civilized manner while in front of the Principal, she instructed me, in no uncertain words, to reverse this trade which had caused all this unnecessary commotion. But I was in the non-compliance realm, and any consequences were not up for consideration. I shook my head ‘no’. Mom then said, probably more loudly than she intended, “Wait ’till you get home, Buster, I’ll fix your wagon, but good! Let’s go!”
Keeping score, I had one classmate wanting to beat me up, and, ready to strangle me were at least three adults (those big people hanging around who had all the power, but who could be so illogical and unreasonable). I hadn’t yet met Larry’s mother or aunt and while unsure of their positions, I could guess. On the walk home, as soon as we were out of sight of the school, my sweet little Mom delivered three or four good solid wallops and immediately after arriving home … three or four more. This had not been a fun Monday and there were a few more hours remaining. I tried to keep as low a profile as possible. My father would come home from a long day at his beauty shop, and supper had yet to be prepared, occupying one very irritated woman. When she had a minute where nothing on the stove might overcook, Mom asked me in a falsely kind and almost gentle voice, “just how big is this penknife?” I spread my thumb and forefinger about 2½ inches apart. She continued “… and just where is this knife?” Well, I wouldn’t fall for that trick … not after all the tension and misery I had invested. I whispered very, very quietly, “It’s a secret.” She blew her cork, but went back to supper preparation after pointing a large, threatening, wooden spoon at me.
Eventually my father arrived and we had a quiet supper. As the meal ended, my mom brought up the afternoon’s disturbance, describing what a stubborn kid they had, and her voice growing louder, how embarrassing the whole situation was, and on and on, and as her voice became louder yet, she said, “This kid is like a block of stone.”
Understand that my father was always a peacemaker, a compromiser if possible. With that wonderful Italian accent which he kept for his entire life here in the US, he asked a question …
READER’S NOTE: I will try to approximate that accent, but know it was a beautiful thing to hear, far better than I can possibly mimic by typing. END NOTE.
… “So you makea deal wid dissa kid Larry, fair ana square?” I nodded ‘yes’. “Anybody playa tricks or notta tella the trute?” I said “No tricks, no lies.” “You guysa shakea hands ona dissa deal?” I nodded ‘yes’ and said. “We shook hands and then Larry laughed at me and called me a dummy, a sucker.” I wasn’t sure if my father reacted to that statement or not. I thought I detected the tiniest flinch, or a fleeting squint, but maybe that was just my wishful thinking (he was a pretty good poker player). Anyway, I wasn’t sure. Maybe a whole minute passed while we sat. A silent minute lasts much longer than a normal minute, for sure. Finally, he quietly cleared his throat and said softly, “Iffa you wanna givea the knifea back, atza OK, but you donna have to … a deal issa deala … you musta respecta the deal and dissa Larry, he musta too, respecta dissa deal.” So that was it. The word. The solution. Mom started to say “… but Jim (my father’s nickname) …” Dad interrupted, saying, “Listen … iffa we forcea him to tradea back, nobody learna da lesson, nobody learna anyting. Dissa way, everybody learna someting … you givea your worda, you keepa da worda … no matter.”