My Dad had pale blue eyes and tried hard at times to hide his feelings. I think he feared they made him weak. But when you looked in his eyes they told you everything. He was a gentle man whose life was hard, but he managed to stay happy which inspired us all.
He once spanked me with a wooden hairbrush for refusing to wear a cap. I was four. I’d been given a red coat with a matching cap as a present from my Aunt Lou and Uncle Ed. We were going with them on our annual trip to the Secretary of State’s office in Springfield to pick up license plates. They gave you new plates every year back then and they were cheaper if not sent through the mail.Springfield was a little over an hour away but it seemed like a real journey. It was as far away as I had ever been.
We were dairy farmers. Dairy farmers could go anywhere they wanted as long as they left after they had finished the morning milking at 7:30 and returned by 4:30 to milk again in the evening. The Springfield license plate trip was one of the few times we went anywhere. Being gone that long meant we could eat in a restaurant. Dad liked Steak and Shake. Mom loved not having to cook. They looked forward to Springfield as much as me. But I was determined not to wear that cap.
We were all ready to go and I came out wearing the coat but no cap.
“Where’s the cap?” Mom asked.
“Can’t find it,” I said.
Mom hustled to the closet under the stairs and found it right away. I’d hidden it under the gloves and stuff on the top shelf. She put it on my head.
“I hate this cap,” I said.
It had ear flobs and a strap that snapped under my chin. I unsnapped the straps, pulled it off my head, and threw it on the floor. She picked it up and put it back on my head, snapping it firmly under my chin. I unsnapped it and threw it on the floor again without taking my eyes off her.
“You’re going to wear this cap,” she said calmly.
She put it back on my head and snapped the strap with authority. I unsnapped it, ripped it off, and slammed it to the floor hard. She stared at me. I stared back.
We heard the side door open and Dad’s voice came from the doorway.
“Let’s go. I’ve got the car warmed up. We’ve got to pick up Ed and Lou.”
“David doesn’t want to go,” Mom yelled back.
“What?” my Dad replied. I heard his steps coming up to the kitchen and through the dining room towards us. He stood before us with a look of complete surprise.
“David won’t wear his cap so I guess he doesn’t want to go to Springfield.”
“Well he’s got to go to Springfield. There’s no one here to watch him. Get him another cap.”
“No. Ed and Lou gave him that cap, it matches his coat, and he’s wearing it.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” Dad said. No matter how small a family gets it’s still hard to keep everyone happy.
My Mom remembered everything anyone ever gave us. If my Dad’s brother’s wife Doris gave me a shirt two years ago for Christmas Mom would insist I wear it when they came to visit. If her first husband’s mother gave her a set of salt and pepper shakers twenty years ago for their wedding Mom would make sure they were on the table when she came for pie and coffee. Those things were important to my Mom. My Dad knew that. He looked at Mom with those pale blue eyes and she looked back at him firmly. He looked at me and my Mom joined him in the look. I feared they would both turn against me.
“David,” Dad said, “you’re going to wear that cap.” My fear came true.
“No I’m not,” I said.
Dad picked the cap up off the floor, jammed it on my head firmly, and snapped the snap under my chin. I unsnapped the snap, took it off, and slammed it on the floor. When I saw my Dad’s face change I sensed I had made a big mistake.
He picked me up, tucked me under his arm, and carried me upstairs to the bathroom. He sat on the toilet with me still in his arms, pulled my pants down, reached in a drawer by the toilet and took out a wooden hairbrush. He put me over his knee and hit me on the butt with the back of the brush three times. I tried hard not to cry.
He held me by the shoulders and looked right at me. I looked back through tears and saw how blue his eyes really were.
“I hate doing this,” he said. “But by God you’re going to wear that cap. Now here is what’s going to happen. You’re going to walk downstairs with me, put the cap on your head, and leave it on. Then we’re going to get in the car, drive to Ed and Lou’s place, go to Springfield and have a good time. After you put the cap on we don’t have to talk about it anymore. It will just be over. You’re a good boy. Now let’s go.”
I walked downstairs and put on the cap. That was the only time my Dad ever hit me. It was nearly the only time he got angry at me. We loved each other very much.