On a cold, early-December evening in 1971, our sunken den was transformed into an arena of testosterone-driven action as my brother and I fought repeated battles of Rock ’em, Sock ’em Robots.
|The battle lines are drawn.
Grunts of victory and groans of defeat drowned out the crooning of Mom’s favorite seasonal LP, The Andy Williams Christmas Album, as it belted out a new classic from the wooden stereo console:
♪ ♫ “It’s the most wonderful time of the yearrrr!” ♫ ♪
♪♫ “With the kids jingle-belling…” ♫ ♪
♪♫ “And everyone telling you ‘Be of good cheer!'” ♫ ♪
KNOCK HIS BLOCK OFF!
♪♫ “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” ♫ ♪
“Take that!” shouted my brother, landing a sharp left jab on my square blue jaw. ZZZZZZ! cranked my robot’s ejected noggin, signaling his umpteenth demise. Who knew his plastic kisser was actually made of glass?
“Time to pay the piper!” demanded Brother, curling his hand into a noogie-fist, his middle knuckle jutting out a half inch more than the others. Deadly. A menacing look at my bruised shoulder told me he was ready to dive in and render another round of damage.
“Not fair! The blue guy’s head is looser – he never wins!” I whined in protest.
“That’s right … he’s a loser, and so are you!”
He charged me, both hands poised to noogie, and pounced, trapping my smaller frame under his weight. I must have dodged dozens of flying fists from every direction and, scrambling to escape, slipped and banged my head on the stereo. Immediately, Mr. Blue Bird from Song of the South warbled on my shoulder, with Andy in the background sounding a little dazed, himself.
♪♫ “It’s the most wonderfulmost wonderfulmost wonderfulmost” ♫ ♪
“BOYS! Get in here!” Mom’s irritation cut through the thick aroma of fried pork chops and we froze. “NOW!” She meant business. Quickly jumping up and straightening our clothes, we tossed a few more punches back and forth, then moseyed to the kitchen, bumping the stereo on the way out.
♪♫ “…wonderful time of the YEARRRR!” ♫ ♪
It was quiet when we arrived at the kitchen’s saloon doors and slowly eased our way in. A ragged buzzard perched on the deadwood outside the window, eyeballing me hungrily. We faced the hanging judge, ready for the gallows.
“Ma’am.” I nodded and tipped an invisible hat.
“Wash your hands and set the table; dinner’ll be ready in ten minutes.”
That’s it? That’s the gunfight at the O.K. Corral? Whew! I wasn’t really in a hurry to die today.
“What’s for dinner?” I said, livening up. “I smell pork chops and macaroni and cheese. Can we have applesauce with it? Pork chops and applesauce – isn’t that swell?” With my upper lip scrunched to the tops of my teeth, my impersonation of Peter Brady was right on the mark.
“Maybe,” she teased.
“Please?! Please?! Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease?”
“Yes … pork chops and applesauce.” She smiled. “Oh … that reminds me … your father’s record better not have a scratch on it or there’ll be hell to pay.”
Cue Theme from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
The good was me, of course; the bad, my brother, and the ugly? A familiar stench that overwhelmed the earlier smells of browned pork fat and now tortured my discerning nose. Cabbage. Toucan Sam had nothing on me.
“Are we having cabbage?” Please say no.
Whew! Grabbing the plates, I made my way to the dining room.
“…Brussels sprouts,” she said, finishing her thought.
“It’s okay!” I yelled, “nothing broke. I just set the stack down a little too hard.” Brussels sprouts – marvelous. The demon seed.
Dinner was over for everyone else and I still had three mini-cabbage heads mocking me from my plate. Splashes and humming could be heard in the kitchen, and while Mom washed the dishes, the other kids changed into their pajamas and piled into the den for the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz.
I only had five minutes to act, and drastic times called for drastic measures. Using the spoon’s reflective properties, I covertly scoped the scene, glancing over at my father, who shuffled his paper and occasionally peered over the top with his finish-your-plate glare.
In a bold move, I popped a whole sprout in my mouth, held my napkin over it, and let it drop into my lap and roll down my legs, where it disappeared under the table. Time was of the essence and I had to pull out the big guns from my 007 bag of tricks. Dad’s eyes slowly moved off the paper and traveled across the carpet.
With a snap and a fold, he put the paper on the table. “Young man…” he began, then, after pausing for what seemed an eternity, reached down, picked up the wayward green ball-of-trouble, plucked off a dog-hair and glared. PLOP. Back on my plate. “Go ahead and take that to your mother, let her wash your face, then get ready for bed.”
Did he mean for me to get ready and go to bed now or get ready now for bed later? It was Wizard of Oz night! No…I’m sure he meant after the movie, but I’d proceed with caution.
Doing as he said, I quickly changed and stood quietly in the arch between the dining room and the den, a meek little lamb hoping to avoid the slaughter.
“Come give us a kiss good night,” Mom said. I guess Dad meant now.
Looking at her with my meek little lamb eyes did me no good; Dad was adamant, and his word was law.
But I had a plan. I was not going to miss Wizard.
Cue Theme from Peter Gunn.
Stealthily I cracked my bedroom door and paused, holding my breath before taking a look through the teensy sliver. All clear. Creeping down the hall on all-fours, I came to the open vastness of the dining room and waited. Dad coughed, clearing his throat, and let out a grunt.
“You want a drink?” he asked Mom. My heart picked up about 30 beats per minute…he’s coming!!
Dashing over to the table, I disappeared underneath just as his feet lumbered through. Crawling up to the chair seats, I lounged on my stomach across two of them and watched tv through the holes in the white lace tablecloth. It was perfect. Dad passed back by, handed Mom her cocktail, and we all settled in to see the show.
It had reached my favorite part of the movie – the lion was about to sing!
The Courageous Case of If, Was, and Were.
The other day in conversation, I quoted from The Wizard of Oz and it took me back to that childhood memory … back to the night when the Cowardly Lion taught me a valuable lesson in grammar. That’s the reason I bore you with it today.
It was a quote using the curious phrase, “If I were…,” which sounds wrong, but is absolutely correct. Correct? I were instead of I was? Say it ain’t so! But it is.
Since I learned this technique from the Cowardly Lion, this lesson is called, “The Courageous Case of If, Was, and Were.” We sprang for nothing but the best in my attainment of an education!
The subjunctive mood, like much of the English language, has almost been butchered into non-existence. It is used in statements where the mood of the verb is speculative.
Mood of the verb? What’s that mean? In this case, the way a verb is used when applied to hypothetical statements, as in the Lion’s recitative:
“If I … were king … of the forrrreeessst,
not prince … not duke … not earl.”
And most importantly – not was.
According to traditional thought, the subjunctive verb, “were,” is always applied when discussing statements on the conditional future, although it’s much more common to find the (non-standard) use of “was.”
But just because everybody’s doing it doesn’t make it right (yet another quote and lesson I learned from my parents around the same time).
- “If I were king…” not, “If I was king.”
- “If she were really a model,” not, “If she was really a model” (she’d get a date!)
- “If wishes were horses (poor men would ride).”
The other pronouns, “you,” “he,” “she,” and “it” follow suit and use “were.” “We” and “they” definitely use “were,” as they are plural and “was” would be non-standard.
If I were you and was facing this dilemma (notice the two different, correct uses of the verb), I’d simply remember the song Bert Lahr taught us.
The Big Cat had it right.
What is a grammatical road block that you’ve faced, and what specific instance can you remember that finally taught the lesson? What tricks do you use to figure out quandaries like this? Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated? Bacon and eggs or pancakes?
Photo credits: Eyeliam and Jeff Sandquist, Creative Commons