I spit, gagged, kicked, twisted, torqued, snarled and finally squealed, “I won’t.”
But that wasn’t enough. Grammy jammed the bar of Ivory soap beyond my teeth. I clamped my jaws like a vise and then Mom’s fingertips dug into my mouth and she pried and I bit and she screamed, “Damnit,” then dug harder and my jaws weakened, gave and the bar of soap lodged against my tongue.
My mouth drowned in the bitter bubbles and to this day the taste of soap turns my stomach and I have to fight to keep from vomiting.
But giving in wasn’t enough. They dangled me over the kitchen sink and “washed my mouth out” several times as Grammy scolded, “I’m going to cure those vulgarities and teach you your medicine.”
I promised, I promised and I promised to never, ever, say that word again.
Recently, while washing my hands for the n’teenth time in a single day, the sudden scent of hand soap yanked that memory into my brain.
I think I was five, and we lived south of the railroad tracks on Beech Street, a potholed dirt road lined with older adobes, some newer homes and here and there, a puny cottonwood tree.
Down on the corner where Beech met Burgess sat a vacant lot with scrawny mesquites and holes and pits us children dug for forts and other things, like finding China.
A gang of local kids had gathered with their dogs—black and white Australian shepherds and brindle faced pit bulls, a German shepherd, some mongrels.
Some of the older boys began to stir the dogs with sticks and rocks and a cur fight ensued: growling, ferocious barks, the pit bull dragging the German shepherd around by a back leg.
A lot of swear words got tossed around. Some I’d heard Dad speak out in the backyard, like when he yelled, “Goddamn it,” when the mean red ants climbed up his legs and stung him, or the time he told Mom, “This is a bunch of shit,” when they decided to kill and pluck the coops full of fryers that Mom wanted to raise. He was a great one for “Jesus H. Christ,” and “Damn it all to hell,” around the house but if he ventured any further into vulgarity, Mom stomped her foot and shouted, “Dale!”
Most of the words those boys down on the corner tossed around like baseballs were well worn, but there was a new one and for some reason it sang to me. Nothing, at that moment, particularly remarkable about it—except I liked it–a word that years later I would come to understand was about as basic, and useful, an example of Anglo-Saxon-influenced modern English as one could get.
It was the “f” word and I elbowed right into the middle of the older boys and we were ”f-ing” this and “f-ing” them and “f-ing” that.
My sister, almost five years my senior, sauntered down the street to get me because lunch was on the table and the first words out of my mug were “fuck you,” and thus I ended with my offensive mug in the kitchen sink and my mouth full of Ivory soap and my butt busted, too. I remember Mother announcing, for the first of many times throughout my life, “Only ignorant people talk like that.”
And you’d think I’d have learned and maybe I did for a short time but later that year, the first of September, my Uncle Les came down from the Valley with his side-hammered twelve-gauge shotgun that was longer than he was tall, and he and my father collected shotgun shells, bird vests, water and Coors.
They asked me if I wanted to “bird dog.”
That had never happened before so I, raring to go dog those birds, jumped between them in the 1950 red pickup with the green and red and black and white Texaco logo on both doors. We rode south of town and pulled into a mesquite thicket next to an irrigation sump and a field of maize. They ordered me to settle beneath a tree about twenty yards away from where they hid so the doves wouldn’t see them.
The sun boiled and my sweat ran and they sipped on cold beers and father smoked a Lucky Strike and Uncle Les puffed on his pipe and I leaned to listen and a lot of the words that came across the empty space to me were words not to be said in our household, most prominently that “f” word.
When their utterances hit my ears it shocked me and then it dismayed me and I worried about Uncle Les and Father’s souls because Grammy told me about hell and the rewards I’d get there if I didn’t change. I feared Uncle Les and Father were too old to change.
Then the doves started flying and Uncle Les and Dad started banging and I started running, hustling the dead birds, yanking their heads off to make sure they didn’t come to and run or fly. The “f” words flew more often than the blasts from the guns. As the words battered my eardrums I let the rhythm of the music—and there was a curious tune in that word, smooth “u” and hard “k”—add a visceral lyricism to my vocabulary that might come in handy when I needed to accomplish something special, a warning, a dose of derision, a moment of shared inside humor.
I also learned something else, or at least had it emphasized: the rules were only for certain folks and places and situations. No matter what somebody said about “don’t do this and don’t do that,” there was a time and place for almost anything, either good or bad, including the “f” word.
Over the years it’s been more acceptable for folks to employ the word and not just men out hunting doves on the first day of September. But women and politicians, too. And the expletive’s frequency litters millions of conversations and sometimes it seems, too liberally.
But as I learned from the Marine Corps drill instructors in Boot Camp, the word can be used in almost any situation, whether the goal is to amuse, frighten, motivate, marvel at or intimidate.
I have a notion that the word, eight or nine hundred years ago in England, wasn’t relegated to the class of folks who my mother called “ignorant.” It was, I suspect, just another Anglo-Saxon word that described something people, cattle, dogs and toads performed to meet their obligations.
But in the 11th Century, folks who spoke Anglo-Saxon went from a sovereign nation to a downtrodden, defeated class. The Norman French invaded in 1066, defeating Harold Godwinson’s English army, and made their French dialect the official language. Subsequently, a lot of those old Anglo-Saxon words were thrown in the metaphorical trash bin labeled “vulgar,” spoken only by the defeated.
I recall some twenty or so years ago attending a lecture for writers where our guest speaker, the author Gerald Haslam, answered a question about language and how it was changing, with the notion that languages are alive and as such, they grow and add words.
He reminded us that a large portion of the world speaks Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian—all languages that grew out of Latin. He said, “If languages didn’t grow and change, all those people would still be speaking like Julius Caesar.”
So, maybe what’s happening with the “f” word is that as time goes on and our language continues to morph, the word will worm its way into a lingo much more acceptable among all classes of English speakers even the folks for whom rules don’t matter.
As for me, I’ve used it widely for more than those moments where I kneel beneath mesquite trees waiting for the dove