I would not describe my father as a stern man, but he was definitely strict. He had very clear ideas about what was wrong and right and on which side he stood. I learned early on the great value of complying with his expectations in regard to moral behavior. Well, in fact, in regard to all types of behavior. He was opposed to all forms of conduct which conflicted with the teachings of scripture but he particularly hated lying. There was no matter of such little consequence that it was okay to lie.
In spite of my clear recollection of his strictness, I can only recall a single incident when he actually spanked me. I was twelve and it was barely deserved but deserved nonetheless. My only explanation for my perception of his strictness and the low volume of recall on specific incidents is that I must have learned the notion of compliance at such an early age that those voluminous abuses were phased or fazed from memory.
There was one glorious exception, though, when I was nine years old.
It was the summer of ’64, about the month of June, I believe but possibly July. Perhaps the zenith of my entire life in terms of significant accomplishment.
That afternoon, I was fishing by myself at the pond. It was northeast of the house, maybe a tenth of a mile away. Using Dad’s old bait-casting reel, I caught a three-pound catfish. I was both delirious with joy and terrified when I pulled that fish out of the pond. It was nearly two-feet long and twice as big as any fish I’d ever seen before. I drug him through the grass up to the old brick house and put him in a washtub and filled it with water. Dad was not home at the time but when he got home, he was quite impressed. Dad loved to fish and hunt and to see that his nine-year-old kid had caught a fish like that appear to please him as nothing else I had ever done.
That night, in spite of being the smallest kid on the field, I hit a double in a Little League game at Elkton. He was pretty pleased about that, too. But, he also learned something at the game about which he was not pleased.
When we got home, I went out back to the washtub to admire my fish some more. Dad followed me over. After a minute of admiration, he said, very quietly, “Malcolm Oates told me tonight that you have to be ten years old to play Little League.”
My heart sank like a brick in a bucket of oatmeal, really thin oatmeal. I’m sure he heard me gulp. “Did you lie about how old you were when you signed up?” I answered palely, “Yes, sir,” and waited to hear the sound of him unbuckling his belt. I heard nothing.
We both stood there for another three days or thirty seconds, I’m still not sure which. Then he said, “That sure is some fish,” and turned and walked off into the house, whistling softly.
I’m still not sure what it was that prompted him to forego his absolute inflexible practice of due compensation for crimes committed. For the rest of my life, though, I will believe that he just could not bring himself to end such a glorious day as that with anything other than letting us both go to bed with far better memories.
Ever since then, I have been pretty well aware that there is a time for justice and a time for mercy. Also, I’ve never lied about my age since then and I can still remember the image of us both standing by that old tub, that catfish suspended in the water, tail touching one side and his whiskers touching the other. And the sight of that baseball going clear over the second baseman’s head.