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Three Things I Learned the Hard Way

February 22nd, 2008 by Jeff Simmermon

Looking Interesting and Looking Good are Potentially Very Different Things. Exhibit A, college, 1998:

me-skullbaby-WestVA

Some lessons you learn immediately — it hits you in a flash and you carry them forever. Like when Dad takes a belt to your ass in front of America’s forefathers. Other lessons come to you slowly, looong after the fact and you just kind feel this lingering aftereffect for months, sort of like the universe itself kicked you in the bag an hour ago. The worst part’s long over, but you keep that uneasy stomach pain for a long, long time.

Don’t Run Into the House

We got to the party at half- past fashionably late, guts sloshing with pre-game bourbon. The night was really really foggy and dark — so was the house hosting the party, we thought. Me and my friends stood there on the porch banging on the door for forever and an hour more and two of them said “Crap, we forgot the beer” and went to get it out of the car. I went out into the yard to think for a second and saw the light from the house next door spilling out into the yard, heard the laughter and the Skynrd on the stereo.

That’s pretty much how a Science Museum party went in Richmond, at least in my experience.

“Hey, we got the wrong house!” I yelled, pointing — “It’s over there, the door’s wide open!” I saw my boss in there and jogged toward the house, planning to burst into the open entryway and grab him in a sloppy tackle. We’d gone to college together, and while he’d told me what to do back then, too, the commands were more like “find me something to clean this bowl out with.” He could take a tackle, I figured.

Except.


While the front door was wide open, the glass storm door was not — it was cleaned and gleaming, invisible from most angles. I walked through it like it wasn’t even there, entering the party with a crunching, shattering sound, spraying glass and blood and glass covered in my blood all over the living room and its occupants. According to my friends who were behind me with the forgotten beer, I actually made a Jeff-shaped hole in the door, Wile E. Coyote-style.

There were a bunch of shallow cuts all over the surface of my freshly-shaven head, glazing my face in a bloody sort of Krispy-Kreme-meets-’Carrie’ look, and one nasty gash at the base of my thumb that sort of squirted and dripped into the carpet. Other than that, I was fine. “Oh, man, I am SO sorry,” I said, “it looks like I’m bleeding all over your carpet. Can I borrow a dishrag or something to tie this thing off with?”

People tap me on the shoulder at work and I jump every time. I think that people are conspiring against me to get a better salad faster than mine at Whole Foods. But if I nick an artery with a shard of glass that I’ve just broken with my face, I can keep it together. Someone took me to the hospital, I got stitched up, everything was fine.

Best entrance ever, though.

Never, Ever, Under Any Circumstances, Tell Fred Simmermon to Shut Up

In the summer of 1987, me, my grandparents, sister and parents all packed into a massive beige station wagon and drove to Yellowstone from Herndon, Virginia. I know where you think this is going, but it was actually really fun at the time.

Except.

We were all staying in a cabin without enough beds somewhere near Mount Rushmore the night before, my father and I sleeping on the hard tile floor, using bath towels as miserable mattresses and more bath towels as pathetic pillows. It was hot, we were all exhausted, nobody could sleep. Somewhere around 2 am, my sister broke out in the chicken pox.

The next morning, we packed up and headed home: two parents, two grandparents, a sick, itchy little girl and a precocious, grumpy me in the far back seat facing backwards at the flat plains vanishing into the distance. My dad had been going on and on about the historic significance of individual pebbles by the roadside for hours, it felt like, and then really amped it up when we passed Mount Rushmore.

Mount Rushmore is a bullshit monument no matter how you look at it — the four biggest, whitest people ever carved right into the face of sacred Indian land and the work crew didn’t even clean up after themselves after the blasting. There’s just rubble lying all over the place there old rubble, too, but this is hardly Leonardo’s pencil shavings.

Anyway, it was hot, I had a headache, nobody had slept and my dad was carrying on about the magnificence of this and that, and I just shouted from the back seat, “OH CHRIST, DAD WOULD YOU JUST SHUT UP FOR A MINUTE?”

I don’t remember the car screeching or fishtailing or anything. I just remember the car being at a dead stop by the side of the road and a horrible silence so tremendous I could hear the swirling road dust settling on the car.

“Excuse me, Jeffrey?” my father said. “I thought for a second there that you told me to shut up. Would you care to repeat yourself?”

“Uh, I uh, all I said, uh, was, could you please, uh, I have such a headache …” I stammered, revising, trying to fix it somehow.

“Actually, I don’t think that’s what you said at all, Jeffrey. Get out of the car. Now,” he ordered.

I was actually sort of relieved when my dad leaped out of the drivers’ seat and stormed back to me. I was sure that he was just going to drive off after I got out, leaving me to forage in the woods and take shelter in one of Abe Lincoln’s gaping nostrils.

“Put your hands on the bumper,” he said. I did, almost by remote control, turning my head to consider the noble visages of our founding fathers. I remember the belt crashing against the backs of my knees and thighs, and it freaking hurt, sure. I remember crying, but mostly out of relief and a small sense of obligation.

My greatest fear, all through childhood, was that I’d be abandoned by the side of the road, with nobody to help me and nothing to read. Even though my parents and grandparents assured me that this would never happen, I knew that everyone has their breaking point — and I was convinced there, for a few horrible moments, that I’d stumbled across my dad’s. My dad’s one of the most loving, patient guys you could ever know. While my sister and I were spanked as kids, it was never out of sheer anger or frustration. It was usually, until that moment, a calm, measured decision made rationally long after whatever I’d done was over and Dad got home from work. He didn’t enjoy swinging that belt much more than I did, I knew that.

Except for maybe that day. I look back at that moment from an adult perspective, and I’m amazed my grandpa didn’t hold me down while my dad amputated one of my limbs with a pocketknife and throw it to the coyotes.

Things were quiet and weird in the car for a few hours, my grandma clucking under her breath and muttering how in her day, they’d have amputated my leg and thrown it to the coyotes, and then eventually I cried myself to sleep. When I woke up, it was suppertime. We all got out of the car and my dad held me back for a second. “I didn’t like doing that, Jeffrey, but it’s over now, okay? I still love you, even though I was mad for a minute there. I loved you when I was mad at you, too. You’re never going to talk to me that way again, and that’s that — let’s move on and have dinner together, okay?”

I learned a lot of stuff from that asswhipping, a lot about love and forgiveness and how sometimes when you take two seconds to demand some respect, you get it for the rest of your natural-born life.

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