Father knows best (or you’re grounded)

One of the very first things I did when I was 16 years old and had gotten my driver’s license was to take my parents’ Ford Maverick and back it out of our driveway and into the catering truck that was parked across the street. I had had my driver’s license about 24 hours. The caterers were at that moment in our kitchen.

“You backed out of our driveway and smacked into a parked car?” my father asked, his voice more incredulous than angry, when I brought him to a quiet hallway in our house to tell him what I had done. Given the crowd of guests in our living and dining rooms, I had the instinctive good sense to break the news to my dad and not my mom.

A parked truck,” I corrected him. “Actually, a parked van.”

“Is there any damage?”

This was when automobile manufacturers actually put solid bumpers on cars, and so while the Ford Maverick wasn’t exactly a Sherman tank, the side of the van looked like a spoon. “There is,” I said, “but I’m sure the caterers can still drive it just fine.” I think I thought I was putting a good spin on a bad situation. Then the two of us went outside and surveyed the carnage.

My father put his arm around my shoulder and said in his best Cliff Huxtable fashion, “Well, no one was hurt. That’s good. Let’s go tell them.”

To this day I have always been grateful that he used a first person plural: Let us. He stood beside me when I went back into the kitchen to explain to the husband and wife who were catering that party that I had just put a serious ding into the side of their van.

I don’t recall the details of whether the caterers put in an insurance claim or whether my parents simply paid for the dent to be repaired. But I do know that what felt like a pretty big chunk of the money I earned that August caddying at the nearby country club — my summer job for two glorious years — went directly to my parents. I was never grounded or punished or lost my car privilege as a result of that bit of mind-numbing negligence; I simply had to pay for what I had done.

As a matter of fact, I don’t recall ever being grounded or punished by my father.

But — and this is an important but — he was capable of grounding a child. He grounded my older brother all the time, including something incredible like two-thirds of one July and August when my brother was 13 or 14 years old. I don’t remember precisely what my brother did to start the period of solitary confinement, but it began with something minor and perhaps a mere two days home internment. But it escalated quickly as my brother kept talking back to our dad:

DAD: You want a third day, Smarty Pants? Say one more word.

BROTHER: One more word.

DAD: Fine, you’re grounded three days. Want a week? Open your mouth again.

BROTHER (mouth wide open): Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

DAD: Good, you just got a week.

My brother made the most of his time indoors. He used a seven iron to practice his golf stroke in his bedroom and created a half-dozen divots in the carpet.

I mention this so you know that our father wasn’t a softie. By the time I was an adolescent, he may have been too exhausted by my older brother to bother to ground me or my infractions weren’t worth the nuclear option of being grounded. Or I may simply have been a better politician than my brother. Or had less spine.

In any case, I am very glad I had the father I had. My brother is, too — even if he didn’t need a whole lot of sunblock one summer long ago.

Happy Father’s Day.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on June 21, 2009.)

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