Friday, March 4, 2011

Still Life with Robin: F-Bombs Away!

by Peggy Robin

I was watching the Oscars last Sunday, which I found more boring than usual (and that means really, really dull), except for one lively moment when Melissa Leo,in accepting the Best Supporting Actress award, dropped the F-bomb. She was bleeped, of course, but that got me thinking about a couple of times in the past when a well-placed F-bomb was just what was needed to shake the audience up a bit. 

My first story on this theme begins with my father, a World War II combat veteran, who, like most of his fellow soldiers, got in the habit of putting the F-word into every other sentence. Shot through the hand at the Battle of the Bulge, he was shipped to an army hospital in England, where, for many weeks surgeons considered amputation. After several operations, the hand was spared, although for the rest of his life it was frozen in a claw-like position. When he reentered civilian life with his paralyzed hand, he kept the F-word on active duty in his vocabulary, at least for the first few years after the war's end. It may have functioned as something of a verbal pain-reliever for him; in any case, no one begrudged him the privilege of using it.

He did what millions of ex-GIs did in those years: He married, had kids, and moved to the suburbs.  His son (my older brother) was three and I was one at the time our family unpacked at our new home in Great Neck on Long Island. Like any three-year-old, my brother was picking up all kinds of new words every day. And at least one interesting one from his dad.

We were in our new house less than a week when we had a visitor, a middle-aged lady in a fancy hat and white gloves. She introduced herself to my mother and said she had come to welcome us to the neighborhood.  My mother asked her in and offered her tea, which she accepted -- so I will call her Mrs. T.

Before she sat down, Mrs. T. looked around the house as if judging the quality of the furnishings, and then proceeded to tell my mother her concern over the large numbers of new families buying homes in Great Neck, and how unfortunate it would be if the "wrong sort of people" were to start moving in. My mother, who from the age of 18 had worked for a few different civil rights/civil liberties organizations, got the distinct impression that Mrs. T was speaking in code, with "wrong sort" meaning "non-white." But for some reason she decided (uncharacteristically) not to get into an argument and said very little as Mrs. T gushed on about the neighborhood and everything that made it so refined and superior to other places.

All during the visit, as they had their tea, my brother had been sitting quietly by the living room window, staring at something outside the glass. At some point Mrs. T commented, "My, what a lovely, well-behaved little boy you have!"  At that exact moment, my brother, pointing at the very large bumblebee that he'd been watching from his seat inside, exclaimed in a loud voice, "Would you look at that f-----g bee!"

Mrs. T all but collapsed in horror. My mother had a hard time suppressing a laugh. Mrs. T quickly made her excuse to leave, and never came to visit again.

Fast forward about eight years: Our family is now in Atlanta, having moved there in 1959. My parents, native New Yorkers both, never quite adjusted to the "genteel" culture of the south.  My friends' parents were all very proper, and would never dream of saying "hell" or "damn" in front of their children, much less anything saltier. Perhaps once or twice I asked my mother to watch her language in front of my friends; it was embarrassing, I complained. My mother pointed out, more than a few times, that these people who are so shocked to hear swear words think nothing of using the N-word. (I have avoided writing the actual word but should add that there was no euphemism for it in those days). What makes a word offensive? she challenged me. Why didn't I object when my friends used a racist epithet, something hurtful and vile, instead of focusing on a word that is simply coarse but really quite harmless?

I knew she was right on principle, but to my nine-year-old way of thinking, principles were far less important than fitting in. My mother, a hard-charging civil rights worker, was not concerned with fitting in, at any point in her life, but especially not when "fitting in" meant going along with the rules of the still highly segregated South.

My friend, Cheryl, on the other hand, lived in one of those perfectly conventional Old South families, with a stay-at-home mom (that is, a housewife, in 60s parlance) and a father whom she always addressed as "sir."  They said grace before every meal and all went to church together on Sundays. And there was never any swearing in that house, I was sure of that.

One day she came over to me on the playground at recess and said she'd like to tell me a joke she'd heard. She said she didn't get it, but thought I might be able to explain it to her.

Okay, I said, and then she asked, "What starts with F and ends with U-C-K?" Before I could supply the four-letter answer, she delivered the punchline: "Firetruck."

I laughed and she said, "Now tell me why that's funny."

"It's funny because you think the answer is going to be..." and then it hit me: She had never heard the F-word before. So I said it.

"What does that mean?" she asked.

So I told her, or at any rate, described to her to the best of my very limited understanding, the mechanics of the physical act for which the verb was used. The purpose of the activity, I added helpfully, was to produce a baby.

Her eyes went wide. I could see she had previously known only the stork version of how children came into the world. After a few seconds of staring at me in shock, she finally reacted, sputtering, "My parents don't do that!"

I didn't argue with her. About a week later she came back to me on the playground and pulled me aside, speaking close to my ear and telling me in a tense whisper, "You know that thing you said that a man and a woman do to make a baby.... I think you're right. I overheard my parents saying something that made me think, um, they do it."

So you see the F-word does actually convey its literal meaning, every once in a great while. More often than not, though, it's simply an intensifier, like jabbing a finger in the air to make a point. If overused, it becomes tiresome, easy to ignore. If used sparingly, though, it keeps its punch. It can jolt people out of their comfort zone, as it did in the 50's for Mrs. T. It can shock someone out of a stork-filled fairy-tale view of the world, as it did to my friend Cheryl in the 60's. Or it can give a little kick to an otherwise humdrum awards show, as it did at the Oscars in 2011.

1 comment:

  1. There's the schoolyard joke that introduced many to the word and its meaning as it was passed around: "If you see Kay, tell her I need her."

    And my favorite knock-knock joke:

    Knock, knock
    Who's there?
    Argo who?
    Argo f___yourself

    the Marlins, collectively