The Working Waterfront

A father’s values shine light over decades

Remembering Dad’s reaction to choice word has shaped me

Phil Crossman
Posted 2019-05-15
Last Modified 2019-05-15

By Phil Crossman

We used to live in, renting, a little Cape down by the old ballfield. It was called “The Bucket,” short for “The Bucket of Blood,” something about an ancient murder or suicide, a sobering but constant and compelling reflection for a 12-year-old at any rate.

The house only had five little rooms, after all. At any moment, I was likely standing in the very spot where something horrible had happened.

A big shed stood just to the left of the house. It was my dad’s workshop. The shop was a favorite hang-out for me and for my friends. We played with his tools, particularly those we’d been forbidden to touch, cut out a lot of little boat shaped pieces of wood, fastened on pilot houses and masts and drove nails in all over to support rigging.

We built other things, too, for special occasions—stools with uneven legs and bird houses for Mother’s Day and for Father’s Day and things for Christmas.

One day I was in the shop with another boy, I don’t recall who. I don’t recall what we were doing either or anything else about that day except one thing, one huge thing. It may be that the enormity of that one thing was so great I don’t recall much else about that entire year. That one thing was so big that it has occupied me off and on ever since and now it influences my relationships with others, not a bad thing.

That one big thing was that I used a particular expletive and my father heard me. He was outside, unbeknownst to me, and nearby. He picked up the workshop, picked it up over his head, with me and my friend inside, and he ran with it, ran with the shed over his head.

He ran down the road with the shed o’er his head, ‘til he got to the harbor, about a half a mile, and there he threw it overboard with me and my friend inside to drown.

If this is not exactly what happened, it’s how I remember it and it is a fine and accurate measure of how impressed I was with his reaction to my language.

I’m mindful of that great old gospel tune “I Saw the Light.” I have in the 70 intervening years seen many—my quota, no more—memorable things: a child panicked, a woman humiliated, a heart broken, and a comrade killed. I have seen babies born, my own. I have fallen in love as though she and gravity were one thing. Still, I have never had anything so fully illuminated as my father’s revulsion at bad language and behavior.   

I’m glad he isn’t around to see the crass depths to which so many have sunk in their ineffectual efforts to express themselves in person, on social media, and, from what might otherwise be and once were, pulpits of prestige such as the presidency or governorship.  

Respected legislators used to disagree with one another regularly and effectively but with obvious mutual regard and as often as not the results were often sensible compromise. I’m reminded of Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan.

Today, they seem to assume we all communicate on a level that is typified by the empty rhetoric referred to earlier because they talk to one another in the same way and, sure enough, calls to “Lock them up” or simply calling one another names seems to carry the day among way too many of us.

How far can we ride on the shoulders of incivility? At the moment, it seems not far.

Phil Crossman lives on Vinalhaven.