Read Old Man Scanlon

The Howitzer and Other Lessons

May 2008

It was a bad week. My granddaughter had a sheet of third grade spelling homework on which appeared:

Wilson Rule - 2.2 - Digraph Blend - a digraph which makes one sound blended with a third consonant making it's own sound

I asked myself, all snide and snarky, as my blood pressure rose, "Is it any wonder kids these days can't spell?" Then the irony endorphins hit, and I relaxed and forced a rueful semi-smile. Next day my grandson, a fifth-grader, came in with some social studies homework:

We discussed Magellan's voyage around the world and the Line of Demarcation which divide the unclaimed land in 1494 between Portugal and Spain. This is a very important event that will have long lasting effects on the world. Now that the test. many of the students have been following this study procedure, and I can tell by there answers in class that they are much more confident about their knowledge of the material this web is complete, make sure you are saying it three times each night. It will only take a short time to say each of the three completed webs.

This was too much for me. I immediately flew into the self-righteous rage so typical of the spelling-gifted. I would kick ass and take names; write incendiary letters to school management, politicians, the press; there would be hell to pay. As a critic, a true antisocial parasite, I rationalized that my only obligation was to point out the errors; management gets paid the big bucks to solve the problem, right? Rationality slowly returning, I pondered whether I could point out these defects constructively and non-judgmentally to the offending teacher (see? I can't), without getting my grandson added to some top-secret blacklist maintained by the tight-knit education community in his town. He already has his cross to bear with grandparents who can spell.

Procrastination is not always a bad thing, and I came to realize that today correct spelling, punctuation, and coherence are quaint affectations, like my using a fountain pen in junior high school. I could even see the bright side: my grandson knows about the Line of Demarcation, where I got a grand total of 1492 and 1620 from my grade-school history. He will have a better and earlier grounding in Western civilization, if only via hints that it's a dead white male conspiracy, and will not remember that amazingly bad homework sheet.

I would be ashamed to publish something so defective and carelessly constructed, though I admit I wouldn't be able to resist flaunting the education jargon "web" to cement my solidarity with the other cognoscenti (including my grandson, who remembers the word from second grade). Am I the only one? There is to me a sense of shamelessness throughout the country. Certainly we need look no further than Bill Clinton and any Congress to recognize creatures with no shame, and understand that the fish rots from the head. Exacerbating the epidemic is the pervasive plague of the self-esteem cult, which allows no shame to be brought to bear lest someone's self-esteem be damaged. As if that were inherently a bad thing. Self-esteem and shame should balance and temper each other. You need to have experienced the one to appreciate the other, to understand the depths and heights, and to keep them well-proportioned in your life. An unadulterated dose of each is poison.

True self-esteem comes from attempting something hard, doing one's best, failing as necessary, and eventually succeeding. Today's illusory self-esteem comes from parents and teachers — those adults whose responsibility it is to transform children into valuable adults — telling children how wonderful and unique they are merely because they exist. Any damn fool can reproduce, and existence, though certainly miraculous, is insufficient cause for constant hosannas from one's elders. Apparently modern self-esteem is so fragile that it will break under any challenge, hardly a quality worth developing. Seldom does one's sense of self-esteem match reality, and both too much and too little self-esteem are highly unattractive. The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that the whole self-esteem racket is some bastard child of Dr. Spock, bogus chimerical psycho-babble from Boomer narcissists. Call it confidence, get it from achievement, and be done with self-esteem. Go directly to self-respect. Tell the truth, behave honorably, be true to your self, family, and friends. Simple, but not easy.

In my youth the words "you should be ashamed of yourself" carried weight. Even if we remained unashamed, not truly knowing right from wrong, we had a valuable clue that our parent or grandparent was well and truly not amused. This often sufficed to teach us something. Yet there is still hope that today's youngsters won't grow up shameless. My friend Jean, who can make eighth graders cry with a whip-inflection of her voice, tells me that the ability to instill shame where appropriate is a tool of last resort in every competent teacher's pedagogical arsenal, useful for thought provoking rather than spirit crushing. And it will not become obsolete, for as Grampy Mike remarked, only a little hyperbolically, "the tragedy of mankind is that no one learns from other people's mistakes; they [expletive deleted] have to learn for themselves." The painful lessons will still be necessary, as well as being the most profound and enduring.

I have very few explicit memories of the constant hammering and grinding that must have been applied to shape me. I do remember "chew with your mouth closed" and "get your elbows off the table," of which I learned only the first. My mother also taught us that we didn't like the Three Stooges; I discovered she was mistaken only after I went away to college and my critical sense matured (perhaps she had been unfortunate enough to see an episode featuring one of the execrable Joes). I also remember two lessons in my childhood on delaying gratification that I particularly cherish, although their order and my age at the time escape me. Now, grandchildren, I speak directly to you: I can't overemphasize how important it is to know the difference between what you want and what you need and cultivate the character to refrain from indulging every whim the moment it hits you. That wisdom and strength will serve you well in a bread-and-circus society which accepts as normal the Chase credit card commercial that brays "I want it all and I want it now."

In the days when I had my first lesson in delaying gratification the retail landscape differed from today's. We had no malls nor big box stores. We shopped in downtown North Attleboro, with occasional forays to the cities, Attleboro and Brockton. It may be just nostalgia, but I am not convinced that the miles of ugly mall-scape along Route 1 in North Attleboro, that nightmarish black hole of congestion sucking cars in from dozens of surrounding towns, can be considered progress, even if it were inevitable given the many-fold increases of population and cars per capita. When we were old enough we walked or rode our bikes downtown. My grandmother, until she was ancient, as she seemed to me at the time, walked from her Attleboro apartment uptown to do her marketing, until my father started driving her every Saturday, sometimes accompanied by one or more of us children. The New Public Market's coffee grinders provided me with one of my sharpest olfactory memories, as intoxicating as the recollection of tarred fishing line. Downtown North Attleboro, though not as appealing to the nose, had its own charms. There were three hardware stores, almost within sight of each other, with their nearly pornographic displays of metal objects and tools, not to mention fishing tackle. In those days I could, and did, buy a box of .22 caliber long rifle bullets for my father's birthday, and I was not considered a criminal for carrying a pocket knife to school. The Western Auto store also enticed, offering bicycle supplies, Herkimer model airplane engines, butyrate dope, and miniature balsa lumber.

J. J. Newberry's, the local five and ten, was the scene of my first lesson. The basement had parakeets and small turtles, plus inanimate toys — Revell and Monogram plastic model ships and airplanes, massive arrays of Testor's PLA, and tubes of model cement you could sniff with impunity. There was also a toy howitzer, which fired authentic-looking shells, that I coveted more than life itself. I made my parents' life hellish by endless pleading to be allowed to buy it. They refused. I persisted. They stood fast. I redoubled my whining. Then it came. They told me the plan (note well, they did not negotiate, they told me; that's what parents do): I could buy it in a week, if I still wanted it. I had them now!

That was a good plan, and would have worked as conceived, as they well knew, because a week is eternity in the life of a child. What actually happened was at least as good, and probably better. I still didn't want to wait a week, so I kept wheedling and pushing to buy it now, until my mother finally cracked under the pressure. She took me down to Newberry's to buy the howitzer, muttering darkly about what my father would have to say when he got home. I was jubilant: youthful enthusiasm had finally, for once, triumphed over adult obstructionism.

I had high expectations for that howitzer. I would be able to destroy my enemies and reduce their redoubts to rubble. I loaded the realistic plastic shell, triggered the release spring, and watched the shell tumble part way across the living room floor. There was no muzzle flash, no thunderous concussion, and no recoil, either. I tried halfheartedly a few more times to wreak havoc upon my enemies and enjoyed the same degree of success, when the gun jammed and broke beyond my meager capacity to repair it. Although a lot has changed in the intervening half century, we did have cheap crap, only it was not ubiquitous and it was made in Japan. Lesson learned.

Our allowances had no strings attached. We had no responsibility to buy, for example, our own school supplies or clothes. My parents undoubtedly missed a teaching opportunity, because even as an adult I have always had to rely on the kindness of spouses to keep myself clothed. We were, however, taught to save. When grandparental birthday largesse in the form of silver dollars appeared, we deposited them in the bank. Had I known at the time that we wouldn't get the identical coin back when we asked for it, I might not have been so dutiful. I had no sense of its monetary value; it was the object itself that was important to me, not least because it had passed through the hands of my grandparents. Not to mention that American silver dollars were things of beauty, unlike the cheap crap that passes for money today. So, in my mind at least, allowance income was purely discretionary, ready for the spending.


Some lessons don't go according to plan; others are totally accidental. My attitude toward money and instant gratification took a radical turn the night I eavesdropped on my parents and the Blaisdells.

That Saturday evening was like any other. I had no inkling that cruel fate would in minutes deal a devastating blow to my self-esteem that would change my life forever. Mr. and Mrs. Blaisdell, our next-door neighbors, had come over for beer and pretzels and some adult conversation. We children loved to sneak from our bedrooms down to the bottom of the stairs, just out of sight of the living room but in perfect earshot, to try to hear what the grown-ups talked about. There was no ominous background music as I crept down that evening, nor did I have a strange foreboding, but they were talking about how I spent my allowance. My mother said, "Money flows through his fingers like water. Like water." The Blaisdells were incredulous, and my parents affirmed the shocking fact. I heard disappointment and bewilderment in their voices — reflecting their Depression upbringing — that I could treat money like this. It was the absolute truth, extraordinarily painful, and I had learned in an instant the true value of saving. As the hot tears of shame and rage ebbed I felt like defiant Rastignac hurling down the gauntlet to Parisian society in Père Goriot, and I vowed never to spend another dime in my life. I would show them all. Of course, it didn't turn out that way, but to this day I stoop to pick up pennies.