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Saturday, September 2, 2017

I Try to Paint My White House—but the Paint in the Can is Black

Dad and I, the only boys in a family of seven, stuck together. By that I don't mean that we took stands together against the girls of the house. No, I always felt close to the sometimes-silly-and-creative sides of my mother. However, I was aware that my Dad was the role model for my future. I wanted to watch and learn what it meant to be a man. I stood around from my earliest memories onward and watched as my dad and other men do what men do. I watched as Dad built things, used hammer, saw, plane. I heard him swear when he tackled a task that needed a tool he did not have: “Dammit, that's what happens when you don't have the right tool!” I, of course, loved his tools. I remember how he often needed a chisel, but the screwdriver he filed down to be sharp had to do the job. I watched him mix concrete in his homemade “boat”, as he made sidewalks and slabs in the back yard, and shored up the posts under the front porch. I went with him for a few long days as he built an exterior wooden stairway to the second floor of a rental house owned by his mother (who lived far away in Illinois). I shake my head when I think of him cutting all those stringers, posts, treads and rails with his handsaw. His father's saw, now my saw.

I watched him change out all the cords that held the window weights in our windowed front porch, and especially watched him build my bedroom. I watched him paint our house going up and down the extension ladders on which I was not yet allowed. And, it is that fascinating task that brings me to this story.

Through all these above mentioned projects I was a tiny kid. I do not remember being helpful, though I'm sure I could pick up and hand my dad a tool from time to time. I wasn't as lazy then as I became, I was ignorant and clumsy. I did want to do what men do. I was impatient to do so, I was both interested and jealous.

When Dad repainted the outside of our house, going up and down extension ladders to the peaks of the gables, I knew I should not be allowed to risk my life nor full buckets of paint. I doubt I was more than 4 or 5 years old when I watched as he painted the clapboard white; the screens and storms black. “I can do that!” I'm sure I said it only to myself. But, when my Dad was off at work and mom was busy in the kitchen, I snuck a gallon of paint out of the basement along with a brush and a screwdriver. I need only go 2/3 of the way up the basement stairs before I could unhook and sneak out a door onto the narrow walk that was all that existed of our 40-foot lot on the west side of the house. There I knew how to use the screwdriver to open the paint. Oh, no, the paint I brought up was black. Perhaps Dad had run out of white paint. All I know is I wasn't going to let color deter me. I dipped in the brush and began to paint the clapboard I could reach. Mom was just inside on the other side of the wall—unaware. I quickly lost my courage and confidence, however, when, try as I may, I could not make this patch of new, black paint look good on the white wall. I didn't like it, but what could I do?

From this point my memory is cloudy. I know I was more embarrassed than guilty. I did confess at dinner that night. I knew I was bad, and I knew I'd better take charge of my own trial by jury of four sisters before judges Pete and Leona. Everybody rushed outside—but me. And, guess what, they couldn't stop laughing. Adults and siblings seem to get a kick out of seeing a little kid learn a lesson. My ego took a beating, but all I had to do was endure weeks of entertainment as the story was told at my expense.

“Remember the day Bobby started to paint our white house black?” They never forgot. Neither have I.

Note on a green door: December 2016, In my nostalgia over fifty years of marriage I go back to a poem I wrote in 1966 and handed to my parents after our wedding on December 31, 1966 as we departed for our life together. In it, I am reminded that the white-house-black was only one of two such incidents. I was persistent. Somewhat before (or was it after?) I tried to paint the outside of the house, I took to painting the basement door off the kitchen—half-way from the door down to the side door to the outside and all the way down to the basement. What I remember most is that the crime remained visible for a long-long time. I chose to stand on the stairs and paint the seldom-seen side of the green door with white paint. I remember the finished job with the door looking more washed with several overlapping diagonal strokes of transparent white. That's why I think this incident came first. Only now do I wonder if I had mistaken the can with Dad's brushes soaking in turpentine as a can of paint. More likely, I was either too lazy or to weak to open a real can of paint, but I knew the brushes in the can had enough pigment to do damage--no, truly to do beauty and demonstrate my skill and desire.

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