My father was born in 1922 and raised in Oklahoma and Arkansas during the Great Depression. As was the case for many families during that time, life was austere and pennies had to stretch a long way. There weren’t many technological diversions for children in those days. They did have a few books and living in the country they had full access to the Outdoors. Even so, there was little opportunity for leisure because all hands were needed to scrabble together a way to survive. Dad, his five siblings, and their parents lived in a two bedroom home with no indoor plumbing, no electricity, a small pot-bellied stove in the middle of the living room for heat, and at the end of the path a hundred feet or so from the house, an outhouse.
Under these circumstances, nothing my father or my aunts and uncles ever did was really done in secret. And, if they ever tried to hide something nefarious from my grandparents there was a significant price to pay. Grandpa kept a razor strop hanging by the back door from a nail in the wall. I saw it once when I was young. It was similar to a leather belt two or three inches wide and maybe a yard long. Its main purpose was to keep a sharp edge on grandpa’s straight razor but it also served a secondary function as the consequence for any transgression, by children, of the “rules to live by” in their home. It was the “enforcer”! Dad learned early on that it was imperative in their home for everyone to tell the truth … always. This became the central theme of my dad’s life and, as such, was passed on to each of his children.
One of my early memories of this concept was formed around our weekly excursion to the local grocery store. Any time we got something to drink other than water or milk was special. On this day, mom bought two large cans of Hi-C fruit juice (pretty much just flavored sugar water) and we couldn’t wait to get a swig. Mom told us we could have some later but it had to last for several weeks so it would be used sparingly. After we got home and the groceries were put away, we all went about our business. In my case, that business involved finding a way to sneak a sample of the Hi-C. I waited until everyone was occupied away from the kitchen and then I sneaked back in, opened the cupboard door (thankfully it didn’t squeak!), and lifted out a can of Hi-C! I took a can-opener from the utensil drawer. You know, one of those with the pointy end that you latch onto the edge of a can and pry up to punch a triangular hole in the top of the can. Then, I lifted the can to my lips and took a mighty gulp. What glorious satisfaction! Placing the can back in the cupboard, and somehow thinking I wouldn’t get caught, I left the kitchen.
A few days later, dad called a family meeting. This didn’t happen often so we knew something important must be in the air. As soon as my two sisters, my brother, and I were all standing in a row, dad pulled out the opened can of juice which by now was ruined from sitting open in the heat of the cupboard for days. He told us that the can of juice had to be thrown out and he wanted to know who was responsible. We all stood silent. My brother and sisters because they knew nothing and I because I knew the belt or a switch would await my admission of guilt. So, dad approached each of us individually and asked us “Did you open this can of juice?” Of course we all answered in the negative. Then dad pulled out the heavy artillery. He said, ” One of you is lying. I don’t know which one , so all of you will get the same punishment”, and he began removing his belt. We all started bawling, my siblings because of their misfortune at the unfairness of life and me because I knew there was no way out. I felt a gigantic load of guilt and I knew if I didn’t confess I would be branded forever, not by them but by my own conscience. I admitted my guilt in front of all the witnesses and took my punishment. Funny thing, I don’t remember the sting of the belt at all. I guess it was washed away in the relief of a clean conscience.