Of Cigarettes and Swing Sets

smokingIt’s a beautiful Saturday morning in 1975. I have already eaten my Cap’n Crunch (and the roof of my mouth is properly shredded). I have watched my fill of Saturday morning cartoonsThe Flintsones, Banana Splits, Shazam and Isis–and I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of the newest addition to the Trainer family. No, not another baby (thank God), but a brand new swing set. Yes, our yard will finally have an attraction that I will be able to use as leverage when I want to swing on Cindy’s tire swing or swim in Mike’s above ground pool.

I can hardly contain my excitement. I am there from the moment my dad, my Uncle Nicky, and a few of the other dads in the neighborhood begin digging holes by the rear fence—four holes for the four steel posts of the swing set. A few of my friends want in on the action, and before long, it seems like the whole neighborhood is in our backyard.

My dad and his cronies (that’s what my mom calls them) are busy fetching tools, swing parts, and beers, so there is a lot of commotion; a lot of people going this way and that. We are told to go play on the front lawn as the backyard  is now strewn with important materials. A few of us begin a game of TV tag. Now, I’m not sure if this game ever achieved national fame, but TV tag was one of those consummate ’70s lawn games. Someone would be “IT”, and everyone else would run around. As kids were chased by “IT”, they could kneel on one knee and call out a TV show. If they did this before being tagged, they were safe. How I loved that game. And, how I tried to call out the coolest TV shows before the others. If I could last long enough to shout out Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Love Boat, and Fantasy Island, then my mission was complete. No way did I want to be in the game ’til the end, since kids were forced to choose lame shows like Lawrence Welk and Hee Haw. Yeah, TV tag was far out, man. You dig?

As we are engrossed in our fun, my dad comes out to the driveway and walks across the lawn. He needs a tool from our next door neighbor. As he passes by, we stop the game. He says something funny, then tosses the butt of his lit cigarette onto the grass behind us. As he leaves, I have an idea.

I walk over and find the cigarette—still burning. My friends crowd around me in a circle. “Pick it up,” I hear (maybe in my head), and so I do. I hold it in my hand, rolling it between my thumb and forefinger. My friends stare at me wildly. OOOhhhh—that’s bad. But I don’t feel bad. I feel cool. As I raise the butt to my mouth, I see them– my father’s feet entering the circle that has formed around me. From my crouching position, I look up towards him. He towers above me. I pitch the cigarette to the ground as he grabs my arm.

“You should know better!” he yells. “Get up to your room.” “But I…” “Now!” he commands.

I look at my friends’ faces, their expressions all seem to say, “Yeah, we knew this was going to end badly.”

As I walk inside, I am flush with embarrassment, then shame, then anger. I stomp up the stairs. Each foot a THUD—punctuating my frustration. THIS (thud) IS(thud) NOT(thud) FAIR(thud)! I (thud)DIDN’T(thud) MEAN(thud) TO——SLAM! I shut the door hard, fully aware that no one is around to hear it.

For the remainder of the day, I watch all the activity from my bedroom window. My father and his friends work hard to get the swing set in by nightfall. My brothers and sisters play and laugh with their friends. Everyone breaks for a cookout. And I am alone. Alone. I don’t even remember eating that day. I like to think I was not allowed to eat—starved as a part of my punishment.

And as I stare at my dad in the yard, I realize why I am so angry. If I had known the word “hypocrite” as a six year-old, I would have called him one (under my breath of course). Because that’s what he was: a hypocrite. He said I should know better. Well, HE should know better. He shouldn’t smoke. He shouldn’t throw lit cigarettes near kids who are playing on the lawn. He shouldn’t punish me for the whole day. A time out should last ten minutes, not ten hours. Hypocrite!

And therein lies the curse of my father. Even when he was trying to show his devotion towards his kids, his anger and frustration would get the better of him.  A gesture of love and kindness, like installing a swing set for your kids, is marred by a man’s inability to see the effects of his actions. A day spent working for the benefit of  family is spoiled by too many beers and not enough patience. This curse haunts me as a father, when I overreact about something insignificant, or I blame the kids for something I know was my stupid fault, or when I am impatient because I didn’t allow enough time to get everything done. Being a father certainly allows me to have more empathy for my own dad. But one thing I try to never be is a hypocrite. I am not in favor of the old “do as I say, not as I do” form of parenting.

**********************************************

The next morning, I am eager to make up for lost time. It is very early, and no one in the house is up yet. I sneak  into my sister Erin’s room and wake her. We tiptoe down the stairs and out into the yard, our bare feet trekkinga118 (1) through the wet, dewy grass. We behold the swing set in all of its lime green and rust orange glory. We are like two warriors coming upon the hidden city. We hop onto the swings and start to glide; our legs travelling back and forth…back and forth… back and forth. The chains squeak with an oily newness. We feel special. The first to ride on our new toy. We smile at each other, laugh, and then BOOOOM! The entire set crashes to the ground. Erin and I fall flat on our faces and look up to see the swing set uprooted from its newly-cemented-as-yet-to-dry holes. Oh my God! What are we going to do?

Had we waited for the okay to ride on the swings, this wouldn’t have happened. We head inside. I am filled with a sense of dread at the thought of another day of being held captive in my room.

“Mom…? Dad…?”

I hear them waking. Drowsy footsteps come to the bedroom door. I take a deep breath.

This stupid swing set is nothing but trouble, I think to myself.

86 comments

      1. Definitely! Thanks for sharing Michael. As I read I couldn’t help smiling to myself as I remembered my friend Jeffrey who had a thing for finding live butts and smoking them down to the filter (he also liked to play “garbage pickin'”,his version of dumpster diving!). I also remember the TORTURE of having to wait for the cement to dry in the swing set hole. A pleasure to read.

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  1. Great post. It’s true, nothing burns in a kid’s gut like hypocrisy, especially in an adult. Unfortunately most parents don’t see it.

    And where on earth did you find that baby smoker pic? Yikes!

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  2. Mike, when Ben was little he couldn’t say my name;
    he called me Shazam. Too cute. I haven’t thought about that in years.

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  3. Best thing I’ve read on WP in a while and I read a lot in these halls.. I was there, that could have been my swing-set (except ours came 2nd hand from a school auction).. Well deserving of the Freshly Pressed baton.. Mind if I tag along to more reads?

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  4. Haha this is so cute.

    I always despised the “do as I say, not as I do” parenting tactic. I try to not be a hypocrite when I’m taking care of my cousin because I want him to trust and respect me.

    Great post and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

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  5. I’m not in favor of the old “do as I say, not as I do” form of parenting.either. Except when i was smoking and tried like the devil to brainwash my children about its evils. It took years but I finally stopped because I knew my children weren’t about to listen to me otherwise.
    We all become our mothers or fathers sooner or later, We’re just lucky to realise it and learn from their mistakes. 🙂 Good post and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

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  6. Great post. Real life can be so interesting; we hardly need fiction. 🙂
    I can identify with this! I remember popping out an expression to visitors that my Mom & Dad often used — and immediately being smacked in the mouth by my Mom. Took me years to figure out what I did wrong.
    (It was a racist expression and the kids I said it to were of that race. That part never dawned on me; they were just kids.)

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  7. TV Tag was my favorite thing in the world as a kid. Great story, especially liked the fact that you realized that all parents can be hypocrites and are trying to learn from it.

    Can’t wait to see the next segment.

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  8. I love this! The trip down memory lane. (Although I am not that old) with the yard games. Those were the bomb. The realization that we can learn from our parents and be more patient, less hypocritical parents ourselves and a great reminder, that kids will and should be just kids. I had to crack up when the set came crashing down. That so would have been my luck at revenge too. To be the first one on the set and gain my lost punishment time back. Yet I also am raising three boys so I really can appreciate both the humor and frustration in cleaning up their never ending messes. Congrats on Freshly Pressed and thanks for sharing!

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  9. All the shows you mentioned brought back memories of the days when I was growing up in New York, I loved the Flintstones, Lawrence Welk, etc. Greetings from Sicily!

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  10. Oh my gosh. We had the same childhood. The same dad. The same backyard. The same TV tag choices.

    But – the attraction in my backyard was not a swingset. It was a playhouse (that resembled an outhouse). I thought for sure that Rusty and Tommy would forgo their baseball diamond backyard to play in ours. Or that Lori-with-the-inground-pool would suddenly come knocking on MY door to play. But then we went into the playhouse and immediately spotted all the spiders.

    We spent our summers at Rusty and Tommy’s instead.

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  11. Loved. TV. Tag. Loved it!!! I, too, struggle with the ghosts of my parent’s parenting skills (mostly dad) and often find myself following in his footsteps. A work in progress and I think I’m making ground. One day at a time!! Blessings, and hurry up with this ….to be continued….

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  12. you described my childhood exactly especially the shredded mouth after eating cocoa puffs, my fav. Only exception being I tried twice, managed, and have smoked for 35 years. Thanks Dad! You and the Salem witch set a great example. lol

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  13. Having grown up in the same era, I find such wisdom in your humor. I, too, am on a journey of reflection surrounding my childhood and healing from the effects of a dysfunctional family life. Read my story at mymendingwall.com. Thanks for writing. I look forward to the next installment.

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  14. Man, so many things to identify with here, beginning with your tip-of-the-hat to Atticus Finch. I, too, try to aspire to that level of fatherly grace in spite of the example my father set, which sounds similar to yours. Good man. Good intentions. All ineffectual due to a bad temper and beer. When I was a kid, he used to have me light his cigarettes for him off the stove, which I thought was cool at first, until I started gagging. When I eventually asked if I could NOT do that anymore, he said “sure.” It wasn’t until years later I realized he had made me a non-smoker. Good man. Good intentions. Easily misunderstood, often by design. Truly enjoyed this piece 🙂

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  15. We have pictures of my husband as a really little kid in the early 50s “smoking” cigarettes on his grandfather’s knee – they all thought it was a riot! Just goes to show you… Great post.

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