Friday, October 13, 2006

I swear

I was always a good little boy. Then a good young man. I rarely used profanity or uttered a vulgar word. At least not out loud. I didn't want to have to confess it on Saturday when Father Hoeller would hold down the confessional and mete out extreme quantities of Hail Marys and Our Ffathers for even the most trivial of offenses. I think he thought he was God or something.

Anyway, I had a vocabulary devoid of those nasty words that good little Catholic boys weren't supposed to know. Even when I got to college I still didn't jump at the chance to lace my conversation with gratuitous profanities, despite the new found freedom to express how I really felt about something. I just was never comfortable with vulgar expressions. I may have proclaimed "damn" on occasionally receiving a lesser grade than I thought I deserved, or utttered a faint "shit" when I realized I had forgotten an assignment or something, but the nastiest words of the language were not part of my vocabulary. I was just not comfortable with them.

Then I joined the army. The Army Reserve to be exact. Long story short: I was dodging the draft and hopefully avoiding going to Vietnam. This was 1970 and when I graduated that year my draft lottery number was way past due and losing my student deferrment meant instant draft notice. So instead of going to my college graduation, I went home to my hometown and enlisted that same day in the Reserve. So there I was a newly minted Private with no idea what I was getting into. And the language spoken by the veteran soldiers in the unit made it clear that I was from another planet communication-wise.

Army language typically resorts to the basest form of communication. Words that I would never have dreamed of saying outloud became so normal that confessing them would have had me on my knees saying penance for all eternity. But to fit in and be one of the boys, I had to learn to set aside my squeemishness and join the party, or be labeled as an effete college boy. I found that I had a real knack for the baser aspects of the English language once I got over my initial reluctance to participate. I even found there is a certain poetry that applies to those profane, vulgar, and obscene words when they are strung together by the truly gifted cussin NCO.

I strove to become that cussin machine. And I succeeded quite well, thank you. Once I learned that the word "fuck" is the basis for all military communication, I was home free. As a noun, a verb, an adjective, and an adverb, "fuck" has no equal in the language. It is the derivative from which all else flows. You can add any other word to that root word and be understood by anyone wearing a uniform anywhere in the world. "Mother" has certainly been a favorite add-on that can cover a multitude of circumstances. And once I became comfortable using "mother"' and "fuck" together, all the other formerly forbidden words just gushed out of the reservoir in the back of my brain, where they had been stored, awaiting permission to salley forth into the light.

However, my new found fredom of expression didn't necessarily transfer to the civilian side of my life. I found that I was essentially bilingual, even though English was the chosen language. There are just some words that don't cross the bridge between military and civilian usage gracefully. Too many times, when I'd forget where I was, the wrong form of English would find its way into the conversation, much to my embarrassment and to the chagrin of those receiving my bombardment of filth and vulgarity. The inlaws didn't always know what to say or how to react when the fine and decent young man who had married their daughter suddenly turned into a filth-spewing monster. My dear departed mother was scandalized the first time she heard me drop an f-bomb, and immediately started a novena in an effort to save me from damnation. The occasional slip up at work usually resulted in flushed cheeks and averted eyes and a hasty retreat from my presence. And that was the guys. The women fairly swooned.

I gradually learned to control my impulses to inject the more colorful phrases into the conversation when with friends and family. But there were still no rules at home, where I felt free to let loose with whatever made me feel better about the current situation. I stayed well in practice at home, never losing my profane edge. However, the consequences of my disdain for polite discourse when at home began to show in the development of Mary's more diverse, shall we say, way of expressing herself. I'm ashamed to admit that I taught her everything she knows when it comes to swearing like a trooper. But I refuse to take the blame for her apparent enthusiasm and her delight in using those words. She is after all, an English teacher, so language is her stock in trade. How she chooses to use her new vocabulary is her responsibility. Don't shoot the messenger.

Typically, how she chooses to express herself when on one of her rants--usually precipitated by something I said or did--is to string together every nasty, disgusting, vulgar, obscene word or expression she has ever been exposed to in an unending flow of uninterupted filth. She can't seem to separate each word into its own little identity when she gets going. Nor does it make much sense--at least not to me. It just makes me laugh, which , of course, only encourages her to let loose with a futher bombardment of vulgarity. I must say she can be quite creative when she gets going. Her generally prim demeanor gives lie to the serpent beneath. And I suppose it is all my fault for corrupting her. She didn't bargain on getting such an expressive partner when she said, "I do." Neither did I for that matter, so I guess we cancel each other out.

The real jolt that my usage of the vulgar and profane aspects of my language had an effect on those within earshot came when my two children first surprised me with their knowledge and ability to mimic their father. When I first heard my daughter use a naughty word (and she was an adult at the time), it was nearly as shocking as seeing her first tatoo. My son didn't surprise me nearly as much when I first heard the cuss words coming from him, since he was involved with sports all through school and we know that athletes are second only to soldiers in their colorful language. Still, hearing my little boy (by now a grown man) spew forth with the common language of the courts and playing fields made me realize that he felt it was ok, because dear old dad had set an example.

I am happy to say that I am making a concerted effort to reform myself and return to the innocent language of my youth. I only occassionaly resort to vivid espressions of profanity now. I try to restrain myself when I feel the urge to let fly with the worst verbiage I know. I still fall into the garbage pile when I am particulary upset, but my flopping into the waste dump of language is less and less frequent. Now if I can only get Mary to follow my lead again. She is becoming a bad influence on me. No less than I deserve I guess.

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