Sometimes it takes a animal to show your place in the family.
| Almost everyone knows the expression “pecking order” – the expression derived from chickens. Believe me, with two hundred bird-brained Leghorn chickens in our coop, I learned all about it firsthand. I witnessed that brutal order of dominance in action every time I entered the coop to feed our chickens. Foghorn, our king rooster, nonchalantly pecked any feathered cackler he wanted, but relegated his pecks mainly to those that were “second in command.” Then came the cascading domino effect until poor scabbed and bloodied Wimpy, the domino at the tail end of the line, became the target of most of the sharp beaks in the chicken shed. Poor Wimpy ended up in pretty sad shape, that is, until we rescued him one Sunday by awarding him the crispy, golden-brown place of honor at our dinner table.
One incident, when I was about seven-years-old, confirmed that this phenomenon wasn’t merely confined to chickens. But . . . it took a dog to help teach me that lesson.
One spring day I was trying to teach Freckles how to fetch a rubber ball and return it on command. I discovered that Freckles, a spotted tan and white Cocker spaniel, was a single-minded brutish little creature, selfish and stubborn to a fault. After he retrieved the ball, he harbored no intention of parting with it. In fact, he took great delight, to my indignation, running around in circles daring me to take it away from him – like he was the master.
This behavior became rapidly tiresome. After about the eighth time I became so miffed I grabbed the mutt by the muzzle and smacked him on the head. This action produced the desired effect of making him drop the ball. But it also produced the undesired effect of putting my hand at risk. Since IT was the offending party, and since IT was nearest to his jaws, he bit IT. His bite proved quite insightful.
After I had recovered from my state of surprise and pain, and after I had apologized to the dog for smacking him, I got to thinking, “What made me hit him?” My conclusion: I had been angry with my big brother. Earlier that day he had been acting like a jerk when we’d been playing basketball. So what if I didn’t shoot the ball the “right” way! He didn’t have to smack me on the butt with the ball and call me ignorant while stomping away in disgust.
And then it dawned on me. An epiphany! There was a larger truth here – a family pecking order or, as the dog so aptly showed me, a family “biting order!”
My dad occasionally returned from work having experienced the proverbial “bad day”. His coworkers, more often than not, had screwed up at the shipyard leaving him the job of repairing their mistake. If my mom picked that time to ask for a little extra money, he would “bite her head off”, in a manner of speaking, followed by several hours of silence. My father used silence as a weapon.
Then, if my brother wasn’t careful, he would find himself the target of my mother’s frustration with my father. I can hear her “biting” remarks now: “Harvey! I thought I told you to pick up your room and make your bed. No “ifs, ands, or buts” about it. Get in there and do it now, and don’t forget! It’s your turn to do the dishes tonight. Watch your mouth, young man! Any back talk out of you, and I’ll tell your father!”
Why wasn’t I the target? Answer: I was the “baby” of the family; I was the do-no-wrong little brother who nearly got away with larceny. This was my brother’s perspective, anyway. Therefore, he often used the flimsiest excuse to solidify his dominant position above me in the household. The list reads like a litany: he’s the one who told me there wasn’t a Santa Claus; he’s the one who threw dirt clods at me when my pants became hung up in the barbed wire fence; he’s the one who called me “Bucky Beaver” after my two new front teeth reappeared larger than life; he’s the one who rubbed my face in the snow when I refused to bring him the shovel; he’s the one who invited me to “have fun” and clean up the chicken coop giving me the worst case of chicken mites in history (The itch was profound and nearly intolerable.) I would only wish the same on one person.
Yes, the dog taught me something – an important lesson I decided to put into practice: “Stand up to them, and they’ll respect you.”
So I resolved to test that lesson on my brother. Although Harvey did persecute me, he didn’t persecute me all the time. Therefore, I had to wait awhile for the proper opportunity. Finally, the timing proved perfect. One Saturday my brother decided to sleep in. It was getting close to 10:00 when I heard his voice sleepily waft into the living room.
“Gary, go outside and get the newspaper for me. Will you?”
“Go get it yourself,” I replied. “I’m watching cartoons.”
“C’mon, have a heart. Get it for me. Will ya?”
Usually I gave in to his demands. But this time I was prepared to stick to my guns. “Nope. You always sleep in and expect me to wait on you “hand and foot.” (I deftly used a common expression of my mother.) Hearing no response, I sneaked to his bedroom door and peeked in; he had fallen back asleep.
As the day wore on, the morning’s drizzle transformed into a drenching downpour. It felt good to stand up to my brother. Who says an old dog can’t teach you new tricks – or whatever. But there was a problem: I had totally forgotten about the newspaper. A little after noon my mother brought it in – or what was left of it. Our newspaper box tipped backward at such a rakish angle that it made a splendid rain-catcher. The paper was so soaked that it had practically turned to pulp. My mother said something about “lazy good-for-nothings that lay in bed all day or watched TV and their lack of responsibility.” And then, suspended between bookends of silence, followed those dreaded words: “Wait ‘til your father gets home!”
I cringed. You see, part of my father’s evening routine was to read the newspaper from front to back each evening after dinner. He rarely varied from this habit. Who cared most about the newspaper? He did.
I spent the rest of the day laying low. When my father arrived home, my brother managed to get to him first. Harvey told our dad how he’d slept in because he wasn’t feeling well, and how he’d politely asked me asked me to bring in the paper, and how I’d refused.
I spent the rest of the week raking leaves and drying dinner dishes.
It was during that time that I experienced my second epiphany. There was only one thing I could learn from an old dog: I was the end of the “biting order” in my family. And there was absolutely no way to escape it – except to grow up.