This Fourth of July made me think back to another one, many years ago, back ... sometime in the 1950s ...
My dad thought of himself as a very "serious" person, even though as a parent he was completely clueless. He was tall and dark and thin, with wavy black hair parted in the middle, 19th century-style, and when he was not at work he spent most of his time at home, sitting by himself folded up in a chair, reading a newspaper or else with his nose buried in a book. But he was a volunteer fireman. I don't recall him ever actually going to a fire, or hanging out at the firehouse, but he did march with the firemen at the Independence Day parade.
My dad also thought of himself as fair and evenhanded, and my mom and dad always took pains to treat their kids, all four of us, as equally as they could. They wanted to be fair. But it didn't always work out that way.
One day, when I was in first grade, my dad came home from work and when we sat down for dinner he placed his briefcase on the table, ceremoniously opened the case, and unveiled four small black boxes. He opened one of them to reveal a bright silver fountain pen. He then opened the other boxes to show the pens were all the same, each one encased in its own leather-covered wooden box. The pens winked at us from the blue felt that lined the boxes. Dad picked one out of its case and showed us how it worked.
He unscrewed the cap to reveal the ink container inside the pen. He showed us how the clip hinged up to draw the ink out of the ink bottle, and how the silver tip of the pen would glide across the paper to leave an elegant line of dark blue ink. It was magical.
Dad basically bought the pens for my brother and older sister. My older sister was graduating from elementary school and preparing to make the big leap to junior high (now middle school). My father thought that giving her a fancy fountain pen was the perfect way to mark the occasion. But if he got his daughter a pen, then he should get one for his elder son. And, well, if he got his two older children pens, he should be fair and get pens for his two younger children as well.
But, in addition to being fair and evenhanded, my father was sensible and practical. He knew a first grader like me had no business owning a fountain pen. So that night at dinner when he presented the pens to my older sister and my brother, he leveled a gaze at his two younger children, Nancy and me, and said, yes, these pens were for us as well, but we weren't old enough to take on the responsibility of owning a pen, so he would give us the pens when we got into fourth grade. In the meantime, we should know that the pens were there, waiting for us.
Nancy was closing out third grade. Fourth grade may have seemed like a long way off to her – on the other side of a long summer vacation -- but she could nevertheless see fourth grade, and the fountain pen, on the dim distant horizon.
But for me, just finishing first grade, the notion of fourth grade was beyond all imagination. It was too far in the future. I couldn't picture it, and thus, to me, the pen was out of reach. I would never get my pen.
A month or two rolled by. School was out; summer arrived. On July 4th my dad was marching in the parade with the volunteer firemen. Mom and Dad left the house early. My brother and older sister were going to the parade with their friends. My sister Nancy was supposed to take me down to the parade and look after me.
But I knew my sister. As we got to the parade, or even before, she would ditch me to go hang out with her friends. And so I got an idea.
The morning of the fourth I sneaked into my parents' bedroom, pulled a chair up to my father's dresser and opened his top drawer. The dreaded paddle he used to spank us peeked out from under the socks in one corner of the drawer. I saw a stack of $20 bills propped against the other side of the drawer. My parents’ weekly cash. That’s not what I was interested in.
Then I carefully lifted up one corner of the handkerchiefs. There was my prize. Two little wooden boxes. I opened one of the boxes. The pen lay in its blue velvet bed, sparkling like a jewel.
I slipped the pen out of its velvet nest. I felt the hard metal in my hand. I flipped the clip and heard the reassuring snap as it clicked up, then back. I then slipped the pen into my pants pocket. I closed the drawer slowly, so as not to disturb anything inside, moved the chair back where it belonged and melted back into my room.
Nancy soon came along and said it was time to go. We went out the front door, walked down Corona Ave. to the railroad tracks, then along First St., past Billy Crispin’s house and the railroad station to Fifth Ave. It was about a half-mile walk, and all the time I kept fingering the secret in my pocket – my silver fountain pen.
Nancy and I watched the parade for a while. We saw my dad march by with the other firemen. But as soon as my dad waved to us and then continued on, Nancy ran off to find her friends, leaving me to get home on my own. I didn’t mind. That's what I was used to. That’s what I was counting on.
As soon as Nancy disappeared into the crowd, I pulled my pen out of my pants pocket and proudly clipped the pen to the pocket of my shirt.
The pen was supposed to rest inside the shirt pocket, with only the clip showing on the outside. But I didn’t know that. And besides, I wanted to show off my shiny new trophy, to make sure people saw it. I wanted everyone to ask me about it. I wanted to impress my friends.
So I clipped the pen onto my shirt with the pen on the outside of the pocket, with the clip on the inside. Just to make sure everyone noticed.
I walked proudly along with the crowd, following the parade. I look around for friends who might stop and admire my pen. I saw Billy Crispin, and when at first he didn’t notice the pen, I pointed it out to him. He looked at it. "Nice pen," he said.
I was hoping for a little more than that, but I nevertheless continued along the parade route, looking for more friends while keeping an eye out to avoid my family. I ran across Dennis Rawlings and his parents, who lived across the street from us. I made sure Dennis saw the pen. Then his dad asked me, "That’s a nice pen. Shouldn’t you put the pen inside your pocket to make sure you don’t lose it?"
"No, no" I assured him. "This is the right way."
"Mr. Rawlings just nodded. "Are you here by yourself?"
"My family’s around," I said. "My dad’s in the parade."
The Rawlings walked off, and I continued to mingle in the crowd. I didn’t see anyone else I knew. But I was sure I cut quite the figure, with the pen adorning my shirt pocket. And I was pretty sure that I saw several admiring glances from other kids I didn’t know, as well as a few adults who clearly thought I must have been quite a grownup to be sporting such a fine writing implement.
I finally turned for home, climbing up the hill along the railroad tracks, past Billy’s house. I turned the corner onto Corona Ave., and finally, as I approached my driveway, I thought I’d better put away my pen. I needed to sneak it back into the box in my dad’s drawer before anyone saw me.
I felt my shirt pocket. There was no pen.
I looked down. My pocket was bare. The pen was missing.
I patted down my pants pockets, in case I'd forgotten that I'd already put the pen away. Nothing. I turned the pockets inside out. Empty.
I looked around the sidewalk. I retraced my steps, going all the way back to Fifth Ave., searching the sidewalk, scouring the lawns and hedges that lined the street, kicking along the gutter. The pen must be somewhere, I thought.
The sidewalk was bare. The grass revealed nothing. The gutter in the street was littered with pebbles and a few leaves and a couple of candy wrappers. I found a small flag, the kind you hold and wave at a parade, but no pen.
I finally turned for home and skulked into the house. My dad was home from the parade, waiting for me. I didn’t know how he’d found out so quickly, but I could tell from the look on his face that he already knew the pen was missing.
When he confronted me, I started to deny everything. But my face flushed with guilt. I quickly realized I would get nowhere with denial, so I threw myself to his mercy. The pen was so nice, I told him, and it wasn’t fair that my brother and sister got theirs, but I couldn’t have mine, and I didn’t steal it, I just wanted to borrow it for the afternoon to show my friends, and then I was going to put it back.
"I promise, Dad," I pleaded, looking into his long solemn face peppered with dots of whiskers that had already started growing out since he'd shaved that morning. "I was going to put it back."
My excuses fell on deaf ears. Soon I was climbing the stairs to take my punishment, with the wrong side of the paddle. I don't know if I just knew how to take a paddling, having been through this a few times before, or whether my dad took it easy on me that day. But for some reason, the paddling didn't hurt as much as it had before.
After the paddling I went into my room, and a little later made my way downstairs. My brother was standing in the front hallway. He had his pen clipped to his shirt pocket -- the right way, with just the clip showing outside his pocket, like a small understated piece of jewelry. He didn't say a thing, just gave me a withering look, as if to say I was about the stupidest person walking on Earth.
I never gave that pen another thought, until later that fall, when I came upon my older sister doing her homework at the kitchen table. She was taking notes with a pen.
I watched for a moment, then suddenly realized she wasn't using the pen Dad gave her, but some kind of ballpoint pen instead. "Hey," I finally said to her, "How come your not using the pen Dad gave you?"
She gave me a blank stare, then a look of understanding. "Oh that," she replied. "Are you kidding? Nobody at school uses a fountain pen. I wouldn't be caught dead with that thing."