Far away and long ago stuff happened in Gramps’ life that he’d like to forget but he can’t, even though he can’t always remember what he had for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
But anything that happened 40, 50, 60 years ago he remembers clearly. His grandson, Patrick, is in grammar school and has to write an essay about an event that shaped Gramps' life when he was a kid. Patrick keeps asking Gramps to tell him about it. In two weeks he has to hand in his essay.
“Tell me something good," Patrick keeps saying. "I have to get an A."
Gramps remembers many childhood events that might make a good essay but the one that stands out is not something he should tell Patrick about. His parents would disapprove.
It happened during WWII, when Gramps was Patrick’s age, and although it had nothing to do with the war, it created commotion in the family home. Gramps was in grammar school himself back then.
Young Gramps was a good student, earning straight A’s in his first three years of school. His behavior at times was a problem but the nuns usually gave him a pass because he was good in his studies and did well on tests, something unusual among the boys in his class.
The girls always did well but they studied. Young Gramps studied too because he couldn’t go out to play until his homework was done. He would be quizzed in the kitchen by his mother while his father sat in the living room listening to his answers. His father would yell when he could go out.
Then young Gramps’ handwriting became a problem. In the transition from printing to cursive, his penmanship was so poor he brought home a grade lower than an A in penmanship and that disturbed his father who despite little formal education in Ireland had a signature that would rival a calligrapher’s art.
What’s worse, young Gramps' father could sign his name with both hands at the same time. One of the signatures would be written backwards and when held up to the mirror it looked exactly the same as his regular signature. He had been a prisoner of war, a guest of the English, after the Easter 1916 rebellion in Ireland and had plenty of time to practice signing his name backwards with his left hand. This was during his two-year confinement on Spike Island, off the coast of Ireland, where the British housed Irish prisoners.
Young Gramps’ father had been 16 when imprisoned for running guns for the Irish rebels and 18 when the British freed him as long as he left Ireland. He chose to come to the United States.
Unlike his father, young Gramps had trouble writing legibly with just one hand. It was a big enough problem that he was made to sit at the dining room table after supper and practice his writing.
But a nun then discovered Gramps couldn’t read the blackboard from the third seat in the middle row. Speculation began that perhaps poor eyesight was affecting his handwriting.
A visit to Dr. Max Erman, an optometrist and the only medical professional in the neighborhood, determined that Gramps was nearsighted and would have to wear spectacles the rest of his life. This news turned out to be a greater tragedy for his father than the news about young Gramps' bad handwriting.
“God help us, Mary,” Gramps remembers his father saying to his mother. “The boy will be in all kinds of fights at school. Glasses aren’t something boys should have to wear. That’s how the other boys will think.”
His father was right in some respects. Spectacles on boys in the Forties were not common in grammar school, at least not at his school. Girls wore glasses and had no problems. Boys didn’t pick on girls unless they wanted to stay after school for the rest of their lives, as the nuns were quick to tell them.
When Dr. Erman put the new glasses on young Gramps, he had to admit he saw stuff he didn’t hadn’t seen before. His little sister, he discovered, had freckles. He was happy about being able to see better but in light of his father’s attitude about a son wearing glasses, young Gramps kept quiet about this new advantage.
When they got home, however, his father decided young Gramps needed to be ready for any teasing that might take place at school. Despite protests from his mother, he took the boy down to the basement and told him to take his glasses off. Then he showed him how to put up his fists. And, as young Gramps remembers well, his father got down on his knees and put up his own fists and proceeded to teach Gramps how to defend himself.
Young Gramps quickly learned how to fake with his left and cross with his right, a standard maneuver his father had used to advantage as a boxer after emigrating to the United States from Ireland. It seemed to be a nice trick, but young Gramps didn’t think he’d have to use it. The nuns patrolled the schoolyard during recess.
But during the lunch hour on the first day young Gramps wore his glasses, Larry Moore came out of nowhere looking to have a fight. Fights back then were always fair. No kicking or anything like that. Only fists were used. The fight would go on till one boy quit or the nuns broke it up and levied their punishments—something just shy of staying after school for the remainder of life.
Young Gramps beat Larry Moore that day. The fight didn’t last long and no nun saw it. Young Gramps faked with his left and crossed with his right and Larry Moore got a bloody nose. And young Gramps beat Billy Gallagher the next day using the same combination.
But the following day Fred Ham, a boy big for his age, came looking to have a fight as well. He didn’t know young Gramps but he knew that he beaten Larry Moore and Billy Gallagher, both reputed to be pretty tough, although Fred had won fights with both of them.
Against the much bigger Fred, young Gramps faked with his left, crossed with his right, and hit Fred in the eye. There was no blood but Fred got a black eye that brought an end to other boys looking to have a fight with young Gramps.
Much to his surprise he caught no flak from his father who took the phone call from the nun who had called to report the fights young Gramps had been in. In fact, his father, while verbally deploring such behavior over the phone, seemed rather pleased to discover his tutelage had worked out so well. His mother, however, was obviously disgusted.
“This isn’t Ireland, Tommy,” she said to his father. “We can’t have a boy going around beating up other boys just because he has to wear glasses.”
Those memories were all clear in Gramps’ mind but at the moment he didn’t know how to explain to his grandson how this event—having to wear spectacles and learning to fight at an early age—had been a seminal event in his grammar school life.
His grandson was alive now in a new day and age at a time when mothers wanted sons to play soccer out of fear they might get hurt playing football. And schoolyard fights in the suburb where his grandson lived were probably unknown. At least Gramps had never heard of one.
The only real competition his grandson faced at his age was largely in the classroom where boys and girls tried to get the best grades possible. The hope was that one day they would win a scholarship to college.
As a result, Gramps finally told his grandson he’d have to think about what to tell him for his essay because his mind wasn’t as sharp it used to be.
"If all goes well, Patrick,” Gramps said, "I should have a good story when you come home from school tomorrow.”
But probably not as good as the one that had just run through his mind after more than 60 years.
Gramps knew it was the best he could offer.
But not to young Patrick.
Donal Mahoney, a native of Chicago, lives in St. Louis, Missouri. His fiction and poetry have appeared in various publications, including The Wisconsin Review, The Kansas Quarterly, The South Carolina Review, The Christian Science Monitor, The Chicago Tribune and Commonweal. Some of his work can be found here.