I only remember hearing my grandfather swear once when I lived with him as a small child. But on that single occasion, he turned the air in the house blue.
I repeated one of the words he said later and my grandmother washed my mouth out with soap and taught me a lesson that stuck well beyond my five years on this planet at the time.
My grandfather, Sen. O.W. Whitney Sr., was a leader in the Ohio Senate in the 1940s, as this country was preparing to go to war. A man came to visit who wanted to persuade “Gramp” to change a vote he had indicated he would cast against a bill the visitor favored. The visitor though perhaps a little cash payment under the table could change my grandfather’s attitude.
Instead, my grandfather flew out of the chair in which he had been sitting, grabbed a cane and ran the man down the hallway, out the front door and threatened to do damage to the automobile in which the man was about to make a fast getaway in, all the while calling the man every name in the book, “[email protected]#$ ^*%#!)@#$^*%#”
There were two things you didn’t do in Gramp’s house – swear or lie! There was no debate on the issue. There was plenty of soap to wash out one’s mouth if a foul word should slip out. And, there were at least two dozen chairs around the house to which one could be sentenced to silence if one were to attempt to avoid the truth.
I only remember getting my mouth washed out with soap once, but I do have some less-than-fond memories of spending several hours on a chair practicing silence in my youth.
My how times have changed! I had a friend who ran for and won a seat on the County Commission a few years back. He was constantly bickering about the hired County Administrator.
I asked him one day why he apparently didn’t like the administrator and the commissioner’s reply was, “Because he lies when he doesn’t have to!”
My grandfather had raised me to believe, and demonstrated, that politicians were expected to be straightforward and honest. I related that to my friend the County Commissioner.
“He,” referring to my grandfather, “came from a different world,” the commissioner replied.
I guess he was correct. I just watched as the Senate in my home state of Florida failed to enact an ethics bill for the fifth year in a row because the senators could not agree that state lawmakers should refrain from influencing bills that could earn or cost them money.
For me, that should have been a slam-dunk. But in Florida, that question seems to befuddle our lawmakers.
Where I grew up, there was no degree of ethics or truth. It either was or it was not. No debate.
One of the first stories you were read as a child was “Pinocchio.” Every time I got caught and drew punishment in silence on the chair, one of the first things I did when I was released was to go look in the long mirror in the hallway and check to see if my nose had grown.
As a journalist, I spent the better part of my life chasing down lies and untruths. I’m probably pretty jaundiced today. I take any word from a politician with a grain of salt. It seems that distorting the truth is one of the hallmarks of politics.
And, in my life over the years I have been known to tell a few tall tales myself. So much so that I had to eventually break the habit. It was not easy because some of the stories I told, with their added embellishment, were good enough that people often asked me to repeat them for their entertainment.
However, my conscience – my inner Pinocchio nose – eventually got the better of me and I finally, in the middle of telling one of these tall tales, stopped and admitted to the person to whom I was telling it, that it stretched the truth just a bit. He laughed and told me it was a great story despite the embellishment. But the experience of exposing myself to a man that I admired was enough of an embarrassment to make me give up the habit.
As a result, I learned an interesting thing: People often don’t believe the truth when they hear it!
In addition to being relieved or having to remember what I last said, I have been given the blessing of blissfully cruising through life saying exactly what is on my mind, guilt-free. I don’t always agree this year with what I said last year, and sometimes people remind me of that fact, but I reserve the right to change my mind without having to go into lengthy explanations of why.
There are those times, though, when I find myself trapped into an untruth. Like recently when I was making reference to one of the most quoted lines from English literature: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”
I made the mistake of attributing it to Shakespeare when in fact I should have known Sir Walter Scott wrote it nearly two centuries after Shakespeare’s time.
My only forgiveness for perpetuating such a dire untruth was the quick admission, when I discovered what I had done, that indeed I had misquoted the Bard and denied the good Sir his proper recognition.
So, I am still not above stretching the truth now and then. It’s just that I make a conscious effort not to anymore.
It’s like I get up every morning and look into the mirror and asked: “Is my nose getting longer?“
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