Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it ... Read More
When I was fourteen, after Mom died and Dad had gone his way, my grandmother sent me to live at a group home in northern Florida. All told, I lived there only two years but, as I would come to find out, those two years were real whoppers. Imagine if you will, me, a fourteen-year-old boy from the suburbs who’d always been more or less an obedient child, well-mannered, a good student, never much in the way of trouble, dropped suddenly into the wilds of a rural Florida cattle farm surrounded by cows, horses, strange woods, and nine other “brothers” who were far stranger than any of the livestock or landscape. Such it was. By the end of my first week, I had learned how to smoke cigarettes, dip Copenhagen, and defend myself against an army of nine pseudo-siblings intent on seeing to it that my new place in the world was clearly established. I learned to be a boy I suppose, in the classical sense, and would set myself a good way down the road to becoming a man before I left.
Among all the other boyish things I was learning in those days, there was the art of The Cuss. I was full of boyish amazement upon discovering the effects we could produce with a choice arrangement of consonants and vowels. A word said often among boys without a dropped beat or a second thought could somehow quiet a room and garner a red-faced tirade and harsh punishment if spoken the exact same way in company at the dinner table. This made no sense to me then, but oh, what a sandbox in which to play. We were grammatical pioneers, engineers of the experimentally profane. We’d mix up a bit of an S-word with a healthy shake of the B-word and set it off in range of an adult just to see the explosion.
We learned soon enough that certain adults had weaknesses for just certain words. With Mr. Henry, the school disciplinarian, for example, we all knew he’d sputter and turn blue at the gills if anyone dared to hurl a B-word at him. Mrs. Touley, the science teacher, on the other hand was just as cool as early spring under any circumstance that didn’t involve the appearance of a F-word. That was really the ringer wasn’t it? The F-word. That almighty obscenity against which no adult defense could stand. Like burning magnesium, it flared so brightly that it illuminated everything around it and seared colored shadows into your eyesight that lingered long after the fire had died. What a glorious tool it was. Yet, exactly what it was and why it was we hadn’t a clue. Four letters placed together, just so, not so very much different from a duck, or a truck, or even a man named Chuck. That one letter. And why? We wondered, or at least I did, but ultimately we didn’t care. It served a purpose. It was useful. It got attention. It made people listen to us—or so we thought. It would be a while yet before I learned the difference between being heard and being listened to.
Vespers was one place we couldn’t really get much talking in so our cussing time was limited and we had to find other ways to make ourselves known, silent ways. It was our clothes we found. Ties, and belts, and black socks, and slacks—all fertile ground for a healthy teenage rebellion. They’d tell us to tie it this way; we’d tie it that. Tuck it in; we’d pull it out. Black dress socks were likely to find their way into the garbage can instead of the laundry basket so that the following Sunday we could claim, and quite honestly, that we hadn’t a proper black sock to our name.
One Sunday, during my last summer there, Miss Timmons, our sometime chaplain, decided that our grammatical engineering had got quite far enough out of hand and set herself to its mending. We filed into the chapel, misfits all—some ties hanging to the crotch, others scarcely a hand’s breadth from the knot, some white socks, some black, sometimes both on the same boy, hair as soon combed back as ruffled up. God’s own mess we looked. We made our way under adult direction to our pews and sat, hunched over, elbows on our knees. “Sit up straight!” the adults chided and we would, for a moment at least.
One of the adults asked for prayer requests and a dozen hands shot up. “I’d like to pray for my girl,” said one boy. “I’d like to pray for his girl, too!” said another. Snickers erupted. Adults gritted their teeth and tried to maintain the dignity of the service.
“Does anyone have any serious prayer requests?” Another few hands stuck up, waving.
“Good, good, we’ll pray for Jerry’s mother.”
“And I want to pray for my sister.”
“And Tyler’s sister, good.”
“And my daddy!”
“And my daddy’s momma!”
“And my sister’s daddy!”
Put enough teenage boys together and anything becomes a competition.
“I want to pray for Jerry’s momma!”
“You shut up about my momma!” The two boys stood straight upright.
“I’m gonna pray for your sister AND your momma ‘cause they the same person!”
The other boy leapt over a pew and engineered a flash bomb made of a d-word, a splash of an a-word, and a strong dose of f-words to cap it all off. This got the adults involved. A few minutes later, the two boys engaged in the prayer dispute were escorted from the chapel and we were all back in our seats and giggling.
When Miss Timmons took the stage, however, we quieted ourselves. This wasn’t out of any respect for the Lord, or the service, and certainly not out of respect for the adults and their clench-jawed attendance of us. No, we were all silent for Miss Timmons because Miss Timmons commanded just the kind of attention that teenaged boys are ready to give. She was very much the sort of woman that a boy is happy to be quiet and stare at. She had a curvaceous, hourglass shape that girls our age hadn’t quiet come into yet and she was so very pretty. She wore a dress that day that, even then, we knew somehow wasn’t quite appropriate for church. It was short, a good six or eight inches of real estate showing above her knee and when she walked up the steps to the podium we leaned forward in a brief moment of hope that the elevation would give us enough angle to let us see things we’d scarcely ever even imagined. Then she turned to face us and our eyes had other fruit to feast on; her low cut blouse framed a glorious pink half-moon of flesh and cleavage. Silence in the chapel. The adults were most pleased—and so were we. What appeal she had was somewhat lessened by her fondness for strange hats, however. She was wearing an abomination on her head that looked more or less like a dead cat. It matched the rest of her outfit, in color at least, but really, does color coordination, however tasteful, ever justify dead cat? We didn’t care.
Miss Timmons was a very happy and outgoing person. Most people have an unspoken boundary line across which it is uncomfortable for another person to pass in normal discourse and conversation. This is usually a distance of some one and a half to two feet and except for the occasional handshake or hug, this is an area of the human person that is generally regarded as sacrosanct and is not trespassed upon. Miss Timmons was not the sort of woman that understood this. When you spoke with her she didn’t maintain the proper distance and in fact would prevent you from maintaining it either by constantly taking hold of your arm or your shoulder and pulling you closer. For us as boys, we were all so very cute and lovable that she felt the need to increase this trespass with a constant assault of hugging. Now, had Miss Timmons been of the unattractive type, this facet of her person would present a problem. As pretty as she was though, this peculiarity of hers was very welcome indeed. I suspect many a boy departed her vespers services with less of the Lord in his heart than he had of Miss Timmons scent in his head and to be hugged into that bosom was another form of worship altogether.
She clasped her hands together between her breasts and smiled at us. “Good morning!”
“Good morning!” we answered in unison—and meant it.
“I’m so happy to be here with you all this morning!” Having no one else on stage to touch or pull closer, she actually hugged herself as she said this and encouraged her cleavage to call even more attention to itself. We nodded.
“Would you guys mind if I sang a song? I’m just really feeling that the Lord is putting this song on my heart and I want to sing it for you. Is that okay, you all?”
She didn’t wait for our answer and proceeded to start the musical accompaniment tape she already had prepared. I don’t remember what the song was. What I remember, as you might have guessed, is the way she sang it. She was an emotional woman and her singing was an indication of this. One white-gloved hand held the microphone and the other she raised to heaven. She threw her head back and closed her eyes, shut them tight and sang her song like a plea for mercy. The dead cat on her head threatened to fall off at the least provocation. Whenever she sang, she always cried—even if the song wasn’t a sad one. I don’t know if she did it out of real piety or if she just wanted us to think she was sincere, but she always cried and this was no exception.
“Thank you all for listening to that. The Lord just really laid that on my heart to sing this morning and I hope it blesses you all like it did me.” She hugged her cleavage again. We were blessed.
“Now, I want to talk to you all this morning about something that’s really been on my mind. I think we ought to pray about that. You all put your heads down. Lord,” she began to pray with almost no warning like this quite often, “I want you to be with these beautiful boys this morning. I want you to open up their hearts and mines—” it would be some time before it occurred to me that she meant ‘minds’—“and help them hear your Word today.” She went on and on when she prayed, often crying again in the delivery and sometimes she would forget that she was praying and just begin to talk to us again and then after a few minutes would realize that she was supposed to be praying and say, “In Jesus’ name, amen!” This caused quite a lot of confusion as you were never quite sure whether to be bowing your head in prayer or holding your head up so the adults wouldn’t think you were sleeping.
“You know what the most dange-riss weapon there is, is?” she asked us? Miss Timmons was also not someone who knew how to use a rhetorical question. We could never tell if she meant us to actually answer or just to consider the question. Consequently, we spent less time considering the actual matter at hand than we did wondering whether we ought to shout out an answer or just sit quietly in contemplation. Finally a boy down in front shouted out, “Machine guns!”
She raised her eyebrows at him and smiled with her mouth closed as if to communicate that he should reconsider his answer. “Nope!” she said. “Anyone else?”
“’Tomic bombs!” said someone.
“Nope, but them sure are dange-riss!”
“’Tomic bombs got to be the most dangerous. They can kill everybody but roaches,” he answered.
“Yeah, that’s right, I suppose. They ain’t, though! You know what the most dange-riss weapon is?” Eyebrows up. Silence. “The tongue!”
This caused quite a lot of looking around in wonderment and no few boys stuck their tongues out as if to inspect them or poke at them in suspicion.
“That’s right. The tongue is the most dange-riss weapon of all.”
“You cain’t kill nothing with your tongue,” shouted out a boy behind me. The nearest adult leaned over and shooshed him.
“Well, let’s us see what the Bible says. You all got your Bibles? Turn to James chapter three.” Most of us didn’t bring our Bibles so we reached for the copies in the pocket on the back of the pew in front of us and fumbled around looking for the book of James while she read.
“The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” She stopped reading and raised her eyebrows again as she looked at us. All I could think was that she’d just said the H-word. In front of me a boy leaned over and whispered to the boy sitting next to him, “Did she say ‘hell’?” This was scandalous in our way of thinking.
“Now let’s us read the next verse and I want you all to pay real special attention.” She looked down to her Bible again and we all sat in rapt attention to see what she might say next. Most of us had given up looking for James.
“All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Eyebrows.
“Did you all see what that just said?”
“All,” she said as if the word held some great significance. “All!” she repeated, drawing the word out so long that I imagined it was the cat on her head come back to life with a horrifying mewl. “Awwwwwwwl, the animals, birds, reptiles, and creatures of the sea are tamed!” Her entire face was lit up with this revelation. I was completely baffled and told her so with the look on my face. “Who can name me a sea creature?” she asked us. “Come on, now. Who can name me one?”
“Sharks!” said a boy to my left.
“They tamed ‘em!”
What? I thought to myself. The sermon had somehow turned from the danger of the tongue to the naming of, and taming of, sea life.
“Name me another one!”
“Tamed ‘em! And reptiles? Who knows a reptile?”
Now even at my young age and level of physical maturity I could see that this was not going well.
“Hebrews tamed them horny toads! It says it right there!” She tapped her finger on her Bible and several of us went back to looking for James because we were sure she hadn’t read something right. Miracles I could take. The parting of the sea? No problem. Water from a stone? Got it. Resurrection of the dead? Check. Taming of the horny toad? No way. Not buying it.
“How can they tame sharks?” asked a boy that was clearly as confused as I was. “You can’t tame no shark.”
“I don’t know how they done it. Maybe they had shark saddles or something. But it says, ‘Awwwwwl.’ Right there. It says it. So somehow, they must have done it. Ain’t that amazing? But look what else it says. They tamed all those beasts and creatures, but they couldn’t tame the tongue!” This was cause for deep contemplation. A teenage boy is a special sort of expert on things like sharks and especially horny toads and here we were presented with evidence that possibly our tongues were more wild and untamable than either.
“Let’s us pray about that.” Miss Timmons threw back her head and launched into prayer again. “Oh, Lord! Teach us how to tame our tongues. Just like you helped the Hebrews to tame them sharks, and whales, and horny toads, Lord, help these precious boys here to tame their tongues. They say things some times that they don’t even know what they saying. I know there’s some boys sitting in here right now that’s probably said some things even this morning that was dange-riss. If there is, I want you to put up your hand right now. That’s right, don’t nobody look now, just slip your hand on up if you said something dange-riss today.”
Now this is another of Miss Timmons peculiarities: the slipping up of hands. No matter how often she assured us that no one would be looking and we could ‘slip them on up’ anonymously, I never dared. I was always sure that even though I didn’t look, some other boys would be looking around to find out just who was guilty of whatever sin she was taking confessions of and even if other boys weren’t looking, I had the distinct worry that one of the adults would be taking notes and awarding the proper consequences later on. So I didn’t slip my hand up this particular Sunday, nor any other, but I did want to often enough and I hoped the Lord would count my wanting even though I didn’t get counted in Miss Timmons’s tally.
“There’s one,” she whispered. “Yes, yes. Thank you. There’s one—and another. Thank you, thank you. Hands all around. Slip ‘em on down now. Slip ‘em on down. Lord, bless these boys. Let them go on out today with more than what they came in with. Let them tame their tongues, Lord, just like them horny toads. Yes, Jesus. Yes.” Then she slipped out of her prayer, like she often did, and began to address us again with the Lord apparently on hold. “When you go on out of here this morning I want you to think about how your tongue is steering you, boys. Think about it and make sure it’s taking you someplace you’ll be proud to go.” I raised my head and took a quick look around the room to see if we were supposed to be praying or looking up. The other heads were down except for Miss Timmons who had her eyes squeezed shut and her face turned up to heaven even though she seemed to be addressing us. I bowed my head back down and she took the Lord off hold. “Lord, bless these boys every one. Walk with them and guide them that they’ll know the way. And in Jesus’ precious name, amen.”
When the service was over, we filed back out of the chapel, mostly in silence. Miss Timmons waited at the door, greeting us all as we passed, pulling us closer than was properly comfortable and hugging us to her bosom. When it came my turn to be hugged at and pulled she smiled at me, patted my cheeks with her palms and said, “Good morning, darlin’. I’m so glad to see you here.” She hugged me and I thought about how to tame that toad.
It would be a long time before I realized that what Miss Timmons was trying to tell us wasn’t that the Hebrews were miraculous animal handlers. I spent a good many nights in the months thereafter wondering how sharks were tamed, or whales, or eagles—and yes—horny toads. But after that Sunday I didn’t engineer my acidic grammar-bombs so readily anymore. I learned, slowly, that maybe I wasn’t so much in control of those dange-riss mixtures of f-words, and b-words, and s-words as I wanted to believe, that maybe they were sometimes in control of me. And eventually I would learn new and even more dange-riss words, words that maybe weren’t so explosive on impact but the kind that sink in and slow burn and hurt for days and months and even years after they are spoken, including that most powerful of all, the L-word.
As many times as I’ve gone back and read that passage of James, I always marvel that the thing that jumped out at Miss Timmons was the “awwwwww.” I’m at least fairly certain that animal husbandry in the ancient Hebrew world wasn’t as far reaching as she led us to believe, and I wonder if James himself might not want to go back and reword some of what he said if he heard Miss Timmons’s take on it. It’s a disservice to decry the tongue as the most dange-riss weapon, though that is indeed a truth. More accurately, it is the most powerful of tools. When wielded with grace it can build high towers, plant ageless gardens, and calm even the wildest beast. Used carelessly, it can ruin a thing even so guarded and resilient as the soul. A greater mystery, though, is that it can use the same words to accomplish either end. Is it any wonder it gave the Hebrews more trouble than those horny toads?
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.