In recent conversations with friends, it has come to my attention that not all of them were spanked. This was a surprise to me. Spanking, as I understood it, was the fertilizer to one’s moral fiber. It rooted deep inside of you some secret (or not so secret) fear of the authority figure. I knew there were parents who took the no spanking approach, but I didn’t know they produced children I’d one day call friend. Of the friends I have that had been spanked, all but one had only ever been swatted by a frustrated parent’s hand. The oddball out being my friend Michael, who had once incurred the wrath of—Duhn-Duhn-DUUUHN—his mom’s flipflop. Really parents of America? Where was the creativity? Where were the long lasting effects of imagery? I highly doubt that Michael has serious aversions to flip-flops. I on the other hand didn’t pick up a ping-pong paddle till well after high school—we’ll get to this in a bit though. This revelation made me reflect the punishment structure—what you might call corrective conditioning—of my childhood.
I won’t say it was an exact science; it was more of an interpretive art form. But there was a correlation between the offense, your location, which adult was present, and the punishment received. Say, for instance, you are in the grocery store, and the game of lava tag you and your brothers are playing indirectly causes a few boxes of Kix to hit the floor, Mom may just mutter threats of a spanking to curb your behavior. On the other hand, when fighting with your oldest brother for position on the front of a shopping cart so you won’t have to walk around Wal-mart for hours causes the whole thing to topple over and spill the contents in an intersection of sporting goods aisles, you can bet you’re going to feel the sting of Father’s hand across your bottom, more than once most likely. If you are at Grandpa and Grandma’s house, and have the misfortune of breaking a family heirloom from rough housing, or else the audacity to talk back to Grandpa, rest assured you will be sent to the wood pile fetch a switch. It will be your first vocabulary lesson as you search for a stick that is softer and lighter than the rest, and your brother’s all watch through the kitchen window as you learn what the word ‘pliable’ means.
Being at home is where things really got interesting though. You did not want to find yourself on top of a skirmish when Dad entered the room. Regardless of your success—or lack thereof—up to that point in the fight, the one (or two or three depending on the size of the brawl) on top was marched into the back bedroom and made to face the wall. There would only be the forewarning of the number of blows to come and the zip sound Dad’s belt made as he whipped it from his belt loops before the crack of leather. You learn at a very young age to never try and block this type of spanking with your hands. Finally, there were the push Mom to the brink moments, and out would come Happy paddle/Crazy paddle. There would be multiple requests to stop rough housing before someone got hurt, followed by an ear-piercing whistle or two, which all fell on deaf ears. Then Mom would slip away into the kitchen and return with her hands behind her back. In the quietest, most polite voice she possessed, she would say, Don’t make me get out the paddle. This always got your attention. Your head would turn in time to see her taking steps toward you, ping-pong paddle raised out in front of her like a barber does with a mirror after your haircut. It was decorated with a cutsie caricature of her drawn on it in pink crayon, and the word ‘good’ scrawled across it. By this time you’d better be scrambling to free yourself of entangled body parts and preparing to run, because when she reached you, she spun the paddle in her hand. On the other side was Mom reincarnated as pure rage and chaos in black sharpie and what could only have been the blood of her previous victims, with the word ‘bad’ carved into the wood. Had Ursala, Maleficent, Cruella de Vil, and the rest of the Disney villainesses formed a posse, this version of Mom would have been their uncontested ruler. Most times she didn’t even have to use the thing because once you saw it, you were suddenly a perfect child, finishing chores, taking a bath, and adhering to bedtime. Sometimes you didn’t get away fast enough and she’d grab onto your shoulder and you’d have to run the limbo down the hall, legs churning, hips and butt tucked forward, back bent backwards to try and create as much space as possible between your butt and that paddle. Inevitably, you would feel over confident in your limbo running skills and stop to wiggle your butt as a way of calling her bluff. This is when you learn that Mom doesn’t have to bluff. This is when you understand the hierarchy of capital punishment in your home. This is when you learn to be thankful for the days you get the hand or even the belt. Still to this day, when I’m on the verge of doing something I shouldn’t or that I know not to, that image of pure rage and chaos comes to mind, and I run the limbo out of the situation.