Yes Sir, no Sir, thank you Mam, please.
A proper southern boy was taught to address folks in particular ways. Being the eternally curious boy I was I asked why and was told that saying sir and mam was a way to show respect to my elders. The next time I happened to be introduced to another little boy, I asked him how old he was, and since he was a year older than I, I addressed him as sir, since he was my elder. My parents told me to stop it. I knew of course what I was doing; I was being aggravting, bordering on insolance. They knew I knew that’s not what they had meant.
So they tried to define elder which ended up being impossible; and then I asked should I say “sir” to a criminal since such a person might be older but not worthy of respect. Intelligence is a mixed blessing. Half the time—more than that probably—that they thought I was being insolent, I was really asking a question that they couldn’t answer because there wasn’t an answer, except “because I say so.” I got that one a lot, and “you will know when you are an adult.”
I don’t think on this particular occasion that I was in a bad mood. Thought it might have been my second year in high school when I was always in a bad mood. I recollect having been really quite abstracted, off in my own mind someplace.
We were at the dinner table. I sat at one end, as the number 1 son, and the old man sat opposite; and my mother and my youngest brother still in his high chair sat on one side and the two other brothers on the other side. Usually Popeye the Sailor Man was on TV. The way the room was shaped and sitting where I sat, the damn TV was directly behind me and I couldn’t see it at all. But the old man looking over my shoulder could see what Olive Oil, Wimpy and the rest of the gang were up to.
My father asked me to pass him something. Like the salt. So I did, and as far as I was concerned that was over with. But then the old lady said, “Say Sir to your father.” What the hell was her problem? I couldn’t remember having said anything at all; had I said yes with out the sir. I felt sort of startled like you do when somebody sneaks up behind you and makes a noise and you jump. It was like out of nowhere….
And I found myself saying, “I don’t say sir….” And about there I knew what I was going to say and I decided to say it all….”to people I don’t respect.” Things would just come over me sometimes.
So the old man started huffing and puffing and banging his fists on the table and looking like one of those cartoon creatures with smoke coming out of its nose and ears, and then he stood up and lifted the whole table about up to his neck and slammed it down again. So my favorite meal ended up flying every whichaway and mostly into my lap. Pork chops with minute rice and gravy and an iceberg lettuce salad with some sort of fucking vegatable out of a can. If you really want to turn kids off to their veggies, be sure to serve them out of a can.
I don’t know what happened after that. The old lady started bawling of course and the two young brothers too. But I didn’t get hit because this was after the time they had decided to stop beating me. Probably I was sent to my room and deprived of my one pathetic hour of TV viewing. Like missing Mannix was going to kill me.
Probably there’s no excuse for what I said except maybe for the fact I was telling the truth. I had thought about it long and hard and concluded that the old man, while my elder, was not worthy of my respect and thus did not warrant a “Sir.”