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My dad's hard stare could turn boiling water into ice

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Posted: Wednesday, September 5, 2007 10:00 pm

Being a North Dakota squarehead in our family guaranteed you would spend a great deal of your life either in church or steeped in guilt because you weren't in church. Church was our parents' social life, period.

I have a hundred anecdotes I could rattle off illustrating that point. Suffice it to say, until we were old enough to go to school, all of our friends were associated with our church.

There are a couple of guys who tell me they read this column, or at least have wives who force them to listen to it as they read it to them; they're the ones who got me in enough trouble when we were church kids to guarantee I would be grounded every Sunday afternoon and evening until I graduated from college. That's a lie, but it seemed I was always in hot water at noon on Sundays. My mother made the best chicken soup outside any Jewish neighborhood in New York, or I would have surely died of ulcers before I was 10. Chicken soup heals both the body and the spirit, as you know.

What I didn't always stop to think about was the fact my parents honed in on me and made notes the whole time I was in church after I turned 10 and got to sit with my buddies "up front" away from the family.

My dad was in the congregation in the middle of the sanctuary, my mom was in the choir and I was well on my way into purgatory or whatever it is you call the silent treatment around the table when we got home at noon on Sundays.

Neither of my parents nagged. It was the looks from them that made my ears turn red.

When I was really little, I once slapped my mother. My dad saw what I did and he said, "You are never going to do that again, ever."

The look behind the admonition would have made ice out of boiling water in a second. Needless to say, I never even thought about hitting my mom or anyone else in the family after that.

I would have traded 10 of my dad's paddlings any time for one of those incredibly influential stares which hurt for weeks. He used them rarely but with great effect; in fact I don't think he turned on the full intensity of that stare more than five times in my whole life and each time it became a defining moment. The spankings were just used to placate my sister or fulfill my mother's promise, which began with, "Wait until daddy gets home."

Calling him "Daddy" was one thing. It bespoke leniency. Using the phrase "your father" would have been the equivalent to a 10-year stretch in the pen so she never used it.

My sister used to attend church "extracurrularly" and that included revival meetings, something that doesn't happen in some denominations these days. One of the things evangelists were famous for were catch phrases (hold that thought).

My brother, my dad and I had an almost infinite capacity for drinking water when we were young. We lived in a house with a large kitchen and ate there. One day, my sister got up to get a drink from the kitchen sink. My dad polished off his glass of water and asked her to please fill his glass again. I did the same, and Harry got in on the act. By that time, dad needed another drink, then I did and then Harry giggled and asked her for a refill.

It dawned to my sis that we were taking advantage and it wasn't funny to her so she used a catch phrase on me: "Robert, do you know that the middle letter of 'sin' is 'i' (As in: 'I sin')?"

I said to Harry: "Harry, did you know that the middle letter of 'antidisestablishmentarianism' is an 'e'!?"

It's actually an "i", but I didn't have time to check.

My father, who wasn't supposta laugh at stuff like that, bit his napkin in two to keep from losing his stern look. But it wasn't THAT look, if you know what I mean. His turned down mouth was one thing, but the dancin' eyes gave him away and my sister has always had a forgiving soul and all's well that ended well.

Bob Bader is a local chiropractor and writer. E-mail:

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