My father would eat virtually anything. When he taught at Booneville in the 1960s, the teachers would sit together for lunch. There would be Daddy, happily munching his way through a plate of beets or some inedible casserole that the other teachers just automatically passed to him.
Daddy had a healthy respect for food. He liked it! He bequeathed that attitude to us boys. My two sons, when they were teenagers, looked like poster children for the American Tapeworm Society. You would have thought they could consume bushels, and I guess they did all right for their day; but they could not hold a candle to their old man in his prime. Eat first and ask questions later: that was my policy.
And I learned it all from my Dad. He was the true dinner table artist in the family, leading the way with his inspiring example. We watched in awe as he downed with joyful abandon every vegetable known to constrict the throats of the children of America. It was no big deal for Daddy.
My mother watched over her omnivorous brood with loving care. She is a great cook. At any time she can make a mouthwatering dish from whatever is in the refrigerator - without a recipe. A little of this, a pinch of that, and it comes out delicious. She was the perfect mess sergeant for her squad of chow chompers. And her meals always would be healthy meals. Always.
Mom’s care for our health extended to other areas, too. Every year we got wormed - the whole family. We boys went barefoot all summer, and her concern about parasites was well-founded, because the pasture was covered with meadow muffins.
For years the worm medicine had been little pills. They were pretty bad, but by gulping lots of water we could stand them. After all, it was only once a year. One year, however, she chose to use a liquid wormer – and a legend was born.
It was red, and it was the worst stuff any sadist ever concocted. In all my 65 years I have never tasted anything to compare with it. Even castor oil gave it no contest.
Robert had to go first, and the result sent chills down our spines. “Oh, Mama, no!!” He spat into the sink, gagged several times, and stood there shuddering. “Mama, I can’t take that. There’s no way!” There was no mercy in her dedicated, health-loving countenance. “Mama, please. You can’t make me swallow that. That’s the worst stuff I ever tasted. Please!” (No yielding. It had to be done.)
The sight of Robert standing on the back steps, heaving up his guts, only to have to come back and do it all over again, is forever burned in my memory. It would not work unless it stayed in his stomach. By this time, of course, Evan and I watched in abject terror. Robert was no slouch at the table himself, and if he was reacting like this?
I don’t know how we got through it. I get rigors just thinking about it. You folks think I am kidding, but I cannot imagine any sane human voluntarily putting that vile fluid into his mouth – unless he was confronted by 95 pounds of indomitable medical zeal. Mama said we were to be wormed, and wormed we would be, even if it killed us. By this time we were sure that was a distinct possibility.
Through all this Daddy was there in the background. When Robert objected so loudly, he put a little of the medicine to his tongue to see what he was complaining about. His eyes widened. “Come on, boys. You’re going to have to take it. Might as well get it over with.” And that was all! Had the tonic been of only moderate gagging qualities - tasting like, say, peppermint Brussel sprouts - he would have launched into his “finicky” lecture. But there was only a quiet exhortation to endure manfully this fate worse than death.
Somehow we managed to get that medicine down and keep it down. It took the better part of the morning, but finally, mercifully, the task was done. All except Daddy.
We turned and looked at him. He took a slow, deep breath, grasped the spoon, closed his eyes, and swallowed that diabolical stuff right on down without even flinching. Never - said - a - word.
Our nation has witnessed brave men throughout our history. Some charged up that fabled ridge with General Pickett. Others crawled through the sands of Iwo Jima. Their examples have inspired millions. But none of them ever surpassed the raw courage of my father that day when he silently swallowed that red worm medicine. He was a great American.