I have to play my brother Tickle in our fantasy football playoffs this week. (Wow, that sentence sounds like a want ad from Craigslist.) The league we play in is full of shenanigans, with teams changing their team names weekly to make fun of the person they are playing and engaging in other jokes. A couple weeks ago, I was playing my brother’s friend Veets. That same week, The Lovely Becky had to log into my Yahoo account for me.
“Why is your Yahoo profile picture a photo of Veetz?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s just this stupid fantasy football thing we do,” I replied, a sentence that was like adding a toxic asset to my wife’s sexual interest portfolio.
In naming my team this week, I went to a deep well, which is a Christmas story we delight in retelling each year. About 20 years ago, on Christmas Eve, Tickle, my sister E, and I were playing Monopoly. My sister was the banker. At one point, Tickle accused E of cheating by stealing money out of the bank. E denied it. I hadn’t seen her stealing money, but at the time, I also wouldn’t have put it past my little sister. The argument intensified and my sister shoved or hit Tickle. Tickle hit back. He was two years older and bigger, so he shouldn’t have done that. However, he most certainly did not hit my sister hard enough to force the blood-curdling scream she let out.
Bill Cosby had a famous bit about parenting that said parents didn’t care about justice. They cared about quiet. That was my father. That scream shot up the hallway, wrapped around his head, and pulled him out of his chair to the room where we were playing. He walked in asking what the hell was going on, and E blurted out, “TICKLE HIT ME!”
Justice requires context. Retribution does not. My father, roused from what was probably a peaceful state, had been pulled into an altercation where his only daughter was crying like my brother had taken a folding chair and smacked her over the head with it. Beyond the noise issue, Tickle made the crucial mistake of hitting my sister. That was a cardinal rule: don’t hit your sister. Granted, we weren’t supposed to hit each other at all, but the boys hitting E tended to be like the difference between getting in a bar fight where you wind up in the drunk tank and assaulting a police officer. You just didn’t do the latter, no matter the circumstances.
My father was also old school when it came to retribution. Corporal punishment was not meted out fairly rarely, but it did show up, and the mere idea of it was often enough to keep us in line. When we stepped on the proverbial last straw, out came the belt and on went the spanking.
Tickle was about 12 at the time, near the cutoff for spanking. I think my last one happened when I was 11. As we got older, it actually became less effective, because our parents could take things away that would punish us far longer than a temporarily sore bottom would. Plus, it gets a little ridiculous to spank an older child.
When my father told E and I to clear out and went to get his belt, I was shocked, because I thought Tickle was over the spanking plateau. Still, despite being about 19, even I wasn’t going to deny a direct order to vamoose, so E and scooted into the hallway.
Giving a 12-year-old a spanking—on Christmas Eve or otherwise—may seem cruel to some. Now that I’m a father, I don’t think I could ever spank Libby. In retrospect, though, I can understand it. My father was under a lot of pressure when we were kids. We weren’t poor, but we had the struggles of the lower middle class. My dad was an enlisted Navy man, and even with my mom working part time, making ends meet wasn’t always easy, especially in expensive California. Dad wanted a little peace and quiet, especially on Christmas Eve, and our Milton-Bradley-sponsored fracas had thrown some monkey feces at his Norman Rockwell evening. Add one of the male children hitting the one female child, and somebody was going to get it.
Also, one cannot judge my father without judging his two evil offspring who left that bedroom only to camp outside the door and laugh as Tickle got spanked. Why were we laughing, aside from our evilness? Because Tickle let out the most pathetic pleas I had ever heard. We heard the crack of the belt on his behind, followed by his crying and the comment, No, Daddy, I’ll be good. I’m laughing as I write that, and I know it’s wrong, but damn it, it was funny. My sister, previously mortally wounded by my brother’s glancing blow, now giggled with each of the several belt hits. Finally, the door opened and out came Tickle—poor pathetic Tickle—doing the sniffling shuffle of the recently spanked, headed to his room. My father came out and glared at us, warning that anyone laughing would get it too. I got out of there before the giggles came back.
On the surface, Tickle’s spanking was unremarkable. We all usually got at least one or two spankings a year until we were too old to spank, and frankly, we deserved them in just about every instance. After all, we were kids who laughed at our siblings getting spanked on Christmas Eve. Lil’ angels we were not.
Tickle’s spanking, however, grew into legendary status. The combination of it being Christmas Eve, of our laughing, and of his pleas for mercy (the only time I ever heard Tickle say “Daddy”) led to the story becoming one we retell every holiday season.
My mother hates when we tell the story. It is an admittedly terrible story. However, no matter how many times the members of our family hear it, they crack up, including Tickle. When E or I retell it, the roomful of relatives loses it when we get to No, Daddy, I’ll be good. Even my mother and grandmother can’t help but smile a little as they shake their heads in disapproval.
This week, as I squared off against Tickle in fantasy football, I knew what I would name my team.