Saturday, April 4, 2009

A boy named Sue

Parents teach you a lot—mostly things that you emulate, which become part of your own character and behavior. But sometimes you learn the opposite.

My parents made no waves. What I mean by that is I never saw them send a steak back because it was undercooked. If my dad bought a pair of shoes that turned out to be too tight, he would put a shoe stretcher in them until they fit or the seams pulled apart. If my mom brought home a half gallon of milk that poured out in bleu-cheese-like chunks, she would defend the milk and tell me to eat my cereal in between the globules.

I grew up in a No Wake Zone.

I remember saving up my allowance money for weeks when I was ten with the goal of buying the Magical Mystery Tour album. It cost $2.99 at the PX, one of two stops on our Saturday shopping route, the other being the base commissary. My mom traded three dollar bills for my pennies, nickels and dimes and I was ready to go shopping.

I was so excited about adding this record to my Beatles collection that I was up early, dressed in my buttoned-to-the-top-button plaid shirt, slim cut jeans and Keds high-top tennis shoes. Tucked next to the three dollar bills in my wallet was my audio/visual team ID card from school. I was a nerd’s nerd.

We made the 10-mile trip to Ft. Bliss and, after I bought the album, I had to suffer the excruciating hour-long visit to the commissary. With our bags of groceries safely stowed in the trunk by the bagboy, we headed home. “Can I open the album?” “No. Wait until we get home.” I was a tortured young man.

I raced in and out of the house until the groceries were all in the kitchen. I then eagerly cut the plastic wrap off John, Paul, George and Ringo’s latest masterpiece. Pulling the record out of the sleeve, I noticed something very wrong. Very, very wrong.

The vinyl disc in the package was not a Beatles album. It was the New Christy Minstrels “New Kick!” record. Oh no! I was crushed. What happened? (It was years later that I became aware of this “purchase and return” scam that people pulled, returning empty boxes or, in this case, an unwanted album for a full refund.)

My mom attempted to console me. “Oh, I love the New Christy Minstrels. Let’s listen to it.” Are you kidding? I wanted to go back to the PX right then. “No, we can’t do that. You’ll have to wait until next Saturday.” At 33 cents a gallon, I couldn’t see how the 20-mile round trip was going to wreck the family budget.

Long story (a week is an eternity for a 10-year-old kid) short: I made the New Christy Minstrels for the Beatles hostage swap the next Saturday, but not without receiving the third degree from a disbelieving store manager.

That was a success story. This next one was not. Or so I thought at the time.

I got a bicycle for Christmas, just a few weeks after the Minstrel debacle. I had dreamed about a three-speed bike to replace the beach cruiser I had outgrown. The seat had been raised to the highest notch and I was afraid that my dad might weld on an extra foot-long pipe to make it last until I started high school.

There’s nothing quite like Santa getting it wrong. Next to the Christmas tree stood a three-speed bicycle. A champagne-colored three-speed bicycle. A girl’s champagne-colored three-speed bicycle.

I was convinced that my mom was serious when she told me that she had hoped for a girl to complement my two older brothers.

Once again, attempting to make lemonade out of lemons, my mom pointed out how much easier it was to mount this bicycle without a crossbar between the seat and handle bars getting in the way. Besides, you’re less likely to injure your private parts, she said. Believe me, at this point, none of this justification was in any way convincing to a prepubescent boy who was already concerned about his high level of sissyness.

But there was no negotiation. My dad, having been raised during the Great Depression and having fought in World War II, was unimpressed by my disappointment. “Do you know what I would have given up to have a fancy bicycle like this when I was growing up?” “Yes Dad. Your manlihood,” I would have loved to have said. Of course, I would never have done that without risking certain physical injury.

So there I was, the proud owner of an ego-deflating girl’s bike. I promptly removed the plastic streamers that hung out of the handle bar grips and started telling my friends that I was borrowing my cousin’s bike. They figured it out soon enough.

I rode that bike for five years. It did have the effect of toughening me up. I learned to deflect the teasing by picking on something equally deflating about the teaser. I also made the decision to never accept anything again (gifts excepted) that didn’t meet my expectations. That was a life lesson worth learning.

In case there’s anyone who doesn’t get the connection of my story to Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” here are the lyrics from the Shel Silverstein song. Sure, it’s a huge stretch to think that my situation even approaches the horrible stigma laid on The Man In Black’s character. My dad was always there for me, we never had any fist fights, and I respected and loved him. But somehow I’ve alway seen some parallels between my story and Sue’s.

“A Boy Named Sue”

My daddy left home when I was three
And he didn’t leave much to ma and me
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze.
Now, I don’t blame him cause he run and hid
But the meanest thing that he ever did
Was before he left, he went and named me “Sue.”

Well, he must o’ thought that is quite a joke
And it got a lot of laughs from a’ lots of folk,
It seems I had to fight my whole life through.
Some gal would giggle and I’d get red
And some guy’d laugh and I’d bust his head,
I tell ya, life ain’t easy for a boy named “Sue.”

Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean,
My fist got hard and my wits got keen,
I’d roam from town to town to hide my shame.
But I made a vow to the moon and stars
That I’d search the honky-tonks and bars
And kill that man who gave me that awful name.

Well, it was Gatlinburg in mid-July
And I just hit town and my throat was dry,
I thought I’d stop and have myself a brew.
At an old saloon on a street of mud,
There at a table, dealing stud,
Sat the dirty, mangy dog that named me “Sue.”

Well, I knew that snake was my own sweet dad
From a worn-out picture that my mother’d had,
And I knew that scar on his cheek and his evil eye.
He was big and bent and gray and old,
And I looked at him and my blood ran cold
And I said: “My name is ‘Sue!’ How do you do! Now you’re gonna die!!”

Well, I hit him hard right between the eyes
And he went down, but to my surprise,
He come up with a knife and cut off a piece of my ear.
But I busted a chair right across his teeth
And we crashed through the wall and into the street
Kicking and a’ gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer.

I tell ya, I’ve fought tougher men
But I really can’t remember when,
He kicked like a mule and he bit like a crocodile.
I heard him laugh and then I heard him cuss,
He went for his gun and I pulled mine first,
He stood there lookin’ at me and I saw him smile.

And he said: “Son, this world is rough
And if a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be tough
And I knew I wouldn’t be there to help ya along.
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you’d have to get tough or die
And it’s the name that helped to make you strong.”

He said: “Now you just fought one hell of a fight
And I know you hate me, and you got the right
To kill me now, and I wouldn’t blame you if you do.
But ya ought to thank me, before I die,
For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye
Cause I’m the son-of-a-bitch that named you ‘Sue.’”

I got all choked up and I threw down my gun
And I called him my pa, and he called me his son,
And I came away with a different point of view.
And I think about him, now and then,
Every time I try and every time I win,
And if I ever have a son,
I think I’m gonna name him Bill or George! Anything but Sue!
I still hate that name!


  1. As Randy's son, I can vouch for this creed he lives by personally. Several years ago, we went to the McDonald's drive through for a nice family dinner. I had my usual order, a cheeseburger Happy Meal, no pickles. I was half way through my greasy, cheeseburgery bliss when it was interrupted by the unwanted crunch of a pickle. I was under the impression that once you finish a certain percentage of the heart attack on a bun, it is deemed unreturnable, but apparently I had not learned this lesson from my father. We went back to McDonald's and exchanged my half eaten cheeseburger (with a pickle) for a brand new cheeseburger (without any pickles). This is the moment in my life that I learned that my father doesn't accept anything less than what he is expecting.

  2. The Man In Black[ Mr. Cash ] did indeed change a lot of folks with his music and for me it was one of his first recording's that sort of changed our lives a little as well. It was called " I Walked the Line"

    Now if you were ride the canal to fish you would soon learn that riding a girls bike is the only way to travel. Those that ride mens bike are given the hard time as the lesson your folks gave you about the saving your private parts, sort of kicks in as you get a little older and wiser. A true canal rat would never be seen dead on a mans bike.

    Ca Johansen

  3. Thanks, Carl. I feel much better now.

  4. That album must've been horrifying.

    Groovy dress and, um, headgear? on the cover though.

  5. sandy shoes, if I played that album for the week that I had it, I don't remember the experience. Probably something that I blocked out that might resurface someday when I'm in a mental institution.

  6. Mr.Hunt having enjoyed country music all my life and recalling some fond memories it goes with out saying that in some cases one also needed to have a strong constitution in playing it in some public places. I can recall while at the University of Mass the local malt shop had coin operated music players. Well the music player only had one country record on it [I Walked The Line} Having danced with Hank Williams when his band had come to Boston I was with out doubt some one that thought every one should appreciate country music. Well to make a long story short, I would feed the music player[$.25]and listen to Johnny Cash, now mind you the whole place is filled with college students that did not have an appreciation of country. You could hear all the moans and growns across the campus every time the record came on. When it was done I would put in another $.25 and off it would go again. Each time the moans and comments got a little louder inside the shop. I was good for 4 plays each time we went in and had a malt.
    Each time I stood up to put another coin in the player a few of the more physical souls decided to challenge what I was playing. Needless to say Like a[ BOY Named Sue ] I was able to defend my country and city roots.

    Nothing like country, to make a man cry and fall in love with a girl.

    Ca Johansen

  7. At least it was the correct color, right?

  8. I was tortured by the song "A Boy Named Sue" being a girl named Sue (and shortly thereafter I became "Susan", largely due to this song :-). I never forgave Johnny Cash. Now I discover that Shel Silverstein (whom I revere and respect) is more to blame! Having said that, Randy, this is a great piece of writing. I'll read the rest.
    Susan Fernald


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