War and Streaks

Steve’s Review:  A delightful trip down memory lane sometimes has you remembering the silly things and that is a good thing. This one brought a smile to my face, but then again I am a little biased. 😉 

When I was sixteen, my father decided that the outside of our house needed a new coat of paint.  After the paint was procured, he commanded his three children, all teenagers, to report for painting duty.  We were the free labor pool from which he recruited to tackle the home maintenance programs he launched.  We believed he selected these tasks for my brothers and me with increasing frequency as we aged into supposable competency.  He figured he couldn’t ask his preschoolers to reroof the garage or replace an electrical outlet, but believed with better vocabulary comes greater responsibility.  An accelerated pace may also have been his attempt to finish as many projects as possible before we aged-out of living at home and left him to his own devices.  My father, however, was no child development expert.  He was always surprised by our ineptitude and uncooperative attitudes.

This was a man who had grown up with a deep love of doing stuff.  He had not gone to college but had struck out early in adulthood to employ his own competencies for the mechanical and the necessary.  When I got my first car, he insisted I know how to change a tire, check and change the oil, but spent zero minutes teaching me to drive.  That task fell to my older brother Steve, who never complained about taking on the responsibility.  At least not to my face.  My father probably assumed I already knew how to maneuver a car along the roadways since he probably had done so himself, earlier than was legal. 

My father’s parents (Grandma and Grandpa) had an orchestra seat for their adolescent son’s performances.  Being an only child, the kid got all their attention.  According to them, Dad loved to tinker with electrical machines.  They told us with surprising glee that Dad once caused an explosion in the garage and took out the electricity for the whole block.  This was only blithely denied by the man who had been the curious boy who enjoyed the activity (and the notoriety).

Dad was an innovator and experimenter.  He was an organic gardener well before any other home grower caught on to the idea of creating earth from waste and saving the cost of pesticides.  He occasionally drove out to a farm in his pickup, dragging Steve with him, to pick up manure to mix into his compost.    As a member of a very reluctant labor force, my brother also had to endure the humiliation of driving around the neighborhood in a truck full of horse shit, all kids on the block knowing he would soon be shoveling it!

Dad’s children, it might be said, did not exactly follow in his footsteps.  Except for the time he built us a minibike around a lawnmower engine using specifications rendered by Steve.  I enjoyed the result if not the lesson in mechanical cannibalism.  My mother was not so enthusiastic.  The machine that kills children had no brakes and tore up the lawn.  It was pointed out that it was also not street legal, so if it did not kill us, she would, if we rode “that damn thing” in the street.

Always on the lookout to share his love of transformation, Dad encouraged and demanded we learn basic home improvement and pointed out that no, the free labor force did not have a union and yes, he would continue to feed and house us and that should be more than enough to compensate for any forced labor which profited our lazy selves.  We struggled for the vision of how the house painting would profit any of us.

Our house was a spacious split-level home, in other words, large.  We kids were judiciously recruited as part of the residency that enjoyed the rec room TV as well as the ping pong table in the basement.  Time to pay the bill-paying piper, we were dragged from our summer morning beds, fed a few pop tarts and tang and set loose to paint the house.  Ladders were procured along with the paint, brushes and rollers.  Never one to take our understanding of a task for granted, he demonstrated for us kids how to paint the vertical canvas that was our home, then removed himself from the scene to tackle the tasks that required a more refined skill set.

Weary with teenage morning somnolence, we meekly obeyed the commands.  Paint on the brush/roller, slap it against the siding, move your arm up and down.  Repeat ad nauseum.  There’s something about the repetitive motion of painting that draws out the worst kind of boredom from a teen.  A trio of teens, however, will take that boredom out on each other.  It takes a mere slip of the brush to “accidentally” paint your brother’s calf a lovely shade of blue.  It was a hot day in south jersey.  We all wore shorts and tee shirts.  Not one thought was given as to the state our clothing would be reduced to once the brushes and rollers started being wielded like the swords of valiant knights defending the castle.

As the only girl on the chain gang, I was asked to paint the tighter corners and detail work.  I found this amusingly sexist as Steve was an artist who did actual painting on canvases and was better suited for smaller areas than I, who spent most of my time reading and creating epic poetry.

  After a modest amount of time spent earnestly applying paint to the back of our house, we began to feel tired and bored.  Turning to load my brush with more color, my younger brother Allen accidently moved his leg, positioning it between my brush and the paint can.  Was that glee I saw in my brother’s eyes?  Had I unwittingly become the official perpetrator of “starting it?”  Were my brothers, now exonerated from blame, preparing to engage in retaliation, to claim nothing more than self-defense?  The “It was an accident” defense had always been a successful plea for me in parental court; the brothers were unruly boys and I the dutiful, complacent daughter. With all claiming a righteous side, it was on.

One-up-manship is an obligatory defense system for siblings.  A casual misdirection of a brush must be met with a roller down the back.  We began our own small war on drudgery, honing our parrying and blocking skills, timidly at first, testing the will of our opponents, then escalating into all-out assault by paint.  Flinging, swiping, spattering, using the essential methods of paint warfare, the action intensified with each newly discovered course of contact.  We grudgingly admired each innovation by imitating the creative sibling who launched it.  Running around the backyard, screaming and laughing was a dead giveaway to our negligent father, who was himself having a mishap in the front doorway, that something was amiss among his work crew. 

Returning to the back yard, dear old Dad encountered a scene of blue carnage.  We were going at it with abandon.  Yelling at us was not much of a deterrent, we gleefully added him in our attacks, three of us, one of him.  He was obliged to retaliate.  This went on until my mother spied us out a back window and told us to stop.  She was the real boss.  No painted persons would be allowed to cross her threshold.  She had not yet discovered the pool of paint my father had spilled in the entrance way to our front door.  Hoses were deployed, legal arguments tested, verbal battle lines drawn.  Dad, of course, was just breaking it up and we were not inclined to implicate him.   I had to go inside and stand on newspaper to remove my garments, giving me ample time to describe to my mother the depravity of my brothers. 

Blotches of paint were drying in my hair when Mom discovered the paint spill in the front doorway.  The heat was quickly lifted from our innocent child-laborer heads and placed squarely on the foreman.  My artist brother drew a cartoon depicting this mishap.  Mom framed it.  Dad cleaned up his mess with mysterious chemical applications.  All other work was halted for the day to allow time for repentance and scraping of skin.

With the extra help of a few neighborhood kids, in a Tom Sawyer-ish style of recruitment (if you want to hang with us, help us get this fun chore done), the house eventually got painted, rendering pride in both labor and management.   I wrote an epic poem about a family that worked together, played together and fought a civil war of paint.  I named the poem “I’m never painting another house as long as I live.”  My brother still has the cartoon of Dad’s spillage to remind him that not everything is his fault.  We are now old enough to be competently skilled in delegating onerous tasks thanks to Dad, who showed us the way.

My current home is conveniently made of stone.

Tangled up in blue,


Guest Editor Steve has been a musician, artist, and elder statesman for most of his life.   He has a great head for details and rarely tattles.  He surely helped me comb the depths of long ago!


  1. Ruth Elliott Klein

    Love this story! Thanks for sharing!! ? ?

  2. You are a great story teller! As I read and laughed I began to feel I was in the experience with you. Looking forward to reading more of your blogs.

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