The “incident,” as my family refers to it, dates back to 1973, when my father remodeled our basement into a family room. The project included a small bathroom, which would be the bane of his existence for more than 30 years.
You see, my father, always looking to save a buck—he had six kids to feed, after all—bought the cheapest sink and toilet he could find. Though the sink worked fine, the tiny toilet rarely functioned properly.
My father spent much of his spare time unplugging it. He pleaded with us not to use it unless it was “an emergency” and “for goodness sakes don’t even think about number two!”
Armed with this knowledge, then, it is remarkable I did what I did.
One Sunday morning, after chomping on a large Washington apple, I lay on the family room couch, too lazy to go upstairs to the kitchen to dispose of the core.
I noticed, 12 feet away, that the toilet lid was up. In a moment of insanity, I aimed the core at the toilet and flicked my wrist. The core floated majestically in the air, a perfect trajectory, and landed in the center of the bowl with a satisfying “ker-plunk!”
I later flushed it and never gave it another thought.
Over the next six months, the toilet plugged up several times. My father, a maestro with a plunger, was always able to clear the pipe. But one Sunday morning, the tiny commode presented him with the mother of all clogs.
Nothing would free it. The plunger failed, but not before my father was soaking wet. Two jars of Drano had no effect. Even a plumber’s snake, which my father borrowed from our next-door neighbors, failed to dislodge the blockage.
In a fit of rage, my father unbolted the toilet from the floor. In one mighty heave, he lifted it off its mount and set it aside. He knelt before the black hole in the floor. He reached his large paw inside, then his forearm, then his biceps.
His head pressed against the damp floor, sweat dripping off his nose, the veins in his temples ready to explode.
His eyes lit up. He had something. He carefully removed his biceps, then his forearm, then his paw. He was on his knees now staring at his clenched fist. He unpeeled his fingers slowly. In the center of his palm was a black, rotten apple core.
I could go into excruciating detail about my father’s incredible reaction—how he ran through the house shouting, “Which of my idiot kids flushed an apple core down the toilet?”
But I won’t.
I will tell you that my father, unlike bumbling dads presented in the media today, earned our respect. He believed it was his job to help my sisters and me master basic virtues—certainly to master common sense—and I failed him that day.
His powerful model left a profound impact and guides me still. Even at 56, I’m filled with joy when I live up to his high standards and make him proud. I’m filled with disgust when my actions fall short and make him sad.
That is the incredible power my father holds over me.
Still, he phones me now and again with a familiar question: “Why did you flush an apple core down the toilet?”
Editor Note: This column is an excerpt from Tom Purcell’s humorous book, “Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood,” available at Amazon.com.