JAMES B. NICOLA
The first bombing.
Right during dinner, back in the day when families dined in dining rooms, my brother, call him J, drops the F bomb. My mom takes him out to the kitchen and washes his mouth out with soap. He is in third or fourth grade, as I recall, which puts me in second or third, and G, the eldest brother, in fifth or sixth. I never find out whether bar soap or liquid dish detergent is used, nor can I picture how, specifically, she administers the poison and scrubs the inside of his mouth. It gives me pause.
The second bombing.
I am eleven or twelve when my cousin V gets married. Way out in Michigan. She is one of Those-Who-Never-Cuss. (Years later, her daughter N and I overhear an S-bomb from the next room, V’s home office, but V convinces us both that, notwithstanding the apparent loss of hours of typing due to a suddenly frozen computer, the expletive we have heard is actually “shoot.”)
Anyway, we visit for a week or so before the wedding and play a lot of pinochle with the grown-ups, including her maid of honor, who drops an S bomb just about every other word at the card table. No one says anything about it, or reacts at all. I note that people with potty mouth can hang out with people without potty mouth. Even be best friends. It gives me pause.
The third bombing.
My brother G goes away to college. He comes back dropping S and F bombs “like a sailor,” as they say. His mouth remains soap-free. Still, the instantaeous transformation is rather remarkable.
The fourth bombing.
Three years later, I go off to college, and the same thing, inexplicably, happens to me. I wonder today if potty mouth is one of those coming-of-age rituals, like getting your learner’s, drinking under-age, smoking, and the rest—you know what I’m talking about. But back then it does not even give me pause.
The fifth bombing.
Summer after I graduate from college, I start a career as a stage director by directing a summer show at Worcester State College. One of the actors is actually named S. Baum (yes, his real name!—cf. “bomb”). He is from the neighborhood, speaks with a thick inner-city accent, and has a past as a street kid. He also happens to have a heart of gold. During breaks, he coaches the two pre-college actresses on effective delivery of the F bomb: with a nice long fff, and a hard, popping k sound.
I work in the theater for decades after college. And move to New York. F bombs and S bombs are part of theater people’s language, as well as basic New Yorkese. Try saying “Hey, Mac, get yuh fxxking cab outa there,” a few times, and you too will start to sound like a native New Yorker. Over the years, actors and stage managers remark that I cuss more when I am in a particularly fine mood.
Some years later, a local supernumerary in an amateur production of Amadeus I am directing remarks to me, during a break, “You must be very angry about something.” I ask her why she thinks that, and she mentions how much I am cussing that day. She is neither young nor old, but is, as I recall, the only one in the cast without potty mouth— the script’s dialogue is laced with it, after all. She also believes herself descended from or distantly related to some antiquated royal family now defunct (from Austria, as I recall). Anyway, her comment gives me pause and for a second I think I should apologize, but in a heartbeat realize that that’s not going to help anyone, not to mention that it would go against my religion. For I never want anyone to feel censored in my rehearsal environment, bombs and all. I recommend, then, that if she plans on being in many more shows, which I would encourage, she might as well try to get used to it. But I appreciate that bombs might be unsettling to someone like her. Besides, trying to expand the horizons of one’s life, as she is doing, requires a certain bravery that must be applauded! I don’t want anyone to feel unwelcome in the theater, after all. So I decide to try to curtail my bomb-dropping for the remaining weeks of rehearsals, just for the heckuvit. I don’t recall if I am the least bit successful, though. Methinks not.
I am directing a college production of The Diary of Anne Frank in the middle of Ohio. Father Frank, a senior, is a self-styled “PK”—pastor’s kid. Every time Mrs. Van Daan, a scholarship sophomore, drops a bomb—or anyone else in the cast does, for that matter—he bows his head, clasps his hands, and whispers something to himself. Eventually we ask why. He explains that it’s because of the swearing; he says a little prayer for the cusser. I explain to him that there is no portion of “the Lord’s name” in the F bomb, nor the S bomb. The commandment is about using that name “in vain,” not about the deployment of unrelated words. The other seniors in the cast have kidded Father Frank about this quirk since his freshman year—with grace, humor, and acceptance. Still, he doesn’t stop. What is more, some time later we notice that he does his prayer-thing even when someone says golly or gosh. Eventually we inquire; he explains that such expressions are forms of the word “God,” and that to think of sinning is the equivalent of sinning, so . . . . I think, Geesh.
I know from directing Shakespeare that expressions like “ ’Zounds” for “God’s wounds” allowed one to get away with an “oath” without actually saying the word “God.” I start thinking about other derivatives, like the aforementioned geesh as well as dagnabbit, jeepers crow, and my personal favorite, cheese it (as in “Cheese it, the cops!”) which I can only imagine derives from little kids mis-hearing grown-ups. Still, the day comes when I deign to ask him to try to be less noticeable while praying, because it has started to become distracting. I also reassure him that God will hear even if (1) he doesn’t bow his head and move his lips, and (2) he waits to deliver one big prayer later, at home, after rehearsal, rather than twenty or thirty little prayers during rehearsal. All Time is One, to God, right? I recall his eyes widening and his jaw dropping to hear this exegetic insight from a chronic bomber such as myself. You should know this, though: The entire cast likes each other very much and takes very seriously—with a grain of reverence, even—the enormity of the task at hand, which is doing justice to the plight of these characters’ real lives, and the story of their deaths, which make such paltry concerns as vernacular seem, in comparison, well, paltry. We never catch the PK at it again.
My nephew D turns twelve and starts to obsess on dropping F bombs and S bombs ad infinitum. He shows me where such bombs appear in his CD collection by playing me songs and turning down the volume just when the bomb words come up in the lyrics. He knows all the potty-lyric songs by heart, expletives included. His dad (G) and I stop dropping bombs in his presence. I have a talk with D to explain that it’s not that I think there is anything morally wrong with such words (see above “exegetic insight”), but that it can be terribly habit-forming; and that if he can’t control his language, it will be much more difficult when it comes time to getting—or keeping—a job. So every time he drops a bomb in my presence, I ask him not to use such words, at least when I am around. And I tell him that I will continue to ask this of him until he turns eighteen, at which time he can do anything any other adult is allowed to do without play-by-play commentary from his ridiculous uncle.
When he turns eighteen, he does in fact get removed from his first w-2 job—the drive-in window station at a fast food joint—because of his potty mouth. Just as I have been suggesting to him for years. It gives him pause, perhaps.
My cousin V’s daughter, N, is now an adult and visits me with a friend of hers for the Times Square New Year’s eve ball drop at the turn of the millennium. They call me things like “cool,” and buy me, as a parting thank-you gift, a t-shirt, on the front of which is printed a long litany of New-Yorkese F-bomb phrases. “Fxxx rudeness. Fxxx late subways. Fxxx . . .” Times a hundred. They say that when they saw the shirt in a gift shop they instantly thought of me. That they think of me this way gives me pause. I wear the t-shirt to this day, when it comes to the top of the t-shirt drawer, but only inside-out or as an undershirt.
Some years later, I direct a production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Kids in the cast. Parents at rehearsal. We all stop using F bombs and S bombs for hours at a time now—with one humorous exception, which flusters neither kids nor parents, interestingly enough. Mrs. Webb, on the other hand, is a 35-ish actress of African ancestry who never drops bombs, as she is a slight bible-thumper. She tells me that her mom or aunt or grandmother used to say, “People who use such words are simply demonstrating that they have nothing important to say.” Or something like that. I think how much more effective that comment might have been than the administration of soap, years ago, to my brother’s mouth (who never did stop cussing). I find I don’t really mind acting like one of Those-Who-Never-Cuss—during rehearsals. It’s for the kids, after all. Kids who might some day need a job at a drive-in fast-food window.
The eleventh bombing.
Years later still, I drop an F bomb in conversation with actors—now friends—I have known for years. I am enraged by some cruelty or hypocrisy in the day’s headlines, no doubt, and the bomb provides apt emphasis to whatever point I am making. I see eyes pop and jaws drop. They tell me they don’t remember me ever having used that word before, or any foul language, for that matter. I realize that, through no altering of convictions, nor any conscious decision on my part, I have, in fact, changed. As you can imagine, it gives me pause.
Today, I like respecting language for the power of its potential—including, now and then, the explosive power of a bomb.