Thoughts of a lifelong smart aleck

Country Roads

I have often been called a smart aleck. Actually, I have been referred to in much stronger terms but this is a family newspaper. The severity of the title is irrelevant; the truth is I am one. It’s a genetic condition.

After nearly 70 years I am comfortable with this inheritance. I was reminded of it again at a recent family reunion.

My cousin Roger, similarly blessed, also attended the reunion and after a belt-busting meal he and I had an opportunity to chat. We had been talking for less than five minutes when I realized we were exercising our inheritance.

The gift comes from our mutual grandmother’s family. Others in our extended family are similarly gifted.

Imagine sitting in church and the minister is preaching from the Old Testament and speaks of Balaam and the talking ass. In a smart aleck’s brain there instantly pops up a political joke but you dare not laugh aloud. Experience teaches you that these things should be left unsaid, especially in church.

A family member recently asked about my daughter who had spent the early part of summer teaching in Ireland. She innocently asked, “Is Dena still abroad?”

My brain caught it instantly. My daughter is not a broad. Before I could say, “No, she’s already back in the States,” my mouth uttered, “Oh, she’s not that old yet.”

The family member, a young adult, was not in the habit of using that coarse term for a woman. Nor am I but I am familiar with the word. I apologized.

As Cousin Roger said of our condition, “The remarks come out of the mouth before the brain can process them.”

I first became aware of my gift in fifth grade. Our teacher, Miss Swenson, was an older, single woman who I truly appreciated and admired. Her tolerance for 11-year-old smart alecks, however, was very low.

During a science class she was discussing the sexual parts of a flower – the pistil and the stamen – and I blurted out something about a pregnant flower. My classmates were amused but Miss Swenson wasn’t. That was the first of several “opportunities” that year to pull my desk into the hallway to think about what I had said. Sorry; after a half hour of thinking in the hallway I still thought the pregnant flower line was funny.

In all fairness, Miss Swenson was not picking on me. She simply had a low tolerance for jocularity in the classroom. One day one of my classmates passed gas (accidently, I hope) in the classroom. The boy sitting behind him said, “God bless you, son.”

The classroom erupted in laughter but Miss Swenson found no humor in the incident. She sternly rebuked us and we all quieted down. Nearly 60 years later, however, the memory still makes me smile.

A year later, a sixth grade instructor taught me how to channel my bizarre thoughts into writing. The rest is history.

When my son was about three-years-old his mother complained that our little boy was becoming a smart aleck, indicating that he often made smart remarks to her.

Remembering my own youth, I asked for details and direct quotes. It was what I thought; the kid wasn’t mouthing off to his mother. At the tender age of three he was simply responding to the situation creatively. When I explained this to his mother she rolled her eyes in an “oh no, not another one” manner.

In my younger years my mouth got me into trouble when I “talked back” to my mother. She warned me not to be a “beck stück” (Low German, literally “beak piece” or, more generally, a “mouth piece.”) When her warnings weren’t effective she sometimes resorted to a vigorous slap across the face. That was effective, and to this day I’m glad she tried to make a good boy out of me. Mama tried.

So here I am an old guy. I am no longer a “beck stück” but I remain a smart aleck. Fortunately, over the years a filter developed between my brain and my mouth and on most occasions when a wild retort pops into my brain I just leave it there. If it’s stubborn, the filter usually stops it.

Usually.

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