When Papi got mad it was an amazing sight. He had a look that could stop you in your tracks. The phrase, “if looks could kill…” comes to mind and his were lethal. I’m proud to say I have inherited that look, a look that stops people in their tracks, keeps children in line, and can make a husband turn on a dime and leave a room. What power.
If Papi told you to do something you did it immediately. If he asked you a second time, you may or may not be safe, but don’t push it. He’d asked for quiet, but with five loud, screaming children, playing or arguing, some days he just had enough. Rage would overtake his face. His eyes narrowed, his head would snap toward the offending child, and his tongue would settle on the side of his lips. He’d begin to unbuckle his belt and everyone would scatter. Sometimes the guilty party would get away and he’d get the wrong person. So it was always best to scatter first, ask questions later. He was like a T-rex instinctually going after the slowest or the weakest at times, but his pinpoint accuracy to track and capture a known offender is also legendary.
He had no trouble with the prospect of chasing you down, even if it meant climbing the stairs two or three at a time or chasing you into the basement. Sometimes it was better if you just stayed where you were and took it. He always made sure not to hit too hard and never above the waist. But the belt did sting which is why it was so effective. Yes, occasionally he would just threaten, but if the unbuckling process had begun, it was going to be used, much like the code of the samurai, a sword drawn from its sheath is a sword that must draw blood.
Experience taught us that if we started wailing right away and yelled the words, “Ow, ow, OW” each time he swung that he would stop sooner. Distraction techniques were deployed, such as pointing to another sibling and tattling on some heinous deed yet to be discovered. Another talent developed was avoiding the belt like a jump rope. Although this made Papi angrier, he got tired more quickly and we got away with hardly a scratch. We got so good at jumping, that we would compare notes afterwards to see who got the worse and who got away, offered tips, and reviews on particularly good performances.
The most comical moment was the time Papi holding Youngest Sister’s arm while trying to belt her and Youngest Sister jumping over it like a gazelle over and over again. Her rhythm was fantastic and when he tried to change up on her, she jumped even higher and matched every swing of his belt with a skillful leap that even Nureyev would have been proud. Papi missed every time and finally gave up. What a girl!
With four girls in one room, we would talk and giggle for hours. Mami or Papi would yell up to quiet down and go to sleep. If we heard the first step squeak, we’d shut up and listen. At times, Papi would sit quietly on the bottom step, waiting. We would forget and the steps would creak heavily and we knew we were in for it. We start wailing before he hit the top step. “It’s wasn’t me, it was Middle Sister. I wasn’t talking, it was those two!”
Afterwards, we would compare notes. How many times did he land a strike and the percentage of swings vs. strikes? We analyzed his particular striking method, soft or hard, which was a reflection of his particular mood that night, either very angry or slightly annoyed.
As we got older, Papi didn’t pull out the belt as often. Plus he was getting worn out by now, right? Wrong.
Only Brother, who was in his teens, decided to act all “alpha” and talked back to Papi. Judging from Papi’s reaction, Only Brother soon realized his peril and jumped the fence. Feeling pretty smug about getting away from the “old man” he looked over his shoulder in time to witness the “old man” kick down the fence without breaking stride. The combination of fear and awe on Only Brother’s face was priceless as he sped away down the street.
Here are some tips on how to avoid the belt…
1) Start whimpering right away, crying “No Papi, No Papi, it wasn’t me. It wasn’t me. I didn’t do it.” It is helpful to have at least three or four siblings you can implicate. The art of misdirection, a much needed trait for survival.
2) Tattletale – Start the blaming right off the bat so you don’t get bunched in with the offenders.
3) Secret hiding place – No one must know where it is, because you’ll find another sibling there in your place, or they will surely fink on you.
4) Stay put – Take what’s coming, finding comfort that the real offenders will be chased down and get a really good whooping.
5) Run – Easy to do, faster than Papi. Lots of places to run him out like running upstairs, then downstairs to the basement, then around and around the kitchen, dining room and living room doors or run out the back door if its a warm day. Stay away at least 20 minutes to an hour. If a new infraction has taken place and justice has been dealt to a new offender you may return because Papi’s already forgotten about you. Maybe.
5) Subterfuge – Scream “Ow” louder with each strike reaching a dramatic crescendo. The Pavlovian Response will kick in and he’ll stop. This important observation helped us create other verbal cues signaling we had had enough, triggering the response, becoming all Meryl Streep to sell it. (I want to thank the Academy for the Oscar.)
6) Learn to jump with great skill and timing. Special skills must be developed to jump while he is holding your arm. Be a gazelle. Be the gazelle. You are the gazelle.
7) Learn the warning signs. Head snap, eyes become like slits…. Swoosh, that’s me running out of the room. Don’t want to be there when the tongue comes out.
8) Proximity - Sit next to Papi the whole time he’s home. Watch his favorite shows and ball games with him, ask him questions about the ball game, and try to engage him. He will recognize you as the only child that should have survived and make you his heir apparent, because that’s all you really want anyway.