My little sister Von and I grew up with an electronic device listening and monitoring our every move. No, we didn’t have computers, internet, or cellphones. There was no faceless faraway big-tech entity tracking us electronically. No it wasn’t a complex full of computer hackers working in a darkened room at some secret location.
Rather, it was the early 70’s in the age of rotary-dial telephones attached to the wall, televisions without remote controls haphazardly attached to an aerial on the roof, which only got 3 channels.
As a Methodist minister, dad had two churches that he looked after. One of the churches was next door to the parsonage where we lived. At the time we lived in White City and the other church was in Wilsey, down the road a few miles.
Dad had his office in the church next door and handled the business of both congregations from there. Dad was the type of person who was “all in” on this minister thing. He referred to it as a “calling” and not a job. In fact I can’t ever recall him referring to it as a job.
The effect of this was that he was always working. He didn’t count work hours or miles driven. He was usually at a church meeting, at the hospital doing visits, seeing people at their homes, in nursing homes, church services, or working at the church office.
Since these were smaller churches, there usually wasn’t a big enough budget for a paid church secretary, so Mom got that responsibility many times. This meant that she was gone and at the church office quite often.
Von and I were in kindergarten and first grade at the time. We spent a lot of time tearing around the house loudly at full speed. Sometimes Mom would try to keep us at the office with her, but we inevitably escaped to explore and run around the church. Of course, Dad didn’t want members of the congregation coming into the church to find his kids crawling under the pews.
One of my favorite things to do was to sneak into the side vestibule, crawl up on a chair and flip the switch on the microphone system. I’d turn up the volume and run to the front of the sanctuary.
Mom and Dad would be sitting in the church office quietly typing and preparing the Sunday bulletin when all of a sudden a voice thundered through the building, “NOW BATTING NUMBER 3,….JOHN….PURVIS!!!!!”
Von would grab at the microphone and begin to sing a song. She belted out a few verses when we heard the Thump, Thump, Thump, of mother walking briskly across the office. She threw open the door to find two performers in the process of putting on a spectacle via the public address system.
At that point the microphone system, as well as our show, were abruptly shut down. Mom would then drag us back to the house to get us out of dads hair.
Mom would then get us busy doing something else at the house and go back to the church. They couldn’t afford daycare or a babysitter, but dad came up with an alternative.
He made a wooden box with a speaker in it. It sort of looked like a crude homemade radio. It had a switch on it and a small christmas light which would light up when it was turned on. He connected it to speaker wire and strung it across the yard and driveway to the church. The other end was wired into a similar box in the church office. It even had a knob for volume and a switch to select listen or talk. It was rather large because it used old vacume tubes to function.
In the parsonage dad mounted the speaker on the wall near the top of the kitchen door. This way it was out of our reach and I wasn’t able to turn it off or sabotage it. Mom and Dad would then go over to the church office and work on things. They would leave their end on the “listen” setting.
Von and I would then go about our business of playing. Inevitably, as the big brother, I would do something to make Von mad and she’d yell at me. We would then chase each other or throw things around the house.
Suddenly, a loud voice would boom out from the box “John………Evonne…What’s Going On????” We’d continue the fight and the voice of mom would command, “Both of you come here!……NOW!!”
You’ve heard the old term “Being called before the man to answer for your actions”. Well in our case it was being called before the “box” to answer for your actions.
So there we were, both us standing in the hallway at the kitchen door looking up at this brown wooden box hanging on the wall. Mom would demand an explanation and most of the time it ended with her telling me to leave my sister alone or to give something back that I’d taken from her.
We’d both walk away with me trying to act like I had gotten away with something and Evonne gloating that she had gotten me in trouble.
The Golden Rule at our house had nothing to do with “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” No, it was more along the lines of, if MOM yelled at you on the intercom and you ignored her and she had to walk over from the church, you had bettter purchase life insurance or take that job with a traveling circus, because the proverbial hand of god was about to change your life.
Mom was “old school” when it came to rearing children. Dad was the joking and smiling parent. Mother was not……..
The line you never crossed was to ignore her directions or question her authority.
If you didn’t respond to the intercom command to “COME HERE, NOW!”, you were in essence ignoring her and you were about to face her wrath. She never pretended and heaven help you if she counted to 3.
The famous psychiatrist Karl Menninger once said that in order for punishment to be effective it must be swift, certain, and public. Mom probably never heard of Menninger, but she certainly followed his teachings.
I remember on one unfortunate afternoon, I ignord mom and ran from the house into the backyard. I watched her march from the Church, across the yard and into the parsonage. It was warm weather so the windows were open. I heard her stomp into the kitchen and rip open the top drawer. She shuffled the drawer contents and pulled out something. It was a something which I knew well. It was a piece of board about a foot long and was painted blue on one side. Hence it was referred to as the “Blue Board”.
Mom wielded the Blue Board like a jedi light sabre. The very sight of it would strike fear. In fact just hearing it being pulled out of that drawer was enough to push you into panic mode.
On that particular occasion my sister was more than happy to tell mom that I had bolted out the back door.
Mom walked out on the back porch and stood in the doorway. She sternly gripped that board and yelled, “Get over here!….NOW!”.
You may recall the Tom Hanks movie, “The Green Mile”. This was my green mile. I slowly walked across the yard to meet my fate.
As I entered the porch she bagn to spank me with the board. I did a sort of walking spanking reaction where I tried to keep walking forward to lessen the impact of the board. Finally, after getting frustrated, Mom simply held me by the arm in one spot and finished the spanking.
I learned to go to the box and answer mom when commanded to do so. When I think back on it I smile when I think of us standing in that hallway looking up at that box on the wall and pleading our case.
Every now and then the opposite would happen. We’d be doing something where we weren’t fighting or arguing and the silence would become alarming. Sometimes mom would yell over the box that she wanted to know what was going on. Once in a while, just to be sneaky, she would come over to the house without making any noise to try and catch us doing something.
Mom had the spider sense super power. She could sense when something was up. Many times when she showed up out of the blue I was busy because I’d found a way out onto the roof of the house or the time she caught me burning newspaper in the basement.
On another occasion she came out of the church to find half the back yard on fire. She ordered the fire put out quickly and seemed pretty upset about it. I figured there was a garden hose available, so I was ok. She was concerned that church members might get upset that the preacher had let his kids set everything on fire. I would have to admit that burning down the parsonage was generally frowned upon.
Sometimes it was just a status check. Mom would ask over the intercom, “What are you doing?” Von would reply, “Playing with kitties.” “OK, where’s your brother?” “Its ok, he’s here too” “Why doesn’t he answer himself” “Oh, he’s busy teaching the kitties to swim.”
I’ll be right over!!
That darned intercom was used at 4 churches I know of. And at each of them, there was Mom……always listening…….Always on alert for too much noise or commotion, while on the other hand, sensing danger when things were quiet……………Too quiet…………….