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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day Revisited, Part One

A Father’s Wisdom: The $25.00 Monkey

Most fathers are filled with sage advice, or so I am told. My father was no exception. He was a smart guy and a funny guy. He would always have some special way to impart some wisdom to his children.

Handing down advice is common among parents in general. Presumably these lines are passed down from generation to generation. However when my father turned a wise old adage it was blatantly apparent that some phrases were Don Martello originals.

One time I was having a hard time collecting payment for an entertainment engagement. This company, a major video rental chain, took six months to write me a check for a measly $400.00. I had arranged to be paid on a “net 30” basis. In other words, I’d be paid within 30 days following the booking.

I called the company’s accounts payable department head and found that the corporate moron on the other end of the phone was very condescending. This guy would use the pronoun “we” when he really meant “you”. Dad asked me why I was so frustrated and angry. I explained that in an arrogant tone the man told me, “We don’t go calling the corporate office every time we have a problem. WE should be more patient if WE expect to receive our money”. Rather than offer some business advice, dad said that I should have angrily asked the guy, “Who is this ‘WE’ you keep talking about? What? Do you have a turd in your pocket?”

In retrospect it did provide some levity and a lesson about confidence and assertiveness in the business world. However, why would dad think anyone would keep a turd in their pocket and refer to it as if it were a person? Then I wondered, if one were to keep a turd as a companion, what kind of turd would make the best “little buddy”. Years later I pondered if this exact phrase was uttered by Trey Parker’s father, inspiring the Mr. Hankey episodes of “South Park”. No matter what sort of fecal explanations were behind my dad’s advice it stuck with me.

Thinking about it, dad had a few phrases that involved excrement. I know one of his wisest statements involved the creation of bodily waste. Without fail, the Martello family could count on dad regularly telling us, "NEVER pass up an opportunity to go to the bathroom!" OK, it is not the sort of advice you'd find from a holy man at the top of a mountain, but it was certainly good advice nonetheless!

One noteworthy little sentence came about most any time I’d make a minor complaint about…well…anything. If I was served cold food at a restaurant, if I had a headache, if I was upset the Cubs lost a game - ANY little problem I’d verbalize prompted the response, “You’d bitch if somebody shit in your mess kit!” What the hell did he mean by that? Where did this horrible phrase come from? I’m told many children of parents who served in the military have heard this one. I’ve examined this many times. I suppose this was dad’s way of saying I complained too much, but nonetheless, I believe that ANYONE would have a legitimate complaint if they found shit in their soup bowl. I’d LIKE to think dad was trying to tell me not to let the little things bother me, but he HAD a phrase for that very lesson, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” So, once again, what the hell did he mean? Was his army food so distasteful that a steaming pile of crap was a noticeable improvement?

Another craptacular sentence dad sent my way had no hidden meaning whatsoever. This was advice I could really use. “Andy”, he said, “Bullshit ALWAYS stinks! Don’t forget that.” Indeed he was right. I have never forgotten the lesson.

Leaving the dung heap behind, I am reminded of a phrase that can be found on my father’s headstone. This was a mantra he tried to live by and used it often; “Illegitimus non carborundum, est.” Roughly translated, it is Latin for, “Don’t let the bastard grind you down.” Prior to hearing my dad use this phrase the only Latin I was even remotely familiar with came from a more famous father, Mike Brady from “The Brady Bunch”. “Caveat emptor” or “Let the buyer beware” in English, is probably the most famous piece of fatherly advice ever uttered. However were my own father to have his own TV show, I am confident he’d have trumped old Mike Brady with the wisdom provided by the lesser-known $25.00 Monkey!

Dad was a teacher of speech and drama at a suburban Chicago high school. Aside from teaching he loved to direct the many plays staged at the school. One year the school was going to stage the play, “Inherit the Wind”, a play based upon the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. For those unfamiliar with the story, it is about a school teacher who was being prosecuted for teaching evolution in his classroom, violating The Butler Act. In the play an actual live monkey is used during one of the trial sequences. dad wanted to include a monkey in his production as well.

Dad, a Cleveland, Ohio native now living in suburban Chicago, had no idea where to procure a monkey for personal use. He went on a quest for a miniscule primate actor that could fulfill the needs of the script. Eventually he found a man with a monkey! In fact, this guy had several monkeys to choose from, varying in size, ability, and the determining factor, PRICE!

Being a high school theatre production, there was not much money in the budget for an A-list monkey. In fact, nobody was really certain that dad had gotten permission from the school to bring a live monkey into the production. Asking for extra cash to hire a monkey thespian was out of the question. Seeing as how the monkey needed only to sit quietly on stage for a few minutes and had no particular training requirements or actions to perform, dad opted for the monkey which rented for the sum of $25.00 per day.

Dad was DELIGHTED that he’d accomplished the somewhat Herculean task of finding a monkey in the suburbs and found enough money to accommodate a rehearsal schedule and the show’s run on the stage. Of course his delight turned to dismay once the monkey hit the theatre.

The monkey had little or no actual training of any kind with regard to working with humans. And from what I heard he couldn’t remember his lines at all! This monkey was unruly, loud, destructive and completely disruptive to the entire process. It chewed the sets, threw feces everywhere and escaped up to the rafters whenever possible. This was one bad monkey!

Furious with the quality of his rent-O-chimp, dad called the monkey’s owner and complained, hoping to get his money back or at least a coupon for a monkey to be named later. The owner was NOT sympathetic at all to dad’s problem and even told him off over the phone. In my mind the owner scolded dad by saying, “You’d bitch if somebody shit in your mess kit” but I found out later our little monkey handler had a special phrase of his own designed to shut my dad’s mouth, “Look pal, when you pay $25.00 for a monkey, you get a $25.00 monkey!”

Dad could NOT argue with the truth behind that statement and hung up the phone. He was stuck with a $25.00 monkey. He learned a valuable lesson that day and would often impart that wisdom upon his children when faced with similar “you get what you pay for” scenarios. The only problem was we NEVER heard the story behind this adage until YEARS afterwards.

Imagine the confusion the Martello children went through trying to figure out what the hell dad meant by telling us “when you pay $25.00 for a monkey, you get a $25.00 monkey.” Sure we could figure out the meaning of the phrase by examining its context, but to a kid, the idea of dad knowing ANYTHING about the price of monkeys is mind-boggling! To quote comedian Lewis Black, it is enough “to make blood shoot out of your eyes”.

Knowing now the stories behind a few of dad’s words of wisdom I understand that his use of a memorable phrase made the learning of the lesson much easier. I often catch myself saying these exact phrases and passing them along to folks in need of that special kind of advice only a father can give.

I suppose that even though my dad is long gone and in the ground, he’s still alive in the lessons he taught and the silly sentences he said to his kids. As much as possible, I don’t sweat the small stuff, I don’t let the bastards grind me down, I am very particular about where I keep my mess kit, and I am ALWAYS well aware of the price of monkeys. Thanks, dad.



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