Childhood instructions boil down to ‘look’ and ‘don’t look’

Childhood instructions boil down to 'look' and 'don't look'
The instructions I received as a child boil down to "Look" and "Don't Look."

Look, my father said on the way to the local airport in the heart of the Alleghenies of Central Pennsylvania where we lived. Look at that rattler, he said, slowing the car to a brief stop.

From the back seat, I arched my back and craned my neck to look. Stretched across the narrow, winding road before us was that rattler with no beginning and no end. I held my breath, certain that the snake would coil and wrap itself around our car. As Dad pushed ever so gently on the gas pedal, the car thumped and thumped again over the snake, then rolled on down the mountain highway.

When we arrived at the airfield, Dad said, look at that one coming in. Look, there's one taking off. I said, where? He said, there. Look.

One time, we went to the airport for the sole purpose of catching a glimpse of Yogi Berra, a catcher for the New York Yankees. Dad took a poll with little-boy sparkle and seasonal enthusiasm, who wants to take a drive to the airport to see Yogi Berra get off the plane?

I raised my hand – I want to go, joining the chorus of siblings, who, too, cast their votes to go on the long 10-mile ride and look.

Never mind how ill I would become from the smell of our car's vinyl interior. Never mind the up and down, up and down of hills and dales. Never mind the blank views of nothing to see but thick, endless forest. Never mind. I was going to watch some guy named Yogi step off an airplane. Never mind. Look.

Mother was the official issuer of don't look, directing me away from life. Lovers kissing. Don't look! Beautiful dancers wearing tight revealing costumes. Don't look!

Confused and intrigued by mother's sense of urgency and wrong over lovers embracing, with great interest, I pretended to follow her explicit orders to don't look. Squinting, I covered my eyes with both hands. Then, parted my fingers just enough to view that forbidden side of life that something down deep inside longed to see.

One day, I got into trouble for describing what I saw when it was Ok to look. I was five years old busily pretending to be cowboys with my brothers. In the background, the 1950s game show "To Tell the Truth" was on our round black and white picture tube. Peggy Cass, a regular panelist on the show, was wearing her trademark black dress with a low-cut neckline and a string of pearls around her neck.

The camera captured a close-up of Peggy just as I looked away from play to the TV. When I saw her broad pale skin blanketed with freckles, I thought that I had made an amazing discovery. No one in my family had freckles. I saw freckles all over her …

Look, I hollered, pointing and announcing my discovery. Look at those freckles all over Peggy's breasts!

Mother's face heaved shock. Her voice scolded. That day, I received a quick harsh lesson in the difference between chests and breasts.

Don't look, Mother said, as we were about to pass the beer garden on sunny summer afternoon walk across town to the park. Lagging behind the tense crowd my family made on the sidewalk, behind my five little brothers and sisters and my mother pushing the stroller, I stole a glance through the wide open barroom door.

Inside, I could see all the way down the narrow bar to the very back, where the beat of low music and dark shadows moved slowly. As I quickly passed by the beer garden to catch up with the others, I felt a wave of dank sweet air coming from the place. Stinky, I thought, feeling contrite, hoping my sin would go unnoticed.

Look. Don't look.

A resident of Southeast South Dakota for more than 30 years, Paula Damon is a popular columnist, keynote speaker, and freelance writer. Her column writing has won first-place national and state awards in The Federation of Press Women competitions. For more information, e-mail

Copyright � 2007 Paula Damon

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