I sat on the front room couch examining the cover of the family home evening manual. It was a colorful painting. A mother and father sat on a love seat. The father was dressed in a tie and was holding a picture; the mother was in a dress, a happy baby smiling on her lap. And the room was immaculate. There was a picture of the temple above the couch, a glass-looking statue of the prophet on a side table, and a woven rug sprawled out on the floor.
I was only eight years old, but somehow found the picture fascinating. On top of the rug were three happy children. The oldest boy looked strong and reliable; he sat with an elbow resting on his knee. Here was a brother who would protect you in a fight. There was a younger girl who sat primly on the floor, looking in earnest at the picture and obviously paying attention to whatever was happening in this still shot. Finally there was a smaller boy—the perfect younger brother who would bring you things when you asked. He sat with his hands in his lap.
And then there was the dog. The large, long-haired dog sat next to the younger boy, looking for all the world like he too was listening to what was going on. Here was a noble beast, protector against monsters or bears, whichever happened to come by in the dark of night.
What a reverent family—no wonder they were painted. They fit perfectly on the cover of the family home evening manual, the one I held close to my face so I could block out the scene behind it.
The scene behind it was my family. I lowered the book just enough so that I could peek over the top.
My older brother had a set of Dad’s old calipers and was measuring his own belly button lint. Two other brothers were wrestling, fighting over what appeared to be a soggy graham cracker stolen from the toddler. Another brother had fallen asleep and was drooling on Dad’s shoulder.
Mom sighed. “So in conclusion, what is the topic of the lesson tonight?”
“I’ve mentioned it at least twenty times.”
The noise level of the room seemed to swell.
Mom looked around, sighed again, then raised her voice to meet the clamor. “Can anybody tell me what one of the greatest sources of happiness is in this life?”
“No, it’s food.”
I looked back to the manual. The faces on the cover were smiling. The kids looked attentive. I bet they knew the answer.
Dad stood in the middle of our bedroom, strategically positioned so each boy could both see and hear him. My brothers and I lay on our beds, trying to look humbled and repentant. Peter was hiding under the covers in hopes that if he could not see Dad, then maybe Dad could not see him.
Dad was speaking in that quiet voice parents do so well; a low sound that still carries tremendous emotion. I could tell Dad wanted to come right out and yell but was restraining himself so as not to wake the baby.
Dad was mad.
“How many times do your mother and I have to send you to bed?” he asked, his voice taking on a distinct pleading ring.
I was old enough to know a rhetorical question when I heard one, but Peter had not quite figured it out. His muffled reply came from under the covers. “I don’t know, maybe six times?” he guessed.
My father smacked his own forehead, and I could hear him muttering something under his breath.
“NO!” he finally sputtered, a bit louder than before. The lump of covers that was Peter fell back against the wall. “I don’t want to hear another sound from this room or there will be some serious consequences!”
In addition to the fault of not knowing whether a question should or should not be answered, Peter also had to know the consequences of any given forbidden action. He liked to weigh the pleasures of disobedience with the pains of punishment.
“What will be the consequences, Daddy?” the blanket asked. The talking lump of blankets seemed to calm Dad down a little. His voice took on the air of a judge passing sentence.
“The consequences of getting out of bed again,” Dad said, “will be that I’ll turn off your music.”
Every night one of us chose music to help us fall asleep. Tonight was my turn, and we were all enjoying some nursery rhymes sung by kids who sounded far too happy for their own good. On Sundays our parents made us listen to Primary songs or hymns, and on Saturdays, Dad chose the music. Nobody liked Saturday selections.
“So what if we get out of bed two times?” Peter asked, wanting to weigh all of his options.
“Then I’ll turn on Vivaldi!” Dad replied, his voice raising just a hair. We all complained when we had to listen to Four Seasons. In spite of the darkness, I could see Dad’s face turning red. His temper was beginning to flare.
“What if we get out of bed three times?”
“Then I’ll turn it up!” he hissed. Then, forgetting about our sleeping brothers, he yelled, “GOOD NIGHT!”
Spinning on his heels, Dad stormed out of the room. Although Dad gets upset in front of us from time to time, if he’s really going to blow his stack, he does it somewhere else.
After Dad’s stomping faded downstairs, my older brother, Simon, leaned over from his upper bunk. “Hey, Matthew,” he whispered, “if somebody yells good night to you, do you think they really want you to have a good night?”
I giggled into my pillow. Dad’s pleas and lectures had not stopped the night’s festivities, only interrupted them.
Simon’s hair was sticking straight up. Or rather it looked like it, since his head was hanging upside down over the edge of the bed. He had thick dark hair like mine, and we both got it from Dad.
It was the night before the last day of school, and my brothers and I were far too wired for sleep. Sure it was technically a school night, but how alert did we need to be for tomorrow? Truthfully, all you did on the last day of school was empty out your desk, squirt some cleaner on the tables and chairs, listen to your teacher get all choked up saying good-bye, and then go home. If we missed a few hours of sleep and were not in possession of our finest mental faculties, who would really care or even notice?
What made it worse was that we should have already been on vacation. Last winter there were two days where it had snowed so hard they canceled school. It was a great blessing back then, but now we had to make up the days. Torture! It was a Monday night, and tomorrow would be the last day of school.
In fact, maybe that was part of the problem. It was Monday, so we had just finished up another wild family home evening, complete with hymns sung at the top of our lungs, a lesson that was interrupted more times than I could count, and a sugar-laden dessert. With the thought of it being the last night before school let out, and with sugar pumping through our veins, we couldn’t help but be a bit riled.
While we usually didn’t go to bed without a few pillow fights, a shouting contest, or some kind of science experiment, surely on the night before the last day of school Mom and Dad would cut us a little slack. But they sent us to bed anyway.
After we snuck out the first time they sent us back to bed. We then tiptoed, crawled, and even scooted on our bellies. Each time, we were caught and returned to bed. We pulled out every excuse in the book to get out of bed, including the one where we claimed our toenails were too long and were catching on the sheets. The last time, Dad personally escorted us back to see us climb into bed.
I lay in bed staring up at the ceiling. A thin sliver of moonlight poured in from our only window, which might have been poetic and beautiful, except you could barely see it because of three 100-watt bulbs blazing in the hall. Being a mature and wise eight-year-old, I would never admit to being afraid of the dark, but my three younger brothers who shared my room were always quite vocal about darkness. I was fine with this.
I looked around the room and noticed the comfortable clutter almost everywhere. Clothes hung on dresser drawers, shoes spilled out of full closets, toys lay scattered throughout the room—all this despite the fact that we had cleaned today. In fairness, you could not expect a whole lot of order in a bedroom shared by five boys. And for that matter, you really could not expect much in the sleep department either.
I wondered for a moment if Dad’s lecture had been enough to finally settle us down. I looked over at Peter. Hanging upside down from the bar that spanned the upper bunk, he did not look like he was anywhere near drifting off to sleep.
Simon, who slept above me, peeked his head over the side. He looked back and forth at the floor by our bunk bed. His eyes darted around the room, and his forehead wrinkled. It took me a moment to realize what was happening. My heart beat just a little bit quicker. Simon was formulating a plan.
At age ten, Simon was the oldest brother and right before me. We all looked up to him, though we certainly never admitted it. He was actually shorter than both me and Peter, but in every other aspect, he was our big brother. A natural leader, Simon loved being in charge. And whenever he came up with one of his famous schemes, we fell right in place behind him.
Nobody thought up big ideas like Simon. He not only was smart, he looked smart. He wore thick black glasses and had them on almost every waking moment; he even fell asleep in them. The hallway lights reflected off them now as he explained his idea to me. Peter stopped swinging to listen.
We listened attentively, and by the time Simon finished, Peter and I were both in cahoots. For some reason we always seemed to forget that his ideas ended up getting us into trouble. He could sell us on anything.
This new project called for a lot of pillows. Many of Simon’s ideas called for pillows as a safety measure. It was nice that Simon took measures against any physical mishaps, since Peter or I usually tried the idea first.
We sent Peter on the pillow-gathering mission, and in a few short minutes, he returned with pillows stacked up so high all we could see was a tuft of blond hair sticking up like a periscope.
“Peter, are those all of the pillows?” Simon asked. He and I had both jumped out of bed and now stood on the floor in our one-piece pajamas. “Did you get the spare ones out of the closet?”
Peter was brother number three, and the tallest of the brothers so far. I kept hoping that I would outgrow him, but I was starting to have my doubts. It seemed for every inch I grew, Peter grew another three. Mom always told us that Peter grew so much because Simon and I always picked on him when he was a baby; growing was simply a defense mechanism. By the time he was five, he was bigger than both of us; now he was almost six, and it did not look like he was stopping anytime soon.
Where Simon and I had dark hair, Peter was blond and fair-skinned, like John, brother number four. They inherited their looks from my mom. Peter always got burned when he went out in the sun, and because of our looks, most people were surprised to find out that the three of us were brothers. Once we were even kept out of the community swimming pool when we all tried to get in on our family pass. The crabby pool keeper tried to test us separately by having each of us tell her my mom’s birthday. Her plan backfired because none of us knew Mom’s birthday. We were eventually forced to call Mom so she could vouch for our bloodline.
“The only pillows in the whole house that I didn’t get are the ones on the couch,” Peter declared. His voice was muffled behind the pillows. “And I’m not gonna ask Mom and Dad to stand up so I can get those.”
“Never mind the couch pillows,” Simon said. “We have enough with these.”
Simon, Peter, and I shared the room with our brothers John and Jacob. John, who was almost five, and three-year-old Jacob, had fallen asleep already; John was usually the first one to go. Sometimes I wondered if we’d adopted John. Oh sure, he looked like a smaller version of Peter, but he was always obeying Mom and Dad. When the three of us got in trouble, John was nowhere to be found. He knew when not to get involved with Simon’s little projects. It wasn’t like he never got in trouble, but he was usually on Mom’s good side and could avoid the harsh punishment that was often handed out to Simon, Peter, and me. That was why he was asleep now, just to show the rest of us up. Mom had already used the annoying phrase twice tonight: “Why can’t you just go to sleep like John does!”
Peter, Simon, and I each grabbed a hold of my bunk bed. Simon counted to three, and we pulled.
SCREEEK. The bed slid out twelve inches from the wall. We froze, each of us still bent over with our hands on the bed. The noise had been low-pitched but loud.
“What in the . . .” My Dad’s rumbling voice floated up from downstairs. “Honey, was that you?”
“It wasn’t me,” Mom answered from the kitchen. “I think it came from upstairs.”
Footsteps crossed the floor, and we heard my father’s voice yell up the stairs, “Boys? What did I just say? Are you trying to send your father to the nuthouse?!” Mom took over, sensing my father was near his breaking point. When it came to parenting, they made a good tag team.
“Boys, are you in bed?” Mom called up in a voice that told us quite clearly she knew we were not, but that we had better get there fast if we still wanted to be on the earth when the sun rose in the morning.
None of us dared to come right out and lie to Mom or Dad, so all three of us promptly jumped onto my lower bunk and yelled in unison, “Yes, Mom!” Simon went a bit further than the rest of us, adding, “Sheesh, Mom! I was almost asleep!” Simon had explained long ago that when you looked at the big picture, like an entire week or month, the fact that he would be asleep in two hours constituted being “almost asleep,” and hence was not technically a lie.
“OKAY, I don’t want to hear any more noises,” she called up. My father, wanting to throw his last two bits in, hollered up after her, “If I have to come up there one more time, you boys will all have sore bottoms in the morning.”
We sat still for a few minutes, none of us thinking for a moment of not going through with the plan. After a few more minutes, things settled down again, so we quietly began to work. We grabbed pillows and began to stuff them between the wall and the bed. Peter had done his job well, and by the time we were done, the pillows were stacked halfway up the wall. It must have looked safer than usual, because Simon tried it first.
He climbed up onto the top bed, lay straight on it, then rolled off the side between the bed and the wall. He dropped three feet, landed on the pillows, and rolled onto the lower bunk. He ended up on his back, the wide grin on his face telling me and Peter all we needed to know. For ten solid minutes, we climbed, fell, rolled, and shoved each other, trying to be the first one back to the top.
After a while we began to try different ways—feet first, headfirst, or curled up in a ball. Then Simon came up with another idea. “Let’s get Jacob!”
Jacob was brother number five. The funny thing about Jacob was that when he fell asleep, he slept hard. Nothing could wake him up. Short of having someone dump water on him, Jacob slept through anything.
A few months ago, while he was soundly asleep, we stripped him down to his diaper, set him at the table, and then staged some photographs. Peter and I sat at the table with some cards, and Simon arranged Jacob in such a way that he looked like he was playing along with us. Simon even rolled up some paper and stuck it to Jacob’s mouth between his fingers, to make it look like a cigar. With sunglasses, an old visor hat, and the rolled-up paper cigar, Jacob looked, for all the world, like a baby gambler.
We took a dozen pictures of Jacob and us playing cards. We could not wait to see the result. About the time we were wrapping things up, we realized Mom and Dad were the ones who always got the photos developed. I wondered how the normally brilliant Simon had overlooked this fact, but then realized that he had conveniently taken all the pictures. He was not in any of them.
Mom and Dad lectured us for a good hour about asking permission before we used the camera, but I noticed two weeks later that Mom made reprints of several of the pictures and sent them to Grandma.
We did not receive any royalties.
Simon went over to the crib and picked up Jacob. He threw him over his shoulder and began to climb up the ladder to the top bunk. Jacob’s arms fell down over his head, and his head bounced against Simon’s back. Peter and I began to chuckle.
Simon got to the top and dropped Jacob to the bed. “Load the torpedoes!” Simon whispered in a funny voice. “Torpedoes loaded and ready, sir,” he whispered in another crazy voice. “Fire!” Peter and I began to laugh.
Jacob dropped like a sack of potatoes, bounced off the pillows, rolled across the lower bunk, and fell with a thump onto the hardwood floor.
He slept on, oblivious.
Peter bent over, trying to suppress his laughter by curling up in a ball on the floor. His laughter was contagious. “Again! Again!” I whispered through my giggles.
Simon hopped off the bunk, picked Jacob up, and climbed up the ladder again. Halfway up, Jacob began to slip off his back. Simon grabbed the foot of his pajamas and was barely able to hang on. Once he was on top again, he repeated the process: drop, roll, thump. I looked for a pillow to laugh into, but they were all being used.
Peter got on the lower bunk and rearranged the pillows. He piled several pillows in such a way as to give Jacob a nice sliding ramp.
Simon hauled Jacob up again, rolled him across the top bunk, and dropped him. This time Jacob did not fall to the floor with a bump. He rolled down the ramp Peter had made, skidded across the floor, and bumped into our nightstand.
The lamp on the nightstand teetered, and for a brief moment I thought it would right itself. Wishful thinking. It fell to the floor with a deafening crash. We froze.
I looked at Jacob. He was still asleep, and I noticed that he was sucking his thumb with a contented smile on his face.
I turned to look at Peter, who had a scared look on his face. Our only hope was that Dad had M*A*S*H on too loud to hear the crash. No such luck. We heard the dreaded words reverberate from downstairs. “That’s it! I’ve had it! I’m coming up to spank some bottoms!”
Dad rarely spanked us. Sure, we got a swat every once in a while, but never a good thrashing. Dad was normally a pretty calm person, so when he got upset enough to come and spank us, we knew we had gone a bit too far.
I began to panic. We needed an idea, a plan that could turn the situation in our favor.
Simon always had ideas! I turned to the top bunk, where Simon had just rolled Jacob off. Moments before, he had been perched like a gargoyle, watching the events unfold below. Now he lay curled up on his bed, feigning sleep! I couldn’t believe it! The whole thing was his idea, and now Peter and I were stuck with the mess!
For some reason, it didn’t occur to me to hop into bed and pretend I was asleep as well.
Before I looked away, I noticed—feeling part admiration and part loathing—that Simon even had the presence of mind to let a little spittle fall out of his mouth onto his pillow. That little touch could have fooled anyone.
I looked back at Peter, who was crossing his legs and hopping from one foot to the other. Almost every time Peter got overly nervous, he suddenly needed to use the bathroom. While funny most of the time, this tendency could sometimes be a hindrance. Wide-eyed and frightened, he looked like he was about to crack.
“Calm down, Peter,” I said in what I hoped was a soothing voice.
“What do we do?” Peter asked, his voice filled with dread. “Dad’s going to spank us for sure!”
I looked around the room. Simon had abandoned us, so it was up to me.
“We could hide in the bathroom,” I suggested. Our bedroom adjoined the upstairs bathroom, and we could sneak into it without having to actually leave the safety of our room.
“Dad has the key!” Peter said, his voice cracking under the pressure.
I looked around. I could think of nothing.
“Let’s hide under the bed!” Peter suggested, and for a moment I thought his idea just might work. It didn’t take long for me to see the flaws in his plan.
“Dad is too smart for that. He’d look for us there,” I explained. “Besides, we cleaned our room today, so there’s not room for anything else under there.”
Peter got a wild look in his eyes, and then I saw that he had lost it. He ran to his bed, pulled the covers over his head, and didn’t move. Peter liked to play tough, but when push came to shove, he was definitely a softie.
I stood in the middle of the room, figuring that the least I could do was throw Jacob back into his crib. I grabbed the foot of his pajamas and dragged him to the crib; he left a line of drool across the floor. With a quick heave, Jacob was back inside. Now at least we wouldn’t get in trouble for using our brother as a torpedo.
I was turning to jump back into my own bed when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the bookcase next to my bed. Inspiration struck. It was one of those moments you usually just hear about, and in my mind’s eye, I saw the solution as clear as anything I had ever seen before in my short life.
I ran to the bookcase and grabbed a book. Unzipping my pajamas, I shoved the book in and around to the back. After a bit of adjusting, the book lay squarely over my rear end. Peter must have calmed down enough to be peeking out from under his covers.
“What the . . . What are you doing?” his muffled voice asked.
I figured a demonstration was better than an explanation. I reached around and whacked my own backside. “See?” I told him, a bit proud of my obvious brilliance. “It doesn’t hurt a bit. Well, it hurts the hand a little, but that will be Dad’s.”
The lump of blankets stayed still for a moment, but then suddenly Peter reappeared. He dashed across the room, grabbed a book, and raced back to his bed. He dove under the covers, but I could see some wriggling as he followed my example.
I hopped into bed and pulled the covers up over my smile. I could not wait for the swift hand of justice to meet my new-and-improved armored bottom. I pictured Dad coming into my room, yelling and screaming, then after trying to swat me, recoiling and grabbing his hand in pain. Oh, how sweet it would be. I waited . . .
Simon never got back up, and Peter eventually came out for air. John stirred in his sleep, and Jacob slept on as deeply as ever. I kept waiting, but eventually my eyelids became heavy and I drifted off to sleep, The Cat in the Hat pressed firmly against my bottom.