My dad was a hulking six-foot-five ex-Marine who could whistle the entire Marine Corp Hymn in one breath while chain-smoking Lucky Strikes. Getting into the car with Dad, whether you were going to 7-11 for milk, or driving to Argentina to mine for emeralds, you were indentured into his IQ-improvement program. Dad's baby-blue '66 station wagon became a pop-quiz-mobile the second the key turned it on.
Oh, how Dad loved to lecture, hands flying off the steering wheel to make points, he'd borrow accents and blather on about history, particularly American History, which he made the centerpiece of our titillating road trips. He loved history and lectured ad naseum to the sea of indifference in the backseats of his car.
"If you don't know where you came from, you won't know where you're going!" he'd bellow. Then he'd whistle "Yankee Doodle."
If there was one thing my father despised it was idiots. He continually shoved information down our gullets and then made us regurgitate it. He was forever fearful one of his four kids would turn out short on the intelligence gene, and so far it was looking like it was going to be me. My older brother Reid was very smart, and everyone always mentioned it. My younger brothers were still goo-goo-ing, so every time I got in his car during the entire decade of the '60s, I'd begin to sweat—which was hideous on a pre-pubescent girl.
My father took us to every historical point and battleground within a thousand miles of our hometown in south Jersey. "There she is! Gettysburg—the bloodiest battle of the Civil War!" he'd lecture. On another trip, "This is Valley Forge, the coldest winter of Washington's life." There was probably more, but I wasn't really listening.
When the quizzes rolled out, Reid was always reluctant to play. He knew he was smart so it bored him to be tested on it. I, on the other hand, was too stupid not to play, so I'd try to answer questions desperately seeking my father's approval, which he was very low on.
Once, on our Revolutionary War tour, I'd asked my father a question that haunted us until the end of his life. I asked if the war was the reason why we don't have slaves anymore. I remember posing the question with pride, as if I expected him to turn around and say, "Why, Deborah, what an insightful question." Instead, my father began to hyperventilate. My mother turned away as if she didn't know me, blowing her smoke to the closed window.
"I mean, why not just fire all the maids instead of having a war?"
I thought my dad was going to have a heart attack right there. He pulled over on the shoulder of the road in Virginia to take one of those long, disapproving looks at me.
We had just left Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home, so he began with Revolutionary War questions. "Who do you think we fought the Revolutionary War against?" Dad baited.
"Um, which Revolutionary War?" I asked, stalling.
"There was only one!" Dad screamed.
"Robert, calm down. You're scaring her. She's eight years old!" Mom screamed.
"Reid knew this stuff when he was five! What are they teaching you in that school?"
"Who did we fight the war against?" he repeated. "And I warn you right now, you better know the answer to this. We were just in Williamsburg, for God's sake."
"The pilgrims? Um, Indians? Um, Revolutioners?"
Dad sighed very sadly. The kind of sigh I remember even now, many years after his death. "Who was in red?" he asked, quietly.
"Um, people with guns?" I squeaked out.
After a long pause, he blurted, "OK, who's buried in Grant's tomb?"
I contorted my face and tried to work this out in my head. "I know this one, I can get this one."
"Yeah, I can smell the wood burning," Dad snarked. He thought my IQ would somehow miraculously improve if he hurled insults towards it. Perhaps a leftover Korean War tactic, but the technique wasn't working.
"Your time's up. Who's buried in Grant's tomb?"
Like Lee, I surrendered, "I dunno."
"You don't know? Grant! General Grant was buried in Grant's tomb!"
"I thought Grant's tomb was the name of a town," I whined.
"Is that your answer? Is that all you can say?" my father demanded.
"Leave her alone," said Mom.
"We'd better take her to the doctor and find out why she's not bright," my father whispered so everyone could hear.
After my dad had sufficiently humiliated me in front of the only people I really knew (my mom and my brother), he asked me the question that would always make me cry; the lowest of the lowest, the easiest of the easy. The question that was actually designed to make you cry.
"What color was Washington's white horse?"
At this point, I knew he thought I was the village idiot. I knew from American history lectures that idiots were stoned and ridiculed in town squares. Or was that witches? I suddenly couldn't remember anything and I was sweating from orifices I didn't know I had.
I suspected that the next thing Dad was going to say was that I was uneducated and that I would have to go to a private school. I began to sob and I kept it up all the way up to Washington D.C.
When my father was dying, I rushed to his bedside, and I sat with him while he withered away to half his size. I watched his arrogance melt into fear, holding his hand day after day. I held his hand until it couldn't hold back anymore. I had an ulterior motive; I needed him to take it all back. I needed a do-over from him. It was 1984 and I had been carrying around a chip on my shoulder since I was still in undershirts.
I had spent decades over-achieving just so my father would take the time to say, "Wow, did I misjudge YOU. You are one smart little lady." But he hadn't, yet. I loved my father deeply, but he had definitely done a number on my self-esteem.
"Dad, I need you to tell me that I'm smart." I whispered. "You always told me I wasn't very bright."
"That was to encourage you to do better," he said, matter of factly.
"Tell me I'm smart!" I insisted.
He smiled up at me through all the tubes and the fear and the wall of shame he'd built around me.
"Of course you're smart. You're a Kasper. There are no stupid Kaspers. We're bright. You were just the dimmest of the brightest. That's all I meant to say," he laughed.
My father was sad for me, I could see it in his dying eyes. He knew at that moment what he had done to me, and I knew that he knew.
"I'll tell you what," said Dad, almost sitting up. "Not only are you the smartest one in the whole famn damily, but you've got more balls than all three of your brothers combined."
I started to cry. "Really? Really, Dad?"
"Will you tell my brothers that?"
"Hell no—you're the one with the balls, you tell them." My father smiled up at me and behind complete kidney failure, he pulled his scattered thoughts together. "Who were the Berbers?" he whispered.
I was pretty sure they were second-century barbarians who conquered Europe. Or were they the ones who conquered North Africa? I wondered silently before opening my mouth.
"I know this answer," I said after minute.
"I know you do, sweetheart. I know you do."