Bull Beans and Sheep Seeds

Harry Drabik

Quite long ago now, I had a boss who decided to take issue with the fact I’d followed the instructions in one of his memos. (I’ll bet you’ve met the type.) In writing he put me on notice. In writing I said that was bull. I was then on notice again for profanity and insubordination. While insubordination comes easily to me, in this case I denied by saying that if I wasn’t profane (vulgar disrespect) I couldn’t be held insubordinate. He thought he had me. If writing “bull” wasn’t vulgar what was it? I told him I used bull as short for bull beans. He said I was lying and showing contempt. (It takes much effort not to be contemptuous when it’s deserved.) – Well here’s the story. Age ten I was packed off to summer camp next to a farm. As kids will, we got into things including sacks of fodder we called bull beans and sheep seeds. Sheep seeds were marginally edible (keep in mind we’d have eaten near anything) whereas bull beans were not. Bull beans were useless to us as a contradicted memo was useless to an employee. It’s been a long time since I learned the edible uselessness of bull beans and the not-worth-the-bother value of sheep seeds, but I’ve not forgotten the meaning of either.  

I think that boss and I took a near instant dislike to one another. This is not a rare thing. I’d bet you’ve seen or experienced it personally. One of my uncles was a man I disliked at a strong gut level. A successful salesman type, he was loud and loved to show off. Having him in the family was like having our own Donald Trump at Grandma’s house for a holiday dinner. My dislike of him was visceral and deep. Sadly, I never got over it in time, so you’ll need to hear the account with my animus in mind. On a Chicago visit in my teens the oversize uncle (sole family member with a Caddy when Cadillacs were truly huge) invited us to dine at an expensive restaurant where he brayed “Order anything you want. It’s on me.” I knew very well what was expected and ordered lobster. The lethal look that shot from mother caused immediate regret made more pointed by her hiss “Change your order, now!” Fearing the dead boy (me) seen in mother’s eyes I would have backed down if not for the Uncle I hated and detested coming to my aid with a hearty “Let the boy order what he wants!” The man I thought to hurt by ordering high-off-the-menu appeared to genuinely enjoy the scene. I feel he was honestly pleased to see his pimple-face nothing-nephew stand up to the family’s premiere disciplinarian, my mother. An external power gave me will to say (with downcast eyes to be sure) “I never had it before” as justification for ordering lobster. Mother was two words into a son killing rant when Uncle Awful shut her up as nobody (I do mean NOBODY) else would dare. “Leave the kid alone. We’re here for a good time not an argument.”  

A glare from across the table told me there was trouble yet to face. By the time mother got done there might not be much of me left to bury. But in the short term I’d have lobster. It might be my last meal, a factor I appreciated alongside the taste of salty drawn butter. Uncle’s loud laughter increased mother’s frost and my future problem. The man I scorned picked the most expensive steak on the massive menu. “There,’ he announced, “the kid and me, we know how to live!” His steak was killer size no doubt contributing to his fatal heart attack a decade later. His wife who ate like a bird ordered from the kid’s menu. Dad was mildly aggressive with his order. Mother had chicken. We who were about to die ate lobster with eager defiance.  

I think about that. A man I truly did not like had sides I was too simple to appreciate. And tell you this. If you wanted a deal or needed something big he was the Uncle you’d go to, absolutely the best choice.  

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