When I first heard the news about Garrison Keillor’s resignation because of inappropriate touching, a joke immediately came to me: What is Garrison Keillor’s favorite pickup line?
“I’d like to powder those biscuits.” Bebop-a-rebop.
My wife, Ellen, winced and suggested that it was not funny, not in the middle of this dramatic cultural revolution led by brave women sick of centuries of bad behavior, and the jokes. She gave me her exasperated “Grow up” smile, and then threw a Margaret Atwood quote at me.
“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
In 1961, my sister Shirley was 16 and I was 6. The gap in age between us rivaled “Harold and Maude.” My pretty sister, who wore her hair just like Connie Francis in “Where The Boys Are,” spoiled me rotten, except for those times when she was ambushing me with water balloons or declaring herself “The Tickle Monster” and setting off after me. Shirley almost always volunteered to read to me at bedtime, except for those nights, on the weekend, when she had dates with guys the Master Sergeant referred to as “creeps,” “losers” or “jerks.”
If her “Troy Donahue” was coming over to court her on our back porch swing while the theme to “A Summer Place” played in his head, I’d sit in the kitchen sink with the lights off and spy on them through the blinds. The sink was perfect, because if there was lots of kissing I could barf straight into it. If Romeo turned into Pepe LePew, that was my cue to invite myself onto the porch to pester them until the skunk left, frustrated and hating chatty 6-year-old little brothers who had lots of toys to show off.
Next day she’d reward me by taking me to the Woolworth’s downtown on the bus, treating me to a milkshake at the counter.
When Shirley went out on a date, there was no bedtime story. Plopped into my bed by the Master Sergeant, I’d get a cursory peck on the forehead from Mom and an admonition to “Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.” Then they’d turn off the light, shut the door and leave me to be killed and eaten by the monsters that lived in the closet, behind the bureau, in the toy box, under my bed and in the cooler vent. A blanket over your head could save you. Pillows would be worthless in any fight.
Pray. Whimper. Bargain with God. Vow to fight the beasts to the death. Peek over the blanket. I’d repeat this pattern until I passed into a deep sleep out of sheer exhaustion, and then around midnight my sister would return from her dream date, tiptoe into my room, sit on the side of my bed, gently shake me awake and tell me about the movie at the 22nd Street Drive-In or the fun she had at the Rollerama or how dreamy or boring her Elvis was.
Late one Saturday night, my sister woke me up, and this time her voice was different. She hugged me and rocked me as she told me her dream date was a nightmare. He was a jerk, and he was disrespectful, and demanding, and insistent, and a creep, and he couldn’t keep his hands to himself, and I had better respect girls when I grew up, and then my big sister began to cry. She had survived an encounter with a monster more terrifying than the beasts that lurked in any bedtime darkness.
Her poodle skirt was askew and her hair was a mess. “His hands were all over me.” None of this was ever covered on “The Flintstones” or “The Jetsons.” The Master Sergeant told me that in this life, I couldn’t live with women or without them. As far as I knew, when Jack and Jill went up the hill together to fetch a pail of water, that’s all that happened up on that hill.
I bunched up my tiny fists and told the sister I loved more than anything that I’d murder him a million times. She informed me, sniffing up an errant tear, that she could take care of herself, thank you. “Some guys are just creeps. Don’t you ever be one. Promise?”
I promised. In the years ahead, that credo shaped my behavior toward women far more than Mom’s admonitions “to be nice to girls” or the Master Sergeant’s orders to “be a gentleman.” My sister is gone now, yet five decades later I can recall with clarity that young heartbroken voice in the darkness:
Some guys are just creeps. Don’t you ever be one. Promise?