Mom, Phone Calls and Foolish Men

My Mom isn’t intimidated by men, and isn’t easily insulted by strangers. Calling her names or trying to goad her simply makes her more determined to pay back the aggressor. Once when she was shopping in down town Dayton a walking, talking cliché of a pervert came up to her, opened his raincoat and exposed his junk. My Mom was neither frightened nor shocked. Her response was to take a step back, point at his dangling manhood, laugh and say, “Oh, you poor man!” The creep shut his coat and ran away.

We sometimes got prank phone calls, and my Mom would say harsh things to get the rude jokers off the line. She had a sharp tongue and was able to find cutting words at a moment’s notice when sufficiently provoked. This meant that we often got profane call backs. The phone was on the kitchen counter next to a radio, and if the caller was a repeat, loud, cursing offender, she would set the receiver by the radio speaker and suddenly crank up the volume to an ear splitting level. Heavy breathers got the same treatment.

My sister answered the phone on a Saturday night when she was about fifteen. My Dad was off playing poker with my uncles. A strange man was on the line, and he got her to talk about herself. He told her that she sounded nice and that he wanted to meet her. Carla got spooked and handed the receiver over to Mom, and Mom made the mistake of telling him that my sister was under age. That only whetted his interest. Mom hung up. The man called back and demanded to speak to Carla again, and said that he was in a biker gang. He and his buddies wanted to take her for a ride, and he added that it would be polite if we told him where we lived. He spoke to Mom in a calm, cool, determined way, and didn’t react when she tried to tell him off. Mom didn’t pull the blaring radio trick on him because, for once, she was intimidated.

But that didn’t keep her from being resourceful. I was in my bedroom reading a comic book and didn’t know about the little drama unfolding in the kitchen. My mother called for me, filled me in about the situation, and told me to speak to the scumbag when he called again. She said, “Sound like your father and yell at him.” I was twelve and my voice hadn’t changed yet, but I had plenty of experience listening to my father yell. When Biker Dude called once more my Mom handed me the receiver, and I barked as loudly and deeply as I could: “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT WITH MY DAUGHTER GOD DAMN IT!!” I heard a click, the line went dead, and the man didn’t call back again. Mom didn’t normally approve of cursing but thanked me for successfully pretending to be a man.

In 1975 my Dad lost his job as a machinist and apprentice tool maker at National Cash Register, the largest employer in town. The plant was shutting down its operation in Dayton, and within a span of two years 20,000 men and women were on the streets looking for jobs. Dad eventually had to sign up with an employment agency, and the contract included two stipulations: if he refused to take a job he would have to pay the agency a large fine; and if he quit the job before a year had passed he would have to pay an exorbitant fine. The agency found a place for him in a sweatshop with unsafe working conditions, and my Dad quit working there after a week. He wasn’t willing to die young for a meager paycheck.

The agency sent him a threatening letter demanding payment of the fine, and followed up with threatening phone calls. My Dad refused to pay. The terms were unfair, and we were already scraping bottom. The employment agency turned the matter over to a collection agency, and a persistently nasty man began to call us day and night. This was years before the advent of caller ID, and any call we got could be from this bastard. If my Dad picked up he would listen to a few abusive words, repeat that he wasn’t going to pay, and slam down the phone. My mother, if she was stuck taking the call, would try to speak reasonably with the debt collector, but that just emboldened him to make increasingly harsh threats. He was one of the few men who could get the better of her in a verbal dispute, and his goal was to upset her enough to force her to beg my father to pay.

Mom spent a week being tormented by the collector and began to dread it when the telephone rang.  But she came up with a clever solution:  she telephoned everyone we knew and told them to let our phone ring three times, hang up and immediately call again if they wanted to speak to us. We continued to get calls that didn’t follow my mother’s code, and for a few days they seemed to come every hour on the hour. My mother would smile as we listened to the telephone ring and ring and ring, and say, “Doesn’t he sound a little desperate?”

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