When I was a small child, I spent two weeks during each summer vacation staying with my grandparents in Iowa. On Saturdays, I would get to ride along with my grandfather in his ‘63 Chevy Impala as he went on errands. The car’s brilliant, sapphire-blue upholstery was in sharp contrast to it’s simple white exterior. Running errands, my grandfather all to myself, was always a special treat.
Grandpa was half Blackfoot Indian and half French Canadian whose square-set jaw and high cheekbones gave a certain resolution to his blue-eyed gaze. He was a strong, stoic man, tough and dependable in ways my eight years couldn’t yet grasp, but could intuitively sense. He was a simple man that had gotten along with only a sixth-grade education. He worked very hard his whole life. His own childhood had been a brief-lived experience after his father died and his mother abandoned a family of nine children to fend for themselves. He and his three older brothers supported and raised their younger siblings. Maybe because of that experience, Grandpa didn’t know exactly how to react to young children. As I think back on those errands, he probably felt as anxious as his young grandson sitting next to him.
Seated close to him on the sedan’s front bench, I’d notice his deep, hard-labor tan and cable muscled arms earned from working a crane at the Rock Island Arsenal. His straight forward profile and Camel cigarette clamped between his lips, only made me curious to learn more about him.
My grandfather drove with a casual posture, one powerful forearm resting out the car window, the other handling the Impala’s large, blue steering wheel with just a thumb and forefinger curled around an ivory steering knob. It was difficult talking to him as he drove. My eight-year-old questions were answered by not much more than a “Yea-uh” that at least let me know he heard my chattering.
Along the drive, if I pestered him too much, asked too many questions, he’d say, “You’re noisier than a magpie” while not shifting his gaze from the windshield. The ‘magpie’ statement only made me giggle; at that age I didn’t really know what a magpie was. Grandpa would then breathe noticeably through his nose, signaling he didn’t know how to take the idle curiosity of a child.
Soon, my fidgeting with his car’s radio knobs, cigarette lighter and glove compartment latch brought on a warning, “Better stop that now, else Injun Joe’ll lower the boom on ya.” Injun Joe was a mythical entity that according to my Grandpa, lived in my grandparents old attic. He was an indian chief that punished mischievous youngsters by hanging them on a coat-hook behind the attic’s heavy door. For years, none of the grandchildren dared push past this warning.
But I was impetuous. The excitement of spending a Saturday morning alone with my grandfather was too great a moment to waste on caution. I laughed and wiggled my legs on the seat, mocking his stern warning about Injun Joe. He could see the tension building and suspected his threat had no effect on me. Grandpa tried showing a little give in his stern demeanor. “Alright now” he’d say in a voice used to still a spooked horse.
I looked back at him with a reckless sparkle in my own blue eyes. I was going past the bounds of common sense, foolishly believing I was winning some form of mental arm-wrestling. Without warning he slammed his rough, large hand down upon my bare knee with a smack and squeezed it with a vice-like grip. He always knew just the right spot where pressure on nerves and tendons could wrench a squeal and involuntary jag of laughter from his little grandchildren.
I couldn’t escape. I had stepped past the line of mercy. His thick thumb and fingers squeezed the spot just behind my kneecap over and over until I thought I might wet my pants from uncontrollable laughter. At the same time, my grandfather’s eyes widened in a crazed look and his mouth dropped in a forced “gotcha” laugh that sounded like a wolf howl. A frenzied moment of insanity took hold, neither he nor I able to release it.
By the time my grandfather and I reached our first errand stop, I’d still be rubbing my knee and giggling.
These are the old memories I’d have mixed in my adult mind later in life, now with my own son. I would pick him up from his mother’s house for my weekend visitations; a disquisition on modern commuter parenting. My fond childhood memories now mixed with more recent impressions of my rocky failed marriage and searing power-struggle divorce. All these jagged recollections I’d have swirling around in my head while trying to drive and listen to my son’s disconnected chatter. He’s a curious child like I had been and I’d try to answer his questions while keeping an eye on traffic. When he became too distracting, I’d remember my grandfather’s technique and unexpectedly grab his small knee and squeeze. Both he and I derived mirthful pleasure from the sudden tickle-assault.
But my son was braver than I at his age, he’d try and retaliate, lunging at me, trying to squeeze my knee for a similar reaction. He was surprised and disappointed when I didn’t laugh. Then he’d work his small fingers under my arms, across my ribs and even under my chin, all to no avail. I, for a time, had the ‘tickle spot’ advantage.
I kept this advantage for a while. After his failed tickling attempts, my six year old son would ask, “Dad don’t you have a ticklish spot? Why aren’t you ticklish?”
I simply told him I didn’t have one. My answer wasn’t satisfactory and during the course of our routine hour drive from his mother’s house to mine, he’d randomly try to surprise me and trigger a ticklish spot. Following each try to get me to laugh, he’d reluctantly stop and regard me with a calculating, squint-eyed expression on his young face.
This went on for several weeks until one day he stopped as if struck by epiphany and turned in his seat to face me directly. He then claimed, “Dad, I know where your ticklish spot is.”
“Oh, you do huh.” I challenged him back.
“Ok, buddy, where?”
“It’s your brain” he revealed confidently, then sat against the car door, folded his arms across his chest and smiled in victory.
I was dumbfounded. He was absolutely correct. A six-year-old child, my son, found my ticklish spot when no adult since my grandfather, had been able to find one. From that moment on, my son and I shared a special “knowing” between us, a private secret. We both knew each others ticklish spots and at that frozen moment in time, we shared a rare reward between adulthood and childhood.