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Notes from the Small Pond: Swearing

No one's ever asked me, but if anyone did, and they were serious, I'd answer the way my grandpa answered me when I asked him when I was 5 years old in 1970:

"Why do you swear, Grandpa?"


"Why do you swear and say 'God-Oh-Friday' all the time?"

"Only when I'm mad."


Hank was born in 1900 on the 300 block of Eighth Street in Cloquet. He retired from the paper mill the year I was born, 1965. I have a picture of him working at the mill as a young man, bare chested with his shift mates, all of them barefoot, smiling, my grandpa's black hair coming off his head like the broken wing of a crazy bird.

"I learned it from my old man, I suppose."

"Was he mad?"

"Come to think of it, maybe he was."


"Sure. Mad."

"Mad about what?"

"...not sure about what. Probably us kids getting in the way."

"You were in the way?"

"I suppose we were. There were a lot of us."

"And he was mad about that?"


"Did he ever tell you he was mad?"

"I don't remember that - just remember him being mad, not necessarily talking about it."

We were in his basement on the 300 block of Ninth Street, a block east of where he was born, the house where my dad was born and he and his siblings were raised, two blocks east of where I'd grown up on the 300 block of Seventh Street. He'd dug the basement we now inhabited by himself, shovelful by shovelful. Wore out a Number 5 spade in so doing.

A small man with a cemented constitution, he was building a set of toy boxes for my sister, my brothers and me. He was an excellent craftsman and I remember watching those toy boxes come together in his capable, intentional hands, nail-by-nail, the sweet smell of sawdust in the damp basement air, him whistling and humming and me watching, fascinated at what seemed like magic -the noise and whine of the band saw and lathe, the making of those beautiful toy boxes, painted and brightly hinged, custom decorated, a specific design motif for each of us. I still have mine. After decades of holding G.I. Joes, Johnny West, dinosaur models, innumerable baseball cards, hockey pucks, balls of every shape and size, today that toy box holds my shotgun shells.

"I'm sorry if I make you mad, Grandpa."

It was as if I'd said something un-Catholic. He put down the wood planer he'd been using, small pine shavings covering his muscular forearms, where the black and graying hair on them beaded with sweat. He bent toward me.

"I ain't mad at you," he promised, his voice low and serious. He touched the top of my head with the palm of his hand.

"OK, Grampa."

We smiled at each other. He looked relieved somehow. Then he turned back to his work, shaking his head as if incredulous.

"God-O-Friday," he mumbled. "Damnation."

Parnell Thill, Cloquet resident, former Pine Knot writer and author of "Notes From the Small Pond" column for nearly a decade, is resurrecting the column on a limited basis as he works on a collection of short stories by the same title, along with other writing projects.