ValueSpeak - A Weekly Column by Joseph Walker


I don't know how my green sweater ended up in the same batch of laundry as my white underwear.  Mom didn't usually make mistakes like that.  But there was the evidence, neatly folded in my drawer: green underwear.

"You can't even tell they're green," Mom said, defensively, when I asked what in the name of J.C. Penney was going on.  "Besides, it's underwear.  You don't show off your underwear, do you?"

She had me there.  Underwear-showing was high on the list of things we tried not to do back in those days.  Still, I was an underwear traditionalist.  It was the mid-1960s, and in my neighborhood we wore 'em white and tight -- the whiter and tighter, the better.  None of that multi-colored, boxer-style, hippie-dippie stuff for us.  No, sir.  White, tight underwear was the foundation of all that was noble and right in the world.  To wear anything else was the first rebellious step on the slippery slope of anarchy.

So it was principle, really, that drove my refusal to wear green underwear.  I wouldn't be caught dead in it (which, of course, was my greatest fear -- that I would be in an accident, and would be forever remembered by doctors as the boy who died while wearing green underwear).

Then came St. Patrick's Day, the day for the wearin' o' the green.  In our neighborhood, if someone didn't wear green on St. Patrick's Day, you could pinch him -- hard.  But if the guy you pinched was covertly wearing green, he could punch you -- harder.  Green underwear provided the perfect opportunity to trade pinches for punches -- the ultimate St. Patrick's Day triumph.

So I slipped on the green underwear and hurried through Mom's traditional St. Patrick's Day breakfast of green scrambled eggs and green orange juice, and ran to meet George on the way to school.  I could tell he was quietly checking me out.  At last he pinched me.

"Gotcha!" I shouted, and prepared to punch him.

"Hey, wait!" George replied.  "You gotta prove it!"

He was right, of course. You couldn’t just say you were wearing covert green – you had to show it.  So I showed him the green underwear -- and then I punched him.  He agreed it was a great joke, and volunteered to send victims my way.  It worked great on Dean and Albert.  Their pinches hurt some, but the pain was offset by the knowledge that I was going to get to slug them.

Then George threw a curve ball at me: Gayle.  Gayle was the cutest girl in the fourth grade and the object of my pre-adolescent affection.  Her light pinch felt like an angel kissing my arm, and I was lost in the magic of her laughing eyes -- until I noticed George and the rest of the guys poking their heads around a corner, urging me to finish off the joke.

Talk about your moral dilemmas!  In order to play the joke on Gayle I'd have to show her my green underwear, and there was no way I was going to do that.  Besides, she was a girl, and I didn’t believe in slugging girls – at least, not one who wasn't my sister.  So I just shrugged and blushed and laughed away Gayle's pinch with some innocuous comment about how I'd forgotten it was St. Patrick's Day, and hey -- she could pinch me anytime she wanted.

My buddies were outraged until it occurred to them to send more girls my way.  Eventually, every girl in the fourth grade pinched me – including Colleen, whose father was a dentist so she naturally enjoyed inflicting pain.  By the end of the day I was a St. Patrick's Day peacock, with black and blue arms to go with my red face and green underwear.

I remember that day every year at this time, and I think about what a painful thing it is when principles collide.  All we can do is decide which principle gets the greater value.

And then prepare to be pinched.

— © Joseph Walker

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