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HOW TO BREAK A SIDE OF BEEF/David Rompf WHEN I WAS A BOY, my otherwise opinion-shy father decided that my head required a rubbing before I went off to take a test at school. Algebra, history and chemistry tests gave equal cause for this ceremony, and even, to my bafflement, phys-ed, in which swift, lean boys captured the highest grades by racing two miles in less than twelve minutes. As I left the house on exam days, books piled against my hip, he stood at the front door waiting, always dressed in a white, short-sleeved dress shirt and black pants, a combination made more severe by his eternal crew cut and square-framed glasses. As his cool fingers tousled my perfectly combed hair, he'd say, "That's for high marks!" Or, "Good luck today, hey?" On some days it was a nonchalant rub on the top or back of my skuU, executed in a soft circular motion. Other times—perhaps in proportion to the difficulty of the pending test—he rubbed with vigorous, bone-grinding determination , as if he hoped to ignite mental sparks. This ritual began as a casual gesture one morning before what I feared was going to be a grueling chemistry test. I hated the subject but had labored over the material daily. When my father suggested a scalp massage to help "activate" my brain, I first balked at the idea and then capitulated as a measure of insurance, in case my many hours of study weren't enough. After my report card confirmed his powers, the rubbings became de rigueur, continuing well into my high school years. If I resisted, my mother predicted academic doom and lifelong failure, and my father stood righteously at the front door, poised to rub with aU the more gusto. I often wonder ifhis rubbings held an actual power that continued to affect me long after I ceased being a teenager. What else could explain my passage through law school, through three years of unprecedented levels of test anxiety compounded by an intense disdain for the subject? Recently I've also wondered whether my paternal grandfather, whom I never knew, rubbed his son's head in times of school-induced pressures. Did my father, as a chtid, enjoy the benefit of the same prescriptive ritual? In fact I knew tittle about my own father's education, perhaps because I've always had a soUpsistic obsession with my own. For thirty-two years he devoted himself to a job that required study, but I heard nothing about his training and preparation for the work that kept him away 138 · The Missouri Review from home most evenings. For many years he'd leave the house, clock his hours and return late, after Td gone to bed. On his day off he rested or took us out for a meal, and once a year we went on short vacations. As a kid, I didn't know what had led to my father's position in life. He never spoke about it, and I never asked. Nearing middle age, I felt compelled to find out how he had acquired the skills that helped feed us and, more to the point, fed his soul. And so, determined to learn, I asked. Before he was formally trained to cut meat for a living, he told me, my father was drafted into the army. In April 1953, after six weeks in boot camp, he was sent to Cooks and Bakers School at Fort RUey, Kansas. The Korean War was in full throttle, but Korea itself would remain a faraway and exotic abstraction. His trenches were dug in Kansas, where he learned how to scramble eggs and bake bread for a hundred famished men at a time. This first excursion away from home was a momentous journey of less than a thousand miles. Scrawny, pale and twenty-one, he had grown up in northern Michigan's backwoods, where ice and snow encase the land seven months a year, and the locals, practicaUy Canadian by virtue of their proximity to the border, attach "hey" to the end of every spoken sentence. He was the youngest...


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