The tale of the apple core and the toilet

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Ah, memories… good and bad! Syndicated humor columnist Tom Purcell, who happily calls Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania his home, turns potentially bad memories into good insights, many of which are permanently recorded in his book, “Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood.” Here’s an excerpt called, An Apple Core, a Toilet.

I don’t know what I was thinking: In 1973, when I was 11, I flushed an apple core down the toilet, an action I would come to regret.

Writer Tom Purcell

Writer Tom Purcell

As it went, my father had remodeled our basement into a family room. He installed the inexpensive pine paneling common to the times. He also built a small bathroom, which would be the bane of his existence for more than 30 years.

My father, always looking to save a buck — he had six kids to feed, after all — bought the cheapest toilet he could find. It never did work right. He spent much of his spare time unplugging it.

Armed with this knowledge, then, it is remarkable I did what I did.

One Sunday morning, after chomping on a large Washington apple, I lay on the family room couch, too lazy to go upstairs to the kitchen to dispose of it. (My father warned against throwing apple cores in the downstairs garbage can, as they would draw ants.)

About then I noticed, some 12 feet away, that the toilet lid was up. In a moment of insanity, I aimed the core at the toilet and flicked my wrist. The core floated majestically in the air, a perfect trajectory, and landed in the center of the bowl with a satisfying “kir-plunk!”

Apple Core

I flushed it and never gave it another thought.

Six months later, another clogging was reported with that toilet. As fate would have it, this happened on a Sunday morning. I lay on the couch, holding another Washington apple. I watched television, while my father fought to free the plug.

The Purcell home with the troubled toilet.

The Purcell home with the troubled toilet.

But nothing would free it. The plunger failed, but not before my father was soaking wet. Two jars of Drano had no effect. Even the plumber’s snake, which my father always borrowed from the Kriegers next door when all other measures failed, was unable to dislodge the blockage.

In a fit of rage, my father unbolted the toilet from the floor. In one mighty heave, he lifted it off its mount and set it in front of the television. My mother was there by now, desperately trying to calm him. I walked over for a closer look, horrified by what I was about to witness.

My father knelt before a black hole in the floor. Despite mother’s protestations, he reached his mighty paw inside it, then his forearm, then his biceps. His head was now pressed against the damp floor, the veins in his temples ready to explode.

His eyes lit up. He had something. He carefully removed his biceps, then his forearm, then his paw. He was on his knees now staring at his clenched fist. He unpeeled his fingers slowly. In the center of his palm was a black, rotten apple core.

Tom with his parents and siblings in the 1970s.

Tom (left) with his parents and siblings in the 1970s.

I could go into detail about my father’s incredible reaction — how he ran through the house shouting, “Who the hell flushed an apple core down the toilet?” I could describe the shock and horror he felt when he discovered that I, his 11-year-old son and only hope in carrying on the family name, was the imbecile who did it.

But I won’t. I will tell you I was paralyzed with fear that day, a fear born out of respect. My father loved me and wanted the best for me, I know now. He wanted me to master basic virtues — certainly to master common sense — and I’d failed him.

At the time, it would have been great if he were a father like the hapless idiots portrayed on television these days. But lucky for me he was, and still is, a man. Unlike too many fathers today, he was firm and strong and unafraid to confront me and discipline me in the unpleasant challenge of preparing me for life.

The hard feelings the apple core incident caused have mostly been forgotten. Still, every now and then I receive a call late at night. I answer and hear a familiar male voice:

“Why the hell did you flush an apple core down the toilet?”

2 Comments

  1. Tom, you had me at “toilet”…!
    I cringed and felt your pain as I recalled “the ketchup packet in the car”…

  2. This reminded me of a relative of ours in Italy whose family depended on farming for a living. As a boy he thought that he would test the watermelons to determine if they were nearly ripe yet so he stuck a sharp spike into each one. He then turned them over to hide the holes. As the days passed, the melons stopped growing and began to rot. His father realised what had happened but didn’t punish the boy; he just informed him sadly that the family would have no melon crop that year. That was worse than any punishment. Fortunately by the time we heard the story, both father and son were able to laugh about the summer that they lost the melon crop.

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