We ate at 6:00 every night. My dad and stepmom both worked at the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper, and unless Dad had a screwy shift, he was usually home by 5:15 or so. We always left him alone for a bit while my stepmom cooked dinner - he needed time to decompress after working in the ER.
A house with three boys is a chaotic place, but dinnertime was absolutely sacred. No eating in front of the TV. No radio in the background. No grabbing your plate and heading off to your room. We all ate dinner at the kitchen table, held reasonable conversation, did the dishes, and then moved on with our lives.
Now, don't imagine Leave It to Beaver or an overly stern, hear-a-pin-drop atmosphere, because that's not the case. We held heated political debates, talked about the Broncos, and always made sure to compliment my stepmom's cooking.
But one thing would bring conversation to a screeching halt. The table would go from lively and bright to deadly in less than a second. Someone could be in mid-sentence, about to reveal some inner truth about Elway's passing ability, only to have the wisdom rendered utterly moot . . . by the telephone.
When the phone rang during dinner, Dad's face would fall. It was anger, yes, but I realize now there was sadness there, too. My brothers and I would invariably glance at each other, wondering which idiot friend of ours violated Rule #1: No calls between 6 and 6:30, ever, for any reason, even if it's about a girl. And that made us think to ourselves, Oh God, please don't be a girl calling.
Dad was brutal. Just mean. It didn't matter who it was - wrong numbers, best friends in grave peril, charity for three legged cat shelters, all were treated with equal disdain. Calling our place during dinner had to be one of the most awkward experiences of your life in the 1980s, up to and including velcro shoes.
Now, in fairness, when Dad was in a good mood, he'd just toy with the caller for a while before handing the phone over to one of us, smirking. And as he's aged, he's changed his tune a bit. These days he's practically friendly with random callers - I think he enjoys stringing along telemarketers just to see how long they'll stay on the line after they realize they're not going to make the sale.
So now, when I think about calling students' homes in the evening, I think about how my dad used to react and I wonder: Am I that caller, ruining someone's dinner? What domestic traditions am I interrupting?
I've been a better writer than speaker since childhood, so when possible, I'll stick to what I know.