There are “fits” and “hissy fits,” but I suppose this story is more closely aligned with a hissy fit. When I was about eight years old, I sat on the front porch of a relative’s house and watched an older–actually young adult–first cousin working on a hay mower in the front yard near a narrow gravel road that passed the house. He was Andy Sykes, my aunt Susie’s older child, formally named Anderson. Aunt Susie was my mother’s older sister–one of the nicest, calmest people on the planet. Andy was always nice to me, too, but he wasn’t a calm kind of guy.
The sunny day was hot and humid, typical of a Tennessee summer. Such days can fray nerves at times.
Andy had removed a heavy-duty, tightly wound coil spring that was about fifteen inches long and about two inches in diameter. Each end of the spring had a C-shaped loop that went over steel posts that held it in place. He had been working on the mower for a while before I started watching; in fact he appeared almost done. After he replaced the broken part, he tried to reinstall the spring, a task that looked relatively simple compared to replacing the broken part.
He placed one loop of the spring over one of the posts and clamped a Vice-Grip plier on the side of the other loop. He then took a large screwdriver and pried against the plier to stretch the spring over the second post. That’s all there was to it, except about the time he got the spring in place the Vice-Grip slipped off and the spring fell to the ground. After this happened about three times, Andy forgot or didn’t know in the first place that I was sitting on the porch watching him. He was working up a lather and somehow I felt it was not a good idea to offer to help. The situation just seemed a tad odd for me to say anything, so I watched with growing interest and a bit of amusement.
Andy continued to use the same method he started with to replace the big spring. Each time he tried, up to about ten times, the same thing happened. When he almost had the spring in place, it came loose and fell to the ground. As his frustration intensified, he began to make loud guttural noises with each failure.
On his final try that I observed before his hissy fit, the spring again fell to the ground. In a deep rage he grabbed the spring, stepped away from the mower a step or two and heaved the spring in discus-throwing style across the narrow gravel road into a field of tall weeds. I didn’t know what discus throwing was back then, but that wide-swing motion was close to what Andy did.
What happened next got really interesting.
Still seemingly unaware that I was watching, Andy walked back and forth–with his characteristic limp–near the mower until he collected himself. He slowly looked over the mower, then across the road to the weed field. He slowly crossed the road into the tall weeds and started parting them with his arms, looking for the spring.
As he searched, I quietly slipped into the house to finish watching all this through a window. Somehow I felt if he knew I saw his hissy fit, he would feel humiliated. It wasn’t a pretty sight. I don’t remember any more about the episode.
A frustrating episode with a universal remote earlier this week triggered this memory. The remote has buttons on it to control several devices, such as a TV, receiver, digital video recorder, CD player, and a game console. I inadvertently pressed a button that threw off my normal routine, and I couldn’t get anything to work. Ellen was sitting there watching all this. In a flash of anger I felt the urge to throw the remote through the glass doors of our fireplace. At that instant I remembered Andy, began to chuckle, and told Ellen this story for the first time. (She no doubt found it refreshing to hear a new story from me, rather that the frequent retellings I’m inclined to do.)
Andy lived much of his life in pain. As a little boy, he ignited a fire with some matches in a broomsedge field and tried desperately to stamp it out, severely burning his right leg. He required skin grafts and his leg was badly scarred for life. He married bright-red-headed Ruth Hodge, a beautiful young woman from a farm adjoining ours to the west. They lived much of their lives in Michigan, and both became ministers in evangelical churches.
He died this past spring after suffering from Alzheimer’s in two nursing homes over several years. His leg sometimes required bandages over skin eruptions in the burned area. Ruth entered the nursing home with him, helped care for him, and helped calm him when he became agitated. He was prone to fits of anger and physical confrontations with nursing home staff, finally becoming uncontrollable. A few weeks before Andy died, nursing home management transferred him, accompanied by Ruth, about 200 miles east to a facility near Chattanooga that could handle unruly patients.
My guess is that Andy’s early anger somehow lay dormant in his psyche and intensified in his old age. While I did not live near him for most of my life, I don’t recall any accounts of him having an unusual temper. I saw him on rare occasions in my early adulthood and he was as pleasant as I had remembered when I was a boy.
But Andy brought me a chuckle this week, helped me shake off a moment of deep irritation. He would have liked that.