Call It a Feature

A family trait for literalism runs true. Not entirely a good thing.


Which of you has the dangerous weapon?

On the ‘show no fear’ principle, I try not to wince at this question from the border guard scanning our four declarations. Number one son steps forward. Going by the similar expressions on our faces, guard and mother are clearly of one mind here: What the hell?

The guard looks at this gangly 16-year-old for a moment, looks back at his declaration to confirm what she’s reading.

What is it? she asks.

A bull whip, he replies.

Are you dissing me?

She doesn’t actually say the words, but her narrowed eyes clearly indicate that it’s what she’s trying to assess. It seems impossible that anyone, even a teenager, could be giving this answer seriously, but even to a mother’s hypersensitive ear there is not a trace of smart-aleck in his tone.

It is 1989 and we are returning from a spring break trip to California. The bull whip is a prize from a side outing to Tijuana, the boys’ first encounter with haggling, at least to buy stuff. ¬†At 16 and 13, this is also their first international air travel and their first encounter with speaking for themselves with border guards. It is now clear that knowing what not to say figures of authority is acquired (if at all) through learning, not genetics. A dangerous weapon, indeed. What was he thinking?

Yet I understand his thinking process too well. He was just taking the form’s question at face value. It was as simple — and as familiar — as that.

My thoughts drifted back to my own first experience with Tijuana, about 25 years earlier. Advised to park the car on US territory, my father had led our family of six on foot across the border to the waiting taxicabs. The price offered for the short ride into the town proper was not to his liking. When initial negotiations broke down, he turned on his heel. We’ll walk.

Nary a protest from any of us — not even a peep — as we wheeled in formation to follow him, babies to his mother duck. We didn’t question his sincerity: we had learned, the hard way sometimes, that he meant what he said. Our unquestioning response convinced the cab drivers, too, who were suddenly eager to offer a better price. Only the barely perceptible twinkle in Dad’s eye gave me a hint that there was more going on here than had met my eye.

So — at one level — it was good to see this family trait running true. Not that I needed any reassurance of my physical connection to my son. After all, it’s only fatherhood that’s an assumption: motherhood is a fact. Still, we like to see our traits appearing in the next generation — a form of immortality, if you will. But I didn’t need any reassurance of continuity there, either. Both my offspring had amply demonstrated their ability to take questions and situations at face value; indeed, some might say that they had demonstrated their inability to do anything else.

I haven’t seen you for a while. Tell me what you’ll be wearing so I’ll be sure to recognize you at the airport.

The night before a planned visit, my straight-man father is in long-distance telephone conversation with my Number two son, then a five-year-old.

Well, I’ll be wearing brown pants, and a checkered shirt, and a ball cap. OK, good contingency planning, kiddo.

I can’t believe he came in right past that big bag of dog food in the front hall. Talking to the police officer taking our break-in report, I am still in denial mode. My unspoken sub-text was clear enough I thought: Who would rob a house with a dog big enough to eat all that food? After all, if I can make this theft too incredible, it won’t have happened, right? The nine-year-old pipes up helpfully, But, Mom, maybe he didn’t want the dog food. Righto: why didn’t I think of that?

A bull whip.

With my son’s answer still hanging there between them, improbable but entirely genuine, the guard decides to take it, him and all of us at face value. Channelling Queen Victoria (We are not amused!), she strokes a black line through that question on his form, and waves us on. Welcome home. She doesn’t actually say the words, but being spared baggage inspections and possibly ickier intrusiveness is enough of an official welcome for me.

As we walk out of the Customs holding pen, the boys’ father gives me The Look (you know the one) and finally speaks.

He gets that from your side of the family.

As usual in these observations, it is complaint, not compliment. I could read any amount of sub-text into it and tune my response accordingly, with predictable results. Instead, I decide to extend the theme of the evening’s encounter and take this comment at face value too. Yes, he does. And there it ends.

In some applications, a bug you can’t fix really is a feature.

This entry was posted in Language and Communication, Laughing Frequently, Officialdom and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Call It a Feature

  1. Heather Taschuk says:


  2. Ralph says:

    Good one Isabel ! But funny, isn’t it, how these traits skip every other generation……

  3. Pete Savage says:

    A beautiful day being spoiled by rain was rescued by a bull whip – thanks

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Pete – Thank you! There’s a saying of which Mom is fond: God gave us memories that we might have roses in December. (James Barrie, of Peter Pan fame, apparently.) And laughs on rainy days, I might add.

  4. steven says:

    I stand by my analysis of the burglar’s psychology.


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Steven – Well, sometimes the obvious explanation is the one we overlook, that’s for sure.

  5. Alison Uhrbach says:

    I actually find those questions on the form tricky… especially when we lived in the country – what did I answer to “Have you been on a farm?” well, IS it a farm?? or not… also the fruit question .. is a date a “fruit”?? apparently it is… I go with the theory, be brutally honest, and let them figure it out. So far, it’s worked OK.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – Yes, and do coffee beans count as “food”? Who knows? Since my occupation requires me to answer badly worded questions with both precision and persuasion, having to tick boxes and fill in blanks on forms that clearly haven’t been designed with me in mind seems like insult added to injury, somehow. And you’re right – brutal honesty is the right tactic. People don’t believe me when I tell the truth, so lying convincingly is out of the question!

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