I recalled today a time when I was just a small boy and I was on a rare excursion with my father, a stolid and not at all frivolous man, not so atypical of his age and generation. An amusement park? A ball game? They are both equally unlikely, and I can't remember exactly where we had gone or why, but at one point I accompanied my father into a dank and dirty public men's room, leaving my mother and maybe my two-years-older sister outside or at the ladies'.
As we entered, my father said "Don't touch anything." It hadn't been all that long since the introduction of the polio vaccine, and public hygiene nearly fifty years ago wasn't what it is today, so maybe his admonition had merit, but however reasonable (or not) my father's fears of infection, it was an order.
As I stood at the urinal adjacent to the one my father was using, streaming away, I heard in my head my mother's voice and the words she said every time I came out of the bathroom: "Did you flush?" Apparently, this was another common anxiety of the time: that bodily wastes of any sort left to lie in a toilet would create a miasma of contagion, and all toilets must be flushed immediately upon use.
And so I was torn. I had received clear and unequivocal instructions from the stern and foreboding figure of my father, yet they clearly contradicted what was almost daily direction from the central character of my little life, my mother. What to do, what to do?
Inchoate reasoning gasped and spasmed as the frail machinery of my brain clanked laboriously in a vain attempt to reconcile the two directives. In the end, my nascent concern for the common weal won out, and as my stream became a trickle I tentatively reached out to depress the toggle on the urinal with the briefest touch of two fingertips.
Whack! A gentle cuff from my father brought me out of my reflection. "What did I tell you?"
"Ach! I told you not to touch anything and you did."
"Ach! Come on." And he turned and strode out of the fetid little room and back into the daylight, me following behind closely.
As I have thought back on that incident over the years, I realize that it might have been the first time I understood that life was going to be even more complicated than I had imagined, and that the right choice was not always going to be obvious, nor good intentions rewarded.