Dad was mowing the grass in the back yard. My brother Pete and I were working on something in the garage with the back door open. Dad was about as far away across the back yard as he could get when suddenly the growl of the lawnmower engine died and was replaced just moments after by Dad’s voice yelling across the yard, asking one of us to bring the Vaseline.
Pete and I turned and gave each other the puzzled dog look. “Did he say ‘Vaseline’?” Pete asked me, and I answered, “That’s what I heard, too.”
So I shouted back: “You want the Vaseline?”
“Yes! The Vaseline!” And then he added, as if it would help to clarify the request: “For the lawnmower!”
It was your standard lawnmower with a three-horsepower, two-stroke gasoline engine, and we had a yard so big it took most of an afternoon to mow it, so the gas tank ran dry at least once. It would make sense if he asked for the gasoline, but he hadn’t, or at least we were pretty sure he hadn’t. We were pretty sure he asked for the Vaseline. Pretty sure.
But there was a can of gasoline in the garage, in plain view, and there was also a big jar of Vaseline on the work bench that we used to grease up stick bolts and axles and whatnot, also in plain view. He hadn’t checked the gas tank on the lawn mower after he shut it off, so it’s just possible that he really did want the Vaseline instead of the gasoline, but why he would want the Vaseline was a mystery. But that’s what we both heard him ask for.
The problem here was that our Dad had a ferocious temper that neither one of us wanted to risk triggering if we could help it. If Dad had indeed asked for the Vaseline and we brought him gasoline, our misinterpretation would unleash a force-five tornadic tongue-lashing just a sure as if he’d asked for gasoline and we brought him Vaseline.
We asked again, yelling across the back yard, “Did you say ‘Vaseline?'”
“Yes!” he answered, a trifle miffed this time. Our hesitation was starting to annoy him. “Vaseline!” he barked again, in a tone of voice that clearly implied: What in hell do you think I’m asking for? Gasoline?
We tried once more, this time experimentally changing the question to “Gasoline?” Well, we had to try.
He finally cut loose with a magnificently full-throated roar that flushed his face and rattled windows for a quarter mile in every direction: “VASELINE!” If we didn’t act within moments, he would explode with the force of a supernova. We couldn’t let that happen. I can’t recall for sure now which of us finally went out there, but as I’m telling the story I’m going to say I took one for the team by scooping the jar of Vaseline off the work bench and starting across the yard. With each step I grew more confident. He could easily see I didn’t have the gas can, yet he didn’t raise a word in protest. We must have heard him correctly.
No, of course we hadn’t. He watched me march all that way across the lawn in silence because he was in shock, not because I’d brought him what he’d asked for. As I extended my hand, proudly presenting the jar of Vaseline to him, I mewled, “You asked for, uh, Vaseline?”
He stared. He blinked. “Vaseline?” he finally yelped, still puzzled, and then his sun went supernova and the shock wave hit: “I asked for GASOLINE!” he shouted, all but hopping up and down. “What in hell would I want with Vaseline?”
It’s still a mystery why I didn’t just take him both the Vaseline and the gasoline.