April 1972: I was back home at my parent’s house for Spring break from the Memphis College of Art when I noticed the strange looking gold hoops lying on the sink in the bathroom. They were perfectly round, about the size of a nickel, with an opening that had a gold ball on one end and a very sharp point on the other end of the loop. Next to the hoops was an instruction pamphlet that read: place the earrings on the lobe, leave in place and the earrings will self-pierce in a matter of weeks. I then realized that they belonged to my mother who was going to use the devices to finally get something that she had wanted for a long time, pierced ears.
I laid the hoops back down on the sink and walked to the kitchen, poured myself a cup of coffee, and laced it with a shot of my Daddy’s Old Crow. My parents were away for the day visiting my Aunt Vurlene and since I had the whole house to myself, I thought it was safe to have a little morning cocktail. I figured that my Daddy wouldn’t miss one shot of whiskey from the bottle that he kept hidden under the sink.
He had bottles hidden here and there, in his sock drawer, in the shed out back, under the seat of his old truck, and several other places. He hid the bottles thinking my mother wouldn't know just how much that he drank. She knew. If I was careful to get a little bit of whiskey from different bottles, he would never know that I was borrowing from his stash.
As I sat there drinking that mixture of coffee and Old Crow, I was thinking about how happy I was to be enrolled in art school, a world so vastly different from the little Delta town in Eastern Arkansas where I had grown up, and where I picked cotton each Fall. Even though I felt at home in that little town of 650, I never felt more comfortable than I did when I was with my fellow art students, a bohemian bunch who seemed to have a view of the world so unlike the Delta folks that I grew up with. I had found my tribe.
There were even a couple of guys at school, sophisticated boys from up North, who had pierced ears. I admired their roguish fashion statement but I did wonder if when they were off campus, were they ever harassed and called sissy boys, or worse. That was long before it was socially acceptable for a man to wear an earring.
As I sat there at the kitchen table, with my fingers I traced the outline of the flowers on the plastic table cloth and I wondered how I would look with a pierced ear. Would I be brave enough, like those boys from up North, to wear an earring in public?
I went to my Daddy's sock drawer, found another bottle, and added a little more Old Crow to my coffee before returning to the bathroom. I placed one of the sharp-pointed earrings on my left lobe and lightly pressed. Ouch! Even in the dimly lit bathroom illuminated with a single light bulb hanging about half- way down from the 13 foot ceiling, I could see that my ear lobe was turning red. However, as I peered into the medicine cabinet mirror, I thought I looked dashing and somewhat debonair, a forward thinker, not restricted by the norms of society. I was so cool.
My ear was really smarting but still I saw no blood. “Oh what the Hell, it couldn’t hurt much more than it does right now.” I reached up with my right hand and pushed the pointed end of the earring on through my lobe and out the other side. I cussed and fell to my knees in pain. Back on my feet and again peering into the mirror, I said out loud, “Well, I did it and I’m glad as hell.” I was thinking, “Wowee, I can’t wait to get back to school to show off the shiny gold hoop to my friends.” There was just one problem: in a few hours, my parents would return home. My ear lobe had swelled to twice its’ normal size. I needed more whiskey.
Seventeen years earlier I had made the uncanny decision to be an artist. That year I won the grand prize in the first grade art contest with a crayon portrait of my mother. I drew her hair in fabulous circles with a crayon called mahogany, and in the picture, I gave her almost perfectly round checks with a carnation pink crayon. As the winner, I had my choice of either a big ol’ peppermint stick or a Chick-O- Stick, a peanut butter, toasted coconut coated concoction of a stick. I chose the Chick-O-Stick and devoured my prize during the next recess. After winning that contest, there was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to become an artist.
My parents were always accepting of whatever I did, not always understanding, but accepting, and that included my desire to have a career as an artist. They at times ask me "Now how do you make money doing that?”
Besides my career choice, they accepted without question or criticism, other things that I'd done that first year while in art school that seemed way off base to them, like letting my hair grow down past my shoulders, wearing raggedy bell bottoms, wearing strange sandals imported from India, and refusing to eat meat. Neither did they understand my practice of Transcendental Meditation. After all, they were Methodists.
While I was sitting at the kitchen table on that day during my Spring Break, I kept thinking that I might have gone a little too far this time with the ear piercing. To have a son wearing an earring just might be too much for them.
I spent a very long afternoon, drinking even more spiked coffee, being careful to not take too much whiskey from any one bottle. I figured that the whiskey would calm my nerves while the coffee would keep me somewhat sober. Every so often, I ventured into the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror, admiring my new look while at the same time regretting my action. I would douse my earlobe with rubbing alcohol, cuss some more at the stinging caused by the alcohol, but mostly, I was just waiting and waiting and waiting. Time seemed to crawl and I got more anxious. My ear continued to throb.
It was going on four o’clock when I heard their car drive up. There was no mistaken the smooth purr from the V8 motor of my mother’s Chrysler station wagon. My parents were home. As they got out of the car, I peeked at them through the gingham curtains hanging above the kitchen sink. They looked happy enough. That seemed like a good sign.
With my courage bolstered by the Old Crow, I bravely awaited my fate as they came into the house. However, when the doorknob turned, I didn’t feel so brave. I made small talk, asked about their visit, while keeping my head turned at just the right angle so there would be no glint of gold. While my mother was sitting her purse on the table, she saw it. She tilted her head slightly to the side, and gave it a little shake like people do when they see something not quite right. She straightened her head up and then to my surprise, all she said was, “How come you only pierced one ear?”
My father didn’t say a word. His silence continued for the next few days. On the last day of my Spring break, my father and I were sitting in some lawn chairs out in the back yard under a mimosa tree. Even though it was not yet that hot, I could feel the sweat running down my spine from the nape of my neck all the way to my waistband, dampening my bell bottoms. I looked over at my father who looked as cool as a cucumber in a very dressy straw yellow hat with a green hatband. When not in the house he always had on a hat. He was also wearing an orange flowered Hawaiian shirt. My father was a very large man and he seemed even larger when wearing those wildly colored shirts, but then, that was the only thing I can remember him ever doing that was outside of what I considered his safe zone. That day, he looked bigger than ever.
I sat there on that green metal chair, getting hotter and more nervous by the minute. I was heading back to Memphis that afternoon and I could not leave without knowing what my father was thinking and feeling. Was he disappointed in me? Ashamed of me?
He shifted a little in his chair, took a bottle from his back pocket, and took a swig. I couldn’t stand it any longer. “Daddy, did you notice that I pierced my ear?” He looked me straight in the eye. “Yes, I saw the earring. It's your damn ear. You can do with it whatever you want to do.” He continued, “There is a big world out there that I don't understand. You do. You need to do and should do whatever it takes to make you happy.”
I knew then that everything was going to be alright.
Even after all these years, I'm glad that I pierced my ear. And yes, I still feel cool.
Photograph from The Artist Series by John Rankine