The Submarine

This is another story about My Aunt Penny.

This is another story about My Aunt Penny.

I don’t know when the argument started. It seems like it was always there; it seems like a beginning of time thing.

It defined, in many ways, my father, my family, the relationship between my parents and Penny who-is-not-really-my-aunt. It represents intellectual games, stubbornness, and a profound silliness; it also represents people who have trouble ever admitting they’re wrong.

What is it, the argument goes, that makes a submarine a submarine?

Sandwiches, we’re talking. Not undersea vessels.


I seem to recall that it started when we lived in Los Angeles, which would have made it about 1969. There’s debate about this (of course,) my mother seems to think it started in Campbell California, in a house with the whimsical address of 40 Cherry Lane, which also saw the above-linked night of Cardinal and Fly-tagging. But in my memory, the argument is much older. Maybe it started at Philippes. Or over their sandwiches. Or maybe these are just cross-wired in my head since Dad loved Philippes. It might even be older than that, dating from when my parents and Penny first met. The only two people who’d know are gone.

In any case, the essence of the argument was this; is a submarine sandwich defined simply by the roll, or must it contain a certain specific set of ingredients such as italian cold-cuts, some sort of italian dressing, etc.

Now, we all have opinions on this. or not. It’s a stupid, stupid argument.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? because when argument is your family sport, you need the equivalent of a game of catch. Not all out war, but a friendly little skirmish.

Argument was our sport. It was our entertainment. Our party game. Our culture. It was, more than any other thing, what defined my family. Dad was a logician, a professor of speech-communication who specialized in argumentation. So it was his profession and his calling. We were raised on rhetoric.

We’d debate anything. The best way to wash and dry a colander. The right way to fill the ice trays. Which comic super-heros would kick ass on which other comic super-heros. How much v8 should go in the vegetable soup. How to organize records on a shelf and which was the Beatles best album.

These were debates that could go on all evening. Because we didn’t care who was right; we cared who won. Being right wasn’t required to win; being better at the debate itself, and not ever backing down, were the skills we valued.

The submarine would come out when we could not think of an argument. When we were bored. When we had people around who didn’t understand.

“No, we like to argue. We do it for fun.”

“Like, what do you argue about?”

“Penny, what makes it a submarine sandwich?”

And off we’d go.

The argument got angry sometimes. Dad would get his feelings hurt. They both drank. Penny could get mean. We all yelled. We threw things. But it never mattered when it was all over and everyone was sober.

Sometimes it would get very strange. Penny would make up things about why it was called a submarine; something about the beaches in florida where she went to a catholic girls school, about the submarines pulling up so the sailors could buy italian sandwiches. About how she knew the man who’d invented the sandwich, and the term. I’ve forgotten a great deal of it but it kept changing.

Sometimes she’d insist that it didn’t even matter if the sandwich was on something other than a roll. Sometimes she’s say the name came from the roll but the sandwich still had to have that certain set of ingredients. She’s change it partly because she couldn’t always remember but also because it pissed my father off.

We had long, long debates on whether one could have a tuna sub or a baloney sub or a roast beef sub. No, abso-fucking-lutely not, said Penny. Of course you could, and that’s what I’d prefer, my father would insist. It’s what I had for lunch, a roast beef sub.

My brother and I would try to start it up when we were bored. Just to wind them up. Just for fun. We’d switch sides in the middle when we got bored. I’d sometimes argue both sides in the same argument because it annoyed everyone.

Yes. It was stupid. But that’s the point. That’s why it stayed with us. That’s why we pulled it out over and over. Because it was stupid. And pointless. And fun. Because it was something that represented who we were as a family.

What makes up sub a sub? Who the fucks cares. None of us did. Not at all. We just liked to argue about it.

To this day I’ll say “That’s a Submarine Sandwich Argument” when some old never-resolved debate comes back up. I have one now with my own family; are pigtails braids, or are they pony-tails tied on the side? That’s easy to solve with a dictionary but that’s not the point; it’s our Submarine Sandwich.

When I think of these people – all of my family, and the extended family that grew with it, I think of this argument. I think of all of us sitting around the kitchen table, cigarette smoke in the air (because my folks smoked like fucking stacks), Penny and my father at it hammer and tongs. There’d be beer cans (Olympia) and glasses of cheap brandy or brandy & coke, my father’s drinks of choice at the time. Usually a beer or a gimlet (That’s a gin gimlet, fuck off if you think a gimlet is vodka) for my mom. Early, us kids would be nearby; later, we’d be in there, stoned as often as not, with our bong handy, laughing and jumping in and egging them on.

This was love in my house. My parents were not very good at expressing affection in a normal way, but this was love for us. The fact that we could be so mean, so harsh, so fierce in debate, and still all be friends in the morning.

To this day, I feel intense affection for people who can go toe to toe with me in a debate and not take it personally. People I can get mad at. People who can go at me hard and not back down when I turn fierce. I love people like that.

All the people who really cared about this argument, apart from me, are dead. Mom’s still around but she was mostly a bystander; but my father and my brother are in a grave in Los Gatos, CA, in the same graveyard we used to sneak into at night to party when we were kids. I don’t know where Penny’s grave is, I realize; but why not is a long and unpleasant story and better left for another time.

Family lore has it, though, that somewhere, if one believes in such things, Penny and dad are still out there, half in the bag, having that argument, never, ever giving ground.

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