Sitting around my parent’s house over the Thanksgiving holiday, my siblings and I started doing what we generally do on the rare occasions when we get together — we started telling stories from when we were younger. That got me to thinking that many of the earlier stories haven’t been written down anywhere and might be lost if I didn’t change that fact. Either that, or they would be told incorrectly by my siblings (almost certainly in a way that minimizes their roles). So, after encouragement by Liz, I’ve decided to write down a few of them that came up in the most recent story-telling session. In thinking about the things that we talked about, there was a common theme to many of them: I had a destructive streak in my younger years.
The Tonka Truck Incident
When I was quite young my parents had set aside a small section of the yard just off the end of the driveway as a “digging pit” where we kids were allowed to dig. Nominally, the plan was to let us dig out a pit that my parents could then fill in with sand to make a sandbox, but for a rather long time we stuck to playing in the dirt. To complete the fun, my parents built a small playhouse out of old shipping pallets on the end of the driveway immediately adjacent to the pit. We spent countless hours getting dirty and generally enjoying the liberty of unstructured play.
While the construction of the playhouse was a fine example of environmentally friendly re-purposing of items that would have otherwise been thrown away, the more significant reasons for the choice of materials were economic. With a gaggle of kids to take care of, our family didn’t have much extra money at the end of the month to use for things like toys. For the most part, we made due with what we had or could find. Given this context, it should be apparent that it was a big deal when both my brother Tolon and I received brand-new and very large Tonka dump-trucks for Christmas. These were extravagant gifts.
Given the nature of these toy trucks, you would think that we would have cherished and taken good care of them. You would think… However, not long after we had received these fine specimens my friend Justin and I got a rather unfortunate bright idea. We had been using these trucks to help with our “excavation” in the digging pit, and decided we wanted to see just how tough these awesome machines were. All around the pit were large rocks that we had dug out of the hole, and these proffered a possible means to test the mettle of these awesome machines. We decided to use the rocks to see if the toys trucks could carry the weight.
It didn’t take long to get bored with gently placing rocks into the dump-beds. No matter how many we tried to pile into them, they just sat there doing nothing. We clearly needed to do something more to figure out just how tough these things were. The playhouse offered up a solution: We could lift the rocks to the top of the playhouse, climb up there, and drop them from that great height (probably about 5 feet). This method proved somewhat more successful as a few dents and dings began to appear in the otherwise pristine toys, but it just wasn’t satisfying to the logic of a couple of young boys. We decided to start throwing the rocks as hard as we could from that height to really get them going and thoroughly test the toughness.
While we were deeply enthralled in this phase of the experiment, and meeting with a large degree of success, my mother came outside and saw what we were up to. She was horrified. She was ANGRY! I couldn’t understand why. Justin was sent home, and I was in trouble. By the time we were stopped, both trucks were completely demolished. Nowhere in the process had it occurred to me that we were in the process of destroying something my mom had scrimped and saved for. It never crossed my mind that what I was doing was destructive and might be considered an ungrateful and disrespectful act. Mom still talks about that incident from time to time with a hint of latent exasperation in her voice. Apparently it was as traumatic for her as her reaction was for me. For my part, I’m firmly in my mom’s camp as to the awfulness of what I did. Why she didn’t skin me alive is just a testament to her patience and long-suffering attitude towards some of my more challenging youthful (and later, even my more mature) characteristics.
One of my more frequent friends when I was young was a kid named Jay Fuel who lived a few houses down the street with his mother and grandparents. Jay and I had a knack for getting into trouble, and Jay’s grandfather had a knack for scaring the pee out of me. He was quite intimidating to a kid my size. We usually played at my house — partly because I was afraid of Jay’s grandpa. However, in spite of my hesitation, one day we decided to hang out at his house.
Jay’s back-yard, the way I remember it, was full of all kinds of interesting stuff ranging from old toilets and lawnmowers to building materials and toys. It was a fun place to explore and play, if a little dangerous. On this particular day we were exploring behind a shrub at the back of the house when we found a bunch of of small glass bottles. I later found out that these were all empty glass mini-bottles from various types of alcohol — apparently someone in the family was trying to hide their habit by stashing the empties out of sight in the back yard — but at the time, they were just cool looking little bottles. They were an interesting lot, with lots of green, blue, and clear glass; and we spent time looking at them trying to make up our minds as to how we could best put them to use. We HAD to find something to do with them.
While considering our options, an entertaining possibility crossed our minds. This particular house had a basement with a walk-out door in the back, and to make the walk-out basement work the builder had built retaining walls to hold back the grade until the lot sloped downward enough to be below the basement level. Near the house, these retaining walls were about four feet high and had a concrete slab at their base. It didn’t take long for one of us to lob a bottle off the retaining wall and see it come down with a satisfying crash onto the slab, shattering into a million pieces in the process. After this successful experiment, we quickly began an all-out campaign of destruction as one was followed by another, and another, and other, until we had broken all of them — there were a LOT of them.
Looking down on the large spray of razor-sharp glass shards, I must have realized we were going to get into trouble and quickly said good buy to Jay and ran for home. I’d only just made it home when my mom got a call from Jay’s grandfather. He wasn’t happy, and I was terrified. I was turned around, sent back to Jay’s house, and made to apologize to an even more intimidating than usual grandfather. After that, Jay and I spent a long time cleaning all of that mess up. I doubt we got it all, and have to assume everyone wore shoes when going out that door for a long time afterward.
A Broken Window
My friend Zak lived just around the block, and I spent lots of time at his house during the summer when we were out of school. When I was probably ten or so, Zak’s dad built a new shed in the back-yard to store his disassembled Harley and a bunch of other random stuff in. Given the potential for imagination that this treasure-trove of junk represented, we would often use it as a kind of a club-house. On one occasion when we were in there, we found a large rubber mallet and one of those small exercise trampolines that were quite popular in the 1980s. So, what could a couple of mischievous young boys do with a trampoline and a mallet? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? Bounce the hammer off of the trampoline!
Not satisfied with simply bouncing the hammer, we decided we needed something to use as a target. The shed was an obvious target; it was right there, big enough to hit easily, and we didn’t think a little rubber mallet could hurt that big, sturdy, structure. It didn’t occur to us that the large plate-glass window right in the middle of the wall would be a problem. After two or three successful throws that resulted in satisfying “thuds” and small dents in the siding, Zak threw the fateful one that hit the shed square in the center of the window. The result was as you might expect. Plate glass is no match for a heavy hammer (rubber or not) flying at high-speed. Needless to say, Zak’s dad was none-too happy with the result, and I tried to avoid going over to his house for quite a while after that.
It Looked Like a Fireplace
My grandparents lived in a rather small cinder-block house built not long after World War II. When I was quite young (probably around 8 or so) they decided to expand the roughly 900 square feet in which they had raised their nine children by adding a laundry room on the back of the house. I remember going over the day they poured the slab and watching as my dad and several of my mom’s brothers helped pour the concrete. As they worked the concrete, I watched through the sliding-glass doors in the family room, disappointed that I didn’t get to help. After watching the work for a while, I wandered over to the corner of the room where a wood/coal-burning stove sat on a floor of red brick with bricks on the wall behind the stove. Grandpa and Grandma kept knickknacks on the shelf formed where the bricks stopped as they went up the walls, and I liked to look at them.
Many other memories based at Grandma and Grandpa’s house involve the family room and the end of the room with the wood-burning stove in particular. The Christmas tree was always in the other corner on the same end of the room as the stove, and we spent at least part of every Christmas day with Grandma and Grandpa. I sometimes sat on the fender of the other coal-fired stove in the front-room eating my thanksgiving dinner since there weren’t enough tables and chairs for everyone. I remember many days sitting near one or the other of those stoves when we went over to visit on cold Sunday nights in the Winter and loving the feel of the warmth radiating off of them. I have a lot of memories involving those small corners of small rooms.
One memory in particular seems to surface when my brother and I start reminiscing. We had been visiting Grandpa on a cold day, and he decided to light the fire. Tolon and I went out the the garage where Grandpa had a bin full of wood scraps and helped carry several into the house and watched as Grandpa used the wood to get the fire started and get some coal burning. As young boys, Tolon and I were always fascinated with fire. We got excited as we watched Grandpa light or feed the fires in the stoves.
A day or two later, Tolon and I were playing in the basement at home. We had a collection of random wood scraps that passed as toys, including a cut-off broom handle. I don’t really remember, but I’m pretty sure we decided it looked a little bit like a log and that it would burn pretty well. We also knew that there was a place in the basement that had something to do with fire. The pilot light in the furnace was clearly visible, and to us it looked something like Grandpa’s stoves. We decided to feed it with wood and build a fire. In went the broom handle, and, as expected, it almost instantly caught fire.
At about that time, Tolon pulled the broom-handle out of the furnace fully engulfed in flames. I don’t remember if it was because someone was coming downstairs, or because we just got spooked, but in either case, we had a flaming stick. In a panic, Tolon snuffed the flaming torch in the scrap of carpet on the floor in front of the furnace, burning a quarter-sized hole in the carpet without really putting out the fire. The flames only died out after stomping on them in a panic. That burned hole was all the evidence required to indict both of us, and it remained there to testify against us for many more years (at least ten). Tolon claims to this day that it was my idea. I deny the allegation.