I grew up with a healthy dose of Mad Magazine for reading material, having skimmed right over “Run Spot Run” and landing plumb in the middle of “Spy vs. Spy”. My Mom has always said that I “walk to the beat of a different drummer”, a comforting, perhaps complimentary phrase that might explain my history of actions that “consciously adopt a different approach or attitude from the majority of people”. And I blame some of those tendencies squarely on the cartoon shoulders of Alfred E. Neuman, the boy without a care in the world.
When I was eleven years old, I joined a local radical Eco-terrorist group. Fifty years ago, my parents built the very first house in an area of our town that is now cluttered with street after street of single family homes. The neighborhood of my youth wasn’t actually a neighborhood at all in the beginning, but one lone house surrounded by fields full of bugs, two ponds full of frogs and new home construction sites full of little wires with caps attached that blasting crews had left behind. The first pond on the street was drained and gone before anyone had even noticed, bulldozed into a flat front lawn for the Patterson’s new home. But months later, when the town’s maintenance department started to drain the second pond, a string of tin cans began to chatter. Our tight-knit group of well-intended militants sprang into action. During the daytime hours of 9 to 5, the town’s workers devised a drainage system, a series of PVC pipes, which ran from the pond sanctuary to the newly laid sewer system. After dinner, the counter-attack began. Rambo hadn’t been born yet, so in lieu of face paint, bandannas and Bowie knives, we headed out into the darkness clad in Wrangler jeans, flannel shirts, and a shroud of determination. During the day, the pond slowly lost water, the banks began to grow. At night, eleven year old commandos clogged the pipes to stop the flow of life-giving water. Day after day, the battle ensued until our pond was no more. The Man had won, despite our acts of valor. Not to be a conspiracy theorist, but I still think that there was dirty (muddy) money being passed between the building contractor and the town council when it came time to ‘purchase’ that new home’s building permit. Ergo, the etymology of the term ‘Hush’ money; as we crawled along the pond’s muddy bank and someone broke the silence by cracking a fallen tree branch; everyone else would loudly whisper “Hush!”
Because that’s what boys do.
Among the wooded area that now lines an Interstate highway, there lies a series of cave openings, hidden by a web of vines and brush. We’d try to gain entrance into the underworld by tearing away at the thick vegetation, but only exposed holes the size of our heads and never made it underground. Those blasting caps would have probably come in handy, but we weren’t that smart.
With our pond’s water now flowing through the pipes of the town sewer, the neighborhood’s growing number of kids quickly learned how to put the town’s water supply to different sources of entertainment. In the summer, we sprayed gallons of water onto the backyard of my house, the soil already soggy from a cracked septic tank. Nothing spells fun like tackle football in a pool of teeming bacteria. The mother of my buddy from across the street was my math teacher at school. The morning after one of our football games, she began math class by threatening me in front of our entire class. “If my son EVER comes home looking like that again, you’re doing our laundry!” I was never very good at math. I don’t think that I got an “A” that year.
One winter, while home from school because of snow, we were enjoying the parent-less afternoon with hours of snow sledding. We used the Plum family’s garden hose to spray down the blacktopped road on which we lived. The ice that formed created a wicked fast luge surface, doubling our normal speed, but was frowned upon for some reason by our parents as they slid home from work.
Because that’s what boys do.
Evel Knievel was a hero to many a young boy during my childhood. At my friend Mitch’s house over on Susan Avenue, a poster of Evel graced his bedroom wall. I can still see the red, white, and blue caped daredevil popping a wheelie on his stunt motorcycle, a man’s man and a misguided source of inspiration. The sight of your idol, on a two-wheeled gasoline-powered machine, flying across a row of buses, was enough to cause a young boy to do some really crazy things. With a couple of cinder blocks and a few 2”X 6” boards, you could create your own ramp and jettison your spider bike across the Caesar’s Palace fountain in your backyard. Despite the complete lack of helmets and knee-pads, the worst injuries came from the crushing of little family jewels against the bike’s banana seat during the impact of landing.
On a side note: If you’re an eleven year old boy, DO NOT use the bag of lime from the family’s shed to line your wiffle ball field in the back yard. Your Dad won’t appreciate it.
For decades, MAD was the most successful magazine to publish totally ad-free. Their satirical advertisements would one day become classics, but they may have been a little bit too ‘deep’ for an eleven year old to appreciate. But in the back pages of The Hulk or The Silver Surfer comic books, you’d find things that us boys could have only dreamed of owning. A pair of X-Ray glasses came with the chance to see the bones of your own hand. But what we really wanted to know was if it would work on a classmate’s dress, while she crunched and squealed as she tried to cover her privates. The Charles Atlas Training Program could eliminate bullies from our lives. Learn to throw your voice and drive your teacher crazy. Become a famous artist by submitting your sketch of a cute, baby deer. Thrill in lighting a couple of Magic Black Snakes to watch ‘em smoke and grow. With an envelope, an 8 cent stamp, and 2 one dollar bills, you could become the proud owner of a family of sea monkeys or the commander of 100 plastic Army soldiers.
My buddy up the street bought himself a super-duper, Space-age magnifying glass. Not the type that Grandpa would use to read the newspaper. It was a 10”X 10” sheet of hard Plexiglas , with ominous circles of etchings that decreased in size to a pin-point in the middle. If you held that sucker up with two hands to the sun at the correct angle, the concentrated light beam contained enough localized energy that it would burn stuff. A lot of different stuff. We didn’t invent the pastime, but you could really wreak havoc on a hill of ants. And other bugs. And leaves. And anything else that you could think of.
So we’re out in the field behind our houses, enjoying the bright, sunny, dry summer day. Today’s operation was focused on the Ninja-like assault of pesky grasshoppers. With high levels of silence and stealth, you could get within a foot of an enemy grasshopper. Even if the subject sensed you and scurried to the backside of a blade of grass, he was no match for The Glass. Later on during the onslaught, my buddy accidentally set smolder to a small batch of dried grass. Harmless to begin with, a fire began to grow as he tried to tamp it out with his tennis shoes. “Help me put it out!” So I joined in on the effort, as the ring of smoke and flicker of flames grew to eight or ten feet wide. Our frantic yelling and the increasing smoke caught the attention of my friend’s father, Pastor of the local Lutheran Church. He came to our rescue armed with a shovel and we continued the fight. As the diameter of burning brush reached twenty feet, the faint sound of emergency sirens could be heard over the crackling of flames. Our volunteer fire department soon took over and quickly put an end to the disaster. I began the long walk of shame to my house. Like many of the other neighbors, my parents were at the edge of their lawn, trying to figure out what all of the commotion was about. As I walked by, chin down, they asked “What’s goin’ on up there?” I kept walking. Directly to my bedroom cell where I knew that I’d be incarcerated.
I may have been dumb, but I ain’t stupid.