Recently, a fellow blogger named Rachael challenged me to write a post that addressed the topic of childhood dares. I said I’d do it if she did. Then she turned things up a notch: she double-dog dared me.
It had been a while since I’d heard that expression. Decades, maybe. When adults use the word dare, it’s usually intended as either a motivation or a veiled threat. The speaker wants the listener to do something positive (“I dare you to get help for your sunflower seed addiction”), or doesn’t want him to do something negative (“Don’t you dare bring that alligator into this house”). But the objective isn’t malicious. You rarely hear one grown-up say to another, “I dare you to tell Aunt Frances she has only two weeks to live.”
Kids, though, like to prod each other, and the goal is almost always to get someone to do something that will have undesirable results. To issue a dare, then, is to ask the question: “Are you going to do this, or are you too chicken?”
When I was a young boy, dares were presented at different levels of significance, graded by the kind of danger involved and the amount of time the other person could spend in trouble, in jail, or in the hospital.
The most common type of dare was designed simply to demonstrate stupidity. For example, one boy might dare another to walk around the edge of an above-ground swimming pool. I don’t mean in the summer, when there would be other people around, and when a slip might offer some welcome relief from the heat. Such a dare would more likely occur in October, when the pool was half-full of green water and teeming with thousands of tiny, wriggling genetic mutations. I once accepted that very challenge in my own backyard, and minutes later my mother asked me, I believe for the first time, whether I would jump off the roof if my friends told me to do it. I said, no, that I wouldn’t.
But what if they had double-dared me to jump off the roof? What then? A double-dare was more serious than a simple dare. The risks were greater, but so were the potential rewards. Answering a double-dare gave you elevated status, similar to that of a minor superhero, and was therefore much harder to walk away from.
Our house and the house next door were built close together, with a mere eight inches between them. One day, we were playing stickball and the ball bounced into that space. There was no way to reach it unless somebody was willing to squeeze down in there. I may have been the skinniest in the group, but I was also above-average in intelligence, so I refused when the others dared me. Then someone issued a double-dare. That changed things. Without another word, I climbed about six stairs, swung a leg over the wall, and dropped down.
Standing upright between the two buildings, I knew immediately that I was in trouble. There wasn’t enough room to even turn my head. I was facing the street and began to call out to anyone who might be passing by. All the other stickball players had vanished, and prayer now seemed to be my only hope. But who was the patron saint of idiot boys trapped in a crevice? With seconds feeling like hours, I grew increasingly certain that my parents would someday find my skeleton, still fully erect and propped up next to a faded pink rubber ball. Then, two hands appeared from above and pulled me out. My friends had run to the door and convinced my older brother to come to the rescue.
A few years later, I found myself standing at the top of a long hill with some of my cousins and a metal barrel. What would happen, they wondered, if someone were to be put inside the barrel and then rolled down the hill at a frightening rate of speed? I shared their curiosity about this, but had no intention of becoming part of any experiment. Until, that is, one of them double-dared me. The next thing I knew, I was curled up inside and staring at my knees. Then, total darkness, as they put the lid in place, tipped the container, and gave it a kick. The trip down was unpleasant, not so much from the spinning, but because the hill was studded with rocks. It seemed endless, and I was sure that at some point my skull would crack open and they would find my brains slathered all over the inside of the barrel. But soon the rolling slowed, and stopped. I’d made it to the bottom of the hill, alive. I felt like an astronaut emerging from his space capsule, wobbly and disoriented, to the cheers of an appreciative crowd.
I had survived yet another double-dare, and learned a valuable lesson in the process. From now on, it wouldn’t matter who they were or how high they cranked up the dare. I wasn’t going to take the bait.
Many of the homes in our neighborhood were three- and four-story buildings, often separated by gaps of several feet. Nobody thought to lock the doors leading up to the roof back then, I suppose because it was assumed that any kid who needed to be protected from plummeting to the sidewalk today was just going to trip and fall down a sewer tomorrow. Why inconvenience everyone?
We spent a lot of time on one roof or another, flipping baseball cards, reading comic books, or playing keep-away with someone’s hat. There was also a game called skullzies, which used bottle caps and numbered boxes drawn on the ground with chalk. The real name, I learned later, was skully or skelzies, but we mispronounced everything, including Spaldeen for the pink rubber Spalding ball, and liberry for library. We said bunk instead of bump, and even managed to say stupid incorrectly. “Hey, watch it! You almost bunked right into me! What’re you stoopit, or what?”
One of my cousins lived in the middle of a row of identical apartment buildings. We were on the roof playing skullzies, and when we were done he suggested that we jump over to the roof next door. There was no good reason to do this, and I couldn’t imagine how I’d explain it to my mother, but he thought it was a great idea. When I refused, he said, “I double-dog dare you.” I felt nothing. Nothing! I really had become immune, even to the double-dog dare.
That immunity saved me later, when friends were sure it would be fun to ring the doorbell at the convent and run away. And when they found some dry ice and encouraged me to pick it up with my bare hands. And when they urged me to climb a chain-link fence and sneak into a neighbor’s alley to steal his empty deposit bottles. And when they insisted we should all break into the creepy old Victorian house across the street, the one that, according to legend, had been abandoned soon after its owner had hanged herself in the living room.
I was free, no longer controlled by the persuasive power of the dare. As a mature adult, I believe I can resist just about any such challenge. In fact, there’s only one double-dog dare I’d still respond to. And now that I have, Rachael, it’s your turn.
Are you going to do this? Or are you too chicken?