Mother was the boss. Everyone else lined up, facing her, about thirty feet away. The objective was to work your way toward Mother through a series of steps, which she directed you to perform. But here’s the thing. After receiving your instructions, you were then required to ask Mother’s permission to go ahead, and she could refuse to approve the very action she had just ordered you to take. The first person to reach her was the winner. It was called Mother May I, and while the rules were simple, the game gave us an early lesson in both the scarcity of justice and the complexities of juvenile bureaucracy.
“Margaret, please take five giant steps.”
“Mother, may I?”
“Yes, you may.”
“Eugene, take two giant steps.”
“Mother, may I?”
“No, you may not. Instead, take one teensy-weensy step.”
“Mother, may I?”
“Yes, you may.”
And so it went. To prolong the game and create the illusion of suspense, Mother would give Margaret or one of the other girls a few baby steps, or even backward steps. But if Eugene, Maurice, or any of us boys thought we had a chance to win, we were deluding ourselves. Mother could, at her discretion, make up a step – some maneuver that the human mind could not comprehend, or the physical body was incapable of completing — and assign it, with no explanation. At least we believed that’s what she was doing. An umbrella step, for example, consisted of standing on one foot and twirling counterclockwise with a hand in the air. We never did find out how to do it, and no matter how closely we followed the girls’ example, there always seemed to be a subtle, undetectable flaw in our execution. Also, because none of the boys wanted to be called Mother, we remained trapped in our subordinate position.
If all this were happening today, we might hire an attorney and launch a class-action lawsuit. But back then we would’ve had to collect eighty-thousand empty deposit bottles to pay the lawyer’s retainer, and it just wasn’t feasible. We soon turned to other endeavors.
One of the first things we did was modify our bicycles in order to simulate the deep roar of powerful motorcycle engines. We’d take a baseball card and clamp it with a clothespin to the frame of the bike, so that as the back wheel turned, the card would be clipped in rapid succession by each spoke. Then we’d race up and down the street, making sure to pass as closely as we could to the girls, who were playing jacks or jumping double-dutch on the sidewalk. What we failed to notice was that a baseball card in a bicycle wheel makes a barely audible thwipping noise, no more intimidating than the sound of a window drape caught in a house fan. The accompanying rrruuummmm coming from our nine-year-old vocal cords did little to enhance the effect. And now, as if to magnify our lack of vision, a couple of those same cards in mint condition are being bought by collectors for the price of a motorcycle.
My new Schwinn came with colorful streamers plugged into the ends of the handlebars. One of the girls told me that if I rode really fast, the resulting breeze would cause the streamers to stand straight out. A boy didn’t take a girl’s word for anything, especially since they were always trying to make us look stupid, so I immediately got on my bike to test her claim. Pedaling as hard as I could, I somehow forgot that focusing my gaze down at the streamers meant I wasn’t looking where I was going, and I crashed face-first into a hedge. The following winter, in a similar attempt to appear daring and manly, I descended a long hill standing up on my sled. It wasn’t a terrible plan, except for the coating of ice on the bottom of my boots, and the concrete benches that dotted the hill.
We built go-karts, using broken boards taken from construction sites and tires from abandoned baby carriages. We’d mount a wooden milk crate to the back, which formed the seat. With a rope tied to each axle, we’d push off at the top of a steep incline, one that usually ended in the middle of traffic. Fortunately, we never made it that far. The go-karts were impossible to steer, and we tended to lose control about halfway down. We quickly figured out that the seat also provided a convenient place to store splints, bandages, and other medical supplies.
If I had to pinpoint the peak of our adolescent idiocy, it would be the day we learned how to make rubber band guns. These were crude, L-shaped weapons cut from scraps of plywood. We’d put small nails at both ends of the barrel and stretch a rubber band between them. I imagine the guns were originally designed to simply shoot the rubber bands, but then some nameless local genius decided that it might be smart to fire one-inch squares of cardboard with them. We harvested the ammunition from cereal boxes, sometimes gluing two pieces together for the additional weight. The problem was, we couldn’t aim with any degree of accuracy. Our defective cutting and hammering skills, combined with an ignorance of aerodynamics and a chronic absence of foresight, meant that we had no idea where those flat, sharp-edged bullets were headed, and it always stunned us to discover just how much damage could be done with such an uncomplicated apparatus. I’m pretty certain that the much overused childhood warning, “You’re going to take someone’s eye out with that thing,” began with the introduction of the rubber band gun, and may have even enhanced its appeal.
We weren’t daredevils. Nor were we especially brave. We were just a bunch of morons. And although we preferred to avoid pain, at any given moment somebody would be bleeding, clutching a leg, or yelling for help because they had an arm stuck down a sewer.
There was just something inside our vacant skulls that compelled us to wonder what would happen if we pursued this strange impulse that any thinking person would resist. What choice did we have? It was either that, or submit to the tyranny of a mother who would demand we give her seven accordion steps, and then a second later, forbid us to do it. And while we had no capacity to imagine the future, there must have been a part of us that knew we’d need stories to tell our children and grandchildren – some solid proof that we were alive in the old days, and that those old days were worth remembering.