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Valued Social Butterfly
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THE SINS OF MY YOUTH

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I Owe My Mother There were two sociopathic things I loved to do when I was in junior high school: fling snow balls with rocks in them at cars and people, and light fires in the yards around my house. I lived in an apartment complex on a hill overlooking a fairly congested two lane road. In the winter, my favorite pastime was ferreting out rocks from snow banks, packing them tight with snow, and then throwing the missiles at unsuspecting drivers and pedestrians. Occasionally, I hit the target. Cars never stopped after I whacked them. Pedestrians didn't have much to worry about because my aim was pretty poor. But one day, I got "lucky." I flung a blistering rocky snowball at a tall adult. It smacked him on the head, and he went down—but not for long. He got up, fumed, and started running towards me. I shouted that another boy, Paul (whom I despised because he was often mean to my brother) was to blame. The enraged man just sneered and continued the chase. I could see that he was bleeding around his ear. Then I got really scared. I rushed up the hall stairs to my apartment, banged at the door, and screamed for my mother to save me. At the same time, the guy was literally close at my heels. My mother opened the door, saw him lunging at me, and grabbed my arms, trying to drag me into the house. My tormentor grabbed my legs and tried to drag me downstairs, where he would have surely hurt me. After a few seconds, the tug of war ended. My mother, who was no weakling, wrested me away from him and locked the door. The man soon left but not until he bellowed that I was a nasty little brat. My mother, after interrogating me, whipped me across my arms with a belt (her routine procedure when I was bad). That day was the last time I ever threw a rock-filled snowball at any one or at any car for that matter. Nothing hath a fury like a mother's wrath. In the summer, I liked to set small fires in the shrubbery around my apartment complex. After I successfully scorched the area around the neighboring Catholic Club, I decided to try to burn some thickets in front of the fence that surrounded my patch of the back yard. The fire soon spread all the way down to the other side of the compound. Someone called the fire department and the police. Fascinated by the hubbub, I stayed put. Eventually, some officers asked me about the blaze. I then told a whopper: still mad at Paul for bullying my brother, I revealed that Paul's old grandmother set the fire. Even though no one believed me, I wasn't arrested. But my mother knew the truth. That afternoon, she gave me a comprehensive beating with the mother of all straps that she was saving just for this special occasion. I didn't light any more fires after that. I feared my mother much more than I feared the police. Before she died from a bowel infarction at the age of 75, my mother was not so fearsome. She was awfully frail, not able to wield that strap even if she wanted to. When I reflect on the past, I appreciate how thoroughly my mother disciplined me. The welts took the rough edges off my antisocial antics. It civilized me. I have even forgiven Paul for messing with my younger brother—now that's real healing. Ah, To Be Young Again? To fulfill part of my financial aid package, I once worked as a switchboard operator at a male dorm at Tufts University. Most of the time, the calls were from young ladies. Just by chance, one of the callers started asking me personal questions. Her voice was so melodic and sensuous that I would do anything to satisfy her curiosity, whether it dealt with my academic goals or my dating habits. When she found out that I was majoring in English, she began to read one of her poems. They were filled with lush imagery that further endeared me to her. She was such a romantic soul. We were both loners who longed for each other. We didn't exchange phone numbers: all our conversation was at the switchboard, a lifeline for both of us. The only discordant note in our switchboard relationship occurred when she sadly mentioned that she had a bit of a thyroid problem. So she wasn't a model. Nor was I a hunk at 6 feet tall and 139 pounds. Because we both were afraid that we might be disappointed if we met face to face, we waited until the end of the semester before making a date at a nearby coffee shop. I got there first. All of a sudden, I heard her voice and turned around to see a very, very large young lady who tentatively smiled at me. I was taken aback by her supersized figure. My scrawny body tensed up, and I mumbled something about being delighted to see her; but I'm sure that she could sense my poorly hidden dismay. To relieve my distress and end her own embarrassment, she offered to leave. I silently escorted her to her bus stop, and we formally said goodbye. What a downer! I felt like an ass. How shallow could I be? I had deceived myself, imagining that she was voluptuous. When that illusion disintegrated, I overlooked everything else that had attracted me to her. Even if I had a change of heart (what heart!), there was no way I could contact her to make amends and perhaps at least be friends unless she called me once more at the switchboard, but she never did. That thread in my life was completely severed because of my folly. Hit and Run and Nailed Years ago, when I was driving with my wife a few miles from her homestead, two large hunting dogs plunged in front of my car. Having no time to swerve into the culvert on either side of the road, I watched in horror as my car barreled into both dogs. Instead of stopping to see how injured the dogs were, I panicked, floored the gas pedal, and sped away as fast as I could from the accident. My wife implored me to go back, but I—much to my amazement—ignored her. In my messed-up mind, I figured that I wasn’t responsible; after all, as Flip Wilson used to quip, “The Devil made me do it.” Just as my adrenaline began to subside and I slowed the car down a bit, I noticed from my rear-view mirror that a pickup truck was furiously approaching. Maybe it was a mirage, but I thought I spied a couple of shotguns sticking out of its windows. Oh God, the red-neck vigilantes were after me. Without thinking (I used to be real good at that), I gunned the engine. But within a few minutes, I realized that the truck had caught up with me. Two wiry, enraged men jumped out of the pickup, glared at me, and grilled me--mercifully, they weren’t brandishing any weapons. I attributed my quick getaway to sheer ignorance of the law, but they weren’t buying any city-boy rationalizations: I was nothing more than a **bleep**-eating coward. I feared that they were going to beat me up. And they might have if my wife hadn’t intervened. After she mentioned who she was and where she lived, they recognized that she came from a nearby respected family. Then they admitted that the dogs were not seriously hurt. My wife apologized for my negligence and promised that she would take care of any medical expenses for the dogs. Placated, the men left. While they no longer menaced me, I was not home free yet. My wife banished me to the doghouse until I came up with at least a grain of common sense. After painful reflection, I soon improved enough to satisfy my tough-love wife. Although I’ve gotten better throughout our marriage, I have no illusions that the doghouse has been completely dismantled. Kicking the Habit Before I became a model student and son, I was a bit of a hellion. My mother would sometimes remind me that I had more than once kicked my father’s mother in the shins. I guess I got real good at kicking, a skill that I used at crowded subway stations in the Boston area. Goaded by my grade-school friends, I kicked the hell out of gum vending machines: every time I whacked one, bunches of nickels, and of course, gum spewed out. I and my buddies repeatedly grabbed lots of loot. None of the adults nearby lectured or physically restrained us. In fact, some of them smiled, as if they were secretly rooting for us. Eventually, on my own, I gave up pillaging the gum machines. My conscience (and admittedly my growing fear of getting caught), not the men and women who witnessed my escapades, steered me from impiety to propriety. By disciplining my urge to steal, I got adjusted to the weekly allowance my parents gave to me: one nickel. But with that precious nickel I could still have the love of my life: a chunk of luscious goat milk fudge. SHOP EXCHANGE Regrettably, whom you know is sometimes more important than your ability. I learned this lesson in the 8th grade. Shop was one of the weekly mandatory courses that year. I dreaded every moment of it--except for the intoxicating aroma of wood shavings. Reading the classics was my forte; anything that involved mechanics was an ordeal. The shop project that year was to make a small foot stool for our parents. The first step was to plane some irregularly shaped and knotted wood to certain specifications. I could never get over that initial hurdle. No matter how conscientious I was, I just could not evenly plane my piece of wood. I might do well for a minute or two. As I kept on planing, however, the wood became more and more deformed, and I became more and more discouraged. For months, the instructor patiently allowed me to struggle with my increasingly frustrating assignment. I don't know where he got all of the wood that I was to ruin, but I was grateful for his indulgence. Yet because I was no closer to leveling a piece of wood than I was in September, the instructor realized that I had no chance of constructing the foot stool by June. He told me to meet with him in his office. There, he confided in me that he was a good friend of my father, so failing me would not be in anyone's best interests. This was the deal: He'd give me a C, and he would make the foot stool for my mother. In the meantime, I didn't have to go to class. Instead, during that time, I was to stock the cafeteria shelves. I thanked my teacher for bailing me out. I had no qualms about quitting that futile project; I figured that working in the cafeteria would be much easier. And it was, except for one thing: the lunch menu on the day I was allotted to help out invariably contained the only food that I could absolutely not stomach: macaroni and cheese. The smell (or should I say, fumes) of that steamy concoction nauseated me so much that I had to wrap a handkerchief around my face whenever I got close to the food line. The fear of vomiting clung to me whenever I hurriedly passed by my nemesis. I almost wished I were back in shop, where the smell of sawdust beat the stench of macaroni and cheese. But there was no other recourse: I suffered at the cafeteria for the last three months of school. Maybe it was my punishment for allowing the shop teacher to give me an easy way out. By the way, I never found out if my mother or father knew about the foot stool conspiracy. But every time that they used that exceptionally well crafted foot stool, I felt as queasy as I did when I encountered macaroni and cheese. Food for thought! KARMA One day when I was just taking a leisurely walk in my neighborhood, I heard lots of footsteps and whoops behind me. That meant only one thing: a gang of kids my own age were about to chase after me. Not wanting to get caught--God knows what they would do to me--I raced home just ahead of them. As I got to my upstairs back door, they started to fling rocks at me. I successfully dodged all of these missiles, grabbed a sharp rock that bounced off the screen, and threw it as hard as I could at the crowd. Then I escaped into my house, panting but unhurt. The next day I found out that my rock had inadvertently targeted one of the boys next door, Robert Nathan. It hit him on the head so severely that he had to have a few stitches. Whatever punishment I received at home could not persuade me that I had done anything wrong. I justifiably fought back against a group of kids who had no reason or right to harass me. It was too bad that someone got hurt, but I was just defending myself, rock for rock. A few days later, I got my comeuppance. Again, a group of kids was after me (I never knew why I was such attractive prey). Again I rushed up my back stairs to get away from them. This time, however, I wasn't so lucky. Someone aimed a rock at me that sliced into the left side of my forehead. Now I knew how it felt to be the victim of a rock thrower. But what really sank in was that the person who threw that rock at me was the brother of the boy I had injured earlier that week. Since then, I have always tried not to retaliate against anyone who I perceive has wronged me. That has not been an easy feat, considering that I am a Scorpio. But I have done pretty well over the years. And when I do get tempted, I remind myself that it is often literally true that what goes around comes around--I still have the tell-tale scar as testimony. The Unfiltered Truth To become a fraternity brother back in the ‘60s, I had only one day to find gobs of totally undamaged discarded flip-top cigarette packs. After having no luck scavenging in gutters, parks and warehouses, I decided to try the local dump surrounded by waves of flourishing ragweed and goldenrod. Soon I found a treasure trove of cigarette packs in excellent condition. As I started collecting them in a duffel bag, I had a hay fever attack. Immediately, I cursed the fraternity brothers for putting me in harm’s way. Bombarded by pollen, I was defenseless; I didn’t have a handkerchief or any antihistamines. At first, most of the discharge landed on the bag. But then I had a vengeful idea in the nick of time. Why not direct the gunk into some of the cigarette packs themselves. Until my allergy fit subsided, I relentlessly sneezed into the packs, filling a few of them almost half way up. When I got home, I wiped off the residue on the duffel bag and the outside of the cigarette packs, sealed the flip-tops, and the next day presented my cache to the brothers. They were amazed at how many packs I had amassed. I was definitely now on the fast track to membership—as long as the congealed mucous deployment went undetected. Luckily, none of the brothers carefully inspected the packs. Otherwise, they might have noticed that some were weightier than others. If I were caught, I might have been tarred. But if any of the bros had inquired, I had rehearsed a flippant reply: the heaviest packs belonged to the heaviest smokers. ‘Snots bad, eh? Oh, Oh! After drinking too many Manhattans at a wedding, I somehow found my way into a cab where I was sandwiched between some female guests, all of whom were dressed elegantly. I didn't feel too good, although I was proud that I had managed to down more Manhattans than the guy who bet that he could out drink me. When it was time to get out of the taxi, I had to cross over the young lady sitting next to the inside door. At that instant, I threw up all over her ermine stole. She was horrified; I was mortified and staggered into the motel, desperately wanting to forget the unpalatable incident. No more binges for me from then on.

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