After Todd and I started driving, every time we walked out of the door my mom would say, "Be careful." Based on past experiences, she had reason to worry. And an unfortunate event that occurred a mere three days after I received my license only made matters worse. It happened after school one day while I was en route to baseball practice with my pal, Michael. The plan was to make a quick detour to his house where we would change clothes, grab his gear, and proceed to the field. Less than a mile from his house, I saw a small pickup truck approaching at breakneck speed in my rear view mirror. In seconds, the truck closed the gap between us and drove as close to my bumper as possible. I had no trouble identifying the driver — a senior who seldom squandered an opportunity to torment freshmen.
As it says in the book of Proverbs, pride precedes the fall. Instead of ignoring him or letting him pass, I stomped the gas pedal under the illusion that I would leave him in the smokey exhaust of my old Ranger. Taking my response as a challenge, the senior matched my speed. Thus, a vicious cycle ensued and soon we were flying down the tiny two-lane road well above the posted 30 mph speed limit.
Naturally, a policeman was parked around the next curve. In the blink of an eye, he was behind the senior with his lights flashing. Since we were close to Michael's house, I pulled over in his driveway. However, the senior kept driving, completely ignoring the officer. Rather than pursue the senior, the policeman pulled in the driveway behind us. As I handed over my license, he said he knew my dad. Still, he gave me a ticket, so I thought maybe he wasn't fond of my dad. The only consolation came as he walked back to the patrol car when he turned around and apologized for not getting the senior. Although the senior got away scot-free, justice was served; I was guilty and I knew it.
As we drove to the baseball field, Michael tried in vain to calm me down, but I was too busy imagining how my life would end when I faced my dad after practice. I entertained thoughts of fleeing to Mexico, but there was no money and my old truck wouldn't make the county line anyway. As if I hadn't already displayed enough stupidity that day, when we reached the field I got out of my truck and head-butted the side of my truck. It was a relatively soft spot, which helped to absorb some of the force, but it left a dent in the metal and a bump on my forehead. As long as I had my truck, the dent served as a reminder.
When practice ended, I bid farewell to my friends, presumably for the last time, and slowly drove home. I broke the news to my dad before supper, explaining in detail the unfortunate scenario. To my surprise, his reaction was subdued. Neither of my parents were happy, but the self-inflicted bruise on my forehead was the worst of my punishment on that particular day. I should have known dad wasn't finished with me.
Throughout my childhood, my dad demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for correcting my misbehavior in creative and highly effective ways. It would be a stretch to say I enjoyed his punishments, but he was always fair and repeat offenses rarely occurred. In this situation, his plan was pure genius. Rather than just paying the ticket like a normal citizen, he checked me out of school and drove me to the city courthouse for my day in court. I was already nervous, but as I witnessed the judge reining down vengeance on the people involved in the case prior to mine, which involved some kind of domestic violence, I wished I had skipped lunch.
I was about to defile the courtroom floor when my name was called and I was ordered to stand in the middle of the room before the judge. As I rose, I looked at my dad with pleading eyes hoping that he would stand with me; but he didn't budge. So, I approached the judge alone, like a lamb leading himself to slaughter. The judge recounted my offense and, in great detail, highlighted the lives I endangered. He continued to deliver the worst chewing out of my life, much worse than what I had expected from my dad. In fact, it seemed like he was harder on me than the previous criminal, whom I believe was cuffed and escorted to jail. He concluded my case by announcing to me and all the other citizens in attendance that my driver's license was suspended for six months and he never wanted to see me again in his courtroom — the latter sentiment was utterly mutual.
Years later, I learned that my dad actually requested the judge's assistance in teaching me a lesson I would not soon forget. The license suspension and chewing out was all too real and, for a 15 year old boy, it was a hard pill to swallow. But I can't argue with the efficacy of the lesson — I haven't had a speeding ticket since then. It was one of many instances in my life when my dad provided a living example of another lesson from Proverbs: a father disciplines the child he loves.
A couple of years later, when Todd found himself in a similar situation, I was able to relate. Since Todd was a year younger, he started driving during his sophomore year. His first car was a white Buick Century, which he inherited from his mom. It was a comfortable car, but not exactly the model that a teenage boy dreams of driving. With great persistence, he petitioned for a new car and, during the summer before his senior year, he got his wish; his parents handed him the keys to a new Mitsubishi Eclipse with a 5-speed manual transmission, an overachieving 4-cylinder engine, and a beautiful maroon paint job with gray pin stripes. The day he received it, he met me at the baseball park after one of my summer league ball games to show it off. I was happy for him and only slightly jealous. My jealously vanished when he let me take it for a spin.
A few days later, while the interior was still filled with that new car aroma, I rode with Todd to make a delivery to his oldest brother at a funeral home a few miles up Highway 11. We made the delivery and headed back home blaring songs from a new CD by one of those prevalent hair bands of the 1990s. In the bend of the highway, just before the old Eastabuchie gas station, the twinge of exhilaration we felt from the way the car gripped the road became an infection spreading in our minds. Then, with a long and straight stretch before us in the same general vicinity where we attempted to ride our bikes years before, Todd floored it and set into motion a sequence of events that exceeded my understanding of the word tragedy.
With the sudden influx of fuel, all 4 cylinders of the peppy engine sprang to life, transferring kinetic energy to the front wheels and pressing our bodies against the seats as we accelerated down the highway. About the time we reached 85 mph, a highway patrolman appeared, seemingly out of thin air, going in the opposite direction. As he passed in a blur, he flipped on his siren and lights. I looked back in time to see smoke billowing from his brakes as he performed one of those 180 degree turns, exactly like they do in the movies. Todd applied the brakes but he couldn't even get it below the 55 mph speed limit before the patrolman was on his bumper.
As Todd pulled over in the tall grass along the edge of the highway, his face grew pale. The patrolman walked to Todd's window and asked if we knew how fast we were going, like they always do. Todd responded respectfully and handed over his license. Then, the unthinkable happened: Todd's dad passed by in the opposite lane. Todd was preoccupied with the patrolman, so I spotted his dad first. There was no question it was his dad's car because his head was sticking out of the window as he pulled up even with us. He glared at the scene before him with a look of both anger and disbelief.
The patrolman handed Todd the ticket and turned us over to his dad who ordered us to go straight home. On the drive home, we thought about the odds of it all. Like Michael on the day I received my ticket, I tried to calm him down but I knew there would be no consolation. We blamed it on both the Highway 11 curse and the songs that emanated from the CD player. Consequently, the CD was smashed as soon as we reached his house. As I walked home, I felt bad for my friend as he anticipated his dad's return home. Outside of school, I didn't see Todd much for the next few months as he was locked down for punishment. About a month later, he was allowed to ride with me to school. When I picked him up in the mornings, it was torturous to see his beautiful sports car parked in the driveway, especially since we knew its capabilities.
One Christmas break between the time we received our respective tickets, we opened a fireworks stand in an old shed by Todd's house. We liked the idea of earning money, especially by selling fireworks since shooting them was one of our favorite activities. We secured approval from our parents and the next day we cleaned out the shed to setup our stand. Todd's older brother, who had experience selling fireworks, connected us with a local wholesaler and helped us run an extension cord from their house to the stand, but we stocked and operated it by ourselves. The customers were few and far between. To pass the time, we huddled around a tiny space heater and played Nintendo. We knew running a heater in such close proximity to explosives was dangerous. So, we were constantly aware of it, making sure no boxes were too close and double-checking that we turned it off when we closed each night.
We usually ran the stand together, but there were a couple of nights when one of us had to man the post alone. One night while I was operating solo, business was nearly nonexistent and it was very cold. I had already decided to close early, but first I wanted to finish a good basketball game I had going on the Nintendo. Unbeknownst to me, Todd's older brother eased up to the stand with a shotgun. It was quiet that night, except for the subdued sound effects from the game console's tiny speaker and the hum of the heater. Hunched over in an old metal folding chair, I was engrossed in the final minutes of the basketball game.
The tranquility was shattered when Todd's brother pointed the shotgun in the air near the wall of the stand and pulled the trigger. Inside the stand, it sounded like a cannon as the shock waves reverberated off the walls. My first thought was that heater had somehow ignited the fireworks — perhaps I had left a box of roman candles too close — and soon the whole stand would explode taking me and the rest of Leeville with it. Of course, I panicked. Bypassing the door, I hurdled the counter and sprinted toward the road hell-bent on putting as much distance between me and the stand as possible. As this scene unfolded, Todd's brother was thoroughly entertained. This I know because as I was running, all I heard was his laughter. When it registered in my preoccupied head, I stopped running and turned back to see him in stitches, but still holding with the shotgun in the air. Now, I didn't appreciate it at the time, but later I had to admit it was a good prank.
After splitting the proceeds from the stand, we each cleared about a hundred dollars, which we blew the next day on a brief shopping spree at the mall. We each bought a pair of overpriced, designer blue jeans and matching Florida State baseball caps. In addition to low sales, our proceeds suffered because we were in the habit of shooting our goods. We would invite a few friends over, close the stand early, grab a couple of grosses of bottle rockets, and hold an old-fashioned bottle rocket war. When we had even numbers, we formed teams, otherwise it was every boneheaded boy for himself.
To launch the bottle rockets, we used old pipes, empty coke bottles, and even our bare hands. Fortunately, it was nearly impossible to aim bottle rockets with any degree of accuracy; most of the miniature missiles hurtled through the air and exploded a safe distance from the target. On rare occasions when they flew straight, only a well-timed duck or quick dive to the ground prevented injury. Sometimes they reversed direction and whizzed back toward the launcher, causing momentary hysteria as we all dove for cover. Still other times, the fuse would burn down too quickly and explode just inches from our hands or face. By God's mercy, no one was injured in these battles. When it was over and the smoke cleared, we had burn holes in our clothes, ringing ears, and the poignant aroma of sweat and smoke baked into our hair and clothes. It was dangerous and foolish, but we reveled in these battles. As far as we knew, our parents had no idea we were shooting the fireworks at one another.
When we weren't battling one another, we experimented with ways to make louder and more intense explosions. One of our favorite techniques was to tape a box of sparklers together with electrical tape, leaving one sparkler sticking up in the middle. We lit the middle sparkler in a crouched position to ensure the fastest possible retreat as it burned down to the densely packed charge. The explosion wasn't spectacular from a visual standpoint, but it was louder than anything we sold in the stand. We never heard dynamite explode, but it met our expectation for how it might sound.
Clearly, there were plenty of reasons to worry when we walked out of the door. Our parents demonstrated great faith in an omnipotent God by allowing us to leave at all. To this day, my mom still says, "Be careful" when I exit the door of my childhood home. And I still respond, "Yes ma'am." Old habits are hard to break.
© Chad A. Steed
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