Friday, April 15, 2011

Bad-ass or not, here goes

Lorin, this is for you

I've done some serious thinking and I admit, perhaps my childhood was a tad bit more eventful than what most kids live through. Still, I firmly believe I had a relative safe and happy childhood. The time I grew up in - the 70s and 80s - and the place I grew up in - a lazy small town - allowed us kids a lot of freedom to explore and learn life's lessons, both good ones and those not so good, in a way that not many kids are allowed to do today.

I'm not sure I'm all that bad-ass tough some of you guys seem to think I am. Sure I've been in some fights and lived through a few stunts, but nothing serious nor out of the ordinary, really. I am independent, impulsive and have a lot more imagination than is good for me. Growing up these things would sometimes get me into trouble, but it also taught me how to avoid serious trouble - or at least most of the time. Here's a story from when I was around 10 or 11. My mother was institutionalized much of the period from my little sister was about a year old up to she was 7 and naturally it fell to me to look after her.

Boredom and imagination - not always a good mix

It was early summer, school was off for the summer, but nobody had gone away on vacation yet and a bunch of us kids hung around the school yard wondering what to do. I was watching how the cleaning ladies were opening windows to air out the girls' shower and changing rooms for the gym and an idea struck me. Wouldn't it have been fun if we could sneak into the gym and have fun with all the apparatuses and whatnot? Problem was, how to get in unnoticed? I mentioned it to some of the others and the discussion was on. Now, the group of childhood friends was an odd sorts of mix with kids from the age of 3 (my sister) up to 11 and both girls and boys. One boy my age who was from a big city and was spending the vacation at his cousin's to keep him out of trouble, knew a great 'big city trick' to make open windows appear to be closed. These were old fashion windows that could be opened all the way - no locked position or safety measures. So we waited and watched, and as soon as the cleaning ladies left the changing room we sneaked up to one of the windows, placed a small coin on the frame and closed the window. The window appeared to be closed if one didn't look too closely - and discovered that the hasps weren't locked.

We got lucky. when we got back in the early afternoon, sure enough, the window opened. By now we had dispersed ourselves of the youngest children and we were about 10 kids from age 8 - 11 plus my little sister at 3. My dad was busy working at the farm and she was too young to look after herself. I am not sure how my logic worked. I didn't want her to be left alone and let harm come to her, but turning her into a juvenile delinquent obviously didn't bother me at all. By then she had been along to numerous break ins to local factories and empty houses. We never stole anything though, after all we were not thieves, we told ourselves. We simply wanted the thrill of getting into places we weren't supposed to. Admittedly, we'd break a few windows, but most often we managed to avoid doing serious damage to property and equipment. There was a reason for this, other than not wanting to become sinful thieves - which is what we scared the younger kids with "You'll be a thief and the lord Jesus will know and you'll grow black spots on your tongues and your parents will find out what you did and you'll get both a beating and go to hell" Yeah...I know, not very nice, but very, very effective. There was a different reason much more important. As long as we didn't steal or break anything, if caught, we'd be able to talk ourselves out of it without our parents getting any knowledge of it.
I don't think any of us kids ever ratted on anybody. My sister at 3 was way too young for this to be effective, though. I used a different method of threatening her to silence. "If you tell dad, I'll beat you black and blue and you'll never, ever be allowed to come with me on anything fun ever again!"  It worked. I don't think she ever told my parents any of the uncountable pranks and break-ins she was in on. She told me when she was a proper grownup that for her it was all like living in an adventure movie and the fear of being let out on the fun was enough to keep her lips sealed.

So, here we were, 10 kids roaming around like madmen in the gym. climbing ropes, jumping on apparatuses, balancing, throwing balls of all sizes and doing everything we never got to do enough of while in PE with teachers to kill the joy of it all. The gym was in the basement of the Admin building, the door to the hall was open and by chance of pure luck - I believe I had more than a fair share of luck as a kid - I heard a familiar coughing from the entrance hall just a few stairs up from where we were. My blood froze in my veins, I knew that cough and I knew the sound of those foot steps; they belonged to my dad.

I should perhaps mention that my dad was the janitor of this elementary school, my uncle was the headmaster and at least one of the teachers were an aunt.

My thoughts raced through my head. If I was caught breaking into the school I was a dead person. and Oh my fraking gawd! If I was caught breaking an entrance with my little innocent sister in toe, I was not only dead, I was dead twice over. I think the look of pure panic on my face must have been warning enough for the rest of the gang. Silence settled over the gym like a graveyard. Everybody stood frozen in place, my sister didn't quite see the problem, for her it was only the dadman, nothing to worry about, but she dutifully kept her mouth shot at my gesturing finger across my lips and a look that could spear straight through her if she even thought of uttering a single sound.

The only thing on my my mind was to get my little sister out of there. Being a Janitor's daughter sucks toe-farts most of the time, not only do you have a dad who knows everything that goes on at school, interrogating you constantly during dinners about every prank happening and you can never get away with ANYTHING what so ever without him hearing about it. As if this isn't bad enough... you also have to step in for cleaning personnel, help do repairs and crawl around in nasty places I came to hate the phrase: "because you're small and nimble enough to fit, Eli, that's why". When I got older, I had to step in for my dad whenever there were serious break ins. And let me tell you, entering that huge building after someone had discovered broken doors, not knowing whether or not some nuthead drugfiends were still inside with weapons ready, was absolutely terrifying. Why a 14 - 17 years old kid would be ordered by her headmaster uncle to go check out what damage had been done and if something had been stolen - which was reason for calling in the cops, is beyond me, but, hey, that is how it was back then...
This day, however, I finally drew an advantage of being a janitor's daughter - I knew all the ways in and out of the school buildings and I suddenly recalled there being a back door out of the gym that wasn't well known and that didn't have the kind of doors that only opens with a key. This particular door had the kind of lock you could open from the inside without the use of a key. I gestured to the rest of the gang, grabbed my sister in a death grip and started running. I am not the kind of person who can run for very long, not even as a kid, but I have always been a sprinter and that day I ran faster than I have ever ran before or after. My sister's feet were far too small to be able to follow me. Did that slow me down? Hells no! The poor child was flying horizontally behind me like a kite. I reached the back door and I remember I thought the rest of the gang sounded like bloody hippos and snarled at them to keep quiet, while struggling to get the lock - which was old and tended to get stuck - open. Finally it clicked open and out we went. I didn't stop running though, I continued running with my sister flying behind me up into the woods and didn't stop until I reached the top of the nearest mountain. None of us uttered a word, we were too scared and I doubt any of us had any breath left for talking for several minutes. Then we spent several more minutes in pure agony wondering whether or not we had been noticed and I nearly decided upon emigrating to a different country when we remembered the coats and shoes that we'd left behind.

Everybody got out. I still don't quite understand how we got away with it. I haven't ever dared tell my dad about it and I am not sure if he knew that there were kids inside the school and if that was the reason for his extremely loud coughing and he just pretended not to hear us - my dad had a soft spot for pranksters, which saved my sorry ass more than once - or if he truly didn't hear us. When we dared to go back, to clean up and collect our things, the back door was wide open.

We broke into the school again after this - the coin trick was quite the handy trick for sneaking into buildings, but I never joined the gang playing in the gym again. I figured I had used up all my luck regarding that place.

We did  get caught at times, but never while breaking into the school. I managed to talk us out of it the times we were caught while I was in on it. I think my vivid imagination helped somewhat. I had these crazy explanation for how we ended up wherever it was we were when getting caught. Highly improbable, of course, but wild enough to get the owner laughing. And one thing we kids knew - if an adult starts laughing, the kids have won. We'd get away with a talking to, a slap to the back of our heads and having to promise never to do it again.

The breaking ins lasted until the before mentioned city-slicker cousin started a forklift inside a factory and didn't manage to turn it off. It was just him his youngest cousin - neither boy could be said to be among the brightest of people. Apparently they ended up tying the steering wheel so that it ran in a circle all night until the workers arrived in the morning and could turn it off. Police got involved, the guilty were found out and our career as non-stealing thieves came to an abrupt end. Although they did not rat on the rest of us, we figured it was not worth the chance as long as all the factory owners in the neighborhood was now aware of local kids breaking into places all over town...

Only one time did I not manage to talk myself out of trouble. That was in comparison more than enough to last me a life time. I got caught drinking in public at 15... but that is a story for another time.

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