Now that I have lived so long that I no longer want candles on my birthday cake for fear of setting the house on fire, I’m beginning to question some of the choices I made in my younger days. And I’m not going to try blowing out 68 candles on that cake this Sunday, just to be clear.
My childhood was a lot like a game of billiards. I bounced off the walls and crashed into other things on a regular basis. I was an accident waiting to happen pretty much every day of the week. Of course it didn’t help that as an infant I was dropped on my head on a concrete floor by the six year old girl who lived next door. She thought I was cute and wanted to hold me. It didn’t go well. She just wasn’t strong enough to hold on to me when I wanted no part of her hugs so I guess I’m partly to blame. There was also the time my own sister Marilyn pushed me down a flight of wooden stairs because I refused her demand that I leave her room immediately and again I’m partly to blame for not listening closely enough when she said “LEAVE OR DIE.” She did give me fair warning and at five years old I did understand English. At least I had my first tumbling lesson that day. That was useful later in life.
Once I was able to get out of the house and explore the neighborhood, I was on my own to make choices about the risks I would take. I remember specifically the day my friend Mark and I were using the two man swing on the swing set in the backyard. My mom came out to warn us that if we went too high it could flip over and hurt us both. As soon as she went inside we both knew what we had to do. Two minutes later we were buried under the swing set after it tipped over on us. We were bruised but not bleeding and honestly, we both thought it was hilarious.
Since my childhood was spent in the late 50’s, I was given so much more freedom than any kid today. By the time I was five I was allowed to leave the house to play, as long as I stayed on our block. I climbed trees to thirty feet in the air. I rode on the bumpers of cars passing down the street and I hung out with a couple of delinquent seven year old’s. Both of them were named Bobby and since Robert was my middle name, we had an instant connection. That little gang didn’t last very long though because they got me to try smoking cigarettes. They stole a few from their parents and we all went down to the corner where the storm sewer was being built so we could hide out while we experimented. They gave me the honor of going first, since I was the youngest. I knew nothing about tobacco except for all the commercials on TV so I tried to inhale the entire cigarette in one breath. It didn’t go well. Frankly, I thought I was going to die right there in the sewer, which would have been the worst possible obituary of all time if I had. My friends thought it was funny as hell and couldn’t stop laughing as I crawled over the wall and headed for home. When I got there, I just collapsed at the front door until my sister Karen came to find me. She smelled the stench of tobacco, left me there to die and just yelled out, “Mom, Guy’s been smoking cigarettes!” When my mom finally got there and realized what had happened, she said, “Well that’s what you get.” I never smoked again and I got new friends.
We moved to a bigger house shortly after that but my decision making didn’t really improve in my new environment. When I was in the sixth grade my school allowed us to go home for lunch if we could make it there and back in 45 minutes. I only lived a mile away so that just made it more of a challenge, which of course I couldn’t resist. Going home was mostly an uphill ride on my bike but the return trip was one long coast at maximum speed. At the bottom of the hill was a stop sign, which I obeyed regularly for no good reason because there was never any traffic. So one day I was a running behind and decided to blow right through that stop sign. It didn’t go well. Just as I passed the sign, a Buick came out of nowhere and I slammed right into the driver’s door. I bounced off the car and fell hard on the street. Luckily, the car coming from the other direction saw the accident in time and was able stop a few feet short of my lifeless body in the road. I had another concussion and some bruises and my bike was DOA but I picked myself up and started to carry my bike back to school. The lady in the Buick insisted that we should go see my mom to make sure I was alright, which was nice of her. She also wanted to get something called insurance to pay for the damage. My parents were glad I was alive but then the bill came for car repairs. I never disobeyed a stop sign again and I got to meet my first insurance agent.
In junior high school I confined myself to sports and girls for all of my risk taking. That gave me torn cartilage in my right knee, a broken collarbone, a couple of minor concussions and several broken hearts. Luckily, when you’re young, broken hearts can be mended pretty quickly because there’s always more cute girls to chase after. I made a complete fool out of myself in just five days in Minnesota during the summer of 1968. Her name was Connie Larson and I fell really hard for her the first time I saw her at my grandparents resort. I did everything I could to win her over but a week later she left and we never saw each other again. I was sure she would never forget me but about fifty years later she found this blog and contacted me. I was stunned to hear from her and overjoyed that she remembered me. It didn’t go so well after that because she said that she only remembered my grandparents resort and not me. After that summer at the lake, I gave up football and tried a lot harder to make sure girls would always remember me. Seriously Connie, anything?
I dated a little bit in high school but I was too hellbent on being a crazy teenage boy and most of the girls thought I was out of control. I was and I didn’t care what anybody thought about me. Just hearing the words, “You probably shouldn’t do that,” just made me want to do that. I jumped off a cliff in the Ozarks into a river without knowing how deep the water was there. I didn’t get hurt and all of my friends were duly impressed but looking back now, that was monumentally stupid on my part.
The reality is folks, I’m lucky to still be alive at 68. I think getting married and becoming a dad saved me from a tragic fate. I have had some close calls with impending doom over the last few decades, especially all those years when I worked in foster care and drove 70,000 miles a year but for the most part I finally realized that life is short and the choices we make every day will drastically affect our lifespan. And the older we get the more those bumps, bruises and emotional trauma add to the weight of aging. Getting older is no cakewalk. It’s hard. The arthritis in my hands makes typing this blog a challenge. Shoveling snow in sub-freezing weather is agony but I’m blessed to have a younger neighbor, Jason Wright, who did that for me yesterday with his snow blower.
I think that’s the message I wanted to share today. I took chances for no good reason, just to see what would happen. Now I take risks only if it makes a difference for those around me like my neighbors, friends and family. I have no idea how many more birthdays I’m going to get but I’m not going to waste my time making selfish choices. I can look back now and laugh at my ignorance and arrogance but that’s only because God still wants me to be here. Clearly, He has a plan for my life and as long as I keep trying to do it better, I will get more days, months and maybe years. If you’re reading this post, please take my advice. Don’t be selfish. Be a positive contributor to the world at large. Find ways to make others happy and share the burden of making the world a better place for all of us. Taking that chance is worth the risk, trust me. Here’s one more quote that really sums up where I’m at in my life. Albert Camus said this about aging, “To grow old is to move from passion to compassion.” That’s me, finally
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