Life Lessons

Posted by on May 7, 2006 in Dad, Reckless youth, Spirit | 0 comments

By the time I was six I am sure I had told a fib or two, probably influenced a lot by a neighbor girl named Judy Nell, with whom I was forbidden to play. She was a practiced, and almost professional liar, rare in a child so young. In me she found the perfect foil for her games, because I believed every word she said. I recall us sitting together one summer morning, on opposite sides of the wire fence that divided her yard from my grandmothers. She showed me a half dollar size piece of broken blue pottery that she was keeping inside a large box of wooden kitchen matches. She declared, with the greatest conviction, that the bit of blue plate had magical powers and would put out all fires, perhaps a prelude to getting me to start one. I begged her to demonstrate, but she would only show me one burned match, and told me that she had extinguished it that morning using the magic token. On this occasion her mother caught us, which was much preferable to being found out by mine. My mother was the one who had declared this relationship off limits, since I was the gullible chump that was being led astray. I don’t know what her mom thought about us playing together, but she never told on us, and managed to prevent us from setting the house on fire. I sure my mother was relieved when Judy Nell moved to another city, but I remember how sad I was when the notorious pre-scholar departed. I had no one to play with for a long time, until my own naive mark moved in across the street.

The house belonged to my great grandmother, but when she passed away it became rental property and income for the heirs. Sammy was the child of the new tenant, several years my junior, and small for his age. Since my mother did not object to him, we had the roam of the dangerous, but delightful playground of my youth. We hung out in my dad’s body shop, and played in the junkyard and barn behind the shop. I will never know why I decided to be destructive that fateful day, perhaps because the heavy iron mall was just sitting there, right beside the pile of clay drainpipes. I had no idea what they were, but after I hit one with the mall, it shattered so satisfying that I couldn’t resist hitting another one. Since it was fun, I decided to give Sammy a turn with the mall, and he broke a few with no hesitation, except for trying to pretend he could lift the mall as easily as a girl. We kept taking turns until every pipe was smashed to bits of rock and red clay dust, but at no point did it occur to either of us that what we were doing was wrong.

That came later in the evening, when my Mom and Dad were talking about what happened to the pipes they had just bought. We were at the kitchen table, and each of the children was questioned, although there would have been no chance of anyone but me being the culprit. I didn’t hesitate for more than a few seconds before denying all knowledge of the incident. I’m sure my face betrayed me, because the next morning my mother told me she called Sammy’s parents, and he had admitted guilt. My mother had always threatened to tell my father if I didn’t behave, so I was terrified that she turned me over to him for punishment. The normal routine from her was an immediate spanking, with no words spoken, and remorse or guilt on my part was nonexistent. This was to be very different.

We all have defining moments, what psychologist call life scripts, which affect us so profoundly that they become the basis for our character. Dad and I were in the kitchen alone, and he sat on the chair with his arms around me. He told me what the pipes were intended for and how much they cost. He explained how my destruction had delayed a project he was working on and had made extra work for a lot of people, including himself. He told me that none of that mattered to him one bit, but he was so very disappointed that I had not taken responsibility for my actions, but instead had chosen to lie to him. He told me how important it was for him to be able to trust me and to believe what I said, and how it would be a long time before he would be able to have that faith in me again. He said I deserved to be spanked, and even though he had never spanked me before, he would have to now. He then patted me twice on my bottom with the force of someone brushing a fly off a piece of fragile crystal.

I will always remember the shock and horror on his face as I broke into uncontrollable sobbing. Mother came into the room, perhaps to restrain him from beating me to death after she heard my cries. He kept repeating that he barely touched me, but for the first time in my life, I had been touched to the depths of my soul. How much easier it had been with mother, where the brief pain of corporal punishment wiped the slate of guilt clean. The consequences of that day stayed with me like a grain of sand, around which I created a pearl of conscience. I won’t say I never lied again after that day, but I will say I never did it again without awful guilt. As far as my father and I were concerned, I know I had a quite a few sins of omission during the teenage years, but I like to believe I moved beyond that to establish the framework for my adult life.

I never knew what became of Judy Nell, and often wondered about her. Did she too have her Waterloo and face the truth about herself? Did she end up like my mother believed she would? Was she just an extremely imaginative child, who went on to many creative endeavors? I lost track of the little squealer Sammy too, although I would like to find him and thank him for ratting me out. I didn’t know it at the time, but it made all the difference in my life, and I am genuinely grateful.

The world we live in rarely rewards integrity, and sometimes it is very discouraging. Still, like many idealist before me, I believe that there is an earthly remuneration for a solid moral compass, if we are patient and persistent. I don’t know exactly how to recreate this homing beacon in others, but I have proof of its existence. It is not exclusive to any age, gender, race, creed, economic stratum, social class, or political party, but appears to be a scattered random attribute. Just when I have become disheartened with all the bold-faced liars that have been elevated to positions of power, I find that one honest man or woman, holding onto their convictions, and taking responsibility for their actions, no matter what the cost. I don’t know where I heard the homily, but have often repeated to others, that the best thing about telling the truth is that you don’t have to remember what you said. That is certainly accurate, as we have all watched the soap opera dramas that people create trying to cover one story with another. In the end, lying reduces our capacity for recognizing the truth, either in ourselves or in others, and makes for a very paranoid world. If it had not been for Judy Nell, Sammy, and my Dad I could have gone on through life untrusting and untrustworthy. Thanks guys, wherever you are.

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