When the Little Harpeth River flooded in the late March and April, we would sneak the pool floats out of my garage and raft down the brown and swollen Little Harpeth River. If our parents ever knew, they let us believe that we had pulled one over on them.
A weeping willow grew behind Hunter’s house, and when the need to be violent struck, we would strip off a couple of its long, whip-like branches and flail one another. These lashes stung, but the need to run and yell and hit someone with something prevailed.
I liked He-man more than G.I. Joe, but the advent of Super Soaker 50s and Nerf dart guns had us playing soldier like most other boys our age. I wonder how much of this type of make believe comes hard-wired in our Y chromosomes. If we gave little boys only dolls—and not the hard plastic ones holding guns—what would happen? Would we see a difference in the way that generation of grown men resolve conflict? Is the tendency toward physical combat related to testosterone or culture?
I can remember many things about childhood, but I cannot remember worrying about sweating, smelling, or being out of breath when games were to be had.
Kids have this strange gap in their awareness that enables them to enjoy something even if they are otherwise uncomfortable. I used to disappear into the river to fish and explore for hours at a time, and my mom always sighed in resignation when I finally showed up after having missed lunch yet again.
If I had been hanging around the house drawing or reading a book and lunchtime came and went without any appearance of sandwiches, then I would have made one myself.
My parents raised my two sisters and me to not wait to be served.
We learned to take initiative. I discovered that my mom wouldn’t monitor my cookie intake as closely if she hadn’t made them. Before I reached double digits, I had memorized my grandmother’s oatmeal cookie recipe, and my “cookie mounds” consisting of half-cooked dough became a family joke.
Parents who teach their children to be assertive, to ask questions of adults, and even to challenge authority equip their children with the advantage of free thinking, of problem solving, and of social confidence. If they’re not careful, they also imbue a snottiness and entitlement attitude. Human nature can twist any gift.
In the days before Brooks Brothers sold no-iron shirts, my dad still hung a bright red White Way laundry bag full of his crinkled button-up shirts in the garage. The White Way man in his white van would pick them up, and then, a few days later, he dropped off freshly laundered and starched shirts covered in plastic.
I can remember at least one minor altercation with my sisters before church one morning. We all wanted to be the one to put a hand in the breast pocket of one of his shirts and break the seal of the starch.
After awhile, I knew the day and approximate time when the White Way man’s van would come down Laurelwood Drive, but I didn’t think much of it until the day that Hunter and I developed a brilliant plan:
We would fill up the two SuperSoaker 500s and ambush the White Way man. Of course, it never occurred to us that he was in the middle of his work day and that getting doused might not be fun for him.
As he pulled into the driveway, we crouched behind the rhododendron in the front yard. The White Way man got out, pulled my dad’s shirts from the back of the van, and disappeared inside our garage. We pumped out guns up to maximum pressure, and when he emerged, we jumped around the corner of the house and hosed him.
The look on his face wasn’t one of anger, and he wasn’t scowling in frustration. It was one of fatigue and resignation. It was a look that said, “I get this at home. I get this at work. Is there no relief?” You see same look on the faces of mothers at the grocery store who are trying to buy food and corral a mess of screaming kids.
He sighed, got into his truck, and backed it out of the driveway. He never told my parents, but he did get his route changed.