Every young man eventually arrives at the point where he is certain that, when it comes to smarts, he has it all over any of the adults in his life, especially his parents. As a rather precocious youngster, this idea came early for me, somewhere near my ninth birthday. I couldn’t pinpoint an exact time or day of this revelation. Rather, it rose slowly out of the mist of youthful self-doubt, and was forged gradually from the irrational arguments between adults on whom I had eavesdropped. Added to the mix were liberal amounts of the classic parental arguments, “You’ll do it because I say so” or “I’m your father, that’s why,” that always sounded suspiciously like Darth Vader. By my twelfth birthday, I was so convinced of my towering intellectual superiority that I began to doubt I was related to either of my parents. Oh, the heights from which one can fall.
The events that knocked the stuffing out of my particular brand of hubris started a month past my twelfth birthday, when several of my friends from the neighborhood came over on a Saturday afternoon. We played baseball in the mowed field in back of my house during the day. Somehow, the stars being in just the right alignment for a miracle, we all managed to convince our parents that we could camp out right there in the field, that there was safety in numbers, and that we could probably survive one night on our own without blinding or crippling anyone.
The first campout came off without a hitch. Soon it became our weekly routine, sometimes in the field, sometimes in the woods nearby, but always a time for a half a dozen young bucks to be out in the world on our own. I could tell you some of the mischief we got into, like the time we got so bored that we decided that streaking through the neighborhood might create some interest. Disappointed that no one even noticed us at all, we returned to our campsite. No one would have been the wiser, had we not set up camp right in the middle of a patch of poison ivy. Dale and Mike had no way to explain being covered head to toe and all parts between with poison ivy welts. Suffice it to say we were basically all good kids, never looking for any real trouble. This story is not one of great adventure, but of finding out how to fit into the world right where one lives.
It was late springtime and the winter had broken completely. The nights were balmy, and after whatever shenanigans we had pulled during the night we would always be thirsty by the early hours before dawn. One night our gang, and I use that term very loosely, was cruising the neighborhood, wishing a store was open. (This was before the all night 7-Eleven.) It was still dark, and Mr. O’Brien, the milkman, was making the rounds in his delivery truck. He was just heading up a long driveway to drop milk in one of the metal boxes everyone had on their front porches. Bobby darted to the back of the truck and grabbed a quart of orange juice from one of the wire cases that held bottles from the local dairy. We all ran behind some lilac bushes, and the milkman continued on his way unaware of the missing juice. We triumphantly shared the juice, and thus started a new tradition for our campouts. Sometimes we would get chocolate milk, which was always a fan favorite. However, there were nights when there was no chocolate milk or juice in sight during our commando raids on the truck. Very disappointing. And of course there was the very real possibility we would be seen by the milkman, who knew us all because he was a teacher at the local grade school as well. Teaching really didn’t pay well in those days. That was when I came up with the master plan that solidified my position as head of our group. I would bring a small notepad from home on our campout, and I would leave a note with a custom order for whatever we wanted in some unsuspecting neighbor’s milk box. Later, after the milkman was long gone, we’d come back and leisurely pick up our order. It worked like a charm and I was everybody’s hero.
That status only lasted for about two months, until the day I saw Mr. O’Brien walking up to our front door late one Saturday morning.
My father answered the door and stepped out onto the front porch to have a brief conversation I couldn’t hear, but that appeared much too serious for my liking. After they shook hands, my father came back inside and called me into the den where he had his office. I stood by nervously while he finished writing a note at his desk. When he finished, he tore it off the pad and handed it to me. It read:
Dear Mr. O’Brien,
My son, Mitchell, will be paying back all the charges for all the notes he put in your milk boxes.
My father told me to put the note out in our milk box. I went out and did so, baffled as to how they could have known. As I placed the note in the box, I noticed across the top of the paper was printed “From the office of Richard W. Townsend.” It was the same pad I had been using for all our special orders.
Needless to say, I mowed quite a few lawns that year before I saw any spending money of my own. Yet, it turned out to be a great summer. I learned the real meaning of exchange. Despite my intellectual humbling, I found out I was smart enough to rule out criminal mastermind as a career path. And I also realized that it’s the imperfections in each of us that make life much more interesting to all of us.