Saturday, October 27, 2012

King of the World for Five Minutes

I don't recall participating in many overt acts of vandalism when I was young. I could say I thought it wasn't right to purposely destroy or damage other people's property. But that wasn't true. Actually, I was just always afraid of getting caught.

There was the time we found a shopping cart in the neighborhood that belonged to the local market. We decided to be good Boy Scouts and return it, so naturally we connected it to the trailer hitch of my buddy Stitch's car and dragged it all over the place before finding our way to the market. Then, to make sure the owner knew we'd brought it back, we hung it from the handle of his front door. A while later, we passed by and noticed two police cars there—apparently we'd set off the alarm. We weren't purposely trying to vandalize anything, but I'm not sure how well the cart worked after that. Or the door.

The Great Water Tower
One time, though, Stitch and I decided to pursue the ultimate act—spraying our names on the top of the water tower. I'm pretty sure this tower is still there, and it's not just a little structure that anyone can climb up. It's a giant round ball supported on massive legs, and for some reason, is checkered red and white. It looks like a soccer ball on stilts and it's huge. I think it was built during World War Two when soldiers were stationed nearby. On the fence at the bottom, a sign used to read "Property of US Navy." We were about seven hundred miles from the nearest ocean, so I'm not sure how that worked out.

We staked out the tower one day to plan our assault. A razor wire fence surrounded it. Easy enough to cross. A ladder ran up one of the tower legs, but the bottom of the ladder was at least twenty feet in the air. My dad's extension ladder would reach that high. A cage covered the bottom of the tower ladder, but it looked like it was just latched shut. Having done our due reconnaissance, we figured it was possible.

And we were going to be the first humans ever to climb up and spray our victory message on the top.

So a few days later, we returned to conquer. One of us had to stay down to hide the extension ladder and move the car away, so I was chosen to climb up. After extending the ladder to its full length, it barely reached to a few feet below the cage. I carefully climbed up to the top rung of my dad's ladder and discovered the cage was locked. Now what? The only way past was to climb on the outside of the cage, which was made of fine mesh. I could fit my fingers in it, but not my feet. I'd need to climb up several yards using only my hands. Actually, only my fingers.

But I was a skinny kid and a champion at pull-ups—I could easily pump off forty or more on the bar in my bedroom door. So I managed to scramble up the cage, nearly cutting my fingers off on the mesh. I made it to the main ladder and began my ascent. It took a very long time to climb all the way up. I'd never realized how tall that thing really was.

Finally, I reached the top, where a catwalk surrounded the giant ball that held the water. I looked down at all the small people below me. I was king of the world. No one had ever accomplished such a feat before. My spray-painted name would go down in history. I'd be remembered forever as the Edmund Hillary of the Tower.

After surveying my kingdom, I retrieved the can of paint from my back pocket and started searching for the best place to spray. And there I saw it, just above the catwalk, a message in black spray paint: "Ha! We were here first." Followed by names and a date from a year earlier.

Someone had beat me to it. Worse yet, I recognized one of the names as a kid from rival Cypress High.

So I covered their names with paint, sprayed mine and Stitch's in their place, and descended back to the mortal world. Despite not being first to conquer the tower, it was still quite a feat, though one of the more dangerous things I've ever done. Several years later I stopped by to see if our names were still there. Unfortunately, it had all been painted over. Probably by the US Navy.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Invisible for a Day

I think many people re-define themselves at various times in their lives. Sometimes it's deliberate and sudden—you show up at school with newly spiked hair and a bunch of head banger music in your iPod. Other times I think it just happens over time—a mean bully that slowly realizes his victims are actual human beings and not punching bags.

When I was in high school, I decided to change everything about me, including my name, for one day. I became a nerd, or what I thought was a nerd. Back then, nerds weren't cool like they are now, and I wanted to be the most un-cool person in the school. Of course, I wasn't very cool to begin with, so it wasn't that hard.

I found some old clothes, most of which were too big for me, and a pair of my dad's old horn-rim glasses (which were very much NOT in style then). I put some tape on the glasses for good measure. I carried a dictionary around with me. You remember dictionaries, don't you—those thick books with words in them? I also carted a record album called Beginning Square Dance, along with all my text books, which I normally left in my locker. I had a whole fistful of pens in my pocket, a dorky ball cap, and a Snoopy lunch box.

I was as nerdy as I could be. And I became Fenster McNabb.

When I got to school, I purposely avoided people. I stared at the floor and slinked along the edges of the hallways. A few teachers recognized me and got a good laugh out of it. But several times, I walked into class and the teacher politely asked if I was a recent move-in, usually in a "I don't want to frighten you" voice. The other kids found that pretty funny.

The principal stopped me when I was late to one class. I think he was a little confused about whether I was for real or not. My friend Stitch got a great picture of the encounter.

It was interesting because most people really didn't know who I was that day. I had a couple rude or teasing comments directed my way, but I found that few people purposely picked on me. Rather, I was just ignored. It kind of made me wonder what it felt like for kids who were ignored every day.

I don't know that I came away from that experience with any great revelation. I just did it all on a lark. But thinking about it now, I realize there are a lot of invisible people in the world—people who are invisible even though we see them every day.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

My Dumb Friends

As I've gotten older, I've reflected on my life and come to a conclusion: I'm pretty sure I have a social disability. I often have difficulty relating to people in a normal way. I usually end up resorting to humor or just acting goofy. When I was in high school, I found a way to temporarily overcome this problem—instead of interacting with real people, I created fake ones.

One day I decided we needed a scarecrow in our vegetable garden, so I went to the thrift store to find some old clothes. After bringing home a flannel shirt and a pair of overalls, I stuffed it all with newspaper and sewed it together. I attached some old socks and shoes and used a halloween mask on a wig stand for the head.

When finished, I looked at my creation and realized she (she'd already taken on a persona by then) looked way too nice to just stick in the garden. So I did the only thing I could do at a time like that—I gave her a name, Ethel McCleaver, then sat her in the passenger seat of my car and drove around while talking to her.

Ethel McCleaver
I had a lot of fun with Ethel, especially at traffic lights and drive-throughs. Since my old car had a bench seat, I sometimes strapped her into the driver's seat while I sat in the passenger seat and drove with my left foot and arm stretched across the car. When I was too nervous to ask a girl out to a dance once, I put Ethel and a hidden walkie-talkie on the porch so she could do the asking. Then, after I got turned down, I took Ethel to the dance instead.

One day, the front wheel of my car fell off and I was stranded in the middle of a busy road. Nobody stopped to help until I hung Ethel out of the door like she'd passed out. A police officer (the third to pass by) immediately stopped—but it was to offer some choice words rather than to assist. At least the tow truck driver found it funny.

After a while, I realized Ethel was probably lonely when she sat in my car by herself all the time. So I made three friends for her and named them all. We had a great time all summer long, attending fireworks shows and parades, but it almost came to a tragic end when they nearly got shot.

It happened like this. I picked up several human friends for a night of gallivanting and didn't have room in my old Impala for everyone. So I folded my thrift store friends in half and sat them down side-by-side in the trunk. I had to squeeze the trunk lid down tightly to get it to shut.

As we were traveling around, I happened to pull onto a road and swerved a little—right in front of a city cop, unfortunately. He pulled me over in the 7-11 parking lot to see if we'd been drinking. After looking at each of us closely and inspecting the car, he still wasn't convinced we weren't drunk and asked to look in the trunk. I suggested that wasn't a good idea, which only made him more curious. So I handed him my keys and he walked over to open it.

With the pressure of four newspaper-stuffed friends in there, the lid popped open quickly. Ethel and her buddies instantly sat upright with their arms flapping, and two of their heads fell off.

The cop jumped backward and grabbed for his gun. My friends and I fell onto the pavement, laughing so hard we shot Slurpees out our noses and couldn't breathe. Once the cop caught his breath, it was all he could do to keep from laughing and remain professional. He decided we weren't drunk, so he let us go, and we bought new Slurpees and continued our gallivanting.

I eventually dismantled all my friends when my parents got tired of me storing them in the family room. And I guess I can say that spending a summer hanging out with a bunch of dummies probably did help prepare me in some small way for the rest of my life.