(Sometimes) Father knows best. When I was a kid, my grandfather gave me a slingshot for my birthday. It wasn’t the usual, ‘Y’-shaped, wooden, piece of crap, slingshot you could pick up at Time Saver. This one was “professional.” It was made of aluminum alloy rods and shaped in such a way that the handle extended backward into a wrap-around support bar for the wrist that would both balance the torque pressure of the bands, allowing for extra pulling power. Attached to the base was strong, thick vulcanized rubber tubing, the kind you see wrapped around the arms of heroin junkies on TV when they’re shooting up their dope. In hindsight, this slingshot was more of a weapon than it was a toy. It could easily take down an ox at 15 yards. Toy or weapon, it had no business being in the hands of a stubborn, smart-ass kid with too much time on his hands. From the moment I opened it, my father made it very clear that I could not use my new gift without adult supervision under any circumstances. “Whatever,” I mumbled under my breath. That first day I got in a few practice rounds, shooting pebbles into the vacant lot next door to our house, with my father dutifully standing in my shadow. It wasn’t long before he took away my new toy and put it in his ‘secret’ hiding place on the top shelf of his closet, where it would remain until the next time we were able to play with it.
Back in the day, my mom drove a Ford Ltd model car. The sedan version of the Griswald’s “Family Truckster” – without the corpse of Imogene Coca strapped to the roof. Like the Truckster, in shape and color, The Rockford Green Machine was a beast–huge, ugly and green, and a particular green shade. Remember in The Exorcist, when Regan spewed toxic, green vomit all over the room, and Father Mirren? Yeah, it was that color green. It was a four-doored, fully automatic, rolling bucket of toxic vomit, matching plush velvet interior, and shiny plastic ‘wood’ trim. The driver’s seat resembled the cockpit of an airplane. There were buttons, knobs, toggles, and switches on the dash and console for the windows, headlight covers, cruise-control, thermostat, seat positioning, side mirror adjustment, fog control, etc. Everything was automatic except for the ‘sound system.’ 8-track cassette players were in the process of being phased out of automobiles, so the sound system consisted of a standard, no-frills, push-button AM/FM radio. However, the radio did come with a glowing radio dial and an impressive, extra-bright, neon red marker. At night, with a little imagination, it could be considered a mini-light saber that would slide from station to station.
Back then, I didn’t know anything about money (still don’t), but I knew this car was expensive, which meant we took extra care in and around our family’s only mode of transportation. I don’t remember whether it was a Saturday or Sunday, but I know it was a weekend, and I was home alone and thought it would be the perfect opportunity for a little unsupervised target practice. I brought the kitchen step stool from the kitchen into my father’s closet and swiped my slingshot from his ‘secret’ hiding place, a maneuver I’d done a dozen times before to take/replace different ‘hidden’ objects. I thought: “What could possibly go wrong?” My concern at the moment was ammunition. The small pebbles and chunks of dirt I had been using were unsatisfactory. I needed ammo with a little more ‘oomph’ to achieve this slingshot’s maximum potential. I went straight to the family’s junk drawer, that drawer or box in everyone’s house where you throw stuff of unspecified origin or purpose. It’s usually full of odds and ends collected over the years, bits and pieces such as bottle openers, extra screws, receipts, plastic bits that belong to something, twist ties, and in my case, a nice bag of marbles. They were precisely the type of ammunition I was looking for: hefty, small, and, with enough momentum, able to go the distance. Perfect.
Target practice in the vacant lot had become too comfortable. The marbles packed a wallop, and my accuracy improved with every pull. I decimated cans, bottles, bugs, and flowers, anything the vacant lot could offer. “Adult supervision?” I thought, Ha! Maybe it was I who should be supervising them. I was unstoppable, maybe the best marksman the slingshot world had known. I went looking for a challenge. The Green Machine was in the driveway, and I wondered if I could shoot a marble, underneath the car, through the narrow, 8-inch space between the vehicle and the pavement. I don’t know why this seemed like a good idea, but I was up for the task. I placed a marble into the sling shot’s pouch, eyed my target area, and pulled back the sling with just enough tension to sail the marble in a direct line that would cleanly pierce the space between car and driveway. The marble took a bad bounce and effortlessly sailed through the driver’s side window shattering it into thousands of little, squared, tempered pieces. “Hmm…must have been a bad marble.”
A quick survey of the crime scene and surrounding area revealed no witnesses, which left room for plausible deniability, once the slingshot was back in its secret/not secret hiding place. I was old enough to know that I had royally fcked up but young enough to be undeterred; smart enough to know I had to get out of sight but dumb enough not to put the slingshot away, pack a bag and leave town. Nope, not I. After a disappointing display of skill in the front yard, I took my talents to the back yard, where I was sure to dazzle the make-believe audience and other contestants in the Shooting Fish portion of my mind’s Olympic slingshot competition.
I grew up on one of the many bayous in New Orleans, so for my family, boating and water were a big part of life. To some people, having a boat sounds glamorous; in my experience, not so much. Once you own one, you will soon discover that a boat, as they say, is a hole in the water into which one throws money, which is why my father had posted huge FOR SALE signs all over the 25 ft Penn Yan Sport-Fish Mercruiser that we had docked in our backyard. It was a great boat with a teak rail and swim platform, stainless steel railings, comfortably slept five people, had a Captain’s command bridge, microwave, water heater, rocket launcher rod holders, four-burner stove, etc. The Mistress, as my father named it, was purchased for fishing and family outings. “Like camping,” my father would say, “only on the water.” I didn’t mind camping, but I hated “camping on the water.” I only went once. After an afternoon of fishing, when night came, there was no plan, no campground for boats. We puttered around the Gulf of Mexico for a few hours until, suddenly, and for no apparent reason, he said, “This looks good,” as he pushed a button and dropped anchor. That was it. One second we were nowhere, the next we were ‘here.’
To me, floating stationary in the Gulf of Mexico wasn’t “camping” at all. There were no roasting marshmallows around the campfire or cooking hot dogs or popcorn or the camaraderie of other campers. It was just us, trapped on a fancy raft in the middle of nowhere. The sky was pitch black. There was nothing to look at, nothing to see, and we were miles away from civilization. We couldn’t see signs of life, but we could hear them. In the silence, you could listen to creatures rustling along the shoreline or softly splashing in the murky waters around us. It was terrifying. There was no radio, no television or video games, no cell phones, no music, just family conversation over board games that quickly became boring games. At least Gilligan and his crew found an island. We were sitting ducks, bobbing like a cork, in the waves staring at each other, at Mother Nature’s mercy. I buried myself among the lifejackets and prayed for daylight. Camping on the water never caught on, so, reluctantly, my father decided to get rid of The Mistress.
Pacing back and forth across the planks of the boat dock, to keep my reflexes sharp, every few minutes, I’d load up the slingshot, give a good pull and fire a marble into the salty depths of Bayou Sauvage. I was on the hunt, so I stepped aboard The Mistress and climbed up to the command tower to see what I could find. I immediately spotted my prey — a gigantic jellyfish, just off the starboard bow, undulating and gliding with the current. There it was, floating out in the open, a large, semi-transparent circle—a perfect target I couldn’t miss. From the command bridge, it was an easy shot. I loaded a marble into the pouch, eyed my target, stretched the vulcanized rubber enough to provide adequate tension and velocity, and fired. The jellyfish remained unharmed as my marble sort of ‘pinballed’ around the bow of The Mistress. I remember hearing the hollow ‘plunk’ as the marble hit the aluminum anchor, followed by the ‘tink’ of hitting an aluminum railing and finally the ‘crick’ of The Mistress’s windshield as it splintered into a spider web of cracks and crevices. Those sounds were nothing compared to what I heard next.
“RYAN!” I heard my mother shriek. Too focused on the jellyfish, I hadn’t listened to the back door open. On the patio stood my mother, father, and a couple who had just moved into the neighborhood and were interested in purchasing The Mistress. My father stood motionless as if he was calculating what his quality of life would be after serving 25 years for the decapitation of his only son. The couple was staring at me as though they had just seen a car accident: The situation was uncomfortable to look at, but they couldn’t take their eyes off me. My father picked up a pair of garden shears lying on the patio table with his right hand and slowly moved towards The Mistress and me. He raised his left hand, summoning the slingshot from my possession. In a trance, I handed it over. Silently, he deftly snipped the rubber tubing from the slingshot base and hurled both pieces into the canal. “Go to your room and do not come out until I get there,” he said. I vanished.
I paced around my bedroom, running the afternoon’s events over and over in my head. No matter how many versions of ‘the truth’ I came up with, none of them could erase the fact that within less than an hour, I had managed to destroy a significant part of two expensive, family vehicles. I damaged property that wasn’t mine, and I had only myself to blame. My bedroom door opened, revealing my father standing square, perfectly outlined by the door frame. In an unusually calm voice, he said: “You can forget going anywhere but to school for the next month. No movies, no parties, no phone calls. You will pay me back every cent out of your allowance that it costs to replace both the car and boat windows. Twenty dollars a month. Understand?” As he turned to walk away, he added, “I want you to apologize to your mother for what you’ve done to her car. Then clean up the mess. Don’t cut yourself.” And that was that.
Maybe he was mellowing as the strict Marine-style disciplinarian or was trying a new tactic, or perhaps it’s because there were unsuspecting witnesses present. Still, my father spared me the corporal belt-lashing that I was expecting. He seemed to recognize that as I began to mature, so should my life’s consequences. I think about that slingshot incident a lot. What I think of most is that my father was right; I did need adult supervision. I had no business playing with that slingshot on my own. What if it had been someone’s eye instead of a plate of glass? What if I had ruined someone else’s, more valuable property, or caused personal injury? The possibilities were endless, and the potential for destruction was genuine.
As kids, we fail to realize that we don’t know what we don’t know. For the most part, I believe that parents are doing their dead-level best to look out for and prepare us for the inherent competitive world that awaits us. Every parent wants their child to succeed, be productive members of society, and be prepared for whatever life throws at them. Parents are in charge of our development, which is necessary to acquire our own goals and expectations of what we want out of life. That sort of development requires work from the ground up; parenting is about laying down that foundation. Kids have a limited vision, especially regarding the future. When we’re young, we don’t think about growing older. I know I never thought of being age 30 or 40, and that lack of vision is a handicap that parents encourage us to overcome. Parents are grown-up kids. They’ve been young, stupid, reckless, and have tried and failed at many of the same experiences their children go through. Their ‘advice’ is simply the voice of personal experience, hoping to spare us the likely consequences of our actions. “There isn’t anything you can think of that I haven’t already thought of or tried before.” my father would say. And time after time, he was right.
The slingshot weekend finally convinced me that sometimes, it’s best to heed someone’s advice, even if we don’t necessarily agree with it. Maybe it’s a parent or co-worker or merely a person who’s had more life experience. I’ve learned that I don’t know everything. Now, when I’m in a situation, and someone of higher authority or more experience offers a bit of advice, instead of dismissing it because it goes against my instinct, I’m more willing to consider their suggestions and avoid more broken glass. Doing so has helped me grow as a person, gain trust in my competency, and believe that other people do have my best interests at heart. It’s taken me a long time to realize how right Charles Wadworth was when he said, “By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he’s wrong.” Thank you for reading. Until next time.
Agree or disagree with this column? Do you have a topic you’d like to see addressed? Drop me a line at RyanRockfordNYC@gmail.com and let me know. It’s always great to hear your thoughts and opinions.