I feel sorry for today's middle-class kids. Not that they have it bad -they don't. In fact, their problem is they have it good too good.
There they are, resplendent in the latest fashions and hairstyles, rocking every electronic device known to humankind, ferried from one supervised activity to another by uber-involved parent/chauffeurs. And in addition to all their regular activities, they've got personal trainers, life coaches, spiritual advisors and shrinks, lest anything about them -?talent or tribulation -?not be dealt with professionally (and sometimes endlessly).
They've got it all, except for two small things: Freedom, and a real childhood. Luckily, I had both.
It's not like my mother trusted me. Or, if she did, it was -?to use her phrase - "as far as she could throw me." She wasn't the least bit oblivious to my stupidities and propensity for disaster.
Nonetheless, there was no way she would've kept me tethered to the old homestead and her apron strings. She wouldn't have even considered it, for one simple reason: To prevent me from becoming a parent's worst nightmare (to again use her words) - a pantywaist.
So I, like all my peers, had freedom galore. We looked the part too, in a real 1950s way, like something that stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting: unkempt ragamuffins tearing around, this way and that, wandering in the woods, scouring the town for empties, building snow forts in the winter or stick forts in the summer, and so on.
As a result of this freedom, at the tender age of 7 I got the Grail of True Boyhood - a Red Rider BB gun.
Actually, I got the gun due to hormones: One of the big kids in the neighborhood had discovered girls and thus had just as quickly forgotten BB guns. Supposedly I got it in a trade, but he pretty much gave it to me, probably figuring if any girl discovered he still played with a B-B gun, he'd never become a town swinger.
I got all kinds of warnings about the gun, and they came from a knowing source: My father was an ophthalmologist, and he'd seen more than his share of eyes damaged and destroyed by BB's.
A BB gun, while considered something for kids' play, is not a toy. It's a weapon, with shocking power and range. When Sam Grimone owned the Blue Line sports shop, any time a father came in with a little kid wanting to buy a BB gun, Sam tried to talk him into buying the kid a .22. That may sound contrary to common sense, but it's not. Sam reasoned (and rightly so) that no parent will leave a kid with a .22 to his own devices. But they will let the kid with BB gun wander hill and dale all by his lonesome, which is a recipe for disaster.
But back in my Gilded Youth, such rationality never entered BB World. Uh-uh, you got your BB gun and you, it, and a tube of ammo, left for parts unknown and you were good for the day.
Me, I was a plinker. There was nothing I liked more than shooting up cans, milk cartons, cardboard boxes, bottle caps - anything but animals and official targets. Plinker's Heaven in My Home Town was the town dump, off McKenzie Pond Road. There I could shoot up every manner of junk, especially glass,without having to worry about cleaning it up or anything else. One of my best days was after some store had replaced their fluorescent lights and the old ones were stacked up in a giant pile of detritus, just waiting for a boy like me to come along.
While a lot, if not most, other boys had BB guns, for years I did my shooting alone, till I met Mike Newman at the tender age of 12.
Mike lived in the Yonkers, but his family came up here in the summer. We met by fluke but became instant friends. He was a great pal to hang out with -?fun and funny, with a sweet disposition. He was also a nascent gun nut. So it was inevitable that he and I would shoot up landfills aplenty. It may also have been inevitable that I was with Mike when I had my closest call with my Red Rider.
The Grail and the rail
One thing that makes BB guns so dangerous is they ricochet. While a bullet will either get embedded in an object or plow through it, a BB will bounce off it. I knew how the danger of a direct hit from a BB gun, but had no idea about ricochets ... though I sure found out fast.
It was a hot, sunny summer day and we were on the back porch of his cabin, Red Riders in hand. We'd set up some cans in the woods in back and were blasting away at them when I got the sudden notion to pop off a round at a wooden railing that was about 15 feet away.
It wasn't a tiny target so I aimed casually and sqeezed off a shot. And almost as soon as I did, two things happened. One, I heard the BB hit the railing. The other was I saw the BB come arching back in a flash of orange and hit me square in my right eye.
I stood there, in shock. Both my eyes were squeezed shut, as a thousand thoughts tore through my mind.
"How could I have been so stupid?"
"How did it ever happen?"
"What would I tell my mother?" And of course The Big One: "Was I now blind in one eye?"
Sweat poured down my face, down my neck, down everywhere, as I kept shaking my head, scared and embarrassed -?both almost to tears.
Finally, I faced the inevitable and slowly, ever-so-slowly, opened my eye.
There was everything as it was before - Mike, the woods, the cans, the cursed railing - and I could see them all! My eye was fine, and I was fine, now that I wouldn't have to tell my mother I'd turned myself into a Cyclops.
As I said, I'd actually seen the BB coming back and luckily I'd flinched so it hit my eyelid, not my eye. I was the luckiest kid in the universe!
That was, without doubt, the most terrifying moment of my entire childhood. It was so terrifying, it almost ended my love affair with BB guns. Almost but not quite.