The Things That I Used To Do
Dangerous Toys, Urban Legends and Lost Innocence
“The things that I used to do, Lord, I don’t do no more….”
When I was 9, I was obsessed with the idea of acid, for some reason. Not the lysergic variety; that came a few years later; but the kind of acid that Vincent Price kept in a vat in the dungeon of his creepy mansion in House on Haunted Hill.
Someone told me that if I poured sulfuric acid on the ground, it would burn a hole through the earth and all the way to China. The very idea that I could dig a hole in my back yard in Wisconsin and eventually emerge in China was mind blowing. And so began my quest for acid. There was an urban legend that golf balls were constructed around a core of acid. It took some gnashing of teeth, pulling of hair and lots of trial and error, but I finally figured out how to clamp a golf ball in the vise of my Dad’s workbench in the basement and that a hacksaw, not my jack knife, was the right tool for the job. Imagine my disappointment when I finally broke through to the core, only to find that that it was not full of acid as I hoped, but consisted of harmless solid rubber tightly wrapped in rubber bands.
Around that same time, after pestering my parents until they couldn’t stand it any more, I got a chemistry set for Christmas. I was thrilled to find that tannic acid was one of the supplied materials. The basement, which had been the scene of my ignominious failure with the golf ball, was now resurrected in all its glory as my laboratory. As I descended the cellar stairs, my mind was on fire with visions of beakers burbling over with frothing green liquid and explosive compounds more unstable than liquid nitroglycerin. Once again, my hopes were dashed when the most dramatic experiment in the kit only resulted in litmus paper changing color.
Those were more innocent times. We were expected to make our own fun. During summer vacations, we ran around like a half naked savages, disappearing on our bikes to spend entire days playing in unstructured and totally unsupervised ways. Our parents let us run wild and do stuff we would never dream of letting our own kids do. There were BB gun wars that involved the whole neighborhood. This was before kids used real guns for real wars and the term “drive-by” wasn’t even in the lexicon of American slang. We played on freight cars full of logs. Never mind the wood ticks. Our swimming hole was a lagoon full of leeches. It was worth the risk just to be able to go swimming. We hung out by the railroad tracks behind Dairy Queen and put Indian head nickels on the rails so they’d get squashed flat. We’d jump on the occasional passing freight train just to ride it for a few blocks. All this gave new meaning to the phrase: “Beat it kid. Why don’t ya go find some traffic to play in…” We spent a lot of time blowing up cans and tree stumps up with M-80s. Those things were no joke. Originally developed for the military as a simulator for live explosives, they were banned by the Child Protective Act of 1966 and then made illegal by the ATF.
Like I said, those were more innocent times. While this may read like the diary of a young terrorist, we were just kids being rough and rowdy and curious. In those days, most of these antics were regarded as basically harmless and addressed with a slap on the wrist. Now they would be viewed as terrorist acts and prosecuted as felonies. I really was a good kid. But like any good kid, I could also be a real pain in the ass. I believe in karma. So it’s no surprise that I ended up spending 17 years of my career in public education in Middle Schools. Payback’s a bitch!
My Grandpa used to bring back the coolest presents for us from his trips to Mexico. One year it was bullwhips. I’m sure my Mom loved that one. Then it was cattle brands with our initials, and we started branding everything in sight. I still have the skull ring my uncle brought back from Tijuana. There was a shrunken head carved out of a coconut and a succession of sombreros and ponchos. That was before the Urban Sombrero on Seinfeld or Camarillo Brillo by Frank Zappa. “Is that a Mexican poncho? Or is that a Sears poncho? Hmmm…no foolin….” (Frank Zappa – Camarillo Brillo)
Let’s not forget the stuffed baby alligators everyone used to bring home from Florida. Something that is so obviously inhumane and unspeakably cruel now, was absolutely de rigueur in mid-century suburban America. Everyone had to have one. This gave birth to one of my favorite urban legends of all times – the proverbial giant albino alligators living in sewer systems. This species of savage mutants evolved after people brought baby alligators home from Florida, realized they didn’t make very good family pets and flushed them down the toilet.
All things are relative, but the world is a dangerous place and kids grow up a lot faster these days. Innocent curiosity still leads kids to stick their fingers in the fan and play with fire. The other day a 15 year old high school kid described to me how easy it was to jailbreak his iPhone. He showed me one of the features of an app that he had downloaded, that normally goes for the low, low price of $999.00 and enables the user to call a butler. Of course, what teen age boy couldn’t use the services of a butler? But seriously, this kid will either end up being the next Bill Gates or doing a stretch in a federal pen for hacking into the Pentagon.
When I was his age I was still amusing myself by branding stuff with that cattle brand my Grandpa gave me. I hitch hiked all over two continents too, but I don’t pick up hitch hikers and I would probably walk 100 miles before sticking my thumb out on the open road now. Still I do think back to those magical presents Grandpa gave us. Since I’m not Indiana Jones, I probably wouldn’t have any use for a bull whip now, although I could see myself wearing a fedora.