The Swing Set Vandals


I am far, far removed from being a good person and I’m constantly reminded of my slip-ups. I don’t like to berate other people for their faults; possibly because I’m so good at slapping myself for my own, and therefore get more than enough practice. My old sins even keep me up at night sometimes; albeit not last night. I slept pretty well last night. But that’s beside the point.

I wrote a big self-confident, possibly smug, blog yesterday about how I get insulted when people push my buttons, and how I should rise above that sort of juvenile behavior. But yesterday, not even 10 hours after I wrote the blog, I proved that I’m plenty good at smacking myself right in the cotton tighty-whities.

Yesterday I got mad at a customer for the most trifling of reasons. It’s like I was driving on the freeway, felt the lug nuts loosening, and before I could even pull over into the gravel, the whole wheel rolled off into oncoming traffic. My anger was that fast. At least I left the front area of the store before I exploded. I’m sure the customer knew I was mad, but probably had no idea why. It was just a tiny slight, in reality. But this, after I reminded myself (and everyone else), publicly, to moderate my anger over small stuff. Wow. I’m some kind of hypocrite.

I wonder how long the resulting self-annoyance will last. It’s funny how shame haunts me years later, for things I did as a kid. Like the scent of your first date at your first junior high school dance, or maybe the embarrassment getting your braces locked while kissing. It never happened to me but I saw it on TV once… I swear.

When I was 10 or 11 years old, I was invited to play with a very distant cousin. Kirsten and her family lived in the old Timeus Place, halfway between Pistol River and our house. She had one of those Sit N Spin toys, that you sat on, and then spun on, and then barfed. I played on it until I was so dizzy I thought I’d hurl on every wall in the house. And then her mom fed me spaghetti, which didn’t sit too well after hours of spinning. Spaghetti did make me throw up. Eventually my mom drove over, after dark, and picked me up, rescuing me from my humiliation.

Kirsten grinned a lot. She was impish and scrawny, with a broad smile and long straight hair. She was a bit of a tomboy as well. We’d run around in the fields and throw things at each other, because, well, that’s what cousins did in those days. I liked her. Still do, I guess, but I’m not sure where the world she is. Her mother sold Avon, and her dad ran a grader for the state road crews. The whole family (all the Walkers on that side), including her grandma, had a bit of sadness in their eyes, like they were haunted by something horrible that they couldn’t prick out of their souls. Except Kirsten. She had a different look. She grinned without guile, just like one of the guys.

Her grandparents, Floyd and Alpharetta, ran the Pistol River Store. It was a tiny place, smaller than my house, with a ancient floors and potbelly stove to keep it warm. It was built by the Walkers in the 1920s, or maybe earlier. You walked in past a couple ancient gas pumps. On the left side of the store was the Pistol River Post office, and to the right a glass cooler of drinks beer and pop. In the back was the more important stuff: candy! There were also jars of jerky, smoked salmon (when it was in season), and pickled eggs, pickled sausages, pickled mussels, and pickled… pickles. People loved pickled stuff then. Kirsten and her little brother Paul kind of had run of the place. They could zip into the store and grab anything they wanted to eat from the shelves. Their grandparents would let them, and we other kids were pretty jealous. We other traded secrets about how Kirsten and Paul’s eating was driving Floyd’s business into the ground. People could keep a tab and pay at the end of the month, or at least on payday. There were always fishermen, hunters, or logging crews standing in the parking lot, shooting the breeze having a cold one before moving on to more important things.

Once, I spent the afternoon with Floyd and Alpharetta. They lived in a small white house, a couple hundred yards behind the store, both painted the same white, and both buildings constructed with much the same utilitarian 1920s architecture. Their house fit in perfectly on long, flat field at the north side of Pistol River, near Crook Creek. It was probably as old as the store, although I’m not certain about that.

At first Kirsten and I played indoors. I’m sure we probably got too rambunctious for the oldsters because soon we were outside standing in the small yard surrounding the house. A wow white picket fence framed the house and kept the sheep out of the rosebushes. The yard was too small to play hide and seek, and it was a bit foggy and chilly out. We were bored.

But Floyd and Alpharetta had purchased one of those aluminum A-frame swing sets for their grandkids . We played on that awhile, swinging so high that our feet could almost touch the clouds, until I fell through. The little plastic seat attached to the chain sent me soaring through the air, snapped in half at the apogee of my swing, and delivered a harsh slam to my butt when it snapped in half and I collided with the ground.

That gave Kirsten and me an idea. A very naughty idea. I don’t remember if it was hers or mine. But seconds later, we exacted revenge on the other swing. We stomped through the plastic with my foot. We snapped the slide off. And the little carriage swing? We snapped that apart too, leaving nothing butbars and chains hanging from poles, and a big slice of sharp aluminum dangling where the slide had been. With karate chops and stomps, we even broke through the ladder rungs going up the slide.

I immediately felt guilt welling up inside me. I knew my mom would not be happy at that kind of behavior. We had a willow switch that sat prominently on the mantel of our fireplace. I’d cut a matching switch for Kirsten’s mom a couple years before (with my own pocket knife) and presented it to her, in case Kirsten ever needed spanking too. Don’t judge! It was the only thing I knew how to make with a pocket knife and a stick! Her mom was less than enthusiastic with my gift and probably tossed it out the window before she even got 50 feet down the road from our house. But the one I  made for my mom was still good and active, a half inch thick, and waiting for me. Yes, years before, I had cut my own switch and gave it to my mom. I was that dumb.

Kirsten had no such problems. She was unburdened by guilt, or the threat of spankings, or maybe even a conscience. I don’t know. But dragging me by the hand, she marched into her grandparents’ house and exclaimed, “Grandma! Guess what Brian I did!” with more joy than any child should be allowed. “We broke the swing set! Into tiny pieces!” Alpharetta just looked at me with the ever-present Walker sadness in her eyes, and didn’t say a word.

Since I’m still alive to relate this story, I don’t think she ever told my mom. Or maybe she did, but told her to go light on the big dumb kid who cuts his own switches. But destroying the swing set made Kirsten grin like a blonde, maybe-just-a-little-crazy Pippi Longstocking. Maybe that’s all she wanted in her young life — to let loose on a bunch of plastic and have a companion to join her. It sure beat the Sit N Spin.

I know this doesn’t sound like much. It happened almost 40 years ago. I don’t wake up screaming from the memory, but the incident still enters my mind on occasion. I shake my head and cringe, and try to drive the whole episode out. I lived to survive another day, but the old, old guilt is still there. Isn’t it funny? Floyd and Alpharetta are gone now and anybody who cares that a partner and I eliminated a nearly-innocent swing set have long since stopped caring about my adolescent deed. But those little actions still gnaw at me. That’s the way of things I guess. Like I said, I’m much more willing to forgive others than forget my own crimes. Maybe you all are too.

I’d like to leave you with one final line of defense. Maybe it will help me to shiver out the poison of past actions.  Maybe you can forgive me too… I’d like to point out that it wasn’t our fault: the swing set started the fight. We simply finished it.

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