by Bruce H. Mero
Small wonder any of us survived childhood. I count myself among the lucky ones. I did a lot of really stupid things that probably should have killed me or at a minimum, left me maimed for life.
I started early. It is a good thing that I don't remember, but apparently I decided, as a toddler, to use the toilet all by myself. I dutifully lifted the lid and seat as I'd seen my dad do. I was short, but was just able to rest my tiny business on the edge of the bowl. I started to pee when the seat and lid came crashing down. Like I said, it is probably a good thing that I don't remember that. Then there was the two stitches I got when I ran into a table saw in Grandpa Curt's shop. Can't remember that either, though the little scar is still visible in my eyebrow. I do recall falling out of my tree house a half dozen times. Once I fell out and most of the loose boards I'd dragged up there fell off and landed on me. Must have set it on fire three times with matches and other incendiary stuff I should never have been playing with. I rolled out of my Mom's car and onto the driveway in front of Grandpa Curt's shop as she was turning a corner (little wonder kids are now strapped into car seats). I crashed my soap box racer into the biggest Elm tree on my block, nearly tearing off my right hand in the process. Danny Hoffman slapped a hockey puck at me at such velocity (I thought I could be a goalie) that I wet myself when it whizzed past my face. My cousin Donnie hit me so hard in the nuts with a baseball that I passed out. Nearly blew myself and my Grandpa Curt to smithereens with a rocket I'd made that was more a pipe bomb than space ship. Ripped the tip of my tongue off when I decided to lick the steel on my runner sled (it stuck, of course) when the temperature was well below freezing whilst careening at breakneck speed down a icy road at the Oneida Country Club. I dodged another bullet when my friend Wayne won a coin flip, then jumped out of his tree house holding a bed sheet by four corners as a parachute. He broke his arm.
I experimented with electricity, but got shocked so many times I still avoid the stuff. Like the time I peed on an electrified pasture fence at Uncle Joe's house, just to see what would happen. Good thing no one was watching my uncontrollable contortions, nor my subsequent jump into the creek to wash my pee off my shorts and sneakers and socks. Or the time I tried to make an electromagnet and welded the ends of the copper wires I'd wound around a steel rod into the outlet in our kitchen. That experiment toasted the circuit so badly that it had to be re-wired. Funny thing...I'd convinced my Dad to plug it in while I stood a safe distance back. Then the time I nearly had my nose shaved off when I wired a lamp cord to a 6-volt windshield fan and plugged it into a 120-volt socket. The fan was in my hand. It got really hot. The propeller spun so fast that it sheared off and flew passed my face at such speed that it stuck itself into the ceiling. There's no doubt in my mind where my grandson Luke gets some of his electrical experiment ideas. It's in the genes...I've certainly have never dared to tell him about any of my earlier stupidity.
You get the drift. I did a lot of stuff back then that today I'd kill my kid or grandkids for doing. There are still things that I won't tell my Mother about for fear she'd hit me with that damned flyswatter for being so stupid. All of these things happened before I was a teenager. I don't think I got any smarter as I got older, just found less physically dangerous stuff to play with...like girls...as if that was, really, any safer.
Near number one on my Top Five List of Stupid Things I Did When I Was A Kid has to be the baby buggy ride down Sayles Street with my good pal, Chuckie Kindig.
Chuckie and I lived on the same street, Sayles Street. The street ran from Route 5 to Lenox Avenue, nearly half a mile from one end to the other. The Kindig's lived at the top of the street, a couple of houses from Route 5.
I say "top" because it was...literally...the top of the hill. Sayles Street connected the lower part of the city to the upper part. From top to bottom, the elevation dropped a thousand feet, or so it seemed to 12 year-olds. (Actually it dropped approximately 165 feet in elevation in the half mile between Route 5 and Lenox Avenue). The street was a series of three hills separated by three short, flatter parts. In the middle or there-abouts was a railroad crossing. I lived on the last hill towards the bottom of the street. The top part, where Chuckie lived, was the longest and the steepest part. Once you passed my house, the street started to flatten out a little and the last several hundred yards was pretty flat.
It was mid-summer and we boys were so bored we were starting to think that going back to school might be a good thing. Chuckie and I were pushing each other around his driveway in an ancient baby carriage he'd dug out of the back of his Mother's garage. Chuckie had discovered that he could steer the buggy by putting the heels of his sneakers on the pavement in front and by pushing one heel harder than the other on the blacktop, he could turn the buggy in one direction or another.
The baby carriage was a sturdy one. The wheels were like little bicycle wheels with steel spokes and solid rubber treads. The carriage part was suspended over the axels by steel leaf springs. In order for us to use it the way we were, we rode it backwards, holding onto the steel handle that was normally used by the pusher in the rear of the contraption when the carriage was used conventionally.
There was a negative side to Chuckie's steering method, however. The faster you went, the harder it was to steer, so the harder you had to push your feet on the pavement to keep the buggy going straight. The downside was that the harder you pushed, the hotter your sneakers got on your feet and the more rubber from sneaker soles you left on the pavement.
It was fun, however. We were emboldened a couple of times to roll passed the end of the driveway and into the street. The first couple of times we crashed into the ditch across from his driveway. Eventually we learned how to make the turn and actually ride the hill for a little before dumping the whole thing into the ditch.
We graduated to sorties on the hill with both of us in the carriage. I'd get into the buggy first while Chuckie held us steady. He'd then flop into the carriage, sitting mostly on me and would steer with his feet as gravity started us rolling. We always crashed into the ditch after only a short distance, steering with all of that extra weight was very difficult only using sneaker heels. One of the wheels got bent in one of our crashes and the wobble after that, made it nearly impossible to steer straight. We quit riding for the day. Before I went home for dinner, we figured out how to take the bent wheel off the axel and I took it home with me on the hopes that my Grandpa Curt could straighten out the twisted spokes and rim.
I was a bit evasive with my answer when Grandpa Curt asked me about that wheel the next morning. Of all people, he would have been the one who thought our buggy rides were pretty cool. He built and drove race cars for a living and was used to thrills and danger. Still, I didn't say much more about it than to thank him when the spokes were fixed and the rim straight again. I was afraid he'd tell my Mom and she'd call Chuckie's mom and put an end to our fun.
The next afternoon we were ready to ride again. The fixed wheel went back on in a jiffy. Chuckie came up with a huge improvement on our steering issues...his Mom had bought him a new pair of Pac boots at the end of the past winter and he'd not worn them yet. The rubber on the heels was brand new and nearly two inches thick and we found out on our first driveway run that the Pacs made a huge difference with steering the carriage. No sneaker rubber would be needed today and that was a good thing for me, the soles on my last-year's Keds were nearly down to the canvas after yesterday's practice runs.
We thought we try Sayles Street again.
I got in first, Chuckie followed and the buggy started rolling. The steering was great, too good in fact. We easily passed yesterday's distance records without crashing into the ditch. Thing was however, that we were now on the steepest part of the first hill and picking up speed. Chuckie tried to slow us down with his heels but that just steered the carriage toward the ditch. He quickly straightened us out using his opposite heal, but too much heel pressure took us toward the ditch on the other side. We swerved, then went straight. Both heels down hard simultaneously, slowed us a bit, but there was no way we were going to be able to stop. We hit the flatter spot near the railroad tracks and tried again to stop or at least slow down a little. Chuckie dug in his heels. He pulled back so hard on the carriage handle that it bent in the middle and the steel tube broke at the weld. We hit the tracks and went airborne. We didn't fly far, but hit the pavement with a heavy thud. Both rear leaf springs gave way at the same instant and the back part of the carriage dropped a foot. We were now riding on the rear axle and the buggy was tilted backward so far that Chuckie could no longer reach the road with his heels. He was lying on top of me. We rode down the next hill without steering. I closed my eyes, anticipating a crash. We hit a pothole in the road and I could feel that the wheels under my butt were giving way. The rear axle bent, the rear wheels bowed outwards and the back of the buggy dropped further. The bottom of the carriage was now scraping the road with every bump. We were speeding down the street at break-neck speed, our steering was uncontrolled.
My house was near the top of the last hill on the street. I couldn't see anything with Chuckie on top of me, but I knew we were close. We crested and started down, picking up more speed. I could feel that we were drifting toward the left side of the road. There were no ditches on that side, just that humongous Elm tree that I'd tangled with once in my soap box racer. I tensed, waiting for the collision I knew was imminent, when the front left wheel on the carriage fell off and we started spinning. We spun around five or six times on the pavement, then the buggy flipped and deposited Chuckie and me on the grass in the Edkin's front yard. We both lay there for half a minute, then simultaneously yelped with exhilaration. I stood up, gained my balance and spotted my Grandpa Curt standing at the end of his driveway across the street. He had come out of his shop to meet the mailman and was standing there watching as we crested the hill and did our multiple donuts in the road, then witnessed our ignominious dismount.
Grandpa didn't say a word. He looked down at the letters in his hand, shuffled them a little, then he walked back to his shop, slowly shaking his head side-to-side in disbelief.
The baby buggy was totaled. Chuckie's Mom was furious when he got home and had to explain the loss of the baby carriage. Furious first for his foolishness to have tried such a stunt, secondly for trashing his new Pac boots...our adventure had scraped an inch and a half of the rubber from the heels and third for destroying her antique stroller.
As far as I know, my Mom has never learned about our trip down Sayles Street. I don't think the time is right to tell her yet. Please don't share this story with her...ever.